Friday, 26 November 2021

Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago - The Ultimate Director's Cut

Writer-director Sylvester Stallone returns to Rocky IV for a (belated) 35th anniversary Director's Cut, determined to trim and repackage his hyperbolic feature until it provides a more obvious point of connection with the rest of the punch-drunk boxing series - particularly the two most recent entries, Ryan Coogler's Creed and Steven Caple Jr's Creed II. Stallone's most obvious alterations then are focused around the character of Apollo Creed, unearthing unseen footage and alternative takes then sewing them back into the film in an attempt to massage the character's previously ignominious death towards some note of dignity. This director's cut also begins with a truly massive recap section, played upfront and presumably for neophytes, that slashes Rocky III down to eight minutes of footage centred around the moments where Rocky and Apollo's relationship thawed, transforming from a bruised-up rivalry into a dear friendship. 

Stallone and project editors Dov Samuel, Justin Barham and Kate Prescott have completely reorganised Rocky IV's first act, deleting Paulie's birthday party, and the rickety robot that his brother-in-law presents to him, to find more space for Carl Weathers and a kitchen corner for Talia Shire's worried Adrian. Weathers benefits the most in this assembly, his Creed elevated from an afterthought in Rocky's Cold War battering arc to an active participant in his own, curtailed, story. With Rocky unenthused by challenges from Drago and his Russian entourage it's Apollo who lobbies for, then receives, the exhibition fight with Dolph Lundgren's Soviet superman. The former heavyweight champion explicitly doing so out of a misplaced sense of patriotism - one lost on the comfortably oblivious Balboas. In the theatrical cut Apollo assumes this sacrificial lamb role out of pure plot mechanism; here Stallone splices around his own indifferent boxer, allowing an anxious Apollo to fill the frame and speak to his friend about geopolitical concepts that - quite apparently - have never occurred to the Italian Stallion. 

Structurally, the fight between Apollo and Drago is completely different here too. Stallone and his editors weave a palpable sense of unease into the deliberately bombastic proceedings. While Apollo dances around with James Brown to Living in America, the film focuses on the grim expression taking hold on the faces of Adrian and Sylvia Meals' Mary Anne Creed. There is no submission to the gaudiness of the pre-fight spectacle. While Drago has been colour corrected to the point where he seems to be radiating light, Apollo's cavorting strikes a note of mania or, perhaps more accurately, desperation in this edit. Weathers plays a condemned man trying to bluster his way through an impending death sentence. Speaking of wives, Drago's other half, played by Stallone's ex Brigitte Nielsen, has been almost completely excised from the film. Ludmilla's role has been reduced to little more than a neutral glance between herself and Mrs Creed and the moment where she allows Drago's handler, played by Michael Pataki, to place a cigarette in her mouth - an interlude that has always suggested a note of sexual impotence in Lundgren's technological titan. 

The decision to omit so much of Nielsen's performance is disappointing - even suspect given Stallone's marital history with the actress - but the deletions do somewhat align a 1985 character - who was, originally, aggressively personable - with the Ice Queen seen in the second Creed film. 2018's Ludmilla, now cushy with the golden oligarchs running modern Russia, goes out of her way to reject her former husband and their child, essentially consigning them to an ongoing exile in Ukraine. Generously, you could offer then that Stallone was simply reaching for a sense of unity with the Caple Jr film rather than, say, picking at a personal grudge. With Nielsen's character all but erased Stallone instead uses Lundgren to suggest a (malfunctioning) human element within the Soviet machinery. Following his fight with Creed - in which Ivan has been used as an unthinking proxy to level a blow against the United States - Drago starts chanting his own name, over and over, as if on the verge of a tearful breakthrough. A programming blip that seems to suggest that the Russians are pumping their prize boxer full of something more than just steroid cocktails. 

Originally screened at 1.85:1, this re-aligned cut crops the image to cinemascope dimensions, Stallone further focusing the eye on contorting faces as the beats powering his film's edit. It's an assembly edict not completely dissimilar to the one Stallone and director John Flynn employed for their prison film Lock Up. There the weather-beaten extras conferred weight on an otherwise light story; here Stallone's choices seem indicative of a nostalgic affection for many of his fellow cast members. Thankfully, none of Rocky IV's unassailable training montages have been altered or re-ordered to any significant degree; if anything the sequences are buoyed by a modern sound mix that discerns discrete layers and electronic separation in Vince DiCola and John Cafferty's adrenalin hammered music. As with the opening Creed bout, the Moscow set sequence that concludes IV has been completely reworked. Stallone's director's cut uses pounding repetition and overlapping, multi-channel, intensity, to place the viewer inside the action. IV now generates a panicking back-and-forth, not just in terms of the physical assaults hammering away at Rocky and Drago but also the confidence-sapping glances they each take at horrified loved ones. This decision - coupled with a foley design that suggests wooden clubs striking meat - leaves the audience with the unshakable impression of having witnessed two beasts, locked together in agony, pulverising each other's ribcage. 

Vince DiCola - Training Montage (Rocky IV Score Mix) // John Cafferty - Hearts on Fire // Vince DiCola - Up the Mountain

Optimus Prime by Livio Ramondelli

Eagle Eyed Tiger & oDDling - Sundown

Jakob Ogawa - You Might Be Sleeping [w. Clairo]


As much a companion piece to Total Recall as anything else in the Paul Verhoeven canon, Benedetta takes a similar tact to Schwarzenegger's Martian adventure when dealing with the truth, allowing delusion and outright fantasy to occupy the same, unbroken, narrative space as events that broadly align with historical testimony. If anything, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke - adapting Judith C Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy - have chipped away at the ecclesiastical excess surrounding the real-life Benedetta Carlini, organising waves of religious ecstasy around a reciprocal, romantic, relationship and a genuine desire for a style of local governance that works in opposition to the pustulous buffoons who hold power in 17th century Tuscany.

Verhoeven's Benedetta - much like his book Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait - seeks to define a human element that might otherwise be lost when examining booming religious fervour. Virginie Efira's Benedetta then isn't a wide-eyed innocent completely lost to her visions, she's a canny politician with a foresight either broadcast to her from heaven or, simply, originating from her middle-class upbringing and education. Taken to a convent as a child - Verhoeven insisting we see the financial transactions required for a wealthy landowner to secure their child a permanent position with this nunnery - Benedetta is immediately trapped beneath a collapsing statue of a Madonna bearing her breast to nurse Christ. Naturally, she takes comfort from this incident. The other children debate if they have witnessed a near miss or a genuinely supernatural episode.

As an adult Benedetta begins to have intense hallucinations that rack her body like epileptic fits. These night terrors are communicated to us as fantastical interludes in which the vulnerable nun is rescued from slithering predators or rampaging mercenaries by a bloodthirsty, equally ravenous, Christ. Men, regardless of their piety, are depicted as violent and ruinous. Even after communing with Jesus in his most vulnerable, scourged state leaves real, oozing, stigmata all over Benedetta's body. The insinuation throughout this section is that the intelligent, God-fearing, Benedetta is attempting to decode her own sexuality using the only language she has been taught - a faith defined by physical and emotional suffering. Like Sister Jeanne in Ken Russell's The Devils, Benedetta is trapped in a lifetime ruled by dangerous, hypocritical men who routinely batter their women into a cowed compliance. Unlike Vanessa Redgrave's lovelorn hunchback though, Benedetta does eke out a brief period of bliss, initiating a sexual relationship with Daphne Patakia's Bartolomea that - according to one blustery know-it-all at Benedetta's eventual trial - is so materially unthinkable as to be preposterous. 

Friday, 19 November 2021

Sir Arthur by イケノ (@goidanokei)

Memorex Memories - Recursion [Secret Selection]

System96 - Division

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Destin Daniel Cretton's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is yet another example of a Marvel film in which a well sketched villain ends up obliterating, rather than elevating, its heroes. Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays the bad guy in question, Xu Wenwu, an ancient warlord who has spent centuries clinging to life as the master of a shadowy assassination syndicate thanks to his collection of alien jewellery. Wenwu's story - threaded throughout via flashbacks lousy with Disney's wrinkle scrubbing digital make up - is that of a thrashing monster, a deathless maniac finally brought to heel, physical and emotionally, by his love for Fala Chen's Ying Li, a tai chi master with ties to an inaccessible, spectral, village who ends up paying for her husband's wrongdoings. 

Wenwu introduces a number of exciting tensions to the Legend of the Ten Rings. First, and most obviously, the character is played by Leung, a veteran Hong Kong actor who worked with Wong Kar-wai and John Woo during their 90s peak. Closing in on his 60s, Leung still possesses leading man good looks and is effortlessly capable of communicating both moral complication and a deep, underlining, sadness. Conceptually, the character is a cocktail, drawing from several separate but essentially Sinophobic sources. In the comics Shang-Chi's father is Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer's Limehouse mastermind woven into Marvel continuity by Steve Englehart, Al Milgrom and Thanos creator Jim Starlin. Here, the character also offers Cretton and his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham an opportunity to rehabilitate the Mandarin, a supervillain previously portrayed as a nudging critique of American Orientalism in Shane Black's Iron Man Three - apparently a major sticking point for those in the audience who demand obsequiousness in their comic book adaptations. 

Lastly, Wenwu has a clear objective - one that passes for romantic in this hyperbolic, multidimensional, comic book setting - he wants to rescue his dead wife from the afterlife. Comparatively, Simu Liu's Xu Shang-Chi is depicted as a millennial everyman who has abdicated from his father's life of all-consuming criminality to park cars in America with his platonic best pal Katy, played by Awkwafina. Shang-Chi is hiding, denying his terrible heritage to craft an identity centred around a different kind of invisibility to that exercised by his Dad. There's also a dangling insinuation - one that film never capitalises on - that the bones making mission that brought Shang-Chi to the United States was the elimination of an elderly relative of Katy's. Pauses and interpersonal stress are woven into the film but never clarified, denying the otherwise flat Shang-Chi a sticking point that might actually complicate a viewer's response to this fledgling Avenger. 

Aside from a scrappy bus battle that overcomes the film's soft, computer painted, affectation to briefly prickle the urban anxiety felt by Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx, the real meat of the Shang-Chi character resides in his proximity to his all-powerful father. Wenwu subordinates his child, obviously, but it's the supervillain's attempts at instruction or, in one case, rebuttal that provide the film's strongest material. There are two scenes at either end of the film in which Wenwu defines to his son what he expects from his heir. The first sees Wenwu take Shang-Chi on a father-son trip to exterminate a gambling den as a way to salve their bereavement. The ultra-confident Wenwu is never in danger, dispatching his enemies with such ease that a note of distraction or even tenderness is allowed to creep in. The gangsters he kills are props, the emotional back-and-forth in the scene is strictly between father and son. Wenwu demonstrating to his male offspring the weight he ascribes to a blood debt. Much later, when the film is winding down, we discover the private thoughts that prompted that outing: Wenwu expected his children to fight and die, rather than flee, when their mother was endangered. Trapped on a green screen background, Leung plays these withering expectations to thin air. 

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Hans Zimmer - Grains of Sand

The Chemical Brothers - The Darkness That You Fear

Ultra Magnus by Hidefumi Kimura

Kupla - What We Leave Behind

Raging Fire

With Raging Fire, it often feels as if director Benny Chan has managed to pull a fast one. The late Chan, who also co-wrote and produced the film, manages - despite China's much more granular, sociocultural, approach to film and television censorship - to deliver a film full of morally grey characters. Raging Fire presents an abject panic that springs specifically from an inflexible adherence to state scripture both inside and outside the film. Hong Kong's police force is characterised here as an organisation strangled by a mix of procedure and corruption. Hierarchical virtues have been weaponised, used by those who have power to manipulate then obscure, transforming their formerly righteous underlings into tremendously potent threats to social order. 

Although restorative in its conclusion, as mandated by China's National Radio and Television Administration, Raging Fire's route to this victory is characterised by a pitiless approach to action that sees dozens upon dozens of people chewed up then spat out. Donnie Yen plays Cheung Sung-bong, a senior inspector defined by his rigid approach to policing. Cheung's lifeblood is the law, this cop unwilling to bend the rules even when there are clear financial or occupational upsides. Cheung is able to survive despite this obvious handicap simply because he is truly exceptional at his job, able to apply a twisting, body-straining, martial arts technique to batter through entire drug gangs almost singlehandedly. In this sense Yen's hilariously indefatigable character is very much like Judge Dredd, the uncompromising lawman from the pages of 2000 AD

Like Dredd, Cheung has a mechanical aspect to him, one that that allows him to instantly make blunt, life-altering, decisions whatever the battlefield. He is just that sure of himself. This, in of itself, is entertaining. Cheung navigates Raging Fire with an almost dorkish detachment from his surroundings, our sole insight into his deeper drives is a dreamy fixation on a rain-lashed dockside where a protégé made an error of judgement that completely changed his life's trajectory. We see these moments replayed from the perspectives of both policemen - Cheung remembers himself slogging through a muddy quagmire to reach his colleagues; Nichola Tse's Yau Kong-ngo is instead fixated on the faulty premise that put him on the pier in the first place. Chan's film suggests - and eventually outright states - that the only thing separating a virtuous policeman and a homicidal madman is a moment of circumstance. Both identities are steeped in violence. 

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Riichiro Manabe - Victory (M38)

Godzilla Appears at Godzilla Fest // Godzilla vs Hedorah (2021)

A pair of shorts directed by Kazuhiro Nakagawa, Toho's go-to guy for brief (usually tourist attraction exclusive) glimpses of the King of Monsters. 2020's Godzilla Appears at Godzilla Fest is a sub-two minute piece completed using an iPhone for an online character convention. The slight dimensions of the camera used allow the filmmakers to shoot Godzilla - here represented by one of his more muscular Heisei era suits - from angles that might otherwise prove difficult. The best of these inspections is a point of view shot that seems to originate from the rubble gathering at Godzilla's feet. The angle has a warped, almost fisheye, effect to it - shattered concrete buildings and sagging lamp posts curl in towards the catastrophic weight of Godzilla. Close-ups of the Big G's face aren't quite so forgiving. The auto-focused lens stresses the outfit's rubbery hide to such a degree you begin to wonder if an action figure has been subbed in for a moth-eaten costume. 

Far more entertaining is this year's Godzilla vs Hedorah, a 5 minute film produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its Yoshimitsu Banno directed namesake. Given more than twice the runtime of Godzilla Appears, Nakagawa recruits the foam latex suits used in Ryuhei Kitamura's Godzilla: Final Wars, a decision that allows the monster actors a greater degree of freedom in their movements. The Godzilla costume - known as the FinalGoji suit - reigns in the stomping cataclysm of the Heisei era with a design that is leaner in trunk and thigh. The creature's expression is different too, conniving rather than impassive. This is Godzilla as a street brawler, the lightweight apparatus even allowing actor Naoya Matsumoto to lift his leg high enough to hurl a kick at Hedorah's wonderfully sludgy midriff. At least as impressive as the two feature costumes is the conflict's arena, a 70s era power plant filled with rusting buildings and collapsing cranes. Nakagawa and cinematographer Yutaka Adachi's photography may have the same rough-and ready feel as digitally shot Tokusatsu television but the decision to use a more natural style lighting in several shots - appearing to emanate from a setting sun rather than flatly oppressive studio lights - beautifully compliments the peeking, human, perspective on this titanic struggle.