Rocky Balboa (2006)

Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky Balboa really does feel like meeting up with an old friend. The character himself is just as honest and done to Earth as ever, showing Stallone understands his own creation better than anyone else. So how do we make a Rocky film emotionally engaging right off the bat 16 years after the last movie? Have it revealed that Adrian died at some unspecified point (before 1995 at least) and that he is emotionally distant from his son along with a sprinkle of nostalgia in showing that he still has pet turtles (so are they the same turtles from the first movie?). Rocky Balboa doesn’t draw too heavily on little nods to the previous movies but a few are there. Rocky revisiting his old haunts really puts his journey in retrospect as he looks back on the ghosts of the past. More drastically, however, Rocky Balboa breaks the series tradition and has no recap of the final fight from the previous movie, setting itself up as its own separate beast.

In Rocky Balboa, the titular character is doing well for himself at least in terms of his standing in the community and even operates a restaurant named after his late wife. The real difficulty Rocky currently has in his life is the strained relationship with his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). Robert is ultimately a bit of a snob who is more intellectual than his father and works in a modern, geometric building (the Cira Centre); a world where the street weary Rocky doesn’t belong. Robert is clearly bothered by his father and doesn’t want to live in his shadow and only get ahead because of his last name. There is even a reference to the father-son relationship in Rocky V when Rocky uses the phrase “Home Team” to his son. See Stallone, even you can’t deny it exists (he actually gave the film a rating of “0” on a British talk show)

Like previous films in the series, Rocky Balboa draws comparisons to Stallone’s own life. The scene in which Rocky tries to convince the boxing commission to grant him a license feels just like Stallone trying to pitch the movie itself to a group of Hollywood executives; it’s true that Stallone didn’t have an easy time making Rocky VI. Even the reactions within the movie to the fight’s announcement echo the reaction to the movie’s announcement (“Rocky the President has labeled you a Balboasaurus”). I appreciate films about old age as they are few and far between (excluding Lifetime movies). – You can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Nonsense!

One of the weakest aspects of Rocky Balboa in my book is the largely forgettable opponent Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon. He is not over the top like Rocky’s previous foes and has no definable personality, memorable lines and has an RBF throughout the entire film. A more subdue villain could be interesting if done right but the script makes no attempt to do so. Honestly, his managers are far more interesting as a group of cynical, greedy boxing promoters. Although my biggest gripe with Rocky Balboa is the film’s visual appearance. The cinematography is way too overexposed and there is way too much blue in the colour scheme; I had to adjust my eyes in order to get used to it. – I will say Creed is far more visually asserting movie.

Burt Young makes Paulie grouchy and grumpy as ever and gives his best performance as the character, well in a deleted scene that is in which Paulie breaks down after losing his job after 31 years and speaks of how much he misses his sister. This has me screaming, “why wasn’t this left in the film?!” I get scenes have to be sacrificed for pacing but could they have not squeezed this scene in there? Oh well, that’s all part of filmmaking. Bringing back the character of Marie on the other hand, a one scene character from the first film is one of the best aspects of Rocky Balboa. I actually was fortunate enough to not know this going into the film and her reveal was a huge gasp moment. Likewise, the relationship between Rocky and Marie’s stepson named, well Steps presents an endearing generational difference. Rocky Balboa carries on what simply makes the Rocky films superb – great characters. Plus as with the rest of the series, there are many inspirational lines which I can add to my Rocky lexicon (“It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you get hit”). Even Duke’s “hurting bombs” monologue may be his greatest line ever, and that’s saying a lot.

The final fight in Rocky Balboa (which itself was inspired by a 1994 bout between a 45-year-old George Forman and a 26-year-old Michael Moorer) comes about because of a computer fight on ESPN. A “what if” scenario in which a computer determines who would win a fight between two contenders from different time periods; the premise sounds ridiculous on paper but surprisingly it actually works. The fight is by far the most realistic in the series up until that point. Thankfully the strive for realism doesn’t make the fight any less exciting than previous Rocky bouts. The fight is presented like it’s the real thing; it’s live on HBO, stats appear on the screen, its shot in HD and Michael Buffer is the presenter. The fight does transition from the live broadcast to a traditional movie presentation with some effective use of colouring in the black & white shots

Rocky Balboa is not my favourite film the series but how many franchises can say the 6th installment was this good. Where it certainly does succeed is in leaving the viewer with that uplifting Rocky feeling. In the final shot, Rocky visits Adrian’s grave and walks into the background disappearing into thin air, implying he’s passed on, or so we thought…

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

box-office-jocks

It Happens Every Spring

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is one of the most enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing of MGM musicals, a film which isn’t as intense or faced paced as others but as a result is very relaxing and pleasurable to watch. A love letter to America’s favourite (or “favorite” for you yanks) pastime and a nostalgic look at the early turn of the century in which the worlds of Vaudeville and baseball come together.

Sources state Take Me Out to the Ball Game was entirely filmed on the MGM backlot at Culver City although there is a real sense of authenticity to the baseball grounds featured in the film. We even get the Once Upon a Time In the West shot overlooking the baseball grounds of the fictional Wolves team early in the film. Take Me Out to the Ball Game was directed by Busby Berkley oddly enough even though the movie is a product of the MGM musical making machine and is not reminiscent of his iconic works with Warner Bros back in the 1930s.

Like the other two films in the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra trilogy, Sinatra trying to act like a tough guy to contrast Kelly’s ladies man attitude is always a good laugh. I once again have to ask myself why this duo isn’t more celebrated not to mention Gene Kelly surprisingly gets a shocking third billing this time around. Betty Garret meanwhile plays a similar role she would go on to play in On The Town, making stalking funny rather than creepy or psychologically scarring in her pursuit of a gawky Frank Sinatra, just less of a nymphomaniac this time around. The cast also includes Edward Arnold playing once again, an unscrupulous rich guy as the film’s antagonist.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game fails to utilise Esther Williams iconic talents as a swimmer by not giving he an underwater number (regardless she is still seen swimming at one point in the film as she sings the movie’s title tune and shows what an elegant swimmer she is). Despite this, I feel Williams steals the show from Kelly and Sinatra and gives by far the best performance in the film as K.C. Higgins, the new owner the Wolves baseball club.

When the team members first learn the club is under new ownership they aren’t aware that K.C. Higgins ain’t a man (“He’s a girl!”). A lot of funny moments are drawn out of this misunderstanding as well as a humorous clash of the sexes as the boys try to adjust accordingly to the presence of a dame instead of the movie having some annoying, preachy feminist agenda. K.C. Higgins is a character who could have come off as bitchy and tyrannical is instead tough but fair, feisty, hard to get and one of the guys while still retaining her femininity.

The soundtrack selections of Take Me Out to the Ball are yet more great additions to MGM’s incredible repertoire. Yes Indeedy is one catching ditty but those spicy lyrics?! References to suicide and going out with an 11-year-old – I do enjoy when these innocent movies have their unexpected edgy side. Strictly U.S.A., on the other hand, is the 1940’s equivalent of “American, F**k Yeah!” as an ensemble lists of various aspects of Americana. O’ Brien, Ryan and Goldberg and The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day are both a drag for me, although the genuine look of joy on the faces of the extras watching Gene Kelly dance on the St Patrick’s Day number makes it worth it.

The Color of Money (1986)

The Rules of the Game

I’ve never been more aroused by a film’s editing and cinematography than that featured in The Color of Money, a film which I ultimately enjoyed more than it’s predecessor The Hustler. It just so happens I first watched The Color of Money during my time as a film student and attempted to replicate many of the film’s shots and edits for a music video (and an intentionally 80’s music video at that) as I studied the cuts present in the film frame by frame. Needless to say, I was not entirely successful in my endeavour.

The Color of Money has the fast pace and rhythm of MTV music videos but still with a sense of old-school class and sophistication; right from the opening credits, I can tell this would be a movie dripping in atmosphere. A movie so snappy, fast-paced and full of quick edits, many of which come unexpectedly along with many unconventional camera movements yet it never feels disorientating or distracting as the scenes glide with such fluidity and ease. The cinematography on display here isn’t that of a David Lean production, no this is a movie which largely takes place in bars and pool halls yet it still has a sense of majesty and scope even if the shot in question is a close up of a drinking glass. Really the only edit I can fault is the very cheesy freeze frame of Paul Newman jumping out of a swimming pool. On the other hand, nobody uses licensed soundtracks better than Martin Scorsese. I get the impression scenes in the film were shot with the music in mind and not as an afterthought. With the opening scene, it feels like Phil Collins’ One More Night was specifically composed to fit the mood and tone of the scene.

The Color of Money however is not style over substance. I love the intriguing character triangle of a trio of hustlers as well as the harmony of two generations coming together. Tom Cruise is an actor I only like in certain parts but in roles such as Vincent, a cocky, male fantasy indulging character who embodies the entrepreneurial and capitalistic spirit of the 1980’s (like his character in Risky Business), I simply revel in – as Eddie puts it “a natural character”. Just as impressive are pool shots done by Cruise himself (he performed all but one of his own trick shots); makes me energised to play some pool myself.

Sporting Blood (1931)

The Electric Horseman

Sporting Blood was Clark Gable’s first top-billed role, playing a gangster with a softer side, willing to take the shots but not at the expense at the life of a dumb animal. Just one problem though; he doesn’t show up until halfway through! I’ve seen some movies in which it takes a long time for the top-billed star to show up but this is the most extreme example I’ve seen of this; so don’t go in expecting Gable from scene 1. Sporting          Blood has an odd narrative structure with characters introduced late in the game and a second half which largely contrasts the first half but it works. The first half takes place in a peaceful farm paradise, the latter in a world of gangsters in which Tommy Boy becomes a commodity merely being passed around.

Sporting Blood is a romantic tribute to the world of equestrianism, set in the horse racing heartland of Kentucky; and when I say romantic, I mean romantic. This is a movie which would have you believe an entire group of horses would come running to a horse being taken away in a truck as a sign of farewell. But the anamorphisation of animals doesn’t end there; when Madge Evans proclaims, “What do I want to run him in the Derby for? For himself, for running for himself. Don’t you think a horse has some rights, the same as you and me to run straight and honest and to give his best in order to win what he can.” We’re all guilty of it though, aren’t we?

“Since the beginning of time the Horse has been Man’s loyal friend…BUT Man has not always been the friend the Horse has to Man….”, this section of the opening prologue confuses me; didn’t early man hunt horses for food? But I digress. I found myself getting engaged in the story with the death of Tommy Boy’s mother Southern Queen (was a real horse injured here?) and I believe must of this can be credited to the very naturalistic acting present in Sporting Blood. Unlike other films of the classic Hollywood era, Sporting Blood features African American actors in prominent roles. While they are still presented in a stereotypical manner and seem dim-witted at times, they are treated with more dignity and illicit genuine emotion, especially the black children near the beginning of the film feel just like real kids.

Sporting Blood gets a major benefit from its handsome production values, location filming and impressive race footage which gets right up close to the action. The film is full of in-depth compositions and extensive camera pans; just look at the gorgeous use of lighting and shadows when Tommy Boy is introduced to his new mother. It also wouldn’t be pre-code without some drug use thrown in there, ok its horse narcotics but still (“We’ve hopped him up so much in the last few months that it ain’t working like it used to”). Sporting Blood isn’t the most intense film ever but is one with a relaxing charm to it.