Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rambo!

Well, I went and saw Rambo and have to say it's pretty amazing. Granted I was predisposed to like it, but I didn't even imagine it would be as strong a film as it was. I don't know where in the world this Stallone has been hiding out all these years, but the man has truly made an action masterpiece. It's a return to the seriousness of the first film, with only a few moments that hint at the comic book nature of parts 2 & 3. Personally, I believe the first film is the best, so it was great to see this one adopt a similar tone. I'm not saying that it's going to convert anyone who isn't a fan of action films, but the faithful are going to be very happy.

In this entry, Rambo is now living in Thailand hunting snakes for a local sideshow. After delivering his latest catch of the day, a group of missionaries approach him with a request to transport them to Burma. As the film illustrates with graphic footage in the opening moments, villagers in that region have been subjected to brutal treatment by the Burmese military. It is the missionaries' intent to go in and offer medical aid. Despite his better judgment, Rambo is talked into the trip by an idealistic member of the party named Sarah. She makes the point to Rambo that one has to do their part to change the world and help people. Rambo informs her that one can't change "what is." Even so, his admiration of her willpower is enough to win him over into helping her (if not the cause). After dropping the party off, the missionaries are taken prisoner by a ruthless military unit during a raid on the village they are working in. Given that this is a Rambo movie, of course he will be sucked in for a rescue operation. The head of the church where the missionaries came from hires Rambo and a team of mercenaries to go in and get them out. Cue intense action until the end credits.

The plot probably seems pretty standard for a Rambo film I'll grant you. Outside of First Blood he's done nothing but help the downtrodden (with some early mild reluctance in each case). This time really is different though. In his early 60's (yet looking very fit), Stallone exudes a real world weariness that was lost in later installments of the series. You truly sense he's just tired of all the nonsense of the world, and has come to the conclusion that nothing matters. Truth be told, he says very little in the film . . . but what he does say carries weight. You won't find any stock one liners in this one (e.g. "I'm your worst nightmare"), even though there are plenty of opportunities. This Rambo doesn't care about playing head games, he's just going to take you out as quick as he can. Instead, when he chooses to speak he's saying something you can bet is important and/or making a grand point (e.g. "Would you rather live for nothing, or die for something?"). In a lesser movie his statements could come off as cheesy, but due to the fact the film takes itself seriously, they play well.

A big reason it all works is that Stallone has indeed chosen to take the film seriously. He's been making the talk show rounds discussing how he made this film to highlight the deplorable situation in Burma, and he has succeeded on that front. One review I read compares this as a hybrid between Rambo and Black Hawk Down. That's pretty accurate, but I'd say it's even more intense than Black Hawk Down. The scenes showing the treatment of the villagers, and their outright massacre are as hard to watch as anything I've seen. By the time the rescue mission kicks in, you're really a bit numb. Of course you want Rambo to go in and save the day, but the sense of fun they injected into the middle installments is nowhere to be found (nor should it be). The rest of the film is pure tension, and features some of the most vicious action ever committed to film. When Rambo goes into full Rambo mode (and trust me you'll know when it happens), it's nothing short of overwhelming. After all is said and done, it leaves one feeling completely drained (as I'm sure was the intention).

A couple of other points I need to mention, which involve spoilers (scroll past this section if you want to remain spoiler free):


#1 - Since Richard Crenna has passed on, clearly Colonel Trautman cannot make an appearance. I read that they considered recasting the character with James Brolin, and I'm so glad they didn't. Instead they include a sequence where Rambo remembers some things Trautman said to him, which provides a nice connection with the earlier films while illuminating the character further.

#2 - I love the ending of this film. It sees Rambo going back to America to seek out his relatives (which apparently live on a farm in the Midwest). He's decked out in what he was wearing in the opening scene of First Blood (complete with duffel bag) where he was going to see his Army buddy, and the Jerry Goldsmith theme is playing in the background. It was a perfect conclusion to the series (if indeed this is the last installment).

End spoilers.

In conclusion, if you're a fan of the series at all, you're really going to enjoy this. Even if you just love action films, you're really going to enjoy this. The extreme violence means it's going to turn a lot of people off, but unlike the earlier installments (save for First Blood) the violence here is far from glorified. Here there is a message, and Stallone has managed to bring the series back to a more thoughtful place . . . which is a pretty amazing achievement at this stage of the game. On a final note, I had said earlier that I was disappointed that they changed the film's name from John Rambo to Rambo. Well, I have to revise that. The character is such a force of nature it's hard to think of him as John (at least until the closing scene). Again, let's just hope this doesn't rule out a Marion Cobretti sequel (let's see that one be treated in a serious, straight-faced fashion : )

Thursday, January 24, 2008

John Rambo Vs. The House Between

Just couldn’t resist making mention that tomorrow marks the premiere of the new Rambo movie. To me it’s pretty incredible that Stallone is revisiting this character in the year 2008 (he's looking amazingly fit at 62). Yeah, I know he’s done Rocky over and over, so maybe it’s not so surprising, but this is a little different. Rambo is a character that is steeped in the 80’s (the entire trilogy was completed by the year 1988 after all). Perhaps more than any other action hero of that period, Rambo came to symbolize the Reagan era, and was arguably the most iconic amongst the various competitors (e.g. James Braddock, Paul Kersey, Nico Toscani, John Matrix, Jonathan Cabot, etc.). Even more fascinating was the series’ progression from an intense character study of a disgruntled Vietnam vet (First Blood), to literally becoming a cartoon in the late 80’s. Having lived through the Rambo arc, I have a bit of fondness for the character as it reminds me of a time when movies were sold on action hero characters as icons, something you don’t see so much anymore.

So, I’ve peeked at a few reviews and it looks like Stallone has taken it full circle and made a film that would do First Blood proud. It has a message, and is apparently pretty intense. While Stallone has done a lot of really awful films (e.g. Over the Top, Oscar, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, etc.), I’m willing to put that aside and approach this one with great enthusiasm. My only disappointment is that the title was changed from John Rambo to just plain Rambo. John Rambo would have provided a nice symmetry with Rocky Balboa. And as Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. and I have joked about, it would have also opened the door to lesser Stallone-character sequels such as Marion Cobretti and Ray Tango. A missed opportunity to be sure.

In other premiere news, don’t forget that tomorrow the first installment of The House Between’s second season hits the Web at www.veoh.com, or you can get it at the home page www.thehousebetween.com. John Muir let me know that it should be up and running by 12:01 a.m. tonight, so if you just can’t wait until morning you may be able to get an early look . . . before you run out to see Rambo of course : )

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Catch the Hawk!

Our February episode fast approaches, which means it’s an ideal time to say a word or two about the minor classic that is Hudson Hawk. This movie is a favorite within the Fantasmo inner circle, which may come as a surprise to folks tempted to think that we wouldn’t give much credit to a big budget Bruce Willis action/comedy. After all it’s not one of our favorite genres, and it didn’t originate in the 70’s or 80’s. Still this one is very worthy of admiration. Despite its pedigree, Hudson Hawk is one of the most bizarre “mainstream” films to emerge from the studios. This is especially surprising given that it was filmed in the early 90’s, when Hollywood was really beginning to churn out more and more tiresome, cookie cutter blockbusters. Indeed, the summer of 1991 was a particularly foul season, which saw glut of less than stellar releases including: Dying Young, Backdraft, City Slickers, Doc Hollywood, Naked Gun 2 ½, Nothing But Trouble, Point Break, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, etc. It was a dark time for the rebellion. Taken in that context, Hudson Hawk was a breath of fresh air. In order to understand just how much of a miracle the film was/is, a little background info is necessary.

Hudson Hawk was essentially a vanity project on the part of Bruce Willis, who was in many ways just at the beginning of his rise to super stardom. Although he had two major successes in the form of Die Hard and Die Hard 2, Willis still had strong ties to the quirky humor of Moonlighting (still fresh in everyone’s memory at the time), and to a lesser extent his odd foray into music with The Return of Bruno. Furthermore, outside of the Die Hard films he had not fared too well at the box office at that point (e.g. Sunset, Blind Date, etc.). Even so, the first couple of Die Hards were so wildly successful, they cemented him as an A-list action star. In a move not unlike that perpetrated by Steven Seagal with On Deadly Ground, Willis used his substantial clout to launch Hudson Hawk. The problem was it resembled a standard action movie, but was nothing of the sort.

The basic plot of the film doesn’t sound all that unusual. Willis plays cat burglar Eddie Hawkins (a.k.a. Hudson Hawk), who is just being released from prison at the start of the film. Unfortunately, he has a crooked parole officer who forces him into stealing Da Vinci statue only days after his release. As it turns out, this is part of a larger plot orchestrated by an evil billionaire who is trying to piece together a machine that Da Vinci designed to create gold from lead. Okay, that’s a little weird but nothing that out of line with what you might see in a Bond film. What sets Hudson Hawk apart however, is that it is also a slapstick comedy/musical. You read that right. And the comic aspect is totally out there (in a good way). You’ll see everything from secret agents named after candy bars, to Andie MacDowell imitating a dolphin (convincingly). Even better you have Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as the primary villains, turning in performances that are as outrageous as anything they’ve ever done (which is saying something). And at the center of it all you have Willis who seems more concerned with getting a cappuccino and unraveling the mysteries of Nintendo, than he is with the goings on of the main story.

Willis and company might have gotten away with this madness if the film had employed an honest marketing campaign. It was promoted as the next Bruce Willis action movie, completely obscuring the fact that the film was a wacky comedy/musical hybrid. Consequently, Hudson Hawk left audiences confused, and became a legendary flop. I myself remember going to see this on opening weekend, and being completely baffled. I was so busy being surprised that it wasn’t Die Hard 3, that I missed the boat on that first viewing. When I saw it again on video a year or so later, I fell under its spell and have been there ever since. Even though many folks have discovered what a great film it is, Hudson Hawk still has a bit of a dark cloud over it, and hasn’t become a strong cult classic just yet. At the time, it was extremely expensive with a budget of $65 million (paltry by today’s standards), and quickly became one of the biggest financial failures in Hollywood history. This has caused it to become synonymous with folly, and (I believe) has prevented a re-examination by cult film enthusiasts. Hopefully with time that will change, but in the meantime Rob and I will continue to sing its praises.

It’s worth noting that unlike Willis, who managed to rebound with the help of The Last Boy Scout and Pulp Fiction, most of the other primary players didn’t escape unscathed. Andie MacDowell, Danny Aiello, Richard E. Grant, Sandra Bernhard, etc. never really did anything big after this. Furthermore, director Michael Lehmann, who had a monster initial success with Heathers, went on to do a string of not so great films afterward before eventually settling into television work. Although they might not look back on Hudson Hawk fondly (Grant has extensively written about what a negative experience it was), it is an undeniably unique film that is difficult to classify . . . and we’re really glad they all made the mistake of starring in it! So be sure to join us in a proper screening on February 1, complete with cappuccinos and astute Team Fantasmo commentary (not to mention the Clue warm-up)!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Episode 34: Get A Clue

Our first episode of the New Year is now under our belt, and the Fantasmo train is picking up speed as we barrel toward our all-night Schlock-O-Thon in April! For our sure-to-be legendary 34th entry, we’re going to be doing something a little different. Here’s what’s in store . . .

First off, the theme for February is films that were overlooked upon initial release, only to later become huge cult favorites. This is not only a good excuse to show some great hidden gems, but it also is a way for Rob and I to show a couple of films we really want to see without having a well-reasoned link between the two. The first film on the bill is the 1985 adaptation of the board game Clue. Clue tanked in theaters upon its initial release (which featured different endings depending on which theater you saw it in), but is an incredibly fun (not to mention unusual) take on the admittedly thin premise. What will they do next, a film adaptation of trading cards . . . Garbage Pail Kids anyone? Our second film is the 1991 Bruce Willis bomb Hudson Hawk. This mega-budgeted cult film nearly ended Willis’s career, but is actually an amazing film. The problem was that folks went in expecting Die Hard, and got a totally oddball ride that is impossible to characterize. Great stuff! But wait, there’s more . . .

In addition to showing these two films, we’re employing our first gimmicks of the New Year. In honor of Clue’s 23rd anniversary (why not), we’ll be holding a Clue tournament prior to the film (with fabulous prizes to be awarded to the winners). This will mark a Fantasmo first as we open the doors at 6:00 p.m. to roll out the games (which will feature numerous varieties of Clue ranging from Scooby-Doo to The Simpsons)! Not to leave any Hudson Hawk fans feeling left out, we’ll also be doing something special prior to that screening. As fans know, Hudson keeps trying throughout the movie to score a cappuccino without much luck. Fortunately, your Team Fantasmo will help you out on that front. We will have a cappuccino bar on hand to quench your thirst (and keep you awake) into the evening hours! Who could ask for more?!?

Here are your Episode 34 details:

When: Friday, February 1

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Games/Films:

6:00 P.M.: Clue Tournament

8:00 P.M.: Clue (1985) – Rated PG

9:45 P.M.: Hudson Hawk (1991) – Rated R

So there you have it Superfans, another landmark Fantasmo entry! I’ll be posting some detailed analysis on our features leading up to February, so keep watching for that and more exciting news!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The House Between 2.0




For those of you who have been with Fantasmo a while, you know all about how Rob and I are involved in a little indie film/Web TV project called The House Between. If you haven't heard us talk about it (or missed our Fantasmo screening of the first season's premiere episode), it all started with a guest speaker we had during the early days of Fantasmo named John Kenneth Muir. John is a TV/Movie guru and author of a ridiculous number of books on the subject, and gave a great talk at our Films of John Carpenter episode (he also wrote an excellent book by the same title). Before the talk, he asked us and a few other folks from our Fantasmo crew over dinner if we'd like to join him in a sci-fi/horror Web TV project he was developing. Being who we are, he scarcely had the words out of his mouth before we said yes : )

Long story short, we went down to Monroe, NC in May 2006 and shot 7 episodes over the course of a week. It was brutal, but we had a lot of fun. The series aired between January and March of 2007 to good reviews. We all loved the end result, and when John asked everyone back for a second season there was no hesitation. We returned in May 2007 to Monroe, and shot 8(!) episodes in 7 days. It made the first outing look like a cake walk, and was incredibly grueling for the entire cast and crew (I ended up with a a fever of 102 degrees on day 4). Even so, we had a blast and are expecting great things from the new season (which features quite a bit more action, and is much darker in tone). The above trailer will give you a sneak peak of what to expect when the series premieres on January 25. You can watch the series, check out interviews with the cast and crew, and see lots of other neat stuff at www.thehousebetween.com. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Night Flight

When not thoroughly engrossed in the wonder of Seagalogy, I found a little time to surf the Internet during the holiday. As is so often the case, I did some hunting on random topics that came to mind, one being the 1980's series Night Flight which aired on the USA network in the 80's. For those who didn't experience this groundbreaking series, Night Flight was a 4-hour show which featured segments on New Wave musical artists/videos, cult films, avant garde film shorts and documentaries, and much more. Growing up I can remember spending many a Friday and/or Saturday evening staying up most of the night watching a parade of some of the coolest videos/films I had ever seen. It was there that I was first introduced to cult films such as Eraserhead, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Andy Warhol's Dracula & Frankenstein, Fantastic Planet, and a host of others. Even neater, they often showed videos MTV wouldn't touch for a variety of reasons. It was just an amazing show, and truly ahead of its time.

The series ran from 1981-1988, and then morphed into USA's Up All Night with hostess Rhonda Shear. From that point forward it just featured B-movies all night long, most of which were the bottom of the barrel. It was fun, but never achieved the degree of cool it did in its original incarnation. Eventually Gilbert Gottfried took over hosting duties, and it simply wasn't worth watching. Thankfully MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs showed up a few years later on TNT to give weekend night owls something decent to watch : )

Anyhoo, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there are several fan sites out there for the original Night Flight, including everything from episode guides to clips. If you're curious, check out the Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Flight_(TV_series)) as it has a good description and several links to get you started. In an era when there was no Internet Night Flight was an amazing resource for learning about cult filmdom (and music), and here's hoping a talked about revival eventually sees the light of day!