Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 26, 2016


Rocky Balboa’s story ended in, well, “Rocky Balboa.” Even someone as sequel happy as Sylvester Stallone realized continuing the story beyond that point was ridiculous. However, sometimes unexpected things happen. Ryan Coogler, an up-and-coming director who had won acclaim for “Fruitvale Station,” was apparently a big fan of the “Rocky” series, feeling a personal connection with the films. He had an idea for a new film that was as much sequel as spin-off. In other words, “Creed” was essentially “Rocky” fan fiction that became official. Even more surprising, “Creed” would be a hit with audiences and critics. The film even took Sylvester Stallone, a creative mind who rarely gets the respect he deserves, back to the Academy Awards for the first time in forty years.

When he was ten years old, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson discovered that his father was Apollo Creed, world famous boxing champion, and that he was the result of an extramarital affair. Taken in by Creed’s widow, Adonis spends his whole life trying to live up to his late father’s legacy. While working at a comfortable office job, he competes in underground boxing matches. After quitting his job and getting rejected by his father’s gym, he flies to Philadelphia. Meeting up with Rocky Balboa, he talks the former champ into training him. Soon, an oppretunity arrives for Adonis to prove his worth.

Ryan Coogler’s admiration for the “Rocky” series is obvious in “Creed.” The film features many callbacks to the franchise’s history. Rocky is still spending most of his time at Adrian’s. He still visits his late wife’s grave all the time, with Paulie recently joining his sister. Robert Jr. is living in Vancouver with a girlfriend. Mickey’s gym is a major setting. Adonis trains by jumping rope and chasing chickens. Moreover, “Creed” clearly imitates the original “Rocky,” in story and tone. Both films concern an inexperienced boxer eager to prove himself. He gets that chance when the reigning champ asks to fight him. There’s a love story and a montage of running down the street. Something else “Creed” has in common with “Rocky” is a naturalistic tone. Coogler shoots at a street level, with lots of ambient noise and atmosphere.

The film is named “Creed,” instead of “Adonis,” not just for commercial reasons. Throughout the film, Donnie struggles with his relationship with his deceased father. On one hand, he idolizes him, his bloodline initially driving him to become a boxer. After entering the ring, and his true parentage being revealed to the world, he starts to resent the name. That everyone assumes he’s a “Fake Creed” or a “Baby Creed,” someone coasting on his father’s legacy and unworthy of that name. By the end, he’s come to peace with it, during an especially touching sequence. Michael B. Jordan’s performance is excellent, as someone struggling with his birthright and fighting to prove himself.

“Rocky” and “Creed” both feature their titular boxer falling in love. But Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is very different from Adrien. A would-be R&B star, Bianca has a promising musical career. She also has progressive hearing loss, already using a hearing aide in one ear, that will eventually rob her of her hearing altogether. At first, she is resistant to Adonis’ advances. However, he slowly charms her. Their first date – getting Philly cheese steaks at a local restaurant – is an awfully sweet moment. When he visits her apartment, goofing around with her musical equipment, is another stand-out sequence. The film isn’t without its trumped up melodrama, such as when Adonis picks a fight at a club were Bianca is singing, but it’s also good at defusing moments like that. Such as Adonis not revealing his true last name to her sooner, which dissolves in a really sweet scene. The romance is the secret heart of “Creed,” Jordan and Thompson’s chemistry making the film better then it otherwise would’ve been.

“Creed” is about Donnie but the film still continues Rocky’s storyline. Balboa has settled into retirement, happily running his restaurant, his fighting days long behind him. He’s reluctant to train the younger Creed, as everyone he loves has left him, but is eventually talked into it. During filming, Stallone was the same age Burgess Meredith was during “Rocky,” making his transition into trainer a natural choice. This makes the training montages especially joyous. Yet the film gives Rocky a juicier arc then that. Midway through the film, he collapses suddenly. A trip to the doctor reveals that Rocky has cancer. At first, he’s disinterested in treatment, deciding he’s had enough of a life already. Soon, Creed convinces him otherwise. The film happily makes the comparison that both Rocky and Donnie are fighting. One in the ring, one for his life. Stallone’s Oscar nominated performance is restrained, lived-in, relaxed, but quietly touching.

Like the original “Rocky,” “Creed” doesn’t feature very many boxing matches. There’s a few brief scuffles in the beginning, a major fight at the mid point, and the championship bout at the end. Over these few scenes, Coogler shows a definite aptitude for action direction. For Creed’s first major fight, Coogler takes the camera inside the ring. During an impressive single shot, the camera zips in-between the two fighters, around the punches, whipping in and out of their corners. It’s the action high-light of the film. However, the final fight is still highly cinematic, an exciting sequence determined to make the audience feel the impact of the blows and the power of the punches. (The director’s handle on action is certainly good news for Coogler’s upcoming gig in the Marvel universe.)

“Creed” is clearly derivative of the very first “Rocky.” Both films even have similar endings. Then again, “Rocky” was derivative of other inspirational sports movie before it. With a strong directorial arm and a fantastic cast, Coogler, Stallone, and the rest of the team have created a worthy new addition to the franchise and a film that stands fantastically on its own. The odds seem good that “Creed” will launch a new franchise. Sly is eager to play his iconic role well into retirement age. Maybe Adonis can fight Ivan Drago Jr. in part two? That’d be cool. [8/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Lonely Old Man]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

Before Sylvester Stallone nearly won an Academy Award for "Creed," he seemed ready and eager to continue to ride his action movie legacy. Further sequels to "Rambo" and "The Expendables" were planned. After Sly's brush with Oscar gold, the veteran star's future plans seem to have changed. He's only currently announced future projects is a supporting role in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" sequel. While a "Creed" sequels seems a likely proposition, perhaps Sly is finally starting to slow down in his old age? He's more then earned it. Whatever the old guy gets up to next, I'm intrigued.

Thus concludes the Sylvester Semester Part II. Thanks for reading. I'll return soon, I promise.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Once upon a time, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were bitter rivals. As the two biggest action stars of the eighties, they was naturally some competition between them. Stallone himself has commented on how much he resented the Austrian superstar’s success. Eventually, that animosity would cool and the two would become friends. After all, they did launch Planet Hollywood together. Arnold even appeared in supporting roles in Sly’s “Expendables” series. With “Escape Plan,” the two nostalgic titans of action co-starred in a film together. Like many of the throwback action flicks in recent years, the film would flop domestically before becoming a big hit overseas.

Ray Breslin has spent his entire life in prison. On purpose. Breslin is placed into various prisons by the government and is paid to break out of them, exposing exploitable flaws in the system. Thus far, he has managed to escape from every prison he’s been in. For his latest mission, he’s abducted by masked men, placed in a helicopter and wakes up in a seemingly inescapable fortress called the Tomb. The Tomb is a prison based off Breslin's own designs. Teaming up with a fellow in-mate called Emil Rottmayer, Ray faces his greatest challenge, trying to escape the Tomb and avoid its sadistic warden.

It goes to show how astray the movie-going public has gone when a movie starring Sly and Arnold, formerly two of the biggest stars in the world, can underperform domestically. For action nerds, seeing the two stars together is a dream come true. “Escape Plan” acknowledges its leads' mythic status. Stallone’s Breslin is introduced being an intellectual badass. Arnold’s Emil gets a grand introduction. More then once, the film finds an excuse so the two guys can fight. Yet the stars aren’t just cashing paychecks. Sly is engaged with the material, making Breslin a likable guy who is always thinking and scheming. Arnold, meanwhile, is exhilarating. He’s all grins, bringing an impressive energy to the part. A moment, where he rants in German while locked in solitary confinement, is electrifying. (It’s also one of the few times Arnold spoke his native language on-screen.) Moreover, the two are great together, like in the scene where they give humiliating nicknames to the various faceless guards. It’s not high art but it’s clear both performers are having a blast, elevating a screenplay that was already pretty good.

That’s right, “Escape Plan” is surprisingly well written. Oh, it’s ridiculous. You can guess early on which one of Breslin’s associates has betrayed him. The various methods Ray uses to escape are as unlikely as the ones used to imprison him. You have to accept these things. Yet “Escape Plan” is shockingly well structured and paced. Watching the heroes figure out ways around and out of these seemingly inescapable scenarios is compelling. Probably my favorite scene in “Escape Plan” has Ray enacting a convoluted series of events to escape from solitary confinement, pumping bolts with a hand mirror and climbing up the insides of the prison's wall. The reveal about where the Tomb is located is pulled off fantastically. I was half expecting the place to be on the moon or something. Though goofy on its face, “Escape Plan” handles its story seriously, drawing the audience in.

For most of its run time, “Escape Plan” functions more like a thriller, acting solidly within the expected boundaries of the prison genre. There’s the evil warden, the sadistic guards, the rivalries within the block, gang members, and a prison riot before it’s over. In its last act though, “Escape Plan” becomes a joyous homage to the eighties action movies that made Sly and Arnie famous. Stallone is running and gunning through the innards of the prison. He beats up Vinnie Jones. The absolutely best moment in the film occurs when Schwarzenegger picks up a giant machine gun and starts mowing down bad guys. By the end, Sly is cracking one-liners and causing giant explosions. It’s a lot of fun.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are clearly the stars of the show. However, “Escape Plan” puts together a solid supporting cast. Jim Caviezel plays Hobbes, the warden with a clear grudge against Breslin. Adapting a vocal pattern reminiscent of Christopher Walken, Caviezel has a sinister twinkle in his eye as a comic book-style villain. Vinnie Jones’ guard is introduced beating an in-mate to death. Jones, who has made a career of playing heavies, certainly has no problem playing another vicious psychopath. Sam Neill has a surprise appearance as the prison’s doctor, bringing some gravitas to a nothing part. Vincent D’Onofrio plays another sleazy businessman type, happily hamming it up. The only distracting supporting player is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, cast against type as a computer hacker. Fiddy mugs furiously, facially and vocally, totally taking the audience out of the film every time he appears.

Maybe one of the reasons why I like “Escape Plan” so much is because I really didn’t expect it to be good. Plopped down in a non-extraordinary October release, with few positive reviews to its name, it’s not surprising it did poor business here in the States. Going in with few expectations revealed a movie that mixes smart and dumb in the best way, a ridiculous if compelling thriller that transforms into a supremely entertaining action flick. That’s a good thing. It’s less winking then “The Expendables” flicks and clearly isn’t a passion project like Sly’s “Rocky” or “Rambo” revivals. The middle ground between those axises – a really fun pop corn muncher – is an alright place to be. [7/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [New Prison Inmate]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Bullet to the Head (2012)

With the come back success of “Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo,” and the “Expendables” films, Sylvester Stallone was suddenly back in the position of getting films greenlit with just his star power. At least, the kind of throw back action flicks that get released in January and February. “Bullet to the Head” could’ve been a comeback story for another familiar face. Walter Hill was behind such action classics as “Hard Times,” “The Driver,” “The Warriors,” “Southern Comfort” and “48 Hrs.” Though still active as a producer, Hill hadn’t directed a film since 2002’s mix martial arts minor classic “Undisputed.” Based off a French graphic novel series and greeted with a decent bit of hype, “Bullet to the Head” would disappoint critics and garner little attention from audience. How mediocre must a movie be to alienate the people its tailor made for?

The improbably named Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo is a hitman based out of Baton Rouge. Though he operates with a moral code of his own, he’s generally an off-putting, tough customer. After he spares the life of a prostitute during a standard hit, his long-time partner is murdered by a rival hitman. Their target, it turns out, was a dirty cop with information on shady local businessmen. Kwon, the partner to the dead man, arrives to investigate. Soon, Bobo and Kwon are working together to untangle what’s gone down. Meanwhile, the psychotic hitman is soon targeting Bobo personally.

“Bullet to the Head” feels a lot like the undistinguished flicks Stallone made simply for the paycheck back in the late eighties. In other words, if it had come out around the same time as “Tango and Cash” or “Over the Top,” action fans would consider it a classic. Of course, the eighties and the distinct qualities that decade brought to film ended a long time ago. “Bullet to the Head” isn’t that funny or charming. Mostly, the comparison is seen in Sly’s character. Jimmy Bobo is a hard man. An ex-con, he figures the people he assassinates have it coming, approaching wanton murder with no further thought. When he speaks at all, it’s usually in smart-ass quibs to his various partners or opponents. Despite being a simplistic sketch, the script still gives Bobo an unnecessary and overly verbose narration. This is the kind of thing Sly has done many times before. He doesn’t appear bored but he can’t make Bobo a compelling character.

Walter Hill basically invented the buddy cop subgenre, by writing “Hickey and Boggs” and directing “48 Hrs.” (For further bonus points, Joel Silver, who also produced “48 Hrs.” and “Lethal Weapon,” produced this one as well.) These clich├ęs are also woven into “Bullet to the Head.” Sung Kang plays Detective Kwon. Kwon and Bobo are tossed together by fate, the hitman making a split-second decision to save the cop. Soon, the two are working together, albeit roughly. Kwon uses his cellphone to dig up clues and information. Bobo prefers to beat info out of people. Kwon is by the book, Bobo plays by his own rules. “Bullet to the Head” does break from buddy movie tradition. Though a mutual respect eventually forms, the two still kind of hate each other by the movie’s end. Stallone and Kang don’t have much in the way of chemistry.

The movie’s plot, about corrupt land developers trying to cover up evidence of their criminal connections, is totally disposable. The collection of bad dudes the movie presents aren’t very memorable. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays a South African sleaze, who accentuates his performance by waving a cane around. Christian Slater does seem to be having some fun as one of the primary crooks involved. The film’s real main villain is Jason Momoa’s Keegan. Casting a future action star – albeit one who still hasn’t produced an iconic character – to play against Stallone seems like an intentional move. Momoa plays Keegan as an indistinct psycho. He enjoys killing and does it with finesse but there’s no personable meat on this character’s bones. He’s a preening, murderous bad guy, totally lacking in heart or soul.

All right, so the hero’s nothing special, the script is disposable, and the supporting players don’t make an impression. Does “Bullet to the Head” at least feature some cool action scene? Sadly, even that aspect is mostly forgettable. Walter Hill’s attempt to adapt to modern day action movie conventions are awkward. A shoot-out in a parking garage, and a car chase that follows, is overly shaky and difficult to follow. A tussle between Sly and a random bad guy inside a Turkish bath is cool in conception but, once again, not smoothly executed. Momoa’s presence seems to center the film a little. A fight between Bobo and Keegan in a bar bathroom is alright. Momoa executing a tattoo parlor full of people features some solid action beats, such as a guy getting flipped into a jukebox machine. The final fight has the hero and villain dueling with fire axe, a clever choice the movie needed more of. Too often though, the shoot-outs degrade into uninspired sequences of gun going off and people falling down.

“Bullet to the Head” certainly isn’t the throwback to bad ass action cinema that it was hyped as. The pairing of a legendary action director like Hill and a legendary action star like Sly should’ve produced something great. Instead, “Bullet to the Head” is a middling, forgettable affair. Its pleasures are fleeting and the film seems designed to leave the viewer’s head as soon as it enters. The reviews were largely negative and the box office was uninspiring, even in the competition lacking month of February. It seems, only a few years out from his latest come back, Sly was already squandering his potential again. [5/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Asshole Hitman]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


After Sylvester Stallone successfully resurrected Rocky for a final bout, it was inevitable that he would bring his other trademark character back for one more mission. The fourth entry in the Rambo series was even entitled “John Rambo” at one point, to match “Rocky Balboa’s” title. After cycling through half a dozen other titles – including ridiculous subtitles like “Pearl of the Cobra,” “In the Serpent’s Eye” and “To Hell and Back” – the film was released domestically with the hilariously curt title of “Rambo.” (It remained as “John Rambo” overseas and most fans call it “Rambo IV,” for clarity’s sake.) Though not as well received as “Rocky Balboa,” Rambo’s fourth adventure was still a hit, cementing that Stallone’s star power had been restored.

John Rambo has apparently spent the last twenty-one years in Thailand, capturing cobras for a local snake show to make ends’ meet. After seeing that his efforts as the ultimate soldier have only made the world worst, Rambo has become a loner and a cynic. That is until a group of Christian missionaries ask him to furry them into Burma. Once inside the war-torn country, the missionaries are captured by an especially cruel, sadistic general. Hoping to rescue the innocents, John Rambo has to go into the war zone once again.

The Rambo series went through some serious changes along the way. Beginning as a character-oriented thriller, it soon became a jingoistic action series. By part three, it was practically mindless. 2008’s “Rambo” looks to restore some of “First Blood’s” character-driven aspect. The film considers the psychology of someone like John Rambo. At story’s beginning, he’s given up on people. Apparently, a pretty blonde smiling at him is enough to convince him that some people are worthwhile. After realizing he must go back to war, “Rambo” enters its best scene. A montage devoted to John forging his new knife – more like a machete, this time – he monologues in voice over, realizing that killin’ is what he does. Ultimately, he decides potentially dying for somethin’ is better then living for nothin’. The ending has Rambo’s faith in humanity restored, as he seeks to reunite himself with his father, who must surely be in his nineties. It’s not a lot but, considering the “Rambo” series had degraded into shoot-em-ups by now, any introspection counts for something.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Rambo movie without some unnerving, right-wing politics. Despite obviously believing that war is hell, “Rambo” still seems disturbingly pro-violence. Rambo sneers at the missionary’s belief that they can change anything. The group’s desires to help people only gets them captured and tortured by the wicked Burmese military. After witnessing ghastly carnage, one of the missionaries embraces the way of violence, bashing an attacker’s head in with a rock. Moreover, “Rambo” is not an insightful examination of the atrocities in Burma. After portraying the Vietnamese as evil torturers in “First Blood Part II,” Stallone happily portrays the Burmese army as equally sadistic villains. It seems John Rambo is most happy while slaughtering Asians, regardless of country.

The film goes out of its way to portray the atrocities the villains commit. “Rambo” begins with a newsreel, showing actual footage of death and violence from the country. The next scene introduces the villain playing sadistic games with prisoners. Each gun shot results in a graphic burst of blood. A particularly sickening sequence is devoted to the military laying siege to a village. Women are raped. Children are shot, stabbed, and tossed into a burning building. Those who fight back are murdered with flame throwers or reduced to exploding body parts by grenades. To make it clear that General Tint, the primary antagonist, is extra evil, he’s also portrayed as a pedophile. Stallone’s quest for realism makes “Rambo” almost too bleak and unpleasant to work as populist entertainment.

Yet it’s clear why the writer/director piles on such graphic carnage. The bad guys must be so evil that it justifies Rambo’s equally monstrous retaliation. As far as action goes, 2008’s “Rambo” creates the kind of violence previously unseen in the genre. Rambo clears out enemies with his trademark bow, piercing heads and necks. He tears a man’s throat out with his bare hands. Before the movie even gets to the good stuff, Rambo blows up a hundred guys with a mine. After decapitating the gunner, he turns the cannon on the driver, reducing him to a spray of gore. From the jeep-mounted platform, Rambo cuts through an entire army. The camera lingers on enemy soldiers being cut in half by gunfire, heads exploding, huge holes blasted through bodies. He destroys a boat, a truck hauling more men, and hundreds of fighters. (Nobody seems to think to sneak up behind him.) It’s glorious action movie violence that I don’t think will be topped any time soon.

With the death of Richard Crenna in 2003, John Rambo lost his only consistent supporting cast member. “Rambo” can’t cook up any characters as lovable as Col. Troutman. If anything, the film’s new characters are some of its weakest additions. Julie Benz plays Sarah, the missionary that reaches Rambo’s heart. Benz mostly spends the film captured and panicking. Paul Schulze is an obnoxious wet blanket as the leader of the missionaries. In order to assists Rambo’s war on the genocidal military – as if he needs any help – a team of mercenaries accompany him. Some of these characters, such as Graham McTavis’ Lewis, are obnoxious and unlikable. Others, like Matthew Marsden’s School Boy, are just indistinct. The best among them is Tim Kang’s En-Joo, mostly thanks to Kang’s considerable charm. Ultimately, these characters could’ve been cut from the film and the story would practically be unaltered.

2008’s “Rambo” has some troubling undercurrents and its in-your-face violence is definitely distasteful and exploitative. Stallone’s direction is a little too shaky and he overdoes the slow-mo. Despite these flaws, “Rambo” features some incredibly intense action movie theatrics. It also manages to provide a satisfying conclusion to John Rambo’s story. That last factor made me question Stallone’s insistence on making a fifth movie. A final Rambo movie was discussed for years and was even given the awesome working title of “Last Blood.” Reportedly, this adventure would’ve seen John either waging war on Mexican drug cartels or a genetically engineered super soldier. Ultimately, Sly abandoned plans to continue the series, realizing Rambo’s war was finally over. I agree. 2008's "Rambo" provided massive action and an emotional end to the character's long journey. [7/10]

[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music*
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Loner Killing Machine]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

*On the boat ride, one of the mercs sings a song that sounds Frank Stallone-esque enough for me

Monday, August 22, 2016


There was a time when jokes were often told about how long running and increasingly unlikely the “Rocky” series had become. Yet, by 2006, a sixth “Rocky” film was the last thing anyone expected. Sylvester Stallone’s career had flat-lined, with an embarrassing turn in the third “Spy Kids” movie being his most notable recent role. In the past, adversity has been a great inspiration to Stallone. Out of this tough time arose “Rocky Balboa.” The sixth appearance of Sly’s trademark character would become an unexpected commercial success, revitalizing a career most thought was over.

Rocky Balboa is all washed-up. Adrian, his inspiration, has died. He has a tense relationship with his son, Robert Jr., who seems uncomfortable standing in the star’s shadow. The former champion makes a decent living running an Italian restaurant, named for his late wife, and often regales customers with old stories. Current heavyweight champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon, is criticized for his perceived lack of heart, that his victories have been unearned. A sports channel runs a program were a computer determines who would win a fight between past and present champs. Such a match between Dixon and Balboa gives both fighters an idea. Soon, Rocky is back in the ring, outmatched by a fighter younger, faster, and stronger then him.

Sylvester Stallone was ahead of the curve. These days, movie studios are determined to mine eighties and nineties nostalgia for all its worth, creating reboots and remakes to every seemingly moribund franchise. “Rocky Balboa” is, naturally, awash in nostalgia. The film begins with Rocky at Adrian’s grave. The first act is devoted to Balboa and Paulie touring the original film’s events. Mickey’s gym is in disrepair. The ice rink were Rocky and Adrian had their first date has been torn down. The parts of Philadelphia Rocky once called home have become a ghetto. These scenes aren’t just here to remind viewers of what happened in the first film. They establish what Rocky has lost. They also reground the series, properly returning the franchise to the original film’s tone without falling to part five’s maudlin sentimentality.

With Adrian gone, “Rocky Balboa” finds a new heart for the series. Much of the film is focused on Rocky’s relationship with his son. Robert Jr. has fled from the world of celebrity and stardom that his father occupies. Instead of being in athleticism, he’s working in an office building. When Rocky tries to set up a friendly dinner with his son, people constantly butt in to say hi to the former champ. Rocky’s decision to get back into the ring for the first time in 21 years gives his son pause. This leads to a notable moment in the film, when Stallone delivers a monologue about trying to find your place in the world, about struggling to survive only for what you have, is one of the best sequences in the film. Previously played by Seargeoh and Sage Stallone, Milo Ventimiglia essays the part of Rocky Jr. here. Ventimiglia is a good foil for Stallone, a cynical and grounded counter to Rocky’s perpetually hopeful but hopeless personality.

In addition to revisiting many of the first film’s locations, “Rocky Balboa” also brings back an unexpected character. Little Marie, the troubled girl Rocky used to walk home, returns. Now an adult with a somewhat troubled kid of her own, she works a dead-end job as a bartender. A chance meeting has Rocky taking Marie’s son, Steps, under his wing. Soon, both mother and son are working at his restaurant. It’s an interesting story decision, showing that Rocky’s past and present acts of kindness have reverberated throughout his life. It also, narratively, gives Stallone someone else to play off of in the movie’s early half. Geraldine Hughes gives a sweet, thoughtful performance as Marie.

Aside from their ridiculous names, Mason Dixon and the first film’s take on Apollo Creed don’t have very much in common. This is, seemingly, a direct contrast. While Creed was a braggart that gave little thought to his challenger, Dixon is a down-to-Earth man of few words. He’s annoyed that his skill has been dismissed seemingly because he hasn’t had to fight for it. He sees his fight with Rocky as a chance to show off his abilities to an apathetic public. Playing the character is real life boxing champion Antonio Tarver. Tarver’s performance is low-key, keeping most of his emotion under the surface. While it’s obvious that Tarver isn’t a professional actor, he works for the film, his stoic quality contrasting nicely against the emotional Rocky.

Why would a 60 year old Rocky Balboa get back in the ring? He’s far too old, his body stiffened by arthritis. The movie has to jump through some narrative loops to justify Balboa being able to get a license. If Rocky’s life parallels Stallone’s – and it does – the story is about the man proving he’s not a joke. “Rocky Balboa” hits many of the familiar beats. There’s the expected training montage, still set to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” There’s the climatic boxing match, with Rocky taking countless hits. Seeing a Sylvester Stallone old enough to collect Social Security re-entering the boxing ring should be ridiculous. Instead, it’s inspiring. His age has only made Rocky even more of an underdog. Moreover, Rocky (and, by extension, Sly) wants this more then ever. This is made clear in a key moment. Knocked to the mat, Rocky argues with himself to keep fighting. Because that’s what he’s always done. Because the strive to fight is what has driven him his entire life. Though far from subtle, it’s an effectively touching moment.

Sylvester Stallone, of course, directs his umpteenth come back. Sly’s direction is still somewhat heavy handed. He’s traded slow-motion with black and white inserts and dramatic flashbacks. Still, “Rocky Balboa” is in many ways a rousing success. It’s a touching, inspiring film. After the underwhelming “Rocky V,” it’s the considered and touching send-off the iconic character deserves. The story of Rocky proving he could still go the distance, that he still has the eye of the tiger, reviving Sylvester Stallone’s career is appropriate. Don’t ring the bell, this ain’t over yet, he yelled. And it wasn’t. [8/10]

[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Washed-Up Boxer]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

Sunday, August 21, 2016


In “Get Carter,” you’re essentially seeing Sylvester Stallone resigning himself to what his career was circa the year 2000. His latest bid for critical respectability, 1997’s “Cop Land,” did not work out the way he’d hoped. In a few years, he’d be starring in direct-to-video releases. Considering he’d co-headline 2001’s “Driven” with another actor, “Get Carter” would be his last leading role to get a theatrical release for quite a while. Sly would spend the next six years in the Hollywood wilderness, more punchline then superstar. A remake of a British cult classic from the seventies, “Get Carter” would flop with both critics and audiences.

Las Vegas mob enforcer Jack Carter doesn’t have many friends. He’s sleeping with his mob boss’ girlfriend but, otherwise, he’s fairly antisocial. When he receives the news that his brother is dead, he suddenly feels a responsible to his extended family. Upon returning to his childhood home town, he begins to suspect that his brother’s death was not accidental. While searching for answers, he makes enemies with the local criminal element. In order to avenge his brother’s murder, Carter uncovers a conspiracy that ties in with a local tech millionaire and some old enemies.

Narratively speaking, the remake of “Get Carter” follows the broad strokes of the original’s story. It condenses the convoluted plot of Mike Hodge’s 1971 original, clipping out a number of subplots. Yet many of the original’s elements, such as Carter’s opening car ride or his niece’s unfortunate fate, are maintained or updated. However, 2000’s “Get Carter” largely misses the point of Hodge’s original. Jack Carter’s personality is greatly softened, removing most of his moral ambiguity. He’s no longer a bad man doing bad things. Now he’s a sort of bad man doing mostly good things. The point of the ’71 original – the contrast between the deeply inglorious gangster violence with an idyllic small town setting – is wasted by placing the remake is an urban area and making the violence into standard action movie theatrics.

“Get Carter” is so clearly a product of the year 2000. The soundtrack is composed primarily of obnoxious techno music. Any time an action scene kicks in, wholly inappropriate songs will blare out of your TV's speakers. Stephen Kay’s direction is equally poor. The action scenes are filled with shaky-cam direction that induces sea sickness in viewers and annoyance in action fanatics. A car scene is especially difficult to follow, the camera spinning around spasmodically with little concern for coherence. Only a handful of Kay’s stylistic flourishes are interesting at all. Such as a scene where Sly rightfully guesses what his opponents will do next, within the cramped confines of an elevator. This was only Kay’s second film. He’d follow it up, five years later, with mall horror entry “Boogeyman” and a string of TV movies about serial killers.

As I previously mentioned, the dawn of the new millennium signaled the beginning of Sylvester’s lowest period as a star. You could see him being visibly disinterested in films like “Avenging Angelo” or “Driven.” “Get Carter” does not present the star with an especially compelling character. Jack Carter is gruff, all muscle, and single minded in his pursuit of vengeance. The few soft moments, such as when he’s conversing with his niece or his sister-in-law, allow Sly to show off his atrophied humanity, one of his best and most underrated attributes. Still, “Get Carter” is not an actor’s film. Stallone is essentially trotting out the tough guy act he utilized in a number of sub-par action flicks.

“Get Carter,” at the very least, has a loaded supporting cast. Mickey Rourke is at maximum sleaziness as the pornographer that emerges as the story’s primary villain. Alan Cumming has a decent part as an asshole tech tycoon. The part certainly calls upon his strength for being a squirmy weasel. John C. McGinley has a showy part as Carter’s eccentric partner, who quickly turns on him. Rachael Leigh Cook plays the imperiled niece. Though given little to do, Cook shines during the slower moments with Sly. Miranda Richardson, as the deceased brother’s wife, and Rhona Mitra, as a local prostitute, thanklessly go through the motions. That’s more then Gretchen Moll gets, as her only scene has her lounging in bed in lingerie. (She goes uncredited, as does Tom Sizemore as Stallone’s employer.) Lastly, Michael Caine – the original Jack Carter – appears in a few scene. It’s interesting to have such a direct contrast between Caine’s earlier days as an action star and his latter career as an avuncular character actor. Sadly, his role in the script is fairly inessential.

“Get Carter” is less outright bad then it’s just mediocre. How much you enjoy the remake seems to depend on how much you love the original. I only like, not love, Mike Hodge’s original film. Which is maybe why I’m so ambivalent to this version. Single moments are quite weak but the script is too stock parts to be offensive. Sadly, this kind of glacial mediocrity characterizes many films from this era of Stallone’s career. It would take a revisit to his two most iconic characters to give Sly’s career once last shot in the arm. [5/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Anti-Social Mob Enforcer]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 94: Texas Chainsaw Massacres

Did you really think I'd wade through that Tobe Hooper retrospective last month and not get a podcast out of it? Yes, Mr. Mash and I finally covered the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" franchise, one of the few major horror series we haven't gotten to yet. In this fine hour of audio stimulation, we try to answer some of the mysteries of the series: Is the Cook a brother or a father? When exactly does "Texas Chainsaw 3D" take place? What was Kim Henkle smoking when he made "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation?" Will "All American Massacre" and "Leatherface" ever come out? Why is human flesh so delicious? Naturally, some of these quarries are more easily solved then others.

That'll be it for Film Thoughts tonight. The Sylvester Semester Part II will continue tomorrow. I promise.