Film Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Also known as: C’era una volta in America (original Italian title)
Release Date: May 20th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, Darlanne Fluegel, Mario Brega, Estelle Harris, Louise Fletcher (only in 2012 restoration)

The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, Rafran Cinematografic, Warner Bros., Titanus, 229 Minutes (original), 139 Minutes (original US release)

Review:

“Age can wither me, Noodles. We’re both getting old. All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won’t have those anymore. Tear up that invitation.” – Deborah Gelly

I tried watching this about fifteen years ago but if I’m being completely honest, it bored me to tears. And I’m speaking as a guy that has a deep love for the films of Sergio Leone, a man who sits among the best in my Holy Trinity of Motion Picture Directors. The other two being Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, naturally.

So years later, I felt that I really needed to revisit this, as maybe I wasn’t in the right head space and because I generally have a hard time sitting through movies that feel like they could take up an entire day. Well, this took up an entire afternoon and I did have to take a halftime break and make a ribeye.

But regardless of that, I really enjoyed this picture and I can’t deny that it is one of Leone’s best. In fact, I may have to edit my rankings of his films, as I would now put this third behind The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West.

What’s interesting, is that this movie has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy than Leone’s own pictures, which were mostly top tier spaghetti westerns. But like his westerns, he also employs the talents of musical maestro Ennio Morricone, who gives real life to the motion picture full of mostly understated performances.

This movie is incredibly slow paced but it’s that kind of slow pace that is more like a slow simmering stew of perfection than the chef accidentally setting the burner too low and walking away.

As far as the acting goes, this is a superb film. Robert De Niro and James Woods own every scene that they’re in. However, the supporting cast is also stupendous, especially the child actors, who play the main characters in lengthy flashback sequences.

This is also compelling in that it is full of unlikable, despicable characters yet you are lured into their world and you do find yourself caring where this is all going and how life will play out for these characters. You never like them but that’s kind of what makes this story so intriguing. With The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, there were things you could connect with and respect about the man, despite his crimes. In Once Upon A Time In America, you don’t really have moments with these characters that humanizes them all that much, in fact it does just the opposite of that. I can see where that might be bothersome to some people but we also live in a world where people saw Walter White from Breaking Bad as some sort of hero.

Once Upon A Time In America also shines in regard to its visual components. It’s a period piece that covers different periods, all of which come off as authentic, even if the city sometimes looks more like it was shot in Europe (some of it was) than truly being Depression Era New York City. But the sets and the location shooting all worked well and this picture boasts some incredible cinematography. It should be very apparent to fans of Leone that he’s taken what he’s learned making fabulous movies and found a way to perfect it, in a visual sense, even more with this, his final picture.

There’s not a whole lot I can pick apart about the movie, other than the pacing being slow. But again, it’s not a painful slow and it certainly isn’t full of pointless filler and exposition. Every frame of this movie needs to exist. But maybe take some breaks or just approach the film like you’re binge watching a short season of a TV show.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Sergio Leone’s other films but this has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films.

Film Review: Rocky Balboa (2006)

Release Date: December 20th, 2006
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Bill Conti
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Geraldine Hughes, Tony Burton, James Francis Kelly III, Lou DiBella

Revolution Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures, 100 Minutes

Review:

“It doesn’t matter how this looks to other people. If this is something you gotta do, then you do it. Fighters fight.” – Little Marie

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Rocky Balboa. I really liked it when it came out but at the same time, I was going through some heavy personal shit that this film emotionally tapped into at the time. I lost someone really close to me the day before this film came out and in some way, seeing this film that same week sort of helped me with the grief and guilt of that experience. And frankly, I’ll always associate this film with that experience.

Seeing it, over a decade later, and after having just watched the five original Rocky films, I do still like this picture but it is my least favorite of the Rocky franchise. Yeah, I’m that one weirdo that actually liked Rocky V and was happy with it as the ending to the series.

The thing about this film, is that I think it actually would have worked better without the whole fight element thrown in. But it’s a Rocky film so Rocky has to fight, I guess that’s the rule. I would have been more interested in seeing Rocky deal with his grief in an elderly reality where he can’t fight and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to fight. Eventually, he has to hang those gloves up and I would have rather seen him try to figure out how to overcome his personal demons when his one way of dealing with them is no longer available to him. There are different fights in life than the physical ones and we’ve seen Rocky use boxing as a metaphor for his life from the ’70s into the ’90s. I think that Creed did a better job of finding a way to help Rocky find meaning in his life outside of taping up his own fists.

The thing with the fight and how it all goes down is unrealistic. I just can’t see a boxer as old as Balboa getting cleared to fight the undefeated world champion, whether it’s just some corny exhibition or not. The idea of it also sets a bad precedent of some sort of reality where aged fighters can somehow hang with guys in their prime that are at the top of their game. Sure, this is a feel good story for old men, past their prime, but Sugar Ray Leonard should absolutely never step into the ring with Floyd Mayweather.

Everything else about this film I mostly liked. Rocky owns a restaurant, he is having a hard time with his relationship with his son, he gets to spend quality time with Paulie and he gets to reconnect with a young girl he hasn’t seen since 1976. I also loved Spider Rico’s role in this movie, as he was there for comedic relief but it was cool seeing Rocky still care for his old rival and friend.

Rocky Balboa is a sad and borderline depressing movie. It does have its patented feel good ending but it was unsatisfying in the fact that it was tied into the fight within the film. I would have rather seen him reconnect with his son, find love with Marie and accept that life goes on and he has to go on with it. While it sort of happens, it does so with the fight as a metaphor for everything because surviving a beat down of epic proportions means that your problems are gone until you need to make a sequel.

But I get it, what’s a Rocky movie without a fight? And if Stallone didn’t have his most famous character throw down, people wouldn’t have gone to see the film. What is Rocky Balboa without boxing? But couldn’t that have been the whole point of the film?

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Anything within the Rocky franchise. Also, Ryan Coogler’s Creed.

Film Review: Rocky V (1990)

Release Date: November 16th, 1990
Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Bill Conti
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Sage Stallone, Tommy Morrison, Richard Gant, Kevin Connolly, Tony Burton, Burgess Meredith (cameo), Carl Weathers (archive footage), Dolph Lundgren (archive footage),

United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 104 Minutes

Review:

“Now, like your Mark Twain once said, ‘Virtue has never been as respectable as money.'” – George Washington Duke

I have never gotten the level of hatred that people have for Rocky V. Is it the best in the series? No. But I also don’t think that from a quality standpoint, it is anywhere below the later sequels III and IV. It actually has a great and important story and examines some areas of a boxer’s life and boxing as a sport that were probably long overdue in being explored in this long running film series. There is one big negative but I’ll get to that.

First, the film deals with Rocky Balboa getting brain damage after his bout with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. It also deals with how athletes are often times taken advantage of by financial crooks, as we see Paulie give power of attorney to their accountant, who lost all their money in a failed scheme. Additionally, we get to see the crookedness of high profile boxing promoters with the character of George Washington Duke, who was an obvious caricature of Don King, who exploited several young boxers that he “owned” for his own personal monetary gain. Lastly, the film deals with a boxer and his relationship with his family and also with his personal struggles when his career is over. Rocky V is a film with a lot of layers, all of which I found to be interesting.

And that’s the thing. You could say that there is too much going on in Rocky V from a narrative aspect but I like that the film addresses these issues, shows them play out naturally and doesn’t have to spell everything out for the audience or beat them over the head with each issue. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the challenges as they appear and to understand that ultimately, Rocky has always had what he needs most and that the solution is simply embracing the love in your life.

Rocky V may be cheesy at points but aren’t most of the Rocky films to some degree? Balboa is a good hearted guy always ready to crack a bad joke and those characteristics have sort of become larger than Balboa in the films themselves. Plus, by the time you get into the later films, Paulie just adds in his own sense of humor that keeps the later sequels grounded in lightheartedness even with serious subject matter.

This film also brings the original creative team of the first Rocky back together. John G. Avildsen returns to direct, Bill Conti is back on the music and ultimately, it works well to recreate the poor area of Philadelphia that Rocky, Adrian and Paulie rose out of but now have to return to. The addition of Burgess Meredith, even as a ghostly cameo, is a nice nod to the first film and brings things full circle, which was good considering that this was the last film in the series for sixteen years.

The big negative I mentioned before is Tommy Morrision, who played the boxer Tommy Gunn. The character starts as Rocky’s protege but decays into a puppet for the sinister George Washington Duke and thus, becomes Rocky’s big opponent at the end. The problem with Morrison is that he is a real boxer and not an actor. Rocky films work better with actors as the rivals. Imagine if Apollo Creed was played by George Foreman or Larry Holmes, it just wouldn’t have worked as well. Also, I felt the same way about Antonio Tarver in the sixth film and Tony Bellew in Creed. None of these guys had the impact of Apollo, Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago. Plus, Morrison’s line delivery was really painful at times.

While people knock the street fight at the end of the film, I’m fine with it. We’ve seen Rocky in the ring more than a half dozen times. Seeing him take it to the streets and embracing his roots against a jacked up farm boy was kind of cool.

I think that Rocky V came out in a time when the franchise sort of ran its course. It was the fifth film in 14 years. Plus, there was solid competition when it came out, so it didn’t perform well. Critics weren’t crazy about it but they aren’t crazy about most movies. I think people shit on Rocky V because it’s fun to shit on something that everyone hates. But I think it is more about following the crowd and not really about the movie. People just parrot each other’s sentiment and comments without much actual thought of their own but that’s why we always end up with shitty presidential candidates. But I’ll stop there and not go on some political rant.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Other Rocky films.

Film Review: Rocky IV (1985)

Release Date: November 27th, 1985
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Vince DiCola, Bill Conti (Rocky themes)
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Tony Burton, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen, James Brown

United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 90 Minutes

Review:

“Going in one more round when you don’t think you can – that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” – Rocky

For some reason, Sylvester Stallone felt compelled to keep making Rocky movies. I’m glad that he did though, as the character still lives on today in the Creed film series, which was a spin off after giving Rocky Balboa six of his own movies from 1976 to 2006.

Rocky IV was the first Rocky movie that I saw in the theater. I was six at the time and I had seen Rocky III but the experience with this one blew my mind. Plus, it had a Cold War twist, which was something I was just starting to understand at the time, thanks to a plethora of ’80s movies that dealt with it.

This film also introduced me to Dolph Lundgren, who would become on of my favorite action stars of the era and really, I still love Dolph today. In a lot of ways, he was also the glue of the picture, even if his Ivan Drago character had no personality here. That was sort of the point though, he was a literal killing machine, emphasis on machine. He was like a Terminator with boxing gloves that was propped up by his country as their hero but all he wanted to do was to crush his opponents, regardless of patriotism and Cold War propaganda.

The real villain, as far as being the mouthpiece anyway, was Drago’s wife, played by Brigitte Nielsen, who was on the cusp of marrying Stallone in real life. She would also appear with her then husband in 1986’s Cobra. I liked Nielsen in the ’80s, even if her career was partially propelled by her marriage. I wish she would have stayed in the right groove and continued to be a presence in action pictures but she didn’t do much of anything memorable after 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II and that could very well be due to her marriage with Stallone ending so quickly. But I’m not going to get all celebrity gossipy like TMZ.

For fans of the series, this film starts off with a solid blow to the gut, as within the first half hour, you get to see the aging Apollo Creed sign on for an exhibition with the Soviet boxer, leading to his death after being pummeled in the ring. The rest of the film deals with Rocky needing to defeat the monster that murdered his friend for sport.

It’s easy to chop this up as a revenge flick but I think it is more about a boxer seeking out justice in the only way he knows how and about climbing an impossible mountain, which is made obvious by a scene where Rocky literally conquers a mountain. However, it is also a critique on the senseless nature of the Cold War which had Americans and Soviets uneasy and paranoid for decades.

Many people have called this a propaganda picture, it isn’t. Does it beat you over the head with Americana? Sure. But it uses its platform and its political context to deliver a message of peace and hope. By the time you get to the end, Rocky’s big speech in the final scene isn’t pro-American or anti-Soviet, it’s pro-human and anti-war. It was also fairly prophetic considering the massive changes that happened in the world and the Cold War finally coming to an end just a few years later. Hey, maybe Rocky Balboa helped in tearing down the Berlin Wall.

Rocky IV is the most important film in the series because it carries a message bigger than the film itself. While the first is the best motion picture and the most inspiring, Rocky IV is the one that made me see the world differently. Granted, I was a six year-old clutching his G.I. Joe figures but it may have been instrumental in making me who I am today, someone who doesn’t buy into propaganda or nationalism and who only practices tribalism when it’s associated with the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Blackhawks.

Rating: 7.75/10

Film Review: Rocky III (1982)

Release Date: May 28th, 1982
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Bill Conti
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Tony Burton, Mr. T, Hulk Hogan

United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 100 Minutes

Review:

“No, I don’t hate Balboa. I pity the fool, and I will destroy any man who tries to take what I got!” – Clubber Lang

Rocky III is the first sequel to kind of dip in quality. Regardless, it is still an enjoyable film that is actually a bit more entertaining than the previous two pictures. It’s shorter, it’s more fun overall and both Mr. T and Hulk Hogan make the fights in this film more exciting and definitely more colorful.

This film fast forwards a bit from the events of Rocky and Rocky II. Here, Rocky Balboa has been the world champion for a little while. We get a nice vignette of him conquering a myriad of challengers along the way. Plus, the beginning of this film is greatly enhanced by its theme song “Eye of the Tiger” by Survior.

The reason why I like Rocky III so much, even though it isn’t of the same quality of the first two pictures, is that it has so much energy. Hulk Hogan plays Thunderlips, a giant wrestler that Balboa fights for charity. He is a massive brute that is overly ostentatious. Then you have the real villain of the story, Mr. T’s intimidating and jacked Clubber Lang. The guy literally looks like a killing machine in boxing gloves.

This chapter also adds some serious emotional baggage that treads new territory for Rocky. He loses his trainer, loses his title and feels like he’s hit rock bottom. Then Apollo, his greatest rival, shows him how to pick himself up and find his edge. Apollo knows that Balboa is greater than Clubber Lang and his respect for Rocky pushes him into helping the fallen fighter right the ship.

I love Rocky III. It really evolved the series into a new decade, the ’80s. And like that decade, it feels more carefree, entertaining and opulent. We enter a world of excess, where Balboa is beyond poverty but with these changes, come new challenges and life isn’t a cakewalk for the warrior.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Rocky II (1979)

Release Date: June 15th, 1979
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Bill Conti
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Tony Burton, Joe Spinell, Frank McRae

United Artists, 120 Minutes

Review:

“I feel like a Kentucky Fried idiot.” – Rocky Balboa

Rocky II picks up right where Rocky left off but that was how most of these sequels worked and why all of the original five Rocky films seem like a long continuing narrative. This is the only one though, that feels like a true continuation but that’s mainly because of its quality and its similarity to the first. Plus, Rocky goes head-to-head with Apollo Creed, one more time.

And not to take anything away from the other sequels, I like them all, but it is necessary to point out that this one is almost as good as the first and it really feels like the second half of one larger story.

The premise sees Apollo questioning himself, after a nobody went the distance with him for fifteen rounds. He is the world champ and he let some bum come in and nearly usurp him as the top dog in the sport. While Rocky wants to live a life after fighting, Apollo constantly baits him and berates him publicly until Rocky decides to take the rematch and see if he has what it takes to defeat Apollo and become the world champion.

John G. Avildsen didn’t return to direct this chapter, so Stallone took the directorial reins himself and he did a pretty fine job. This was his second time behind the camera after 1978’s wrestling film Paradise Alley and it is a much better film than that one.

The majority of the cast returns and it’s actually great seeing them back. I love all these characters and getting to spend more time with them is great, even Joe Spinell’s Gazzo, the neighborhood loan shark.

The film explores the life of a fighter after fighting. Sadly, Rocky can’t find his place in the world and ultimately goes back to what he knows best. But all the while, he marries his love, has a son and rises to the challenge put before him.

Rocky II might not be as good as the original but it’s damn close. I love how Bill Conti’s score evolved for this film and I love the banter between Rocky and Apollo. You see their admiration and respect for one another start to blossom, which would lead to a solid friendship in the films after this one.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: Convoy (1978)

Release Date: June 28th, 1978
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Written by: B. W. L. Norton
Based on: the song “Convoy” by C. W. McCall
Music by: Chip Davis, C. W. McCall
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young, Franklyn Ajaye

EMI Films, United Artists, 112 Minutes

Review:

“Piss on you, and piss on your law.” – Rubber Duck

Convoy came out during the heyday of car and trucker movies. While it isn’t as remembered as the iconic Smokey and the Bandit, I think that it is a better movie. It’s less comedic and more serious and therefore, not as marketable as Smokey but it has something to say, where Smokey was just a fun time.

While we don’t have Burt Reynolds or the always great Jerry Reed, we do get Kris Kristofferson playing a badass trucker with a trucker army. We also get Ernest Borgnine as a sheriff so evil he would probably frighten Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice. Plus, Burt Young is also in this and I have to say, it is my favorite role he’s ever had after Paulie from the Rocky movies.

I would have to say that this probably popularized the use of CB radio outisde of the trucker community. It showed it as a cool sort of trucker subculture thing where everyone talked shit and had cool nicknames like “Rubber Duck”, “Love Machine” a.k.a. “Pig Pen”, “Spider Mike”, “Widow Woman”, “Big Nasty”, “Pack Rat”, “Cottonmouth”, “Old Iguana”, “Lizard Tongue”, “White Rat”, etc. I had friends well into the ’90s who were still using CB radios as their form of social media back before the Internet was bigger than AIM and Geocities communities.

Convoy follows Kristofferson’s Rubber Duck and his trucker buddies, who get harassed, entrapped and bullied by a crooked sheriff (Borgnine) and his cronies. The sheriff is literally mad with power but is always upstaged by the truckers he has targeted. Things escalate, the truckers take a stand against the crooked lawmen and we get a socially and politically conscious movie. However, Rubber Duck doesn’t even really know what he wants or even what to say when he becomes a leader to a growing convoy of pissed off truckers.

This is a film that’s message is very much a reflection of 1970s America, where we were in a sort of cultural limbo where authority wasn’t to be trusted and society started to question itself. This was just after Nixon and the Vietnam war and major racial tensions accented by riots and police brutality. But the film, like society, had no real answer for any of it. It shows us a group of people who are just sick of it all and pretty much say “fuck it.”

It’s funny though, because we do live in a world where people once again worship the police and the military. Sure, America is socially and politically segmented and not everyone blindly swallows the propaganda but films like this are a reminder that maybe we should question what the majority just accepts without any real thought. Or maybe I am seeing Convoy as a much deeper film than it was really intended to be but I don’t think so. Unfortunately, it is a message that seems lost today but should resonate just as loudly with police brutality being in the media so much more and with the countless wars we keep getting involved in.

But however you feel about these issues, this film does tap into that sentiment and when compared to Smokey and the Bandit or those other fun trucker and car movies of the ’70s, Convoy has something more to offer and is a more important film, even if a solution seems lost.

Rating: 8/10