Sunday, August 31, 2014

First Blood (1982) review



Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Richard Crenna (Colonel Trautman), Brian Dennehy (Teasle), Bill McKinney (Kern), Jack Starrett (Galt)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

The Short Version: Sylvester Stallone drew box office blood with his second most popular character behind Rocky Balboa. FIRST BLOOD feels like one of its 70s 'Crazed Vietnam Vet' brethren, but with a lot more polish; and aided and abetted by a strong Jerry Goldsmith score. It's a taut action thriller that intermittently touches on the topic of the Vietnam War and its effects on those who fought there. The rest of the time Kotcheff's movie loses itself in action movie tropes while building one of the 1980s biggest macho icons. Based on David Morrell's novel from 1972. 

John Rambo is an emotionally scarred Vietnam vet traveling on foot to visit an old war buddy. Upon learning his friend has passed away, John drifts into a small town only to be harassed by a local sheriff. Arrested and humiliated, the horrific memories of the war surface and set the disturbed man off. After a violent confrontation, he escapes the police station leading the cops on a manhunt to capture, or kill the crazed, yet provoked veteran. Soon after, Rambo's old commander shows up, and he's the only man who can bring an end to Rambo's war at home.

The director of Aussie thriller WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971), the testosterone fueled war film UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), and the comedy WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S (1989) set the film world on fire with this searing, suspenseful story about a troubled war veteran attempting to re-integrate with society, and society just won't let him. It's a damn near perfect action movie with some great performances, snappy dialog, and a lot of subtext brewing just under the surface.

The fantastic Canadian locations are awe-inspiring. The Fall shooting schedule added a great deal of atmosphere at the cost of putting the cast through extremely cold temperatures. The sprawling mountains overlooking the small town is one helluva sight giving DP Andrew Laszlo (THE WARRIORS, THE FUNHOUSE, SOUTHERN COMFORT) lots of room to work his photographic magic; as well as turning a wilderness into an archaic, almost medieval setting.

The first in this popular (so far) quartet of action films is a return to the 'Crazed Vietnam Vet' sub-genre that proliferated in the 1970s. There's also shades of Southern Gothic style thrillers in the vein of MACON COUNTY LINE (1974), A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS (1976), and MOVING VIOLATIONS (1976). Of these, there's one other motion picture FIRST BLOOD shares a far more striking resemblance to -- the obscure action-comedy-drama, RUCKUS (1980), aka RUCKUS IN MADOC COUNTY, aka EAT MY SMOKE. 

In that film, Dirk Benedict was a war vet who, like John Rambo, wanders into a small town for a bite to eat and is immediately hounded by townsfolk and law enforcement. A young lady (played by Linda Blair) helps him out as the town mounts a search for the war hero who must use his special forces abilities to stay ahead of his oppressors. In another similarity, the cops remark how bad Rambo smells; and in RUCKUS, Kyle Hanson (Benedict) looks like he's just crawled out of a mud hole. However, RUCKUS is much more laid back than FIRST BLOOD, and far less serious. It also was pretty much forgotten about save for cult film fans (foreign releases used Rambo-like artwork for home video) while the Stallone film, armed with a bigger budget and lead star, has laid claim to a permanent spot in the pop culture lexicon.

FIRST BLOOD was based on David Morrell's 1972 novel of the same name. That same year, the film rights were reportedly passed around to various studios, and continued for the next ten years. Umberto Lenzi's IL GIUSTIZIERE SFIDA LA CITTA, a crime picture under various names like SYNDICATE SADISTS and RAMBO'S REVENGE came out in 1975. Tomas Milian's main character is named Rambo. Aside from that, and unlike the above-mentioned RUCKUS, there's no similarities between the book and Lenzi's movie.

The two Rambo sequels that followed in 1985 and 1988 were very different in tone; they were all-out action pictures while FIRST BLOOD was more dramatic. It addressed the plight of men who came home from the war in Vietnam -- only to receive a less than hero's welcome. As the film draws to its conclusion, it turns into a private little war between Rambo and the sheriff. It all culminates in a bravura final sequence between Stallone and Crenna where Rambo figuratively spills his guts about what's eating away inside of him. All those years of torment gush out in a matter of minutes, and the one-man army reverts to an almost child-like state in the face of his one trusted friend, Colonel Trautman.

Sylvester Stallone is a much better actor than he gets credit for; in addition to his duties writing and directing other films in his career. His aforementioned speech at the end of FIRST BLOOD is a powerful, memorable oration; and elevates Kotcheff's movie to a level above your typical macho escapism. In the original ending, after Sly's speech, the finish was a darker one wherein Rambo commits suicide. Thankfully, the filmmakers went with the less pessimistic of the two. He walks out alive, and a few years later, into a more outrageous sequel that attempts a similar closing speech, but one peppered with musclebound bluster and the sort of patriotism you just don't see anymore.

1982 was a great year for the actor. He had another hit in the already profitable ROCKY series, and was cultivating another box office crop with the Rambo production. ROCKY 3 had come out in May of that year, and FIRST BLOOD followed in October. Stallone would significantly surpass this success with the same two franchises in 1985.

There are so many memorable moments in FIRST BLOOD. One of them would have to be the section of the movie where a posse of police heads into the woods to find Rambo. What they don't initially realize is that Rambo is hunting them. There's a tinge of horror to this sequence; with an air of tension as thick as the forest the officers become trapped in. Rambo incapacitates them one by one using his Green Beret skills; these consist of assorted traps and his hunting knife -- a knife that, by 1985, everybody wanted to own; and one that would start a trend of scary looking movie knives a la COBRA (1986) and CROCODILE DUNDEE (1986). Saving Teasle for last, he tells the contentious cop that he'll "give [him] a war [he] won't believe"; and he does, too.

Aside from action, there's a fantastic dialog exchange between Colonel Trautman and Sheriff Teasle in a bar. It speaks on a few levels; on Vietnam and being a lawman, and how the lines between doing what's right, and what you think is right becomes blurred; and sometimes blurred with blood. Teasle states he was so mad he could kill that kid; to which Trautman responds, "It can get confusing at times"; he continues that in Vietnam "you can bet Rambo and I got pretty confused"; stating they were told, "We had orders... when in doubt, kill". This conversation is the one and only time Teasle comes off like a compassionate human being.

Richard Crenna obtained the role of Trautman after Kirk Douglas passed on it when certain details in the script weren't to his liking. FIRST BLOOD will likely remain the film Crenna is most associated with. His numerous, aggressively catty remarks to the lawmen about Rambo's superiority go far in building the character; successfully transforming him into the superman Rambo would become in the second picture. Trautman is also something of a father figure. There's a bond between the two men -- almost like those who were in 'Nam are part of a secret club. They both know what the other is thinking, and what the other is going to do.

Fans of director Jack Starrett will get a kick out of seeing the Texas born filmmaker playing a brutish cop. Starrett directed some of the best Drive-in style movies of the previous decade including THE LOSERS (1970), SLAUGHTER (1972), CLEOPATRA JONES (1973), RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975), the aforementioned A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS (1976), and FINAL CHAPTER: WALKING TALL (1977). He often appeared in small roles in his own movies, and in the films of others.

Armed with high powered weaponry, some fantastic suspense, action, and a riveting soundtrack, FIRST BLOOD revamped a forgotten 70s sub-genre for the 1980s while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a new, if highly stylized, exaggerated style of action picture. Oiled up, musclebound men with heavy artillery blowing things up left, right and center became an 80s staple, and one that was parodied in the 1990s. A unique action drama, everyone involved in drawing FIRST BLOOD (1982) created a franchise juggernaut spearheaded by one of the decades most popular actors.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate Blu-ray.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Leo Episode #5


On a lake field trip, the young Toru (along with his little sister Kaoru), who lost his father to the alien Turuk, finds it difficult to enjoy being on a picnic in the company of others whose parents are able to be with them. Seeing the sorrow in the little boy, Gen promises to act as his father, and this puts little Toru at ease. The happiness is short-lived, though, as Gen is called away to investigate an alien threat. Easily defeated in the encounter, Dan refuses to allow Gen to patrol again till he masters a special technique, even as the alien Kanedoras makes its way back to Earth for a second attack.

A big step up from episode four, the fifth program in the U-LEO series holds steady the serious tone embraced from the previous episodes, ending up the most sentimental one thus far. This is due to a child being the centerpiece; that child being Toru Umeda (Arai Tsunehiro). Introduced in the third episode, both he and his younger sister Kaoru (Tominaga Yoshiko) are orphaned after Alien Turuk slaughters their dad by cutting him in half right in front of them. Kaoru handles the loss much better than her brother, who is resentful towards virtually everyone. 

Gen, ever the tender-hearted man, takes up fatherhood for Toru, albeit briefly. When he has to quickly, if reluctantly leave Toru at the park to go into battle, Toru gets upset all over again. Like some other Ultra heroes Gen gets hit from all sides in this one. Toru hates him now, and MAC leader Dan Moroboshi is angered that he took so long to get back on duty, accusing him of possibly making more fatherless children because of his carelessness! What's of interest here is that both Gen's and Toru's paths are interconnected. Both have obstacles to overcome. 

Writer, novelist Shosuke Watarukai successfully squeezes this message of selflessness in the tight framework of a 25 minute show. It's even present during the monster battle between Leo and Kanedoras at the end. Leo puts his life in danger to protect the two children who are trapped in a car. While Kanedoras pounds into Leo's back with his horn, Toru's father comes to him in an Obi Wan Kenobi moment informing him he needs to stop feeling like he's been abandoned. Kaoru needs her big brother to look after her, and they need to stick together. The themes of strength through adversity, and overcoming odds is strong in this one; both are concepts branded into this series (for a time, anyways) from the beginning; even if it is often drowned out in monster fights and exploding miniatures. Watarukai worked on the previous Ultra series, ULTRAMAN TARO, and wrote a dozen episodes of U-LEO with this episode being his first.

Up to now, every episode has had a martial arts motif for Gen to train in some peculiar fashion -- learning a style in his human guise that will come in handy once he's gone giant as the acrobatic alien, Ultraman Leo. The martial arts training continues here with an elaborate contraption that resembles something you'd see in a Shaolin training sequence from a Hong Kong kung fu movie. Omura (Fujiki Yu) figures into this training by inadvertently aiding Gen to learn the fatality move that will prove beneficial during the upcoming fight with Kanedoras. 

Kanedoras is a flying alien creature that resembles Godzilla series antagonist, Gigan. The hands, feet, and back fins have a familiarity with the M Space Hunter Nebula alien chicken first seen in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in 1972. The monsters head recalls Red King, a popular monster on the original ULTRAMAN series, but with a larger noggin. Kanedoras has a big horn on his head that he flings like a boomerang at the opposition in the same fashion as Ultraseven. The beast has a flame attack akin to Gamera's. Kanedoras roars like King Kong in his two Toho adventures.

The battle at the end is choreographed well, and, in a nice touch, integrates human peril into it. Tatsumi Nikamoto, underneath the Leo rubber suit, looks great as usual in pulling off his martial arts maneuvers while jumping, leaping, and flipping all over the set. There's another spectacular demise for the monster. It's safe to say Kanedoras suffers for his destructive art.

Ryu Manatsu continues his overly emotional, highly melodramatic acting style with a lot of yelling and sweating during his training sequences. You almost expect to hear Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger' to start blaring on the soundtrack. Manatsu's performance is very reminiscent of Hideko Goh (Jiro Dan) in RETURN OF ULTRAMAN, but without the rebellious streak, and only a portion of Jiro's charisma. It's all a part of growing the character, but Manatsu brings the melodrama like nobody's business. 

As strong of an episode as this is, the ratings continued on a slow decline. Even from the shows premiere, U-LEO did roughly half the rating of the original ULTRAMAN (1966). The series would introduce a number of ideas to try to attract viewers; this would cause a noticeable difference in tone. The 'You can do anything you want if you try' attitude would slowly dissipate, taking a backseat to changes that eventually become drastic as the series forged ahead; but for now, the seriousness continues with the next episode.

MONSTERS: Kanedoras
WEAPONS: MAC Fighters #2, #3

To be continued in Episode 6: YOU'RE A MAN! FIRE UP!!!

Friday, August 22, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraseven Episode #24



Dubbed title: MOTHER KNOWS BEST 

Directed by Koichi Takano

"If his plane blows up, that will save 300 lives. If he sacrifices his life, he will save theirs. That is the Ultra Guard's duty."

An Ultra Squad patrol craft mysteriously crashes into a commercial plane in mid-air. The Ultra Garrison investigates the incident. Meanwhile, Furuhashi's mother visits him in an attempt to coerce him to quit the force. At that time, Furuhashi is airborne in the Ultra Hawk 3. A beam emanating from a lighthouse has somehow caused the Ultra Hawk aircraft to malfunction, forcing it on a collision course with another airliner. The lighthouse is actually an alien base doubling as a UFO. Ultraseven and Windom (one of his monster helpers), attempt to destroy the Kanan base before Furuhashi collides with the other plane potentially killing 300 people.

Kaiju and Tokusatsu fans might be sorely disappointed with 'Return to the North'. This is strictly a character driven programmer centered around Furuhashi Shigeru and his mother. It's easily one of the most engaging 25 minutes in that regard. It's a touching episode, and in that it does quite well. It also caters to 'Disaster' movie cliches via its SciFi template -- Furuhashi can't control the Hawk-3, and within 20 minutes, he'll smash into a commercial plane loaded with passengers. Commander Kirayama then has to make the difficult decision to blow the Hawk-3 out of the sky. 

This suspense angle collides seamlessly with the humanist portion of the show. Furuhashi has contemplated quitting the TDF to be with his mother, but he may never see her again. None of the Ultra Guard inform her of her son's predicament in the hopes of an uplifting outcome. Furuhashi never shares a scene with his mother, but he does talk to her over the ships communicator. If you were a kid watching this, you might of been bored out of your gourd by this point (I'm sure I would have); but hang in there, kids, the last ten minutes or so is all monster action.

Half of 'Return to the North' is heavy on the exposition and the other half caters to the small fry in us all. On the latter note, the monster action is about as infantile as you can get. Nothing wrong with that, but it's played strictly for laughs; very much in the vein of GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1970). 

In an unusual, if creative move, U7 doesn't actually battle an enemy opponent here. He instead is pitted against one of his monster helpers -- in this case it's that lovable, metallic lug, Windom. The aliens put him under their control then sic him on Seven; and the two duke it out in the most childish manner imaginable. This was Windom's second appearance in ULTRASEVEN. The costume shows severe signs of wear with several noticeable tears and rips in the monster suit. 

The Kanan aliens are seen fleetingly and aren't even given a purpose other than standard alien plot. No doubt they plan to take over the world somehow or other. They've apparently been based in the Arctic for a good amount of time, though, as they take a gang-like stance to anyone trespassing on their turf, so to speak -- shouting about that the "Arctic is our territory, nobody's supposed to set foot in it".

Refreshingly, the snowy locations (both real and fabricated) are a nice departure from the typical green countryside that saves on urban miniature construction. The mattes are attractive and appealing to the (Ultra) eye. In addition to this, the expansive of the snow covered Japanese mountains adds some production value to these 25 minutes of ULTRASEVEN.

Overall, this is an entertaining episode; and curiously most appealing for its exposition instead of its kaiju action. Had the last half been taken as seriously as the first half, it'd easily be a four star show. I have nothing against a childish atmosphere (as violent as these things can be at times, most all of them are kid-oriented), but the seriousness of the human drama could have used an equally serious last half. The cold setting carries over into episode 25, but the action really heats up.

MONSTERS: Kanan alien; Windom
WEAPONS: Ultra Hawk #3

To be continued in Episode 25: SHOWDOWN AT 140 DEGREES BELOW ZERO!!!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Deadly Eyes (1982) review



Sam Groom (Paul Harris), Sarah Botsford (Kelly Leonard), Scatman Crothers (George Foskins), Cec Linder (Dr. Louis Spenser), Lisa Langlois (Trudy), Lesleh Donaldson (Martha)

Directed by Robert Clouse

The Short Version: Stock up on d-Con! Rattus Giganticus are on the rampage in this Canadian-Hong Kong cooperative effort from the director of ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) and THE PACK (1977) -- a throwback to 'Nature Attacks' movies of the previous decade. The budget is low, but the blood level is high in this little discussed, but fondly remembered item many caught the first time on cable television. It's easily the best rodent exploitation movie showcasing rats on 'roids. The filmmakers made the ballsy move of stuffing dachshunds and terriers in rat costumes in a perfect example of creativity outwitting a lack of funds; not to mention the flesh-eating critters aren't camera shy in the least.

A Canadian city's rat population gorges itself on grain laced with steroids in a feed lot causing them to grow to an abnormally large size. When the grain is burned, the outsized rodents turn their sharp teeth on bigger, warmer prey -- humans. The hungry, steroid enhanced rats begin shrinking the population till a health department inspector and high school teacher try to stop them before they overtake the city.

Robert Clouse will forever be known for directing martial arts movies like ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), and THE BIG BRAWL (1980), but he also has an affinity for 'nature attacks' movies such as the superior THE PACK (1977) and the subject of this review -- DEADLY EYES. Ostensibly a B movie owing much to the previous decades onslaught of killer kritter movies, Clouse and company waste no time getting down to bloody business giving us more than one good look at the gnarly creatures before the credits even begin to roll.

Thankfully, the makers never bog down their 'dachshunds in rat suits' film with a lot of environmental preachiness a la John Frankenheimer's 'man in a mutant bear suit' movie PROPHECY (1979). It's there in subtle portions of dialog exchanges, shots of burning piles of grain, and poison dumped into the sewers. If writer Charles H Eglee's script (based on James Herbert's 'The Rats') intended to make some sort of statement, it's lost among wave after wave of rats encroaching on their human prey -- including Scatman Crothers! DEADLY EYES (or, NIGHT EYES as per this print) never pretends to be anything more than a horror film about giant rats eating people.

Possibly the single most famous thing about DEADLY EYES is that the makers used the aforementioned dachshunds and terriers dressed in rat suits -- all individually fitted, mind you. A similar, yet cheaper route was taken with bigger dogs made to look like THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) with small rugs draped over their backs and crude masks. Forty dogs were suited up (35 wiener dogs and five terriers) in a fashion akin to what Japanese filmmakers had been doing for decades with their own monster movies. Prosthetic rats were used for close up shots where the rodents are eating the cast, or just to look menacing exposing their nasty chompers. At times, some of the rats look like hand puppets, but for a film made for under a million dollars, they're built very well; and we get a look at them from about every view imaginable.

The jaguar styled growling, and other sound effects created for the rats are very successful at enhancing the menace of these grisly man-eating mutants.

Anthony Guefen's score is another asset to the picture. It stirs up the right amount of foreboding disaster prior to, and during the numerous attack sequences.

Robert Clouse was obviously a talented director, although he seemed content to remain in the B and C movie realm. The same man responsible for ENTER THE DRAGON also unleashed -- with varying degrees of success -- the likes of BLACK BELT JONES (1974), THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), FORCE: FIVE (1981), GYMKATA (1985), and two CHINA O'BRIEN (1990) movies on the world. Considering his obvious attraction to action, his name attached to horror films is peculiar, yet he's good at making entertaining genre features.

Eglee's script includes a surprising amount of exposition for this sort of movie. The level of characterization is somewhat at odds with the exploitation quotient. One minute there's a bloody attack by rats devouring a baby, the next it's a school teacher trying to start a romantic relationship with a health inspector while deflecting a students mad case of horniness towards him. It's the rodents horror fans come for, anyways, and this movie delivers them in abundance.

Movies about killer rats have been plentiful, if hit or miss. Ironically, Japan's Daiei Studios was to have made a SciFi-Horror disaster picture about rampaging rats big and small. DAIGYUN NEZURA (GIANT HORDE BEAST NEZURA) had men in giant rat suits and normal sized rodents overrunning mankind. The film (which started production in 1963), sounding awfully ambitious and a wee bit horrifying, never got finished after a number of the real rats escaped(!), incurring an all too real health hazard.

A few years earlier, THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959) showcased the famous giant spider-bat-rat monster. Even on Mars, no one is safe from the threat of marauding rodents.

WILLARD (1971) is likely the best example of the killer rat sub-genre -- a horror film masquerading as a psychological thriller. It led to a sequel titled BEN (1972). A few years later came Bert I. Gordon's woefully tacky box office hit, THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) -- a film that got a belated sequel in 1989 titled GNAW: FOOD OF THE GODS 2.

Around the time DEADLY EYES surfaced, a minor resurgence in Rattus Cinemata took place. 1983 saw the release of cult favorite OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN; wherein Peter Weller battles an invading, and rather large rodent inside his NYC apartment. It, too, had Canadian ties, and was based on a book. 

Again in 1983 there was the anthology NIGHTMARES. It's last segment, titled 'Night of the Rat', concerned a suburban family terrorized by an enormous rat monster.

Over in Europe, Tonino Ricci helmed the atrocious PANIC (1982) that featured a scientist transformed into a rat-like monstrosity. David Warbeck starred. Not to be outdone, Bruno Mattei returned fire with the awful RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR in 1983. 1988 wrought Giuliano Carnimeo's RATMAN (1988), a film that seemed to be a horror version of RATBOY (1986), the TROG of rat movies directed by Sondra Locke.

Despite revitalizing rats as horror worthy material, DEADLY EYES didn't seem to make much noise in America upon its brief theatrical release via Warner Brothers; instead making a lasting impression on the small screen. This reviewer first caught up with it on HBO back in 1983 on a school night. The big plastic clamshell video box utilizing the poster artwork was seemingly staring from the shelves at virtually every video store in the vicinity. One of the best of its kind, Robert Clouse's rampaging rat picture isn't that great of a movie, but succeeds in no small part due to its ingenuity in creating convincing monsters; and especially in being fearless in giving the title sewer-dwelling denizens as much screen time as they do.

This review is representative of the Scream Factory Blu-ray disc from the DVD/Blu combo.
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