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.

A Movie A Day #287: Leviathan (1989, directed by George Pan Cosmatos)


A group of miners are sent into a dangerous environment by an evil corporation.  When they explore an abandoned ship, they unknowingly bring a hostile creature onto their own vessel.  One of the crewman is killed when the creature mutates inside of his body.  The rest of the crew includes a scientist, one strong woman, one woman who cries, and a strong, silent captain.

Sound familiar?

No, it’s not Alien.  

Instead, it’s Leviathan, which could best be described as being Alien underwater with a dash of The Thing tossed in.  The main difference between Leviathan and the films that inspired it is that people are still watching Alien and The Thing while Leviathan is one of the most forgettable films that I have ever seen.  Peter Weller is the captain.  Richard Crenna is the scientist.  Amanda Pays has the Ripley role and Ernie Hudson fills in for Yaphet Kotto.  Daniel Stern plays Sixpack, who turns into a monster after he drinks contaminated Russian vodka.  (It happens to the best of us.)  Meg Foster, with her translucent eyes, represents the corporation.

That’s a good cast and the script was written by David Peoples (who also wrote Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and 12 Monkeys) and Jeb Stuart (who wrote Die Hard and The Fugitive).  The above average special effects were designed by Stan Winston.  Why, with all of these talented people involved in the production, is Leviathan so by the numbers and forgettable?  It probably had something to do with the presence of George Pan Cosmatos in the directing chair.  Cosmatos is also credited with directing Rambo: First Blood II, Cobra, and Tombstone.  The first two films starred Sylvester Stallone, who was known for directing all of his 80s films in every way but name only and everyone knows that Kurt Russell was in charge on Tombstone.

If you want to see Alien underwater done right, watch Deepstar Six.

A Movie A Day #141: Breakheart Pass (1975, directed by Tom Gries)


California.  The 1870s.  Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson) boards a train with his prisoner, an alleged outlaw named John Deakin (Charles Bronson).  The train is mostly full of soldiers, under the command of Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), who are on their way to Fort Humboldt.  The fort has suffered a diphtheria epidemic and the soldiers are supposedly transporting medical supplies.

However, it’s not just soldiers on the train.  There’s also Gov. Fairchild (Richard Crenna) of Nevada, his fiancée (Jill Ireland), the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), and a conductor named O’Brien (Charles Durning).  As the train continues on its journey, it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems.  People start to disappear.  A man is thrown from the train.  Two cars full of soldiers are separated from the train and plunge over a cliff.  There is also more to Deakin than anyone first realized and soon, he is the only person who can bring the murderers to justice.

In both real life and the movies, Charles Bronson was the epitome of a tough guy, so it’s always interesting to see him playing a more cerebral character than usual.  There are some exciting and surprisingly brutal action scenes, including a scene where Bronson fights a cook (played by former professional boxer Archie Moore) on top of the speeding train, but Breakheart Pass is more of a murder mystery than a typical action film.  If Louis L’Amour and Agatha Christie had collaborated on a story, the end result would be much like Breakheart Pass.  Bronson spends as much time investigating as he does swinging his fists or shooting a gun.  It’s not a typical Bronson role but he does a good job, showing that he could think as convincingly as he could kill.  Acting opposite some of the best character actors around in the 70s, Bronson more than holds his own.

Apparently, back in 1975, audiences were not interesting in watching Bronson think so Breakheart Pass was a disappointment at the box office and it is still not as well known as Bronson’s other films.  However, even if you’re not already a fan of the great Bronson, Breakheart Pass is worth discovering.

Horror on the Lens: House of Evil (dir by Gus Trikonis)


Today’s horror on the lens in 1978’s House of Evil!

When Richard Crenna buys a new house, he recruits a few friends to help him fix it up.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the house is haunted by the devil himself.  House of Evil — which is also known as The Evil — is an entertaining little time waster.  If the idea of being in a house with the devil doesn’t scare you, just check out some of those the 1970s fashion choices!

Wild Pitch: THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS (20th Century-Fox 1952)


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Jerome Herman “Dizzy” Dean, ace pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” in the 1930’s, gets the Hollywood biopic treatment in this pleasant little film. The malaprop prone Dizzy was one of the game’s greats before an unfortunate injury, leading to him becoming a well-loved broadcaster. The film sticks fairly close to the facts, as Dean was a colorful enough character to need little embellishment.

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THE PRIDE OF ST. LOUIS follows Dean’s career as he’s discovered pitching in his Arkansas hometown, through the minors, and finally to big league success with the Cardinals. Along the way he woos and wins the love of his life, Patricia. Soon his brother Paul joins the team, and the pair become as well-known for their off-field antics as for their pitching prowess.

The movie takes a turn when Dizzy is injured during an All Star Game and tries to come back too soon. His arm is ruined, but Dizzy can’t…

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Horror on the Lens: Death Ship (dir by Alvin Rakoff)


Today’s Horror on the Lens comes to use from 1980.  In Death Ship, a cruise ship collides with a mysterious black freighter.  When the survivors board the freighter, they discover that it appears to be deserted.  But is it really?  As the survivors explore, they start to suspect that they might not be alone.  Even worse, the already unstable captain (George Kennedy) starts to hear a mysterious German voice, encouraging him to kill everyone else and stay on the freighter forever.

It’s kinda like The Shining, except it takes place on a boat and it’s not as good.

But then again, very few horror films are as good as The Shining!  Death Ship is an enjoyably pulpy exercise in ghostly horror and it can actually be quite scary, especially if you have an obsessive fear of drowning, like I do!

Plus, George Kennedy really puts his heart and soul into being possessed.

Watch Death Ship below!

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #45: Double Indemnity (dir by Jack Smight)


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Nothing can make you appreciate a classic film more than by watching a really bad remake.  As proof, I would offer up the 1973 made-for-television version of the classic 1944 film Double Indemnity.  The original Double Indemnity is a classic example of film noir, one that remains intriguing and powerful over 70 years since it was first released.  The remake features the exact same plot as Double Indemnity and a few of the original’s scenes are recreated shot-by-shot but it just does not work.

Part of the problem is that the remake is in color.  In fact, since it was made in 1973 and for television, it’s in very bright and somewhat tacky color.  Bright and vibrant doesn’t work for film noir.  You need the shadows and the visual ambiguities that are unique to black-and-white.  If the original Double Indemnity was full of secrets and mysteries, the remake is all on the surface.  There are no secrets to be found in this remake.

That goes for the cast as well.  In the original, Fred MacMurray made Walter Neff into the epitome of the bored, post-war American male.  You watched him with a certain sick fascination, trying to figure out what was going on behind the blandly friendly facade.  In the remake, you know that Richard Crenna is a serpent from the minute he first appears.  If MacMurray’s Walter was motivated by ennui, Crenna’s Walter is just bad and therefore, far less interesting.  Meanwhile, in the role of Phyllis, Samantha Eggar has none of Barbara Stanwyck’s ferocious determination.  Instead, Eggar’s performance is curiously refined (which is another way to say boring).

Probably the most interesting thing about the remake of Double Indemnity is that the role of Keyes is played by Lee J. Cobb.  Cobb actually gives a pretty good performance and, unlike Crenna and Eggar, he’s actually entertaining to watch.  In the original film, Keyes was played by Edward G. Robinson and was roughly around the same age as Walter.  They were contemporaries and friends and that made the original’s ending all the more poignant.  In the remake, Cobb is quite a bit older than Crenna and, as a result, their relationship feels more paternalistic.  It’s almost as if Crenna is the prodigal son who has betrayed his father and who tells his story as a way of begging for forgiveness.

But that’s probably reading too much into the remake!  For the most part, the remake of Double Indemnity is bland and boring.  The best thing about it is that it’ll make you love the original even more.

As for how I ended up watching the remake of Double Indemnity, it was included as an extra on my DVD of the original.  Watching them back-to-back, as I did, really serves to make you appreciate Billy Wilder as a filmmaker.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Sand Pebbles (dir by Robert Wise)


The_Sand_Pebbles_film_posterAfter watching Witness For The Prosecution, I continued TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1966 Best Picture nominee, The Sand Pebbles.

Considering that The Sand Pebbles is close to four hours long, it’s interesting how little there is to really say about it.  Taking place in 1926, The Sand Pebbles follows the crew of the USS San Pablo, a gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River in China.  The San Pablo is there to protect American business interests, which are in particular danger because China is caught up in a communist revolution.  For the most part, the crew of the San Pablo are portrayed as being lazy and racist.  They have little interest in understanding the culture of the people around them and they use Chinese laborer to do the work on the boat.

When Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is transferred to the San Pablo, he upsets his fellow crewmen by insisting on working in the ship’s engine room himself, the fear being that if Holman is willing to work then the rest of them will be expected to work as well.  The ship’s commander, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), views Holman as being a threat to morale and starts to make plans to get Holman off of his boat.  But, first, the boat is going to have to get out of China…

The Sand Pebbles is an episodic film and some of those episodes are more interesting than others.  Typically, an episode will start out positively and then end with some sudden tragedy.  For instance, Holman trains one laborer (Mako) to be a boxer and then watches as he beats the most racist crewman on the ship.  However, just a few minutes later, the laborer is captured and savagely tortured by the communists and Holman is forced to perform a mercy killing.

In another subplot, Holman’s only friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), marries a local prostitute (Emmanuelle Arsan, who would later write an autobiography that would serve as the basis for a very different type of film).  However, in order to see his wife, Frenchy has to continually swim to shore in the middle of the night.  Frenchy soon develops pneumonia and dies while his wife is dragged off and apparently executed.

And finally, Holman strikes up a romance with Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent missionary.  However, when her arrogant and naive boss, Jameson (Larry Gates), refuses to leave the country despite the revolution, the San Pablo is ordered to rescue them.  This, of course, leads to a final battle with the communists which leaves a good deal of the cast dead.

As I watched The Sand Pebbles, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie.  The film’s climatic battle was exciting and Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the director of 12 Years A Slave and Shame) gave a good performance but otherwise, the film often seemed to drag.  While the movie’s theme of Americans struggling (and failing) to understand another country’s culture had a definite resonance, The Sand Pebbles did not seem to be quite sure what it truly wanted to say about it.

Let’s face it — over 500 films have been nominated for best picture.  And, while a good deal of them hold up surprisingly well and are still entertaining to watch, there’s also a handful like The Sand Pebbles, ambitious films that never quite reached their potential but were probably nominated because they seemed like the type of epic film that should be nominated.  Many of these films were nominated and a few even won.

However, in the case of The Sand Pebbles, a nomination would have to be enough.  That year, the Oscar for Best Picture was won by A Man For All Seasons.