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Posts Tagged ‘Talia Shire’

Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Psycho and producer of much of The Outer Limits, had a rule for most of his tenure on the latter: every episode had to have a ‘bear’ – i.e., a big scary creature, which would preferably show up just before the mid-episode ad break (round about the same time as the first Hulk-out in an episode of The Incredible Hulk). I suppose it’s sound enough as a principle, though it sounds quite creatively limiting to me.

The whole issue of ‘when you show the bear’ is fairly important when you’re doing a monster movie, and the consensus seems to be ‘not too early, not too late’ – too early, and you run the risk of running out of things to do with it, not to mention you have less time to build suspense; too late, and the audience will get bored. (Although Hal Chester, who was involved in the making of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Night of the Demon, ensured that the monster got wheeled on very early in both of those, albeit only for a sort of appetising cameo.) Just after the mid-point seems to be the sweet spot, structurally speaking, though of course this isn’t necessarily a good thing if your monster is no good. I think it was Jeff Morrow, star of The Giant Claw, who observed that acting in a monster movie is a bit like going on a blind date: you’re relying on the special effects department to come up with a co-star that isn’t going to make you look stupid.

The movies and TV we’ve been discussing so far all date back to the 1950s and early-to-mid 60s, but some truths are eternal, as the makers of Prophecy discovered in 1979. This was the year that the big studios all bet heavily on horror and monster movies – it was the year of Alien, Nightwing, John Badham’s Dracula, and The Amityville Horror, to name but a few of the more prominent releases, and Prophecy was amongst them. (If you ask me, the most successful films from that year came from elsewhere – let’s not forget this was also the year of Herzog’s Dracula, and the one in which Dawn of the Dead got its American release.)

Everyone’s heard of Alien and Dracula, and some of the other names are vaguely familiar, but Prophecy (like Nightwing) seems to have vanished into movie obscurity, mentioned only as a joke or as a camp cult movie. I don’t recall ever coming across it on British TV – in fact, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it until I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he writes affectionately about it at some length. Looking at that book again recently, it seemed to me that there was an obvious gap in my knowledge of cinema – and all sorts of old movies are now available on t’interweb if you know where to look.

Prophecy is directed by John Frankenheimer, who also did The Manchurian Candidate, and is clearly not a low-budget movie. We open off in a forest somewhere (we later learn this is Maine) where some search-and-rescue types are being dragged along by their dogs. Something has got the dogs so riled up they run literally off the edge of a cliff, and have to be lowered down into the ravine below. When the actual search-and-rescue guys go down into the ravine as well, there is some roaring, some screaming and then an ominous silence. Here the film shows the first sign of wanting to be more than just schlock: arty shots of the corpses of the search team strewn around, or in one case still hanging from their harness, are accompanied by light classical music, in a slightly obvious but still decent attempt at juxtaposition.

The light classical music turns out to be coming from an orchestra which includes Maggie (Talia Shire), a nice lady who lives in Washington DC. Her main problem is that she would like to have a baby – and indeed is in the early stages of having a baby – but her husband is oblivious to this, and opposed to overpopulating the planet any further. He is Dr Rob Verne (Robert Foxworth, with hair and beard that make him look like Christ after a perm and some highlights). Verne is the epitome of the scientist as envoy of Apollo – Foxworth is doing principled stoicism non-stop for most of the movie – driven to despair by the awful living conditions of so many in the city. Someone offers him a change of scene and a job which may end up making an actual difference – the Environmental Protection Agency has been called in to mediate in a dispute between a paper mill and the local Native Americans up in Maine. Go for two weeks! Make a holiday of it! Take the wife!

So they go, collected by the representative of the paper company (Richard Dysart), who is initially very agreeable. Here we get the film’s first major misstep – an unforgivably laborious bit of exposition where someone starts talking about something called Katahdin, the legendary supernatural protector of the forest (according to the Indians anyway), not long after Dysart has let Verne know that people have started disappearing in the woods. We also meet the fiercely proud leader of the Indians (played by Armand Assante, who is every bit as Native American as his name suggests), and there is a symbolic axe-vs-chainsaw fight between the paper mill people and the locals, who are blocking access to the forest.

Soon enough Dr Rob is discovering signs that not all is well in the forest – the locals are acting like they’re drunk even when they’re not, showing reduced sensitivity to pain, and there is some freakishly big wildlife too – fish the size of canoes and a tadpole the size of a small dog. An argument with his wife about having a child gets interrupted when he is attacked by a demented raccoon. It takes a committed performance to sell a savage raccoon attack to the audience, and Foxworth… well, maybe he was saving himself for the climax of the movie.

Anyway, the signs are clear – the paper company, who are on the payroll of the more Dionysian branch of science, have been dumping mercury in the water, causing genetic damage throughout the local ecology. As Maggie and Rob have just enjoyed a fish supper from the local lake, there is a real possibility they may not just be taking their work home with them, but keeping it in the family for generations to come. The discovery of squawking, deformed creatures like half-melted bear cubs is an unpleasant indication of what may be to come (Stephen King found the mutant cubs more effective and unsettling than I did).

Well, Dr Rob calls in the authorities, thinking that the mutant cubs are pretty good evidence of environmental wrongdoing, but in the middle of a dramatic confrontation between all the concerned parties, the cubs’ mother (or father) turns up, looking just as messed up as they do. Dr Rob, Maggie, and some sympathetic Native Americans are faced with the problem of how to get back to civilisation before Katahdin the half-melted mutant bear catches up with them and mauls them to death…

So when do they decide to (literally) show the bear in Prophecy? At about the usual point, halfway through – some townie campers are set upon in the woods and quickly despatched. An alternative answer would be ‘much too soon’, however. Most of Prophecy is a B-movie creature feature, an update from the 1950s with the atom age paranoia sifted out and some environmentalist concerns mixed in – this sort of thing is seldom great art, even with someone like Jack Arnold in charge, but it can be effective enough in its slightly naive way. The thing that destroys the movie, totally and utterly, is the monster, which is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen put on screen. Every scene with the creature is reduced to unintentional farce by the sheer low quality of the monster suit and the desperate tricks Frankenheimer is obliged to use to try and hide this fact. It’s hilarious. The fact that everyone else is still trying hard to sell the beastie as a terrifying menace just makes it funnier and funnier. (Talia Shire, then having a career spike off the back of Rocky – she is top-billed here – must have felt she was reliving her American-International Pictures apprenticeship, when she appeared in films like The Dunwich Horror.)

Set against how bad most of the special effects are, most of the other problems with Prophecy – the slightly corny presentation of the Native Americans, the weak climax, the fact that there’s a reproductive rights angle to the story which never seems to get fully developed – melt away. Unfortunately, those elements of the film which show promise also vanish like mist when the sun comes out. It’s an interesting companion piece to Nightwing, even sharing a cast member (George Clutesi plays a semi-unhinged Indian elder in both). Prophecy is a worse film, but also more entertaining, too – Nightwing‘s just stuck in a middleground of being stolid, with some duff effects, while Prophecy shows real signs of being genuinely nuts, terrible effects or not.

I can see why Prophecy has become a sort of cult favourite, for the same reasons it has vanished into obscurity. It’s really, even by 1979 standards, a very old fashioned monster movie, driven along by that brand of technophobia which closely resembles the nature-in-revolt horror film. There are plenty of monster movies these days which are just as bad, but there’s often a knowingness to them. Prophecy is never less than very serious-minded and earnest. You have to admire it for that even as it makes the film even more ridiculous. Hardly even a Good Bad Movie, but nevertheless oddly cherishable in its way.

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Being an international figure is all very well, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re viewed the same way all over the world. My assumptions on this topic took a well-deserved whacking a few years ago when I was discussing politics with a bunch of NGO officials in the Kyrgyz Republic. Not surprisingly, recent Euro-Asian history came up and the way in which different politicians are viewed – and I mentioned in passing the positive opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev which still prevailed at that point. To my surprise, mention of his name was greeted, if not quite with bared teeth and snarls, certainly a real chilliness. Many citizens of the former USSR, especially those sections which have not prospered, viewed and still view Gorbachev as very nearly a traitor. Nevertheless, he was and remains an iconic figure in recent history and culture, and perhaps it is here we may discover a hint as to what it was that motivated and inspired him.

Very little about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (originally released in 1985, not long after Gorbachev had come to power) indicates that this was a big-budget prestige project, not least the way that it opens (after a daft moment where US and USSR-themed boxing gloves bang into each other and explode) with a lengthy reprise of the end of Rocky III, wherein Stallone puts the beatdown on Mr T and bonds sweatily with his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Various slightly bemusing scenes of the extended Balboa family at leisure ensue: sentimental not-quite-comedy, mostly focusing on Rocky’s grumpy brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young). The main hook for these moments is Rocky’s birthday present to Paulie: a wobbling, chrome-plated, mantis-headed domestic robot, like something out of a gimmicky sitcom. To say these scenes strike a very peculiar note is an understatement.

Luckily, the main plot is soon in session, with the arrival in the USA of enormous Soviet android Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, making his American movie debut). Drago’s backers in the Soviet government have sculpted him into an unstoppable pugilistic force and he is here to demonstrate his superiority over the bloated capitalist Americans. (Lundgren doesn’t actually get much dialogue beyond things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I must break you’; most of the exposition goes to Brigitte Nielsen, who’s playing his wife (but was actually married to Stallone at the time).)

First up into the ring is not Rocky himself, however, but Apollo Creed. I must confess that until very recently I’d never actually seen Rocky IV all the way through – but I had caught the second half on a couple of occasions. I had always dismissed the film as a load of Reaganite nonsense, based on that, but there are actually flickers of a potentially interesting movie at this point. Rocky questions why Apollo, who has long been retired, feels the need to take on Drago in this way, even if the Russian is the pushover Apollo has declared him to be.

Apollo’s answer is that he can’t accept the prospect of getting older and becoming less than the man he once was: he talks of the warrior’s code, and the need to keep fighting until you can no longer fight. It’s a strikingly resonant theme, and Weathers’ performance is great – in fact, Carl Weathers is probably the best reason for watching Rocky IV, giving Creed something of the presence and charisma of Muhammad Ali, the man he was based on. Of course, for this to follow the classic story structure that has just been set up, Apollo has to be punished for this flaw in his character, and so – following a tacky spectacle in Las Vegas – he is duly beaten to death in the ring by Drago, eventually dying in Rocky’s arms.

With the death of Apollo, all glimmers of intelligence and thoughtfulness are snuffed out of Rocky IV, and it proceeds to not be the film you’re expecting (in terms of a functioning drama about coming to terms with mortality) and simultaneously be exactly the film you’re expecting (in terms of Reaganite nonsense). For the scenes with Apollo to have any value – and I stress again they contain the best acting and dialogue in the movie – the rest of the film would have to be about Rocky slowly coming to the conclusion that there is another way to live, that he doesn’t have to keep doing what he does, and he is not compelled to go off to Russia and risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago.

The film is not nearly so brave or interesting, and instead concerns Rocky going off to Russia to risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago (Rocky V indicates that serious brain damage did indeed result, but this has kind of been forgotten about in the subsequent films featuring the character). This is strikingly cack-handed storytelling, and what makes it worse is that most of the rest of the film fails to engage with this story in any meaningful way – there’s the odd sentimental scene between Rocky and the people in his camp, but most of the rest of it is handled by a succession of montage sequences.

The rematch is arranged via a montage (Rocky has to give up his title to go and fight, which you would have thought might merit a scene or two, but no), then Rocky and his team arrive in Russia in another largely dialogue-free sequence. This is soundtracked by another Survivor song with almost exactly the same bassline as ‘Eye of the Tiger’, entitled ‘With a Burning Heart’. You get the impression that the soundtrack songs were bought as a job lot, as not long after there’s a very similar song called ‘Heart’s on Fire’ to accompany the next lengthy montage. Boxing arenas and sinister Soviet labs excepted, Russia is depicted exclusively as snow-covered wasteland in which Rocky must train for the fight (as the Soviets have neglected to provide him with a flight of steps to run up, he makes do by running up a mountain instead). There’s some predictably unsubtle coding going on in this scene: Rocky chopping wood and bench-pressing sleighs is intercut with Drago surrounded by high-tech equipment and a team of scientists, the implication being that Rocky is an authentic, self-made individual, while Drago is just a tool who has been artificially manufactured by the Soviet state (it’s heavily implied he’s on steroids).

And then we’re off for the grand finale, which is Stallone and Lundgren knocking seven bells out of each other at great length in Moscow (on Christmas Day, no less), before an audience of Soviet military officers, proles, and senior party officials – even Gorbachev himself is there (or someone cast for a strong resemblance to him, albeit without the birthmark which seems to have fascinated so many western onlookers). To be fair, the opening section of the final bout is rather excitingly staged – Rocky takes a beating, Drago complains to his handlers it’s like hitting a lump of iron, then our hero finally manages to land a significant punch and the match becomes more level – and then we’re off to Montageland again until the final round.

This is not the kind of film to wrong-foot its audience with a downer ending or anything especially unexpected. Suffice to say it concludes with Stallone draped in the Stars and Stripes, making one of the rambling, borderline unintelligible speeches which punctuate the Rocky series. After concluding that he and Lundgren giving each other blunt-force cranial trauma is at least preferable to nuclear war, he suggests that, ‘If I can change… and you can change… then perhaps everyone can change.’ There is massed applause at this point, with even faux-Gorbachev rising to his feet and clapping. There you go, folks: the seeds of glasnost and perestroika, sown by Sylvester Stallone beating Communism in a boxing match.

Except – it doesn’t hang together. The Russian audience may have changed – by the end of the match they are cheering for Balboa – but Rocky himself hasn’t appreciably changed at all. He’s still a big lunk who finds his fullest means of expression by punching people in the head. There’s nothing to suggest he has learned anything from what happened to Apollo Creed – the very fact he’s there fighting at all suggests exactly the opposite.

The jingoistic Cold War trappings are what make Rocky IV faintly risible to watch nowadays, but what makes it a really flawed and not very good movie are the fact that it fluffs its moral premise and subtext so very badly well before the end. Did Apollo Creed die for nothing? Nearly – but if nothing else his demise inspires Rocky to go and fight Drago. So is this then a movie about personal revenge, rather than standing up for the values of the American system? It really doesn’t work as a coherent, satisfying narrative – or as jingoistic flag-waving nonsense, for that matter.

Possibly this is why Stallone decided to re-edit Rocky IV a couple of years ago. No doubt this was done in the wake of the success of Creed II, a film which is essentially a sequel to this one. Apparently Paulie’s robot disappears entirely, along with most of Brigitte Nielsen’s performance (possibly she got to keep the footage in the divorce), and the focus is entirely on Rocky’s relationship with Apollo. I must confess to a genuine curiosity about the revised version of Rocky IV, quite simply because the really disappointing thing about the original version is not that it is bad, but that it showed signs that it really didn’t need to be.

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Context is important when you write about films. Writing about a new movie is different to covering an old classic; as you may have noticed if you’ve read around this blog, when I’m writing about an older film, especially a slightly dubious genre movie, I cover the plot in much more detail and am much less bothered about spoiling the end. There’s also the issue that with an older film, there’s often some sort of consensus, which I’m either agreeing with or kicking against (not that this isn’t often the case with new films too). Hindsight can often give you a whole new perspective on a film – I imagine it would be quite interesting to go back and read the original reviews of The Fast and the Furious from 2001, given this mildly credible crime drama has since gone on to spawn a ridiculous, world-conquering action movie franchise.

Speaking of mighty franchises, I see that a sequel to Creed is on the cards – currently trading under the imaginative title of Creed II. I don’t know, Creed II just doesn’t do it for me – and if you’re going to go with the whole Roman numerals thing, just bite the bullet and call it Rocky VIII, for that is really what we’re talking about, after all.

I imagine that the original Rocky, directed by John G Avildsen, got rather favourable reviews back in 1976 – this was a movie which won the Best Picture Oscar, after all – but anyone suggesting they would still be making sequels to it 40 years later would surely have been laughed out of their job. Five or ten years later, with an increasingly ridiculous sequel appearing every few years, that might not have seemed quite so improbable, but at the same time you possibly wouldn’t have predicted that the most recent films (thinking mainly here of Creed and Rocky Balboa) would turn out to be quite as accomplished as was the case.

rocky

This is, of course, the film which is the foundation stone of Sylvester Stallone’s career, following a slightly chequered past as a walk-on and in low-budget genre films (he was in the original Death Race 2000, for instance). Stallone plays Rocky (duh), a thirty-year old journeyman boxer, living in Philadelphia, whose career in the ring has never really taken off. He is, putting it frankly, going nowhere, and has been forced to take a job as a debt-collector for a small-time local mobster just to pay the rent and feed his pet tortoises. His attempts to romance the timid sister (Talia Shire) of his boozy friend (Burt Young) are meeting with equally unimpressive results.

But everything changes for Rocky when the incumbent world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), finds himself with a big fight scheduled but no-one willing to fight him. Mainly for the publicity (and also, if we’re honest, because the plot demands it) Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer instead, and naturally his people decide his opponent, or victim, will be Rocky.

Looking at the original Rocky again now, it’s hard not to conclude that, for all his success, Sylvester Stallone has spent most of the intervening forty years essentially slumming it, as both an actor and in other roles. Whether or not Rocky actually deserved its Best Picture win is a moot point nowadays, but it is still a well-made and engaging story, powered by a strong performance by Stallone himself – Rocky may not be too bright, and makes his living by beating people half to death, but he is essentially a nice guy and a human being whom it is possible to relate to. The fact that he created this character indicates that Stallone is a cut above people like Arnie, whose performances usually struggle to maintain one dimension, let alone anything more challenging. And yet Stallone has spent a disproportionate amount of time appearing in knuckle-dragging action movies (is it worth mentioning that Expendables 4 is due to appear before Creed II?).

I suppose that’s just where the money has been, but it’s a shame, for Rocky shows the big man can do proper drama – I suppose Rocky is technically a sports movie, but it doesn’t feel at all generic, being more of a character study, and a carefully naturalistic one at that – there are many scenes of Rocky hanging around in his rather grotty neighbourhood, a long sequence depicting his first date with Adrian, some ever-so-slightly melodramatic stuff with Burt Young and also Burgess Meredith (playing Rocky’s trainer), and so on. (One piece of trivia in wide circulation is that this film marks the screen debut of most-credited-man-in-Star Trek Michael Dorn, who plays one of Apollo Creed’s bodyguards. Not that he’s exactly easy to spot. He isn’t even wearing the prosthetic forehead.)

There isn’t actually a huge amount of your actual fisticuffs in Rocky, beyond a brief glimpse of Rocky in action right at the start of the film, and of course the climactic bout between him and Creed which makes up the third act. (There isn’t actually much Creed in the film, and the failure to establish more of a personal relationship between the two men strikes me as the film missing a trick – Carl Weathers makes the most of what he’s given, though.) I’m not quite sure why, but for me the concluding battle in the ring felt just a little bit perfunctory and underdeveloped – it felt like there should have been a few more peaks and troughs before the final bell.

Still, like I said, it isn’t really about the boxing, it’s about character (in every sense), whether that’s expressed by being a nice guy about the neighbourhood, refusing to break someone’s thumbs despite your boss telling you to, being resolute in pursuit of the girl of your dreams, running up a flight of steps a lot, or just being punched in the head two hundred and thirty times and still refusing to fall over. It may be that the reason why the Rocky series has retained the ability to keep bouncing back and producing surprisingly credible entries is simply because it started off as a straightforward, seriously-intended drama, rather than anything more brash or generic. I honestly thought Creed would mark the end of the road for this particular story, but as this original reminds us, you should never assume Rocky is out for the count.

 

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