Free Solo (2018)

2019 #36
Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Free Solo

Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.

So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.

Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.

In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.

Alex vs El Capitan

That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.

Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenging of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.

Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.

4 out of 5

Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

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High Flying Bird (2019)

2019 #14
Steven Soderbergh | 90 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

High Flying Bird

Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ continues with another shot-on-iPhone movie (following last year’s psychological thriller Unsane), this time going direct to Netflix. Whereas Unsane made a virtue of its iPhone cinematography to heighten a disquieting, untrustworthy atmosphere, High Flying Bird forges ahead with no such baked-in excuse for its visual quality. However, similarly to Unsane, the fact it was shot on an iPhone is almost incidental, noteworthy mainly just because it’s unusual. But more on that later.

The movie is about Ray (André Holland), a basketball agent struggling to keep his players in check during a lockout… and already you’ve lost me, movie: I had to look up what a lockout is. I’m not much of a sports person, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have lockouts in British sports. Basically, best I can tell, it’s some kind of disagreement between the players (through their union) and the team owners, which results in games not being played when they should be, and people not being paid because nothing’s happening. So, it’s a bad thing, and it’s putting Ray in a bad situation — so he sets about trying to launch an “intriguing and controversial business opportunity”, to quote an IMDb plot summary.

Something like that, anyway. Frankly, it took less than two minutes for High Flying Bird to leave me feeling lost and confused, as it dives into an “inside baseball” (as the saying goes) depiction of basketball right from the off. It felt like watching a French movie without subtitles, except here the language isn’t French, it’s basketball. In fairness, I did eventually get a handle on what the overall plot was, but mostly with hindsight and not ’til quite far in — my analogy still stands for what the viewing experience was like until that point.

Lost and confused

For fans of basketball, or at least those with some kind of knowledge of the workings of the business side of American sport, it might all be more palatable. I think there’s some good stuff in the plot and characters, but I can only say “think” because I made such a lousy fist of following what was meant to be going on half the time. The story culminates in a final twist/reveal about Ray’s actual plan. Fortunately, by that point I’d worked out (more or less) what events had happened, so I followed it — indeed, I got there ahead of it. Well, that’s because before viewing I read a comment which implied this was a heist movie (like Soderbergh’s previous work on the Oceans films or Logan Lucky), so I’d already been on the lookout for what the real con was. Nonetheless, I’m torn between whether the reveal was quite clever, or the film thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is. If I hadn’t had that heads up, maybe I would’ve been as mind-blowingly impressed as Ray’s boss seems to be when Ray reveals the real plan to him. Or maybe I wouldn’t’ve, who can say.

Unsane suggested you couldn’t make a good-looking film on an iPhone. High Flying Bird says, actually, you can. It doesn’t all look great (especially when, for example, the shot literally wobbles from something as simple as someone putting a drinks bottle down on a table), but there are some beautiful shots in here too. Unsane almost had to make a virtue of its odd look, the weirdass visuals chiming with the story of a possibly unstable mind. High Flying Bird has no such excuses, and most of the time it doesn’t need them; though some parts do still look like a first-effort student film, which is very odd coming from a director as experienced as Soderbergh (this is the 56-year-old’s 29th feature, not to mention his 39 episodes of TV).

Looking to the future

While researching the film’s production I came across this interesting article at The Ringer, which uses High Flying Bird as a jumping off point to examine the history, increase, and future of using iPhones for professional projects. It basically contends that phone-shot films are the future for everything, and makes that sound reasonable. It’s reminiscent of the emergence of digital photography for movies: it was a big story back when Soderbergh shot Che with digital cameras (Criterion’s Blu-ray release has a half-hour documentary dedicated to it), but it was only a couple of years later that became standard for all major movies, and a few years after that it’s now noteworthy when something is actually shot on film. It seems inconceivable that one day they’ll be shooting an Avengers movie on a phone, but then it once seemed inconceivable you’d shoot a movie that big on digital video…

It’s quite hard for me to give a concise opinion of High Flying Bird. I struggled through much of it, which made for an unpleasant viewing experience. But I acknowledge some of that lies with me knowing less about basketball than the film does. But then again, is it the film’s responsibility to explain to me the things I don’t know? I did get a handle on events by the end, and if I watched the film again I expect I’d follow it better, but I also don’t feel there’s much luring me back for a second viewing.

3 out of 5

High Flying Bird is available on Netflix now.

Creed (2015)

2018 #242
Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Creed

Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

Creed and Balboa

Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

Adonis and Bianca

In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

Training hard

Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

Gonna fly now

And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

5 out of 5

Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

2018 #217
Sylvester Stallone | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Rocky Balboa

Writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone returns to his boxing saga to give it the ending he fluffed 16 years earlier. Even as someone who didn’t dislike Rocky V, I don’t think it’s a great send-off for the character. Stallone felt the same, which is why he conceived this as a proper capstone for the series.

Naturally, time has passed in the world of Rocky (Stallone) too. His beloved wife Adrian has died, and he spends half his time mourning her, to the distaste of his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). He spends the rest of his days running a little restaurant, regaling customers with tales of former boxing triumphs, and trying to connect with the grown-up son who barely wants to see him (now played by Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia, because Stallone was worried that if he cast his real son (as he had in Rocky V) viewers would be distracted wondering if their real-life relationship was like that). But when a computer-generated fight between Rocky and current champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) hands the victory to Rocky, he wonders if he might have more fight left in him yet; and Dixon, eager to prove his worth to a press who doubts his ability, agrees to fight the fight for real.

Technically Rocky Balboa is a sports movie — because, y’know, it’s Rocky — but most of it is really a drama, with the sporting side only really coming in the second half. It barely matters that Rocky used to be a sportsman, it’s a portrait of any guy who used to be successful at something and now mopes around missing the good old days. It’s only when there’s a training montage and then then climactic fight that the film really enters the Sport genre. In that respect, it’s really taken Rocky back to its roots, because the same description of its structure and emphasis could be applied to the first and second films. Stallone tried to get there with the fifth, too, but ended up making it a bit melodramatic and clichéd. Here, he’s hit the nail on the head, with a story that packs as much punch outside the ring as inside it.

Not-so-little Marie

One subplot that gets a lot of screen time and works particularly nicely is when Rocky bumps into ‘Little’ Marie, the girl who Rocky walked home and advised against hanging out with boys back in the first movie. Marie was originally to appear in Rocky V, given a miserable storyline as a homeless prostitute, but it got cut. Thank goodness for that — that film’s bleak enough as it is, and it allowed Stallone to do something better with the character here. Now, Marie doesn’t exactly have a super life, but she’s got a house (albeit a crummy one), a job (albeit a crummy one), and a kid (who’s alright). Her appearance could’ve just been ultra-referential fan service — it’s bringing back a tiny character from the first, most popular film, after all — but it actually works really well as a subplot. A lot of that is thanks to Geraldine Hughes’ subtly developed, genuine performance. Her and Rocky have an interesting relationship: kind of fatherly, kind of romantic, but also explicitly not that. Rocky has always looked to help the “damsel in distress”, and he’s at it again — it’s his chivalrous nature. It’s also tied to him floundering around post-Adrian, looking for some kind of meaning to life, stuck in his grief — which is also what really leads to his return to the ring, thereby making the film thematically of a piece.

The absence of Adrian is a major factor in the film, and deciding to ‘kill her off’ seems to have been the key to unlocking the screenplay for Stallone: she was alive in the first few drafts, but they lacked emotional impact. Stallone and actress Talia Shire mutually agreed Adrian should be left out, giving Rocky an “emotional chasm” to overcome. It was a smart move, I think. The Rocky/Adrian relationship is so central to the series (his post-fight cry of “Adrian!” in the first film is one of the series’ most iconic moments, even to people who’ve never seen it), and showing the end of that taps into a genuine and tangible sense of grief, both for the characters and the viewers. Indeed, the flashes we see of Adrian and Mickey, Rocky’s beloved coach (also deceased), during the final fight confirm something that’s quite apparent in various other bits of the film: this isn’t just using the Rocky name to do something different and new, like other belated sequels or soft reboots do, but is a true sixth entry in the series. It’s not completely wedded to the continuity of the other movies — you could probably watch this by itself and still get the main points of just about everything — but the full weight and impact of it is felt by being familiar with the entire Rocky saga.

We're gonna need a montage

On the other hand, it’s equally fortunate they didn’t go overboard on the fan service: cameos for Clubber Lang (the opponent in Rocky III) and Ivan Drago (from Rocky IV) were cut at the script stage. They do sound quite fun though, as fan service (you can read about them here), so it’s perhaps a shame they weren’t filmed and included in an extended cut or something. In his audio commentary on the Blu-ray, Stallone does talk about a director’s cut, and little wonder: his first cut ran two-and-a-half hours, but the studio insisted he lop out 45 minutes. It’s strange that the extended version has never materialised: in the commentary Stallone is clearly keen on it, the film was a success, and studios usually love a way to make even more money. I’ve no idea why it never happened.

As for the sports aspect of the film… well, there’s a training montage set to the classic theme that ends with Rocky running up those steps… accompanied by his new pet dog. That’s a 6 out of 5 rating right there from me. But more seriously, Stallone had some interesting ideas about how to handle the climactic fight, and I’m basically going to paraphrase from his commentary a lot now because he’d clearly thought about this a fair bit and his decisions come across on screen. (Which is interesting, actually, because there are some editing decisions earlier on that I’d describe as odd and perhaps even thoughtless, like the way it intercuts Rocky reminiscing about Adrian and meeting Marie with Mason Dixon despairing about his career, to no particular effect.) On the commentary, Stallone talks about how the other Rocky films had cinematically-shot final fights, which made them more fictional, whereas for this film he chose to shoot on hi-def video and cut it together pretty much how HBO do it for real, with on-screen graphics and everything. His intention was to blur the line between reality and a cinematic fight. Well, that’s only ever going to work up to a point (we know it’s a movie, after all), but, as someone who’s never watched a boxing match on HBO (or at all) the veracity of the presentation comes across.

It ain't over 'til it's over

Interestingly, it doesn’t stop there. The fight’s first round is shown entirely in the ring, with no cutaways to other characters, again to evoke real fights; but you can’t do a whole fight that way in a movie (it would get monotonous, Stallone says), so with round two it begins to cut away, “layering in the emotion”. Eventually it becomes a montage, with black & white shots and flashbacks as well as the fight. Here, Stallone’s move completely away from the realism and into depicting Rocky’s subjective experience, as he works out his emotions over Adrian while accomplishing something he never thought he could. So, across the entire fight, the film basically swings from one extreme of objectivity to the other of subjectivity, but executes it seamlessly, making one of the best climaxes of the series.

It’s bolstered further by the plausibility of Rocky’s opponent. He may not be as memorable as Clubber or Drago, but Dixon is more believable as a human being. Or, as Stallone puts it, Clubber and Drago were Villains, while he tried to write Dixon as a character — someone on his own journey, which Rocky comes into. That’s part of why Dixon breaks his hand during the fight: it’s his “trial by fire”, his chance to prove himself after he takes the kind of beating he’s never had before. Of course, it also gives Rocky an in, because the old man never would’ve stood a chance otherwise. How much of a chance does he have? That’d be telling. In fact, they went as far as shooting four different endings, with every possible outcome for the fight, so as not to spoil the ending for the watching crowd. (For some reason, only one of these alternates is included on the DVD and Blu-ray releases.) But really the strict winner of the fight doesn’t matter, which is something Stallone also realised. He originally had Rocky stay in the ring for the final decision, but Stallone realised Rocky doesn’t care about that — by holding his own he’s proved himself to himself, and he’s ready to move on with his family. And, much like in the first movie, the crowd know who the real winner is, whatever the judges say.

There's only one Rocky

Once upon a time the Rocky films were held up as a more-or-less perfect example of the law of diminishing returns for movie sequels. I’m not sure that’s wholly true anyway (I quite enjoyed all of them), but Rocky Balboa certainly bucks any downward trend. With it, Stallone managed to create another crowd-pleaser that doesn’t sell out its roots in the previous films; if anything, it’s enhanced by them, and takes the series back to where it all began in an appropriate manner. As he’d intended, it’s a perfect button on the series. Though, as it turned out, Rocky’s story isn’t quite done yet…

4 out of 5

The latest Rocky movie, Creed II, is out in the US this week and in the UK next Friday.

Rocky V (1990)

2018 #206
John G. Avildsen | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

Rocky V

With his career apparently on the wane, the promise of a payday tempted writer and star Sylvester Stallone to reignite the Rocky franchise for one final round (as it’s turned out, this was far from the end, but more on that another time). After the cartoonish excess of Rocky IV, Stallone tried to shepherd this film back towards the series’ roots as a gritty drama, going so far as to rehire the Oscar-winning director of the first film, John G. Avildsen. It didn’t work: Rocky V was met with poor reviews and poor box office. Stallone himself has admitted its failure in the decades since: when he was asked to rate each of the Rocky films out of ten, he gave this one zero. In spite of all that, I thought it was… fine.

The plot picks up immediately after the end of Rocky IV, with the eponymous pugilist learning that the beating he took from Drago has left him with serious brain damage — one more fight could kill him. At the same time, a bad financial decision by Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) leaves the Balboa family in ruins, forced to move back to their old neighbourhood. Despite lucrative fight offers, Adrian (Talia Shire) insists Rocky remained retired, which leads to him encountering Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a wannabe boxer keen to be trained by the great Rocky. As Rocky begins to live vicariously through the increasingly successful Tommy, his son, Rocky Jr (played by Stallone’s own kid, Sage Stallone) is feeling neglected, especially as he’s struggling with bullies at his rough new school.

Rocky Jr

So, you can see how the film is trying to be more grounded — gone are the flag-waving ultra-patriotic theatrics of the last film, replaced with a grim story of financial ruin, inner city hardship, and what life is like after your dreams are over. It’s all a bit much. Indeed, it’s probably too much, because Stallone’s attempt to course-correct the franchise overshoots, sailing past gritty realism and into melodrama territory. There’s a lot of shouting and emotional theatrics, and the subplots are all a bit pat. I mean, Rocky neglecting his son because he’s training a fighter who he treats like a son is a solid enough plot, but it’s kinda obvious and we’ve seen its ilk before, and the way it plays doesn’t offer an original perspective on the material. So while it does work as a story, it’s part of what I mean about it being a melodrama — it’s not realism, it’s a heightened Movie story.

The rest of the film is similarly afflicted — there are plenty of cheesy parts, but it wouldn’t be a Rocky movie if there weren’t — though some behind-the-scenes choices don’t help. For example, Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer, which probably seemed like a clever casting decision, but, given his limited acting ability, was possibly a mistake. That said, while he’s hardly a spectacular actor, I didn’t think he’s as bad as some people say. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is the soundtrack. The film is often scored with rap songs, which don’t fit the character at all. I don’t know whose decision it was, but presumably not Avildsen’s: in 2002 he snuck a workprint version of the film out online, dubbing it the “director’s cut”, and apparently it includes a lot more of Bill Conti’s original score. There were various other changes as well (you can read a review here). I don’t know how easy that version is to find nowadays, or what kind of quality it’s available in — in the 16 years since, it’s not been granted an official release.

Balboa family values

The originally planned ending for the film had Rocky dying after the final fight, but Stallone and/or the studio thought that didn’t really fit the tone and themes of the series. Quite right, too. It also left the door open for the series to eventually continue and redeem itself: there’s the revival movie, Rocky Balboa; the spin-off with Rocky as a trainer, Creed; and the spin-off where Rocky got turned into a squirrel or a moose or something, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I can’t wait to see how that came about. (I jest — I know he’s the squirrel.*)

Altogether, I don’t quite see why Rocky V gets so reviled. It’s certainly not the best movie in the series — indeed, it’s probably the lowest point, lacking the realism of the early films, the entertaining ridiculousness of its immediate predecessors, and the feel-good zero-to-hero arc seen in all of those — but it’s a passable-enough drama in its own right.

3 out of 5

* I did not know this — I had to Google it. Never let it be said I don’t commit to a joke. ^

Rocky IV (1985)

2018 #152
Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Russian | PG / PG

Rocky IV

Rocky goes a bit Rambo for an instalment that abandons the series’ early gritty social realism roots in favour of an anti-Soviet propaganda cartoon tone. And, in fact, it was released the same year as First Blood Part II, which actually marked Rambo’s shift from being about a vet with PTSD to an “America, fuck yeah!” action series. What was up with Stallone in ’85?

Anyway, back to Rocky. This time, his opponent in the ring is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a poster boy for Soviet superiority and their advanced training methods. With Drago’s team harping about his brilliance, Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) elects to come out of retirement to fight him and prove America’s supremacy. But the fight goes sideways, setting up a grudge match between Drago and Rocky.

Interpreting a sports movie as really being about the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union might normally be considered subtextual analysis, but that’s not the case here — it couldn’t be more blatant. Sometimes this is as hilariously preposterous as you’d expect (Rocky’s victory speech is greeted by a standing ovation from the Soviet politburo!), but other bits actually work quite well. Take the sequence before the Creed-Drago fight: on one hand it’s a ludicrously OTT musical number; on the other, that’s the point, as shown by Drago’s confusion at the flashy spectacle going on around him, intercut with his wife’s exasperated sighs. It’s the mentality of the USA vs. the USSR encapsulated in a glitzy floorshow vs. a heavy frown.

USSR in the back

This isn’t the only bit of music in Rocky IV, though. Oh no. Far from it. Halfway through, the film basically stops dead for the sake of a music video montage of scenes from all four movies. It’s meant to signify a moment of introspection for Rocky, but it goes on for the length of an entire song. And that’s certainly not the only montage. Oh no. Far from it. At one point there’s a training montage… followed by another training montage. It’s like a spoof of itself.

And I haven’t even mentioned the robot that Paulie receives as a gift, which seems to have an AI. No, seriously. Later, he gives it a woman’s voice and refers to it as “his girl” while it delivers him beer and plays its favourite song. No, seriously.

Some people were trying a bit harder than writer-director Stallone, though. There’s a good supporting turn from Brigitte Nielsen, giving off Lady Macbeth vibes as Drago’s wife — she’s like his voice, doing all the talking in America while he just glowers around as a silent hulk of muscle. Carl Weathers is also given some good material as a Creed who’s miserable when out of the limelight, jumping at the chance to revive his fame — he revels in the renewed attention, even if it might mean his death.

Rocky IV is not a good film, but between the so-ridiculous-it’s-fun bulk and the genuinely good flashes, it’s certainly entertaining.

3 out of 5


And now, a special bonus review…

Rocky VI
(1986)

aka Rock’y

2018 #152a
Aki Kaurismäki | 8 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Finland / English & Finnish

Rocky VI

An early work from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (one of those world cinema names I recognise but couldn’t tell you a single film by), Rocky VI is not, in fact, the sixth entry in the Rocky franchise, but a short parody of the fourth one (the Roman numerals in the title being an inversion of the real film’s IV, obv.). Kaurismäki described the short as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole.” Don’t hold back, Aki, tell us what you really think!

The film is basically all a music montage — so that’s quite accurate, then. In it, weedy little American Rock’y fights burly bushy-browed Russian fatso Igor. Rock’y spends several rounds getting absolutely pummelled, eventually falling over dead without Igor having to throw a punch. And that’s the end.

It’s too slight to be especially funny, with nothing to say other than “hey, wasn’t Rocky IV just pro-American propaganda?”, which I think we all knew. Really, Rocky IV is a better parody of Rocky IV than Rocky VI is.

2 out of 5

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

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 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.