Firefly and First Blood,
and a few more films

Figures in a Landscape (1970)
Streaming free at YouTube

Mac and Ansell (Robert Shaw, Malcolm MacDowell) are running on a beach, then through a forest. Their hands are tied behind their backs, which makes running dicey — if either man slips or trips, he'll land on his face.

These two are escaped prisoners-of-war, though which war remains opaque, and they don't like each other, but grudgingly work together. They're pursued by a helicopter all through the film, though the 'chopper never opens fire.

#266  [archive]
MAR. 25, 2024

There's not much more to the film, plotwise. We get to know Mac and Ansell, but it's not so much about them as an allegory for something bigger. 

What it means is up for discussion. The futility of everything in life, perhaps? Or how no matter what you do, there's a helicopter chasing you?

It's an intellectual action movie that never explains itself, but that's a feature not a bug. The film is always intriguing, never dull. Feels like it could've been a lost episode of the excellent 1960s series The Prisoner, and I love that show.

Mr Shaw also wrote the script, based on a novel by Barry England.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Film (1965)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Samuel Beckett made this. You might remember him from Waiting for Godot, or his Nobel Prize for Literature.

It's twenty minutes in length, and nominally about an all-seeing eyeball that stares down Buster Keaton. Played by Keaton himself, he's aiming for pathos more than humor, so don't expect to be laughing.

Film is very hesitant to show Keaton's face, and until the final scene, everything could've been filmed with a body double. Maybe it was.

It's mostly silent, without music except a repeated clip from the Dixie Cups' pop hit "Going to the Chapel of Love."

So this is an absolutely avant-garde piece of absolute avant-garde, but it's quite good as avant-garde.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Find Me Guilty (2006)

Racketeering charges have been filed against 20 accused gangsters. One of them is Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), who says he's spent half his life in prison, and who's already serving a long sentence for other crimes as the trial begins.

His high-price lawyer couldn't keep him out of prison, so DiNorscio fires him, and decides to defend himself in court.

As played by Diesel, DiNorscio is a gangster, sure, but lovable, always kidding around, and he cracks a lot of jokes at his trial — which worries the prosecutors. "A laughing jury is never a hanging jury."

It sounds ridiculous, but this is, we're told, a true story. The names have not been changed, and some of the courtroom scenes are direct from the transcript. I expected to hear quicker objections to some of DiNorscio's wilder excursions, but my courtroom experience is only a thousand lawyer movies and TV shows.

It's weird rooting for a guy who, as the prosecutor says, "occasionally kills people," but Diesel and director Sidney Lumet make it work. Peter Dinklage and Ron Silver co-star.

My only complaint is that Jonathan Tunick's too-jazzy score is played so loudly it drowns out some of the early conversations.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Firecreek (1968)

It's the old west, and we're in a town so small it's barely a town. There's a sheriff (James Stewart), but he's old and it's part-time work, and mostly he's just a farmer. He doesn't want trouble, he'd rather talk softly than arrest anyone, and he doesn't even carry a gun. By the standards of American westerns, he's a coward.

Into town comes trouble, a gang of ruffians headed by an injured man named Larkin (Henry Fonda). While he rests and recupes in a hotel, his wounds are tended by Inger Stevens, and there are hints of romance.

Meanwhile, Larkin's men ruffle and rile the town. And every time they do, the sheriff backs down. It's High Noon in reverse — this lawman is meeker than Jesus, until he finally runs out of other cheeks to turn.

Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam, Dean Jagger, and Ed Begley fill out the cast. Written by Calvin Clements Sr, who wrote 66 Gunsmokes, 14 The Riflemans, 6 Wagon Trains, and Kansas City Bomber (the Raquel Welch roller derby flick). The score is by Alfred Newman.

It's a little dull in the middle, but it gets going again, and I whooped at the final heroics.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

Firefly (2002–03)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is a science fiction western, set in a future after humans have ruined the earth and migrated to outer space.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew are smugglers and ne'er-do-wells, always taking work that's shady or blatantly illegal. Their ship is dented, rusted, patched together, with none of the gleaming technology of Star Trek.

The show's universe-building is thorough, with politics of a recent war lost, and fugitives on the run from a cruel, uncaring galactic government, and multicultural swearing.

What holds it all together is a sense of humor — Reynolds and his crews work together on the ship, but they get on each others' nerves, and snap and wisecrack all the time. It's almost a comedy, except for the killing and torture and dying and such.

There are only 14 episodes, but none suck and a few are extraordinary, especially for commercial TV. And yet, the show fizzled and bombed in half a season.

Why? Because the network botched it badly. Firefly is a sequential drama, the kind of show where each episode builds on previous episodes, but Fox decided to air the most action-packed episodes first. The episode intended as the show's debut, introducing the characters and explaining the show's basic premise, was the last episode to air.

Try watching, I dunno, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, with the episodes out of order. As seen on TV, Firefly grew more and more confusing, especially since the show often relies on flashbacks.

Firefly's release on DVD put the episodes in the right order, so everything fell into place, and the series went from a misfire to a brilliant bullseye. It's occasionally quite violent, but quickly addictive, binge-worthy, and always there are laughs. I watch it beginning-to-end every couple of years, and it never disappoints.

"The next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face."

Verdict: YES.

To tie up the loose ends after such a quick cancellation, there was a follow-up movie a few years later, called Serenity.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Firestarter (1984)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

A guy signs up for medical experimentation, and the side effects give him wild powers of mental control.

Several years later, his young daughter has inherited some similar powers. When she's angry she can will things to burst into flames — a stranger's shoes, her mother's hands, even water. This makes her a kiddo of interest to a shadowy government agency, which wants to weaponize the girl, and might slice her head open to do it.

The film is based on a Stephen King novel, and Drew Barrymore plays the girl who starts fires with her mind. She's frightfully effective, and might have a career ahead of her, but watch out for the drugs, kid.

David Keith as her father is grandly ghoulish, too, when he fights back against baddies by grabbing his temples and grimacing. There's a scene where he uses his magic brainpower to blind some bad guys, which is much more disquieting to watch than simply killing them would've been.

Smallish and thankless roles for an all-star cast — Art Carney, Louise Fletcher, Moses Gunn, Freddie Jones, Heather Locklear, George C Scott, and Martin Sheen. Music by Tangerine Dream. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Fireworks (1947)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is a short from Kenneth Anger, a meditation on longing, alienation, and being young and gay in the 1940s. Anger meets and flirts with a muscular sailor at a bar, and faces the violent consequences that often came from such behavior back then, and will again if Republicans have their way.

The story is told without words, with images beautiful, terrifying, repugnant, but it lights up with a triumphant conclusion. You don't have to be gay to understand the trauma of being an outcast, knowing it's illegal to be who you are. You'd have to be an ass not to understand it.

There's no explicit sex here, but everything is plainly implied, and it must've gotten Mr Anger in trouble with the law.

Yup. Wikipedia says: "Upon Fireworks's release, Anger was arrested on obscenity charges. He was acquitted after the case went to the Supreme Court of California, which deemed the film art, not pornography."

Anger made interesting short films, and this is one of his best. He made history, and helped force America toward something much spoken about, but not often seen: liberty and justice for all.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

First Blood (1982)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who's trying to find an old buddy in a small northwestern town. The sheriff, though, arrests Rambo on dubious vagrancy charges. He's booked and treated as less than human by all the movie's cops, which is realistic — that's the way cops are.

When Rambo has had enough, he starts fighting back, which isn't realistic at all but sure is fun to watch. Turns out the cops picked the wrong scruffy-looking guy to mess with.

The build-up is sufficient to earn sympathy for Stallone's Rambo, but it's not a long wait before the action starts.

We're told and shown that he's an ex-Green Beret, and Colonel Trautman, Rambo's former commanding officer, shows up to tell anyone and everyone that 200 cops will be no match for the mighty Rambo.

Stallone throws his whole body into the role, and he's good. Brian Dennehy as the sheriff is better. Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman is miscast, but makes the effort. 

David Caruso has a small role, and apparently hadn't yet started his quest to always be annoying on screen. There's also an early, tiny role for Bruce Greenwood as "Guardsman #5."

Directed by Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright). Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Based on a novel by David Morrell, and I hope this movie and all its stupid sequels made him rich.

Forget the stupid sequels, though — this first Rambo movie is almost excellent. It simmers for a while, then boils, then microwaves and broils. 

"They drew first blood, not me."

The only big mistake is at the end, when Rambo blubbers about how awful the Vietnam War was (for him, not for the Vietnamese). He complains that "somebody wouldn't let us win," and that when he came back, he had to "see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting, calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap!"

This is an urban legend, and a Republican lie — two lies, actually.

"Somebody wouldn't let us win"? It was a civil war that left about 3,000,000 Vietnamese people dead, 2/3 of whom were civilians. Less than 60,000 American invaders were killed. Say what you will about the strategy and logistics necessary to 'win' another country's civil war, but the American effort was not halfhearted.

As for protesters spitting on the returning American combatants, it never happened, or happened so rarely as to be negligible. War protesters were generally sympathetic with those who 'served' in that stupid war, and didn't loiter at airports and chase down returning soldiers to insult and spit at them.

Stallone co-wrote the script, and a few minutes of googling suggests that he was largely responsible for Rambo's silly soliloquy at the end. Let's mention here that Stallone is exactly the age to have fought in the Vietnam War, but like Rush Limbaugh, he was excused due to a nebulous medical condition that seems to have never bothered him again.

Clip the lies out of Rambo's mouth at the end, and First Blood would be three minutes shorter, more honest and thoughtful, and I could give the movie a wholehearted recommendation.

Instead it's like a very good Billy Graham movie, luring you in with action, and then smacking you with right-wing bullshit instead of an altar call.

Verdict: YES, with reservations.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

First Man into Space (1958)
First Spaceship on Venus
A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish in the Bathtub
The Fisher King

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
Not much pisses me off more than 'movie reviews' that describe the plot, paragraph after paragraph. My pledge to you: I'll only give the basics of a movie's premise, with no spoilers after that.  
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. That's a really good writeup of First Blood. Years later I read the novel, it was pretty light reading for the subject matter (almost written on a Young Adult level), but it had a tone of generational conflict: the cop was a Korean vet and was pissed at all of the bitching the boomers were doing about Vietnam. In a lot of ways it's a death match between these two, which is kind of ruined by Stallone's Rambo being able to murder almost anyone anytime he wants to.

    George Lucas spent years building up Joseph Campbell to try to find some kind of spiritual depth to his movies about Ewoks but "First Blood" is probably closer to a kind of Greek myth than any Star Wars movie. Odysseus wanders home from war, runs afoul as a stranger in a strange land, fights against overwhelming odds, travels through a passage through a hellish underworld, etc. Not surprising that it has an appeal to even people who are suspicious of the details, it's a very, very old story in that way...

    It's probably safe to say that whatever good there is to it is probably in spite of Stallone. He supposedly hated the first cut so much he thought it would end his career and tried to buy the print so he could destroy it. Whatever good came of the second cut, it's so unlike his other projects that it's probably assured he had little to do with it.

    Goldsmith's score should have gotten Best Supporting Actor. The way he teases that theme over and over again until he breaks through the roadblock is really stirring.

    1. Goldsmith is a favorite of mine. Has great diversity, I think. You don't immediately know it's Goldsmith, like you do with some lesser composers.

      I can sorta see Stallone's worry. About a dozen cops die in the movie, which carries at least the potential for pissing people off. Hard to believe any cut would've been awful, though. I'd forgotten the bullshit sermonette at the end, and without it, and if they'd made him just a little less invincible and undefeatable, Fist Blood would be a classic. Dunno if it's Greek, I had egg rolls not gyros while watching, but it definitely has more depth than the Star Wars flicks. Which I loved, btw, all three of them.

      Interesting comments on the book, which -- thank you -- I wasn't planning to read but it's still good to know.


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