Monday, 18 April 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rocky IV

Sylvester Stallone is an incredibly manipulative director. There's no finesse in his approach, he doesn't trust you to put two and two together. He lambastes his audience, rubbing their faces in his agenda. He doesn't insinuate, he smears. That's exactly why Rocky IV is so excellent, Stallone has finally stopped trying to use his increasingly creaky writing to deliver his sermons, arriving at a style of communication that unfolds like a barrage of adrenalised commercials.

In Rocky IV the writer-director uses a procession of montages to underscore the sheer scale of Balboa's dilemma. The sports movie staple is transformed from an exposition short-hand into the film's dramatic and emotional backbone. Editors John W Wheeler and Don Zimmerman deliver several successive sequences that encapsulate not only the very real progress Rocky needs to be able to confront his foe but the athlete's state of mind. The boxer is not just growing physically, he's sharpening his mind, picking apart his past and holding on to certain memories as grist to power him through to the final battle.

Thousands of miles away, Dolph Lundgren's Drago trains alone in a series of vast, empty spaces, bathed in blaring reds and bolstered by an enthusiastic course of performance enhancing drugs. Stallone presents the Russian as basically a robot, there's clearly an insinuation that he has be grown in a lab somewhere with the express purpose of humbling America before the world. Drago has zero tangible motivation beyond success, his wife hovers around him like a disconnected WWF valet and when the giant speaks he always sounds like he's on the verge of a tearful breakdown. He's a monster, a manufactured man trapped endlessly reconfiguring himself amongst sterile, terrifying machinery.

Rocky's training is completely different. He journeys, by request, to a remote, snowy corner of the Soviet Union, tuning his regime around basic, homely tasks. He doesn't need a state-of-the-art tilting treadmill, he has an actual mountain to climb. Drago's gym sessions are about enforced isolation, the Party confining him in an environment tailor-made to enhance him physically. They drug and push him until his personality is all but obliterated. The boxer is whipped and tested until he has completely retreated into himself.

Stallone shows us, tells us, this is how Drago can be defeated. He has no will of his own, everything is imposed upon him by his superiors. He's a soldier following orders whereas Rocky is a man making decisions. It's no accident that Stallone follows a series of shots illustrating the Russian's passive acceptance of steroids with an image of Rocky crushing his opponent's likeness. Stallone is assuring us that Drago has already lost. All the writer-director needs to do now is state a convincing enough case for this defeat.

Rocky III proposed complacency as its hero's Achilles' Heel, home comforts and arrogance combining to kill Rocky's all-consuming desire to win. III gave us a Rocky that no longer had anything left to aspire to. He'd won. Rocky IV acknowledges the tonal missteps surrounding this dramatic dead end and how it mutated the perception of the Clubber Lang character. This time Rocky has learnt his lesson, he is taking his opponent seriously, knowing that he is clearly the underdog. The boxer understands from the get-go that he will have to elevate himself. Stallone also takes time within this environment of total exercise to underscore how important Talia Shire's Adrian is to Rocky and, by extension, the film series as a whole.

Brigitte Nielsen and Lundgren's characters are always separated, they never really occupy the same physical or filmic space. They are apart by design. Comparatively, Adrian is portrayed as a crucial component in Rocky's ability to truly succeed. Her arrival interrupts the montaging, forcing a quiet moment in which husband and wife slowly circle each other, acknowledging their need to be together. Adrian is then placed into the fabric of Rocky's physical exertion, nodding decisively as her man pushes himself beyond his limits. Adrian is her husband's rock, offering love and unconditional support, two things Drago does not have.

Rocky's geographically remote training also serves another purpose, it re-establishes the boxer as a working class hero. The misguided, millionaire pageantry of Rocky III is gone, replaced by a laboured, soulful communion with the people and land of the Soviet Union. While Drago roams around his gilded cage, Rocky is mixing it up with the locals - chopping their wood, righting their impoverished, antique carriages. He's immersing himself, learning what it is to be a commoner. The politics of Rocky IV may be naive and hopelessly optimistic but Stallone is able to communicate an underlining note of sincerity.

Rocky doesn't arrive as a conqueror, he comes willing to learn. Drago's country has shaped him into something truly fearsome, by billeting with his team in a snowy wilderness Rocky is attempting to experience this transformative quality for himself. The American rejects the hospitality of the state to bunk with farmers. He pushes himself by wading through snow drifts and mantling hostile terrain. Rocky is absorbing the defining aspect of Russian national character - endurance. Rocky's pig-headed desire to force himself through his body's limitations not only makes the adulation of the Soviet people understandable, it is inevitable.

Finally Stallone uses a substantial amount of the last match to demonstrate and stress Rocky's physical and martial failings. For a start, he's too short to box the towering Drago, Rocky must leap to strike his opponent's face. Then there's the fact that he never makes any attempt to protects his head. Over and over again we see Rocky soak up Drago's reality warping blows and beg for more. It's insane but what better way to appeal to a nation that fed millions into the meat grinder to halt Hitler's march east?

How could the average Russian not admire Rocky's fortitude, his suicidal belligerence? Following Drago's petulant, childish declaration that he fights only for himself it is Rocky that better exemplifies the emotionally remote, taciturn attitude of this home crowd. With this in mind Rocky IV isn't so much about a cultural victory for capitalism and The American Way as it is a sombre acceptance that the United States and the Soviet Union are united in their appreciation of pure, unthinking force.

Throughout the 1980s Sylvester Stallone used tales of assailed masculinity to try and confer a mythic, almost religious quality to his image. As Rambo: First Blood Part II demonstrated, Stallone was happy to junk an airtight action screenplay if it meant he could spend more time filling the cinema screen with his neoclassical mug. Rocky IV then represents his most complete, exhilarating attempt yet. The writer-director takes his simple, lovable boxer from Philadelphia and elevates him to the level of demigod. Rocky, backed by Vince DiCola's celestial workout music, wins by not losing, sacrificing his body and, as we learn in Rocky V, his mind to batter down ideological barriers and earn not only his opponent's respect, but the adulation of America's most terrifying enemy.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


It's been 12 years since Toho put out a Godzilla film, in that time Japan has suffered through a Level 7 nuclear event while Gareth Edwards has jump-started the King of Monsters brand, directing a financially successful adaptation that focused on unwieldy, unlikely heroism. Rather than sit back and let Legendary Entertainment hog all the catastrophe, Toho has recruited Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (Special Effects Director on Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy) to shepard their own take to the screen. Their Godzilla is a towering, radioactive wraith; a flayed titan slathered in glowing, molten slag, desperate to share his pain with the world.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016


James Bond is a Bank Holiday institution in the UK. Every long weekend the super spy's adventures will be scheduled without any care or continuity, filling up massive afternoon and evening blocks on a variety of TV stations. It's the kind of lifelong blessing that means that although dates and times dictate that I should be either a die hard Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton fan, I'm far more interested in seeing a thick-set, sunburnt Sean Connery prowling around, thumping stunt men.

Like the Godzilla series, Bond's massive back catalogue is interesting unto itself - the longevity, the determination, the sheer bloody-mindedness of making essentially the same film over and over again is appealing. It suggests, at the very least, an ability to tap into the pulse of a culture, the late 20th century regurgitated as iterative instances of a man trapped inside an out-of-control car.

Below are links to each of my 007 reviews, beginning with Bond's screen d├ębut as CBS anthology fodder, tracking umpteen official and unoffical adaptations of Ian Fleming's books through to today's tent-pole blockbusting.

Casino Royale (1954) dir. William H. Brown Jr

Dr. No (1962) dir. Terence Young
From Russia with Love (1963) dir. Terence Young
Goldfinger (1964) dir. Guy Hamilton
Thunderball (1965) dir. Terence Young
Casino Royale (1967) dirs. Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, Richard Talmadge
You Only Live Twice (1967) dir. Lewis Gilbert
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) dir. Peter R. Hunt

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) dir. Guy Hamilton
Live and Let Die (1973) dir. Guy Hamilton
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) dir. Guy Hamilton
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) dir. Lewis Gilbert
Moonraker (1979) dir. Lewis Gilbert

For Your Eyes Only (1981) dir. John Glen
Octopussy (1983) dir. John Glen
Never Say Never Again (1983) dir. Irvin Kershner
A View to a Kill (1985) dir. John Glen
The Living Daylights (1987) dir. John Glen
Licence to Kill (1989) dir. John Glen

GoldenEye (1995) dir. Martin Campbell
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) dir. Roger Spottiswoode
The World is Not Enough (1999) dir. Michael Apted

Die Another Day (2002) dir. Lee Tamahori
Casino Royale (2006) dir. Martin Campbell
Quantum of Solace (2008) dir. Marc Forster

Skyfall (2012) dir. Sam Mendes
Spectre (2015) dir. Sam Mendes

Xiu Xiu - Falling

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proposes confrontation. Given the title you might expect an extended, ideological clash between a God that has fallen to Earth and a man who has transformed himself into a monster. The tension between the two is crystal clear. One combatant has spent decades honing his mind and body, burning down every connection and relationship that didn't track into his all-consuming mission. The other is all-powerful simply because of a yellow battery that hangs above him.

Frank Miller, Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson's The Dark Knight Returns should be the key text here. It's alluded to incessantly. Panels are reproduced, lines from the comic and its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again are quoted verbatim, but it's all lip-service. Screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S Goyer ignore either comics' nihilistic principles, arriving at a scenario about two corporate properties that have stumbled into each other's realms leaden with excuses. Neither Batman nor Superman is allowed to be truly insane, their passions are incessantly explained and organised until there is no room for a real conceptual leap.

This obsessive micro-management unbalances any sense of dramatic drive and weakens both characters. They aren't allowed to conceive their own motors, both of the superheroes are explicitly being manipulated. Ben Affleck's seething Batman does at least play with the aesthetics of damage, he looms silently like the Alien and sears his mark into sex criminals. We're given a taste of Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky's abandoned Batman: Year One film project - a psychotic Bruce Wayne completely lost in his misery, lashing out - before everybody gets cold feet and we're treated to successive instances of the fantastical reaching out to Batman, condoning his holy crusade against the sky.

It's too much. Zack Snyder's film is choked with this kind of exposition, the same points reiterated over and over until we're all assured that everybody is acting in a way that will do no permanent harm to the brand. Dawn of Justice is a roadshow length handwave, it reeks of compromise. It's clear Snyder wants to wring maximum violence out of his toys, the director using an Avengers moment to hurl DC's Trinity into their very own apocalypse. Snyder is reaching for sturm und drang - Batman armed with M60 machine-guns, exterminating lawbreakers - but ends up with something that isn't even as venomous as either Tim Burton's Batman or Batman Returns.

Dawn of Justice mishandles its own central conceit to such a degree that all the accumulated animosity is instantly washed away once the two sad little boys learn their mothers share common ground. It's like they were never even at odds. The film can't wait to race away from the truly wonderful idea of a puny human sealing himself inside a metal coffin to collide with a bullet proof deity just so it can segue into another impersonal animatic featuring a pug-faced troll.

Zack Snyder's film wants so very badly to be the vulgar, autophagic nightmare at the end of the superhero trend, the third Miracleman trade plucked apart and reassembled alongside stray pages from Walter Simonson's contribution to Batman Black and White; Frank Miller in tow, punching up the dialogue. Unfortunately, it's stuck being the launch platform for all of Warner Bros' future summers. Justice then is an uneven product perched upon shaky architecture that thinks it can wash itself in a hundred million dollars worth of pulverised concrete and come up smelling of importance.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II is the polar opposite of the accepted, prize-winning way in which the Vietnam War was being presented in American cinema. Instead of the usual strung out, psychedelic chaos, Rambo imagines the conflict as a household task that has simply been neglected. America didn't lose the war, it just forgot about it and moved on to something else. In that sense Rambo is emblematic of the rhetoric that drove the Reagan administration - the film was making the country great again.

James Cameron was contracted to write the sequel to First Blood, the writer-director dashing it out alongside a new draft of The Terminator and his Alien sequel, whilst waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish up his contractual obligation to Conan the Destroyer. Cameron's script, entitled First Blood II: The Mission, is a sombre continuation of Ted Kotcheff's film that begins in the bowels of a psychiatric hospital then goes on to explore the post-traumatic stresses that haunt Rambo.

As he displayed with apex sequels Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron has an innate sense of where to take a character next. Cameron approaches his writing from an almost psychoanalytical perspective, drawing out internal conflicts as a means to construct plot. Like Ripley, Rambo must return to the scene of the crime and exorcise his demons through conflict. Only then can his past trauma be resolved. As with Ripley, Rambo is elevated by his past experience. They are both uniquely able to shoulder the responsibilities ahead because of the suffering they have been through.

It's interesting then to see how Sylvester Stallone approached this material for his rewrite. He retained the mythic, prowling sense of an unfettered Rambo but deleted much of the supporting architecture. Cameron's draft, taking in frazzled fly boys, a co-starring role for John Travolta and intense, body-shredding violence (that Stallone would go on to employ in 2008's Rambo) is gutted. Cameron's writing made himself the star, an avowed military nut working his way through all the data and anecdotes he'd assembled whilst researching CIA black ops. Stallone doesn't need any of that. He's the star, he's the machinery.

Stallone's take on First Blood Part II begins in a quarry, with John working hard time cracking rocks. The star's physique is tanned and intense, despite his incarceration. First Blood's emaciated attack dog is gone, instead we have a Muscle & Fitness pin-up. We're instantly keyed into a state of glamorous unreality, Stallone will fight the Vietnam War again, single-handedly, and this time he will win. Rambo then marks a clear cultural shift. Any event, no matter how recent or mired in defeat, could be used to tell a Cambellian tale and sell some licensed merchandise.

Lured back in-country by a POW rescue mission, Rambo immediately nixes his surveillance brief and attempts to get one of the prisoners out. Despite a heroic effort dragging some half-dead GI across endless, exploding paddy fields, Rambo is betrayed by his superiors and left to rot. So begins the scourging of Rambo, Stallone piling on the hurt for his very own Battle Christ. At a loss how to proceed, the Vietnamese soldiers holding Rambo call in their Soviet superiors to physically and spiritually destroy the super soldier.

Despite having enough electricity ran through his body to dim the local barracks, Rambo refuses to break. It's only when his skeletal companion is threatened with a blazing knife that the hero agrees to comply. What makes Rambo so notable then is his total lack of complication. He's just a walking job, searching for appropriate purpose. He doesn't even respond well to the rigid structure of military life, only taking orders from his beloved father figure Colonel Trautman. He has to believe in the mission.

First Blood proposed a man seeking validation for the sacrifices he made in war. First Blood Part II goes beyond that, making America itself the source of his resolve. It's his religion, the strength he uses to surmount difficulty. Rambo represents an idealised, inflated version of the flag-waving, patriotic US citizen. Unlike the CIA spooks that cooked up this non-mission, he doesn't ignore the suffering of his fellow soldiers. He embraces it, then transforms it into his own. Rambo would rather be put through the wringer himself than see another grunt suffer.

This notably Catholic conception of Christianity is everywhere in Stallone's films. The Rocky series tracks a simple man through a variety of rebirths, usually in-step with the actor's own fortunes. Staying Alive turned the idea of relentless exercise into a kind of self-flagellation. Tony Manero broke his body down and rebuilt it for the opportunity to take his place in Broadway's pantheon. Rambo goes one further, engaging with the punishment and destruction that facilitates the saviour's triumphant resurrection.

The film is explicitly reaching for iconography, Stallone cluttering the film up with adoring, obsessive close-ups. His eyes heavy with regret, his head held in repose, like a Renaissance painting. Stallone and his favourite yes-man George P Cosmatos are attempting something new. This is the action movie as a healing prayer, salving the frayed American psyche and offering a Messiah that won't look the other way or turn his cheek. Instead he'll climb into a Huey attack helicopter, lift himself into the air, then obliterate America's enemies with whirring mini-guns and belching missile pods.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rhinestone

Excretable culture clash shite that, ambitiously, tries to sell Sylvester Stallone as a comedic proposition. Sly plays a gruff New York cabbie mugging opposite a beleaguered night-club singer, played by Dolly Parton, who boasts she can turn anyone into a credible country musician. Rachel's Dad from Friends (Ron Leibman) pops up as a sleazy club promoter who never looks Parton in the eye. In fact, no-one in Rhinestone can resists the urge to appraise Parton's chest, not even the actor playing her father.

Rather than approach his image from a playful, ironic distance (like Schwarzenegger), mandatory screenplay rewriter Stallone inserts himself into an undercooked Pygmalion, hoping that his mumbly, arrogant charm will carry the film. It doesn't. As if to reassure the audience that yes, they are in fact watching a comedy, Black Christmas director Bob Clark inserts shots of his actors chuckling through Stallone's terminally unfunny antics. Parton manages a cheery sincerity throughout, her snickers communicating the good-natured kindness of an indulgent friend.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Staying Alive

Rocky III trumpeted Sylvester Stallone as a director able to divine bracing imagery out of noise. His style is a rough jumble of telephoto snooping, grimacing close-ups and pop video assembly. In that sense Sly is the perfect choice to chronicle Tony Manero's plunge into fleeting, plastic fame. Staying Alive picks up a couple of years after Saturday Night Fever with Manero struggling to break onto Broadway.  

Staying Alive comes on like a toothless retooling of its predecessor, deleting an extended cast and any associated grime in favour of all-consuming exercise. Dancing is no longer Manero's release, it's the totality of his experience. Even serving drinks in some yuppie beer hall, Tony slinks rather than clods, weaving in and around the boozed up dancers like a self-satisfied snake.  

As Manero is consumed by dance, so too is Staying Alive. Stallone shoots long, dreamy sequences of practice and repetition. John Travolta's coiled, sinewy body is dwelled upon to a fetishistic degree. Stallone painting an immortal record of this lithe, actualised form, his eye hovering somewhere between a Jane Fonda jazzercise vid and Shinya Tsukamoto's all-consuming love of musculature. 

Staying Alive's certificate may be family friendly but Manero is still the exact same arch, emotional manipulator he was in Fever. Everybody is grist. Every encounter, no matter how personal, is transformed into an opportunity to climb. Manero himself seems only dimly aware of this coercion while Stallone's film is not only non-judgemental, it makes his power over women a positive. 

Manero's emotional abuse isn't just tolerated, it's the ability that facilitates his crowning glory - having successfully fucked his way into a starring role in some absurdly expensive interpretive dance nightmare, Manero hurls his leading lady aside to perform a wholly unsanctioned dance solo. The stage director's objections die in his throat, drowned out by an audience screaming their approval. 

Saturday Night Fever promised a positive change in Tony. We left that film assured that there was a chance that he might be able to evolve to the point where women registered as actual people, rather than just something pliant he gets to jab his dick at. Staying Alive has no such pretensions, it doubles down on a venal little lizard that will do or say anything to get his shot at fame. 

Invasion of Astro-Monster by Jeff Zornow

Living Colour - Cult of Personality

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - First Blood

Sylvester Stallone has a great look in First Blood. His body is pallid and wiry, teetering on the edge of malnourished. As an outline, it's worlds away from the inflated, oiled musculature of the later instalments. Stallone's physique isn't the draw here, instead it's a tool, a coiled visual signifier in a despondent film about being chewed up and spat out by an uncaring world.

Complimenting the star's brutally svelte form is a long, unkempt hairstyle that acts as a frame for his face. The mop sits like a pair of drooping Basset Hound ears, drawing out Stallone's massive, brown eyes. In Rocky III, Stallone shot his own face to suggest sternness, a massive patriarchal figure struggling to make sense of his messy extended family. Ted Kotcheff uses Stallone's eyes as a way to communicate frazzled, bestial calculation. John Rambo is always cautious, constantly running angles and assessing his predicament.

Undermined by a brace of sequels that revelled in increasingly bloody violence, First Blood distinguishes itself by focusing on a character that is reluctant to do any real damage to his opposition. The Police and National Guard that chase Rambo up into the hills aren't engaged as an equal threat. Instead he stalks them, bleeding and undermining, demonstrating his thoughts on their position in the pecking order. Rambo's violence is a calculated attempt to assert a terrifying level of dominance, he doesn't intend to kill his pursuers, he'd rather scare them off. Rambo just wants to be left alone.

Frankenstein vs Baragon by Jeff Zornow

Monday, 8 February 2016

Super Bowl Spot - Jason Bourne

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon to the rescue! Rather than let Jeremy Renner tank the franchise, the Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum team are back, driving SWAT trucks through brightly coloured gridlock. Based on this short clip Greengrass is still very much in love with chaotic, hand-held reportage. The arrangement does look a little less seizure inducing though - we're asked to drink in Damon as a twisting, mechanical lump here rather than just glimpsing shredded encounters between countless darkly coloured limbs.