I don’t go to the movies as often as I’d like. Besides the fact that two hours of sitting in a dark room with strangers, popcorn, and a soda is now only slightly less expensive than actually filming the movie itself, I just don’t have the time. The last week and a half however, I had opportunity to attend no less than three, yes, three films at my local movie house(s).
The first was not of my own choosing. I was informed late in the evening on a Friday that we were going to see Charlotte’s Web with friends. Swell. Jeremy, of Fellowship of Nicea fame, and I plotted to “go to the bathroom” part way into the pig movie and sneak into Blood Diamond, but we didn’t have the guts to defy our wives. Christmas was coming after all. Considering I’m not a six year old girl, the movie was not wholly insufferable. If you don’t know the familiar plot, it goes something like this: girl saves runt pig depriving her family of tender, juicy, delicious bacon, farmer plans to kill pig for Christmas dinner anyway, scribe arachnid writes words in web describing exceptional pig in an attempt to save him from the butchers knife, heartwarming sentimentality ensues. I used to like the cartoon as a kid so at the very least there was a little nostalgic appreciation. It was very well made and Dakota Fanning turns on the crooked toothed charm. It’s almost becoming superfluous to comment on how good CGI is in a movie. We, or at least I, have come to expect it to be very good, and this movie was no exception. I honestly couldn’t tell when, or even if, they were using live animals. Except when Wilbur does a back flip. That was totally fake. If you’ve got little kids or read the book or watched the cartoon as a kid yourself, it’s a worthy family pick.
A week later some of my colleagues and I took a break from the rigorous duties of work to catch Rocky Balboa at lunch. I think pretty much everyone who went to see this movie was expecting a nightmarish film with earth shattering accidental comedy potential. I love the Rocky movies, except for V, but other than maybe the first, they aren’t what you would call “high art.” Rocky II was pretty dull until the fight at the end, III was over the top, but 1000% enjoyable, and IV had about seven total minutes of dialog wedged between 16 training montages and two fights and the cheesily inspiring “If I can change” speech, but it shatters the watchability scale. They’re fun and escapist and everyone loves the big, dumb underdog.
But Rocky Balboa was surprising. I really enjoyed it. And not just on a Rocky IV level. It was a lot closer in tone and quality to the original and had a lot of heart. The premise is that Rocky is now an owner of a small Italian eatery, Rock’s words, where he walks around telling old stories and posing for “dukes up” pictures. His life is not glamorous anymore, but he’s not in the dregs either. He decides he may want to get back into the ring, to the chagrin of his son, at just about the time ESPN runs a computer simulated fight of him against the current champ in their respective primes. An exhibition is arranged and Rocky magic does the rest. There were some actual poignant moments that didn’t come off as cheesy or phony, especially when Rocky lectures his kid about fear. It isn’t perfect however, and may have a little too much heart at times. Maybe one too many reflective speeches, it does move a little slow. But once the training begins, we get the same Rocky moments we’ve come to know and love. Beef-pounding training sequences, the gray sweatsuit through the streets of Philly, the now classic soundtrack, only slightly updated. I got goosebumps. No joke. The fight is much more realistic than any other Rocky fight and is shot in Hi-def video to give it that pay-per-view feel. I thought that was a nice touch. It’s a great sequence and I won’t give away the ending.
It’s hard to tell if this movie worked in spite of being a Rocky movie or because it’s a Rocky movie. I’m leaning toward the latter. On it’s own I don’t think it would hold up near as well. We might care about this broken down old fighter, but not that much. And the premise would be unacceptably preposterous. A senior citizen getting in the ring with the champ? Puh-leeze. But since it’s Rocky, we give him a break. Since we’re familiar with this guy, and know his ups and downs, we know his heart, and since we have a history, we cut him some slack and cheer him to victory. Something about this story, except for V, resonates with us.
Probably the most surprising thing to me was Sly’s acting. It was (gasp) good! It was honest and without pretension, something Stallone hasn’t done in a while. He can act. He did in the first Rocky, the first Rambo, and Cop Land, but that’s about it. Once these guys start to get some success, they begin to believe their toadies and sycophants (that was for you Brad) that they can’t fail. So they pump out rehashed sequels, phoning in their performances, collecting their over-sized paychecks, and going back to the poolside to suck down another mai tai. They stop trying either because they don’t need to any more or because their ego has inflated to such ample proportions that they end up playing a caricature of themselves. Sly was also plagued by the uncanny ability to pick really bad scripts. Stop or My Mom Will Shoot??? Yikes. I think he came to a point where he realized this sometime in the mid-90’s, when his fame was really starting to wane. He did an SNL sketch that basically trashed every movie he ever made other than Rocky and Rambo. Come to think of it, he actually acted on that episode of SNL in at least one sketch and was really funny. Anyway, if you wanted to know what Sylvester Stallone would look like as an actor, Rocky Balboa is the place to see it. The movie’s PG rating coupled with it’s positive never-say-die message actually makes it decent pick for the younger boys. Something not loaded with swears, sex, and blood but still “cool.” Rocky’s still a winner in my book.
On Christmas Eve Jen and I went with her parents to see Night at the Museum. The premise is as follows: Larry Daley, played by the lovable, bumbling Ben Stiller (see Meet the Parents, Zoolander, Starsky & Hutch, Along Came Polly, Mystery Men, etc.), as opposed to the angry, aggressive Ben Stiller (see Dodgeball, Happy Gilmore, School for Scoundrels, etc.) is an out of work divorce, afraid of losing his sons affection to his ex’s cool, successful bond trader fiance. In order to stay in his Manhattan apartment near his son, he takes a job as the night security guard at the Natural History Museum, taking over for the three elderly chaps who once walked the floors. They’re played by oldsters Dick Van Dyke, the guy who played Del Paxton in That Thing You Do, and Mickey Rooney who must be about 176 years old. After taking over the job, he discovers that this is no ordinary museum. Once the lights go off, the exhibits come to life! Not only does he have to keep robbers out, he has to keep the exhibits in. Hijinks abound. This is a fun one for the whole family. Whether it’s keeping the Wild West and Roman Empire dioramas from attacking each other, or fending off the monkey’s trying to steal his keys, or playing fetch with a T-Rex skeleton, Larry has his hands full. He gets some help from the Teddy Roosevelt statue, played by Robin Williams, but of course things go arye. The best performance comes from Ricky Gervais, creator of the BBC version of The Office, as the museum curator. I found myself wishing he had more screen time. All in all a funny family friendly flick. Plus we get to see Dick Van Dyke do a roundhouse kick.