Saturday, February 15, 2020

Rambo: Last Blood (2019) - FilmReview

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone).
Source: Official website

"Rambo, John J. Born 7-6-47 in Bowie, Arizona. Of Indian-German descent - that's a hell of a combination. Joined the army 8-6-64. Accepted special forces, specialization: light weapon, medic, helicopter and language qualified. 59 confirmed kills. Two Silver Stars, four Bronze, four Purple Hearts. Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor" — Major Marshall Roger T. Murdock, Rambo: First Blood Part II

Our favourite son is back!

Sylvester Stallone returns as Vietnam War veteran John Rambo in the fifth instalment of the popular action franchise and it certainly doesn't hold back on the carnage.

When last seen in Rambo 4 (2008), J.R. was returning home to the family ranch in Bowie, Arizona. Eleven years later and Rambo: Last Blood catches up with him as he manages that very same horse ranch, originally owned by his father until his death. On the surface Rambo looks to have found peace; but below ground he broods in his maze of tunnels, surrounded by his past: military medals, rifles and knives, and photographs. He's clearly still haunted by demons and suffers with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his time in the Vietnam war; we saw flashbacks of the brutality he suffered as a POW at the hands of his captors in First Blood (1982). In one scene from R:LB we are shown bottles of prescribed medication with "John Rambo" and "Bowie, AZ 85605" printed on the labels, clearly to help him cope with his mental health.

Before we get to the main plot, the opening scene gives us a severe storm and rescue teams searching for three missing hikers in the forest and hills. One volunteer on horseback braves the worsening weather to locate them: John Rambo. It's a well written moment that reflects his compassionate side, risking all to try and save total strangers. Surprisingly, some regions didn't get to see this 10-minute opener with the flash flood at all.

It's all about family...

Little is known of John Rambo's family, though we do learn that his father was simply referred to as "R. Rambo" (the rusted mailbox seen at the end of Rambo 4 our only clue); also, in the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part 2 John's mother is named Marie Drago and it is said that she was abused by her husband, who drank often and would fly into fits of rage.

Importantly for Rambo: Last Blood, Maria Beltran (played by Adriana Barraza) has worked on the Rambo farm much of her life and is considered as "family" - certainly she thinks of John as a brother-figure. When Rambo returns to Bowie, Arizona, in Rambo 4, he most likely meets young Gabrielle Beltran, Maria's grand-daughter, for the first time. Whether he knew about Gabrielle via letter writing beforehand is unknown.

And so Rambo spends the next many years running the ranch and working as a rescue worker. It is likely during this period that he dug out the tunnels that would be so important to him, a place of refuge for his tortured soul.

...both good and bad

When Rambo's adoptive niece decides to go to Mexico to visit her father and find out why he left her and her mother (now deceased), things don't exactly go to plan. Betrayed by her "friend" Gizelle, Gabrielle is drugged, abducted and given to human traffickers. The saddest part is that she was warned by Rambo not to go to Mexico, telling her that it is far too dangerous.

Realising that she is missing, Rambo leaves the ranch to find his niece. This is where things take an even more brutal turn. Confronted by gang members of the traffickers, Rambo is beaten, his ID taken and a photo of Gabrielle is found.

Rambo and adopted niece Gabrielle Beltran (Yvette Monreal)
Source: Rambo: Last Blood

Sadly this means that the young girl has now been "noticed" and will be made to pay for Rambo's attempted involvement. Over time she is abused and injected with heroine. It's a heartbreaking story. Meanwhile, Rambo is taken to the home of journalist Carmen Delgado and cared for until he is well enough to stand on his own two feet. With newfound determination, he vows to rescue his niece.

One of the criticisms of Last Blood seems to be the level of violence. It's been described as "grotesque" and "genuinely horrific". Well I don't know what people were expecting from a Rambo movie - just take a look at Rambo 4 and tell me that that is any less violent? In all honesty, anyone going into this with no knowledge of who or what Rambo is should stay well clear if they're sensitive to scenes of violence and decapitation.

Rambo creator feels "less a human being" for having watched Last Blood

Even First Blood author David Morrell has criticised the film, saying such things as, "I agree with these RAMBO: LAST BLOOD reviews. The film is a mess. Embarrassed to have my name associated with it" (Twitter, Sep 20, 2019). In an interview with Newsweek, the bestselling writer commented further, "I felt degraded and dehumanized after I left the theater. Instead of being soulful, this new movie lacks one... I felt I was less a human being for having seen it, and today that's an unfortunate message."

In another tweet he compares Last Blood to Richard T. Heffron's 1976 exploitation film Trackdown.

I respect Mr Morrell's opinions but don't agree with them. Having read First Blood (first published in 1972), I found the novel to be a put off showcasing a character with no redeeming qualities; he wasn't just broken - he was psychotic and a killer! However, in Ted Kotcheff's 1982 masterpiece Rambo is depicted as a victim of sorts, someone who you can relate to. This is indeed the same character we see in Rambo: Last Blood, a man who's new life is torn apart by others and is forced into making decisions that others would recoil from. He goes all "Rambo" on them. I've even checked "Rambo" online at Cambridge Dictionary and it describes the word as, "someone who uses, or threatens to use, strong and violent methods against their enemies".

As for the comparison to Trackdown, I do see it, but what doesn't borrow from everything else these days? I've not even seen Trackdown; but I've seen Rambo: Last Blood, and it was enjoyable.

Rambo: Last Blood is racist?

This is one accusation I have real trouble accepting. Yes, the timing of the movie has "President Trump" written all over it but the film isn't deliberately depicting all Mexicans as villains. This is a gang, you know, like ones you get all over the world, who prey on children and the vulnerable, who kill indiscriminately and sell drugs on the streets. If Rambo V had been set in China then there would still be accusations of racism. In fact, both Maria and Gabrielle are Mexican and Rambo loves them like family — and they're living with him on the ranch in the US with no sign of immigration authorities anywhere...

Final thoughts?

It took Rambo: Last Blood years to make it into theatres, as a project it had been on and off for so long that it didn't look likely to happen at all. Various plots had been mooted including a killer creature and the title Rambo V: The Savage Hunt, based on the novel Hunter by James Byron Huggins. That in itself would have felt like a Predator-type story that I'm sure would have been pointed out by some. There was even talk of a prequel television series where someone else would have played a young Rambo.

I'm just grateful we got a proper blood and guts Rambo, with Stallone still in the iconic role. He's older, a little slower, but still capable of dispatching the bad guys. If this is the end, then what a journey it has been.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Secret of NIMH (1982) - FilmReview

Just what is the secret of NIMH?

"One animation that did capture my imagination back then..."

Oh, rats! It's the Secret of NIMH. And what a nice little secret it is, too. It's strange how my childhood was blessed with some animated feature films while others scarcely made an impact on me at all. For example, movies such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) failed to win a place in my heart; whereas Robin Hood (1973), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Fox and the Hound (1981), Yellow Submarine (1968) and Watership Down (1978) firmly planted themselves into my all time list of favourites. Oh yes, and Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983) - no Christmas is complete without a viewing of this particular gem! I'm uncertain why some just didn't make the grade for me. One animation that did capture my imagination back then was a dark feature called The Secret of NIMH. Having a look at the cast list just now I'm surprised by some of the names attached: Derek Jacobi, Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty are three that jump out at me.

The film was adapted from a story by American author Robert C. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, first published in 1971. I've never read the book, and so this article focuses solely on the movie. I've also discovered that a follow up to the 1982 animation titled The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue had been released in 1998, but I'll likely ignore this fact; also seeing as original director Don Bluth wasn't even involved in this second project, it makes ignoring the sequel that much easier. So what was I talking about again?

Oh yes, The Secret of NIMH. Though a children's adventure, there is a far more serious subject matter in NIMH's DNA for grown ups: mental health. This is how I remember the movie as a kid: a little lady mouse meets a clumsy crow, her son is ill and so she needs medicine, and there are some mean rats; there was also a magical amulet.

Now from my adult perspective: A mouse called Mrs. Brisby needs medicine for her ill son (who has pneumonia) and so visits Mr. Ages, a friend of her now dead husband. During her return journey home, Brisby encounters a very clumsy but friendly crow named Jeremy, who is all tied up and in need of a little help to get untangled. This is the first time we encounter a cat named Dragon, which belongs to the owners of the farm, as he attempts to attack them both. We learn that Brisby and her family must leave their house before the farmer, Mr Fitzgibbon, starts plowing. With Timothy, her son, sick, he needs time to recover without being moved. The farmer, however, brings his plowing forward and so Brisby needs help. This is where the rats come into the picture.

Mental health and NIMH

Through a backstory we discover how both her husband and the rats became intelligent: they all live a relatively Human-like existence now, and steal much of what they need from the Humans. Electricity and other technology is becoming common place in their lives. Ever wondered what NIMH refers to? National Institute of Mental Health. It seems that the rodents were "lab rats" and that the experiments boosted their intelligence so greatly that they developed the ability to understand and reason. Following an escape from the laboratory, they built homes and a new way of life. As with any society, there is both good and bad, and one character who you'll love to despise is Jenner, a ruthless, power-hungry rat.

It's nice that The Secret of NIMH received widespread critical acclaim, and has remained in the hearts of many fans over the decades. It's been applauded as a wonderful adaptation of the original book. It even won a Saturn Award for Best Animated Film of 1982.

Keeping it in the family...

Though Robert C. O'Brien died in 1973, his daughter Jane Leslie Conly penned two sequel books: Racso and the Rats of NIMH (1986); and R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH (1990). Thankfully, neither of these are connected to the 1998 The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue animation. Just me? Well I'm happy to say that the majority of critics and fans disliked director Dick Sebast's version; it's been described as missing its predecessor's "heart or craft". Another absence from NIMH 2: TTTR is the remarkable musical talent of Jerry Goldsmith. Let's face it, the man behind compositions for films such as Alien, Rambo, Star Trek, Explorers, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Capricorn One, Logan's Run and Planet of the Apes will always be a hard act to follow.

Heartwarming and magical, The Secret of NIMH not only had a talented director, composer and voice cast, but it is also timeless. I love it as much today as I ever did in 1982 and beyond.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Oh My Word! 007's Are Forever

Lashana Lynch as Nomi in the new James Bond film No Time To Die

"In this day and age why are we even obsessed with colour or gender?"

Before anyone gets upset over a female 007, let me start by asking you to open your mind and be rational. After reports that British actress Lashana Lynch is to play 007 in the next James Bond movie, the internet exploded. With headlines such as "It would be the first time a white man will not play 007 in the spy movie series’ 57-year run" and "Meet the new Bond", it really is getting ridiculous. So, let's clarify things a little...

Lynch is portraying a 007 agent called Nomi in the next movie, but she is NOT James Bond. Still confused? Then please research a little and read up on 00 agents, you'll enjoy the experience. But to give you some insight into it all, here's an interesting piece from Wikipedia: "In Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and the derived films, the 00 Section of MI6 is considered the secret service's elite. A 00 is a field agent that holds a licence to kill in the field, at his or her discretion, to complete any mission". At "HIS or HER" discretion, so we know that a 00 agent can be a man or woman.

OK, so what about 007, hasn't there ever only been one agent to hold that particular licence to kill? Actually, no. In Fleming's stories, Bond is the only 007; to date that has also included the official Eon film franchise. Take a look at 2018's Forever and a Day, however, and you'll find that James Bond isn't the first: "The sea keeps its secrets. But not this time. One body. Three bullets. 007 floats in the waters of Marseille, killed by an unknown hand. It's time for a new agent to step up. Time for a new weapon in the war against organised crime. It's time for James Bond to earn his licence to kill. This is the story of the birth of a legend, in the brutal underworld of the French Riviera".

So, someone else had been 007 before Bond. They had been murdered. As a result, a new agent is assigned as 007. This could have been anyone, male or female. As it happens, the person chosen is Bond.

We know that tabloids have a habit of misquoting or making things up completely, but when you see the Mail Online printing such nonsense as "First ever black James Bond girl who played Thumper in Diamonds Are Forever blasts casting of actress Lashana Lynch who is taking over as 007 - saying iconic code name was meant for a man", it is easy to feel disappointed. So I roll my eyes, sigh, and write my own thoughts. It isn't controversial to cast a black woman as 007, as any agent can be assigned as any 00 if the previous agent has either died or retired from Service.

In this day and age why are we even obsessed with colour or gender? A talented actor/actress has been cast in a film about the secret service. Yes, it's a Bond movie so James Bond must be male but not necessarily white. That does not mean the remaining cast cannot take on other important roles within the infrastructure of the plot.

And it does seem possible that at the start of the new movie, now given the title "No Time to Die", James Bond has indeed retired from the Secret Service. It looks like something will bring him out of retirement, or perhaps he'll work with the new 007 without an official licence to kill of his own. It has happened before, remember when Timothy Dalton's Bond became a fugitive? His licence to kill had been revoked so, in affect, he was no longer 007 until it was reinstalled by his superiors.

It has also been announced that CIA agent Felix Leiter will be played by Jeffrey Wright. In previous instalments the character has been portrayed by numerous actors including David Hedison, whose storyline in Licence To Kill is unforgettable.

Bond 25 is being directed by Cary Fukunaga and will star Daniel Craig as James Bond. As for 007, well, I'm sure the licence to kill is in safe hands. 007's are forever, after all.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ghosts of Mars (2001) - FilmReview

Can they survive the ghosts of Mars?

Escape From Mars

Director and writer John Carpenter's work has given us some of the best movies in the last forty years. A master of scifi and horror, who can forget Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, Starman, or They Live. Sadly, Ghosts of Mars was seriously underrated by critics and fans, failing to earn enough at the box office and being heavily criticised for being "distressingly amateurish" and an "embarrassing disaster". But is it really that bad?

In truth, it isn't the best movie in Carpenter's catalogue. That said, I do enjoy it for what it represents: a fun and violent action flick that doesn't take itself too seriously. I couldn't disagree more with the "poor set designs" and "hammy acting" accusations. The setting is a simple one, kept to a minimum for maximum impact, and the acting isn't meant to be serious.

I have read that the script was originally intended to act as a Snake Plissken sequel, Escape From Mars, but the idea was changed due to the failure of Escape from L.A. to make a profit.

"Let me put it this way. Maybe I'd sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth. But we're not on Earth"

The film is set on a terraformed Mars in 2176 AD at a time when the planet has long been colonised by Humans. "640,000 people now live and work at far-flung outposts all over Mars, mining the planet for its abundant natural resources". The problem is, during one of these mining excavations, an alien tomb is unearthed and Martian spirits belonging to a now dead warrior race are free to possess the living. Miners who aren't taken over are butchered and beheaded.

Lt. Melanie Ballard (played so brilliantly by Natasha Henstridge) is on an assignment to collect a criminal known as James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) from a cell in a Martian mining town, Shining Canyon, and deliver him into the hands of the authorities. She isn't alone in this task, however: joining her are officers Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), and rookies including Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall). Sergeant Butler spends most of his time either coming on to Ballard or unlocking doors.

A gypsum (a soft sulfate mineral) mine near Albuquerque, New Mexico was chosen as the location for filming. To give it that Red Planet look, colouring had been used on the mine's rocks.

Upon arriving at the colony, Ballard and her colleagues are at first greeted by a ghost town. Instead of a bustling community, there is nobody in sight. Eventually the team locates a number of decapitated bodies and heads on spikes. It isn't long before they are attacked by a possessed army of miners who have mutilated their own flesh. In a style similar to that of Carpenter's Assault of Precinct 13, we end up with a siege as the newly-arrived officers and a bunch of survivors - which include "Desolation" Williams and three of his associates who came to Shining Canyon to rescue him - attempt to survive the onslaught and escape.

The drugs do work...

One of the things we learn is that when a Human host dies, the Martian spirit will seek a new body to possess; this happens often, and at one stage Ballard is consumed by one of the ghosts, forcing the other survivors to take her outside for their own safety. Sergeant Butler, however, gives her a goodbye gift: he places a pill in her mouth, one of the narcotics she carries around with her in a little silver locket. This trip seriously screws with the alien presence inside of her, allows Ballard to see through the eyes of the spirit and understand the history of these Martian warriors. The drug also helps the young woman to repel the invader, and it exits via her mouth as a red mist before dissipating.

This gives Ballard a chance to rejoin her group and make contact with the train that will lead them to safety.

Love for Ballard

It's been said that Michelle Yeoh, Famke Janssen and Franka Potente were originally considered for the role of Ballard, yet they all turned down the role. The part eventually went to singer and actress Courtney Love, although she departed the project due to injury. In my opinion Famke Janssen would have been an excellent choice. As it is, Henstridge's casting is a welcome one, the Species star is one of the best things about Ghosts of Mars.

What followed after Mars?

It is a shame that this movie was a box office financial failure, a sequel starring Henstridge would have been incredible, perhaps leading a group of men, women and children through Martian landscape in a quest to find a safe zone from the Ghosts. Mars has been quarantined, so no help expected from Earth. Even the thought of leaving the Red Planet is a risk - what if any of the Ghosts escape with them? So many possibilities...

As for the director, John Carpenter took a break from regular film-making after Ghosts of Mars. His next big project would come in 2010 with The Ward. When asked in an interview why such a long gap, he replied, "Man, I was burned out. Completely burned out. I just couldn’t do it anymore, I had to stop. I looked at myself and said you know, I’ve been working constantly. I’m like a drug addict — I need a little bit more of a life. It stopped being fun, it stopped being glorious. I’d fallen out of love with cinema. So I had to rekindle it".