Film Review: First Blood (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


First Blood was not what I was expecting.

From everything that I had heard and seen over the past few years, I was under the impression that this 1982 film was the ultimate in mindless action.  I figured that the film was basically just two hours of Sylvester Stallone hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and eventually blowing up a small, bigoted town.  It wasn’t a film that I was in any particular hurry to experience but I knew it was one that I would have to watch eventually, if just because of how many filmmakers have cited the film as an influence.  On Sunday night, First Blood aired on the Sundance Channel and, for the first time, I watched it all the way through.  What I discovered is that there’s a lot more to First Blood than I had been led to believe.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s definitely an action film.  Stallone spends a lot of time hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and blowing up a town.  Somewhat improbably, only one character actually dies over the course of the film, though quite a few end up getting maimed and wounded.  There’s even a close-up of Stallone stitching up a nasty gash on his arm, which totally made me cringe.  But, even with all the gunfire and explosions, First Blood has more on its mind than just carnage.  It’s a brooding film, one that angrily takes America to task for its treatment of its veterans and outsiders.  In its way, it’s an action film with a heart.

Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a troubled drifter who is still haunted by not only his experiences in Vietnam but also by the feeling that his own country doesn’t want him around.  When Rambo, with his unkempt hair and wearing a jacket with an American flag patch prominently displayed, shows up in the town of Hope, Washington, it’s not to cause trouble.  He just wants to see an old friend, a man with whom he served.  Unfortunately, his friend has died.  The man’s bitter mother says that he got cancer from “that orange stuff they were spraying around.”  Even though the war is over, it’s still killing the only people who can possibly understand how Rambo feels about both his service and his uncertain place in American society.

As Rambo walks through the town, he’s spotted by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy).  Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee and relax.  Teasle, however, views Rambo as being a stranger and, therefore, a possible threat to his town.  Teasle wants Rambo to leave.  Rambo wants to know why, after everything that he’s sacrificed for his country, he’s being told that he needs to get a haircut.  From this simple conflict — a misunderstanding really, as Teasle doesn’t know that Rambo is mourning the death of his friend and instead interprets Rambo’s sullen silence as being a threat — an undeclared and unwinnable war soon breaks out.

Technically, Teasle is the film’s villain.  He’s the one who arrests Rambo for vagrancy.  It’s his abusive deputies who cause Rambo to have the flashbacks that lead to him breaking out of jail.  It’s Teasle’s arrogance that leads to him ignore the warnings of Rambo’s former commanding office, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna).  And yet, Teasle himself is never portrayed as being an evil man.  Instead, Dennehy plays Teasle as being well-meaning but stubborn.  It’s been written that the most compelling villains are the ones who don’t realize that they’re the villain and that’s certainly true in Teasle’s case.  Teasle’s job is to protect the town and its citizens and that’s what he’s determined to do.  If his actions become extreme, it has less to do with any deliberate cruelty on his part and everything to do with the fact that, towards the end of the film, he finally figures out that he’s in way over his head.

Once Rambo has disappeared into the woods and maimed (but not killed) all of Teasle’s deputies, he only has one request and that’s to be left alone.  He simply wants to stay in the woods, hunting for food and free from a society that has nothing to offer him during peacetime.  What’s interesting is that, at the start of the film, everyone wants Rambo to just disappear.  He’s a reminder of not just the turmoil of the Vietnam era but also the fact that Vietnam was the first war that America lost.  Rambo’s presence is viewed as being like an ugly scar that you wish would just fade away.  However, once Rambo does actually vanish, people won’t stop looking for him.  As opposed to the later films in the franchise, the Rambo of First Blood doesn’t want to fight anyone.  Rambo just wants to be left alone in solitude and considering the way that he’s treated by the town of Hope, it’s hard to blame him.

And so, you end up sympathizing with this John Rambo.  Even thought he’s blowing up a town during the Christmas season and there’s a few scenes where he’s kind of scary, it’s impossible not to feel that he has a right to his anger.  You find yourself wishing that the Sheriff had just left him alone or that maybe Rambo had just taken Teasle’s earlier advice and left town.  Because, as you watch the film, you know that 1) there was no good reason why any of this had to happen and 2) things probably aren’t going to end well for either John Rambo or Will Teasle.

First Blood was based on a novel that was first published in 1972.  The film spent nearly a decade in development, as various directors, screenwriters, and actors circled around the project.  At one point, First Blood was envisioned as an anti-war film that would have been directed by Sidney Lumet and which would have featured a bearded Al Pacino lurking through the wilderness and killing not only Teasle but also several deputies and national guardsmen.  When Stallone agreed to star in the film, he also rewrote the script, transforming Rambo into a sympathetic outsider who goes out of his way not to kill anyone.  The end result was an underdog story that audiences could embrace.

Seen today, it’s interesting to see how many familiar faces pop up in First Blood.  For instance, a young and really goofy-looking David Caruso pops up and totally overacts in the role of the only sympathetic deputy.  A less sympathetic deputy is played by Chris Mulkey, who would go on to play other unsympathetic characters in a huge number of movies and TV shows.  Interestingly enough, the most sadistic of the deputies was played by Jack Starrett, who directed a several classic B-moves in the 70s.  (One of Starrett’s films was The Losers, in which a bunch of bikers were sent to Vietnam to rescue an American diplomat.)

As opposed to many of the films that it subsequently inspired, First Blood holds up surprisingly well.  It may be violent but it’s violence with a heart.

Playing Catch Up: First Daughter, Ice Girls, Raising The Bar, Walk Like A Man


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.  Unfortunately, over the past two weeks, real life has interfered with my movie reviewing, if not my move watching.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past two weeks!

  • First Daughter
  • Released: 2004
  • Directed by Forest Whitaker
  • Starring Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, Amerie, Michael Keaton, Margaret Colin, Lela Rochon

Michael Keaton as the President of the United States!?  Now, that’s a great idea.  Michael Keaton plays President Mackenzie.  First Daughter was made long before Birdman so Michael Keaton doesn’t really have a huge part but, whenever he does appear, he is totally believable as a world leader.  You buy the idea that this guy could win an election and that he’d probably be a good (if not necessarily a great) President.  Someone really needs to make another movie where Michael Keaton plays the President.  Maybe President Birdman.  Just don’t give it to Inarritu to direct because he’ll make it too political…

Anyway, the majority of the film is about Katie Holmes as the President’s daughter, Samantha.  Samantha has been accepted to a college in California.  She’s excited because it means that she’ll finally be able to have a life outside of the White House.  The President is concerned because he loves his daughter and he knows that, if she makes any mistakes in California, his political opponents will try to use her against him.  Samantha goes off to college and tries to have a good (but rather chaste) time.  Making that somewhat difficult is her secret service entourage.  Fortunately, Samantha meets a guy (Marc Blucas) who loves her for who she is and not because her father is the President.

It’s all pretty silly and shallow but I have to admit that I get nostalgic whenever I see this movie.  Much like From Justin To Kelly, it’s definitely a film from a more innocent and less angry time.  To date, it’s also the last film to be directed by actor Forest Whitaker.

  • Ice Girls
  • Released in 2016
  • Directed by Damian Lee
  • Starring Michaela du Toit, Lara Daans, Arcadia Kendal, Sheila McCarthy, Taylor Hunsley, Shane Harte, Elvis Stojko

Struggling financially, Kelly (Lara Daans) is forced to move back to her hometown and move in with her sister (Sheila McCarthy).  Until she got married and gave up that part of her life, Kelly was once an up-and-coming figure skater.  Fortunately, her daughter, Mattie (Michaela du Toit), has inherited her mother’s talent.  However, a serious injury shook Mattie’s confidence.  Now, she says she doesn’t want to skate anymore.  Still, she’s willing to accept a job from Mercury (Elvis Stojko) at the local rink and it’s not too long before, under Mercury’s guidance, Mattie is skating once again.  Mattie also befriends another skater, Heather (Taylor Hunsley).  Heather happens to be the daughter of Rose (Natasha Henstridge), who was once in love with Kelly’s father…

It sounds like the set-up of a melodramatic Lifetime movie but actually, Ice Girls is a sweet-natured film about two ice skaters, one who has a mother who is too protective and the other who has a mother who is too driven.  In the end, both of them end up skating for themselves and not their mothers and that’s a good message for the film’s target audience of young skate fans.  The majority of the cast is made up of actual ice skaters, so the skating footage is pretty impressive.  It’s a predictable movie but I enjoyed it when I watched it on Netflix.

  • Raising the Bar
  • Released in 2016
  • Directed by Clay Glen
  • Starring Kelli Berglund, Lili Karamalikis, Tess Fowler, Emily Morris, Peta Shannon

I also watched this one on Netflix, a day after I watched Ice Girls.  (I was in an Olympics sort of mood, even though neither film took place at the Olympics.)  Raising the Bar feels a lot like Ice Girls, except that the ice skaters were now gymnasts and instead of relocating to Toronto, the family in Raising the Bar relocates all the way to Australia.  Once in Australia, Kelly (Kelly Johnson) finds the courage to re-enter gymnastics and ends up competing against her former teammates.

Kelly Johnson gives a good performance in the lead role.  Though it may be predictable, Raising the Bar is an effective and sweet-natured family film.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about watching the film was that I quickly found myself rooting against the American team.  Australia all the way!

  • Walk Like A Man
  • Released 1987
  • Directed by Melvin Frank
  • Starring Howie Mandel, Amy Steel, Cloris Leachman, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, Stephen Elliott, George DiCenzo, John McLiam, Earl Boen

Oh, what sweet Hell is this?

Okay, I’m going to try to explain what happens in this movie.  You’re not going to believe me.  You’re going to think that I’m just making all of this up.  But I swear to a God … this is an actual movie.

When he was a baby, Boba Shand (Howie Mandel) got separated from his family.  His mother and his father assumed that he was gone forever but what they didn’t know was that Bobo was found and raised by a pack of wild dogs.  For twenty years, Bobo lives as a dog.  Then he’s discovered by Penny (Amy Steel), an animal researcher who tries to teach Bobo how to be a human.  However, as time passes, Penny comes to realize that maybe she’s making a mistake trying to change Bobo.  Bobo is innocent and child-like and obsessed with chasing fire engines.  When he has too much to drink, he runs around on all fours.  And … PENNY’S IN LOVE WITH HIM!

Seriously, she’s in love with a man who thinks he’s a dog.

However, Bobo stands to inherit a fortune and his evil brother (Christopher Lloyd) is planning on having him committed.  Penny has to prove that Bobo is human enough to manage his own affairs while also respecting his desire to continue living like a dog.

I’m serious.  This is a real movie.

Anyway, making things even worse is the performance as Howie Mandel.  Mandel has always been a rather needy performer and the role of a man who thinks he’s a dog only serves to bring out his worst instincts.  Remember when Ben Stiller played Simple Jack in Tropical Thunder?  Well, Mandel’s performance is kinda like that only worse.  At one point, Bobo walks up to a mannequin in a mall and says, “I have to go pee pee.  Come with me,” and I nearly threw a shoe at the TV.  Oh my God, it was so bad.

The main problem with Walk Like A Man is that it wants to have it both ways.  It wants to be a wild comedy about Howie Mandel chasing fire engines but it also makes us want to tear up when Penny explains why Bobo should be allowed to live as a dog.

All in all, it’s a really bad movie.  And yes, it does actually exist.

A Movie A Day #245: The Missouri Breaks (1976, directed by Arthur Penn)


After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch.  Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen.  One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons.  Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.

A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance.  Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene.  (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.)  Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.

I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie.  For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour.  The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work.  While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast.  Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them.  Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back.   The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.

A Movie A Day #164: Split Decisions (1988, directed by David Drury)


Craig Sheffer seeks symbolic revenge and Gene Hackman picks up a paycheck in Split Decisions!

Ray McGuinn (Jeff Fahey) is a contender.  Ever since he let his father’s gym and signed with a sleazy boxing promoter, Ray has been waiting for his title shot.  His father, an ex-boxer turned trainer named Dan (Gene Hackman), has never forgiven Ray for leaving him.  Meanwhile, his younger brother — an amateur boxer and Olympic aspirant named Eddie (Craig Sheffer) — worships Ray and is overjoyed when Ray returns to the old neighborhood to fight “The Snake” Pedroza (Eddie Velez).  But then Ray is told that if he doesn’t throw the fight, he’ll never get a shot at a title bout.  When Ray refuses, The Snake and a group of thugs are sent to change his mind and Ray gets tossed out of a window.

Eddie is determined to avenge his brother’s death.  Does he do it by turning vigilante and tracking down the men who murdered his brother?  No, he turns pro and takes his brother’s place in the boxing ring!  Dan reluctantly trains him and Eddie enters the ring, looking for symbolic justice.  Symbolic justice just doesn’t have the same impact as Charles Bronson-style justice.

The idea of a barely known amateur turning professional and getting a chance to fight a contender feels just as implausible here as it did in Creed.  The difference is that Creed was a great movie so it did not matter if it was implausible.  To put it gently, Split Decisions is no Creed.  The boxing scenes are uninspired and even the training montage feels tired.  Look at Craig Sheffer run down the street while generic 80s music plays in the background.  Watch him spar in the ring.  Listen to Gene Hackman shout, “You’re dragging your ass out there!”  In the late 80s, Gene Hackman could have played a role like Dan in his sleep and he proves it by doing so here.  Underweight pretty boy Craig Sheffer is actually less convincing as a boxer than Damon Wayans was in The Great White Hype.

Split Decisions is another boxing movie that should have taken Duke’s advice.

A Movie A Day #145: The Incredible Hulk: A Death In The Family (1977, directed by Alan J. Levi)


Following the events of The Incredible Hulk and with the world convinced that he is dead, Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) is hitchhiking his way across California, hoping to reach a hospital where research is being done on the effects of gamma radiation.  When he stops off in an orange grove, he spots a young, crippled woman named Julie (Laurie Prange).  When Julie faints, David carries her back to her mansion.  It turns out that, after the mysterious death of her father, Julie stands to inherit millions.  David suspects that her doctor (played by William Daniels) may be poisoning her and he gets a job working on the grounds of her mansion.  At first, David thinks that his biggest problem is going to be the head groundskeeper (Gerald McRaney), who is jealous of David’s relationship with Julie.  But, actually, it’s Julie’s stepmother (Dorothy Tristan) that David has to watch out for.  When David tries to protect Julie and a bitter hermit (John McLiam) from the stepmother’s evil plans, he soon finds himself being pursued through the swampland by both men with guns and tabloid journalist Jack McGee (Jack Colvin).  They are all making David Banner angry and they’re about to discover that they wouldn’t like David Banner when he’s angry.

This was the second pilot for The Incredible Hulk.  It aired a week after the first pilot and, like that one, it was also given a theatrical release in Europe.  While the first movie established David Banner’s backstory and explained why he transformed into the Hulk whenever he bumped his head on a door frame or twisted his ankle, A Death in The Family is more typical of the series that would follow.  Like every subsequent episode, A Death In The Family opens with David Banner finding an odd job and ended with him walking down the road with his thumb stuck out.  In between, Banner helps a special guest star.

Watching the second pilot, it’s easy to see why CBS took a chance on The Incredible Hulk even though, at the time, comic book adaptations were considered to be a risk.  Both Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno really throw themselves into playing Banner and his alter ego and the show takes the idea seriously.

There’s nothing special about the pilot’s story.  The stepmother and the doctor are obviously guilty from the start.  But the plot (and the 90 minute running time) does allow for four appearances by the Hulk.  David Banner even gets attacked by a grizzly bear, which brings the Hulk right out.  David Banner always had the worst luck with wild animals and barbed wire.  The Hulk, though, just throws the grizzly bear over into the next pond.  The bear is not harmed.  The Hulk may have been angry but he was never really dangerous.

Finally, for the record, Death In the Family featured the first of many aliases that David Banner would assume over the next four years.  This time, he’s David Benton.

A Movie A Day #63: Showdown (1973, directed by George Seaton)


showdown_1973_film

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The time and the place is the old west.  Growing up, Chuck Jarvis (Rock Hudson) and Billy Massey (Dean Martin) were best friends.  When the lovely Kate (Susan Clark) chose Chuck over Billy, the two of them go their separate ways.  Billy becomes a notorious train robber.  Chuck becomes the sheriff of their hometown.  After Billy returns home, it is up to Chuck to not only capture him but to also protect him from not only his former partners but a gang of vigilantes as well.

There’s nothing surprising about Showdown, a strictly by the numbers western that, if not for a few bloody gunshot wounds and some dialogue about cattle “humping,” could have just as easily been released in 1953 as 1973.  The only thing that makes Showdown special is that it was the last western made by both Rock Hudson and Dean Martin.  Dino is his usual fun-loving, half-soused self but Rock Hudson looks absolutely miserable here.  If Rock’s role had been played by Frank Sinatra (or even Peter Lawford), Showdown would probably be remembered as a minor classic.  As it is, it’s for Dean Martin completists only.

 

Back to School #8: Halls of Anger (dir by Paul Bogart)


Halls Of Anger

Everybody loves Jeff Bridges.

Last month, the Democratic senator from Montana, John Walsh, announced that he wouldn’t be running for reelection because, much like Lianne Spiderbaby, he had been caught plagiarizing.  (Incidentally, I was one of the many bloggers caught up in Lianne’s web of thievery.  If you have ever read Lianne’s review of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, you were essentially reading my review of Black Sabbath.)  Unfortunately, for the Montana Democratic Party, Walsh had already won the Democratic primary.  So, the Montana Democrats held an emergency meeting to select a new nominee.

Governors, ranchers, former congressmen — nearly every prominent Democrat in Montana announced that he didn’t want the nomination.  It looked like all hope was lost but then a petition appeared online, asking the Democrats to nominate Jeff Bridges for the U.S. Senate!  This petition made national headlines and, in just a few hours, it had received thousands of signatures.  For a few brief days, everyone was truly excited about the prospect of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bridges.  I even signed the petition myself, despite the fact that 1) I don’t live in Montana and 2) I’m not even a Democrat!

(I’m a member of the Personal Choice Party.  PCP in 2016!)

Ultimately, he announced that he had no interesting running and wasn’t even sure if he was registered to vote but, until that happened, why were so many of us excited about Jeff Bridges running for the Senate?

Because, in this time of division and conflict, everybody loves Jeff Bridges!

He’s just an incredibly likable actor.  Even when he’s playing a villain, like in Iron Man, he still comes across like someone you would want to live next door to.  He’s everyone’s perfect hippie uncle, the guy that even people who don’t smoke weed want to get stoned with.  If you ever watch any of his early films — and Bridges has been making movies for nearly 50 years now — you’ll discover that this unique and likable charm is something that Jeff Bridges has always possessed.

It’s certainly present in 1970’s Halls of Anger.  This was Jeff Bridges’s film debut, made at a time when he could still pass for a high school student.  He was 20 when he made this film and I have to say that for those of us who best know him as the Dude, Rooster Cogburn, and whoever he was playing in Crazy Heart, it’s always interesting to see just how handsome Jeff Bridges was when he was young.

Jeff Bridges, hiding his face in Halls of Anger

Jeff Bridges, hiding his face in Halls of Anger

In Halls of Anger, he plays Doug, one of 60 white kids who have been transferred to a majority black inner city high school in an attempt to integrate it.  Of all the new white students, Doug is probably the most confident and the most open-minded.  He’s also the most friendly.  His attempt to join the high school basketball team upsets the other students but — even after getting beaten up — Doug sticks with it.  You knew that he would because, after all, he’s played by Jeff Bridges.

Of course, Doug’s story is just one of the many stories told in Halls of Anger.  Another one of the transfers — a weak-willed and balding racist named Leaky (played by future director Rob Reiner!) — tries to provoke a fight with a black student, hoping that he’ll be sent back to his old school for his own protection.  White Sherry (Patricia Stich) dates a black classmate and is savagely assaulted as a result.  Newly assigned vice principal Quincy Davis (Calvin Lockhart) tries to both keep the peace and teach a group of functionally illiterate students how to read.  Militant J.T. Walsh (James Edwards) wanders the hallways and speaks of revolution…

Rob Reiner in Halls of Anger

Rob Reiner in Halls of Anger

Actually, I’m probably making Halls of Anger sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.  For the most part, it’s pretty much your standard 1970 social problem film, in that it’s full of good intentions but those good intentions don’t always add up to compelling drama.  Paul Bogart’s direction is often flat (the scene where Davis teaches his students how to read seems to drag on for hours) and the characters don’t so much talk to each other as they make narratively convenient speeches.

That said, Halls of Anger is worth watching just to see Calvin Lockhart’s authoritative performance, Rob Reiner’s hilariously bad performance, and Jeff Bridges’s charismatic debut performance.  He may never be a member of the U.S. Senate but everybody will always love Jeff Bridges.

You can watch Halls of Anger below!