Friday, November 20, 2015

First Blood (1982)

Add one more to the list of movies you probably didn't know were set during the Christmas season - until rewatching it, I really didn't notice. It's easy to miss: I didn't notice it coming up even once in conversation, and the majority of the film is set in the wilderness, where it's irrelevant. I'll have some more thoughts about the holidays in a moment, but first I want to talk about something else I'd forgotten.

This is a great movie. I remembered it was good, but that really doesn't do it justice. This is an incredible achievement - one of the best action movies out there, possibly on par with Die Hard.

If you don't recognize the name of the movie, you'll recognize the name of its protagonist: John Rambo. Like Die Hard, it's easy to understand why there was a demand for sequels, though - also like Die Hard - the first installment is the only one that's required viewing.

First Blood opens with Rambo in a rural Washington town trying to track down a friend he served with in Vietnam. He locates the house only to learn his friend died of cancer caught from exposure to agent orange. Rambo, in shock, wanders into the village, where the local sheriff offers him a ride, which is really just an excuse to try and run him out of town.

Things escalate when Rambo starts experiencing flashbacks to his time as a POW. The sheriff, misinterpreting his reactions as hostility, arrests him. Rambo's flashbacks get worse at the police station. After a few officers rough him up and threaten him, Rambo breaks out, hurting - but not seriously injuring - anyone in his way.

Considering he's ostensibly the movie's antagonist, the sheriff is surprisingly rounded. He abuses his power and is quick to judge, but he's not evil or even especially cruel. As the movie progresses, he heads in a slightly darker direction, but at no point does it feel like he deserves to die. A lot of this was likely due to the long development process - according to Wikipedia there were something like sixteen drafts over almost a decade, several of which with the sheriff as the POV character. It makes for an unusually balanced action movie.

After a chase, events reach a point of no return when one of the officers Rambo beat up earlier ignores orders and tries to kill him. Rambo fights back, and the officer loses his life in a resulting accident. This soon transitions into a hunting sequence which is easily the best in the movie and quite possibly one of the best in the genre. A half dozen officers go after Rambo, who easily turns the tide. He lets all of them live (though their dogs aren't so lucky), but several are badly wounded. In a real sense, this is horror movie territory, with the audience's sympathies existing completely with the monster. It's visceral, scary, and beautifully shot.

Less impressive is a subsequent scene where a group of National Guardsmen are played for comic relief. To be fair, this was funny, but it feels completely out of place in the otherwise stark film. After being presumed dead, Rambo makes his way through an old mine in yet another scene that makes you wonder how the hell the Academy overlooked this for cinematography and art direction.

Soon, he steals a military truck and heads back into town to take the fight to the sheriff. He manages to distract the rest of the police force with a fire, then shoots out a number of generators to limit the sheriff's visibility. After a shoot out, he subdues his enemy. Before he can kill him, he's stopped by the colonel who trained him. At this point, Rambo has a mental breakdown and starts crying. The colonel ends up taking him into custody while the sheriff, in serious condition, is taken to a hospital.

The ending was widely seen as a cop-out at the time, but it's aged incredibly well. The epic finale the sheriff's been driving towards, the ultimate battle between order and chaos, turns out to be a fantasy. Throughout the movie, he perceived Rambo as some sort of inhuman creature; the audience saw the same thing, though we were rooting for him. But ultimately, Rambo was just a human being. As he's explaining his state of mind to the colonel, he starts feeling mortal again. He's confused, scared, and unsure how to react to the world around him. He's lost and alone. It's a jarring and brave resolution to the movie.

Let's see. I feel like I'm forgetting something.

Oh, yes! Christmas. The movie's set sometime around the holidays, though an exact date is never established. There is, however, an abundance of decorations and lights in the town.

I'm not a hundred percent sure why they decided to have this take place in December, though I do have a few theories. The least interesting of which is practicality. During this month, Washington State is cold (but not freezing), damp, and foggy. Visually, it's a good choice to make the setting seem harsh but survivable.

It's also possible the holiday was being used symbolically. When Rambo is blowing up transformers to shut down the power around the police station, Christmas lights are the most obvious casualties. It's not hard to perceive this as a sort of "Heart of Darkness" moment, where the illusions of civilization are being stripped away.

I suppose it's also possible they wanted to contrast the chintzy decorations in town with the evergreen trees and snow in the mountains. But I'm kind of leaning towards the Heart of Darkness interpretation, mainly because I like it.

If it's been a while since you saw this, I suggest watching it again. It can easily stand with Die Hard as one of the great Christmas action films.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Henry Selick was recently asked whether The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the greatest holiday films ever made, was a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. After some consideration, he went with Halloween.

I think it's important to note that, as the visionary director of this phenomenal movie, Selick is uniquely positioned to be able to definitively answer this question.

That's what makes it so surprising that he got it wrong. While the movie's leads are original Halloween characters, the plot is a re-imagining of L. Frank Baum's story, A Kidnapped Santa Claus, as well as his novel, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. These were major influences on the Rankin Bass specials, as well, which in turn served as prototypes for Selick's movie.

But we'll forgive the director for this oversight. If he keeps making movies half as good as The Nightmare Before Christmas, he can claim they're about Arbor Day for all we care.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Rocky IV (1985)

After Rocky's friend, Apollo Creed, is killed in the ring fighting a Russian boxer, Rocky flies to the Soviet Union, where he trains then defeats the Russian on Christmas Day. And... that's pretty much everything that happens. Huh. Usually the synopsis takes longer to write.

If you're confused how the above could fill 90 minutes, you are seriously underestimating just how many rock montages can be fit in a single movie. To be perfectly honest, I lost count. There's an argument to be made that this might qualify as a musical. James Brown shows up at one point.

Beyond the plot and montages, Sylvester Stallone (who wrote and directed the film) managed to find time to work in a robot helper which looks a little like a stereo system on top of a coffee maker. Also, it might be sentient. And Paulie may or may not be sleeping with it - the movie was somewhat ambiguous on this point.

Likewise, it is unclear whether Rocky and Apollo were lovers. 1980's sexual conservatism would suggest not, but it really seemed like they were exchanging longing looks at each other prior to Creed's death. Also, this interpretation would flesh out Rocky's otherwise unclear motivation.

The Christmas elements in the movie are somewhat baffling. Aside from the fact it was released in late November, there doesn't seem to be a reason for the last third to take place over the holidays. The movie tries to build some sort of theme out of it by having Rocky deliver a speech calling for unity, but it doesn't really make sense or fit narratively. The movie does a little better connecting the holiday visually to the snowy, Russian landscape (filmed on location in Wyoming).

To his credit, Stallone certainly tried to make the holiday relevant. There are a number of jokes and shots of decorations, plus Alvin and the Chipmunks gets played briefly.

This and the original Rocky are the only two I've seen, though I don't feel like there's much I missed. Astonishingly, Rocky IV was the most successful in the franchise, not to mention one of the most successful sports movies ever made.

Aside from functioning as a sort of unintentional comedy about Cold War propaganda, there's not much to recommend here. It can cross into that "so bad it's good" territory, provided you're easily amused by 1980's excess.

That said, I completely endorse the Wikipedia page for this thing. The robot's biography is particularly fascinating, as is the account of how Stallone spent eight days in intensive care after agreeing to film some authentic fight sequences against Dolph Lundgren.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Children of Men (2006)

I've seen Children of Men twice now, and I'm still not sure whether or not it qualifies as a Christmas movie. It's essentially a post-apocalyptic version of the nativity, complete with numerous references, some in world, but there's none of the usual connections - no decorations, no mention of the holiday, nothing. Still, there's more than enough thematic resonance to tie it back (plus it shows on several lists of Christmas movies). Oh, and it was also released on Christmas in the US, not that that means anything.

Children of Men is often considered one of the best science fiction movies of the past decade. It was nominated for several awards, and it's currently at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's not hard to see why: the movie was brilliantly shot and edited, and it's quite engrossing. It's just... it's also kind of boring and pretentious. And the premise doesn't make a damn bit of sense. I'm not talking about the "no humans have been born for 18 years" part of the premise. Actually, that's kind of absurd, too, but I'm completely willing to suspend my disbelief for the genre elements. It's the socioeconomic aspects that drove me up the wall.

The movie takes place in the near future. The youngest human alive just got stabbed outside a bar: he was eighteen. For some unknown reason, the human race stopped being able to have kids and is now on track for extinction. Again: no problems with the premise yet.

Basically, every country on Earth except for England has collapsed. It's not really clear why this occurred - there were scattered references to wars, disease, and other factors. Again, it's a little odd that England alone survived, but I'm mostly with them so far.

The government routinely rounds up immigrants and ships them to massive refugee camps, which are essentially concentration camps. This is at the core of the movie, and it gets to the heart of what the director's trying to say. While I'm with him on politics and ethics, I'm calling bullshit on the SF. The premise is built around a steep reduction in population, which should result in an increased demand for labor. Shouldn't England be importing workers from countries with high birth rates to look after their aging population? This is assuming they can lure anyone - the decreasing population density should reduce the incentive to flee agrarian areas.

A quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the novel this is based on makes me think these elements were better thought out there. I respect the director's desire to speak out on xenophobia, but I wish he'd actually built a science-fiction story around his ideas. This felt forced and contradictory.

Maybe this was the point, that the decreasing population was meant to reflect that of the first world (without immigration, most developed countries would be declining). If so, I'd have liked to see some of this in the movie: the absurdity of hunting immigrants despite the high percentage of elderly. It was something of an oversight that we rarely saw extremely old individuals. There were a handful, but not the huge number you'd expect.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the movie was better constructed. It was shot to evoke handheld footage, which gave the film a sense of realism. Likewise, the design was gorgeous. The actors were also phenomenal.

The characters are a little harder. The movie is surprisingly inconsistent when it comes to realism versus surrealism. There are a few minor characters who feel like they stepped out of a Terry Gilliam film, and they're completely out of place here. Likewise, we never really have a good sense of the major characters. The main character's backstory and relationships make no sense (his ex-wife is the leader of the resistance, his cousin is a major fixture in British politics, and neither of these facts is provided until they're relevant to the plot). His ex's feelings for him seem to shift from scene to scene, making her rather abrupt exit from the film more baffling than shocking.

From a Christmas perspective, the movie constantly evokes the birth of Christ. The iconography permeates the film, from the surrounding animals to the faithful gazing upon their savior, who is born at the end. I'd love to say that occurs on December 25, but the movie isn't specific on that count. The opening sequence occurs on November 16, 2027, which I believe is the last time we're given a specific date. There are a few brief points early on where time could be passing, but I think the math is more likely to take us to Black Friday than Christmas (though a case could be made - we don't really get a sense for how long it took the main character to get those important documents that never really came up).

This is absolutely a beautiful movie, though I think it's more than a little overrated. The film has a great message, but it stumbles trying to deliver it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Self-Promotion: A Count of Five Now Available

Let me just get this out of the way up front: this doesn't have a damned thing to do with Christmas. The wreath was just a cheap attempt to obfuscate that fact: sorry for the deception.

A Count of Five is my new novel, which is now available on Amazon. You can pick up the Kindle version here for just $2.99, or you can buy a paperback version for $9.99.

This is the first book in The Citadel of the Last Gathering, a new series blending fantasy-adventure, science fiction, and quite a few other surprises. We're planning on releasing the second novel in the series this November.

This represents a lot of work from both me and Lindsay, who edited and laid out the novel. We're extremely proud of the finished product, and hope you'll pick up a copy and give it a read.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Bat-Santa Photos

Better late than never, right? Here are some action shots from Bat-Santa wandering around Emerald City Comic-Con. Also, read about how the suit was built here!

Bat-Santa prefers the cold, too.

Kryptonite from his utility belt, tied with a bow.

Just a couple of dark anti-heroes hanging out.

Bat-Santa remains on patrol, and we at Mainlining Christmas 
are relieved to have him on the job.

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