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.

Rampage


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.

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