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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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Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E. Elias Merhige)

Shadow of the Vampire opens with some title cards explaining the setup. Well, it opens with some title cards explaining the setup after what feels like nine minute opening titles. In reality… it’s six. Vampire ostensibly runs ninety-five minutes.

Anyway. The title cards setup the making of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s highly influential 1922 vampire film. The cards end saying Nosferatu is going to establish Murnau as one of “the greatest directors of all time,” which would imply Vampire’s going to be very positive about Nosferatu and Murnau.

Not so much as it turns out. John Malkovich plays Murnau. The movie presents him as a pretentious dick, which you’d think Malkovich could easily play, but not so much. Steven Katz’s script is particularly wanting in the Murnau characterization department. Besides a visit to a sex club and drug use, there’s nothing to Malkovich’s character. He gets the least character development of anyone in the film. Except Eddie Izzard, who gets ingloriously chucked at some point. Anyway. Murnau’s direction is always played for laughs in one way or another. Sometimes it’s in how Izzard (as the human lead in Nosferatu) acts, sometimes it’s in how Malkovich directs, but there’s always a bit of a joke. Sometimes there’s a lot of one. Shadow of the Vampire has some good laughs.

But Vampire’s not a biopic or non-fiction. It’s about how Malkovich has hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire in the movie. Two big problems. One, Dafoe’s a vampire who wants to kill people. Two, he’s not an actor. There’s some real funny stuff with Dafoe. It’s just not particularly good funny stuff. Vampire’s not a comedy. Director Merhige manages to get into the third act without ever fully committing to a tone. He eventually does pick one and, wow, it’s a bad choice.

But Dafoe. Let’s just get it out of the way. He’s phenomenal. His performance gets the humor in the situation, but never at the expense of being scary. Katz and Merhige never take advantage of that aspect of Dafoe’s performance–the spontaneity of it. Because they’re not doing particularly good work.

At no point does Vampire show much potential. Malkovich is chemistry-free with everyone, which is a problem when it comes to leading lady (barely in the movie, completely “harpy,” ultimate damsel-in-distress Catherine McCormack) who he’s apparently been intimate with. Kinky sex implication intimate. He uses it to control McCormack. But she’s barely in the movie–three scenes, maybe four.

He’s also no good with Udo Kier as Nosferatu’s producer, or Cary Elwes as the ladies man cameraman. Or Izzard, but he and Malkovich don’t actually share the screen much. Malkovich is usually directing Izzard in Nosferatu, not acting opposite him. Malkovich also doesn’t have any chemistry with Aden Gillett, who plays the Nosferatu screenwriter. Gillett’s got no purpose except suspect Dafoe and play well opposite Kier. So Merhige does get these actors need to play well off one another, he just doesn’t do anything to facilitate it. Kier and Gillett have one of the film’s best scenes, if not the best. They bond with Dafoe.

So while often amusing–and quick-paced, at the expense of logic and character development and narrative gestures–Vampire doesn’t have much heft. Then it tries to get some and it doesn’t work out. At all.

The third act’s a bust, with Merhige, Katz, and Malkovich the prime offenders. But mostly Katz. There’s nothing you can do with the third act as written. Then Malkovich, then Merhige. Merhige needed to figure out how to cover for Malkovich’s broad performance.

Kier and Elwes are all right. Same goes for McCormack and Izzard. After Dafoe, Gillett gives the best performance. No one gets enough to do, not even Dafoe. Kind of especially not Dafoe.

Technically it’s a little dull, but still colorful. Lou Bogue’s photography doesn’t do crisp. Chris Wyatt’s editing is good. He knows how to cut for the comedy. Dan Jones’s music isn’t memorable.

Merhige’s composition is a little too tight, his narrative impulses aren’t good–somehow he still keeps a nice, brisk pace–he’s indifferent to actors’ performances. Lots, but nothing to really suggest how bad the movie’s going to close.

It’s worth seeing for Dafoe’s performance. And maybe Malkovich’s if you don’t like him. Vampire pretends Malkovich is giving a great performance–one where he has chemistry with Dafoe and whatnot–but Malkovich doesn’t even put in enough effort to pretend anything similar. It’s a problem.

Vampire’s got too many problems.

BOMB

CREDITS

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Steven Katz; director of photography, Lou Bogue; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Assheton Gorton; produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring John Malkovich (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrik Galeen), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller), and Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder).


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All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)

All Is Lost is the harrowing tale of an unnamed man (Robert Redford) on his damaged yacht in the Indian Ocean. The film runs 106 minutes. It’s harrowing for all of them. Director Chandor knows how to harrow.

The film has a mundane reality about it. Redford has no back story, no character development, almost no “character” at all. The film opens with a mildly damaging voiceover from Redford; he’s doing a combination apology and goodbye. There’s no indication of who he’s addressing–wife, child, maybe he’s a CEO who sailed off on his yacht after Bernie Madoffing, it doesn’t matter. All Is Lost is about Redford’s struggle during a constantly harrowing experience, with failure more and more certain with each passing moment.

But the opening voiceover informs how the viewer perceives Redford and his actions. Well, except when Chandor’s just dirt cheap about it. Redford risks his life (more than usual) to save a package, opens to reveal a gift, then takes a long pause to consider whether he wants to read the note. Chandor dangles revelation and rescue in front of the viewer throughout. But Redford can’t see it, because then he couldn’t be stoic. And Redford’s stoicism is impressive.

Anyway, one damage is how the voiceover affects viewer interpretation of Redford’s behavior. He has maybe six lines of dialogue after his opening voiceover; five of them are on the radio and the sixth is a single word. The other damage is how that opening voiceover fits into the narrative. Voicever, film title card, then a title card setting the film back eight days. Presumably, Redford’s not going to make the recording for eight days. So what’s going to happen in between?

Lots of harrowing boating things, starting with Redford’s yacht colliding with a shipping container while Redford’s asleep below deck. Bad things frequently happen in the film when Redford’s asleep. He’s either a heavy sleeper or a slow waker.

Once the shipping container situation is resolved, which takes most of the “first act,” other disasters befall Redford and he has to try to figure his way out of them. Chandor does a fantastic job making Redford’s actions make sense. Redford’s not talking, most viewers aren’t going to understand his seamanship activites. Chandor’s juggling quite a bit. Redford’s strong performance makes it all work. While Chandor’s composition is good–though occasionally too fixated on the pretty–and Pete Beaudreau’s editing is phenomenal, Redford’s bringing the humanity. He never voices his fears or anything else, which is frustrating since the opening voiceover is very talky; Redford’s just doing it with his psychical perfomance, his expressions, how he moves around the yacht interiors and exteriors.

Going into the second act, the film downshifts. Summary storytelling is over for a while. Redford’s broken yacht is about to get hit by a huge storm. Is he going to survive? Is something else going to go terribly wrong?

And it does. And then something else. And something else. Redford’s sprinting through a micro-disaster movie (which actually might best describe All Is Lost), which changes the pace of the film quite a bit. Then Chandor changes it again around halfway through.

Redford can weather a lot of the pacing issues. Only because the film asks so little of him after a certain point. The more difficult Redford’s reality becomes, the more Chandor pulls away, only to dangle the narrative red herring again. But the movie’s in a far different place and Chandor and Redford have already had some successes. Red herrings can’t bring it home.

Though the herring is so well-prepared, it ends up righting the yacht enough to recover a bit.

Good music from Alex Ebert. Frank G. DeMarco’s photography is fine. The film goes for realism most of the time and DeMarco delivers it. Beaudreau’s editing is the technical standout.

All Is Lost has a great performance from Robert Redford. He just can’t save the ship–Chandor’s style and narrative clash throughout the film, without ever sustaining the right rhythm.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor; director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Alex Ebert; production designer, John Goldsmith; produced by Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, and Teddy Schwarzman; released by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Starring Robert Redford.


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Saw (2004, James Wan)

I’m disappointed in Saw; I didn’t think I could possibly have any expectations for the movie where Farm Boy has to cut off his foot. I also didn’t know it wasn’t Danny Glover locked in the room with Cary Elwes. I wish Danny Glover had been locked in the room. He’s not. He’s a cop. And he’s terrible.

Danny Glover gives a terrible performance as a cop. Embarrassingly bad. It’s uncomfortable watching him a lot of the time, because it just feels wrong. Writer and leading man Leigh Whannell writes in movie trailer speak. Everything’s a soundbite. Not even caricatures, much less characterization. Saw’s just a bunch of actors reciting terrible dialogue without any direction from Wan. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad. It’s sad with Glover.

Elwes is just funny. For the first half of the movie, he’s got a husky low voice to hide his accent. Farm Boy has been acting since he was seventeen years old, but apparently on Saw, he forgot how to believably get rid of his English accent. Then the English accent comes through, then Elwes adds husky to the English accent. The third act is Elwes wailing a lot, usually without any continuity between his wailing accents.

Whannell, as a writer and an actor, is terrible. Still, he’s not unlikable. He’s not sympathetic, which is a problem because he’s being held captive in a terrible, poop-filled bathroom with a dead body and the Dread Pirate Roberts trying really hard to be so serious he might be a surgeon. But he’s also not unlikable. He’s just giving a bad performance in a terribly written part.

Ken Leung’s bad as Glover’s partner, but the writing is worse. Michael Emerson weathers his involvement a little better than his costars. Monica Potter’s fine in her scenes, which usually involve Saw threatening ten year-old Makenzie Vega with horrific death. Saw’s comfortable being craven.

If director Wan had any personality, and Armstrong’s photography weren’t so flat and Kevin Greutert’s editing weren’t so imprecise, Saw might be some kind of horror exploitation camp. But it’s not camp. It’s got all the set pieces for exploitation, but Whannell’s ponderous script and Wan’s bland visualizing shove the film into the serial killer sub-genre. Except there’s not really anything about the serial killer’s method, so it’s not an easy fit. It ought to be a psychological thriller–real time, Elwes and Whannel deciding their fates. Instead, there are a bunch of pointless flashbacks.

Because Saw can’t slow down. The one thing Wan and Whannell seem to get is the need for momentum. The film drops the audience in without any setup, so Wan’s got to make every jump scare prove the pitch’s worth. And he’s got a couple good jump scares. They’re like the only good things in the film, but it’s not nothing.

Saw sputters out in the third act. The tension is gone as the film just becomes a string of plot revelations. A lot of the film is Whannell’s fault as writer, but most of it’s on Wan. He doesn’t have any enthusiasm to his composition and he doesn’t have any interest in his actors. One or the other might’ve helped Saw.

Within reason, of course; it’s still got Cary Elwes’s risibly atrocious performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on story by Wan and Whannell; director of photography, David A. Armstrong; edited by Kevin Greutert; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Julie Berghoff; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Cary Elwes (Dr. Lawrence Gordon), Leigh Whannell (Adam), Danny Glover (Detective David Tapp), Monica Potter (Alison Gordon), Ken Leung (Detective Steven Sing), Michael Emerson (Zep Hindle), Makenzie Vega (Diana Gordon), and Shawnee Smith (Amanda).


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