Rocky III

I had every intention of doing a post on Blade Runner next as part of the retrospective of the Summer of 1982. One of the bloggers that I follow reminded me on his page, what a great year the Summer of 82 was. His list of Top Ten Films from that summer would do any pop movie lover proud. I think both of us would agree that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was the most influential film on the list. But her’s what happened, I started surfing on my satellite channels and Rocky III was starting at that very moment. It was on the list and I have not watched it in at least a dozen years, maybe more, so I committed to the two hours and soaked up the early 1980s feel of this Sylvester Stallone Directed sequel.

Stallone wrote the original Rocky and the story of how it became a film that he starred in is legendary. He came back to this character repeatedly during the eighties and ran it dry by the time we get to Rocky V. The first three films in the series are the freshest and most soul satisfying. When Rocky Balboa came out a few years ago, I think he managed to redeem the character for one last hurrah and put the character to rest with some dignity. Rocky III is the commercially and artistically successful middle story. I was disappointed in Rocky IV which felt manufactured to me, and I barely remember the fifth one. My comments on Rocky II can be found here.

Eric’s blog post on Rocky III, seemed dismissive to me. His main criticism being the acting in the film. He does however point out the great emotional punch that comes from the resolution of Mickey’s storyline, and I think Burgess Meredith sold that pretty well. The charismatic Mr. T makes his first movie or TV appearance in this film and he is a character you love to hate. Clubber Lang was Mike Tyson before Tyson was Mike Tyson. In addition, Clubber lacked the charm of Mr. Tyson as a boxer. His voice was as scary as his looks were. The small amount of time that was spent on his backstory is told primarily through montages during the story. We see him growling in the background while Rocky defends his title against lesser contenders. When their first match is set, we can see the loner hunger that drives him to be the animal he is in the ring. This was solid movie storytelling, showing instead of telling. It built up an antagonist for Rocky to have to measure himself by.

The three act structure of the story is really apparent, and the best acting moment comes at the conclusion of act two. Adrian has had little to do up to this point and Rocky’s self doubt is preventing him from committing to the rematch the way he needs to in order to succeed. She gets a very good scene in which she gets to confront those unexpressed doubts and put them up for the audience to confront as well. The dialogue is not perfect but the tone works and Talia Shire sells it enough to justify the next moment, the start of the third act. Stallone is no idiot, he knows exactly what emotional button to push then, and we get the more intense training sequences underscored by the triumphant horns of the original theme song from the first film. At that point what follows is inevitable but it was also very satisfying. We have been hooked for an hour and a quarter and now are ready to be reeled in in the last twenty minutes of the movie. Stallone’s performance may be the weak link here, but I think it is due primarily to the bad haircut that Rocky sports for the whole film. Only during the last fight does he start to resemble the palooka we fell in love with in the original film.

Rocky III is not a great piece of art but it is a rousing piece of entertainment. It lacks much of the grit that both of it’s predecessors had, but by switching in a new opponent and creating a different relationship with Apollo Creed, it manages to have some solid emotional heft to it that goes beyond the fight sequences. Of course the fight sequences are staged the way we always wish a heavyweight fight would be, with two aggressive opponents willing to trade vicious blows and keep on fighting.  This movie also features the second of two great music themes from the Rocky films. Both the original title score and the rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger” have been used by sports teams and competitions of all kinds for the last thirty years. The movie may feel a little dated in the directorial style of Stallone. He is very straight forward and direct, but the music cues are timeless and we get to enjoy our hero one more time .

Piranha 3DD

We had to drive down to Hollywood to see this on a big screen in 3DD. That means a seventy five mile round trip, $12 for parking and a premium price for the tickets. Totally worth it. I have an extreme weakness for bad movies with fun ideas, even if they are not well made. My criteria is simple here: One, does the premise turn me on, two, are there some good bits of humor, and three, do the film makers know they are making a joke. If you can meet those requirements, you are most of the way to a successful couple of hours at the movies for me on a Saturday afternoon.

So we start with the premise, Piranha in a waterpark. Oh yea, I forgot, an Adult themed water park. What is there not to like about this? Now, if the film makers had had the effects budget of the first Piranha from a couple of years ago, this would totally have rocked the gore house. Unfortunately, there must have been a very tight budget on this because there are not as many inventive deaths as the setting demands. In the first movie, a para-sailing girl gets eaten from the waist down when her boat slowed down enough to let her dip in the water. There was nothing half as inventive in this movie. There should have been piranha shooting out of water slides and tunnels, or tossed in the air by waves in the wave pool. Heck, I would think anyone could imagine the scene with kids coming out of the wading pool on the stumps of their legs after having their feet bitten off. As I said, the budget was way too low for this film. Most of the gruesome images are static and many of the corpses looked like they might have been recycled. So while the gore factor was a let down, there were still a couple of very effective deaths that got a rise out of the audience. With sequels you go one of two ways, bigger to get more butts in the seats or cheaper to make the profit margins per butt a bit higher. They chose to go cheaper because the original was not as financially successful as they might have wanted.

Next, are there some good laughs? While the idea of a water park with an Adult section might seem far fetched to some, I think it is the next big attraction at some casino in Vegas. They should definitely steal the idea from this movie to get strippers for lifeguards. Excuse me, water certified strippers, my mistake. There was not as much fun from this as there should have been, the stupid story keeps getting in the way of the random nudity and the chance for crude jokes. There is however at least one line of dialogue that will live in the annals of my movie history. I can’t repeat it here, because it would ruin a gag in the movie and I hate when that happens. Let me just say it is a sentence I will never forget. There are also several duds spread out through the film, for instance, the homely fat guy having sex with the water exhaust port was just contrived, lame and unfunny. He does get a good visual joke later but it is not the one you might expect.

Third, does the movie know that it is not supposed to take itself seriously? This movie absolutely knows that it is crap and it takes advantage of that in several places. In the opening, there is a cameo appearance by an actor that is simply a joke whenever his name comes up now a days. We get a return by Ving Rhames in the part of the Sheriff from the first movie, missing his legs and afraid of the water. But when the mayhem starts and he straps on his shotgun loaded titanium prosthetic legs, you know that no one is really trying to make art here. They are clowning for the camera. Featured star David Hasselhoff as much as says so when he mutters to himself about his stint as guest lifeguard “bottom of the barrel”. The money spent to get him in the picture was worth it for the humor quotient although it may have cost them on the gore side of the scale. He mocks himself, the premise of the movie and his own fame and it still is a lot of fun.

This movie is available as Video on Demand, and it is only playing on around 80 theaters in the country. I am ashamed of myself for liking crap like this, but not so ashamed that I won’t share my glee with others. I saw several very negative reviews of the movie and most of them compared it unfavorably to the first movie and to the original from back in the 1980s. My guess is that these people only give the others praise so that they can dump on this one. Go ahead, make a joke of the movie. Thirty of us who saw it today in Hollywood laughed and jumped a couple of times, and then we slunk out of the theater with our heads down. Yep, a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure none the less.

Snow White and the Huntsman

A couple of weeks ago, I came across Ridley Scott’s “Legend” and watched it for more than an hour. I’ve seen it dozens of times and have a very nice DVD copy that I hadn’t got out for a few years. That movies’ set design and art direction were ground breaking and the cinematography was truly special. Today, twenty seven years later, we can see the forest that has grown from that seed. Several sequences in “Snow White and the Huntsman” are set in enchanted forests that have both light and dark sides to them. Scott’s accomplishment was done without the aid of computer generated images, so there are a few spots where the beauty is limited by necessity to some narrow sets that make up the forest. “Snow White” follows in the path of “Avatar”, creating wide expanses of beauty and terror. The vivid images and creepy lighting will be the things that this movie is ultimately remembered for. “Snow White” is a demonstration by technical virtuosos on how to create an other worldly place but still keep it in the familiar.

Much of the story in this Snow White will be familiar. Snow White is an orphaned princess whose wicked step mother desires to be the most beautiful in the land. She flees for her life into the dark woods and is cared for by creatures and small men who once made their livings as miners. The huntsman that was sent to kill her spares her life and the witch of a Queen pursues Snow White. At this point, the resemblances to Disney are at an end. The dwarfs are not cute and charming, they are bitter and dangerous. The huntsman is haunted by the memory of a dead wife and is driven to act on desperation at his own depression. The Queen has an involved back story that might actually create some sympathy if she were anything but selfish. She is in fact an emotional doppelganger for Snow White herself. There is powerful magic that is largely unexplained but it puts the Queen and her evil brother in positions of power that look to be undefeatable. The set up of the movie prior to the appearance of the grown up Snow White takes a bit of time and introduces story elements that are new in this telling of the tale. The stakes are higher and there are battles and armies that will be effected by the outcome of the main plot line.

All of the leads are fine in their parts. Charlize Theron as the wicked queen is beautiful and bitchy. The relationship she has with her brother is vaguely incestuous although he appears to be perving over the young and ripening Snow White. It is a disturbing element that makes the story creepier but also a bit repellent. Some of her dialogue has to be over the top and out of control, it is a testament to Theron’s skills that the character does not come off as laughable in those spots. Chris Helmsworth, fresh from his two appearances as Thor, continues to be well cast as the rough around the edges, physically imposing, near barbarian. He is easy to buy in the stalwart role of protector, but less convincing in the key emotional scenes. There are themes set up in this story that make it seem as if the film is only partially complete and most of that has to do with his character. We did get some character development on his role but the follow through is less than complete and he is required to act out of character in a couple of places just to add some drama to the proceedings. Kristen Stewart manages to make it through the movie without biting her lip constantly. She is a pretty young woman, but what needed to be emphasized more was not her appearance but rather that her heart is what makes her the fairest of them all. She has relatively few lines in comparison to the other leads, but she is the focus of the story and so it is appropriate that she has first billing.

There are three sets of peoples that Snow White encounters in the escape from the queen; the abandoned wives, the dwarfs and the outcast subjects of her father. Each of these groups receives the minimum amount of development to make the story work but because those strings are not followed very far, there is not as much emotional investment in what happens as there should be. Three actors that I would normally have recognized immediately, were hidden from me by the special effects that make them little people. Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Toby Jones bring three of the dwarfs to life and add some spark to the movie that it needs in some other places. Ian Mcshane is also in the picture, but so many characters come in and out so quickly, I am not sure which character he played. One of the best ideas in the film is the notion that girls would mutilate their beauty to avoid being a victim of the Queen, but like a lot of things in the story, it goes by so quickly that the horror of the thought barely sinks in, it is another lost opportunity to make the movie something more than it is.

The ancient battle scenes are spectacular to look at but have little drama to them because most of the people involved feel anonymous to us. The opening battle sets the trap for Snow White’s Father, and it is staged in a manner that makes it easy to follow. The final battle scenes involving an army of rebellious subjects storming the Queen’s castle, is harder to follow and largely serves as a way to set up the final conflict between Snow White and the Queen. The final confrontation does pay off a piece of character development from earlier in the story, and it is one of the few places where there is follow through on an idea. The story needed more of that type of follow through.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” is a handsome film with some spectacular visual designs to it. There are elements of a deeply emotional story which are set up but not as successful as they need to be to make anyone care. In many ways, this feels like a lot of summer entertainments; Big, Loud, great to look at, but a little hollow inside. This Snow White is done on a grand visual scale but a perfunctory emotional one.