Saturday, November 28, 2015

Six Different Ways of Looking at a Balboa

"Rocky! Boy, that's a picture I wish I had made," Frank Capra declared in an interview in early 1977, just as the movie that launched Sylvester Stallone's career into the stratosphere was nominated for ten Academy Awards. "I think it's the best picture of the last ten years. It's got my vote for the Oscars all the way down the line." (For the record, the film ended up winning three, including Best Picture).

That the saga of the "Italian Stallion" was ever linked to the legendary Capra, or with such grandiose talk, might surprise anyone who came of age cinematically after Rocky IV was released (given the way the title character became more and more of a superhero over the course of the first four films, it might also surprise younger viewers to know that the "Stallion" nickname was ironic in the first film, signifying the gap between the fighter's PR hype and his sadder reality). Roger Ebert rightly noted in his review of the fourth Rocky, "It's tempting to forget how good the original "Rocky" was, back in 1976...with "Rocky IV," almost all of the human emotions have been drained out of the series, and what's left is technology."

My own relationship with this series is still one that surprises me, as I think back on it-- I saw my first Rocky film (the third one) in the theaters in 1982, when I was nine. Over the next eight years or so, I became kind of obsessed with and involved in the series. I'm not saying I took up boxing, or jogged up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum (although I did note, when visiting Philly years later, that Rocky's only rival as city icon was Ben Franklin, who never had the guts to face him in the ring). I didn't eat raw eggs for breakfast, get screamed at by my tiny Irish stereotype of a trainer, or even have pet turtles to whom I talked (just a series of dogs, and a couple of guinea pigs).

But I did tape the films off of television, and watched them repeatedly. I did have the soundtrack to the first film on a well-worn cassette (until it was devoured by the heads of my Walkman). I'm mentioning this outdated technology here because I want to emphasize what an analog hero Rocky was to me as a kid (at least at his best). That the films were, in so many ways, impossible fantasies, didn't matter to tween me-- what sold them was how human they felt.

Like other movie totems of my childhood (primarily the Spielberg and Lucas films), the Rocky series was a fantasy avatar that worked as a gateway into slowly understanding film history: If Star Wars and Indiana Jones introduced me to science fiction, movie serials, and Humphrey Bogart (among many other things), the Rocky films segued me into sports movies, films about the city (any city-- "the city" as its own character), 70s "New" Hollywood, film noir, and, yes, Frank Capra. They also thrilled the part of me that day-dreamed about matching the character's strength and speed, and longed for his inspirational arc (the part of me that also read comics, in other words).

As Creed hits theaters this week, and connects Oscar talk to the Rocky series for the first time in nearly forty years, it's worth noting that we're about the same distance from the original film as that movie was from Capra classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1976. Will the acclaim of the Michael B. Jordan vehicle work the same trick on new viewers that the original Rocky movies did on me, and cause them to seek out its inspirations?

What follows is my take on the first six films in the Rocky series, running the voodoo down from tomato can to champ.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Time Passages: The Age of Adaline

Blake Lively knows just where the light hits her when she walks past the camera in The Age of Adaline (2015). She understands how to tilt her head so her cheekbones can be half-cast in shadow, so her Veronica Lake waves can fall exactly where they need to for proper effect; she precisely times each flicker of a smile, seems to have worked to a science the spatial dynamics between a glance of her eyes and a sway of her hips; the rhythm of her hands when she picks up a book or grazes the knuckles of a co-star are a graceful, cinephilic metronome.

I know this might all sound condescending, as if I've ignored Lively's actorly interiority (and that of her titular character) altogether. But I assure you it's a compliment. Watching Lively float amidst the shifting time-frames of The Age of Adaline, I kept thinking about David Thomson's famous passage about Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep:

This touches on a vital principle: that it is often preferable to have a movie actor who moves well than one who "understands" the part. A director ought to be able to explain a part, but very few men or women can move well in front of a camera. In The Big Sleep, there are numerous shots of Bogart simply walking across rooms: they draw us to the resilient alertness of his screen personality as surely as the acid dialogue. Bogart's lounging freedom captures our hopes.