Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Rambo: Last Blood (2019, Adrian Grunberg)

Sitting and reflecting on Rambo: Last Blood and the franchise’s thirty-seven year legacy, the best idea of the fixing the film is probably just to have Sylvester Stallone do a bunch of shots training horses. He seems really good with them. And he doesn’t seem really good at anything in Last Blood. It’s a far less physical Rambo for Stallone, who seems far less interested in being a septuagenarian action star than quickly turning around corners after the villains end up in his traps. There’s one big physical action sequence for Stallone though; he seems able enough. Just the script doesn’t offer any good action possibilities and director Grunberg is incompetent.

Last Blood is a film with limited possibilities. It’s not like Rambo is a great part with a lot of potential. He’s a pretty generic Stallone protagonist here. He’s still got PTSD, which Last Blood showcases with hilariously bad flashback newsreel footage because no one in the film’s post-production departments care about their dignity. Maybe they all used pseudonyms. Doesn’t matter, because the flashback footage goes away, along with when Stallone gets visual flashes when he’s out being Rambo (in a Mexican night club), and then never shows up after a doctor warns he’s got a concussion. Because Last Blood isn’t just bad—it’s boringly bad. Grunberg’s really, really, really bad. Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick’s script is frequently dumb, then dumber. Lots of bad things happen because Stallone doesn’t operate with forethought. So when he eventually plans how his enemies are going to attack him so he can set traps to ensnare them… well, he didn’t have that ability for forethought earlier.

The movie’s real simple. Stallone’s living on his childhood ranch, training horses, with fellow old person housekeeper Adriana Barraza and her granddaughter, Yvette Monreal. Stallone’s “Uncle John Rambo” and just wishes Monreal would spend her life training horses with him instead of going off to college. She’s really smart, even though her father left the family after the mom died. Oh, and he was physically abusive. Apparently to a dying wife (Last Blood has a lot of problems with its timeline; again, the script’s dumb). Barraza and Stallone ought to be cute together. With a sitcom intern doing a script polish and someone who could competently direct a soap opera, there would be potential with the setup. But it would take someone to write a character for Stallone to play; after thirty-seven years of Rambo as a caricature, what if we got a real character in the last movie?

We’ll never know because Last Blood’s Rambo is pretty thin. He’s also terrible at monologues. In trying to prove there’s room for a septuagenarian Rambo, Last Blood shows why there’s not. Then again, maybe if Grunberg weren’t so terrible, the movie would be better.

Anyway.

Things go wrong when Monreal goes to find her dad, ignoring Stallone and Barraza’s advice. Monreal could be good; Grunberg doesn’t know how to direct his actors and she needs direction, but she’s at least sympathetic. Sympathy isn’t exactly weakness in Last Blood, but it’s pointless. Politically, Last Blood is interestingly hands off. The wall is a failure, but because it’s a fool’s errand. As far as bad hombres… well, Last Blood makes the case every single woman living in Mexico should be granted asylum. There are also some other odd spots, like when Stallone wishes he never became Rambo and hadn’t enlisted. Also when he tells Monreal everyone in the world’s bad and she’s sheltered and she needs to not go to Mexico to find her dad but, it’s okay if she does, because her uncle has a very particular set of skills he has acquired over a very long career.

And Monreal goes through a lot. With considerable dignity since Grunberg’s so crappy. Last Blood’s never scary. Not even when good people are in danger. Sometimes because of how Grunberg and not good editors Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller cut the scene, sometimes because of how Stallone and Cirulnick’s write the scene, sometimes just because Grunberg can’t figure out how to do an establishing shot. Technically, Last Blood is rather crappy. The editors, Grunberg, Brian Tyler’s score is godawful; but it’s Brendan Galvin’s photography. Galvin’s not good. Grunberg’s awful but he’s awful with bad cinematography. It’s a mundane ugly but it’s an ugly.

Because Last Blood, Stallone seems to think, is a Western. Based on the script, based on his performance, it’s a Western. Set in Arizona. And Mexico. And Stallone has a farm house and trains horses and on and on. It ought to be simple to do some Western. Grunberg can’t. Because he’s awful.

There’s also the whole thing with Stallone building an intricate tunnel system and living in it, going up to hang out with Barraza, Monreal, and the horses, but otherwise he lives in the tunnel system under his family farm, which ought to be an uncomfortable statement on Vietnam vets, but isn’t because Last Blood’s got jack to do with Stallone as Rambo as veteran. It’s really, really, really weird.

The other thing about doing a Last Rambo? Stallone’s always been interesting because he’s grown as filmmaker, his ambitions have changed, matured, developed. Last Blood doesn’t come off like a passion project or a personal ambition. Even though, after the first batch of end credits roll, you do have to wonder if Stallone tinkered with the end, which is what got Kirk Douglas to walk on the first movie, or if they always planned on a stupid twist. It’s hard to say, because so much of it is stupid. Also… doesn’t matter.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Adrian Grunberg; screenplay by Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Dan Gordon and Stallone and on the character created by David Morrell; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Avi Lerner, Yariv Lerner, Kevin King Templeton, and Les Weldon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (John), Yvette Monreal (Gabrielle), Adriana Barraza (Maria), Óscar Jaenada (Victor Martinez), Sergio Peris-Mencheta (Hugo Martínez), Fenessa Pineda (Jizzel), and Paz Vega (Carmen Delgado).


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The Three Musketeers (1973, Richard Lester)

The Three Musketeers is so much fun, you barely notice when the film takes a turn in the last thirty or so minutes. The Musketeers are on a mission—they’ve got to deliver a letter to England to save at least one lady’s honor, possibly two—and just as the film reunites them all with the promise of action… it starts shedding them. They get in individual fights or duels, leaving Michael York to go on alone. Well, he brings faithful servant Roy Kinnear along, but Kinnear’s just there for the (very good) laughs. It’s not like he’s going to tell York the important things, like how to get off England since it’s an island.

York’s the film’s protagonist, though George MacDonald Fraser’s script isn’t great about treating him like it once all the “guest stars,” not to mention Raquel Welch’s cleavage (once Welch’s cleavage arrives, it’s all anyone present gives any attention, cast and crew alike), come into the film. York’s D’Artagnan, would-be Musketeer, who happens across a trio of real Musketeers who could always use another partner in literal crime. See, the Musketeers work for the King, meaning they brawl (sword brawl) with the Cardinal’s guards. The film never bothers explaining why there’s the animosity between the groups or why, although loyal to the King (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his Musketeers fight with the Cardinal’s men, even though the King is allied with the Cardinal. Charlton Heston, with what appears to be a fake goatee, is the Cardinal.

Doesn’t matter, the guys in red are bad, the guys in (mostly) black are good. The good guys are Oliver Reed (Athos), Frank Finlay (Porthos), and Richard Chamberlain (Aramis). Reed’s the drunk pensive but heroic one, Finlay’s the vaguely inept dandy, Chamberlain’s the adept dandy as well as the trio’s Don Juan. Chamberlain, we’re told, likes the married ladies. So does York, as Welch is married, and the film gets a lot of laughs out of mocking her cuckold (a fantastic Spike Milligan).

The first half of the film introduces York, the Musketeers, evil (he’s eye-patched so there’s no mistaking it) Christopher Lee, and the political ground situation. See, Cassel is useless fop who’s going to let Heston do whatever Heston wants to do, so long as Heston at least pretends Cassel isn’t a useless fop. The film shot on location—in Spain, not France, but still in palaces and such—so you’re seeing the intrigue play out with these impeccably costumed (Yvonne Blake’s costuming is magnificent) “royals” lounge around palaces and deserve a Revolution more by the minute. It adds a wonderful subtext to the film, which showcases and romances the grand opulence of historical royalty without being able to not show it also as, you know, utterly pointless and a really bad way for society to function. Because the Musketeers are alcoholic gambling addicts who end up stealing from the commoners. Arguably, the Cardinal’s guards are “better” civil servants. Though—again, Fraser doesn’t dwell—the Musketeers are mercenaries between wars; adventurers in the sense drunken carousing is adventuring.

And, arguably, the big mission at the end is against the King, though arguably for France. Musketeers is lightly bawdy adventure comedy for the whole family—though, unless she really, really, really likes Michael York, there’s nothing anywhere near approaching the male gaze equivalent of Raquel Welch—so no dwelling on politics, infidelity (klutzy Welch doesn’t even seem aware her husband might mind being cuckolded), or even its characters. See, one of the things you realize in the finale—besides how, outside a cat fight between Welch and bad lady Faye Dunaway in ball gowns (and what glorious gowns they are), the ball Welch and Dunaway are dressed for, and some solid sight gags, the finale’s action is rather uninspired and unenthusiastic—you also realize the titular Three Musketeers are totally unimportant to the film at this point. York getting the most to do makes sense, but the film goes so far as the make the other Musketeers comic relief. Brief comic relief.

It’d be fine if the sword fights were better, but they’re not. Three Musketeers starts with a gymnastic training sword fight scene between York and his father and then some more nonsense with York (he’s naive to the point of buffoonery, which is rather endearing as York plays it completely—and very Britishly—straight); it takes the film awhile to deliver a great sword fight, but then it does deliver a great one, with Lester’s best action direction, John Victor Smith’s best cuts, but also Dons Challis and Sharpe’s sound editing. Three Musketeers goes from being a “handsome” period piece to a considerable period action picture. And then the fight’s over and it’s back to handsome period piece, funny, active. But once Welch’s cleavage enters the literal frame, Lester and the film’s ambitions for an action picture disappear.

There’s a decent night time sword fight with the opponents using hand lanterns to see, but the finale’s fireworks-lighted long shot swordplay brawl isn’t anything special. The most impressive thing about a grand action picture’s third act shouldn’t be the awesomely ostentatious costume ball costumes but then you also wouldn’t think David Watkin’s photography would be so much better on the ball than the action sequences either. Three Musketeers goes into the third act somewhat soft and never really recovers.

At least solid performances from everyone. It’s hard with Welch because she’s got a lousy role and you almost wish she was bad so she wouldn’t work in the lousy role. But she’s not. She’s not a comedic genius but Lester’s not interested in her performance, he’s interested in her anatomy. York’s a good lead. Reed’s awesome. Chamberlain’s got like six lines. Finlay’s good. Supporting cast… Milligan and Kinnear are great, Cassel’s fine, Lee’s great, Dunaway’s okay (again, crappy part), Heston’s tolerable.

Of course, I’ve skipped mentioning the subplot about French Queen Geraldine Chaplin and British prime minister Simon Ward, somewhat unintentionally, but suffice to say, it’s an important subplot and both actors are good. Even if theirs is the far more interesting story than anything else going on in the picture. Especially the Welch cuckolding Milligan subplot, which is sometimes hilarious, usually funny, but not interesting. It’s cheap laughs. Chaplin and Ward… Fraser and Lester could’ve done something. They do not. Nice roles for both actors though. Thin but nice.

The Three Musketeers is glorious, gorgeous adventure. It has the pieces to be better but not the ambition. It’s easy; sometimes easy is good enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Lester; screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by John Victor Smith; music by Michel Legrand; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind, and Michael Salkind; released by CFDC-UGC.

Starring Michael York (D’Artagnan), Raquel Welch (Constance de Bonacieux), Oliver Reed (Athos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Christopher Lee (Rochefort), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anna), Jean-Pierre Cassel (King Louis XIII), Faye Dunaway (Milady), Spike Milligan (M. Bonacieux), Roy Kinnear (Planchet), Simon Ward (Duke of Buckingham), Georges Wilson (Treville), and Charlton Heston (Cardinal Richelieu).


This post is part of the Costume Drama Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: Far From Home spends so much of its runtime being a constant delight, the first sign of trouble passes. Something where director Watts needs to connect doesn’t connect, only it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem like it needs to connect too hard. Then the third act is this massive, impersonal action sequence where the sidekicks get a better action finale than the hero and the mid-credits sequence entirely changes the stakes of the film. And then the post-credits sequence entirely changes how the film plays. It’s like there’s a surprise ending then there’s a twist ending but the twist should’ve come in the regular ending… It’s also too bad because neither of the additional endings let lead Tom Holland act.

And Far From Home is usually really good about letting Holland act. He’s great, even when he’s going through the same hero arc he went through in his last solo outing. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’s script has a lot of good jokes and nice moments for Holland (his romance arc is at least different this time) and his costars—as well as an almost great scenery chewing part for Jake Gyllenhaal—but it’s fairly thin. The film’s able to deliver some real emotion, not just from the film’s events but also from all the weight hanging over the world post Avengers 4, which seems kind of light actually but it’s set at least nine months after that film so maybe people are just emotionally fast healers and whatnot. Plus Holland and romantic interest Zendaya have oodles of chemistry so their high school romance but with overachievers on a school trip to Europe arc is wonderful. Lovely even, which is why its treatment in the additional endings is such a boondoggle.

Enough about the endings. I think.

The film has Holland and his high school classmates touring Europe while Samuel L. Jackson (in a shockingly humorless turn; not bad, just shockingly humorless) tries to get him to help save the world. Jackson’s got a new hero—Gyllenhaal, who’s from an alternate Earth and has ill-defined magical powers—but he wants Holland along for some reason. It makes even less sense once the film gets through the main plot twists, not to mention the additional end ones. See, I’m still on the endings. Sorry.

The reasons don’t matter because Gyllenhaal is really good. He’s earnest but mysterious. He and Holland have a good rapport, though it might be nice to see Holland not desperately needing a mentor. Or at least getting a funny one; Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove are comic relief as the high school teachers. Might not have hurt to give them something more to do. Far From Home has an excess of talent and doesn’t utilize enough of it. But, again, it doesn’t matter during the smooth sailing period of the film because just so long as nothing goes too wrong, nothing can screw it up. Cue ginormous third act action finale. The bad guys in the movie are these giant weather monsters (sans Flint Marko) so all the action is big. Great combination of action and landmark destruction (the monsters go after all the big European cities). There’s no way the film can top it for the finale and instead just puts more people in imminent danger. The film closes on iffy ground and then the additional endings—even if the post-credits sequence is inessential (it isn’t), the mid-credits one is the whole show—just cement the problems.

It’s a bummer because Holland, Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jon Favreau are all great. Watts does a fine job directing. Europe looks great. Fun soundtrack. Competent if impersonal score from Michael Giacchino. Matthew J. Lloyd’s photography seems a little rushed on composite shots but whatever. Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s is a little rushed though, especially during the exterior night sequences, which are already problem spots for Lloyd and Watts.

Speaking of Watts, despite that fine directing he does, he’s got no interest in the special effects visuals. He’s got no time for them. It’s okay for the giant weather monster fights because it keeps the focus on Holland. But when the film’s got this lengthy hallucination sequence? It’s okay. It gets the character from point A to point B, but the character doesn’t have any reaction to what they’ve seen. It’s a terribly missed opportunity. In so many ways. Including a great Empire Strikes Back reference.

Oh. Marisa Tomei.

The movie completely wastes her, while still managing to celebrate her awesomeness in the role and her chemistry with Holland.

For a while, Far From Home is such a grand European (superhero action) adventure with a wonderful—and likable—cast and fun attitude, it seems like there’s nothing it can’t get away with. The movie’s self-assured and justifiably so for most of the runtime, but those two additional endings just make it seem like… it was all bravado and not actual confidence. Hence a bummer. A weird one, wonderfully acted one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jake Gyllenhaal (Beck), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Tony Revolori (Flash), Angourie Rice (Betty), Remy Hii (Brad Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Mr. Dell), Marisa Tomei (May), Cobie Smulders (Hill), and Samuel L. Jackson (Fury).