Uwe Boll’s Rampage

When I first added this movie to my Netflix queue, I didn’t know it was directed by Uwe Boll; once I saw his name attached to it, however, I instantly decided to watch it.  Funny how that happens: you despise a particular director so much and yet feel compelled to watch what you already know is going to be horrendous, just to see how horrendous it’s going to be.  To a large extent, his oeuvre is a textbook on how not to make movies.  What makes him different from that other great of not-great cinema, Ed Wood, is that Wood had an earnestness that is not entirely present in Boll’s work.  That’s not to say that Boll doesn’t probably think he’s great (if he truly believes the things he says in his commentaries), it’s that there is a well-publicized profit motive to Boll’s movies.  To a large extent, he’s in it for the money.

Much like Ed Wood, however, there is a similar lack of understanding of the use of film techniques, story-telling, and other fundamentals.  Every now-and-then, Boll manages to get a scene right (although it’s probably dubious who’s actually responsible for the minor successes).  In the latest Greatest Movie Ever Podcast on Boll’s Far Cry, Paul Chapman and Jeff “Rich Lather” Tatarek mention this trend in Boll’s later movies.  Rampage follows this trend.  Not all of the movie is horrible, and in some cases one can see what Boll is trying to do.  The end result, however, still fails to achieve anything close to a deep, meaningful cinematic experience.  In some cases, that wouldn’t be that much of a problem; were Rampage just supposed to be a dumb action movie, one could hardly criticize it for failing.  But Rampage is full of Boll’s attempts to do something more meaningful, and that is its primary failing.

Of course, no Boll movie would be complete if it didn’t fail at the very basics, and for Rampage that happens at the very beginning.  Much of the first 40 minutes of the movie consists of flash-forwards.  In fact, one of the first scenes in the movie is one of the last.  Boll appears to be trying to be clever, but the scenes are presented with no context, nothing to connect them to what’s going on in the actual scene.  The most obvious of these is Bill, our rampager, shirtless, pouring gasoline into a  barrel, and setting it on fire.  We’re supposed to assume that it has some sort of importance given its prominence at the beginning of the film, but in the end it’s just a bit of plot.  It has the appearance of significance, but no real symbolic meaning.  In a similar way, interspersed with the flash-forwards are clips of Bill in front of a white background, and while these are explained later in the film, that explanation becomes one of its major problems.

Another “filmic” technique that Boll gets wrong is the random clips of news and talk show audio at different points in the film.  The suggestion is that Bill is listening to these while doing something else (such as hitting a punching bag, driving, or getting ready for his rampage).  Just like with the previous clips, you get the idea that Boll is using this for a purpose (in this case he’s building up his case for Bill’s rampage, a kind of audible explanation), but there are a couple problems with this.  First, the clips are random and general.  At no point does Boll relate these specifically to Bill’s character.  Second, they invite the question “Who’s changing the channel?”  If no one’s changing the channel, if we accept that this is an artistic technique, then they are there for the audience.  But that takes us back to the first point, and the weakness of the film’s support for its theme.

The key to a film like this is the buildup; we have to emotionally connect to both the main character and his situation.  The obvious comparison for this movie is Falling Down starring Michael Douglas, and the parallels are not just in general situation, although that is a good place to start.  The emotional connection fails as soon as characters begin speaking.  The dialog is incredibly stilted and flat; this might be appropriate for our main character, but his parents are the worst offender.  My first thought was that they must be badly improvising, and it appears that is basically what happened; the Netflix description mentions that much of the dialog was improvised.  Thus, an experienced actor like Matt Frewer (Bill’s dad; not a phenomenal actor, but by no means bad) comes off looking like he doesn’t know where the scene is going.  Bill’s mom, played by Lynda Boyd (and actress I’m not familiar with, but who has a large enough filmography to make me think she’s normally not horrible) is even worse; she stumbles through lines, each sounding like she’s just thought of the words but not how to say them.  Improvisation is about responding and reacting to others, and I never got the feeling that the actors were actually in dialog with each other; instead, as often happens with bad or inexperienced improvisers, they sound like they’re talking at each other. The end result of this is that at no point are we emotionally invested in the situation; neither in Bill, nor his parents, nor his friend Evan, no one carries any emotional weight, and thus the events of the film don’t really matter.

So, what about his situation?  Surely some string of events, even a string of minor-but-concentrated frustrations that represent the ever-present oppression of modern society, conspire to turn our boy into a mass murderer?  Nope, nothing like that at all.  Basically, our boy is a closet Malthusian (there’s too many people in his small, uncrowded town with acres of undeveloped forest teeming with no one but paintball players), his parents are bugging him about going to college or some sort of trade school, and his boss wants him to work for his paycheck.  That’s pretty much it.  He has a bit of trouble in a coffee shop (his macchiato wasn’t foamy enough)and in a blindingly obvious nod to Falling Down, a fast-food worker inexplicably spills food on him.  Apart from his boxing (which he does in the morning while mom bugs him about breakfast; I mean, how dare she make breakfast for him and expect him to eat it while it’s hot?!) we see very little frustration, very little pushing him over the edge.

In fact, he’s already over-the-edge.  The whole rampage has been carefully planned; he’s getting mysterious packages sent to his friend’s house as a not-so-subtle frame-up, and working on a remote-controlled van (one of the only interesting plot points).  So in the end, all the things we see in the film are just there rather than directly contributing to his decision to murder innocent people.

The scene in the “Chicken Den” is really the worst offender here because it hearkens back to Falling Down.  Michael Douglas’s frustration at the arbitrariness of the 10:30 cut-off time for breakfast and the poor quality of the lunch he is able to purchase is a classic.  Instead, we get some hamfisted commentary in the vein of “This is what American’s eat.”  I think the actor playing Evan attempted to parallel Falling Down further by commenting on the quality of his salad, but this may be an example of improvisation failing.  Furthermore, after rewatching the scene I still can’t figure out what the cashier was trying to do.  She’ walks up, mumbles something, and tries to close the container Bill is eating from.  It’s like Boll told her to knock over the drinks on the table, but didn’t given her anything to do to facilitate that, and she couldn’t think of a valid reason to go over there (since rarely does a fast-food worker actually come to your table).

Other illogical occurrences also plague the film.  Bill counterfeits some money, but then robs a bank and burns the money as a statement about the meaninglessness of money.  However, he also plants a bag of money (I suppose the counterfeit bills) on Evan as part of the setup.  Why did he counterfeit the money in the first place?  Why not just use the real money from the bank?  Also, we find out at the very end of the film that the clips of Bill in front of a white background are part of a manifesto, an explanation.  Why did he record himself explaining the rampage when he intended to pin it on Evan all along?  Is he just breaking the fourth wall?  If so, why didn’t he start earlier?

Movies should raise questions in their viewers minds, but those questions shouldn’t undermine the film.  Boll succeeds at the former, but fails at the later. 

The Choir Acoustic Tour Review

There are artists whose impact upon our lives go beyond mere enjoyment; their works have a profound impact upon our lives.  For me, The Choir is one of those artists, and I was thus very excited when I heard they were coming to the San Antonio area on their acoustic tour.  I have only been able to see them live once before, in Memphis, TN during the Free Flying Soul Tour in 1996.  I was finishing my last semester of high school, and that concert was a kind of high point to that early part of my life; for many (myself included) high school is a rough time (and one that I fail to understand the nostalgia for), but The Choir was always a bright spot in my life.

The Choir played at the coffee house of Journey Fellowship, a church on I-35 in Selma, TX.  The venue was well suited to this small acoustic tour.  The crowd was small but dedicated, and showed something that Steve Hindalong (The Choir’s drummer and primary lyricist) said about their music: that they “have not sown wide but deep.”

Opening for them was Lainey Wright, a singer/songwriter from Austin, TX.  Fitting with the intimate feel of the venue, she accompanied herself on guitar.  I had never heard of her before this concert, but I came away impressed by the depth of her lyrics and music.  Contained within what might initially seem to be simple songs are flourishes of brilliance, such as her almost jazzy vocals on her song “Undone.”

Wright was followed by Chris Taylor, a musician and artist based in San Antonio.  He was accompanied by saxophonist Onel Jimenez.  I found it somewhat ironic that Taylor had a saxophonist with him, but that The Choir’s Dan Michaels (who plays saxophone) was not available to accompany them.  The combination of Taylor on electric guitar and Jimenez on saxophone created an interesting dynamic.  This was especially prevalent on Taylor’s cover of “House of the Rising Sun” combined with “Amazing Grace,” a combination that I have heard before but that was given new life by Taylor’s expressive vocals and Jimenez’s extemporaneous sax solos.

I had seen a version of The Choir’s acoustic set online; they had done a live broadcast on Ustream (still available for viewing on their website), but even though I was familiar with these versions of the songs from seeing that and listening to their latest album, De-Plumed, seeing Hindalong and Daugherty live was a treat.  These guys are amazing musicians, and watching artists do their thing is a great experience.  Hindalong is especially fun to watch; he has always been one of my favorite drummers, but he may have made it into first position with his innovative use of percussion in these shows.

Another great thing about seeing them live is the stories connected to the songs.  I particularly like the story that Derri tells about “Mercy Lives Here” from their Flap Your Wings album; the song becomes more real when you know the backgroun.d behind it.  That the Cairo bar in Akron, Ohio is a real place with such a diverse cast of characters is not only amazing but very humbling when we consider the message of the song.

I also really enjoyed Steve Hindalong playing and singing “God of Wonders,” which he co-wrote with Marc Byrd.   In an interesting coincidence, Jen and I (with a couple of friends) went to see Third Day the Sunday after The Choir, and they also did the song (as Mac Powell sings it on City on a Hill).  While I am moved by the song every time I hear it, Steve’s version of it (I hesitate to call it a “performance” because I feel that betrays the spirit of it) was more special.  It was more vulnerable and personal hearing it on a single guitar with a small group of people than in a large sanctuary with hundreds.

In the end, this concert was a special time for me and all of those who see The Choir on this acoustic tour.  For years I had basically given up on ever seeing them live again, and if this really is the last time they tour, I’m thankful that they were able to come to Texas.

(Updated 2/23/11)

Red Box Rental Review – Devil

When Jen and I decided to grab a couple movies at our nearest Red Box, we had several ideas for what we wanted to watch.  We initially did not see the coincidence in our choice of Buried and Devil and the surface-level similarity of people trapped in confined spaces.  After having watched both, I think that Buried will certainly need another watch through before I say more about it other than I thought it was very well done.  I will probably give Devil another viewing at some point as well, but my thoughts about the movie are easier to commit at the moment.

First of all, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the movie going into it.  It’s no secret that M. Night Shyamalan has done much to whittle away all of the cache he had with such movies as Signs, Unbreakable, and most notably The Sixth Sense.  This downward spiral has culminated for me with The Happening, a movie so utterly ridiculous that I can never take Mark Wahlberg seriously as an actor again.  Like many people I viewed the attachment of Shyamalan’s name to the movie as a negative rather than a positive.  On other hand, I knew that the movie was only conceived and produced by him, with the screenplay and directing done by others; thus, I also thought that, given an interesting premise, the movie would be worth seeing.

Overall, I enjoyed Devil; it certainly has its issues, but I came away from the movie with more positive feelings.  I thought the major theme of the movie was well presented and executed, and it also worked (for the most part) as a horror film, keeping the suspense up throughout.  Some of the imagery was interesting as well, although I have to admit that I’m a sucker to creepy things flashed quickly on a screen.

There were several missteps in the film, however, that keep it from being really good.  The narration by the security guard Ramirez, for instance, is completely unnecessary and more of a distraction than anything; everything he says in the narration could have been said by his character in actual dialogue or was not that important.  The movie also has one glaring example of “horror-movie idiot syndrome” where a character breaks one of the cardinal safety rules that I learned as a kid, and it’s so obviously a bad idea that it almost throws the movie.  I will admit, however, that one negative I had against the movie actually turned into an almost positive.  To avoid spoiling too much, I’ll just say that a character does something early on that struck me as a false move but that makes sense once I thought about it.

On the whole, I think Devil is worth a rental (especially if you’re only paying a buck to see it); I was well entertained.  It prompted some good, interesting conversation as well, which I always think is a positive, at least when it’s not making fun of the movie we’ve just watched.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-11-07

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-10-24

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Brick – High-School Noir

Jen and I recently had a bit of a Netflix movie marathon which included Donnie Darko (starring Jake Gyllenhaal), Neverwas (starring Andrew Eckhart, Britney Murphy, and Ian McKellan) and Killer Klowns From Outer Space (starring almost no one of note). Of each of these movies, Brick (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was the most interesting because I didn’t know what to expect.

Essentially, the film exposes the inherent absurdity of teenage cliques by using the motifs of film noir.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Brendon, is a loner existing outside of the cliques of high school (shown by his eating lunch by himself behind a building).  His old girlfriend, Emily, contacts him after two months stating that she’s in trouble and needs his help, and thus Brendan is drawn into the underground world of high school as he tracks down where Emily has gone.

Many movies that deal with high school cliques and drugs approach the subject seriously, but there is also a tradition of movies that take a more surreal and ironic view, such as Heathers.  The humor in Brick works on a different level than that in other teen movies, such as Mean Girls. While funny, movies like Mean Girls stay firmly in mainstream Hollywood.  A big part of what makes Brick work for me is that it couches everything in film noir tropes.

Film noir is perhaps the best example of adult taking everything super seriously.  Even when it presents you with something that would be ridiculous in real life, film noir doesn’t blink.  In many ways it’s similar to melodrama.  For melodrama to work, the creators have to go all the way with it, and the same is true with film noir.  If at any point the creators let up, if reality intrudes too much in the story, the suspension of disbelief is broken everything else the film does is discredited.  I’m not an expert of film noir, Brick maintains its film noir trappings all the way to the end.  While I laughed often throughout the film (Lukas Haas’s character, the Pin, was often the subject of my laughter), the film never laughs at itself.

In this way, translating this genre to high school was perfect.  High schoolers are notorious for taking everything so seriously; the littlest thing can be “the end of the world.”  Sometimes this does result in real-life tragedy, but the majority of the time we make it through all of the world-ending cataclysms to become adults.

That’s not to say that serious things don’t happen in this film.  At the beginning of the film, Brendan is staring at Emily’s dead body (much of the film is told in flashback, utilizing another film noir trope), and just like in any film noir story, other people die; the actions of the characters always have consequences.  But the point is not a morality tale, and in many ways that’s why Brick works.  The film deals with its issues, exposes the absurdity of high-school relationships and the dangers of drugs, while not preaching at the audience.  I’m not saying this would be an effective deterrent, that showing this film to teenagers would somehow give them the realization that doing drugs and treating each like crap is a bad idea, but that’s not (and shouldn’t be) its purpose.  Only real relationships, not movies, video games, tv, or music, can do that.  And maybe that’s the point.  While I know that anyone familiar with film noir will get something out of this, for those of us that deal with teenagers all day, this film resonates in weird and interesting ways that make it very good.

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-08-29

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Rosemary’s Blair Witch Activity: The Last Exorcism

I’ve never been to a movie theater and not been able to watch the movie I paid for.  I know it happens (a couple times at least to my younger brother), but I think don’t go to the movies enough for this to be a usual occurrence.  But just that happened when Jen and I went to the Palladium in San Antonio to see Toy Story 3 (in IMAX 3D nontheless); apparently the film got stuck in the projector (which was funny because all through the ads they played up the “all digital projection”), and the showing was cancelled.  The staff gave us free passes and also said we could go to any other showing of our choice.  Since we haven’t had cable TV since moving (and I don’t watch the local channels), I had no idea what else was playing.  After going through a few movies I hadn’t heard of, the staff member mentioned The Last Exorcism.  I had just heard about a viral marketing campaign for this movie on This Week in Tech, so Jen and I decided to check out this movie since it would get us out in time to eat lunch before Scott Pilgrim.

Neither of us had any idea what to expect going into this film, and I think that helped.  Normally, this is a movie that I would pass on in the theaters, since on th surface it’s a collection of cliches.  First, it’s another exorcism horror movie, which has probably not been done better than The Exorcist back in 1973.  Second, it’s another fake documentary horror movie ala The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. And to a certain extent it doesn’t rise above these cliches.  Much of what you see are things you would expect to see, such as the possessed girl vomiting (although non-projectile) and running around in the dark with a camera.  But I think that the filmmakers took their audience’s familiarity with the tropes of these genres into account, and it is here that this film becomes interesting.

The central character of the movie is Cotton Marcus, an evangelical preacher well known for rousing (if superficial) sermons, a theatrical flair, and performing exorcisms.  He began preaching as a kid under the tutelage of his preacher father, and performed his first exorcism at ten.  He no longer believes in God, however, and has just been going through the motions for years.  Even though the exorcisms he performs are elaborate hoaxes, the news story of the death of an autistic boy during a botched exorcism has convinced him to give up exorcisms and expose them as  hoaxes with the hope of dissuading others.  To this end he hires a documentary crew to film his last exorcism.

The suspension of disbelief is a necessity for the audience in any movie, and when The Last Exorcism keeps its main theme (belief) in the foreground, it’s at its best.  Throughout most of the movie, Marcus, his film crew and the audience struggle with what they believe is happening.  Is the girl actually possessed?  Is her father somehow involved or responsible?  These questions are raised constantly during the movie, and I thought this was a good way to play with the cliches and include the audience in the movie.

Unfortunately it is just in that suspension of disbelief that the movie falls flat.  After raising so many questions about the existence of the supernatural, something that is done very slowly and deliberately, the ending felt like it came out of nowhere.  For just that reason, I just didn’t believe it at the time.  I do think that some of the plot holes can be filled in after thinking about them for a bit, and both Jen and I found it interesting enough to talk about all through lunch and later.  But I also think that the movie still didn’t do enough to convince me that the ending is what should have (or even could have) happened.

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