movieguru (2008-05)

Dramatic EffectSyndromes and a Century

Movie Guru

Stalloneâ’s next big franchise-resurrection isnâ’t friendly at all

by Dave Prince

I walked into Rambo expecting to be greeted by Phase II of Sylvester Stalloneâ’s Master Plan to Make Me Love America Again. Rocky Balboaâ’s formula, after all, made it a perfect Phase I: underdog considers one last comeback; underdogâ’s idea is near-universally panned; underdog does it anyway; underdog does that thing where he technically loses but effectively steals the limelight from his rival and reminds us that a little good old-fashioned American determination can still turn a has-been into a peopleâ’s champ. Given that set-up, I expected Rambo to be a remake of Field of Dreams starring Stallone, a plucky, multicultural Little League baseball team from the wrong side of the tracks, and a puppy.

I walked out of Rambo feeling as though I had been shot in the gut, field-dressed the wound myself with remnants of an old shirt and some gunpowder, and rested for about a minute, only to realize that I still had a sewer to crawl through and a few hundred more enemy soldiers to kill. The baseball field I expected was a series of mine-filled rice paddies, the plucky Little League team was replaced by bloodthirsty (though interestingly enough, still multicultural) mercenaries, the puppy had been rewritten as a pack of bloodhounds, and the feel-good â“America! Fuck yeah!â” ending I bet the farm on was usurped by one of the most protracted scenes of guerrilla-warfare violence ever put to film. Rambo has the potential to do this to a lot of peopleâ"Balboa grossed $150 million, after all, and I canâ’t be the only one who was excited about the prospects of Stalloneâ’s other big-name character getting the Balboa treatment.

The plot of Rambo was stamped from a cookie cutter. The third sequel to First Blood trades in the part-time warrior-monk thing from Rambo III for a Thai version of Pigeon Forgeâ’s live-bear shows. John Ramboâ’s still in East Asia, still in seclusion, and heâ’s still having nightmares about alternate endings to past Rambo movies. The nameless Burmese pillage-and-rape military types arenâ’t Soviet occupiers or Viet Cong troops, but theyâ’re in the jungle and theyâ’re evil. Missionaries on a medical-aid mission arenâ’t Vietnam-era POWs or Colonel Trautman, butâyou get the idea. Details are for mere mortals. For Rambo, theyâ’re just a slow boat ride on the way to the ass-kicking.

And how does Johnny Boy kick ass, you say? With dramatic effect. Rambo kills five Burmese pirates with only a concealed pistol and a death wish for dramatic effect. A Burmese village is razed and the villagers killed in imaginatively horrific and surprisingly explicit ways, all for dramatic effect. Rambo forges a dagger out of a length of rebar and uncharacteristically soliloquizes about the violent nature of man for dramatic effect. The nameless Burmese commander, not content to merely twirl his mustache while his men conduct daily peasant-minefield races, he also has a shocking secret! Why? Dramatic effect. A couple of these sharp sticks (See also: First Blood) would have been fine, but Rambo is propped up by them like a rickety Burmese watchtower.

Halfway through the movie, I wanted to go outside and scream, â“We get it! In these politically uncertain times, points have to be driven home about the characters in a Rambo movie if itâ’s going to be relevant 10 years later! That doesnâ’t mean we have to actually see the children being bayoneted to understand that the guy with the bayonet needs to die! Nobody blames you for the whole mujahedeen thing! They were fighting the Soviets, for Chrissakes! Quit overcompensating!â”

Despite all the drawbacks, though, there are certain things that Rambo does right. Ramboâ’s mercenary sidekicks arenâ’t exactly likable, but at least they arenâ’t the throwaway red-shirts I expected. The buckets and buckets of gore at least look realistic, and although watching both sides systematically disassemble massive quantities of human anatomy isnâ’t in my top-five ways to spend an afternoon, I canâ’t help but feel that was the point. Watching people being crammed into a box and shot isnâ’t fun, but it definitely makes you not want people to be crammed into a box and shot; and while sending $8 to the Red Cross might be a better way to make that happen than buying a ticket to Rambo, it at least gives you something to think about.

And who knowsâ"maybe this will just be the second in a series of not-horrible revisits of Stallone franchises. Iâ’m personally hoping for Demolition Man II. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot! II might be a bigger box-office draw, but Sandra Bullockâ’s a little dreamier than Estelle Getty.

Rental Hygiene

Movies usually go far out of their way to avoid making you think, even when the ostensible point is to â“make you thinkâ”â"every irony or jumping-off point is hand-delivered, underlined and bolded. That makes Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakulâ’s 2007 film Syndromes and a Century even more impressive. He not only makes you think, he makes you wonder, in several senses of the word.

Inspired by the story of Weerasethakulâ’s parentsâ’ courtship, Syndromes begins with a job interview at a rural clinic as girlish but professional Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) asks hangdog Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) which hand he uses for surgery and if he knows what DDT stands for (he guesses â“Destroys Dirty Thingsâ”). Though the camera remains mostly stationary, its gaze wanders to, among other things, a dentist and a Buddhist monk bonding over their mutual love of music and Dr. Toey inviting a colleague out to lunch, which leads to a blurted marriage proposal and an account of her star-crossed crush on a hunky orchid farmer (Sophon Pukanok). The film then jumps to an urban hospital and restarts, as Dr. Toey once again interviews Dr. Nohng. Same questions, mostly, but different camera angles, and once the interview is over, the lens surveys tippling doctors, tennis-ball-batting patients, and a boner-inspiring clinch. Parts of the film repeat (often changed slightly) or are echoed (usually faintly), to be joined by fresh inscrutables. The end.

Syndromes makes no literal sense, but it does so most beguilingly. Itâ’s easy to suspect that the director is playing arty head games (off-camera dialogue at the end of the opening sequence appears to capture the actors out of character, but Weerasethakulâ’s film is so deliberate, so beautiful, so mysteriously touching in its small human moments, and so endlessly unpredictable, that itâ’s hard to care if he is. â" Lee Gardner


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