Film Review: Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Also known as: Rambo II (unofficial title), Rambo (shortened title)
Release Date: May 22nd, 1985
Directed by: George P. Cosmatos
Written by: Sylvester Stallone, James Cameron, Kevin Jarre
Based on: characters by David Morrell
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson, Martin Kove, George Cheung, Voyo Goric

Estudios Churubusco Azteca S.A., Anabasis N.V., TriStar Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Pressure? Let me just say that Rambo is the best combat vet I’ve ever seen. A pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost. And if winning means he has to die, he’ll die. No fear, no regrets. And one more thing: what you choose to call hell, he calls home.” – Trautman

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, is and will always be the best of the Rambo films. Frankly, it’s really hard to top but this one does comes pretty close while being a very different kind of movie.

At their core, both films are action flicks with a one man army fighting for survival against man, the wild and every other dangerous thing that arises.

However, the first picture was more about making a statement regarding the treatment of Vietnam veterans returning from war to a home that didn’t want them while this film was much more about balls out action and fun.

That’s not to say that this chapter in the franchise doesn’t have a message, it does. It sees John Rambo return to Vietnam in an effort to rescue some of the P.O.W.s that were left behind by their own government. The film critiques the U.S. government’s handling of the P.O.W. situation and shows that the government wasn’t actually too keen on getting them out. Rambo is essentially set up to fail but he blasts his way through the dangerous jungle, falls in love, loses love, rescues some soldiers, kills several evil men and then exposes his own government for spitting in the faces of the men that lost their lives and sanity for a government that abandoned them.

There are actually a lot of similarities between this movie and Chuck Norris’ Missing In Action film series. As much as I love those movies, this just feels like a better, more polished version of what those movies were. That being said, Missing In Action was actually rushed out and released in 1984 to avoid a lawsuit, as it was based off of a story treatment that James Cameron wrote for this film.

Out of all the Rambo films, this one features my favorite cast. Alongside Stallone, Crenna gets a bigger role here and then you’ve got the great Martin Kove, who I wish had a bit more screen time, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff and Julia Nickson, who I will always remember most for her part in this film and how it inspired and gave hope to John Rambo that there could be life beyond war. Additionally, Voyo Goric is in this and while his name might not be known to most people, he was in several action flicks of the time and always played a good, intimidating and convincing heavy.

As an adult, I know and recognize that First Blood is better. However, as a kid, this was my Rambo film, as it was so over the top and action heavy that it made my young mind explode with excitement and wonder. It felt like a G.I. Joe character come to life and it was just violent and cool in a way that makes it a near perfect ’80s action picture. It feels like a Cannon Films movie with a bigger budget and a bigger star. Granted, it could’ve used a few ninjas.

One thing that makes this picture work so well is the pacing. For example, I love Rambo III but it isn’t as good as this one because it has a slow pace that hinders it. I’ll talk about that more when I review it. The pacing here though is perfect, the film keeps moving forward, a lot happens but you don’t get stuck in a spot of fixated on some plot point. Rambo blasts or punches something just about every five minutes.

Some may accuse this of being a mindless action movie, it’s not. It has a message and a point to make but it also doesn’t let that message get in the way of what’s most important: action, muscles, bullets, explosions and heavy machinery.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: the other Rambo movies, as well as other ’80s and early ’90s Stallone movies.

Film Review: Vincent (1982)

Release Date: October 1st, 1982
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Tim Burton
Music by: Ken Hilton
Cast: Vincent Price (narrator)

Walt Disney Productions, Buena Vista Distribution, 6 Minutes

Review:

As far as I know, this is the earliest thing that Tim Burton directed that’s been officially released. I never got to see this as a kid but I eventually saw it in the ’90s when a friend showed it to me.

Burton had some other shorts he did before this and he also worked in animation at Disney but this was the creation that got his career moving forward at a pretty rapid speed, as he got to make the original Frankenweenie short just after this.

This is a stop motion animated short but the techniques Burton employed here would go on to serve him well in The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.

This short film is also significant in that it opened the door for Burton to work with his childhood idol, Vincent Price. They would work together again in one of Burton’s most iconic films, Edward Scissorhands.

Vincent is just a hair under six minutes but it is simple, sweet and effective.

The story is about a seven year-old boy named Vincent Malloy. He obsesses over trying to be like Vincent Price to his mother’s dismay. His mind runs wild and the short film gives us a lot of great vivid visions of Vincent doing heinous acts to those he cares about. The whole thing is narrated by the real Vincent Price, who delivers his words in the form of a poem written by Burton.

The animation is fabulous, especially for the time and for what I’m sure was a scant budget and limited resources despite being made while Burton was employed by Disney.

Vincent is a great homage to the man who narrates it and from a stylistic standpoint, it shows us that Tim Burton already had a clearly defined vision of what he wanted his work to be, specifically in regards to tone, atmosphere and overall visual design.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Tim Burton animated works: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, etc.

Film Review: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Release Date: June 24th, 1983
Directed by: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
Written by: John Landis, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Melissa Mathison, Jerome Bixby
Based on: The Twilight Zone by Rod Sterling
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Vic Morrow, Kathleen Quinlan, Burgess Meredith (narrator), Dick Miller, Steven Williams, Al Leong, John Larroquette, Selma Diamond, Priscilla Pointer, Nancy Cartwright, Christina Nigra

Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“Hey… you wanna see something really scary?” – Car Passenger

After recently watching the Creepshow television series, as well as revisiting the movies for the umpteenth time, I got the itch to rewatch Twilight Zone: The Movie, as it has a lot of similarities and I hadn’t seen it in at least a decade.

I like the highpoints of this movie almost as much as the Creepshow films. However, Twilight Zone is pretty inconsistent, as the first two segments are weak while the latter two are really good. And maybe it was put in this order in post-production because Steven Spielberg felt the same way, even though one of his segments was one of the crappier ones.

The prologue and the first segment were both directed by John Landis, coming off of An American Werewolf In London, a true horror classic. The prologue was a pretty good setup and I loved it when I was a kid. Landis’ segment, however, plays more like an episode of Amazing Stories.

Although, two of these segments play like Amazing Stories episodes and maybe this movie is what inspired Spielberg to create that show just two years later.

Anyway, Landis’ segment is actually incomplete due to an accident involving a helicopter on the set of the film. The accident killed two kids and actor Victor Morrow. It was a pretty controversial event back when it happened (see here) and it forever ruined the working relationship between Steven Spielberg and John Landis.

Moving on to the second segment, it’s the one directed by Spielberg himself and it is also the other segment that feels like an Amazing Stories episode. It’s also really boring and slows the movie to a crawl. But thankfully, Joe Dante’s segment gets the movie back on track.

By the time the third segment rolls around, you might find yourself in a comatose state that even the gentle, kind and always fly Scatman Crothers couldn’t pull you out of during the previous story. But once you get to the midpoint of the film, everything picks up, gets better and the movie delivers.

The third and fourth segments feel almost as good as the best segments from the Creepshow franchise and they save this movie from being a total disaster.

Where the first story dealt with an unlikable, old, racist piece of shit and the second dealt with old people getting to feel young again, the third deals with a young boy with special powers and a nice lady that eventually wants to help him, played by Kathleen Quinlan. It has more energy, it’s a more interesting story and the monster effects that Dante had created for this are superb. I love the third segment and it’s actually a story I would revisit if ever there were a followup to it. Plus, it has Dick Miller in it.

Now the fourth segment is directed by George Miller, the man behind the Mad Max franchise, and it is a remake of the most famous Twilight Zone episode.

The story sees an airplane passenger freak out over a monster on the wing of the plane. It may sound like an odd setup but it is a great segment that builds suspense incredibly well and also benefits from the great talent of John Lithgow. I also really liked the young Christina Nigra in this, as she added some good comedic seasoning at just the right moments. She was also really good in Cloak & Dagger, alongside Henry Thomas, a year later.

The final segment features the best (and only real) monster of the movie. The special effects are outstanding and the payoff in the finale makes the rest of the movie worth sitting through.

In the end, Twilight Zone: The Movie is a good example of what I don’t like about anthologies: consistency. The first half is bogged down by dry, slow, boring stories that one has to suffer through in an effort to get to something better. Thankfully, the second half of the picture is good.

In retrospect, though, it feels like this is almost a movie length pilot to Spielberg’s anthology television series Amazing Stories. If you’ve ever seen that show, this feels like an extension of it more than it feels like it fits within the Twilight Zone franchise. However, this would also lead to the Twilight Zone getting resurrected on television. In fact, it relaunched just a few days before Amazing Stories debuted.

Going back to the Spielberg segment with the old people experiencing their youth again, there are a lot of parallels to it and Ron Howard’s Cocoon. I’m not sure if this was an inspiration for that movie and its sequel but it’s very possible.

In fact, Twilight Zone: The Movie seems to have had quite the impact between launching a new TZ television series, influencing Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and its similarities to Cocoon, all of which came out two years later in 1985.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other horror anthology films of the time: the Creepshow movies and Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, as well as the television shows Amazing Stories and Tales From the Crypt.

Film Review: First Blood (1982)

Also known as: Rambo (Argentina, Austria, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Venezuela), Rambo: First Blood (informal title)
Release Date: October 22nd, 1982
Directed by: Ted Kotcheff
Written by: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone
Based on: First Blood by David Morrell
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, David Caruso

Anabasis N.V., Elcajo Productions, Orion Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“I could have killed’em all, I could’ve killed you. In town you’re the law, out here it’s me. Don’t push it! Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go. Let it go!” – Rambo

I wanted to see Rambo: Last Blood in the theater. But when it came out, I had a lot going on and next thing I knew, it was out of my local cinema. It’s out digitally now but before finally watching it, I thought I’d start way back at the beginning and work my way through the franchise, as I haven’t watched any of these in at least a decade.

First Blood is the best film, at least from my memory. But my opinion doesn’t really seem to be that different from the general consensus. And after revisiting it, I think the other ones have their work cut out for them, as this still holds up and hits the same notes it did when I first saw it, a few decades ago.

This is the most serious and dramatic of the films and Stallone is pretty damn stellar in this. He carries the entire film on his back and shows why he was one of the biggest action movie stars of all-time. People will always debate who was better between Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but this film, like the original Rocky, shows that Stallone was the better actor.

The story here is simple, Rambo is a Vietnam veteran that just happens to be traveling on foot through a small town. He draws the attention of a bigoted sheriff that thinks it’s wise to fuck with Rambo. Both men push each other back a little bit and it escalates into the police going on a manhunt for a legitimately deadly soldier that knows how to use his wild environment to his extreme advantage.

What sets this film apart from the other Rambo movies is that this one has a clear message that really resonated at the time that it was released. It’s a straight up action movie, for sure, but beyond that, it examines the treatment of Vietnam veterans by their own country once they got home from the hell that was the Vietnam War.

The film conveys its message quite well and Stallone’s final moments in this film really show the audience the horrors and the effects of war on those who are closest to it. You sympathize with Rambo, you feel what he’s feeling in your gut and its hard not to truly feel his emotion and pain as he breaks down in the arms of his former commander.

In regards to the bulk of the film, which is action, everything is wonderfully shot and executed. I love the look of this picture, the choice of using the Pacific Northwest and how it becomes Rambo’s real weapon against a corrupt, power mad sheriff and his police force.

I also like the final act of the film which brings Rambo back into town for a showdown with the sheriff. Speaking of which, Brian Dennehy was pretty good as the slimeball sheriff and this is the role that helped to give him a pretty solid and respectable career.

One thing that really takes this movie to the next level is the Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s pretty perfect, especially in how it gives extra energy to the spectacle of the action heavy sequences.

First Blood is still a damn good motion picture to watch and it carries a message that is still relevant while not being too heavy handed, allowing the movie to still entertain you. Modern Hollywood could learn a lot from First Blood in that it doesn’t sacrifice story and character to force feed its audience an agenda. It presents its message and allows you to digest it, think on it and then do what you will with it.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: the other Rambo films, as well as Chuck Norris’ Missing In Action movies.

Film Review: Frankenweenie (1984)

Release Date: December 14th, 1984 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Lenny Ripps, Tim Burton
Music by: Michael Convertino, David Newman
Cast: Barret Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, Joseph Maher, Paul Bartel, Sofia Coppola, Jason Hervey

Walt Disney Productions, 29 Minutes

Review:

“I guess we can’t punish Victor for bringing Sparky back from the dead.” – Ben Frankenstein

There was a time when Tim Burton was my favorite director. That was mainly due to a string of movies from the mid-’80s through 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. Things went a bit sideways in the ’00s but I still have a lot of love for his first few decades as a director, especially his two early short films: Vincent and this one, Frankenweenie.

This would go on to be remade by Burton, years later, into a feature length animated film. While I’ve never seen that one, I can’t imagine it captured the magic and charm of this original live action short film. I’ll probably give it a watch in the near future though, as I’ve been meaning to for quite some time.

Focusing back on this film though, it’s a lighthearted and heartwarming piece that showcases how damn good Barret Oliver was as a child actor. While he doesn’t get as much time in this as he did in The NeverEnding Story and D.A.R.Y.L., this is my favorite performance of his and he’s definitely the glue that keeps this movie together, even though Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern are also wonderful in this.

The story is an homage of the classic Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley. However, in this, Frankenstein is a boy and he uses the power of lightning to resurrect his bull terrier, who was hit by a car in the opening of the film.

Initially, this was made to be paired up with the theatrical re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but upon seeing it, Disney executives thought it was too dark for little kids. They were wrong, as I would have loved this as a kid just as I had loved Gremlins earlier that same year. I was five years-old at the time but I think us ’80s kids weren’t total pussies like the kids today… but I digress.

Frankenweenie plays like an episode of an anthology television series; Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories immediately comes to mind. It’s a really good length, covers a lot of ground but also has enough time to develop these characters in a way that makes you care for them.

Tim Burton showed tremendous talent with this short film and I’m sure it played a big part in him getting his first feature film gig, directing the original Pee-wee Herman movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: the feature length animated remake, as well as the Tim Burton short film Vincent and his animated feature The Corpse Bride.

Film Review: Creepshow 2 (1987)

Also known as: Dead and Undead: Creepshow 2 (alternative title)
Release Date: May 1st, 1987
Directed by: Michael Gornick
Written by: George A. Romero, Lucille Fletcher (uncredited)
Based on: stories by Stephen King
Music by: Les Reed, Rick Wakeman
Cast: Lois Chiles, George Kennedy, Dorothy Lamour, Tom Savini, Frank Salsedo, Holt McCallany, Don Harvey, Will Sampson, Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer, Page Hannah, Tom Wright, Stephen King (cameo)

New World Pictures, Laurel Entertainment Inc., 92 Minutes, 85 Minutes (UK video)

Review:

“Ooooh, mucho ecological, Poncho! Mucho ecological!” – Deke

While this doesn’t get as much fanfare as the original movie, I like it just as much if not slightly better.

Something about these stories just stuck with me.

To start, the first story about the wooden Indian is fantastic and my second favorite of all the Creepshow tales. It’s surprisingly well acted and chilling and by the time the wooden Indian comes to life, you’re so ready to watch the scumbags get murdered in horrible ways.

I’ve got to especially give props to Holt McCallany for playing the shitty, sadistic gang leader. The guy has had a good career but he showed he had real acting chops here, in only his second role, as he was so good at making you hate him. While the script is written to obviously make you dislike him, McCallany took it to a deeper more convincing level.

I also loved the dynamic between George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour.

But most importantly, the effects of the wooden Indian were spectacular. Especially for the era and the small budget that this film had.

The second story is the one Creepshow tale that has stuck with me the most over the years and it actually creeped me out as a kid. It’s about these party teens trapped on a raft in the middle of a lake, as a sludge monster is waiting to devour them. Once the creature gets ahold of its human victims, it literally digests them alive as they scream in pain and horror, dissolving before your eyes.

This sequence does a great job of building tension and terror with very little.

I think that it stuck with me the most because I grew up in and around the Everglades. So as I kid, I used to swim in swamp rivers and lakes fairly regularly. And while I wasn’t afraid of alligators or snakes, I was always on the look out for some sort of demon sludge in the water that might show any sign of sentience.

The last story is my least favorite but it is still damn enjoyable.

A woman accidentally kills a hitchiker and then her entire trip is comprised of the ghostly, zombie-like hitchhiker haunting her at every turn. It’s a simple setup with a simple story but it’s still entertaining and I love the practical effects used in this sequence.

Overall, Creepshow 2 is better than I remembered and it probably deserves as much respect and admiration as the original film.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: everything else under the Creepshow banner, as well as other horror anthologies from the same era like Twilight Zone: The Movie and Tales From the Darkside: The Movie.

Film Review: Scrooged (1988)

Also known as: Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (original script title)
Release Date: November 17th, 1988 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Richard Donner
Written by: Mitch Glazer, Michael O’Donoghue
Based on: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, John Glover, David Johansen, Mary Ellen Trainor, Mabel King, John Murray, Wendie Malick, Brain Doyle-Murray, Lee Majors (cameo), Miles Davis (cameo), Robert Goulet (cameo), Paul Shaffer (cameo), Buddy Hackett, Mary Lou Retton, Jamie Farr, Anne Ramsey, Logan Ramsey

Paramount Pictures, Mirage Productions, 101 Minutes

Review:

“That’s the one good thing about regret: it’s never too late. You can always change tomorrow if you want to.” – Claire Phillips

Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie that doesn’t fit in the action or horror genres, even though it has a wee bit of those two things. It’s a comedy starring the legendary Bill Murray and it was directed by Richard Donner, coming off of Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke and The Goonies.

The film also has an all-star cast comprised of a few legends, a few solid character actors and the always lovely Karen Allen and Alfre Woodard.

It’s a modernized adaptation of Charles Dickens’ most famous story, A Christmas Carol. Bill Murray essentially plays Ebeneezer Scrooge but in this story, he’s named Frank Cross and he is the president of a major television network, stressed out over the live televised adaptation of A Christmas Carol that he is producing.

As can be expected with adaptations of this story, Cross is visited by three ghosts: The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Future. He is taken on a journey through his life and is shown his fate if he doesn’t wise up and change his ways.

There aren’t any shocking twists or deviations from the traditional story structure of A Christmas Carol, other than setting it in contemporary times and modifying some of the smaller details to fit what was ’80s pop culture society.

The film has a good bit of crude humor but it’s nothing that’s off putting or that takes away from the spirit of Dickens’ classic story. In fact, I love the update and frankly, for the time that this came out in and the inclusion of Murray, this was probably the most palatable version of the story that had been adapted. It’s not strict to the source material but it benefits because of that while keeping the original plot structure intact.

Scrooged may feel dated to some and like a product of its time but it is a classic Christmas film for many, myself included, and it doesn’t get old. I think a lot of that has to do with the charisma supernova that is Bill Murray while the kind nature of Karen Allen, as well as the fantastic cast around Murray, make this something unique, special and entertaining.

Plus, there is just something perfect about Danny Elfman’s score in this film. It sets the tone for the picture immediately and it just accents and enhances the movie like a great musical score should.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other great non-traditional Christmas movies of the ’80s like Trading Places, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Die Hard, Gremlins and Lethal Weapon.