A recent Entertainment Weekly piece looking at the upcoming TV season had me smiling, but not in an, “Oh, how interesting!” kind of way. More the way you smile when you have a high school gym class flashback of the day you stopped a rocketing soccer ball with your ’nads. Yeah, it’s funny now, but then you figured if you didn’t die, you’d probably never take a deep breath again. It was that kind of smile.
Part of that piece concerned this year’s American Crime Story entry: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The reason the piece sparked a funny-now-painful-then memory was because it reminded me that almost exactly 20 years before, I’d had the (dis)honor of writing the screenplay for the first movie made about the famed designer’s murder. That you’ve never heard of it is possible proof that there is a God, and that God is a merciful one.
My writing “career” was, if not in the toilet, certainly circling the bowl (I put “career” in quotes because considering its propulsive downward trajectory, intermittency, and the amount of junk I turned out, it reads more like a bad habit than a career). I’d started out in the 1980s with some respectable gigs, doing work for Brian DePalma, for Emmy-winning producer/writer/director Bill Persky, and, for a few months, being part of RKO’s attempt to resuscitate itself as a serious production entity. But none of those projects had turned into anything, and by the 1990s, I was like Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler after he’s been broken by Minnesota Fats; scuffling around here and there in the outermost fringes of the business in the hope of picking up a few bucks. That’s how I met Sam Lupowitz.
As I came to understand it, Sam had been a lawyer with Cannon Films during their 1980s heyday. Run by the cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon had been one of the first movie companies to understand the financial impact of the then-new ancillaries of pay-TV, basic cable, home video, and the growing overseas market. Pumping out a steady stream of low-budget schlock like Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action flicks and Death Wish sequels, Cannon had figured out that by making action-filled junk cheaply and aggressively pre-selling ancillary rights, they could put a project in the black before it was ever released. Then they got it into their heads they could apply the same financial structure to more upscale projects, and it might’ve worked if they’d known how to make good pictures. They didn’t. By the end of the 1980s, the company was on the rocks.
Sam had bailed on Cannon, re-settled in Florida where he’d hoped to re-play the early Cannon model on an even smaller, cheaper scale making even junkier stuff like Kickboxing Academy. A friend of mine was doing production work for Sam, knew I was looking for work and Sam was looking for shootable material, so he hooked us up.
Sam had set himself up as Pan Am Pictures, and had even bought the rights to use the defunct Pan Am Airlines’ logo for his company. Why he thought the logo of a busted airline lent any glamour to his VHS fodder outfit, I’ll never know, but in retrospect, it was typical Sam Lupowitz thinking.
I banged out a couple of quick screenplays for Sam. He liked that I could turn out fairly decent material fitting his $500,000 budgets on quick turnarounds of just a week or two. It was fun working with Sam; he was a charming guy, a bit of a huckster, almost like something out of a movie: “I’ve heard enough. I like you, let’s make some movies together!” Unfortunately, he had this annoying quirk of not always paying me. I did four screenplays for him, he paid me for one, didn’t shoot any of them, and I was starting to think maybe it was time to close the Sam Lupowitz chapter of my biography.
On July 15, 1997, male prostitute Andrew Cunanan, after leaving a trail of bodies extending back to California, gunned down internationally famous fashion designer Gianni Versace in front of his Miami home.
On July 17, 1997, Sam Lupowitz was on the phone to me saying, “I want to be the first person to make a movie about the murder of Gianni Versace!”
Sam’s jumping on the Versace story didn’t come as a complete surprise to me (although his quickness did send my head spinning a bit). Not long after we’d begun working together he’d developed a go-to strategy of glomming on to headline topics and commissioning me to turn them into screenplays i.e. a story on a spike in carjackings in Miami led to Carjacked! Welcome to Miami Beach; the defection of a Cuban air force fighter pilot produced Cuba: The Time is Now; and the death of Princess Diana sparked Paparazzi: Anything for the Shot. But this Versace commission was a quantum escalation; the first time Sam was going to directly take on an above-the-fold banner headline subject.
“Jeez, Sam, the guy’s not even cold yet!”
Which was actually an incentive to Sam. He was sure the major movie companies and broadcast networks would be quick to be all over the story. I guess he was thinking of how, just a few years earlier, all three of the major nets had had TV movies about the Amy Fisher scandal on the air within a year of her arrest. Still, Sam assured me this wouldn’t be some cheesy exploitation flick, that this would be a “classy” endeavor.
Unlike the other headline-connected pieces I’d done for Sam, this wasn’t going to be an “inspired by” kind of thing. We were going to be dealing with real incidents and real people…who I was sure all had real lawyers. I asked about permissions from the involved parties or their estates.
“We don’t need that,” he explained. “We’re going to work straight from public sources, newspapers and that stuff. Just stick to the news accounts and we’ll be fine.” He was already putting together a bundle of newspaper clippings and magazine articles for me and was going to mail it off as soon as he got off the phone.
To say I had qualms was an understatement. From the phone call alone I already felt like I needed a decontamination shower. There was the obvious ick factor of jumping on a true-life horror like a vulture, the practical side that Versace’s killer was still on the loose so the story had no ending, and that I knew Sam, despite any good intentions he might have had, had neither the money nor the sensibility to deliver on his promise of “class.” That was evident in his offer. I can’t remember exactly what I was paid, but it was a couple of thousand dollars up front, with another few thousand on the back end; maybe $6,000-7,000 total. For a feature. About a murder making headlines around the world.
I held my nose and said yes.
As it happened, around this time my fiancé and I were planning our wedding. Neither of our families had any money to speak of so we were going to be paying for the wedding ourselves. Modest as our plans were, any extra dollars I could pick up would be a big help. It was that pathetically simple.
I spent the rest of the week going over the material Sam had sent me. By the time I’d finished, Andrew Cunanan had provided a tragic end to an already tragic story. Five days after killing Gianni Versace, Cunanan, with SWAT teams closing in on where he was hiding on a Miami houseboat, put the same gun with which he’d murdered the famed designer to his own head and pulled the trigger. The story now had its finish.
By the time I’d gotten through the clippings Sam had sent, two things became clear to me:
One, there was a legitimate story to tell here, and it was bigger than the murder of a celebrity. I hadn’t known much about Gianni Versace other than that he was a famous guy who designed clothes I couldn’t afford and who hobnobbed with a lot of people who could. But from my reading, I found this was a guy who’d earned his good life. He was creative, hard-working, and not the all-night-every-night partier I’d assumed from tabloid pics of him among the glitterati. He was a guy who often preferred a quiet night reading something from his substantial library.
Andrew Cunanan, on the other hand, seemed a product of what I felt was a distinctly American hunger for riches and fame but as the goal, not the reward. Gianni Versace, as I saw it, got rich and famous doing something he loved. Andrew Cunanan was a funhouse mirror reflection of that kind of arc, wanting to skip to the rewards whether or not he had an ability or talent to earn them. It was a powerful parable of American celebrity.
The other thing that quickly became clear was that Sam Lupowitz, with his sensibility and limited resources, was not going to be able to tell that story. Classy? Not cheesy? Sam didn’t know how to do that.
The script wasn’t very hard to write. By sticking to the news reports which, that early in the case, were a bit sketchy, trying extra carefully to avoid getting anybody p.o.’d enough to call a lawyer, and attempting to work within what I guessed Sam’s budget limits would probably be, a lot of the screenplay was only moderately better than the crime reenactments you see on TV news magazines like 48 Hours and America’s Most Wanted. The news accounts didn’t offer any major law enforcement figures in the case, so, in the only major fictionalization in the story, I made up two Miami police detectives to provide some kind of mouthpiece for exposition on the manhunt for Cunanan. Other than that, I think I stayed pretty close to the facts of the case as they were known at the time. Which is not a brag.
The script was bland. I mean really white-toast bland. I knew Sam wouldn’t care, but I did. Look, at my level, you don’t worry about writing a good piece. You’re not being offered that opportunity. But you do aim for trying to make something less bad.
I remembered a device Warren Beatty had used in Reds, his 1981 biopic about journalist and socialist sympathizer John Reed. Beatty did a number of talking-head interviews with people who could offer commentary and insight on the times, events, and characters covered in Reed’s story, and used those pieces as interstitial bridges at key points in the narrative. It’s a common device now – you even see it in sitcoms like Modern Family – but it was still kind of novel back then. So, I created a series of talking-head interviews with fictional characters who could provide the kind of commentary on the larger themes I thought were inherent in the story, and also provide exposition (like a cop talking about the nationwide manhunt I knew Sam wouldn’t have the money to depict). This gave the movie some little bit of style, of dramatic energy, of… Well, it was something.
I banged the draft out in six days which thrilled Sam who was convinced he was in a race with bigger outfits. I hadn’t written an awful screenplay, but it wasn’t very good, and I figured that combined with what Sam would probably do with/to it, The Versace Murder had all the makings of a stinker. After I delivered my draft I told Sam I was out.
“Look, Sam,” I said in a phone call, “I appreciate the opportunity, but I don’t want to do any more on this. I’ll keep the upfront money and we’ll call that payment for the draft. You use the backend money to pay whatever writer comes on for rewrites if you need them. And you can give that writer sole screen credit.”
“You don’t want a credit?”
“I figure between now and the time you shoot this, someone’s going to have to do some heavy work on this and they should get the credit.”
Sam kept trying to get me to change my mind, sure I was blowing a career-boosting opportunity. Bless him, he couldn’t tell I was running for cover.
“If you change your mind,” he told me, “you let me know and you’re back on it!”
My suspicions that this was going to be a clunker were confirmed when Sam told me he’d brought on his old Cannon Films buddy, Menahem Golan, to do rewrites and to direct. Great! The guy who’d built his reputation on pumping out an endless flow of low budget schlock for an audience that measured a film’s quality by its body count before running his company into the ground was going to be responsible for fulfilling Sam’s mandate to make The Versace Murder “classy.”
As shooting on Versace came close to wrapping, Sam – who was good at hustling if nothing else – managed to get a half-page story in the Sunday magazine supplement of The New York Times about Versace, and another piece in the Times’ coverage of the Cannes film festival where he’d gone to shill the flick. When Sam called to tell me he’d gotten the movie a segment on an Access Hollywood-type show, I started wondering if maybe I’d made a strategic career mistake in keeping my name off the project.
Look, even if the flick was a dog, if it came out and kept generating this kind of buzz, well, sorry to say, that kind of attention can be a career booster.
Then I watched the TV piece which included a clip of the film, and even in those few seconds I knew I’d done the right thing yanking the eject lever.
That feeling was cemented when Sam sent me a VHS of the completed film.
Sam had been touting the film’s $5 million budget. My friend who’d worked for Sam told me it was probably closer to $3 million; at the time, somewhere between the cost of a single episode of a one-hour drama and a typical made-for-TV movie. And, it was not a well-spent $3 million.
Sam had managed to get a couple of “names” for the movie: Franco Nero as Versace, Steven Bauer (Al Pacino’s Scarface sidekick) as the senior of my two fictional Miami detectives, but the rest of the cast didn’t provide much thespian muscle, and the casting for the role of Cunanan was lethally bad. He was a young guy named Shane Perdue. I don’t know where Sam and Golan had found him; Versace was his first film role (and, according to IMDB, his last). But the poor guy had no screen ability or presence at all.
In the press around the film (which, thankfully, didn’t mention me), Golan was listed as the writer and claimed he’d put the movie through 10 drafts. Maybe he didn’t like my typing job and that’s where all his effort went because he didn’t change much. The talking-head interstitials were gone, and he flattened what little energy I’d given the dialogue, and he added a bizarre drug delirium passage for Cunanan, but other than that, the screenplay wasn’t much different from what I’d delivered to Sam.
And the filmmaking was just plain bad. I mean really bad. The kind of bad that could only find a home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The nationwide manhunt consisted of Steven Bauer and his partner sitting at little desks yakking on phones in front of a wall on which was tacked a map of the United States. Not a big, cool-looking map, but the kind of stationery store cheapie high school kids used to put up in their bedrooms.
One of Cunanan’s victims had been found out by a lake in the Minnesota woods. Sam had shot the entire movie in and around Miami, so they tried to find some woods that didn’t look too Floridian. One of the shots had been framed so badly that you could see cars zipping by an overpass up in one corner of the frame.
My favorite scene has Perdue running from his hotel in Miami just as the cops are going in. You see Perdue running down to the end of the block, make a turn, and then thinking that a shrub at the corner conceals him, pulls up short.
These are bush league mistakes, the kind of screw-ups high school kids stumbling through their first five-minute movie make.
Still, by God, Sam got his wish: he was the first guy to produce a movie about the Gianni Versace murder with the film being released in 1998, less than a year after the designer’s murder. Actually, up until the American Crime Story announcement, despite Sam’s paranoia about a flock of producers latching on to the story, Sam was the only guy to make a movie about the designer’s killing.
And, I suppose, it’s not quite accurate to say the film was “released” in 1998. That’s the copyright year for the film, but for a film to be released, it has to be, well, released. And The Versace Murder wasn’t.
Sam had grossly overestimated the hunger for a world-class tragedy…well, for an outrageously bad movie about a world-class tragedy. There was no theatrical distribution, no pickup by a broadcast, pay-TV, or basic cable network. There were a few overseas video releases, and it did come out in the U.S. on DVD in 2005, but despite the pre-completion press buzz, it’s like The Versace Murder never happened which, all things considered, isn’t a bad thing.
A few years after Versace, Pan Am Pictures folded and Sam dropped out of sight. He resurfaced in Los Angeles a few years later, asking me if I’d like to work on a package of soft core cheapies for the late night pay-TV market. I considered the score: I’d written seven screenplays for Sam, been paid for three, and only one – Versace – had been produced. I passed. That was the last I heard from or of Sam Lupowitz.
Despite my name not being on the movie, if you Google around you’ll still see me listed in some places as one of the writers on the project along with Menahem Golan. It is not a credit which has done much for me, nor in which I take much pride. The only thing it’s good for is, well, this. And it did pay for a lot of my wedding.
- Bill Mesce
25 Years Later: ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is Still Prison Cinema’s Gold Standard
When the topic of Stephen King film adaptations gets raised, the very mention of the author and his movies often conjure images of pulpy horror villains and frightening locales. It’s not an unfair thought either, as the guy absolutely dominated the arena for a number of years with genre-defining films like The Shining and Carrie adapting his stories. With the recent release of It: Chapter Two, the situation may feel as though the modern master of terror is a one-trick pony, but it’s important to remember the success that his other dramatic stories have also enjoyed. Of these, the most notable and critically acclaimed is The Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 prison drama that set the gold standard for cinema behind bars.
Taking place in the titular prison, The Shawshank Redemption’s story of friendship, hope, and the mental toll of incarceration is both haunting and inspiring. While on the surface the narrative centers on maintaining hope and faith in the face of adversity, the larger picture incorporates a number of religious themes and life lessons to offer quasi-religious advice for those seeking freedom from whatever prison they find themselves confined. Even without these themes, The Shawshank Redemption is still a film worthy of repeated viewings, never losing its charm because of its spectacular story, skillful actors, and awesome cinematography.
At its very core, Shawshank Redemption centers around the relationship between Andy and Red, two convicts in the Shawshank State Penitentiary. Andy, who has been sentenced for the murder his wife in response to her infidelity, is an offbeat character who never seems to bow under the weight of his situation, and Red, another convicted murderer, just seems to make the best of things. Together, they build a friendship behind bars, struggling against the systemic corruption of the prison system and the dehumanizing position in which Shawshank’s inhabitants are forced to live.
In its treatment of male friendship and portrayal of the bonds between characters, The Shawshank Redemption feels spiritually akin to another Stephen King penned work, Stand by Me. Both stories put close bonds between male characters at the center of focus, stepping away from the traditional narrative devices like romantic leads and thrilling action. Although one is a coming of age story and the other is a stark prison drama, both films feel linked through the growth and emotional development of their characters without relying on the classic horror motifs that traditionally punctuate works by King. Instead, they share a deep understanding of the underlying workings of humans, telling stories through their psyches rather than their baser emotions.
For the most part, these thematic similarities stem from the fact that the text inspirations for both of these works come from the same King collection, Different Seasons. This bundle of novellas includes “The Body” (Stand by Me), “Rita Hayward and the Shawshank Redemption” (The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (later made into a film by the same name), and the unused “Breathing Method.” Together, these novellas all share a number of closely related meanings, with all centering around the concept of the character molding journey. In the collection, this idea is explored in relation to the changing of the seasons, illustrating the evolution of emotions and the human experience in various stages of life.
As always, Freeman steals the show
The highlight of The Shawshank Redemption is, without at doubt, Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Red. Although at the time he wasn’t as well known for his narrative gifts, Freeman’s role is certainly an early hint at the type of work that would characterize his later career. As the film’s story is predominantly told from Red’s perspective, Freeman gets ample opportunity to showcase the generally beautiful tone of his voice, and the thoughtful emotions that the actor can imbue it with.
Ironically, Freeman was never supposed to play Red in the first place. In the text, Red was supposed to be a redheaded Irishman (hence the name), but the producer actually pushed for Freeman instead. The film even makes a subtle nod to this inaccuracy, as Red jokingly says that he gets his name because “maybe because I’m Irish.”
Honestly, the inclusion of Freeman works to The Shawshank Redemption’s advantage, adding another layer of depth to the friendship of Andy and Red because of their racial differences. Although it is not overtly explored as the story progresses, the intersection of race and the struggle of incarceration leads to interesting possibilities about interpretations and makes their friendship feel more genuine and unique.
Although The Shawshank Redemption was initially slow at the box office, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and became the highest-grossing rental in the year it was released. Despite being released among incredibly tough competition, most notably Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, the film also generally ranks above those movies in critics polls.
Regardless of all the critical acclaim, there’s a certain quality to The Shawshank Redemption that lingers. It’s so touching in its treatment of friendship and cold in its treatment of prison that these opposite extremes make for an unrivaled experience in prison dramas. If you haven’t seen this movie, do so, and if you have, watch it again. It’s surely worth the two-hour run time and then some.
‘First Blood’ is Still the Absolute Best Rambo Film
They drew first blood.
First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff, is not only a first-rate action film, but also boasts one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances as Rambo, a sympathetic, misunderstood anti-hero suffering from PTSD. On the surface, it’s an epic survival thriller, but beneath the layers of bloodshed lies a smart social commentary that confronts the ill-effects the Vietnam War had on the home front. First Blood may not be credited as the film that skyrocketed Rambo to iconic stature, but unlike the sequels, it succeeds as both a psychological thriller and a riveting actioner. Thanks to Stallone’s stoic performance and Kotcheff’s tight direction, First Blood is still to this day the absolute best entry in the series.
A Bit of History
For the unfamiliar, First Blood was based on the best-selling novel by Canadian academic David Morrell. The movie rights were snatched up shortly after the book’s release, and for much of the decade, First Blood was stuck in production hell. The script jumped from studio to studio and underwent numerous re-writes (18 to be exact), while various filmmakers like Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack were tasked to direct.
At the time, Stallone was desperately searching for his next big break. Sure, he had three Rocky films under his belt, but not much else in terms of a starring role. After several high-profile actors such as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman reportedly turned down the part, Stallone agreed to star in the film asking if he could help co-write the screenplay and make his character more likable, less “psychotic.” While many believed it to be a bad career move on Stallone’s part, First Blood went on to become a box office hit that made an action star of Stallone. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I believe any success in life is made by going into an area with a blind and furious optimism.”Sylvester Stallone
What stands out most when revisiting First Blood is Stallone’s performance. He may not be known as a great actor, but he is perfectly cast here as the Special Forces Green Beret war hero, John Rambo. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone other than the Italian Stallion in the part, and his capabilities as an actor should not be overlooked. In preparing for the role, Stallone underwent intense training in hand-to-hand combat, and even performed many of his own stunts, resulting in several serious injuries that nearly halted filming. His dedication cannot be questioned, and is on full display in scenes such as when he dives off a steep cliff, or takes off in the riveting action chase riding a motorbike. He truly is great here, which is why I was surprised to learn that Stallone hated the first cut of the film so much that he tried to buy the print back so that he could destroy it. When the producers refused his request, he suggested that they cut much of his speaking parts and let the rest of the characters tell the story instead.
“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”
– Steven Spielberg
The second thing that stands out most when watching First Blood is how tight the script is. Working from David Morell’s novel, screenwriters Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone whipped up a screenplay that understands Rambo’s appeal is not just limited to his muscular physique. Yes, First Blood is oozing with machismo, but unlike the over-the-top and ridiculous sequels that made the character an unstoppable killing machine, First Blood is far more grounded and hits plenty of emotional beats with a message about how returning Vietnam soldiers had been marginalized by a divided country. What at first appears to be just another muscle-flexing ‘80s actioner soon reveals itself to be a thought-provoking feature, and one of the first genre films to really tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.
In First Blood, Rambo isn’t a hero; instead, he’s a man who is suffering, and he’s a victim of a society that has turned their back on him. “He’s wounded,” says Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former superior officer and the man who trained Rambo to be a killing machine. In a strong supporting role, Crenna’s Trautman (the only actor other than Stallone to appear in all three films of the original trilogy) serves as the voice of reason. He’s the only man who understands John Rambo, and knows how dangerous he is. As Trautman puts it, he’s not here to save Rambo from the cops — he’s here to save the cops from Rambo.
One Man War
John Rambo raised the bar significantly higher for action heroes, and looking back decades later, it’s easy to see why. As Roger Ebert wrote, when John Rambo “explodes near the beginning of First Blood, hurling cops aside and breaking out of jail with his fists and speed, it’s such a convincing demonstration of physical strength and agility that we never question the scene’s implausibility.” A suspenseful chase takes up the majority of the running time, with Rambo hiding in the woods and setting traps for his would-be pursuers while shooting down helicopters, fighting off wild dogs, and eventually taking on the military backup who are all armed to the teeth with heavy ammunition. As hard as they try, the one-man wrecking crew is hard to stop, and by the time Rambo arms himself with a massive M-60 machine gun, it’s obvious that the lawmen stand no chance as he continues his frenzy through town, blowing up everything that stands in his way.
Not as Violent as I Remember…
At the time of its release, First Blood was widely criticized for its level of violence, and while the Rambo series has come to be associated with copious amounts of brutality, First Blood is relatively tame in comparison to its sequels. In fact, the body count is quite low when compared to First Blood Part II which features 67 deaths, and Rambo III,which features 108 kills. It’s also worth noting that Rambo doesn’t intentionally kill anyone in First Blood; instead, he uses his military training for self-defense, and unlike the novel — in which John Rambo is portrayed as a straight-up psychopath who kills 250 law enforcement officers without hesitation — only one character in First Blood dies onscreen. The rest of the men are never confirmed dead.
As a result, John Rambo is obviously a much more sympathetic character in the movie than he is in the novel. It should also be noted that the original edit and final theatrical release of the film is said to be extremely different. The first cut was almost three hours long, and in the end, Rambo dies as he does in the novel. The final theatrical cut is a lean 97 minutes, and yes, our hero survives thanks to producers who believed that audiences would reject the decision to kill him. With an international gross of roughly $125.2 million from a budget of $16m, the decision to sway away from the original source material is something the producers would not regret, since it allowed them to kickstart a successful franchise which spawned numerous sequels, an animated television series, and a series of comic books, novels, video games, and even a Bollywood remake.
He Never Fought a Battle he Couldn’t Win
That’s not to say First Blood doesn’t feature any grisly moments of terror — because it does — but most of them come in the form of brief flashbacks in which we see Rambo as a prisoner of war being tortured. Other than that, First Blood is a lean, mean thriller that consistently finds ways to raise its stakes and place John Rambo in moments of peril. And that’s why I love this film so much — unlike the sequels, First Blood is actually frightening at times, and builds a decent amount of suspense while showing the effect war and bigotry can have on its heroes and the country as a whole. By the time Stallone is given a long, impassioned speech to deliver, he earns every second of it. And while some will argue that this scene is a bit heavy-handed or clichéd, in my eyes it is one of Stallone’s most effective performances.
First Blood is an often-overlooked war classic that is anchored by Stallone’s effective, surprisingly low-key performance, along with an exceptional villain in Brian Dennehy as Teasle, the over-zealous town sheriff who will stop at nothing when hunting his prey. The rest of the cast is uniformly great and the cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) is remarkable given the hellish shooting schedule, which mostly took place outdoors in British Columbia during the cold winter. Meanwhile, the iconic score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith is one of his very best. It may not be as grand or bombastic as some of his other soundtracks, but in the grand scheme of Rambo’s character arc, the foreboding score seems especially fitting. His mournful main theme “Home Coming” for example, perfectly captures the anguish of Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist, while also setting the tone for what is a depressing, albeit thrilling film.
Yes, Stallone’s gun-toting, knife-wielding antics are on full display, but the darker tone, tight direction, and raw emotion make First Blood one of the best films of 1982, and a genuine classic that shouldn’t be missed.
‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Suffers From Action Anemia
After 2008’s surprisingly intense and entertaining Rambo, it was hard not to be curious as to what sort of bloodbath would be cooked up for the reluctant warrior’s next outing. Alas, the familial revenge story portrayed in Rambo: Last Blood feels like it was written for another character entirely — a much luckier and stupider one — and not the cunning, lethal combatant we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly introducing a pseudo-family life and the ability to express emotions beyond morose murmuring (Rambo smiles!), the story gets too bogged down in its half-baked drama before finally remembering the reason everyone came to see a movie about a guy who used to fire two machine guns at the same time in the first place. And by then, it’s too rushed, too little, and too late.
For those looking to get to the pulpy meat of the matter, be warned that Rambo: Last Blood instead takes its sweet time telling the hackneyed story, with a few false starts just to keep action fans frustrated. So, having mowed down hundreds of people across the world (especially in Burma), John Rambo has unceremoniously returned to the good ol’ U.S. of A. in search of that peaceful life that always seems to elude him in war-torn countries. To that end, he has somehow acquired a large ranch, where he for some reason is good at training horses, and somewhat okay at being an “uncle” to the 17-year-old Gabrielle, who is ready to leave her life on the ranch with her grandmother and this grizzled veteran, and head off to college.
When Gabrielle makes the idiotic (but understandably teenage) decision to disobey the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about when he says that the world is full of black-hearted people, she winds up drugged, kidnapped, and held prisoner in Mexico by sadistic creepos who deal in the sex slave trade. Sure, Rambo: Last Blood takes a little too long to get here, but the hostage scenario is ripe for the kind of one-man assault upon a bunch of dudes who more than deserve a serrated knife to the chest that this franchise specializes in (for reference, see Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo). As Rambo gets that familiar crazy look in his eye, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but writers Matt Cirulnick and Stallone have other ideas.
Audiences have grown accustomed to the stealthy, sneaky tactics of Sly’s special forces soldier, and so when Rambo — who has rarely made a misstep in his pursuits of killing folk — blunders like a naive fuddy-duddy into an obviously unwinnable situation, the result is both a jarring and disappointing setback from which the script is never able to recover. Had Rambo: Last Blood foreshadowed this critical brain fart by depicting an aging lethal weapon losing control over his mental faculties (popping some glossed-over medication doesn’t do the trick), perhaps this behavior might have flown. But the labyrinthine tunnels and later booby traps (oh yes, there will be plenty of booby traps) suggest that this guy has still got it. Except for that one time, apparently.
The majority of Rambo: Last Blood is wasted on trying to get audiences to care about Rambo’s thinly constructed relationships with people they’ve never met, as if that will somehow make the multitude of deaths to come more personal. But because of the shoddy build up — including an underused Paz Vega as an “independent journalist” also affected by this crime ring — it just doesn’t seem to matter why these thugs need to die. They’re cartoonishly evil; let’s get to it already.
Unfortunately, by the time the action arrives, Rambo: Last Blood operates as if it’s on the clock, already needing to wrap things up. Whereas now would be the time to revel in the catharsis of blood-spattered stabbings, steel poles through the head, and grisly dismemberment, impatient editing cycles through each killing as if quickly ticking off boxes. Cringe-worthy moments are cut short, never allowing the gruesomeness to sink in, to affect. Add to that a disorienting lack of proper staging that splits up the dumbest assailants ever and allows Rambo to appear out of thin air right behind nearly all of them as if he were everywhere at once, and the whole thing end’s up a confusing, unsatisfying mess.
Director Adrian Grunberg — whose much more interesting Get the Gringo knew how to use violence for shocked giggles — also hurts the effort with a bland visual style that is annoyingly claustrophobic. Seemingly unable to place his camera anywhere that might visually enhance a scene, Grunberg instead pushes in too far on the action, and winds up showing little that’s comprehensible. He carries this tendency into conversations as well, getting overly intimate with craggled faces and greasy beards, sacrificing blocking in the process. There’s not much to look at here outside the beautifully deserted, southwestern ranch setting, but do you think Rambo: Last Blood will use this intriguing, open prairie environment for a different take on jungle warfare? Even the horses don’t pay off.
This is all a shame, as Stallone still has that dour Rambo charisma when he’s not trying to be a father figure, and few characters can perform such gruesome deeds with an audience still behind them. But though the beleaguered battler at one point insists that he hasn’t changed, Rambo: Last Blood drains some of the edgy fun from the franchise. If it truly is the end, then it’s a dull finish for one of cinema’s keenest he-men.
‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’
Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.
No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.
These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.
Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.
Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.
Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.
Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage.
TIFF 2019: Best of the Fest
Have a conversation about movies with your family or coworkers late in the year and there’s a good chance someone will break out this old chestnut: “There just weren’t many good movies this year.” It’s a statement that says more about the speaker than the state of cinema; there are more great movies in any given year than anyone can manage to see. One of the great qualities of the Toronto International Film Festival is that the massive slate of films includes its own high-profile premieres, as well as screenings of festival favorites that bowed to acclaim earlier at places like Cannes and Venice. It’s a clearinghouse of sorts that gives one of the most well-rounded glimpses into the year’s best movies. Below are the ten best films we caught at the festival.
Anne at 13,000 ft
This world premiere, directed by Kazik Radwanski, initially presents the eponymous Anne (an astounding Deragh Campbell) as a daycare attendant having her first experiences with skydiving. Though Anne is alternately blissful and ecstatic when she’s jumping out of a plane, something is amiss at work, where she’s more interested in playing with the kids than supervising them. As she starts a new relationship with a man she met at a wedding (Matt Johnson), cracks in her façade start to appear. Radwanski keeps Anne’s breakdown front and center by putting her up close in the frame; she’s on screen almost every second of its brief 75-minute runtime. Featuring an astounding, aching lead performance, Anne at 13,000 ft sympathetically captures the moment the world starts to tilt for one woman. (Brian Marks)
With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema. Placing this as the closing night film for the Midnight Madness program only ensures it gets a bigger audience than it otherwise would have. (Christopher Cross)
A Hidden Life
A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to fully scripted films after three adventurous, mostly improvised movies that divided critics. Though Jägerstätter was eventually beatified for his stand against the Nazis, Diehl and Malick don’t try to make him a saint — he’s just someone taking a stand when overcome by conscience. Malick’s searching camera makes the Austrian hillside look invitingly gorgeous and lush, turning it into a kind of paradise from which Jägerstätter is brutally snatched. His more improvised films are all essential works of cinema, but A Hidden Life is Malick’s best work since his career-defining masterpiece, The Tree of Life. (Brian Marks)
Receiving the TIFF Ebert Director Award this year, Taika Waititi came out with two awards, as his latest film, Jojo Rabbit,won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, as well — and that for a film no other director would probably consider making: a comedy about Hitler. It’s a reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time. (Christopher Cross)
Robert Eggers blew everyone away with his debut feature, The Witch, which ratcheted up the paranoia until there was nowhere to go but supernatural. While his sophomore feature doesn’t feature a Black Phillip-stand in, The Lighthouse trades witchcraft and Satan for mermaids and Lovecraft. The result is another film drenched in paranoia, as its two lead actors give some of the funniest, nuanced, and entertaining performances of their careers. The Lighthouse isn’t just Eggers proving he’s not a one-trick pony — it’s Eggers proving he’s one of the greatest horror filmmakers working today. (Christopher Cross)
Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy, though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions. The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire began attracting rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes, and its presence at TIFF has only confirmed its stature. Set sometime in the late 18th Century, Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, the daughter of a respected painter who has her own artistic talents. She has been called to Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, forcing Marianne to get creative. Over time, she begins to question her role in Héloïse’s future, and the two develop an unshakeable bond. Herlant and Haenel give wonderfully tender performances, perfectly playing off each other for escalating dramatic tension. Sciamma is almost clinical in the way she films the two women, yet there’s a welcome touch of the fantastic that occasionally intrudes. A love story for the ages. (Brian Marks)
Rose Glass’s directorial debut, Saint Maud, is a film that wowed many audiences at TIFF, even if it didn’t necessarily win any awards. Picked up by A24 soon after the festival, the film highlights a nurse in private care that goes to extreme lengths to show her devotion to God and curing the world of sickness. A slow-burn that is masterfully handled through character work, this psychological thriller takes its time to get where its going, but is never a bore while getting there. Yet, once it does make its way to the intense final act, there is little room to breathe as Saint Maud moves and moves until its phenomenal conclusion. A strong debut with a fantastic lead performance by Morfydd Clark, this is the kind of film that will have you biting your nails as it sucks you into the mind of someone passionately devoted to God and trying to save her soul. (Christopher Cross)
The Twentieth Century
With his debut feature, The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin reminds us of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema. The film documents the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a truly bizarre style, featuring gorgeously saturated yet simultaneously faded colors that evoke the feel of early color films from the 1920s and ’30s. Dan Beirne plays a neurotic version of the future politician, who lives in perpetual adolescence and has a dark secret: he gets his rocks off with women’s heels. Rankin is clearly indebted to fellow Canadian Guy Maddin, and takes the same relish as he pulls from bits of film history while thoroughly deconstructing the traditional biopic. Rankin’s off-putting sense of humor and the movie’s otherworldly visuals will frighten off many viewers, but hopefully, it will delight even more. The Twentieth Century won the award for Best Canadian First Feature, and it’s sure to be a midnight movie classic. (Brian Marks)
The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness. (Christopher Cross)
Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Indie Game reviewers.
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