The Rocky Legacy

Older and wider“Rocky Six.” If you’ve been paying attention at all, the words should make you wince.

Like a dog returning to its own vomit, Sylvester Stallone has always crawled back to his most popular characters when his career hits a wall: The Edgar Allen Poe picture never got rolling, so he gives the boxing gloves another shot. And yes, I shit you not, “Rambo IV” is in production right now. (Surely the subtitle will be “Tired Blood”.)

But here’s the thing. “Rocky Balboa” isn’t bad. It isn’t great — Stallone the writer-director is still kind of a hack, really — but damn if this one isn’t the best “Rocky” movie since “Rocky II”. In a walk.

I know, I know. People love the third and fourth movies. But they love them ironically, the way they smile when someone serves a plate of Cheez Whiz and celery at a retro party. They’re crap, kids. I mean, there’s a robot in one of them.

“Rocky Balboa”, on the other hand, is a real movie. It’s about obsolescence, and finding your way in a world that’s moved beyond you. The stuff that Bryan Singer used as subtext in “Superman Returns” is right in our faces here: Sure, people still love Rocky as a neighborhood hero, but in that condescending, “hey champ” way; he can’t even have a serious conversation with his kid without someone interrupting to ask for an autograph. And he always obliges, which drives the kid crazy.

“Rocky Balboa” spends about an hour not trying to be a “Rocky” movie — or, rather, being the “Rocky” movie we always kind of wanted to see. Too old to fight, too tired to complain about it, and still reeling from the loss of his beloved Adrian three years earlier, Rocky spends his days puttering around Philly, quietly missing the old neighborhood, and his nights telling old fight stories at his restaurant. He’s Jake LaMotta at the end of “Raging Bull”, but you can relax around him.

In the second hour, when Rocky gets drawn into an exhibition match with the current champ after a TV computer simulation suggests that Rocky (in his prime, mind you) could win such a bout, Stallone starts piling on the stuff he thinks we want to see: Training montages, pre-fight chatter, lots of flashbulbs and speeches. That’s a distraction from the real hook, which is the suggestion that Rocky has picked up this impossible challenge because he wants to die in the ring, doing the thing he’s always loved.

Rocky with a death wish is something that Stallone the filmmaker can’t even consider — and if you asked him straight up, I think he’d honestly deny that such a theme was on his mind. But Stallone the actor clearly knows it’s in there; it runs like a river through his performance. And if I was to be honest, I’d have to say that Stallone’s performance in “Rocky Balboa” is the best of his career. He knows this guy inside and out — his shuffling walk, his reflexive humility, his huge heart.

Stallone the filmmaker keeps pushing it, with scenes like the one where Rocky adopts the ugliest dog in the world — the thing looks like a cross between a wolfhound and a sewer rat — but Stallone the actor pulls it off with naturalistic ease. You may snort, but this is one of the best performances of the year.

It’s still in a Stallone movie, though, which means the grace and charm of the actor is buried beneath a mixture of cliches and Freudian screenwriting. Just as “Rocky II” can be read as Stallone’s attempt to rewrite the end of “Rocky” so that he not only wins the fight, but gets the Oscars he believes he was denied the first time around, “Rocky Balboa” is an attempt to fix the problems of “Rocky V” — and they were legion — with a final chapter that hits all the emotional notes that movie missed … and maybe, you know, bring home a couple more golden guys.

That probably won’t happen. Instead, he’ll have to be content with having made a movie that turned out a lot better than it could have been, and might even make a little noise at the box office. This could be the word-of-mouth hit of the season.

Imagine that.

And the Winners Are …

Oh, Britney, do put on some undergarmentsThe Toronto Film Critics Association’s 2006 awards are announced today, and I noticed something interesting: A near-complete absence of American winners. Really — “Thank You for Smoking” got First Feature, and that was it. Even the Animated Feature winner is an Australian production.

It’s no big deal; we’re just usually a little more susceptible to the Hollywood glitz thing, since we’re inundated with it every September at TIFF. Not this year. The little projects outshone the heavy hitters, right across the board. Interesting.

And how do I feel about the winners, you may ask? Well, I guess I’m okay with most of them … well, except “Happy Feet”, which I think goes insane about 75 minutes in and never recovers; I much preferred “Flushed Away” — which didn’t even make our final ballot this year, probably because DreamWorks/Paramount didn’t make a screener push — and “Over the Hedge”. But otherwise, I’m good.

Six more reviews to write today, and two movies to see, so I’ll catch you tomorrow. Man, the holiday crush is, um, crushing.

Stop It! Stop It!

Fire bad!Okay, it’s not a big surprise that “The Pursuit of Happyness” opened at #1 this weekend — Will Smith is box-office gold, baby, and he’s been pushing this film for months now.

But the #2 spot going to “Eragon”? That awful, awful attempt to cash in on the “Lord of the Rings” phenomenon? That’s just not right.

Look, I know I can’t do anything about the tickets sold this weekend. But if you’re even considering seeing this film, let me put it clearly: “Eragon” is a terrible, terrible movie. It doesn’t respect you. It doesn’t even respect its own material.

It’s the product of a bunch of guys in a room who wanted to make a lot of money, and slapped together the first dragon-related project they could find in the service of their own avarice. As Adam puts it over in Eye, this isn’t a real movie — it’s the knockoff they sell at grocery stores to parents too cheap to buy the branded toy their kids have asked for.

Send a message. No more money for the crappy dragon movie. Let’s stop the sequel before it gets the green light.

Do it for the children.

Holiday Movies, Blah

They just told her they're really Spider-Man and Batman Well, it’s not a total loss; there are still a couple of terrific Christmas releases yet to open. But this week’s debuts are a fairly sallow bunch across the board.

Sorry for the late post, by the way; I kept holding off in the expectation that the Metro site would have today’s reviews the next time I checked. It looks like they’re not being quite as up-to-the-minute as one might expect of a daily publication … they’ll probably go up late Sunday afternoon.

Anyway, here are the skinnies:

“Charlotte’s Web”: The first ten minutes are perfect in every way, and then the cows start farting. If you have children, it’s your duty to protect them from this adaptation. Yes, Julia Roberts is the perfect voice for Charlotte — as far as she’s concerned, she’s starring in an arachnid remake of “Steel Magnolias” — but the movie doesn’t appreciate her. Or anything else, really.

“Cheech”: Quebec actors run around talking tough and waving guns to no particular effect. Saddest bit: In a movie with several failed attempts at humor, the script’s one great opportunity for pitch-black comedy — a suicidally depressed escort who shows up for work anyway, because what the hell — is played straight. It must have been pretty slim pickings at Canada’s Top Ten if they found room for this one.

“Eragon”: “Star Wars” with dragons. Makes Lucas look like Akira Kurosawa. But then, the movie lost me from the first line of spoken dialogue, when John Malkovich groans to Robert Carlyle that — really, he says this out loud — “I’m sad without my stone.” And it’s not even a stone. Dork.

“The Good German”: I often find Steven Soderbergh’s experiments more entertaining than his mainstream work, but this one — which affects the style and production strategies of a 1940s studio B-picture — seemed to slide sideways. Not that George Clooney and Cate Blanchett weren’t born to be photographed in high-contrast black-and-white, or that Soderbergh doesn’t know what he’s doing … but why riff on “Casablanca” and “The Third Man” when you’re only going to come up short?

“Monkey Warfare”: Meh. I know everyone else is high on this, but it did absolutely nothing for me — and I like everyone involved. But Reg Harkema needs to put the Godardian stuff away, or at least incorporate it into his overall aesthetic instead of yanking it out and waving it around every 20 minutes, just to remind us that he’s seen “La Chinoise”.

“The Pursuit of Happyness”: A self-help book becomes a self-help movie, with valuable life lessons galore: Respect Yourself. Homeless Doesn’t Mean Hopeless. Love Your Kid. Will Smith Deserves An Oscar. And maybe he’ll get it on sheer physical exertion alone: The guy runs back and forth across the same three San Francisco streets so often you’ll think you’re watching the long-awaited Frogger movie.

“Snow Cake”: There’s a terrific character study in here, about a quietly broken Englishman who reawakens to life when he’s trapped in northern Ontario for a weekend (and really, who wouldn’t?) … but the inclusion of Sigourney Weaver as the autistic woman to whom Rickman finds himself beholden keeps pulling that film off the rails. Weaver’s not bad, but her character is entirely unnecessary to the story.

Ah, well. Seen “Stranger Than Fiction” yet? That’s still around.

One Good Turn

Nothing to see here, move alongWent to the dentist again. This time, the freezing took, and he was able to assess my broken tooth … and it turns out to be salvageable. No crown, no root canal, and absolutely no talk of “extraction”; just a tiny little blob of something over the pulp and a conventional filling. Covered by insurance and everything.

Also: Computer replaced, after much arguing with Future Shop over exactly what that “lowest price guarantee” means. (It means, apparently, that they’d really rather not knock $250 off the price of an Averatec 2370 laptop computer at Eglinton and Laird, but for some reason they’re cool with it over at Yonge and Eglinton.)

In other words: Everything went right. This was a good day, even if I did spend half of it lurching around the city with a half-frozen jaw.

It’s been a while since I’ve had one of those. They’re nice.

Television, Marvelous Television

Richard E. Grant got nothing on usIt’s a worky kind of day, so I offer up somebody else’s journalism about two of the very best shows on television.

Over at the New Yorker, Tad Friend delivers an amazing dissertation on the brilliance of “The Office”, in both its English and American incarnations.

And over at Reason Magazine, editors Jesse Walker and Nick Gillespie offer up the transcript of a panel discussion with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of “South Park” — which is, if anything, even more fearless and incisive after a decade on the air.

One of the reasons this is a worky kind of day is that I spent far too much time reading these yesterday.

The Coolest Song in the World

Just listen to the song, it all makes senseI’ve recently discovered that Jonathan Coulton, who is often associated with John Hodgman but does quite a few interesting things on his own, has written the coolest song in the world.

You can find it here. Go on, I’ll wait.

If you’d like to hear more Coulton, his album “Smoking Monkey” is available on Emusic here. I particularly like “Ikea” and “First of May” — the guy knows his pop.

My other other gig.