Rocky – There’s Gonna Be A Lot of Rematches

WARNING: THIS BLOG INTRO WILL INCLUDE NOSTALGIC SPORTS FLASHBACKS AND STAR TREK SPIN OFFS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

2002 was a big year for Ryan the sports fan. It was the year that my sports consciousness flipped on and my path to becoming the ESPN-obsessed lunkhead I am today began. Before that, sports weren’t really my thing. And honestly, I was pretty lucky to skip out on Minnesota sports in the late nineties. A decade of Twins futility? No skin off my back. Gary Anderson’s missed kick in the 1998 NFC Championship game? Meant nothing to me. 41-0 butt whooping by the Giants in the 2000 game? Hard pass. While the utterly classic and fantastic 2001 World Series technically marked my entrance into the sports world, it was 2002 and the Get to Know ‘Em Twins like Corey Koskie and Christian Guzman that consecrated me as a true sport-o (if you have a free half hour, google “Minnesota Twins commercials.” Always on point).

So what does all this have to do with Rocky? I honestly don’t remember much about the Twins regular season during 2002. I remember the playoffs vividly (I got sick during one of the games and got to go down into the bowels of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome). What I do remember from that summer is the heavyweight boxing bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. It was all anyone on ESPN could talk about. Mike Tyson was the baddest man on the planet and he was going to get his title back from that pesky Lennox Lewis. I was a peace-loving, docile pacifist who had just started to give a hoot about sports and I can still clearly remember Lewis knocking out Tyson. That’s how big this fight was. That’s how big boxing was.

And now? UFC has all but knocked out boxing’s mass appeal. The heavyweight division has been all but invisible, more or less dominated by the Ukranian Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are the best known fighters on the planet but they’ve spent the last half-decade affirmatively not fighting each other. Maybe once a year, Mayweather or Pacquiao will fight someone and get some attention on ESPN for a day or two. But no fight, outside of Mayweather and Pacquiao finally getting in the ring together, could even come close to the hype of Lewis-Tyson 12 years ago. 

In the Star Trek universe, boxing is still a thing in the 24th century. Maybe it’s because in the future, all that remains of our civilization are films and they looked at all of the boxing movies and thought, “Wow, this boxing thing must be a big deal.” Because while boxing for the masses has retreated into its corner, boxing movies keep coming at us. Million Dollar BabyCinderella ManRocky BalboaThe FighterGrudge Match. Whatever is keeping boxing from staying relevant as a sport, its counterparts in Hollywood know not of.

This week, I watched one of the original great boxing movies. Here’s what I thought of Rocky.

78. Rocky

Released: 1976
Big names: Sylvester Stallone, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers
One sentence summary: A slow-talking mafia enforcer slash boxer from Philly (Stallone) gets a chance to win the world heavyweight boxing title against the greatest boxer, and showman, on the planet (Weathers).
Scene that sticks out: A surprisingly young Stallone takes off his sweater to reveal his toned body covered only in a white tank which he thrusts at his date (Talia Shire). Real sly, Sly. Real sly.
Thoughts: This was a tough movie for me to gauge. On one hand, it’s terribly cliched. A not-too-bright local boxer gets a miraculous shot to prove himself against the best in the world. On the other hand, it was the movie that launched the plucky underdog boxing cliche, so it’s hard to knock it too much for that. Like several other films I’ve written about, it seemed really slow to me at the beginning. I don’t know if big-budget modern movies have skewed my movie viewing but it felt like we spent a lot of unnecessary time with Rocky just walking around Philadelphia doing nothing in particular. However, I did like the movie. I thought the love story between Rocky and Adrian was legitimately touching and far less cheesy than most sports movie love stories. While Carl Weathers will always be the one-handed golf pro, Chubbs Petersen from Happy Gilmore, he was excellent as Apollo Creed the boxer and the business man. I can’t remember disliking a character as thoroughly as I disliked Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young). And while the character has been replicated numerous times, I am not surprised at all that Stallone’s portrayal of Balboa launched him into stardom.
Ranking (out of 10): 6-10 – I understand why this is a classic sports movie, but now that I’ve seen it, I don’t see myself rushing to see it again any time soon.

Sports, sports, sports, sports, sports!

As a movie fan and a sports fan, nothing gets my engines revving like a quality sports film. The problem is that there are a lot of sports films that fall flat. The biggest problem? About 90% of sports films are underdog stories. And underdog stories are painfully predictable. SPOILER ALERT: the underdog wins! The challenge is to make a sports movie that doesn’t blend in with all the others. Here are the top 5 sports films from three different great sports minds: the American Film Institute, the now-defunct ESPN Page 2 and yours truly. What’s your favorite sports movie? Share in the comments!

The top five sports films of all time according to AFI, ESPN’s Page 2 and myself.

NEXT WEEK: I return to my roots and watch the Coen brothers’ Fargo.

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Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Master The Dark Art of Satire

Satire is hard, y’all. Like really hard.

By now, everyone has heard the news that funnyman Stephen Colbert, is moving out of his red, white and blue Colbert Report set and making the leap from Comedy Central to CBS as he takes over for the man, the myth, the legend, David Letterman. In my mind, Colbert’s job just got a whole ton easier. Not because it’s easy to host a talk show but because it’s so darn difficult to pull off satire as seamlessly as Colbert has for the past 10 years. Satire is hard (see above). The skill required to do quality satire that doesn’t come off as arrogant, pompous or, even worse, not funny, is enormous. Satire requires not only a sharp wit but also a mind that can fully comprehend the topic it’s satirizing. Making fun of something you don’t understand is the easiest thing in the world. Satirizing something you don’t understand is damn near impossible. That’s why so much satire crashes and burns and why what Colbert and his Sith Lord Master Jon Stewart have been able to accomplish for more than a decade is incredible. Good satire is funny (this isn’t actually satire per-se but it’s so funny I had to find a way to get it in this post). Great satire points out the craziness happening in our world that we’re do busy to notice. Satire at its best moves people to do something about it.

Stewart, Colbert and The Onion are certainly not the first folks to pull off the satire gambit. Political satire dates back all the way to Ancient Greece and has played important roles throughout western civilization. This week’s AFI film, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a prime example of some darn good satire focusing on the nuclear hysteria during the Cold War. Here’s what I thought:

24. Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Released: 1964
Big names: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones and Stanley Kubrick (director)
One sentence summary: Mutual assured destruction is put to the test as a crazed general puts the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. on a nuclear crash course.
Scene that sticks out: Just after Peter Sellers delivers his classic, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room,” the camera holds on the rotund Soviet ambassador casually sitting on the lap of the American general he was just fighting with. It just cracked me up.
Thoughts: I must confess something before I go into my thoughts on this film. I had to watch this movie a second time because I fell asleep the first time. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the film. It simply is further evidence that I can fall asleep at anytime even if it’s 8 p.m. on a Friday. So when I watched it again on Saturday morning, I was committed and focused. And thoroughly entertained. The Cold War is a fascinating period to study and the fact that nuclear weapons seemed to have been a regularly considered option for warfare is a terrifying thought to me. Kubrick’s satirical romp through a nuclear panic points out exactly why. An addled general who thinks that the Soviets are out to depurify his “essential fluids” starts the ball rolling on a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. that the president and all of his merry military men can’t seem to get a handle on. Air Force General Buck Turgidson talks of tens of millions of American casualties as a mere hair ruffling and ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove recommends an underground bunker system which would have a 10:1 female to male ratio for repopulating the Earth after a nuclear holocaust. Add in a Texan’s Texan piloting the B-52 screaming towards the Soviet Union and a young James Earl Jones, and you’ve got a quality flick.
Ranking (out of 10): 7-10 – Kubrick points out and emphasizes the outrageousness of the nuclear arms race without devolving into farce.

The Many Faces of Peter Sellers

I’m not sure if it says more about Peter Sellers’ acting ability or my lack of observational skills that I didn’t realize while watching the film that Sellers actually plays three separate characters throughout the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove himself. The three characters are so different (they’re all literally from different countries) that I am in awe that he was able to pull it off so brilliantly. Sellers was initially slated to play four different roles but ended up not playing Major T.J. “King” Kong because of a sprained ankle.

Peter Sellers played three of the four roles originally written for him.

Peter Sellers played three of the four roles originally written for him.

NEXT WEEK: Get your boxing gloves ready because we’re hopping in the ring with Rocky.

Rear Window – Feels Like the First Time

Everyone has a favorite movie. That movie that you need to watch on a regular basis. That movie that you want to share with those who are most important to you. The movie that you create crazy theories about that are only crazy because everyone else doesn’t understand how vital that movie is to understanding the entire world. As you might be able to tell, I’m still mourning the end of How I Met Your Mother.

But we’re talking movies not television. And not just any movies. Your favorite movie. For some great words on favorite films, head over to The Critical Cinephilewho graciously agreed to join me in watching Rear Window this week. For me, it was my first time. For The Critical Cinephile, it was an opportunity to re-watch his favorite film. I asked The Critical Cinephile to collaborate with me on this film because A) he’s a brilliant movie mind and B) I was interested in how reviews would differ between someone who was watching a movie for the first time and someone who not only has seen the movie before, but considers it their favorite movie of all time. Would we notice different things? Would we appreciate different things? Would he be able to see more of the movie because of his familiarity while I was just trying to keep up with what’s going on? Or would he be so focused on what he loves about it that he might miss things that stand out to me?

What’s your favorite movie? How has your watching of that movie changed since the first time? Can you remember your first time when you didn’t know what was going to happen? Share in the comments! Take a look below for my virgin viewing of Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window and be sure to head over to the The Critical Cinephile to get the view from the other side.

42. Rear Window

Released: 1954
Big names: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr and Thelma Ritter
One sentence summary: An invalid photographer becomes obsessed with the lives (and deaths?) of the neighbors he watches through the rear window (get it?!) of his apartment.
Scene that sticks out: Hitchcock’s endings always get me and this film was no different.
Thoughts: This was different than the Hitchcock I’d watched before. I was used to suspense built on action and movement in Psycho and Vertigo. In Rear Window, I was stationary, stuck in an apartment with photographer L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) and his broken leg. But that didn’t mean that nothing was happening. Hitchcock kept Jeffries’ (and my own) mind racing with the strange happenings in the lives of his neighbors. The magnificent Miss Torso and her many male visitors. The sad songwriter. The melancholy Miss Lonelyheart. But it was Mr. Thorwald and his invalid wife that really captivate Jeffries and the viewer leading to the brilliant and heart-racing climax. James Stewart was fantastic as usual, Grace Kelly’s Lisa was gorgeous and smart, but my favorite character might’ve been Jeffries’ sassy nurse, Stella (Ritter) who punctuated the suspense with quick wit. Beyond Hitchcock’s masterful suspense or the great performances, what I appreciated most was how this movie made me think. It made me think about how we look at the world. How we are so concerned with what is going on around us and often forget to look at what’s happening in our own lives. How easy it is to jump to conclusions about people based on snippets and flash frames without really knowing what’s going on. How much time we spend watching life go by and how little time we spend actually living.
Ranking (out of 10): 6-10 – I certainly enjoyed this film but of the three Hitchcock films I’ve watched, this comes in a clear third.

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE

You could dedicate an entire book to dissecting the great Alfred Hitchcock (and several people have). But I don’t have that kind of time. So instead, I will just say this. I have seen three Hitchcock films (plus one biopic about the man). I have liked all three and I count two of them among my favorite films of all time. I’m not a horror guy, but Hitchcock’s suspense and thrills enthrall me every time. He made more than 50 films in a wide array of genres and he worked with some of the greatest actors and actresses to ever grace the silver screen. The graphic below merely scratches the surface of Hitchcock’s illustrious career.

A collection of tidbits on the Master of Suspense.

A collection of tidbits on the Master of Suspense.

NEXT WEEK: We travel back in time to the Cold War for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – A Visitor from Another World

So a guy walks into a video rental store…

That’s the joke. Pretty funny, right? Can you even remember the last time you entered one of those wonders of the ancient world? The last time you bandied about in a Blockbuster, milled around in a Mr. Movie, hunted for your favorite flick in a Hollywood Video or meandered through a Movie Gallery? Just as Professor Trelawney prophesied years ago, as the sun rises on Redbox, so shall it set on video rental stores (after the introduction of streaming content by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others, Professor Trelawney amended her prophecy to read, “Oh yeah. Video rental stores are screwed”). Our favorite divination teacher was not wrong as this millennium has seen the slow fade to black of our beloved video rental stores.

Photo by Caldorwards4 at en.wikipedia

Photo by Caldorwards4 at en.wikipedia

*Note: Corporate Blockbuster closed its doors in 2014. Several franchise owned Blockbusters remain open. Photo by Stu pendousmat at en.wikipedia

And I do mean beloved. I remember fondly the video rental stores of my youth. We had a Mr. Movie across the street and a Hollywood Video just down the road. I can remember being on the way home from some activity or another on the weekend and asking my parents if we could rent a few movies (there seemed to always be some sort of deal that encouraged you to get three movies. Why three? I do not know). It would usually be my mom and me and I would always go straight to the back wall for all of the new releases. You knew these were the good ones because you could only rent them for five days as opposed to seven. The struggle for us was always finding movies that my mom, my dad, my sister and I would all like. There was lots of searching, lots of phone calls home to get opinions, lots of compromising and LOTS of movies to choose from. Eventually, we’d realize that we had spent the better part of an hour in the store and end up getting the three movies we had in our hands at that particular moment. When we went to check out, I would always try and convince my mom to buy the movie theater snack pack. You know the one that had a bag of the most over-buttered microwave popcorn you could imagine and a couple of boxes of overpriced candy all crammed into a popcorn tub that was JUST LIKE THE ONE’S YOU GOT AT THE THEATER! Of course, my mother being the smart woman she is, never relented and I was forced to eat our own microwave popcorn out of kitchen bowl. Can you imagine?

So why am I talking about the death of video rental stores? Because (spoiler)…they’re not all actually dead! Sure the major chains have all closed their doors for the most part, there are still a few independent shops that are keeping the video rental dream alive. In fact, my local video rental store, 9th Street Video, was the only place I could find this week’s selection, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So you all owe a debt of gratitude to the video rental industry for making this wonderful review you are about to read possible. Enjoy.

A reminder of a different time.

A reminder of a different time. Photo by Ryan Levi.

25. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Released: 1982 (more on this later)
Big names: Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore
One sentence summary: An alien is left behind on Earth where he meets and forms a special bond with a young boy.
Scene that sticks out: Watching an alien bum around a house getting drunk had me flashing hard on the movie Ted in the best way. Adding in a drunk Elliot (Thomas) at school inciting a free-the-frogs riot and topping it off with a John Wayne kiss was just gravy.
Thoughts: Why did I wait so long to watch this movie? It was fantastic. It was fun. It was funny. It was heartwarming. I am a sucker for movies about friendship and this was right in my wheelhouse. One of my favorite aspects of the movie was how quickly Elliot accepted and adapted to the craziness that was going on. Let’s not forget, he just made first contact with a freaking alien. From outer space. Who’s short and slimy and does this weird thing with his neck. And yet he is totally cool with it. Flying bicycles going over a cliff? Doesn’t bat an eye. And the connection that is built between the two is as powerful for the viewer as it is for the characters. These two beings with no apparent common ground form a bond so tight that they are actually tied together. Elliot refers to them as, “we.” It’s a powerful statement on friendship and disregarding differences, and it comes from a 10-year-old boy and an alien. I would also be remiss if I did not mention how much I loved the acting of Henry Thomas (Elliot) and the wee baby Drew Barrymore. Elliot’s bond with E.T. transcends superficiality because Thomas makes it happen. And Barrymore is hilarious and heartwarming as little Gertie who grows to love E.T. like another brother.
Ranking (out of 10): 8-10 – If I stumble across this movie while channel surfing, I’ve found my entertainment for the next two hours.

A Whole New World

Maybe it’s just me, but when I opened up my E.T. video rental, there were two disks. The first one I saw was the 2002 20th Anniversary Edition. What? If 2002 was the 20th anniversary, then that means that movie came out in…1982? For some reason, that seemed way too early. I always thought of E.T. as a mid-90s film at the latest so seeing that it was actually from the Reagan years threw me a bit. When I combined that with my video rental nostalgia (and a recent list I saw of all the things that have happened since my Chicago Cubs won the World Series…), I started to think about how much movies, film and the entertainment industry have changed since E.T. was released. So without further ado, take a look at my horribly cliched list of how things change over the past 32 years.

A look at how the film industry has changed since 1982.

A look at how the film industry has changed since 1982.

NEXT WEEK: With the help of our friend, The Critical Cinephile, we watch one of Hitchcock’s four AFI 100 films, Rear Window.