Rocky III (1982)

2018 #138
Sylvester Stallone | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky III

It’s the
eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight
Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watchin’ us all with the eeeeyyyyeeee…

of the tiger.

Sorry, got swept up in the moment there!

Yes, this is the Rocky movie where that song, so associated with the franchise, finally makes its appearance. It’s also where the sequels are believed to start going down hill (assuming you rate Rocky II, anyway), though Stallone himself was once asked to score the films and gave this 9 out of 10. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I liked it.

Picking up on Rocky II’s cue, this film also begins where the last one left off — in this case, that’s with Rocky just about beating Apollo Creed in their rematch. We’re then led through the next few years of Rocky’s life via an excellent five-minute montage, which shows his continued success and massive fame, and, simultaneously, the rise of Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T) through the boxing ranks, with one goal: beating Balboa. All of that’s conveyed with just images soundtracked to Eye of the Tiger. It’s a great bit of filmmaking — conveying story economically and clearly through pure imagery — a level of artistry and accomplishment you don’t expect to encounter in the third movie in a boxing franchise.

Rocky and Apollo training

So, after all that success, Rocky is set to retire, until Lang goads him into one more bout. What Rocky doesn’t know is that his trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), has been protecting him, only arranging soft fights he thinks Rocky can win; but Lang is a real force, one Mickey doesn’t think Rocky is up to fighting. Determined to prove his worth in the ring, Rocky goes ahead anyway, but, with distractions from his personal life weighing down, he loses badly. A rematch seems off the cards, until an offer of help comes from an unlikely source: Rocky’s erstwhile nemesis, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Rocky III is much more action orientated than the first two films. Those were almost social dramas that happen to be about someone who boxes, while this is a sports movie through and through. Stallone once confessed he’d run out of ideas after the first two films, which is why this and Rocky IV focus so much on the fights and training. It’s odd he should say that, because there’s definitely something here about how fame has changed Rocky’s life. It’s more something that’s alluded to rather than being examined by the story — used as background and ‘dressing’ rather than being central to the narrative — but it suggests that, if Stallone had really wanted to add a different dimension to the film, there was a storyline staring him in the face.

It feels appropriate that this was the first Rocky released in the ’80s: our down-and-out coulda-been-a-contender hero is now rich, dressing smart, living in a big house with a nice lifestyle. The whole thing feels like it’s left behind gritty realism for slick aspirational success. But it’s not a completely empty experience, generating emotional attachment from Rocky’s relationships — not only with his wife and young son, but also Mickey and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Apollo Creed. Plus the action and montages are slick and exciting, making this perhaps the most adrenally satisfying of the series to date.

Taking a Clubbering

It’s also quite smart to reposition Rocky as an underdog, make him need his hunger again — there’s not much satisfaction in watching the story of how the best in the world beats someone who isn’t the best! Our hero needs to be challenged, and the film definitely gives him that. That’s the same as the preceding movies, but what’s different here is that it’s a purely sporting challenge, rather than a life one. There are developments in Rocky’s personal life that have a big effect on him, sure, but they’re intrinsically tied to the sporting aspect.

If the first two films are a mirror image of each other, this is something different. It lacks the grit or depth of those two, but still entertains, albeit in a somewhat more superficial way. Giving it a title-mirroring three stars feels a bit harsh, because I did rather enjoy it, but its straightforward focus on the action in the ring means it’s not on the same level as the first two. That said, I’d wager it’s the most effortlessly rewatchable Rocky so far.

3 out of 5

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Rocky II (1979)

2018 #131
Sylvester Stallone | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky II

This first sequel could fairly have been titled Rocky Part II: picking up where the first film left off (literally — the first six minutes are just a replay of Rocky’s final fight), it goes on to detail what happens next for both Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and his world-champion opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). For the former, his childlike naïveté and heart of gold sees him carelessly burn through his newfound wealth as he tries to give the love of his life (Talia Shire) everything he thinks she wants. For the latter, it means an ongoing niggle that he didn’t really win the fight, so he tries to goad Rocky into a rematch.

Like the first movie, a lot of Rocky II is more of a character-based drama than a sport-driven movie, this time about someone who had a taste of the big time struggling to re-adapt to normal life. It’s not that Rocky’s ego has outgrown his means — he doesn’t seem to mind going back to working menial jobs when the money runs out — but his overestimation of his success means that he does indeed find himself in that position. It’s not bad a bad film as a dramatic work — it’s got the same writer as the first movie, after all, here also stepping up to direct (and did you know he wrote a novelisation too?) — but we know where it’s all headed, and so the second half is better than the first.

Run, Rocky, run!

Again, Stallone doesn’t lose sight of keeping events moderately grounded: Rocky struggles to focus on his training regime, and it begins to look like Creed may be right that his success in their first bout was all fluke. Of course, this is as much an underdog fairytale as the first movie was, and so events transpire to finally give Rocky his motivation, culminating in a triumphant revisit to the first film’s famous running-up-the-steps bit. The finale is, naturally, the big boxing rematch, where Stallone really shows off his directing chops: it’s a tense, drag-out duel that easily exceeds the first film’s for visceral impact.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say Rocky II is better than its predecessor — indeed, maybe it’s not quite as good — but I enjoyed it about the same; maybe even slightly more by the end. The Rocky sequels have a collectively poor rep, but I think this is a worthy follow-up.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of the latest Rocky sequel, Creed, is on ITV tonight at 9:30pm.

Rocky (1976)

2018 #57
John G. Avildsen | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rocky

His name is Sylvester Stallone. He’s the star of a new film called Rocky. He has been described as handsome, tough, talented, sexy, sensitive, dynamic, and brilliant. He’s been compared to Brando, Newman, Pacino, and De Niro. He’s been called “a top contender for an Academy Award”.

His name is Sylvester Stallone, but you will always remember him as… Rocky.

So goes the narration to Rocky’s original trailers and TV spots. We don’t get trailers like that anymore, do we? Now we just get Bryce Dallas Howard pretending to roar like a T-Rex while encouraging us to join Odeon Première Club. (I’ve been forced to sit through that far too often, and I’ve only been to the cinema four times this year.) But I digress. The narration also indicates the road Stallone could’ve gone done — imagine if he’d made a career writing and starring in movies like this, following through on all those comparisons the trailer made, rather than going down the action meathead route. A weird thought now, isn’t it?

If you’ve never seen Rocky, you might assume it’s broadly similar to the films Stallone would mostly go on to star in, but it isn’t, really. It’s the story of a smalltime coulda-been boxer left slumming it, when, through sheer luck, he gets a shot at the big leagues. Yes, it’s an underdog sports film — the movie that “inspired a nation” (as a friend once said to me, “inspired them to do what, I don’t know. Get up and turn it off, probably”) — but it’s staged with a level of realism that such fantasies don’t normally reach for. And it’s certainly nothing like the indestructible super-action-hero of sundry later Stallone vehicles.

Meat, standing in for a head

Indeed, Rocky manages to both embody what we now think of as ’70s-style filmmaking — gritty and cynical and kinda miserable — with the other side of ’70s filmmaking — the decade that, between the likes of Jaws and Star Wars, gave us the populist blockbuster as we know it. So, on the one hand, Rocky lives in a dingy little bedsit, spending his days enforcing for a loan shark and plodding the derelict streets of a decrepit city; on the other, he still has hopes and ambitions, and these come to pass when he’s selected to fight world champion Apollo Creed — a real underdog sports story. This duality carries through right to the end (spoilers!): our hero loses the fight, your typical “’70s” downbeat finale; but he also goes the distance, an achievement no one else has managed, and he gets the girl. Considering the movie we’ve just watched, it’s a perfect climax: it maintains the film’s two apparently-irreconcilable (but demonstrably reconcilable) tonal halves right to the very end.

Another major part of the film is Rocky’s faltering attempts to woo a shy pet shop worker, Adrian (Talia Shire). Most of their relationship is beautifully portrayed — tentative, cautious, sweet, and quite touching — a complete 180 from how you’d expect a character defined as “a boxer” to behave. Unfortunately, one key moment hasn’t aged so well. There’s a scene at the end of Rocky and Adrian’s first date where he badgers her into going into his apartment, which she clearly doesn’t want to do; then, despite her obvious discomfort, he tries to get her to sit with him; when she won’t, he walks towards her and, hanging off an overhead pipe, looms over her, demanding to know what’s wrong; then, as she heads for the door, he stops her, one hand over the locks and the other against the wall, trapping her in the corner; and then he informs her he’s going to kiss her, but she doesn’t have to kiss him back, and then he does. And she kisses him back, of course.

Adriaaan!

This scene plays very, very differently in a post-#MeToo world than I imagine it has at any other point in the past 42 years. I mean, I’m sure some people realised its awkwardness quite some time ago — women before men, no doubt — but there’s no avoiding it now. And it’s an odd scene, because clearly the filmmakers know Adrian would be uncomfortable — as I say, her whole attitude portrays that; and I presume they know why she’d be uncomfortable too; and yet it still ends with her giving in to Rocky’s persistent advances. Well, I guess the best we can say is it’s of its era, but its content, and how it makes us feel about Rocky as a character, risks becoming a barrier nowadays. His behaviour doesn’t continue in that vein, thankfully… or is that actually worse, making such behaviour normal rather than a warning sign? Are such conversations relevant about a 42-year-old movie?

Conversely, the film’s depiction of race feels kind of progressive. Most of the white guys we meet are bums eking out an existence, legally or otherwise, while the black guy (surrounded by a mostly black entourage, too) is successful, respected, dressed in finery, and in a position to offer the white guy a one-in-a-million shot at success. Maybe this contrast was just a coincidence, but it feels like it’s making some kind of point. Of course, once they get in the ring for the climax, the black guy is the “bad guy” and our hero is a white guy, so…

Black vs white

I don’t think Rocky was consciously built to sustain such readings, mind — these are just things that struck me while watching it in 2018. At heart it’s a straightforward, inspirational tale — “a charming, grimy and beautiful fairytale”, as John Simon described it in New York Magazine — about someone with unrealised potential getting a final shot. Arguably it gains more power from being semi-autobiographical: Stallone penned the screenplay (and later insisted on starring) as a similar last-shot attempt at his chosen career. It ultimately netted him two Oscar nominations, one for writing and one for acting, though he won neither — but then, what could be a more fitting mirror of the film itself?

4 out of 5

Rocky is on ITV tonight at 11:15pm.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

Cars 3 (2017)

2018 #54
Brian Fee | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Cars 3

At this point I think it’s fairly well known that the Cars movie series continues not because of any artistic desire on the part of Disney/Pixar, but because the toys the films generate sell like hotcakes. Indeed, that situation hasn’t necessarily changed with this third instalment: apparently Cars 3 features 65 different individual racers, more than both the previous films combined. And several of those appear kitted out in different paint jobs. Disney gotsta make that toy money! The disregard with which they hold the actual movies is perhaps demonstrated by the fact this third one is helmed by a first-time director, Brian Fee, whose previous credits are as a storyboard artist on a couple of Pixar productions. Maybe they lucked out, then — or maybe they actually knew what they were doing promoting him — because I think this is easily the best film in the Cars trilogy.

Beginning with nary a reference to the events of Cars 2, racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back doing what he loves: racing. That’d be American-style racing, i.e. constantly turning left for hundreds of laps. Anyway, turns out there’s a new generation of hot young racers, who are less on their way up and more already here, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). They use advanced training techniques and statistics to beat the old guard — soon all of Lightning’s contemporaries are choosing to retire or being forced out, leaving him the last one standing… until he crashes in the final race of the season. Is his career over? Well, what do you think? With the backing of a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and all the latest high-tech gear, Lightning sets to work training with young wannabe-racer-turned-coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). But as he struggles to regain his mojo, perhaps there’s something to be said for the old ways after all…

Storm vs Lightning

Although I wouldn’t say sports movies are my bag, I think Cars 3 probably benefits from taking a more clean approach to that genre, ditching all the spy hijinks distractions of the last one. That purity of genre keeps it straightforward and focused. It also re-centres itself on Lightning McQueen, shoving Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) back into a cameo-sized supporting role, which is about where he belongs (I wouldn’t say he’s likeable in small doses, but he’s tolerable). It still finds room for humour and levity, just in a more natural, less goofy way.

Around that, it actually takes a run at some weighty themes — specifically, old age and obsolescence — and carries through on them too, with a finale that goes for more of a “finding worth in what you do next” ending rather than a “still got it (for now)” one. Such maturity means it’s perhaps more suited to Pixar’s grown-up fans than their young ones — it’s a surprisingly serious movie, in fact, without being po-faced about it. That said, you could probably play down the thematic stuff and just be entertained: there are still good set pieces, both action-based and comical, to keep the right family-friendly tone.

It makes for a winning combination. Cars 3 may not trouble the upper echelons of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but it is the best of their Cars movies — the first of the trilogy I remember genuinely enjoying, rather than just finding tolerably okay. That might sound like a low bar to set, but Cars 3 clears it admirably.

4 out of 5

Cars 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

2017 #116
Dexter Fletcher | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Germany & USA / English, German & Norwegian | PG / PG-13

Eddie the Eagle

The unlikely hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics — ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards — gets the Cool Runnings treatment in this comedy-drama. I make the Cool Runnings connection because, firstly, they’re both about unlikely competitors in the Winter Olympics (from the same year, in fact — what was in the water in ’88?!); and, secondly, because in their transition to the big screen they were both heavily fictionalised.

The story, at least as it goes in the film, sees young Eddie (played as an adult by Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton) keen to participate in any Olympic sport, eventually settling on ski jumping because no Brit has participated in it for six decades. Disavowed by the British officials, he heads off to Germany to train himself. Trials and tribulations ensue that are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, but which eventually see him qualify for the 1988 Olympics — that’s not a spoiler, it’s why he’s famous!

Helping Eddie along his way is Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former US ski jumper who begrudgingly becomes Eddie’s coach, transforming the Brit from a no-hoper to someone who’s… not entirely bad. This is probably the film’s biggest whopper, because Peary didn’t even exist. It’s kind of brazen to make your co-lead and major subplot 100% fictional in a ‘true story’ film, isn’t it?

The Eagle has landed

But, hey, this isn’t a documentary — it’s a feel-good underdog story, about having a can-do attitude and dedication to your dreams in the face of adversity. It’s also about how it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts, in a very literal sense. That probably makes the film sound more twee than it is, but it’s not a grittily realistic take either — it’s a colourful, light, entertainment-minded film. It’s a good pick for Egerton too, getting to stretch different performance muscles than in Kingsman as our naïvely optimistic hero. Jackman makes for an easygoing co-star, getting to mix his Wolverine loner gruffness with a dash of his chat-show charm.

Eddie the Eagle is a thoroughly charming little film. Even if its tone and overall narrative may be familiar, it navigates them with a light touch and consistent good humour that — much like the eponymous Olympian — wins you over, even if it’s in spite of yourself.

4 out of 5

The 2018 Winter Olympics officially commence tomorrow, though some events have already started — including, appropriately enough, ski jumping.

Space Jam (1996)

2017 #76
Joe Pytka | 84 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

Space Jam

Space Jam is one of those movies that everyone of my generation seems to have seen, and many of them have fond childhood memories of it too. I remember when it came out. I pretty thoroughly dismissed it at the time, because I had no interest in basketball (partly because I’m British — I was baffled anyone else over here cared at all), and not much more interest in the Looney Tunes characters either, to be honest. Plus it just looked silly. And not in a good way. But, as I say, everyone else seems to have seen it, so I thought “why not?” and taped it off the telly one day. (Well, I didn’t tape it — no one uses tape anymore, do they? Recorded it. DVR’d it. TiVo’d it. Whatevs.) Then, one night when my critical faculties were feeling like they didn’t want to be challenged with anything too worthy of my time, I decided to bung it on — and learnt that I was right in the first place.

For those who’ve managed to avoid awareness of this movie, it stars Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan, the basketball player, who ends up being recruited by Bugs Bunny and co to teach them how to play basketball so they can beat a group of aliens who want to kidnap them. I would say “it makes sense in the film”, but it doesn’t make much more sense.

Not even Bill Murray can save this movie

A plausible plot is not a prerequisite for an entertaining kids’ movie, but Space Jam provides nothing in its place. It is joyless. Not funny. Not clever. It’s just flat. The concept of character is nonexistent — no one has an arc. It wastes time on a subplot about a bunch of players who aren’t Michael Jordan. (I say “wastes time” — the whole thing’s a waste of time.) Bill Murray turns up for no apparent reason — did he need the money? Does he really love basketball? I don’t know. He brings some small joy just by being him. Elsewhere, there’s a grand total of one funny line.

Even on a technical level, the animation and live-action interaction isn’t all that good. So much of it is obviously just Michael Jordan on a green screen, looking around himself at thin air which some animators filled in. It’s perhaps a little smoother around the edges than Roger Rabbit (which was released eight years earlier), but it lacks that film’s class and tactile sense that the live-action and animation are genuinely interacting, which is more important than computer-aided precision.

You may have seen earlier this week that a list was released of “Must See Movies Before You Grow Up”, aiming to list the 50 films every child should see by the age of 11. Space Jam was on it. So was Home. Over half the list came from this millennium, a third from the past seven years. There’s lots of good stuff on there but, yeah, I think I’m going to ignore it. Like I suggest you should ignore Space Jam.

1 out of 5

Space Jam featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Moneyball (2011)

2016 #163
Bennett Miller | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

MoneyballBased on a true story, Moneyball concerns the management of baseball team Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season. General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) struggles to put a squad together due to a comparatively low budget for players, which has seen all his best ones drift off to richer contracts elsewhere. Fed up with the traditional scouting system, he recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to use statistical analysis to select a cheap team of quality players. The rest of his staff despair, including coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to play the team as Beane and Brand suggest, which unsurprisingly leads to self-vindicating failure — until they force his hand…

So Moneyball is a movie about sports and statistics — a pair of topics that will bore some people to tears, while still others will enjoy one but not the other. Generally, I couldn’t care less about sport, but statistics? Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, despite what you might’ve heard, Moneyball is more about sport than statistics. Worse, it makes too few concessions to people who know fuck all about baseball. You can follow the general arc, but it’s like turning on a real game of any sport you know nothing about: you can discern some stuff, but the coverage is not being produced for you. At one point it cuts to a match and a caption informs us it’s the “bottom of the 9th”. I’m sure that means something to baseball fans, but I can tell you the rest of us haven’t got the foggiest. Is the “bottom” at the beginning or the end? Or somewhere in the middle? Or is it something to do with score rather than time? The 9th what? And is it the 9th of 9 or the 9th of 10? Or 12? Or 15? Or 18, or 25, or…? Or is it the fact it’s the 9th that’s significant here? Maybe there’s normally only 3 or 4 of whatever it is? For Moneyball as a movie in its own right, rather than some niche special interest thing, this attitude is a drawback.

Brad to batProblems extend beyond the sporting specifics. It’s quite some way into the movie before it gets stuck into the meat of the plan working, and before that it often throws in asides that meander around through Beane’s earlier playing career and current family life. The former has some bearing on the plot, though feels inadequately integrated — as one flashback it might work, but as a series of them it’s not enough to constitute a parallel story. The latter, his family life, provides character texture, but it’s slight, uninformative, and ultimately unnecessary. You could cut it and the film would lose nothing.

Moneyball was going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who apparently had some interesting ideas about how to present the wealth of statistical material — ideas that were too interesting for Sony, as it turned out, because they shut down production days before shooting was due to start and kicked Soderbergh out. He was replaced with Bennett Miller, who previously directed Capote, which was fine, and later did Foxcatcher, which I didn’t really like (I gave it 4 stars, but my review reads more like 3 and that’s how I remember it). I’m beginning to dislike the guy. According to IMDb his next project is A Christmas Carol, because we really need another version of that.

On the bright side, Soderbergh’s departure was when Aaron Sorkin came on to write a new version of the screenplay. Swings and roundabouts, eh? But this does not feel like a film written by Aaron Sorkin. Where’s the sparkling dialogue? Where’s the impressive structure? The former is perfunctory and functional; the latter is, if not a mess, then certainly lacking the rigour of his other work. Apparently Sorkin only agreed to do a re-write if previous screenwriter Steven Zaillian kept a credit, because Sorkin felt the script was great “This screenplay's shit.” “Well I didn't write it.”and didn’t need any work, which probably explains why it’s not so Sorkin-y. Zaillian is not a bad writer — his credits include Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York, both of which are in my 100 Favourites, and the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I gave full marks — but I wouldn’t say he has a unique voice. Moneyball’s screenplay is fine for what it is, but it doesn’t have that frisson that Sorkin brings.

Baseball doesn’t interest me in the slightest, partly because I’m not interested in much sport, partly because I’m not American. So I watched Moneyball for three reasons: one, because it seemed like it might be more about the stats than a traditional sports movie. It’s not. Second, because it was written by Aaron Sorkin. But the screenplay displays little of his usual verve. And third, because it’s a Best Picture nominee from this millennium and I’m intending to tick all of those off eventually. In that respect, at least, it was a success — of course, it couldn’t fail to be.

3 out of 5

The Past Month on TV #7

Oh sure, some people can run and jump and swim and stuff really, really well — but can they sit on the sofa and watch TV as well as me, hm?

The Americans (Season 4)
The AmericansAs much as I love Game of Thrones, and think season six’s final two instalments were some of the best TV episodes of this or any other year, I think the people who say The Americans is currently the best drama on TV may well be right. Even the Emmys have got on board, giving it some long-overdue nods in big categories.

I’m not sure season four contains a single hour I can point at to say “here is where it beats Thrones”, but then that exemplifies The Americans: it’s all about how things build over time; the eventual consequences of long-term events, and the consequences of those consequences, and the consequences of… you get the idea. That was how I first got into the show: watching the first season, I thought it was good, an entertaining spy thriller, watchable enough. It was only after the finale that I realised how great it had all been and that I actually loved it. Season two is even more of a case of this: at times it feels like the show has lost its way, and then the finale comes along and shows you the endgame and suddenly the whole year makes sense. And seasons three and four have only upped the ante from there.

This season really nails all the things the show does best. The central espionage storyline about chemical weapons could be a painfully obvious metaphor for the whole premise of the show, but that element isn’t overplayed. Themes of home and family, and the ever-present issues of loyalty, are examined from every angle and in every storyline. There are huge (huge) twists and changes to the series’ status quo, which is a bold move in a fourth season when there are two still to go — to leave behind characters and storylines that have helped fuel the series for so long, when there’s an endgame in sight (and it’s not that close) is kinda bold. And the season finale is a real kicker, with powerful performances and drama, and an ending which is strikingly unresolved… though, at the same time, if the show had been cancelled it’d be pretty resolved (that’s a bizarre, Schrödinger-y thing unto itself).

With the end now in sight, I don’t have the foggiest how the creators are going to choose to wrap things up (in two years and 23 episodes’ time), which is exciting in itself — how many shows genuinely feel like they could go for any option from a number of different endings, assuming they even get to end on their own terms in the first place?

Speaking of which…

Person of Interest (Season 5 Episodes 5-13)
Person of InterestWatching this, it’s difficult to imagine anyone involved really believed they would get a sixth season — which is good, because (a) they stood very little chance, and (b) that means it wraps everything up to a nice, proper ending. My feelings on Jonah “brother of Christopher” Nolan’s cyber-thriller have oscillated over the years, and I’m a long way from agreeing with those who assert it’s actually one of the best sci-fi series ever; but for a show that started out as a fairly standard CBS procedural thriller, it did ultimately manage to play with and work around the network’s expectations to produce something superior. It’s a shame they clearly had to rush the final arc (marred further by having to hit a quota of ‘case of the week’ episodes, for some reason), but it still got to a good place. If you’ve not watched it but are interested, consider finding one of those “episodes you should definitely watch” guides (like this one) rather than committing to all 103 filler-riddled instalments.

Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 6-10)
PreacherIn the end, this turned out to be less of a TV prequel to the comic book series than an expanded and rejigged adaptation of the comic’s opening four-issue story arc (with some stuff from later thrown in for added fuel). As Seth Rogen explained on the post-finale chat show Talking Preacher, the books throw an awful lot of quite comic-book-y ideas at you very quickly, and TV viewers maybe needed a little longer to digest all of that. Plus extra space to develop and examine the characters, of course. It’ll be interesting to see how future seasons handle the issue of adaptation. By the end of season one, the characters are in a place to launch into something closer to the rest of the comic; but, at the same time, budget issues have already forced some reimagining, so what else will it be forced to compromise or reinvent? I think the bold, fearless barminess of the TV series has earned it the right to our attention, whether it goes further off piste or hews closer still to its roots.

Also watched…
  • Cowboy Bebop Episodes 19-20 — slowly slowly reachy movie
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 4 Episodes 1-3 — an underrated gem of British comedy. Each episode is a perfectly-crafted little farce performed by a stellar cast.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 21-22 — after a mostly lacklustre season, it wasn’t a bad finale all told. Still, November’s revival will hopefully be even better.
  • Miranda Series 1 Episode 1-Series 3 Episode 2 — starting (and almost finishing) a completeroni what I call re-watch. Such fun!
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 1-3 — if you like swashbuckling drama (and I do), this is a real gem. Shame on me for being so tardy about keeping up with it.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Max WhitlockThis month, I have mostly been missing… not that much, really. With the Olympics dominating the good TV channels and much of US drama on its summer hols, there doesn’t seem to have been much on. I haven’t gone crazy for Rio 2016 like I did for London 2012 (much to my surprise at the time, that was), though we’ve caught bits and pieces, not least Max Whitlock’s double gold (along with 10.4 million other people) and Andy Murray’s gruelling final. The drama of the next few days, when we’ll see if Britain can become the first host country ever to increase its tally at the next summer games, is sure to hold my attention.

    Next month… with its spin-off on the horizon, I’m finally getting round to 24: Live Another Day. Also, Bake Off’s back! Who doesn’t love Bake Off?

  • The Fighter (2010)

    2016 #80
    David O. Russell | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Oscar-winning true-story drama that relates the early career of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a coulda-been-a-contender type held back by the training of his half-brother, ex-boxer turned drug addict Dicky (Christian Bale), and the management of his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), not to mention the cadre of harpy-ish sisters. Micky gains some confidence after entering a relationship with barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who’s prepared to stand up to his family. He breaks away from them and gets better opportunities, but soon realises that to win he’ll need to combine the best of both worlds.

    I swear, written like that it sounds much cheesier than it plays.

    I don’t normally care for boxing movies (I even gave the sainted Raging Bull just 3 stars), but I rather enjoyed this. Perhaps that’s because it’s about the familial drama as much as it is pugilism, but then the same could be said of Bull, so who knows — maybe I’m just becoming inured to the sport. Heck, I even found myself invested in the outcome during the climactic bout.

    Nonetheless, the film’s real meat lies in the dysfunctional family drama that informs events in the ring. Kudos to whoever had the cojones to focus on the story of Micky Ward establishing himself as a world-class boxer, leaving out the three later fights that really made his name (talk of a sequel covering those seems to have died down, I guess because this film wasn’t a blockbuster so presumably didn’t do sequel-justifying box office numbers). Maybe the story behind those fights forms a good narrative too, but there’s plenty enough here to merit the focus and form a neat narrative — it doesn’t need a fourth act covering three more fights.

    Although this is technically Ward’s story, it’s as much about his older half-brother, washed-up fighter turned part-time trainer and full-time crack addict Dicky Eklund. It’s another of Christian Bale’s extreme weight gain/loss roles (in this case, loss), but there’s more to it than such physical exertion. Bale inhabits the character, and a brief clip of the real Dicky during the credits suggests he’s done so very accurately. His performance is mesmeric and definitely worthy of that Oscar. For the rest of the cast, Amy Adams holds attention equally in a less showy role, and even Marky Mark isn’t half bad. Melissa Leo also won an Oscar for her performance, which I forgot until I read so after — it was the one she controversially funded her own ad campaign for. I guess that paid off.

    David O. Russell stages things with a kind of documentary-esque realism, down to capturing the fights on period-authentic SD video (according to IMDb, they used actual HBO cameras from the time, No-style, rather than just degrading the footage). In trying to figure out why The Fighter worked better for me than Raging Bull, I was left wondering if this was part of it… until I re-read my Bull review, which specifically noted that the “camerawork […] seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism”. There I called it “boring”; here, I felt that gritty, almost happened-upon rather than performed style seemed to suit the seedy world of boxing and the rundown lives of these people. Clearly I’m clutching at straws — my distaste for Bull does not boil down to “I thought it was shot wrong”.

    The Fighter isn’t without its faults, though. There’s a certain element of cliché to the story arc — whether that’s just fact emulating fiction, or the screenwriters imposing familiar shapes on to what really happened, I don’t know. It could also stand to lose a few minutes here and there, especially when it goes round in circles about whether Micky should be trusting his family or not. And talking of movie clichés and comparisons to other films about fighting, watching it in close proximity to Warrior just highlights the other film’s outright manipulation and definite use of cliché, especially in its climax. I’d say this is the better film, with a more interesting, plausible depiction of fractured family dynamics, and a climactic result that didn’t feel telegraphed from act one.

    It’s fair to say that I primarily chose to watch The Fighter so I could tick it off lists of “films directed by David O. Russell” and “Best Picture nominees”, and wound up rather liking it. If they ever get the sequel off the ground, I’d certainly be up for it.

    4 out of 5

    Warrior (2011)

    2016 #71
    Gavin O’Connor | 140 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Two estranged brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), who’ve taken very different paths in life to escape their alcoholic and abusive father (Nick Nolte), wind up entering the mixed martial arts tournament to end all mixed martial arts tournaments, their eyes on the unprecedentedly massive cash prize — one to save his house and family, the other to help the widow of his Army chum. As they separately go up against an array of more experienced opponents, who could possibly end up in the final bout? Hm, I wonder…

    It’s a constant surprise to me that Warrior is on the IMDb Top 250 — and in a very secure 146th place, too — for two reasons: firstly because I’m not sure I’d ever heard anyone actually talk about it, except in passing as part of “the rise of Tom Hardy”-type passages; and secondly because, from the outside, it doesn’t look like a very Top 250-y kind of film. Maybe that’s silly, because there are several other boxing-related films on that hallowed list, but they seem to come from a different pedigree. I guess I’m trying to rationalise a feeling: from the little I’d seen or (not) heard, Warrior just doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would garner enduring acclaim from a wide enough audience to maintain such a position. Having chosen to watch it in part to assuage that confusion, I still find its placement just as baffling.

    Trying to find some explanation, I turned to reviews and comments on film-focused social media sites. It quickly becomes apparent that the love for Warrior doesn’t just come from some silent majority of non-film-fan film viewers. Indeed, it’s amazing how many people of usually sound taste are suckered in by this movie — and how many of them know they’re being suckered in but let it happen anyway. The weirdest thing for me is that this is the kind of film I regularly award 4 stars even while loads of other people are giving it 3 and I think they’re being a bit harsh but I can see where they’re coming from. Now, I’m almost loath to give it 4 because I don’t agree with the consensus. And it’s a particularly strange consensus: everyone seems to acknowledge it’s terribly clichéd, but then give it a pass on that. Why? Why don’t you show the same leniency to the tonnes of other movies you rip to shreds for their clichés?

    As I implied in my opening paragraph, you can tell how the climactic tournament is going to pan out before the film even begins. In a movie rife with cliché, the shape of that contest — who beats who and when — is the most clichéd part… and yet it also forms the climax. Surely the ending being the most rote bit should leave audiences with a sour taste? Yet they seem to become totally enraptured by it. “I knew I was being shamelessly manipulated by an overfamiliar story, but I loved it! Don’t worry, next week I’ll go back to completely slagging off every other movie that even tries to slightly manipulate me and has even the tiniest vaguely familiar aspect to it.” Presumably these people are even giving a pass to the film’s laughable training montage — I guess no one involved in Warrior has seen Team America.

    Still, you could argue the film isn’t about the tournament — it’s about a broken family healing. But if you’re looking for exceptional quality in the dramatic stakes or performances, you’re still left wanting. The family drama is rendered in frequently familiar beats, and when it’s not dealing in clichés it’s dealing in cheap sentiment. Hardy’s character is a war-hero marine — for the American male audience Warrior is clearly aimed at, that’s basically hanging a sign around his neck that says “awesome guy” and letting it suffice for characterisation and backstory. Hardy is a good actor, but he’s not called on to do much more than glower. Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte gives an affecting performance, though I’m not sure his character arc actually reaches any kind of ending. The rest of the cast are adequate: Joel Edgerton is decent as an upstanding family man; Jennifer Morrison has little to do as his wife; Frank Grillo is convincing as a trainer who bases his philosophy on classical music; Kevin Dunn gets some amusing moments as Edgerton’s school principal. Other people sometimes say words.

    Warrior is decent enough for a cliché-driven sports movie, and it certainly has all the attendant ‘victorious’ moments that make such movies feel good without having to try very hard, and at least the fight choreography is decent (I’ve no idea how faithful it is to real MMA, but it seems reasonably plausible to me), and there’s one pretty good performance… but Top 250? I remain baffled.

    4 out of 5