Hang on, Sly!

cliffCliffhanger, 1993, 113 mins, 4K UHD

Its some kind of wonderful when I return to a film I used to really enjoy and discover that it still works, that it still has that ‘magic’ that appealed to me back in the day. There’s nothing sadder than returning to a film once beloved and realising its actually a dud, that its nowhere near as good as it once seemed to be. Thankfully that’s not the case with Renny Harlin’s 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, which I watched last night for the first time in, oh, must be getting on for twenty years now, other than catching bits of the film on tv screenings.

How is it possible that Cliffhanger is getting on for thirty years old now? Here I go again, measuring the passing of years by accounting film release dates: in this case, it feels like another life, Cliffhanger dates back to before I was married. Mind, it doesn’t escape me that the Showcase Cinema in which I first saw the film back in 1993, a still fairly-new, state-of-the-art multiplex cinema at the time, has recently been demolished to be replaced by a car supermarket. Cliffhanger has seen a cinema gone, and home video formats come and go (VHS, laserdisc, DVD etc). Seems everything is transient, but the films remain.

We had it good back then, looking back- when Arnie and Sly were in their prime. I think Cliffhanger can arguably qualify has Sly’s best film other than First Blood.

John Lithgow steals the show though. His evil Eric Qualen character is despicable and rotten to the core, and Lithgow pushes his performance to the brink of Panto holiday season. He looks like he’s having the time of his life, bless him, and its great. Its at just the right level of theatrical bombast to match Sly’s larger than life physicality. Lithgow’s stooges suffer by comparison, but Craig Fairbrass is fairly memorable daring to use Sly as a football -until Hal (Michael Rooker) informs him “Season’s over, asshole!” Cliffhanger has some fantastic dialogue/memorable lines that enable the cast to chew up the scenery while standing still. Between this, Robocop and Total Recall it feels like a long-lost art now.

So much impresses regards this film. The action sequences are great, the film benefits massively from dating back to the pre-CGI era; there is a sense of tactile reality to it, and most of the optical work is actually very good (a few miniatures betray the films age but if anything possibly just add to its old-school charm). It is also well-served by a bombastic music score from Trevor Jones that sounds like a curious mix of Predator and Last of the Mohicans to my ears now, but adds a great energy to the film that film scores these days largely lack. Its watching films like this that makes me think they just don’t make ’em like they used to, and its true. Some people will think that’s a good thing, mind… but not me.

Hang on, Sly- it won’t be long before I give this disc another spin.

Rambo: Last Blood (2019)

ramboHopefully that title is a promise, unless some twit decides we deserve Rambo: Last Blood Part Two.

I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how they messed up something as simple as this movie. I say ‘messed up’ but what I’m really referring to is… well, if ever a film betrayed signs of re-shoots and hasty confused editing trying to keep all of its eighteen executive producers, plus its additional five co-executive producers, plus its additional four producers content with what all their hard ‘producing’ finally produced onto the screen… well, I guess my answer is all there. A Rambo film is the simplest thing in the world, or should be, and it certainly doesn’t need twenty-seven possibly conflicting voices in the mix (I didn’t bother counting the ‘line producers’ I was getting dizzy enough as it is). I mean, this is Rambo; you put him into conflict with bad guys and  raise the stakes/tension until releasing it in an orgy of cathartic violence as Rambo destroys and mutilates scum who totally deserve it. I could write it over a weekend.

After the frankly amazingly surprisingly good Rambo from 2008 (how on Earth it has taken so many years to follow that success with a fifth film is remarkable in itself) this film is a terrible disappointment. Its not a complete disaster, but it too cynically, I think, copies everything from that fourth film and wastes a promising premise that pits Rambo against a Mexican crime syndicate/private army past due a visit from the Grim Reaper. I mean these bad guys are Scum with a very definite capital ‘S’ and, well, I was hardly expecting a blood-soaked Sicario but this was a pretty incredibly dumb movie. Any teenage niece who is forbidden to drive across the border to her estranged father but who then drives off  ‘to my  freinds house, promise’ the next morning is… well, Rambo is actually somehow shocked but nobody watching the film is. Irresponsible parenting, Rambo, that’s what I call it. You ground her her and let her sulk awhile. You just let her drive off, well, you only got yourself to blame for what happens.

Oh well. At least the action when it comes is graphic and shocking enough to keep us awake and cheer Rambo up (he’s never really happier than when he’s disembowelling someone or tearing his heart out or snapping bones or blowing scum up and he can turn it into art, clearly). Its just a shame that somehow such a simple premise gets so confused (why does Rambo just walk unprepared into a stronghold of over 40 bad guys if its isn’t just an excuse to beat the shit out of Rambo yet again and make things even more personal?).

Not a complete disaster I suppose and with ever further reduced expectations it might get better a second and third time. I mean, its Rambo, ‘innit?

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Blu-ray)

pris1Thanks to Warner Archive over in the States we have a newly restored release of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and on Blu-ray no less. Naturally as I’m a huge fan of the film I ordered a copy and it arrived yesterday, so I watched it that evening. I can report that the film looks absolutely gorgeous, a beautifully detailed HD image with fine grain, incredible detail, no DNR, lovely colour- its damn near perfect, and the best I have ever seen this film look. As the physical formats continue to decline, it makes releases such as this all the more special and treasured, and I thank my lucky stars this is region-free, as I’m pretty certain fairly lowly-renowned films such as this is extremely unlikely to get released over here in the UK (which is a great shame, frankly, and I’d love some UK distributor to prove me wrong and release this and some other Jack Lemmon films in HD over here).

So I watched the film last night and I was quite overcome with how wonderful the experience was – this is one of my very favourite films and to finally have it in this splendid Blu-ray release is just wonderful. To say this release was worth the added expense of having to import it from over the pond is an understatement. The 2019 master is pretty amazing and gives the film a whole new life and vitality, you could be forgiven for thinking its a fresh new film shot last year, except for the fact that it being shot on film gives it a tactile grain and image superior to many modern films shot digitally. The film also features some really impressive widescreen composition, certainly that old pan and scan version I first saw must have been pretty horrific.

Its no doubt some indication of my adoration of this little film that I have mentioned it so many times here on my blog. Its one of those films that I had an instant and intense emotional attachment to- I was in a very low place in my life when I first saw this film by chance on an afternoon tv airing, and it certainly struck a chord in me. Indeed, over the years as I have returned to it that connection, and my love of the film, has remained undiminished- perhaps even heightened as I have grown older and been able to appreciate it even more. Sure, there are better films out there- but few films, in all honesty, mean quite so much to me.

pris3A study of a middle-aged man who becomes unemployed and has a nervous breakdown is perhaps a strange one to describe as a comedy, but it is – its funny and it is sad and there is a feeling of truth and honesty about it, of ordinary people just trying to survive in a cold and indifferent modern city. Jack Lemmon of course is probably my favourite actor and he’s excellent here as the wounded Mel, displaying fragility and pride and, as usual, uncanny comic timing delivering his lines or reacting to others. Anne Bancroft playing his wife Edna, has really good chemistry with him and is no slouch herself with the comedy, and she engenders great sympathy during her characters moments of stress and concern. We really feel the warmth between this middle-aged married couple (I’d hate to imagine how young and physically utopian a modern film versions casting would be).  Thanks to some fine location shooting, the film also serves as something of a time-capsule, capturing a mid-1970s America and New York that does not exist anymore. Its familiar but also there is a distance, a sense of innocence lost: an interesting New York double-bill would be this followed by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released only a year after and seemingly light years away from this films Second Avenue- it’s a double-bill I really shall have to try sometime.

pris4The film even features the first on-screen performance of an incredibly young-looking Sylvester Stallone. The fact that this year Stallone celebrates his 72nd birthday is a sober reminder of how old this film is and the years that have passed since, and of those we have lost. Jack Lemmon died in 2001, Anne Bancroft in 2005, Gene Saks in 2015, Ed Peck (you may not know the name but he’s a familiar face from a lot of 1960s and 1970s television) in 1992. Infact, of all the cast, I think only F. Murray Abraham (who appears in unlikely cameo as a taxi driver) and M.Emmet Walsh (the apartment buildings inept and  lazy doorman, later a hero of mine from Blade Runner of course), are still alive, other than that young turk Stallone. Behind the screen, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon passed away in 2018 and the films director, Melvin Frank, passed away in 1988. Composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away in 2012; how I would love to own a copy of the films marvelous score on CD, something extremely unlikely to ever happen as I don’t believe any of the score was ever released, but you never know, stranger things have happened.

I only write about all the talent we have lost as an indication of the films pedigree and worth, and it’s unlikely place in film history as a little film that could – and a film I absolutely adore. Film fans can attach to films more easily and more faithfully than they can people. This film is proof of that.


Creed II (2018)

creed2There’s a really engaging story in this film, and the trouble is, its not whats happening with Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan)- instead I was really interested in the silent giant Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), living a tough existence in Eastern Europe under the rough guidance of his father,  former Russian champion boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his role from Rocky IV). Their relationship is one of silences and some considerable tensions and was, to me, far more interesting. Munteanu, who I believe is a professional boxer, does a lot with his stares and frowns and while he’s built like a frightening man mountain he exhibits considerable warmth and fragility in his silences, no mean feat for a guy who’s not, I suspect, a professional actor. Had the studio behind this series had the nerve and boldness to follow the first Creed by a film titled Drago which dwelt on Viktor’s rise to success in Eastern Europe thanks to, or in spite of, his father and his father’s own ghosts, and perhaps that led to the inevitable Creed II that we have here, I would have been very happy.  But the cynic in me thinks that likely smells too much like franchise building, so hey ho maybe it’s a good thing after all.

Nonetheless, the biggest weakness of Creed II is that it feels like a by-the-numbers Rocky franchise movie, lacking any of the depth, sensitivity, emotion or sense of meta-reality that the original film did. We know that Adonis Creed will have a crisis of faith, will have personal problems and doubts, and that he’ll somehow turn defeat into victory thanks to Rocky guiding him and a really cool training montage. There’s really not enough surprises here, and Viktor’s story remains the more interesting.

There is, though,  a really great drinking game here- have a shot everytime you see Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) with a new hairstyle. You’ll be under the table before you reach the climactic fight (and consequently might be more surprised by the outcome). I usually like Tessa Thompson but something here just irritated me- likely its really the writing of her character; here she’s no longer a ‘real’ or normal person, she’s too perfect, too beautiful, a singing celebrity in her own right and far too comfortable with the millionaire lifestyle. When she’s singing some maddeningly bombastic song as she leads Adonis down to the ring for the final bout I suddenly realised that this is the one thing the ‘legend’ that is Beckham never dared- imagine Posh serenading him down the tunnel out to the wembley faithful for his last England game there. Would have brought the house down (or emptied the stadium, I’m not sure).

So anyway, Creed II was definitely a disappointment having enjoyed the first film when I finally caught up with it a little while ago. Here’s hoping any eventual Creed III turns its back on the Rocky tropes/mythology and strikes out for something new. Or failing that, lets see that Drago film.

Creed (2015)

creed.jpgI had a curious thought watching this boxing drama/fantasy- the way in which it respected its forebears, particularly the Rocky franchise from which this film originates, brought to mind the way BR2049 clearly demonstrated its own respect for the original Blade Runner and its creators.  To my surprise, Creed was clearly no cash-grab, and it was wonderful to see Sylvester Stallone return to his perhaps most famous character and see it treated so respectfully. Sure, these things are only movies and the importance and artistic value of the Rocky franchise is purely subjective really, but it’s nice to see someone making a film like this and it not feeling like a cynical enterprise.

In a curious way, there is the stuff of modern myth about Creed and how it furthers the story of Rocky. Bringing an ageing Rocky back to the screen to reflect on “Everything I got has moved on,” as he recalls his dead wife and freinds, and the old distant glories of his boxing career, Stallone reminds us he can be a great actor with the right material. “And I’m here,” he states, cooly, facing his own mortality and illness. Suddenly, in just the same way that BR2049 informed and improved its original film, Creed does the same for Rocky. Watching the original Rocky films, with the fresh knowledge of this film now existing decades later, and its own story, must surely add something.

It turns out Creed isn’t just a movie. Its something else, and it’s something to do with this myth-making and the parts of movies that linger within us after they have ended. Films aren’t just films, not always. They are time passing and life moving on and changing. I was never a huge fan of the Rocky films (they seemed to descend into self-parody and one of them – the 2006 Rocky Balboa– passed me by entirely) but I can imagine that for fans who first watched Rocky back in 1976 and grew old alongside Stallone over the decades since and several further Rocky films, something like Creed can be quite moving. Cathartic even.  Who doesn’t get a tingle from hearing Bill Conti’s Rocky theme when it returns? I believe Creed is the seventh film of the Rocky franchise and the start of a saga of its own (Creed II being released this month, and the impetus for me to finally catch up with this film (yeah, I said I’m not a big Rocky fan)) and it’s clear that here business becomes art and perhaps, yes, more even than that- modern American myth-making.

So yes, I really was quite taken aback by Creed and had I watched it back in 2015, I’m sure I would have done so hoping that BR2049 could follow suit with its respect for the past (and thank goodness it did). Sequels, remakes and reboots don’t have to be a bad thing after all. And I really now need to rewatch Rocky sometime. Here’s hoping the Beeb schedule it over Christmas…