Stallone as director 3: Rocky III (1982)

Rocky III

In between fight scenes on Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone would feel light-headed.  At this point he was subsisting on twenty-five cups of coffee a day, a few scoops of tunafish and a kind of oatmeal biscuit made from brown rice.  It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving on such a small level of food whilst at the same time performing a physically arduous role AND directing a huge blockbuster motion picture.  You have to return to the days of silent movie making to find directors who pursued physical perfection alongside artistic intent.  For that alone, Stallone should command respect.

Within his body of work, Rocky III stands as a picture of interest as it chronicles a performer wallowing in hubris.  Balboa has become convinced of his own talent; he becomes a shill for cheap products and lazily challenges unworthy competitors in the ring.  It is a document of the excess that comes with the ‘new’ money of the eighties.  The parallels between Balboa and Stallone can be easily drawn.  For Stallone, the only guarantee of legitimacy and glory is to return to your roots and conquer your own demon of self-loathing.  It’s a chronicled deconstruction of himself; a rejection of a simplistic vision of masculinity and denial of any intrinsic value of adulation.  It is a path of forensically detailed self-examination that he would deny himself in the years to come.  Balboa has always been an avatar for Stallone; an opportunity for his to explore his hopes and his fears.

Equally, he turned this perceptiveness onto the supporting cast.  He began to respond to the representation of black culture in the previous instalments.  Where previously the African-American members of the cast were presented at best as an alien ‘other’ and at worst, the villain, he begins to show how other cultures share as much in the struggle of survival in America as working-class Italian immigrants.  Both Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang are presented as more deserving holders of the title belt; their determination and sacrifice are shown to be greater than Balboa’s.  They understand the struggle you have to face to gain and maintain success; Balboa takes it, as most white people do, for granted.

Many of Stallone’s visual prompts come into play.  There are low angled shots at the beginning of the film.  Dialogue scenes are framed in close-up.  There are freeze frames and slow-motion employed during moments of tension or suspense.  Heavy shadow is used to show internal anguish.  Sepia flashbacks are used to recall an earlier time.  These are fairly superficial devices to be used.  But Stallone is a workmanlike director.  His priority is direct storytelling.  He seeks to visually represent internal conflict; this results in a pure aesthetic effectiveness.

But Stallone was determined to push cinema into a new decade.  He is pioneering in this regard as he sought to reject the dour reality of seventies American cinema and replace it with a dynamic, glowing attractiveness.  The colours become heightened, and he regularly employed soft focus to create a dreamlike haze to scenes (the transfer on the BLU-RAY reveals the gauze applied to the lens in order to achieve this effect.  Rather than appear distracting, if gives the scenes an almost pop art, Lichtenstein quality).  Stallone escalated his use of montage; no longer restricted to training scenes, it became a narrative device used throughout the movie.  Inspired by the burgeoning music video movement that sprung up with the rise of MTV, Stallone set these sequences to dynamic music, most notably here, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.  Stallone was determined to move direction along with his audience; he understood that their aesthetic was changing, and there was no need to deny them this in cinema.

Despite the gruelling diet, Stallone has never appeared more beautiful.  The lumpy awkwardness of his youth has been replaced by a lean grace.  His lack of body fat ensured his slightly exaggerated bone structure came to the forefront.  Coupled with an almost feather like haircut, he became a figure of elegance and desire.  Few actors put as much effort into the physicality of their part as Stallone; Balboa is almost an entirely different person to John Rambo as Rambo is a physically distinct person to Cobra.

With its focussed runtime, aesthetic inventiveness and intelligent skewering of conventional masculinity, Rocky III represents the high point of the franchise, and a towering achievement in regards to physical magnificence on the part of Stallone.

F6 – The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006 – Justin Lin)

Han

Well, we might as well deal with the big question first… ‘Does watching The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift after Fast & Furious 6 work?’  Because, the nerdy side of me that loves the oppressive continuity of ongoing film series adores the fact that this film is chronologically set later than when it was made.  And it’s easy to see why Lin became enamoured with the charm of Sung Kang’s performance, and sought to place a murdered character back into the series.  It’s perhaps the ultimate act of repositioning that the series makes; essentially watching the films in this order re-orientates this film around Han rather than the nominal protagonist of Lucas Black’s Sean Boswell.

Which is an interesting choice, and Kang is a more engaging performer than Boswell.  But… whilst a generous reading of the film can characterise Han’s return to street racing as the act of a man returning to a simple life in the face of trauma, there is little in his performance that convinces us that he is coping with the loss of Giselle.  And there’s no real understanding of why he is hanging around with a bunch of kids.  And the (at the time, fan-service) street-racing cameo of Dom Toretto is impossible to read as a man hunting down the villainous Deckard Shaw.  Watching Tokyo Drift in this position can only be seen as a waste of potentially worthwhile emotional capital, and a severe scale-back of dynamic action set pieces.

Which is not to say it’s a bad film.  On the contrary, much of Tokyo Drift reinforces the essential themes of the series.  Sean Boswell is a true hero in that he comes from poverty, and his shit-eating grin identifies him as a charming irritant to those in power.  There are some extraordinarily good car chase scenes, including a wonderful moment where an entire crowd of hundreds of people scatter as Boswell’s car ploughs through a metropolitan crossroad, and whilst there is some visually dated use of computer-aided morphing during these chases scenes, they are grounded in a physicality that Lin would reject in his next entry in the series, Fast & Furious.  But the tendency to refer to this entry as almost a direct-to-video film is unwarranted, such is the strong central narrative of a man escaping a toxic Southern American culture to find acceptance in others and himself.

But some of Lin’s problems sneak back into the series.  Women are objectified (quite literally, when they are awarded as prizes in the aforementioned races), and there is a distasteful proclivity to frame many of the scenes as a ‘look-at-what-these-funny-Japanese-people-do’ that is reminiscent of Lost in Translation (2003 – Sofia Coppola).  Other aspects of the film seem incongruous; Lil’ Bow Wow’s (another rapper) car is appallingly gauche, and there is an amusing moment where ‘Timberlake’ is used as an insult, which somewhat dates the film (even if we know, deep-down, that Timberlake can never be a compliment).

 

In retrospect, it’s better to watch this film series in production order, rather than chronological order.  There’s a charm in seeing a franchise return to its small-scale roots after seeing jumbo-jets crash and burn, but whilst the film reinforces the theme of finding a constructed family in the world, it lacks the wide cast of characters that have rooted the franchise so well.  The series has been steadily escalating its action sequences, and watching this film in this position can only be a disappointment.  Watched with a contemporaneous 2006 mindset, it’s a movie where a franchise is trying to find new stars (Lucas Black and Sung Kang) and reassert Vin Diesel as the creative mastermind of the series, after he was effectively side-lined in 2 Fast 2 Furious.  Some of these threads were followed, some were rejected, and it is a fundamentally enjoyable film, but there’s no point watching it looking for a development of Han’s character in response to the loss of Giselle; the emotional content just isn’t there, and that can only be a disappointment.

 

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. Fast & Furious 6
  2. Fast Five
  3. The Fast and the Furious
  4. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
  5. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  6. Fast & Furious
  7. Los Bandoleros
  8. Turbo Charged Prelude

 

Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:

 

The whole bloody film.

Films seen May

Mindhorn (2017 – Sean Foley)

 

Which is a film that is not Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013 – Declan Lowney).  It’s a film that repeats many of that much better film’s beats, but you just don’t care here.  Without a history of multiple television series, Richard Thorncroft is just another man, and only the broadest of jokes land.  And there’s a point where the plot just takes over from silliness and jokes, which in all these films, Alpha Papa included, feels sluggish and wearisome.  At the end of the day, you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve wasted your time watching this film.

 

On the weirdly shaped Screen 1 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Good sized screen.  Ticket cost £10.50.

 

 

A Canterbury Tale (1944 – Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

 

For a large part of the film you forget quite why you love it so.  It’s all a bit aimless, and beyond the pleasure of seeing the part of the country you live in and around as it was during the war.  And then you remember as the final twenty minutes are this elegiac journey of recovery for our four protagonists.  It is such a perfect sense of grace… one that is ever-so-slightly bittersweet with the foreknowledge that many of these characters may be dead within a few months.

There was a moment watching this film, as the black and white beams of light shone through a half empty theatre on a grey Saturday afternoon that I felt a similar sense of grace.  For a few moments I felt I gained an insight into what cinema must have meant in 1944; how essential it was to wisdom and comfort and calm.

I reminded me why movies are my religion and cinema is my cathedral.

 

The screening was meant to be in 35mm, but got switched to digital.  Almost didn’t go as a consequence, but I was up in town anyway.  Screened on the lovely NFT 2 at the BFI Southbank.  Ticket cost £12 or something.  Shown w/ Westward Ho! (1940 – Thorold Dickinson) – a short film about the evacuation of children during the war.  Got a little frustrated when I got the BFI as it was heaving… later I realised Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were all there for a screening, so I retrospectively forgave everyone.

 

 

Alien: Covenant (2017 – Ridley Scott)

 

The film breaks down into four sections:

  1. The opening receive-a-distress-call-and-decide-to-investigate section, which when the film is over, you can’t quite believe you had to sit through. It takes half-an-hour to do what Alien (1979 – Scott) did in five minutes.  Characters are drawn with the thinnest of personalities (Danny McBride wears a hat…) and James Franco’s cameo is entirely distracting (I hadn’t realised it was him being burned up in the cryogenic pod at the start, and I saw it on a screen as big as a house.)

  1. The second section sees the crew land on a planet and investigate the crashed engineer ship from Prometheus (2012 – Scott). Visually it’s quite beautiful, and it’s bringing a woodland aesthetic to a series that had never explored this terrain before.  There’s a growing (if somewhat obvious) sense of unease and a fantastic attack in a wheatfield.

  1. A section set in the engineer’s city where Michael Fassbender hams it up as David – which feels as if it is drawn from Vincent Ward’s abandoned version of Alien3. It’s easy to denigrate this section as slightly flaccid, but it relies on the understanding that:
  • David was the morally uneasy protagonist of Prometheus rather than Noomi Rapace.
  • All Alien films depend upon a nightmare logic, where characters make terrible, and stupid, decisions in the face of danger.

David is clearly coded as H. R. Giger, fantastical and slightly psychopathic, but it’s hard to believe in a sincere conflict between him and Fassbender’s dual portrayal of Walter, who is a blanker slate.

  1. The final section plays as a hyped-up hybrid of the Alien hunting scenes from Alien and the final conflict in Aliens (1986 – James Cameron). It is wearisome on reflection.

So Alien: Covenant feels like a meal reheated in a microwave, and the opening and closing half hours lack any real invention.  But… but… I liked it.  I just have to accept that I adore these films in the way that some people adore Marvel movies.  Was it better than Prometheus?  Yes, but I quite liked Prometheus?  Do I really need gaps in narratives filled in?  No; I’d prefer a more original idea that uses the Alien.  Was this film initially overpraised in some quarters and then over-criticised by others in reaction?  Yes, but isn’t that true of all cultural commentary nowadays.

What you’re left with is a film that is the fourth or fifth best entry in a very good film series.

 

Treated myself to the IMAX screen at Bluewater Showcase.  It’s not the biggest IMAX screen in the world, but it’ll do.  Ticket cost £15.

 

 

Malcolm X (1992 – Spike Lee)

 

Which is a long film and I’m not convinced by how much time is spent exploring Malcolm X’s childhood and early adulthood.  But I get why Lee did it.  The thrust of the narrative is that for a man who was mostly presented as aggressive and obstinate, Malcolm X responded greatly to the world around him, and would regularly modify his views.

I’d seen it before, but was glad to luxuriate in the big screen.  This film feels most alive when Lee indulges in his visual inventiveness, tracking shots and extraordinary Nelson Mandela cameo conclusion in particular.

 

Shown on 35mm on the Sigourney Weaver screen at The Picturehouse Central – beautiful screen.  Ticket cost £8 and they helpfully changed my seating when requested.  It was an organised event and there was a panel discussion afterwards, but I couldn’t hang around as I had to go see…

 

 

Brainstorm (1983 – Douglas Trumbull)

 

So it’s a pretty silly movie, and one where the main appeal stems from the ‘directed by Douglas Trumbull’ credit.  Which seems appealing, until you remember that he only really directed one other film, Silent Running (1972), and that’s a film that rarely rises above ‘okay’.  And you remember, it’s his effects work that you love.

Brainstorm doesn’t feature half as much effects work as you’d like.

But it is enjoyable, and having only seen it on a letterboxed blu-ray previously, it was revelatory seeing it in 70mm.  The aspect ratio changes are so integral to the plot (and you notice on the big screen the moments where Trumbull makes reality break down in a way you never could on telly), and when it is fully anamorphic, it is astonishing.  One of those cinematic experiences I’m really glad I had, and one where seeing a film in a cinema really deepened my appreciation of the film

I have a lot of 70mm showings booked for the next few months.  Excited!

 

On 70mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  New seats; very comfy but you can’t sink into them in the way you used to.  Ticket cost about £10 (I’m going to get membership soon).

 

 

Colossal (2017 – Nacho Vigalondo)

 

I think this was one of the ones we were meant to be excited about, revelatory performance from Anne Hathaway and all that.  But Christ.  It was dull.  And seemed to work to its own very specific logic for creating an avatar, which was kind of baffling.  I liked it for its deconstruction of two ‘nice’ guys, both out to save a woman whose only major fault was an itchy head.  But when those two guys are played by Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens, you are only waiting for them to be physically injured.  And it was a tedious wait for that to happen.

See, I wasn’t desperate for an Anne Hathaway renaissance.  I’ve being saying she was good in Rachel Getting Married (2008 – Jonathan Demme) for nearly a decade now.  And she was good in this film… it’s just it was so monotonous, that makes me doubt my feelings towards that film.  Colossal undermined my very certainty in my established critical opinion.  Just not in a good way.

 

Screen 4 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket only cost £6.50.

 

 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 – Lewis Gilbert)

For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen)

 

When watching the two of them back-to-back, it’s clear the latter is a better film, but the former is more enjoyable.  There’s a seriousness to For Your Eyes Only that predicates the most satisfying entries in the series, such as the Timothy Dalton and first two Daniel Craig films.  But after nearly four hours of Bond in action, the comedy Maggie Thatcher scene killed.  The Spy Who Loved Me is sillier and rife with uncomfortable sexual and racial politics, but indicative of the real strengths of the Moore Bonds; the effortlessness with which they entertain an audience.  There is no ambition to bring ‘depth’, no unsatisfying attempt to delve into backstory, just a particular mix of ambitious stunt work, a winningly charming central role, and a sense of humour that captures the whole audience.

(One thing I did notice that the two films share is that Bond is definitively a widower in both movies.  Strange that nearly ten years later, and with an entirely different lead actor (twice) they were still dwelling on plot points from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969 – Peter R. Hunt))

 

Charity double bill at the Odeon Covent Garden Screen 1 in memory of Sir Roger Moore.  New 4K transfers.  Ticket only cost £7 (for two films!).  Enthusiastic audience too!

F5 – Fast & Furious 6 (2013 – Justin Lin)

Giselle

Fast & Furious 6 is less about repositioning characters and more about appreciating the history the series has built up at this stage.  The escalation of Toretto’s criminality – from trafficking portable DVD players to crashing planes – is explicitly referenced, and there is a real benefit to the real-time aging that the characters have experienced.  When Brian and Mia become parents, it is touching that we remember their juvenile infatuation and how things have messily progressed since then.  It is less touching when we remember that Jordana Brewster brought real intelligence, and the possibility of stardom to The Fast and the Furious; now she is window dressing, removed completely from the main plot until the final moments of the film.

Moving away from the drug barons that have provided the series’ main antagonists until this point, Fast & Furious 6 begins the franchises’ adoption of comic-book cliché supervillains.  Here we have the mirror opposites of Dom’s crew, each a twisted reflection of our beloved heroes.  Surprisingly, amongst them is Michelle Rodriguez, making a welcome return as Letty.  Seeing Rodriguez in this film, and others such as Avatar (2009 – James Cameron), I am struck by how charismatic a movie star she is.  Here she is so good as a woman who doesn’t know who she is, much like Brian had been up until this point.  Fatherhood brings him  a sense of peace and of understanding of who he is.  In a crew dominated by a lot of mouthy know-it-alls (and make no mistake, Dom Toretto is the biggest one of these), he is the rock, the voice of perception.

Seen in the light of their darkened reflections, the rest of the crew begin to come into their own.  Dwayne Johnson begins to assert himself over the narrative, and makes a character point of Luke Hobbs’ willingness to leap from moving vehicles.  Giselle and Han give a touching portrayal of a genuinely supportive, trusting and understanding relationship – one that makes you wish for a spin-off starring just the two of them.  Giselle’s death is genuinely moving, and one that underlines just how capable Gal Gadot was in giving strength to a paper-thin character.  And Tyrese Gibson just (just) about manages to stop Roman Pearce becoming a walking stereotype.  Pearce is obsessed with money, sex and often seems to exist simply to make jokes, all attributes often offensively given to black actors.  But his charismatic reading of his lines give the impression that he is the only one in the room who understands how ridiculous this all is.

(And it is ridiculous… this a series that tries to get you to take Vin Diesel as a romantic lead seriously, after all.)

Since the successful introduction of Dwayne Johnson in the previous movie, the franchise starts to make a point of casting established action stars with each film.  Gina Carano (best known for Haywire (2011 – Steven Soderbergh)) and Joe Taslim (seen in The Raid (2011 – Gareth Evans)) are brought in as bad guys and bring with them an astonishing physicality.  The fight between Carano and Rodriguez on the London Underground is as nasty and vicious as anything seen within action cinema, and an example of two highly capable stars pushing their bodies to the limit in their verisimilitude and desire to show the punishment of violence.

The setting of London is not just a pretty backdrop for the action, another stop on their global adventure.  Despite the rather messy geography used in the film (knowing a city well makes it harder to fudge how they got from point A to point B, a fact we must assume to be true for every other location in the series), the film takes an admirable approach to the CCTV culture of the U.K.  The country is the most surveilled population in the world, since the nation’s gleeful adoption of the technology in the wake of the truly shocking images discovered as part of the Jamie Bulger murder investigation.  The horrific images of a small child being led away by other small children led the population to accept mass surveillance regardless of any infringement of civil liberties.  In this film, the technology is used to track and locate opponents easily on several occasions.

What makes Fast & Furious 6 so good though, is its continual employment of action.  In previous films, the action sequences, be they fist-fights, car chases or heists have felt very much like sequences.  Here they become a very fabric of the movie, intrinsically woven in.  The film has a constant forward momentum, and avoids the lazy trap of having character sit around in rooms of various sizes and talk about their emotions.  In previous films, these always brought the plot to a grinding halt; here Dom convinces Letty of his love through action (leaping from a bridge to catch her), rather than words.  And they are extraordinary action scenes.  Justin Lin regularly employs a helicoptered camera to capture motion, and there is a suplex move involving Toretto and Hobbs against a man-mountain of an opponent towards the end of the film, that is something quite astonishing.  It’s a brilliant movie and a high point of the series so far.

And there is a gripping post-credits sequences that significantly reframes the events of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  Better watch that film after all!

 

 

Fast & Furious rankings:

 

  1. Fast & Furious 6
  2. Fast Five
  3. The Fast and the Furious
  4. 2 Fast 2 Furious
  5. Fast & Furious
  6. Los Bandoleros
  7. Turbo Charged Prelude

 

 

Brian & Dom street racing scorecard:

 

Brian: III (I read the opening dash to Mia’s hospital as a street race… Brian convincingly wins, even though it is not commented upon)

Dom: III

 

 

Heavy-‘Han’ded references to Tokyo:

 

2 (again! Giselle asks ‘What’s our next adventure?’ before being told Tokyo by Han, and at the end of the film he says he has to go to Tokyo… FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER!!!

 

Best line:

 

There are several contenders but Ludacris’ ‘We need more alphabets!’ is a strong second place.

 

Winner has to go to Roman Pearce’s insouciant comment ‘Why do I smell baby oil?’ as Luke Hobbs enters the room behind his back.  Possible one of the greatest lines in cinema, full stop.