Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

I’m fairly sure there’s never been a film like Rocky Balboa before. The closest is probably Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Rocky Balboa is about its story and its characters, but it’s also about the audience’s pre-exisiting relationship not with the characters, but with Rocky movies as a piece of history. Stallone uses this relationship early and sparsely, to establish Balboa as something worth watching. Once he’s done, he moves on to more interesting things, but Balboa maintains a mystique about it. The idea of a movie character aging in a film’s absence is one infrequently dealt with and usually poorly (The Color of Money). As a concept, it ought to work. (Clint Eastwood once said he’d do a ‘Dirty Harry Goes Fishing’ sequel). But Rocky Balboa is the first time I can think of it’s worked and it works really, really well. It’s easily the best film of the series (which, minus the first one, isn’t hard).

The boxing aspect of Rocky Balboa comes in so late, it’s actually unimportant to what’s going on in the movie itself. If Rocky had been a bowling champion, it’d be the same degree. Well, maybe not bowling. Arm-wrestling maybe. (I can’t remember the name of Stallone’s arm-wrestling movie). He’s old and he’s alone and it’s about him working his way out of a long rut, trying to reform a family around himself. When the boxing finally does come along, it seems like it might not even–if it weren’t a Rocky movie–go anywhere.

Stallone directs Balboa quieter than I’ve seen anyone direct a modern film in a long time. It’s a loving, patient approach and it works beautifully. Only when it gets to the boxing match, shot to look like a televised bout (on DV), does the film lose that understated beauty. Watching it, I wondered if Stallone intended it to look different because it actually was so removed from the rest of the film. I also wondered if it’d look different on DVD, once everything had been digitized. During the boxing match Stallone stumbles a little, trying to find the right way to present the story in film. These stumbles are never annoying though, just visible.

The acting from the principles is great–Stallone’s very aware of what he can and can not do and he only gives himself the stuff he can do. Similarly, Burt Young’s got a bunch of great stuff to do too. Geraldine Hughes plays a grown-up version of a character from the first film and she’s fantastic. Antonio Tarver is fine as the adversary, with some too weak scenes but enough to be a problem. As Rocky Jr., Milo Ventimiglia acts a little bit too much with his styled hair, but Stallone does a lot of work in those scenes and carries him through. The other scenes Ventimiglia’s in, he needs to look like a men’s watch model and manages. The stuff between Stallone and Young is great, but familiar. The stuff between Stallone and Hughes is great and new and somehow more rewarding, because this relationship is what kick-starts Rocky Balboa‘s story.

Going in to Balboa, I wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting something decent or at least inoffensively watchable, but certainly not something great. It was a really nice and totally unbelievable surprise.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; director of photography, Clark Mathis; edited by Sean Albertson; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Charles Winkler, William Chartoff and David Winkler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Burt Young (Paulie), Geraldine Hughes (Marie), Milo Ventimiglia (Robert Balboa Jr.), Antonio Tarver (Mason “The Line” Dixon), James Francis Kelly III (Steps) and Tony Burton (Duke).


RELATED

Advertisements

Harper (1966, Jack Smight)

Harper may very well be an anachronism. I’m not quite sure how to use the word. There’s certainly something off about it. It’s based on a novel written in 1949–a detective novel in the vein of Chandler, which explains why it feels like Chandler–but then it’s filmed in 1966 and it’s not a period piece, but that discrepancy isn’t what I’m talking about. Harper was on the cusp between studio-based filming and location filming. A lot of Harper is location work, shot by Conrad L. Hall, who does a beautiful job. Except there’s some studio stuff in there–driving with rear projection–and it just doesn’t work. When the movie started and I realized–around the time Johnny Mandel’s name showed up with the music credit–it was directed by Jack Smight. All I could remember from Smight’s oeuvre was one of the Airport movies, but I knew he wasn’t going to work out. The combination of him and Johnny Mandel doing a detective movie, just wasn’t going to work.

But Harper does work to some degree. It’s incredibly well-written by William Goldman and incredibly well-acted by the entire cast. Except you’ve got a cast and a writer–whether they knew it or not (though I imagine Goldman did know)–working against the director. Smight wasn’t trying to screw up the movie, his background just didn’t provide the tools required to make Harper work to its full potential. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking about Bullitt and how Peter Yates did something different with Bullitt and Jack Smight didn’t do anything different with Harper and Harper was written to be a different kind of movie. There are scenes going on too long for emphasis and these music cues to clue the viewer in on this film being “cool” maybe… I don’t know. It’s not a cool movie. Listen to the searching, sadden dialogue. The scenes between Paul Newman and divorce-in-progress wife Janet Leigh are fantastic. Not even Smight misunderstanding Goldman’s script and Newman and Leigh’s acting can cut down on how wonderful their eventual scene (after they’re in a couple telephone conversation scenes) turns out.

Harper‘s opening credits are a treasure-trove of good actors who’ve become punch lines or just forgotten. Lauren Bacall shows up, playing–to some degree–her character’s father from The Big Sleep. She’s only around for a couple scenes, but she’s good in them and having fun. She’s playing for the camera though, which is sort of what Smight was going for. A laugh. Specifically, those punch line actors are Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner. Wagner’s damn good here. Winters is playing herself, which is funny for a bit, and then it becomes clear she doesn’t have much else to do. In the forgotten department, Robert Webber’s scary good and Strother Martin shows up in a straight role (probably the first time I’ve seen him not being funny). Julie Harris is actually the only disappointing performance. Arthur Hill’s good and I thought it was strange to see Newman share so much of the film with him, but then I looked at Newman’s filmography and realized he doesn’t monopolize. A lot of the friendship between Newman and Hill is verbalized though and maybe it was the unexpected.

I’ve seen Harper before. Maybe seven years ago it aired on AMC, probably letterboxed. I remember not being impressed with it. Seeing it again, I definitely appreciate it more, but there’s a bit of sadness along with it–just because it could have been so much better, if only it had a different director.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by William Goldman, from a novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Stefan Arnsten; music by Johnny Mandel; produced by Jerry Gershwin and Elliot Kastner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson), Robert Wagner (Alan Traggert), Robert Webber (Dwight Troy), Shelley Winters (Fay Estabrook), Harold Gould (Sheriff Spanner), Strother Martin (Claude), Roy Jensen (Puddler), Martin West (Deputy) and Jacqueline de Wit (Mrs. Kronberg).


RELATED

The Last of Sheila (1973, Herbert Ross)

The Last of Sheila has the most constantly deceptive structure I’ve seen in a while. Watching the time code on the DVD player (and on the laserdisc and VHS players before it, and the clock for televised films even before those inventions) really changes the way one experiences a film. I’m always telling my fiancée we watch films at home and see them at the theater. It’s a measure of control. One can pause, rewind–and stop (I guess this website is more about video-watching than theatergoing, otherwise it’d be called The Walk Receipt or something–it’d actually be called The Golden Ticket after a particular theater’s refund ticket). Anyway, during The Last of Sheila I kept frequent note of the time. It’s a mystery with a cast of familiar stars going somewhere and… mystery ensuing. Since it’s a closed location (a yacht) and Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins wrote (don’t know why I’m attributing this assumption to them, but I am), I figured it’d be stagy, like an adapted play. Obviously, I shouldn’t have made that assumption, just because the film’s all about Hollywood people. The film isn’t traditional–one could sit and use the time code alone to discuss how the story works. Lots of things happen at the thirty minute mark and then a lot happens around ninety minutes. It’s a two hour movie. Even with that frequent observation of the time code, I couldn’t tell where The Last of Sheila was going. I guessed at the culprit, but I never guessed at the eventual resolution, or how the film got there. It’s remarkable, especially since the film started out with director Herbert Ross doing all the lame stuff I associate with his name and it’s incredibly unfortunate Sondheim and Perkins didn’t go on to anything else. It’d be impossible for them to have topped Sheila, because one would have expected it from them–and the casting is incredibly important in ways I can’t possibly discuss without spoiling something–but I would watch a film, written by those two, about two kids who decide to open a pickle-farm. I imagine it would have been wonderfully effective.

As I said, talking about the cast is difficult, but there are some people I can point out. Obviously, Joan Hackett is quite good, but so is Ian McShane, who was once young and slim. James Mason is good. James Coburn I’ve never been able to figure out. He’s good in some stuff, but in other stuff he’s unbearably campy. I thought he was going to go campy for Sheila, but doesn’t. The only weak actor is Raquel Welch, who’s essentially playing herself. She can’t do it.

I was going to say one would have to be familiar with some film history to fully appreciate The Last of Sheila, but that judgment was wrong. It’s just a really good mystery. Even if the locations (and sets) bring more to it than Herbert Ross did.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; director of photography, Gerry Turpin; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Billy Goldenberg; distributed by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Tom), Dyan Cannon (Christine), James Coburn (Clinton), Joan Hackett (Lee), James Mason (Philip), Ian McShane (Anthony) and Raquel Welch (Alice).


RELATED

Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell)

I had read somewhere Casino Royale wasn’t going to be chock-full of CG like the recent Bond films, but maybe I misread it. As a series, the Bond films are supposed to be about stunt work and explosions. Casino Royale is actually light on explosions and practically absent of stunts. There’s lots of stunt-looking stuff, but it appears to be CG composites. Terrible CG composites, much like director Martin Campbell’s previous Bond film, Goldeneye, which at least had the excuse of being an early CG-adopter. I can find one nice thing to say about Casino Royale–maybe two. Daniel Craig is not bad. He’s fine, actually. He’s not playing James Bond–because after so many actors, Bond is a shell of a character. He’s made by certain trivialities, which make an amusing couple hours in exotic locales filled with foreign actors speaking English and explosions and stunts. Casino Royale, I’m sure it’s more pretentious supporters would say, serves to deconstruct said trivialities, which leaves the film empty. I sat and waited for one exciting scene and it never came. The other good thing was Giancarlo Giannini. He’s amusing in a self-aware performance. A lot of Casino Royale’s performances feel as though Campbell has just called “action.” The performances are all very stagy. But I’ll get to them in a second. First I need to say something about Campbell’s direction. It’s not just uninteresting or boring or predictable–adjectives to describe David Arnold’s atrocious score–Campbell’s direction is actually a new step in DVD-market mediocrity. I sat and watched scenes composed for people’s HDTV’s. Sony HDTV’s, of course, since Casino Royale is a two and a half hour advertisement for Sony productions. Campbell actually repeats certain scenes–ones to humanize Bond–from Goldeneye, lifts them straight out. Except Goldeneye was technically competent.

I guess I can’t escape the performances. Eva Green is awful, Mads Mikkelsen is amusingly awful, and Jeffrey Wright is unspeakably bad. It’s a new level of terrible from Wright, who manages to give the same performance over and over again, but worse each time.

The writing is something special. It manages to bore to new heights. James Bond isn’t the film’s central character for much of the film, he’s the subject, which is not a working arrangement for something known as a… James Bond film. This distance serves to introduce the audience to a fifty-year old character. It’s quite useful in wasting time. I kept wondering if I could say the film has twenty endings, but instead it has no ending for quite a while. Casino Royale breaks the traditional three act structure and replaces it with nonsense. Campbell doesn’t have the directorial chops to work it, Craig’s fine but he’s not a miracle worker–he just keeps his head above water in a drowning pool–so it goes on and on and on. At least if it had been a trick ending, it would have been bad and funny, instead it’s just bad.

James Bond films have always been well-reviewed, at least since I’ve known about movie reviews. The distaste for them comes later–I remember Dalton being well-reviewed for example and there were astoundingly positive reviews for the worst of the Brosnan films. I didn’t to go Casino Royale hoping it would suck so I could be bemused at the state of artistic appreciation in the world today. I went to be amused by stunts and explosions and I didn’t even get those.

Something needs to be said about the terrible song, but hopefully someone else can say it. I’m bored with thinking about Casino Royale already.

Wait, one last thing. Sony appears–from the trailers I saw for their new films, from this film–to be making the worst mainstream films today, which is quite a thing to be able to say.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Campbell; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Phil Méheux; edited by Stuart Baird; music by David Arnold; production designer, Peter Lamont; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre), Judi Dench (M), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter) and Giancarlo Giannini (Mathis).


RELATED

superior film blogging