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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rocky Balboa — DVD Review

Watching Rocky Balboa wasn’t about seeing a movie. It was about watching a character I’ve known my whole life, a character that personifies the city I call home. It was about remembering watching Rocky II from the balcony of the neighborhood theater where the movie crowd seemed to blend with the on-screen fight crowd. It was about fake boxing with a kid from our first neighborhood in the basement of our house. It was about watching Rocky V with my dad on a dreary afternoon — probably the only movie we ever went to by ourselves.

Sylvester Stallone brings his story of a fighter from Philadelphia full circle with the final installment of the Rocky films. The retired champion owns a restaurant named after his beloved wife, Adrian, now deceased, as he struggles to cope with her loss and a strained relationship with his grown son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). A computer simulation suggests a younger Balboa (Stallone) would have beaten the current champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who is desperate for a fight the public actually cares about. The inevitable match-up is set as an exhibition that allows Rocky to step into the ring one more time.

Unlike Rocky II through V, Rocky Balboa truly returns to the character-driven storytelling that made the first a classic. It doesn’t reach the level of the original, but it offers an excellent capper to this series. I saw Stallone in interviews say he just wasn’t satisfied with Rocky V as the conclusion, and by comparison Balboa shows why.

To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard the movie included one more fight for Rocky. It just seemed like too much of a stretch, even with the real-life example of George Foreman coming out of retirement well into middle age. But, while “the fight” is always a key to the Rocky films, this one, like the first, really wasn’t the center of the movie. Maybe more to the point, winning the fight wasn’t the driving force. That said, it still stirred enough emotion that I wanted Rocky to knock Dixon’s ass out by the end.

This was really more of a celebration of a character that, at least in Philly, has been adored for 30 years. I thought the loss of Talia Shire, who played Adrian and turned down reprising the role again, would be tough to overcome. Instead, she was almost a center piece of the film, as Rocky even admits she’s never far from his thoughts. His tour of all the places that reminded him of her on the anniversary of her passing was a terrific way to tie-in the previous films and include the character.

They tastefully “replace” Adrian by having Balboa befriend the young girl he encouraged to find a better crowd in the original, Marie (now played by Geraldine Hughes). Again, I just thought it was a great way to recognize the past.

Pauley (Burt Young) is still around, and gets off a few good lines as always. Deleted scenes showed an abandoned effort to offer his character a little more depth, but the unspoken loyalty and the connection with Balboa through Adrian (Paulie’s sister) works well.

The line between fantasy and reality is blurred just a little too much, I thought, though seeing Mike Tyson give Dixon crap about not fighting anyone was kind of funny. The fight scenes, billed as some of the most realistic on film, lost something for me. I wanted more of the classic Rocky fight scenes with some more emotion between the fighters. Instead viewers were offered a simulated version of a fight on HBO pay-per-view, complete with the grating commentary of Larry Merchant.

I don’t know if people outside of Philadelphia get Rocky, and I don’t really care. If you’re from the City of Brotherly Love, Rocky Balboa was in and out theaters way too fast. I regret not seeing it with a crowd, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss it altogether. Neither should you — it’s a must-see and well worth watching.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Night Listener — DVD Review

In a little ballyhooed film, The Night Listener, Robin Williams offered additional evidence that he can play more than comedic roles. Yet, this true story falls short of its “Hitchcockian” promise, and shot itself in the foot at least once weakening this strange tale.

Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a radio personality who reads his own creative stories over the air. In the midst of breaking up with his gay partner, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), Noone is desperate to fill the void left in his life. He tries to fill that void when a devoted young fan (Rory Culkin as Pete D. Logand), whose gravely ill, and his mother (Toni Collette as Donna D. Logand) who start calling him. When questions arise as to the whether or not he’s talking to two people or one deranged woman looking for sympathy, Noone becomes obsessed with finding out the truth.

There were a couple of serious flaws in this film. The biggest mistake was showing the boy talking to Noone on the phone. There was no suggestion that Noone was just picturing a boy, viewers were clearly seeing a character in the film. We even see him and his mother together. This was completely avoidable and weakened the sense of mystery surrounding their identity.

I also thought Noone’s need for love needed to be a bit clearer up front. That said, I did “get” his obsession on the level of wanting to know whether or not someone he grew to care for even existed. But only when his own need for closeness is clear could his increasingly odd, or aggressive, behavior be understood.

On the positive side, The Night Listener does a solid job of bringing the viewer along. The mystery unfolds very well, as opposed to everything artificially coming together in the end. I’m normally intrigued by characters that are writers, and that at least pulled me in to this film, though this trait could have been put to better use.

One interesting DVD extra explained how the woman portrayed as Donna Logand actually sent letters to the set while filming was going on. It gave the overall experience of learning about this true story more impact, but not really enough to save it.

A writing instructor once told me that just because something was true doesn’t make it a worthwhile subject to write about. That’s how I felt about the ending of this film. I’m sure it looked to stick to the truth, but I wanted more out of it from an entertainment standpoint. A true fan of Williams might enjoy The Night Listener, but few others will. It’s not that good.