Tag Archives: 2006

Way late review: Rocky Balboa

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

It only took about 16 years for Hollywood execs to burn Rocky V from their memories in order to allow Sylvester Stallone one last Rocky film – Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately for Stallone this meant he was just about 60 years old. As if making one last Rocky film wasn’t hard enough.

The boxing world has changed since our favorite underdog champion left the ring. Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is destroying the competition. In fact, he’s destroying it with too much efficiency. Boxing fans and critics alike don’t think highly of Dixon. His attitude is beyond arrogant. There are claims that the young champ only enters fights he knows he can win. Everyone questions Dixon’s heart. No one seems to question his physical abilities.

Enter Rocky. Long retired from boxing we learn that he’s lost Adrian to cancer a few years earlier. Balboa is crushed by this loss but carries on with his life. He runs a restaurant named after his late wife. He also attempts to keep a relationship with his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who has grown up, has a job where he wears a suit to work everyday and resents being in his dad’s shadow. And, of course, Paulie (Burt Young) is still around with his cigars, drinking and sour yet somehow always entertaining attitude.

On the anniversary of Adrian’s death, Rocky stumbles into the old bar he would hang out at. There he meets Marie, or “Little Marie” as Rocky knew her in the first film. Little Marie was the young girl Rocky walked home in the first movie and was left at the girl’s doorstep with a “Screw you Creep-o!” Marie bar tends and Rocky strikes up a friendship with her. He becomes a father figure of sorts for her son, “Steps”. In previous films, Stallone would have used these new characters as plot devices. Instead of plot devices we get a feel for the genuine friendship Marie, her son and Rocky develop. And it’s clear that Rocky longs for friendship as he misses the love of his life and struggles to maintain a relationship with his only child.

In the midst of all this day-to-day getting on with life, there is an interest by the media in comparing Mason Dixon to boxers of the past. ESPN runs a special where boxing experts discuss how they think an in-prime Rocky would do against the current heavyweight champ. The verdict is deafening to Dixon. All but one expert feels that Rocky would win the bout. To make matters worse, a computer simulation of the fight shows Rocky crushing Dixon. This causes Dixon to seek advice from his old trainer, who was pushed out by Dixon’s entourage once Dixon became successful. It’s in this moment that we see a softer side of Dixon, which is maybe the only problem I had with the film. We see this humbled young man go to his mentor and seek honest advice. Dixon is almost too likeable in this scene, which makes his transformation back to the egotistical punk he becomes later hard to process.

All this talk of boxing and the glory days of boxing has Rocky itching to get back in the ring. Nothing big, just some local fights. The board doesn’t want to approve Rocky for readmission even though the former champ has cleared all the medical tests. After a passionate speech by Balboa the board concedes. It doesn’t take long for Dixon’s promoters to pick up on this news. They’re after a Rocky Balboa vs. Mason Dixon fight in Vegas. They convince both fighters it’s a good idea and the date for an exhibition in Vegas is set.

In probably one of the more emotionally honest moments since the original, Robert and Rocky have it out. All that pent up frustration from both of them in regards to their relationship (or lack thereof) is fair game, including a defiant Rocky pleading with his son to stop making excuses for why his life is the way it is. The message sinks in for Robert and he finds himself supporting his dad in training for the big fight.

Yes, there is the typical training montage. And then the fight is on. The current champ can’t stop talking trash. The cinematography of the fight scenes has never been better. It’s all believable even when taking into consideration Stallone’s age. The ending is satisfying. It’s a sweet farewell to a character we’ve seen battle both in and out of the ring over thirty years.

Somehow Stallone managed to pull off the biggest Rocky upset of all by making Rocky Balboa a very good movie. In fact, I would argue it is second only to the original. An amazing feat.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. See more reviews here.

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Way late review: Friday Night Lights

In Texas, there is only one sport that seems to matter, football. And if you’re an athletically gifted male in a Texas high school, I imagine you will play football, whether you enjoy the game or not. At least that is the impression Friday Night Lights leaves.

Right from the start, the film makes it clear that high school football in the small town of Odessa, Texas is bigger than life. Heroic images of young men making their way to the field for the first day of practice fill the screen. The sounds are of talk show callers rattling on about all things Panthers football. Some might think it’s a bit over the top except this is a film based on H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction book about the 1988 Permian High School football team.

While the music and cinematography of play on the field tend to glamorize the game, coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) subtlety makes his way through a minefield of rabid fans who control the fate of his career. Thornton does not play coach Gaines like Al Pacino does in Any Given Sunday – over the top and then some. Instead, we get glimpses of coach Gaines as one who is just as in awe as we the viewers are of the overly passionate adults who live and die by the play of their local high school football team. He can be as intense as any coach on the field, sometimes caving into the pressures he can’t help but feel as every moment of the fall season is filled with expectations of winning the state football championship.

The parents or guardians of the players we get to spend any time with are dysfunctional. A father who lives in the past through his son and leads to constant abuse as a result. A mother in poverty who is incapable of caring for her son. All her hopes are in the son getting a scholarship to college. An uncle who plays the role of part guardian, part Don King to his nephew, the superstar of the team. And while we see dysfunction abounding in these relationships in addition to the misplaced heightened importance of football across the town, the film never gets quite close enough to any of the people. It’s almost as if the director, Peter Berg, is satisfied with giving us a glimpse at the personal. His focus seems to be more on capturing the feeling of being wrapped up in this alternate world where a loss by the local high school football team means people post “for sale” signs in front of the coach’s home. And Berg does an excellent job of that. The music, the cinematography and overall tone of the film never let you forget just how insanely important every moment, big or small, is in the high stakes game of Texas high school football. It would have been even better if we got to know some of these characters a bit more. The dialogue is sparse throughout the film, minus typical locker room speeches. It grows even sparser in the second half, where it seems we’re watching a music video as much as a movie about real people.

Friday Night Lights fails at telling a complete story with characters we can connect with at a deeper level but succeeds in capturing the insanity that can be sports. In that way it’s a rare sports movie. A pleasant surprise.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Street Thief

As one who enjoys documentaries, mockumentaries, and movies/shows that fall somewhere in between, I must confess that I’m growing weary of the trend of the fictional movie shot as a documentary. What was once new and exciting is now commonplace. It happens. However, the problem with this trend is that it breeds sloppy film making. The built-in excuse is that the lo-fi picture and sound, the slacker acting, lacking screenplays, etc. are all part of keeping it real. After all, this isn’t another movie, this is a documentary – wink, wink.

I had the disadvantage of seeing Street Thief five years after it was originally released. In between 2006 and now, I’ve seen more than a few documentary, found footage style fictional films. The newness of that approach to fiction films has worn off. Had I seen Street Thief closer to when it was released rather than discovering it on Netflix streaming five years later, I probably would have enjoyed it more.

The story is straight forward. A documentary filmmaker connects with a professional thief, Kaspar Karr (Malik Bader). The film wastes no time showing Karr in action as he robs a grocery store. From there we get to know the man a little, though he’s guarded and suspicious of the filmmaker’s motives. Karr takes us through the ins and outs of various robberies. He shares little tips along the way as he cases his next target. Setting aside disbelief that any great thief (as Karr claims to be) would allow someone to film him in this manner, the insights into the strategy and tactics used hold interest. In between all the action are cuts to interviews with a professional thief in prison. These scenes provide a good contrast between Karr’s arrogant, I’m not your average criminal and the sage advice of someone who thought he was just that but finds himself in prison anyway.

Around the half way mark a seemingly straightforward robbery goes awry. We’re not told why and then Karr disappears for two months. Finally, out of nowhere, Karr reappears and gets back in touch with the filmmaker, though never explaining why he disappeared or what exactly happened during the robbery of the night club two months ago. The next target is a movie theater. It is clear by the amount of careful planning Karr puts into this job that we’re seeing a new level of thievery. Again, setting aside disbelief that a thief would go to such great lengths to plan this perfect heist yet allow it all to be filmed as a documentary, the setup and execution hold interest, though the low fidelity film making becomes aggravating. This more significant robbery demands better camera work. But that’s a big down side to this sub-genre. In order to keep things real one can never break away from run and gun filming.

The rest of the movie plays out with some twists which are definite spoilers. The ending felt long and forced mainly because the disbelief the movie required throughout was impossible to hold all the way to the end.

Street Thief succeeds more than it fails. Malik Bader as Kaspar Carr carries the film well. The contrast of Carr with interviews of a similar criminal in prison worked. The details revealed before, during and after each robbery were engaging. All this outweighs the shortcomings of the format (fictional documentary) of the film.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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