Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.
This is the time of year studios dump pictures that don’t really fit anywhere else. It’s the reason why something like Hannah Montana can be number one at the box office two weeks running.
However, it is also the time of year that modern moviegoers get to enjoy the closest thing we have to a grindhouse circuit, because the studios also release hard genre pics that wouldn’t stand a chance during the summer tentpole season against things like Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or The Dark Knight.
Two pictures in theaters right now scream pulp fiction in a mean, nasty way: monster movie Cloverfield and action-adventure pic Rambo.
I’m Sally O’Malley, and I’m 50 years old! 50!
Cloverfield got a lot of traction from being hyped as a J.J. Abrams production. Those who don’t know the difference thought that meant it was a J.J. Abrams picture. If it had been, you better believe it would have been opening in June or July. Turns out some guy named Matt Reeves directed it, and his last credit as a director was on the David Schwimmer/Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy The Pallbearer. Unfortunately, I missed that one. Wait, what I meant to say was, fortunately, I missed that one. So did most people.
I’m not a J.J. Abrams fan, so the fact that he merely produced it didn’t give me much hope. And while his television shows excel at what they do – alternately confound and electrify – I don’t think he’s come to terms with the fact that television and movies are two different mediums.
At any rate, I went to see the film with about fifty people from work who were excited beyond description. The energy and hopeful anticipation some of these guys exhibited, if bottled, could have powered a small city, like Chicago. So that helped, a little.
Then the movie started, and I was immediately sucked in. I was confused for the first eight or ten minutes, which is usually a good thing if the director knows what he’s doing. The entire picture is shot from first person point of view, and this is sort of disorienting initially – particularly in the opening segments of the film. The first shots find us in bed with a young couple, obviously head over heels in love.
Rob (Michael Stahl-David) films his lovely girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman) with his home video camera. After rolling around in bed like they’re in some kind of Calvin Klein cologne commercial, Rob and Beth decide to go down to Coney Island to continue their advertising campaign to the 18 to 31 demographic. The camera is in Rob’s hands, shooting Beth, and New York City, in a shaky, casual style.
Suddenly, we are cross cut into another location: a loft, someone’s bedroom…it’s hard to tell exactly because the focus is sporadic and intermittent. Sadly, the gorgeous girl and her handsome beau are no longer on screen. They’ve been replaced by an overzealous girl, Marlena (Jessica Lucas), who’s organizing a going away party, her dull boyfriend Jason (Mike Vogel) who is helping but not really, and one of the dimmest yet most endearing knuckleheads to be projected onto a silver screen in recent history, T.J. Miller’s Hud Platt.
Here Reeves gives the audience the reasoning behind the first person perspective: this charming trio is collecting testimonials for a friend of theirs who is moving to Japan for business. He’s going to be vice president of something. Never mind that all these kids look like they were turned down for roles on Gossip Girl. Who cares about the plausibility of their jobs. They are easy to look at while the camera work is not. That is smart and effective casting.
So, everybody knows a big ass monster shows up.
Yeah. But before that Reeves smartly sets up the melodramatic romantic tension that exist between our young heroes. Particularly Rob and Beth, who, since the opening moments, have become estranged. She actually shows up to his going away party with another guy. We don’t know how much time has passed, but apparently not enough. The two are still very palpably in love. What do you do when you’re in love but not together with that special someone? Fight. Beth storms out. Rob beats himself up over it.
Cue the monster. Cue the phone call from Beth to Rob. Rob is now on a hero’s mission to save his damsel in distress.
What’s great about Cloverfield is that it is supremely self-aware. On an emotional and narrative level, Reeves excels at exploiting each of these characters’ strengths and faults, in the most classical Hollywood manner. And it was very wise of him to put the camera in the hands of the guy least prepared to carry that responsibility.
T.J. Miller’s doofus is the frat guy everybody loves. He’s well-intentioned and ill-equipped. He the muscle, the guy with a heart of gold, the dude you want around because he makes everyone smile and laugh.
If the movie occasionally seems to lag or digress, it is usually because T.J.’s sweet Hud has turned the camera away from the havoc the monster is wreaking to capture a brief poetic moment of his out-of-his-league love interest, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).
On a formal level, Reeves elevates this picture over and over again, repeatedly using the first-person, hand-held technique to his advantage. There’s a moment late in the film where Hud drops the camera. It settles on its side, and the auto focus racks in and out, unable to settle on the object in the distance or the blade of grass right in front of it. It is a moment that made me laugh out loud; the sheer audacity of such a move is admirable. After all, Reeves didn’t have to do that, the audience wouldn’t have thought, “Hey, what about the auto focus?!” On the contrary, Reeves gives us this little technical treat to remind viewers that not only are they watching a movie, they are watching a movie as it occurs, as it is being recorded – this is “real”, this is “now”.
The most satisfying surprise, the truly admirable aspect of this picture, is hinted at early in the film, explored subtly throughout, and brought home with expert subtly in the final moments. It turns out the tape possessing opening shots of Rob and Beth was still in the camera, the romantic day has been recorded over. Doh! But in the film’s final moments, when the camera is reportedly recovered by the military in post-monster Central Park, we see Rob and Beth finally made it to Coney Island, and they are exceedingly happy and content. So, while everyone dies in the movie, at the hands of the monster, the memory of Rob and Beth is made immortal on this intimate home video.
It is a cinematic moment par excellence, something that even Brian De Palma ought to be envious of. Reeves manages to turn this pulpy monster movie into something knocking on the door of transcendence.
There is little, if any, self-reflexivity or genre stretching in Rambo. On the contrary, Sylvester Stallone takes his rickety-ass riverboat downstream, back to 1979, and builds a picture as sturdy and streamlined as an old Chevy Camaro. It is a model of conservative screenwriting structure.
The picture opens and we see Rambo, now old, doing Rambo type shit. He fishes with a bow and arrow, he forges metal, he grunts. He is Man. He does Man things in a Manly way.
When some Christian missionaries show up begging him to take them upriver into war-torn Burma, he declines. But we all know the almost-beautiful blonde, Sarah (Julie Benz), will convince John Rambo to do what is right.
When the missionaries get kidnapped, and a squad of international mercenaries shows up to rescue their dumb asses, Rambo grudgingly agrees to take them to the spot where he dropped them off.
What’s beautiful about Rambo, why it excels as pulp action drama, is it’s shameless and unabashed commitment to carnage. It knows why its audience is here, and it knows how to give them what they want. It is an exercise in classical action construction, cleanliness and clarity are favored over chaos and confusion. Why use fifteen different shots and angles when two are more effective?
Tony Scott has mastered a certain sort of contemporary action aesthetic, Man On Fire being his most accomplished piece. And most contemporary action directors try to ape that style, with mixed results. Stallone, rightly, decided against the action collage approach, and keeps it old school. While the events on screen are gruesome and filthy, the direction is crisp and clean. The only other director really doing action like this these days is Tarantino.
The story of Rambo is incidental. It effectively and believably – within the logic of the Rambo universe – puts Rambo in a situation where he must kill to survive. There is a great moment in the picture when Sarah implores Rambo with a mini speech about helping “the world”. Rambo’s mumbled response: “Fuck the world”. He might as well have said, Fuck the modern world.