Black Sunday (1977)

Hey There Blimpy Boy, Flying Through The Sky So Fancy-Free!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Black Sunday is another addition to the “They couldn’t make that nowadays club”. Unsurprisingly in a post 9/11 world, no studio would want to touch a film about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl, nor would any company or brand want to be associated with it. Yet in 1977, a mainstream film was released about such an attack with cooperation from the National Football League and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company – now I can’t look at a Good Year blimp and not think of Black Sunday. Likewise looking at the film from a political point of view, it’s highly unlikely modern, left-wing Hollywood would make a film which is pro-Zionist and features Palestinians as terrorists. The terror group in Black Sunday is the real-life Black September of whom were behind the 1972 Munich Massacre – this was the basis for the inspiration behind Black Sunday.

Black Sunday was one of several high profile underperformers to be released in 1977 including Sorcerer, Cross of Iron, New York, New York and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. These films may be able to attribute their lack of success at least in part due to the release of Star Wars. Although Black Sunday’s timing was also compromised by another film about terrorism at a football game which was released months earlier in the form of Two Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston – a poor man’s version of Black Sunday. As of writing this review in 2020, Black Sunday can be viewed in high definition online but has yet to receive a Blu-ray release in any region. I can only speculate if corporate or political reasoning has any part to play in this.

Black Sunday is led by a trio of performers at the top of their game. Marthe Keller has a sinister presence as Black September member Dahlia Iyad. The Arab Mata Hari is no more unsettling than during the sequence in a hospital in which she disguises herself as a nurse to poison Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) in this very Terminator-like scenario. Dahlia is married to the mentally unhinged, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern). Lander is s divorcee who doesn’t get to see his children; the background behind Michael and Dahlia’s relationship is never revealed but is fascinating on the surface. There appears to be legitimate heartfelt feeling towards the two yet their bond is ultimately over ideology. Michael romanticizes himself and his wife’s martyrdom and in one scene basks in sheer euphoria with her after they have a successful weapons test which kills an innocent bystander – a disturbing look into the mind of a terrorist.

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Through Michael, Black Sunday also comments on the treatment of Vietnam veterans back home. In one scene Michael is not treated with respect by the rude receptionist at the Veterans Administration Hospital and made to wait amongst a crowded waiting area before seeing a psychiatrist. Yet during the film, he is still seen wearing his military uniform and taking pride in the medals he earned even though he plans to commit terror against the United States. When he flies the blimp prior to the execution of the terror plot, you can see the pain on his face as the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the stadium.

Rounding out this trio is Robert Shaw as the total mad lad Major David Kabakov – an Israeli counter-terrorist agent and all-round unethical badass. A Dirty Harry type who play by the FBI’s rules (“In your own operational circle in Israel, I understand behind your own back they call you The Final Solution. A man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion and beyond ”). At the beginning of Black Sunday, Kabakov had the opportunity to kill Dahlia but allows her to live. Why doesn’t he kill Dahlia when he had the chance just 15 minutes into the movie? Well aside from the fact that the movie would have ended, Kabakov comes to regret this action and reject the notion of seeing both sides of the question (“The trouble is, Dave, you’ve come to see both sides of the question”). Also notice that he has a concentration camp tattoo on his arm which can be seen as he sits in the hospital bed – Kabakov being a Holocaust survivor goes unmentioned throughout the film.

The Long Beach boat chase and the Miami chase sequence are an appetizer to what comes later (despite some dubious sped up shots during the boat chase). Once the film reaches its final act on the Super Bowl date of January 9th, the final 40 minutes of Black Sunday is some of the most exhilarating action I’ve ever seen in a movie. Featuring chases on foot, car and then by helicopter, the phrase “Edge of your seat” doesn’t do it justice. The film’s advertising including the poser and the trailer (which is classic trailer fashion summarizes the entire plot of the film) focuses on the end of the film as the blimp reaches the audience at the football stadium, leaving the viewer to wonder how we get to that point and what happens next? The film never actually outlines the planned terror plot until we actually see it in action.

So how did the studio receive permission from Good Year to use their blimps and logo in the film? Director John Frankenheimer had already established good relationship with Good Year head Robert Lane as a result of working with the company in Frankenheimer’s previous film Grand Prix (1966). Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear’s blimps on four conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp’s side as well as the blimp itself not being part of any violence, for example, nobody was to be churned up in its propellers. Lastly, the Good Year logo could not appear on the film’s poster or on any other such marketing materials, hence why the poster and home video releases the blimp simply has the words “Super Bowl” imprinted on its side.

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The grand spectacle of a finale during the Super Bowl X on January 18th, 1976 at the Miami Orange Bowl with the production returning to the same location film additional scenes on January 29th (I wonder how people present reacted to seeing Robert Shaw running about like a madman?). You get a real incoming sense of dread as the large crowds congregate and people are having a good time amongst the appearance of NFL players, coaches, sports announcers and CBS news crews.  Likewise, the President who appears at the Super Bowl in two brief shots resembles then POTUS Jimmy Carter. Carter was sworn into office on January 20th 1977, which means the earliest date if the movie’s timeline would be late 1977 to early 1978 at the earliest (the film indicates it takes place after January 1974). If the film takes place during the 1977 Superbowl then the President should resemble Gerald Ford during his last days in office but it’s only politics geeks like myself who get caught up over this sort of thing.

The score by John Williams is not one of his standout works as there’s no incentive to listen to it after watching the film, although it does succeed in creating suspense and you can hear shades of Star Wars from time to time. Likewise, the editing holds onto certain shots for just long enough not to notice imperfections in the special effects. My only minor criticism would be the very cheesy explosion shot once the blimp finally explodes.

Watching Black Sunday for the first time I was legitimately wondering if the blimp and its attached weapon would cause mass death and destruction and if Kabakov would live or will we get a Hollywood ending in which the day is saved – in the end, we get a bit of both. It’s clear some people are injured and killed once the blimp reaches the stadium but Kabakov being the chad he is, gets that thing away from the crowd and to a safe distance which it explodes, in a manner in which I can’t help but notice parallels the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Some films once they end leave you that exhilarated, you’re dying to just tell someone about it – Black Sunday is one such film.

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…

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.