Sunday, August 29, 2010

Double Feature Review: The Road and Rampage

I originally meant to do The Road alongside Thunderball, the James Bond movie I saw immediately after it, but I never got around to it. So I'm already bending the rules on this blog feature on my second offering, but I feel putting together two movies which have some similarity is another good way to do things. Rampage and The Road are quite different in their story and the level of appreciation I have for them, but both try to work with relatively simple plots.

The Road

Teaser: A father and son journey through a post-apocalyptic America, struggling to survive in a slowly dying world.

The bad news first: One of the few scenes which I thought didn't work involved the father and son seeing a couple of people getting chased by a group of cannibals in the near distance. In their efforts to get away, they end up having to worry more about several dead trees which choose that moment to topple over, nearly crushing them. I never saw The Happening, one of M. Night Shyamalan's largely panned offerings, but one of the major complaints involved characters fleeing from the wind. The danger of the completely decimated trees falling had already been shown, but when it's inserted as the primary fear over machete-wielding savages it comes off as kind of silly.

A little bit of a nitpick, I know, as is my next minor disappointment. There's something of a running theme in the book where the son is fretting over a little boy they encounter on the road whom the father refuses to take along to protect. It's a pretty important part in the book, and in the movie it's relegated to a single brief scene. The overall theme of the father's general distrust of the world around him and the son's penchant for charity is still apparent, but the scene where he sees the little boy is truncated enough that it seems out of place, perhaps even for viewers who haven't read the book.

The good stuff: Success isn't a done deal when you adapt a Pulitzer Prize winning novel to the screen, but there's a pretty good chance of it. The movie is pretty much a spot-on transfer from one medium to the other, hitting upon just about every emotion and image that Cormac McCarthy originally put to the page.

Stylistically, the film presents what may well be the most terrifying images of a post-apocalyptic world ever imagined. The wider shots of decaying cities have a distinct computer-generated residue on them, but the more intimate shots of abandoned malls and freeways are very well-done. A pall of smoke or stormy clouds hang over every scene, and the images are hammered home once one realizes that movie was mostly filmed at scenes of actual environmental disasters or amid urban blight. The most horrific descriptions in the book are omitted, probably in the interests of limiting the rating to R, but there's still plenty there to show that this isn't your happy-humans-binding kind of apocalypse.

The acting in the film is terrific. The film was shot on the cheap, and the characters are sparse enough that highly respected actors like Robert Redford and Charlize Theron are used for what are fairly minor roles. Most of the story rests of the shoulders of Viggo Mortenson and young actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, and both do a superb job. There are plenty of moments where the helplessness seems to overwhelm the two, and it's heartbreaking to watch. Yet it is balanced out, and more often than not exceeded, by the idea that the human spirit is a tough nut to crack.

Verdict: Best watched when you can have someone to comfort you, but definitely one to check out.


Teaser: A sick-of-it-all youth goes on a massive killing spree.

The bad news first: The director of this movie, Uwe Boll, has been widely panned as a hack who can't make a film to save his life. The Nostalgia Critic says it better, of course, in the beginning of his (and Spoony and Linkara's) review of Alone in the Dark. In general, his movies exist more as a target of MST3K style snark, even if Boll himself may consider them to be great works of art. That said, I checked out Rampage because reviewers generally said how surprised they were to like it in spite of the Boll credit.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the movie is that there is virtually no reason to sympathize with the main character, shooter Bill Williamson. Rampage bears some similarity to Falling Down, which features a jaded ex-military contractor storming through Los Angeles and unconventionally airing his anger toward convenience store price gouging, construction delays, overpaid plastic surgeons, and a variety of other targets. He destroys a lot of property, but he limits the casualties to the self-defense killing of one neo-Nazi shopkeeper. The audience has plenty of sympathy for him, since he's taking on the multifarious annoyances in society without becoming a truly horrible person, so the line at the end where he's stunned to find out he's "the bad guy" has some resonance with the viewer as well.

By contrast, I can't really see any mentally sound person going ra-ra for Williamson. His friend posts a few YouTube rants about overpopulation and all of the problems it's causing, but Williamson himself doesn't seem to subscribe to this view. He's undoubtedly stressed to the breaking point over an unsatisfactory job and pressure from his parents to move out, but he seems just as motivated to kill dozens of people because the restaurants in the area have rude servers. So while I came away from Falling Down sympathizing to a certain degree with the semi-antagonist and still able to be amused by his rampage, I came away from Rampage thinking, "This guy is a monster" and "Cry me a river, Klebold."

I've never really subscribed to the idea that violence in movies, video games, and so on is a direct cause of massacres like the Columbine High School shooting. Still, the soundtrack and other parts of the movie seem to be playing up Williamson's actions rather than condemning them. Any person in their right mind would be repulsed by the rampage, but it's just a little disconcerting to watch a movie consisting mostly of mass murder and realize that it might well be a favorite in the DVD collection of the next deranged gunman to make the news.

The good stuff: Since Uwe Boll's reputation is failing everything related to movies forever, Rampage is at least properly assembled. Most of the actors do a good job, and the dialogue comes off naturally as well. In terms of eliciting a strong reaction, you can't get a much stronger reaction than the loathing Williamson elicits. The ending is also rather unexpected.

Verdict: It's odd that in his slow improvement, Boll has gone from making easily panned movies to more imperfect but not altogether atrocious movies. There are much more palatable films if you're looking for a straight action flick, however, and rather more humane dramas such as Elephant if you want something specifically related to a shooting spree.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Top 5 Things I Wish I Could Do More

As I've said before, I probably spend too much time in front of the TV (even if a good portion of my former list has wrapped up in one way or another). Then there's the time I spend playing video games, or surfing the Internet, or writing blog entries like this, or researching political leaves a bit of endangered time for reading, cooking, chores, and so on.

In general, my work schedule is enough to keep me busy but leaves enough free time that I'm not burned out. Of course, I'm not far off from the glory days of college when between a few hours of classes, a couple hours of practicing for a sports team, and some more time for studying, the vast majority of the day was still mine. So this list is just a few things I would try to do if the Earth's rotation slowed enough to grant everyone a few more hours each day. It's all within my capability, though...otherwise I'd clearly advocate such things as "Win the lottery" and "End all problems on Earth."

5. Listen to and watch public broadcasting

A proclamation and...I don't know, some kind of sea anemone?

"Wait a minute, you idiot!" the few people who might actually be reading this are saying. "Weren't you just complaining about how you spend too much time in front of the TV and would try to do different things if you had more time?" Well, yes. So this falls more on the radio end. There are plenty of shows on public radio which I love, and I generally only catch snippets of them while I'm on the road during the afternoon. I'm still able to catch good portions of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and Prairie Home Companion, but to some degree it's the experience of listening to them that I miss. Instead of streaming online, it's nice to hear it live with friends or family and an evening drink. Of course, many Saturdays I'm spending with friends, so that's nice too.

I also have the nagging thought that I should watch more highbrow public television instead of the still somewhat highbrow network and cable stuff. I always liked Nova, which airs on Tuesday when I'm enjoying a regularly scheduled hangout with friends. And then there's the Red Green Show and Monty Python, both of which sadly disappeared from MPBN but may have returned...including Red Green on Tuesday, again.

This is still a really low priority in general. I do get a healthy dosage of public broadcasting, and there's always Nova on Hulu if I really want to get serious about the TV aspect.

4. Cook

The Maine-Sweden War.

Every now and then I put my mind to cooking a meal and I whip up something really nice. It's about that time of year when I can finally make a decent batch of corn chowder, and I've been known to make a few chicken dishes, stir fry, baked ziti, and other things that actually take time and effort but give a bountiful reward in taste and leftovers.

These are generally the only things I make when I cook, though. I've gotten away from the frozen dinners I got as a stopgap in my later college days, but my dinners still involve a good deal of Hamburger (or Chicken) Helper and frozen pizza.

Part of this probably has something to do with the split days I usually work a couple of times per week. It might be a little hard to prepare and devour all those balsamic drippings when I need to leave to attend a selectmen's meeting.

3. Give to charity

"It's so many, asking so much. After awhile, you just tune them out."

I do manage to get some contributions out. I'll weather the once-every-several-months calls from my alma mater and send some cash their way once I get an extra biweekly paycheck. I give to food pantries once in awhile, or attend events that benefit charitable organizations. There are plenty of good causes, from the Red Cross on down to the the Girl Scouts. I just have to take another look at my finances and plan a few things out, I guess.

2. Athletic activity and adventurous outings

This looks like fun, right?

During high school and college, I usually had a couple of hours dedicated to either cross-country running, cross-country skiing, or track and field. It's more difficult to do that with a full-time job. Oh, and because some bum stole my bike in the middle of a snowstorm earlier this year. And because my cross-country ski activities were formerly subsidized by the schools, who were nice enough to provide the wax and other materials to keep the skis in tip-top shape.

I'm right smack in the middle of my recommended BMI, so I'm still doing OK. I get out semi-regularly for a run or decent hike. Ideally, I guess I'd be living a pleasant retired life at the foot of a mountain with great hiking trails and on a road with wide bike lanes, all within an easy distance of a renowned cross-country ski area. That will have to wait another few decades, though, since I didn't go into a grossly overpaid sport that allows me to possibly retire in my 20s.

1. Creative expression

Guess who?

While my job is about writing, and sometimes involves a good deal of creativity, it's often within a rigid set of guidelines to ensure accuracy and prevent bias. So while I can have a lot of free reign when doing articles on a skydiving experience or other odd things, the account of a local municipal meeting doesn't exactly count as creative writing. I haven't written a fictional piece in a good long time, and this blog basically allows a bit of an outlet on a lot of random topics. The political scandal blog is also fact-based, but I have a lot of fun writing it. That involves a ton of research, so I suppose more time and money and such would be nice to allow more in-depth research in archives, historic sites, etc.

The Summer Glau drawing above is something I did one night last year, and it was the first piece of artwork in years. It helped me to start sketching again, but in general I do it in bits and pieces when I get some spare time. Plus I always do them from photos, and I have a bunch of art supplies which have been untouched since a college art course. So it would be nice to get back into that side of things.

At any rate, the Bachelorette (a high school friend) endorsed one of my drawings before she was the Bachelorette, so that's cool.