Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why Rambo Matters

The year 2010 marks significant anniversaries of some of the greatest and most memorable films of all time: The Empire Strikes Back and Raging Bull are thirty, Five Easy Pieces is forty, Psycho is fifty, and Bride of Frankenstein is seventy-five. These are some serious cinematic heavyweights with awards and other critical accolades to their credit. But there is another film, which is celebrating its silver anniversary: Rambo: First Blood Part II.

First Blood Part II didn’t win any Academy Awards; the Best Picture Oscar for films of 1985 went to Out of Africa. But First Blood Part II did take Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture, Actor, and Screenplay. With the amount of effort and emphasis placed on the Hollywood awards circuit, we would expect the Oscar winner to be enshrined in cultural immortality and the Razzie “winner” to sink into obscurity. But, twenty-five years later, nothing could be further from the truth. While Out of Africa enjoys a healthy level of popularity, it is First Blood Part II that is played as a part of marathons on American Movie Classics and other cable television channels. It is First Blood Part II that is referenced as recognizable parody (the surest sign of cultural influence) in Hot Shots Part Deux, UHF, and Son of Rambow. And it is First Blood Part II that continues to stir the emotions of its viewers, who vent their love or hatred of the film in online message boards.

For those unfamiliar with the film, First Blood Part II is a follow up to 1982’s First Blood. Picking up a few months after the events of the original, decorated Vietnam veteran John Rambo is sent on a covert mission to photograph American prisoners of war still being held in Vietnam. When Rambo exceeds his mandate and engages the Vietnamese, he is abandoned and must fight his way out of the jungle.

Is First Blood Part II a good movie? Perhaps, in its own way it is. But that’s really beside the point, which is that First Blood Part II is an important movie. I would go so far as to argue it is among the most important movies of the last twenty-five years.

First Blood Part II stands out in several ways, not the least of which is its impact on filmmaking itself. The picture set a new standard for possible (and acceptable) body counts, the level of property destruction, and how the hero—and by extension the audience—should think and feel about that human and material devastation (in that we don’t). Later action films like Die Hard, Bad Boys, Braveheart, Black Hawk Down and even Avatar owe their style in whole or in part to First Blood Part II. To put it another way, First Blood Part II made possible every picture Michael Bay ever made.

Secondly, First Blood Part II is among the essential films of Reagan-Bush era. The film dramatizes one of the major conservative pillars of the post-Vietnam period: that the war was just and winnable but was lost by the bureaucrats. Rambo’s annihilation of the Vietnamese prison camp and rescue of the POWs in spite of the establishment is a fantasy of wish fulfillment to compensate for defeat in Vietnam and the film and the character embody the rehabilitation of America’s self-image throughout the 1980s; a superhero as a metaphor for a superpower. Like many fantasies, it is irrational, has little or nothing to do with reality, and is embarrassing to behold when held to the light. But like in a dream, our fantasies act out our desires and First Blood Part II fulfilled that desire.

Another funny thing about fantasies, especially those on film, is the way that they can shape our expectations and actions in life. First Blood Part II, along with the action films of the 1980s staring Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, normalized unilateral, maverick military action and cast it as patriotic. It is too much to say that First Blood Part II and its contemporaries bear responsibility for the United States’ military interventions in places like Granada and Afghanistan throughout the 1980s; that would be like blaming school shootings on video games. But when academic debates are abandoned for contests of brute strength, superiority is measured by shooting accuracy, and moral authority is inherently possessed by one side over another as opposed to being earned, nurtured, and maintained, a culture surrenders its ability to think critically about itself. And this is precisely what First Blood Part II encouraged.

But why do First Blood Part II and the Rambo character matter for the twenty-first century? Consider these two examples.

In 2007, the comic book adaptation 300 was released in theaters. The film shows significant influence from First Blood Part II with its exaggeratedly staged violence, shirtless and muscled out heroes, and the theme of fighting for freedom. At the time of the film’s release, the United States was preparing to escalate the war in Iraq with a troop surge. Dramatizing the last stand of the three hundred Spartans as a conflict between the democratic and civilized Greek (read: Western) civilization and a barbaric and theocratic Persian (read: Middle Eastern) civilization, the film played right into the arguments of those who would redouble the war effort. Whether or not the filmmakers behind 300 intended to do this is irrelevant; this is the context into which the film was released and it functioned that way within the culture.

A year later, Sylvester Stallone returned to his character in the fourth film of the series, simply titled Rambo. Set in Burma, Rambo rescues a group of Christian missionaries who have been captured by the country’s military junta. Rambo is banned in Burma but pirated copies have found their way into the country and the film has circulated underground. Those who are caught viewing it face imprisonment and those who distribute the film risk their lives. One of Rambo’s lines from the film, “Live for nothing or die for something” became a rallying cry among the Karen resistance fighters. At the time of Rambo’s premiere, Mark Farmaner, Director of the Burma Campaign UK said, “By setting Rambo in Burma, Sylvester Stallone has done more than governments or the United Nations to draw attention to the crisis going on out of sight in the jungles of Eastern Burma.”

We tend to think of action films like the Rambo pictures as sort of silly diversions with no real artistic or social value. And in some cases they are. But film and popular entertainment can not only draw attention to an ongoing social issue but actually shape our perception of it, for good or bad, and thereby shape our reactions to it. This is why movies are important and why it is important for us, as the consumers of cinema, to think about the entertainment that is being sold to us.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Look Back At Rambo for Memorial Day Weekend

For Memorial Day weekend, Sounds of Cinema will take a look back at the entire Rambo series, from 1982's First Blood to 2008's Rambo and consider the political implications of the series as well as its impact on war and action films.

Here's a look at the trailers from the films:

First Blood (1982)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Rambo III (1988)

Rambo (2008)(Green Band Trailer)

Rambo (2008) (Red Band Trailer)

Just for fun, here is the trailer to the UK film Son of Rambow (2007).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis on The Informers

Bret Easton Ellis, one of my favorite authors, sat down for a series of interviews with Movieline about the film adaptations of his books. In this interview, Ellis discusses the recent adaptation of his novel The Informers. The film was regarded by a disaster by most critics (it ranks fourteen percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) and Ellis is candid about the film's failure.

An excerpt:
But you were involved with it the whole time, weren’t you? You were a producer on the film.
I was involved until the writer’s strike hit, and that banned any writers from visiting the set. Everyone followed that rule because everyone was really scared about what might happen. So, I was involved with The Informers until about a week or two after filming [began], because I was on set rewriting scenes. Then when the writer’s strike hit, I was told I could not go back on that set or I would be…whatever. Whatever happens to writers when they do that.

There are some writers who thought that was sort of a boon because the scripts couldn’t be rewritten during the strike. The dialogue had to be performed exactly as written, with no modifications.Right. But then half the scenes I wrote ended up on the cutting room floor anyway. Half the movie is on the cutting room floor.

The most notable cut was to the vampire storyline. Brandon Routh had been cast as the mysterious Jamie and all his scenes are totally gone from the movie, although there are still some loose ends there where you can tell those scenes would have linked up.The vampire subplot is gone, yeah.

What would be the rationale for cutting that? If anything, I would think it’d make the movie more interesting.I believe there was a concern about an NC-17 rating.

It was that explicit?There was a lot of sexuality mixed with violence. I think there was a prestige factor involved — like, I think they thought they had a shot at making an Oscar movie if they concentrated on the main families and their stories. To have a guy who thinks he’s a vampire committing all these terrible crimes, it put it into the horror/cult genre. And then they said it was budgetary, that they just didn’t have the movie to really shoot those scenes.
You can also check out Ellis' thoughts on the film adaptation of American Psycho, ten years after the release of the film.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

NPR on the Appeal of "Troll 2"

NPR has published this article on the ongoing appeal of 1980s B-horror flick Troll 2 and the new documentary, Best Worst Movie.
[Troll 2,] with its cadre of vegetarian monsters turning victims into plants so they could eat them, was understandably never released in theaters. And when Stephenson became a filmmaker himself, he might simply have joined his fellow actors in leaving it off his resume.

George Hardy, the real-life dentist who played Stephenson's dad, for instance, stopped flashing his pearly whites at movie cameras entirely. But then Hardy's patients started saying they'd seen him In a video called Troll 2.

And then people started calling him to say he was on TV.

"Just stop watching it right now," he'd tell them with a laugh. "It gets worse!"

But that, as Best Worst Movie details, was before the discovery that his embarrassing little horror movie has developed a cult of followers who find the film flat-out hilarious — fans throwing Troll 2 parties, beer-powered midnight screenings and such. A piece in The New York Times leads Hardy and Stephenson to a Manhattan screening, where they find a mob scene, as fans greet them with the fervor more mainstream crowds might reserve for De Niro and Scorsese.
Here is a famous clip from Troll 2, popular on Youtube, that gives a sense of the film's flavor.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Field of Dreams" For Sale

From the Winona Daily News:
The owners of the Iowa site where the ``Field of Dreams'' movie was filmed have put the place up for sale.

Don and Becky Lansing say they love the land, which has been in Don Lansing's family for more than a century, but they think its time to give it up.

The movie, released in 1989 with Kevin Costner as its star, was based on the book ``Shoeless Joe'' by W.P. Kinsella. The site has been a popular tourist destination ever since, with the family maintaining the baseball diamond built by Universal Studios.

The Lansings haven't listed a price for the baseball diamond, two-bedroom house, six outbuildings and 193 acres.
I hope that the field remains there since it is a popular tourist stop and it is nice to have that link between the Midwest and Hollywood. Perhaps the film is old enough and significant enough that a case can be made for protecting it as a historical landmark.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sounds of Cinema Time Change in Winona

Sounds of Cinema will be moving to a new time at 9:00 am Sunday mornings on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona beginning May 16th.

The show will remain at 11:00 am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Commentary on Horror Remakes

Here is the extended commentary on horror remakes from today's show:

Subsequent to my review of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to speak a bit more about the recent trend of horror remakes.

Those who listen to this show or have followed the program on the web are probably aware of my fondness for horror films, particularly horror of the 1970s and 80s. Admittedly some of this is nostalgia; I’m a product of the 1980s and characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees loom as large in the pop culture background of my childhood as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader or Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus. Of course, unlike Star Wars and Sesame Street, I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated horror films when I was a kid, but I found a way to do it anyway.

But my interest in the horror films of this period is not all about sweet memories of sleepovers spent watching movies that I was not supposed to be watching. Looking at cinema as pieces of art in American culture, the horror pictures of the 1970s and 80s, at their best, were daring countercultural statements. Films like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes took on the anxieties of post-Vietnam America and Halloween, The Stepfather, and A Nightmare on Elm Street launched an attack on the social values of the Reagan-era. These movies were savage and experimental; they broke barriers and were unlike anything horror audiences had seen before.

Flash forward thirty years and almost every notable title from the period has been remade. And with a few exceptions, such as Rob Zombie’s Halloween, nearly all of them suffer from the same faults: the filmmakers transplant the horrors of a previous decade into a contemporary context without updating what made these films scary or relevant.

To be fair, remakes are not inherently bad nor are they anything new. In 1962, MGM released a remake of the 1935 film The Mutiny on the Bounty and the remake is arguably a better film. Alfred Hitchcock remade his own film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and made one of the best pictures of his career. Martin Scorsese adapted the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs into his Oscar winning The Departed. And of course characters from comic books and literature like Batman and Sherlock Holmes have been imagined in various incarnations in film and television, occasionally with great success.

Within the horror genre, remakes have been very common. Dracula and Frankenstein have been revisited and reimagined literally hundreds of times. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was an unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Many slasher stories were inspired by urban legends like “The Hook Man” and many of the sequels to slasher films were essentially remakes of the originals with a number following the title.

Despite this history, remakes rarely get a fair shake. Comparison to earlier versions is inevitable, with critics often assuming the supremacy of the original without taking the newer film on its own terms. Online fanboys and fangirls, who can be the most self-righteous, film snob, crybabies of all time, have made things worse with hyperbolic claims comparing remakes to sexual assault. This kind of emotional reaction to remakes is often based in nostalgia, as we link pop culture artifacts to treasured moments in our lives, conflating them together to the point that they are indistinguishable, and then disdaining the newer versions for reminding us that we are getting old. And while that is understandable, it makes for lousy film criticism.

But the filmmakers producing remakes haven’t done themselves any favors. Most fundamentally, these remakes just aren’t very scary and that is mostly due to their execution. To create an atmosphere of dread and terror requires a very skilled filmmaker. Inspired by the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, the original Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and some of their sequels showed a mastery of using lighting, staging, and pacing to build sequences of horror that eventually climaxed in a shocking moment of violence. The filmmakers behind these remakes appear much more influenced by the action films of Michael Bay and so the remakes contain a lot of quick edits that destroy the tension and rely on a clamoring soundtrack to elicit jumps rather than building up to a climax.

Beyond the shortcomings of craft, there is a deeper problem with a lot of these horror remakes. It is hard to find any films that viewers will talk about in ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. It is true that some of these films are made with higher production values and better actors; the case in point would be the 2009 remake of Last House on the Left which updated the low budget original with some really beautiful visuals and a few strong performances. But there is nothing about the remake that is memorable and even less that links it to the period in which it was made. The result is a generic piece of work that does not justify its own existence.

These remakes are really a natural extension of what happened to the slasher genre in the late 1980s. In the latter years of the decade, most of the independently produced slashers—movies like Maniac or The Prowler—disappeared or were relegated to direct-to-video obscurity, with the major franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th remaining. These films were turned into brand names and their killers became spokespersons and mascots for the products that their corporate owners were selling. Freddy, Jason, and Michael were attached to toys, model kits, videogames, Halloween costumes, and all other manner of merchandise. But when the audience stopped going to the movies and stopped buying the tie-in products, the films faded away.

The crop of recent horror remakes, reboots, and reimaginings is a continuation of that marketing scheme. These films have a very finished look about them, but where their inspirations hit a cultural nerve by getting to something organic, the remakes come across as plastic. Even though the remakes are almost always bigger and bloodier than the original, they are also very much a Hollywood product: safe, tame, and commoditized.

And that is antithetical to what horror is all about. Horror, like comedy, relies on surprise and the reversal of expectation, the opposite of what a prefabricated studio film provides. Horror’s strength is in the genre’s ability to go to the places that other films will not, to show us the things that polite society and mainstream entertainment cannot deal with. Horror is actually dangerous because it traffics in subjects that are not safe or tame. This was true when Euripides wrote The Bacchae, it was true when Charles Brown wrote Edgar Huntly, it was true when George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead, and it continues to be true when Rob Zombie made The Devil’s Rejects.

The filmmakers behind many recent horror remakes have failed to understand this and turned out movies that have little bite. It didn’t have to end up this way and thankfully we’ll always have the originals.

In evaluating this recent span of horror remakes, in most cases the originals were better, but they were better for the time in which they were made. Dragging Freddy and Jason into a decade where they do not belong, where the things they represent are no longer immediately relevant to the culture, makes them an anachronism. And unless future remakes address this issue, the result will be a continued dilution of what made these characters and their stories interesting in the first place.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Phillips: Stop Remaking Horror Films

Prompted by the new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street hitting theaters this weekend, Keith Phillips has written this piece for The Daily Beast on the trend of horror remakes. Phillips argues (and I agree with him) that the real trouble with horror remakes is not so much their reuse of familiar characters and scenarios but that these films transplant the bogeymen of a earlier era into contemporary cinema but do not adapt them to reflect, embody, or comment upon the anxieties of contemporary society. An excerpt:
But mostly, horror remakes just look lazy because, well, they are lazy, dragging yesterday’s monsters into a world they’re ill-equipped to scare. Though imitated to exhaustion, the technology-wary films of the Japanese horror cycle (the original version of The Ring, for example) and the torture porn sub-genre—particularly Eli Roth’s Hostel films—have roots that sink deep into millennial anxieties. Most rehashed monsters never even touch the ground.