Gentleman Jim (1942)

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A Boxer and a Gentleman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There’s something about Gentleman Jim which makes the film uplifting, it has a real aura of celebration to it. There’s nothing better than hearing Auld Lang Sang during the opening credits of a piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Compare this to the many bleak biopics which portray historical figures going through unprecedented amounts of suffering, Gentleman Jim really stands out with its combination of comedy and drama which never takes itself too seriously to create something unique; historical accuracy be dammed!

Errol Flynn and Jack Carson make for a fun duo as a pair of part time con-men. Flynn’s reaction at the film’s beginning to the pickpocket currently in the act of robbing him, just a quick “get outta there” and a slap on the wrist as he continues himself to con other people, it’s so brief you would almost miss it and if it doesn’t show what a great actor he is then I don’t know what will; such sly confidence.

Gentleman Jim is a movie full of blink-and-you-miss-them moments of subtle comedy. One of my favourite of these is the moment in which a child asks his mother during a fight “why doesn’t daddy look that like in his underwear” and her response of “shh, he did once”. I love the child’s reaction with his eye’s rolling up as if he’s saying “oh, I totally get it”. The movie does also have its more overt moments of humour in the form of Corbett’s entertaining family of screwballs led by a scenery chewing Alan Hale. Yet even Hale’s chewing of the scenery is outdone by Ward Bond as the over the top, manly force of nature that is John L. Sullivan.

Gentleman Jim differs from most boxing film partially due to its time period setting. The film acts as a piece of 1890’s nostalgia when there would still have been people alive in 1942 to remember this period. It is easily apparent the filmmakers put great strides into recreating the time period with its lush sets and great attention to detail. However the other aspect which makes the movie stand out amongst boxing pictures is its presentation of boxing as a real gentleman’s sport, making the movie really live up to its title. This isn’t a story with Rocky Balboas nor does it take place in sweaty, gritty inner city gyms. I guess somewhere along the way the sport of boxing became less sophisticated and more middle to lower class.

Classic Hollywood films are generally not known for their realistic boxing scenes with their use of sped up footage and not very convincing punches. Gentleman Jim does a better job than other boxing films of the era. Flynn learned to box for the role and no body doubles where used while the fights for the most part do come off as convincing.

The meeting between Corbett and Sullivan after their fight is the film’s real tearjerker moment: what true gentlemen. An acceptance that your time has come to an end and that it will happen to all of us eventually.

Rocky V (1990)

Back To Where It All Began

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Few motion pictures seem to inspire as much intense dislike as Rocky V, even to the point of Sylvester Stallone himself giving the film a score of “O” on a British talk show – yes, 0/10. Come on man, can you really say Rocky V has absolutely no merit what so ever? Even the sitcom The Vicar of Dibly bashes Rocky V in its pilot episode; “Four’s not bad is it? There were four gospels, four horsemen of the Apocalypse, four Rocky movies until they made Rocky V, very bad movie”. As a huge fan of the Rocky movies I’ll just come out and say it, I love Rocky V. Oh yeah, deal with it! Part V was designed the return the series back to its roots, not only by bringing Rocky back to his humble beginning on the streets of Philadelphia, but also by being directed by John G. Avildsen, the director the first Rocky. In my eyes, the film succeeds.

Continuing the series tradition of recapping the fight from the previous film, Rocky V presents a recap of the Rocky- Drago fight scored with the traditional Rocky music by Bill Conti rather than the Vince DiCola score from Rocky IV, which is a nice touch. The opening title with the faces of Rocky and Drago in the lettering is also my favourite opening title in the series.

The one big grip I do have with Rocky V is how it messes up the Rocky continuity. Just to give a brief recap of Rocky continuity from Rocky III onwards: it isn’t made clear the date of which Rocky III ends, but we are told the date of Mickey’s death as taking place in 1981, so we can assume Rocky’s second fight with Clubber Lang took place in 1981/82. Rocky IV picks up where III left off, but no dates are mentioned in the movie nor is made clear on the passing of time. It seems most likely the events of Rocky IV take place somewhere from 1982 to 1985, the year in which the movie was released. Rocky V picks up where Rocky IV left off, and once Rocky returns to America from Russia and gets off the plane, he is greeted by his teenage son; however at the end of Rocky IV he was still a child. There should have been a passing of time and then introduce the teenage son. But on top of this, considering the early 90’s aesthetic of Rocky V, due in part of its soundtrack, it seems like Rocky really did travel through time when flying that plane from the 80’s world of Rocky IV. Perhaps some crazy fan theory explanation could solve the mystery such as Rocky staying in Russia for several years after his fight with Drago. While this plot hole does bother me a bit, does it really interfere with my enjoyment of the overall movie? No, not really.

Once Rocky travels through time and is back in America, the family go home to a different mansion than that seen in Rocky III and IV, but I can accept perhaps they owned more than one. Regardless, due to an issue involving taxes, the Balboa family lose their fortune and are forced to return to return to Paulie’s old place in Philadelphia. What was the tax issue? To quote IMDB’s FAQ section for Rocky V:

When Rocky was in Russia during Rocky IV, Paulie gave the power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant, because the accountant told Paulie he needed to authorize a tax extension. Given free access to Rocky’s accounts, the accountant used Rocky’s savings to finance a real estate investment, planning on having the money back in the account by the time Rocky retuned from Russia. However, the real estate deal went bad and the money was never returned. Additionally, Rocky discovers that he has debt payments, mortgage payments ($400,000) and that the accountant hasn’t filed any of Rocky’s tax returns for over 6 years.

Ok, I’m not an expert on taxes, but the movie makes it sound convincing, so I’ll buy it.

Rocky’s return to his old stomping ground gives the film a welcome nostalgia factor, from Rocky wearing his clothes from the first movie to Adrian being dowdy once again and working in the pet shop; to the return of locations from the first movie such as the Atomic Hoagie Shop. At one point in the film they even repeat the very first shot of the original Rocky. Also the streets of Philly appear to be more graffiti and trash laden than they had been in 1975/76. Rocky V also features Burgess Meredith’s final appearance as Mickey (even if he does look older than his last appearance in Rocky III), in a newly filmed flashback scene in which he gives one of the most powerful monologues in the series. This is ranks as one of my favourite scenes of the entire franchise, and I fail to see how anyone could deny its emotional impact.

Due to Rocky’s newly discovered brain damage, he can’t return to the boxing ring, and instead trains a new upcoming boxer Tommy Gunn (portrayed by real life boxer Tommy Morrison); a predecessor to the plot of 2015’s Creed. Tommy Gunn is nowhere near as iconic or memorable as Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago, but I still enjoy his character and find him more interesting than Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon in Rocky Balboa. He’s an enthusiastic go getter who eventually turns on his mentor and becomes seduced by the dark side of the boxing business. So yeah, it’s a better version of Star Wars Episode III with Rocky as Obi-Wan, Tommy as Anakin and the boxing promoter George Washington Duke as Palatine. George Washington Duke is the main villain of the movie; a Don King like boxing promoter. I love this guy; he’s such a stereotypical loud mouthed salesman, continuing the tradition of over the top Rocky Villains.

However the real heart of Rocky V lies with its father-son story with its themes of neglect and abandonment  between Rocky and his son Robert, played by Stallone’s real life son, Sage Stallone; making the interactions between them feel more real and genuine. Not to mention the character of Robert has a frightening predicament of going from a sheltered life to living in a tough neighbourhood. It’s weird to think that both Sage Stallone and Tommy Morrison are now both dead; two young stars from a movie which is only 26 years old. Stallone already hates Rocky V as it is, but having the movie star his deceased son I’d imagine makes the movie even more unwatchable for him. In regards to the sub plot involving Robert and the school bullies, I actually find this aspect of the story to be interesting itself. I feel it showcases how in order to make peace with the bullies he had to fight them back and win the battle, and that Adrian’s suggestion that she who would rather he solve his problems verbally would be a futile gesture. After he fights the bullies he then immediately makes peace with one of them and they become friends. Could this be a war parable, or am I just over-analysing?

Despite V being the black sheep of the franchise, Rocky V still ends on fight, not in the ring but on the street. Having Rocky take part in a barbaric street fight makes for great entertainment, due in part to the fun of seeing Rocky engage in a fight in which there are no rules. I also love all the over the top crowd reactions (“Come on dad, he took my room!”, “You’re losing everything!”). The film’s final pay off is immensely satisfying in which Rocky punches George Washington Duke right into the air and onto a car; what comeuppance!

Rocky V reintroduces Bill Conti’s music after being absent from Rocky IV. However the soundtrack of Rocky V is mainly comprised of hip-hop and RnB. I’m not a fan of hip hop, but I do like the songs included in the film. With Go For It I get the impression they were trying to create a new Eye of the Tiger; a song which is named after a phrase which is repeated throughout the film which is central to the plot. It could never be as iconic as Eye of the Tiger, but it still gets me jamming. I also love the new version of Take You Back which gives the song an early 90’s spin. All the films in the series reflect the periods in which they were made, and for Rocky V it’s the early 90’s.

I’ve heard reviewers complain Rocky V is a depressing ending to the series. It becomes clear at the end of the film that Rocky learns he doesn’t need wealth to be happy providing he’s still got his family and his health; and eventually he chooses his family over his career, pride and ego. This is a theme which ties in with the end credits song The Measure of a Man sung by Elton John:

“You’ve come full circle, now you’re home, without the gold, without the chrome. And this is where you’ve always been, you had to lose so you could win. And rise above your troubles while you can.”

I did not find Rocky V in any way to undermine to optimistic nature of the series. Initially it was scripted for Rocky to die at the end, and there is even a deleted scene which shows the character of Marie from the first movie continued to hang out with the wrong crowd. These elements would make an interesting alternative version, but for my Rocky canon I prefer the direction they took. Plus the reintroduction of Marie in Rocky Balboa was a better path for the character, more in tune with the series’ optimistic nature.

The end credits of Rocky V give a retrospective of the entire series which couldn’t be more perfect, plus I love the song The Measure of a Man. I don’t often talk about how great the end credits of a film are, yet with all the Rocky sequels I watch the credits in their entirety. Rocky V is the black sheep of the series in terms of plot structure. We already have four movies which end with Rocky fighting an opponent in the ring, it would have been tiresome to do that a fifth time. Instead Stallone wrote a sequel which took a chance. So yes, I love Rocky V. Got a problem with that, then my ring’s outside!

Rocky IV (1985)

80’s: The Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky IV is one of the most entertaining movies ever made. If there was ever a movie I can turn to for just 90 minutes of pure, immense, adrenaline filled, inspirational entertainment, it’s Rocky IV. The run time is the shortest of the series, but those 90 minutes are perfect. The poster for Rocky IV is displayed proudly in my bedroom, and every now and then I look at it in all its majesty with Rocky sticking his glove up in the air while draped in the stars and stripes. I feel the Rocky movies had the ideal lifespan for a movie franchise; start off serious, goof out for some fun, but then end again on a serious note.

There’s no question about it, Rocky IV is the most 80’s movie ever. Case in point:

– Synthesized rock soundtrack.

-Cold war propaganda.

-Conservative, Reagan era values.

-MTV music video style montages.

-Larger than life villain.

-It’s a sequel of a long running franchise.

-There’s a robot.

-Rocky drives a sports car.

-Display of decadence.

-Brigitte Nielsen, star of other very 80’s movies Red Sonja and Cobra.

-Action movie revenge plot.

-Full of cheesy/corny quotable lines (“If he dies, he dies”, “Whatever he hits, he destroys”).

Stallone’s inspiration for Rocky IV came from the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 respectively; two fights which embodied the political and social conflict of the time – an African American taking on a supposed representation of Aryan superiority. Thus in Rocky IV we get Ivan Drago, the terrifying Aryan superman Rocky must challenge to avenge the death of his friend (could that sound more 80’s?).  Ivan Drago is a terminator; the strongest opponent humanly possible; however is Drago an interesting villain? I say yes; one of my favourite screen villains of all time as a matter of fact. In a memorable Siskel & Ebert moment, Roger Ebert described Drago as a “moderately interesting villain” but complained “how come he never has a single scene alone with his wife” and “why does she have nine times more dialogue than he has?”. Drago doesn’t speak for himself as there is no individualism in communism. I feel Dolph Lundgren gives a great physical performance, playing a character who is the opposite of Clubber Lang in that he speaks few words; succeeding in being an intimidating monster with his physical presence alone. I also love Drago’s reaction to Apollo’s entrance at the exhibition fight; that of a soviet being welcomed to America.

Ivan Drago is a product of a state that sponsors his training as exemplified in the movie’s two training montages. Drago’s music theme is cold, intimidating and mechanical, just like his training. He is given steroids by his trainers and at a press conference an American reporter says “There have been rumors of blood doping and widespread distribution of anabolic steroids in the Soviet Union”; feels like an eerie foreshadowing to the state operated Russian doping scandal of 2016. Following the boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, Rocky IV couldn’t have come at a better time when sports and politics where going hand in hand. Drago’s fit of rage near the end of the fight in which he proclaims “I fight to win. For me! For me!”, is clearly a jab at communism as he wants to work for himself and not for glory of the country. Likewise when he lifts up and throws the Russian official who criticises him, it’s a classic Frankenstein moment; the monster turning on its creator.

Apollo Creed’s entrance on the other hand is one of the most capitalistic things ever put on film, with James Brown singing Living In America among Belly Dancers and Apollo Creed dressed in stars and stripes; and to top it all off, it’s in Las Vegas. A stark contrast to the Russians who open the Rocky-Drago fight later in the movie to their national anthem (yet another awe inspiring musical highlight in the film). Did Apollo’s ego untimely kill him? Apollo’s patriotic egotism clouded his better judgment and no idea just how strong Drago would be. The sheer power of Drago’s punches during the fight with Creed (if you could even call it that) is exemplified by the sound effects. Also why does Drago receives no punishment for throwing the referee aside, but if I was going to point out every little thing in this movie which makes no sense I’d be here all day. There’s such brutality to Creed’s death; such slow motion brutality. I’ll never forget my mum’s reaction the first time I watched Rocky IV, a gasping “oh my God!”.

When I was studying for my GCSE examinations, the Rocky IV soundtrack was one of my primary sources of music listening. Whenever I have a stressful day of work I listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack when I need that extra bit of adrenaline to make me go on. Feeling down? Rocky IV soundtrack! Need inspiration?  Rocky IV soundtrack! Having a workout? Rocky IV soundtrack! 20% of the Rocky IV or 23 minutes is comprised montages with songs which can make anything look epic in one of epitomes of the 1980’s soundtrack; everything you would expect from a score which won the Razzi for worst music score. The score by Vince diCola has been officially released but copies are not easy to come by. The actual Rocky IV soundtrack features different versions of War and Training Montage than those which appear in the film, although these variants are good in their own right.

If there is one word associated with Rocky IV, its montage. I can watch these montages over and over again and still be enthralled by them. The first training montage is heavy on it’s symbolism of nature vs. machine and showcases the beauty of the Russian wilderness. Ok it’s actually Wyoming but I can buy into it being a vast frozen expanse of the Soviet Union. But its training montage number 2 which has to by my favourite training montage in film history. This is partly due to John Cafferty’s Hearts on Fire – a motivating, pumping song if there ever was one. That synth, god I love it! In the spirit of everything in Rocky IV being larger than life, instead of running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the montage ends with Rocky climbing a mountain.

The editing of Rocky IV also contributes to the film’s bombastic nature. The transitional shots of magazine covers and newspaper articles makes the film play out like more of a comic book than it already is. Likewise shots such as that of Rocky’s Russian chaperone looking into binoculars gets repeated three times within a few seconds but zoomed in further each time and edited to the rhythm of the score; it’s just so cool. On the other hand I even recall a review I heard for Star Wars: The Forces Awakens refer the final shot of that movie as a Rocky IV shot, in reference to the aerial shot of Rocky on top of the mountain. Is Rocky IV a more influential than the history books say?

Rocky IV is incredibly distant from the first movie but this is appropriate as Rocky is out of his element and in a foreign land. This in the only film in the series not to take place in Philadelphia, unless you include the scene in the Balboa mansion although it’s never made clear where the mansion is located. The No Easy Way Out montage provides you with clips from the first movie, so it the film itself allows you to bask in the stark contrast between the movies; a man who used to be a not very intelligent nobody and made money from prizefighting and working for a loan shark is now at the center of international politics.

Even the sheer predictably of Rocky IV is wonderful, such as when Adrian shows up in Russia to support Rocky; it’s all cliché but in the best sense of the word. The build up to the final fight and the atmosphere is so immense; there could never be a Rocky film more epic than this. By this point I’m actually scared for Rocky and fearful for his life, and Paulie’s emotional out pour before the fight, it gets me every time. I don’t care what anyone says, this is the greatest fight in film history. Rules don’t apply and Rocky somehow lasts the 15 rounds and even wins over the crowd (“Suddenly Moscow is pro-Rocky!”). This isn’t just Rocky against another opponent, this is Rocky against a superhuman, a hostile crowd, a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike and an entire world superpower. Keep your superhero movies with their city destroying battles; this is what I call a duel! Rocky’s final speech is naive in the most wonderful way. The words of the speech are so juvenile, yet when I hear Stallone utter them in the movie; it brings a tear to my eye. Did Rocky IV really help end the cold war? Who knows? Oh, and the end credits provide us with yet another awesome montage!

Rocky IV embodies the essence of capitalism the American Dream; if you work hard, success is attainable. I know many would just look at the movie and scoff at it as a simplified look at the Cold War with an “us and them” mentality. But as a piece of propaganda does it work? Oh you bet it does. Rocky IV, I salute you to your over the top, cheesy 80’s perfection.

Rocky IV > Citizen Kane

Rocky III (1982)

Rocky III: An American Tradition

After the recap of the fight from the previous movie, Rocky III opens with a montage which begins with fireworks and giant light up sign of Rocky as if to say “Welcome to the 80’s!”; a decade when everything was larger than life. The song of choice is Eye of Tiger, the montage is edited like an MTV music video and Rocky even appears on The Muppet Show; and all that merchandise, me want!

Rocky III is ridiculously entertaining while still managing to have thematic substance. Rocky is no longer struggling with fame. A man who couldn’t film a simple commercial in Rocky II is now making all sorts of endorsements. He could barely drive a car in Rocky II, now he can now drive with ease. Rocky has also become a more intelligent man instead of the dum dum he was in first two movies. Not to mention does he looks different, very handsome I might add and in such physical shape. I think Stallone looks like Al Pacino here, especially when wearing a suit.

Rocky III brought the series in a different direction, distant from the first two movies. But despite Rocky’s wealth and fame, Rocky III is not a movie which cheapens out. The primary theme of the movie is about Rocky’s fame making him soft or as Mickey puts it, “You got civilised”. Once Rocky discovers Mickey has been hand picking fighters his seemingly perfect bubble of a life is burst; “You wake up after a few years, thinking you’re a winner, but you’re not, you’re really a loser”. This continues the series theme of being semi autobiographical of Stallone’s own life as the movie examines what fame and fortune can do to a person. Adrian’s role is smaller is time round although her character still sees an evolution as the famous lifestyle has taken away her shyness and made her more outspoken and pretty hot too I might add. Just listen to the words of motivation she gives Rocky on the beach; a far cry from the Adrian in the first movie.

Even when Rocky discovers Mickey has been hand picking fighters prior to his fist fight with Clubber Lang, Rocky is training in the most superficial gym. It’s full of photographers and visitors, musicians are playing and merchandise is being sold.  Unsurprisingly he gets the worst beating of his life at the hands of Clubber Lang. The solution to Rocky getting his so called “eye of the tiger” back; get away from the superficiality of his wealthy lifestyle and back to the nitty gritty. As Apollo Creed puts it, “Man, when we fought, you had that eye of the tiger man, the edge! And the only way to get it back is to go back to the beginning; you know what I’m saying?”. I stick by these words as some of the wisest words I’ve heard uttered in a motion picture. Whenever you lose your mindset of determination weather physically or mentality, go back to where you first started in order to reclaim it. Rocky III humanises Apollo Creed with Rocky and Apollo becoming friends being a great spin on the story. I always think of his intense shouting of “There is no tomorrow!” whenever I need some motivation.

The hypnotic, uneasy music which plays when Rocky is training poorly under Apollo and stuck with the threat of living with failure reminds me of Bernard Herman’s score to Vertigo in possibly the most uneasy scenes in the series. Likewise the scene of Paulie in the arcade has to be the most surreal scene in the entire series in which he throws a bottle pinball machine in slow motion complete with odd sound effects; it’s an image which doesn’t leave your head.

Mr. T as Clubber Lang, oh man! What a beast! A true larger than life villain with outbursts of immensely entertaining lightening fast dialogue; he sure has a way with words with such a violent temper and high levels of anger. You do not want to be stuck in an elevator with this guy. Which raises the question; is Clubber responsible for the death of Mickey by pushing him to the side? Yet even close to death Mickey can still inspire with scenery chewing words of motivation; his death being one of the series most emotional moments. The boxer vs. wrestler charity fight on the other hand between Rocky and Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but dam is it entertaining. It’s so over the top with such intense pain on display. The referee and police officers are thrown to the side, the audience is assaulted and even Paulie gets in on the action (I do love those bits of humour Paulie provides).

The final fight in Rocky III is the only in ring fight in the series which takes place in real time until Creed.  Meanwhile the final scene of the movie is such fun, with Rocky and Apollo playing off each other which along with the training montage gives off some homoerotic vibes along the way with sweaty, shirtless, muscular men in tank tops as well as men hugging and jumping in the sea.

Also the film’s trailer refers to Rocky III as an “American tradition”. What’s the tradition? Hollywood sequels?

Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II: Electric Boogaloo

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky II picks right off where the first movie ended and with the characters are already established, we can get right into the story. Stallone writes and directs this time, and who knows his own creation better than him?

Rocky II has a much higher budget than the first film and thus doesn’t have the guerrilla film making tactics of the first so while is loses something in that regard it’s still no less a beauty of a film. They can even afford to have a huge crowd of kids following him during the training montage and possibly the cheesiest moment in any Rocky movie. We now get two montages instead of one and the series obsession with them would grow from here. The final fight benefits the most from the higher budget. We actually get to see a large crowd of spectators instead of relying on stock footage and camera angels disguising the lack of extras; while the use of slow motion captures the pain and barbaric nature of fighting in glorious detail. When Rocky and Apollo both fall to the ground at the end of the fight, the suspense is crazy! The final shot of Rocky’s beat up face as he slurs in classic Stallone fashion is so barbaric; a perfect shot to end the movie on.

In Rocky II we get to see what Rocky does now that he has lots of money for the first time in his life and you really get a sense of the character’s new found happiness. However he becomes blinded by this happiness and it goes to his head such as when he buys a house without even checking the upstairs. Rocky struggles with his new found fame and can’t even film a simple commercial. Just like how the public turn their back on Rocky, the public turned their back on Stallone after his two follow up films to Rocky bombed; Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T. Like how Stallone had to do a sequel to Rocky in order to get by, Rocky has to fight Apollo again to get by and prove that he is not a fluke or a one hit wonder. Apollo’s trainer Duke also has a bigger role here and would continue to be more prevalent in Rocky III and IV; I love this guy and his intense words of inspiration.

Rocky II is easily the funniest movie in the series, from his poor driving skills to his mispronunciation of words when trying to film a commercial (“Smeel mainly”) but my favourite moment is when he tries to a catch a chicken as part of his training (“I feel like a Kentucky Fired Idiot”). I also find it funny the scene in which Apollo is being consumed by hate mail telling him to kill himself; it’s a good thing for him the web doesn’t yet exist. In terms of more twisted humour, Rocky takes Adrian to the zoo and even proposes to her there, because you know, retards like the zoo.

Rocky II was the first film in the series to use synthesizers in its score and the music feels very late 70’s and at times disco inspired (listen to the vocal version of All of My Life, its beautiful). Bill Conti’s ‘Redemption’ is by far the best piece of original music in the movie; it makes me want to climb a mountain.
Just a side note: In regards to the Rocky DVDs, only the first movie gets the special edition treatment and the rest are just bare bones releases. I know the first is considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the sequels that they’re just tossed aside on the home video releases.

Rocky II offers everything I could ask for in a sequel, a movie which stays true to the original but offers new elements along the way. It advances the story and adds an extra layer of depth to already complex characters. In 1979 the New Hollywood movement was coming to an end and the age of the blockbuster had begun. In 1976 Rocky lost the final fight but keeping with the new found optimism in Hollywood movies, in 1979 Rocky wins the fight (although timeline wise its late 1976).

Rocky (1976)

The Philadelphia Story

I may sound like a bit of a fanboy when I talk about the Rocky franchise but I just legitimately love all these movies so much. This is a series which always inspires me and has aided me during my darkest days. Rocky was one of the first movies to have such a profound impact on me, making me appreciate cinema on a deeper level. I first saw Rocky on TV and week after week came back to watch the sequels; such joy I had and memories I never forget.

I don’t think there is a fictional character whom I’ve been more emotionally invested in than Rocky Balboa. Could there be a character who is more honest or down to Earth? A man who has next to nothing yet has such a positive outlook on life (“Naw I ain’t got no phone, I had to pull it you know because people calling me all the time, and who needs the aggravation, right?” – such profound wisdom). The character is also a mystery and an enigma; who are his parents and what about his early years? Apart from a few brief snippets of information, it’s up to the viewer’s imagination instead of giving us a pointless origin story which Hollywood is so keen on nowadays. The character is biographical of his creator Sylvester Stallone throughout the whole series; his fictional alter ego. Just like Rocky, Stallone had next to nothing before making it as a star. Just like how the character rises to the challenge against impossible odds, the movie also beat impossible odds by becoming one of the biggest sleeper hits of all time. Likewise what movie or character is more identified with a city or has such reverence for the location it was filmed.

All the films in the series reflect the periods in which they were made. It’s 1976, America’s Bicentennial year. Perhaps the country didn’t know it needed an injection of optimism after years of cynical and pessimistic film as well as political upheaval. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for cynicism in movies but with such movies dominating the mainstream at the time it was clear that enough was enough. It seems like happy endings where against the law in the first half of the 70’s, but Rocky brought them back for better or worse, and film snobs will look down on it for that. But yes, I do blubber away at this ending and Adrian’s uttering of “I love you!” is the greatest “I love you!” in cinema history. The ending has that same feeling of joy and happiness as seen in the ending of many Frank Capra movies. Speaking of Capra, Rocky’s response to being asked if he wants to fight Apollo Creed for the world heavyweight championship is like Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town when he is told of the vast sum of money he has inherited.

As the filmmakers didn’t get permission to shot for many of the on locations, guerilla film making techniques where employed in the making of Rocky; capturing the streets of Philadelphia in all their glory with that distinctive that gritty look of 70’s films while aided with the use of the then new technology in the form of the steady cam. You’d be hard pressed to find a movie which is more naturalistic and unmanufactured as Rocky.

It’s astounding that such a low budget film could have had such a great soundtrack and score. Bill Conti’s score to Rocky always makes me feel melancholic; the Rocky soundtracks have given me hours upon hours of listening pleasure. I even watch the end credits of all the films for the music (well expect the first one as the end credit music here is quite dreary). The Rocky movies are also responsible for my love of montages. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance I felt watching the film’s training montage for the first time and hearing Gonna Fly Now; we’re talking the goosiest of goose bumps.

Roger Ebert compared Stallone to Marlon Brando in his original review, and in 1976 no one could have seen this man being a future action movie star; but I maintain the man is more intelligent than people make him out to be. He’s made a respectable career out of what he is capable of doing. How many people can claim to have been able to write installments in a film series which has lasted four decades and still manage to keep the long running story interesting. During the filming of Rocky he had to do script rewrites on the spot such as upon discovering the ice rink for Rocky and Adrian’s was completely empty or the shorts on the giant poster of Rocky in the stadium where the wrong colour.

When I watched this film at a younger age, I never fully appreciated the romantic angle, yet watching it from a more mature perspective. Rocky and Adrian are like two misfits who don’t fully fit in with the rest of society. There is a goddess with Adrian, and only Rocky can see it. The scene in which Rocky invites Adrian to his apartment after their first date took my breath away like few other love scenes have ever done. The sexuality on display is immense with Stallone in a vest and the gradual build up to their first kiss, and I’m sure they did it.

The world of Rocky is populated with such unforgettable characters. Rocky’s trainer Mickey Goldmill is one of the greatest mentors in film history (either him or Obi Wan Kenobi in my book) with his grouchy and curmudgeon manner. I feel Burgess Meredith is an actor who got better with age, so no surprise his most famous role came to him at the age of 68. Paulie (Burt Young) is one pathetic hateful loser, abuses his sister, is violent and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on the other hand, dam! What a showman with his charisma, confidence, cockiness and ego; the archetype of a leading man from a blackploitation film. Yet despite being a black man he is surely one of the most patriotic characters ever put on screen; sounds like a dam monster movie!

One more recent viewings of Rocky I’ve also come to appreciate Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell) more as a character. A charismatic loan shark who employs Rocky and has a real liking for him, giving him money for his date, attends his fight with Apollo and doesn’t try to take over his boxing career where as many other mobsters would. Yet Rocky’s lenient collecting style by refusing to break the thumbs of clients who don’t pay up causes problems for Gazzo yet he treats Rocky almost like a brother. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that in the original script for the film, Rocky and Gazzo where brothers.

When Rocky visits the empty arena before the fight you can feel the pressure and weight that bestows him. By the time the final fight comes around I’m so emotionally invested in this character that I’m rooting for him like it’s a real fight. During the fight itself the punches look real and there’s no sped up footage like boxing films of the past; while Bill Conti’s score ups the intensity and suspense for some serious emotional impact.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Champion Filmmaking

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Million Dollar Baby is a movie I find works on different levels. On my first viewing I found the majority of the film great right up until the plot’s heartbreaking turn of events, it easily ranked as one of my new favourite films of all time. On second viewing however I found substantially even better as I was waiting in dread for the proceeding events; I mean almost literally quivering in fear knowing that dreadful scene in which Maggie falls to the ground and her neck lands on the side on a stool. Thanks to this movie I now fear the very sight of a stool. Million Dollar Baby is one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever witnessed. It’s such a powerful experience I can’t just immediately watch another film right away and I’ll still be thinking about it for days afterwards; a film so absorbing you don’t want it to end. Yet the last forty minutes after Maggie Fitzgerald’s life threatening injury are so difficult to watch. Morgan’s Freeman’s monologue in which he tries to justify a reason to pull the plug on Maggie as she got her shot and can leave the world thinking “I think I did alright” really made me appreciate being alive.

I don’t know if it was the filmmaker’s intent but I certainly get the impression Million Dollar Baby has a pro-assisted suicide message which will rub many people the wrong way. I will point out though I’m not against movie’s containing a message which supports a point of view, regardless of my views on the issue at hand as this (on top of making more people aware of an issue) can create a vocal point of discussion as well as being thought provoking.

Eastwood has only become better over time, delivering an amazing streak of directorial efforts during throughout the 2000’s, with stories of unpretentious human emotion. His direction on Million Dollar Baby (as well as many of his other films) is astounding in how he makes the art of filmmaking look easy. It amazes me the effectiveness of his films despite their simplistic (at least on the surface level) and humble nature. Never has the presence of a fighter training in a darkly lit gym ever looked so immaculate. Likewise Eastwood can combine serious drama and subtle humor perfectly. I love his smart-alecky sense of humor such as the scenes in which he annoys a priest for his own amusement or my personal favourite moment, Eastwood and Freeman’s conversation about socks. Not to mention Morgan Freeman’s narration is pure heaven to listen too, never as exposition been pleasurable. If only Morgan Freeman could narrate my life. I know its east to throw around the “M” word, but in this instance I will use it. Million Dollar Baby is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Bogart’s Swansong Packs a Punch

Watching Humphrey Bogart’s final film is interesting on a number of levels. From the Saul Bass inspired opening credits to the jazzy music score, it’s unique to see Bogart in a more contemporary 1950’s film. I imagine if he lived longer and stared in movies for at least a few more years they would have been in a similar vein aesthetically to The Harder They Fall. In a period in which opening credits where becoming more interdict, the movie uses them to set up the plot; as soon as they’re over we are right into the heart of the story.

The film features a generational clash between Bogart and Rod Steiger; Bogart being of the old theatrical style of acting while Steiger being of the modern method style of acting. However I’ve always found Bogart to be an adaptable actor and he seamlessly blends into these unfamiliar surroundings. Bogart’s role as Eddie Willis is one of the most interesting heroic performances of his career, a character dealing with his moral and ethical conscience throughout the film. He may take part in the corruption game but he never fully believes in what is doing and tries to make it as unscrupulous as possible. Likewise Rod Steiger portrays corrupt sports promoter Nick Benko, a villain who believes his actions are justified. A villain who isn’t evil for the sake of it but throughout the film I get the sense he actually believes in what he’s doing. Steiger hams it up from time to time but in a good way.

The Harder They Fall deals with corruption in boxing and how promoters exploit athletes regardless of their health or well being while also celebrating the power of writing as a force to fight wrong and enforce positive social change, proving once again the pen is mightier than the sword, or should I say boxing glove. I’d be hard pressed to find a film which presents a more in depth look at corruption in boxing. It’s an informative experience into who pulls the strings and how. The fight scene themselves look like the real deal, no speed up footage or obviously faked punches. Likewise the grime and sweatiness of boxing arenas and training gyms never fail as effective subjects to capture on film, especially in black and white. Also what’s the deal with that bus with the cardboard cut outs attached to it? It’s almost like a character in itself.

I had sense of melancholy during the movie’s closing shots knowing this was the last time Bogart appeared on screen. Bogart was in poor health during the film’s production, suffering from lung cancer (although ironically it doesn’t stop him from lighting up during the movie), but thankfully doesn’t affect his ability to deliver a great performance. The Harder They Fall proves to be a worthy conclusion to in my opinion, one of the most impressive careers every held by any actor in the history of cinema.

 

The Champ (1931)

Million Dollar Baby

I can’t imagine what kind an inhuman monster devoid of feelings one would have to be in order to not be moved by this film. Jackie Cooper as Dink and Wallace Beery as his father simply referred to as ‘The Champ’ is one of the most heartfelt and compelling on screen relationships I’ve ever seen. A father who is a loser yet his son worships him despite the father not keeping his promises to stop drinking and gambling; regardless the father truly loves his son back. Despite his questionable character as a viewer I still feel a sympathetic liking for the character. With these two I feel I’m observing real human behavior, not acting.

The film’s naturalistic and unmanufactured feel just doesn’t extend to the performances, partially thanks to the widespread use of real world locations. Champ and Dink’s bedroom also appears run down and unpolished, it doesn’t look like your typical shinny Hollywood interior set; is it even a set at all? The Champ also disproves the misconception of movies from the 1930’s being static, right from the opening scene as the camera pans in several unbroken shots or the sequence in which Champ arises from bed in the morning with the camera following and zooming in on his movements are the room.

I initially reacted of dismay when Dink’s mother and her husband tries to separate him from The Champ, screaming to myself in my head “how dare you destroy this beautiful relationship!”. Thankfully I was glad they just didn’t just descend into becoming cliché villains. Child actors typically get on my nerves, not because of the children themselves but because of the way they are portrayed in movies, often as dim witted and overly cutesy (it seems Dink is smart enough that he even drives a full of adults in one scene, even if the steering wheel movements don’t match that of the car’s). Not here though. Every time Jackie Cooper utters the name of The Champ (“Come on Champ”, “I want The Champ!”) I have myself a laugh of joy. Watch and let the waterworks roll.