On November 27th, 1985, audiences flocked to theaters to root for perennial underdog boxer Rocky Balboa yet again in Rocky IV, the third installment in the successful franchise to be both written and directed by its star, Sylvester Stallone. In the film, Rocky faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a square-jawed, granite-fisted giant who kills Rocky’s best friend (and former rival) Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) during an ill-fated exhibition match. Stallone clearly drew inspiration for the film from another legendary fight of the 20th century: In 1938, American boxer Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis faced German boxing champ Max Schmeling in a rematch heard around the world, as 70,000 screaming fans at New York’s Yankee Stadium watched Louis redeem an earlier loss to Schmeling and secure a victory not just for himself, but for American democracy. Swap out the Nazi-era Germans for Cold War Russians and add a tragic death for dramatic effect, and that basic outline should sound pretty familiar.
Some might argue that Rocky IV’s jingoistic leanings and adherence to music-driven montages make it one of the lesser entries in the franchise. But after three films that saw Rocky evolve from a likable, leg-breaking enforcer to a world heavyweight boxing champ, this sequel earns its right to strip back its plot and simply focus on Rocky duking it out with a Russian titan for 15 rounds. Though it failed to strike a chord with critics, Rocky IV was a blockbuster smash that pulled in $332 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation), and it remains a culturally relevant fan favorite 35 years after its release. Here’s why it still resonates with fans so much more than any of the other sequels.
Though the MGM accountants tallying the box office totals and home video sales most likely didn’t mind, Stallone regrets killing off Apollo Creed to fuel Rocky IV’s revenge narrative, and it’s not hard to see why. Rocky and Apollo had endured so much punishment by 1985 that audiences had come to accept their skulls were essentially concussion-proof, so Apollo’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago was shocking. Sure, even those who didn’t watch the incredibly spoilery movie trailer could have guessed that the overly confident Apollo was going to lose to Drago, thereby setting up a rematch. But it’s hard to believe that any popcorn-munching audience expected to see Rocky cradling a dead Apollo in his arms while a murderous Russian dispassionately quips, “If he dies, he dies.”
Part of what makes the death so cruel is that it was only supposed to be an exhibition match, and Apollo treats it as such. He dances his way through an elaborately staged entrance, complete with James Brown himself singing “Living in America.” When the fight finally starts, he prances around the ring, cheerful as ever, taunting Drago and throwing ineffectual jabs. Faster than you can say “Yo, Adrian,” Drago retaliates, and the atmosphere changes immediately as he batters Apollo from one corner of the ring to the next. When Apollo realizes what’s happening, his pride gets the better of him, and he insists Rocky not stop the fight no matter what — what follows still makes us scream at the screen 35 years later.
Stallone directed this scene expertly, as the flashy entrance and cocksure antics give way to the shocking visual of Rocky’s white pullover stained red with Apollo’s blood. Some argue that using Apollo’s death as Rocky’s motivation is lazy, but it’s hard to debate how effective the shock was and how simply it sets up the iconic fight.
What makes Rocky IV a unique entry into the franchise is the 29 minutes of montage action, featured in eight separate scenes dispersed throughout the film. Some of them simply catch the viewer up on previous Rocky films, while others showcase the original songs by James Brown, Survivor, and John Caffer that Stallone commissioned for the film. The musical montages in particular were wise business decisions, as the soundtrack sold over a million copies and hit number 10 on the Billboard Top 200 list.
The most iconic, perhaps greatest-ever montage happens after Rocky travels to Russia and begins a rustic training regimen that includes carrying logs, chopping down trees, and helping locals when their sleigh overturns in waist-high snow. His back-to-basics training, fueled by Survivor’s “Hearts on Fire,” is in stark contrast to that of Drago, whose routine sees him attached to heart monitors, running in cavernous halls, and pummeling things so hard they make Dwayne Johnson’s punches in Hobbs and Shaw seem like love taps. No, really: in Hobbs and Shaw, Johnson’s Luke Hobbs “only” punches with a force of 1235 psi (lbs. of pressure per square inch), but in Rocky IV, Drago hits register at 2150 psi (real-world boxers only average 1200-1700 psi). In other words, don’t sit in the front row of a Drago fight unless you want to feel the shockwave in your own ribs every time he lands a blow.
Most importantly, though, the Rocky vs. Drago montage recalls the original 1976 film, which depicts Stallone punching slabs of meat, downing raw eggs, and jogging up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both are gritty, back-to-basics affairs that serve their purpose with maximum efficiency, and they’re awesome to watch.
Thanks to a spiky flat top and a chiseled, glycerin-soaked 6’5″ physique, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is one of cinema’s most recognizable characters, and for good reason. Lundgren’s imposing physical presence would later lead to roles as a bionic supersoldier (Universal Soldier), a Marvel badass (The Punisher), He-Man (Masters of the Universe), and a guy who flips cars like they’re pancakes (Showdown in Little Tokyo). He also happens to be a Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree in chemical engineering and a black belt in Kyokushin Karate.
The one thing the Swedish-born actor realized he didn’t possess was the same kind of electric charisma that prior Rocky antagonists played by Carl Weathers, Hulk Hogan, and Mr. T flaunted effortlessly. So Lundgren worked with Stallone to capitalize on his stoic nature and subtle tics, crafting a machine-like uber-villain who might just have a little more lurking below the surface. Some critics like Roger Ebert called him “more of a James Bond villain than a Rocky-style character,” which isn’t exactly wrong — Richard Kiel’s Jaws comes to mind — but by focusing on Lundgren’s physical prowess and limiting his dialogue to a few memorable quotes, Stallone managed to get himself a nice little stew going. Believe it or not, Lundgren only delivered nine lines in the entire film, but with winners like “I must break you,” “You will lose,” and “If he dies, he dies” now entrenched in the pop culture vernacular, you’d have to admit he made them count.
After two epic Apollo Creed fights and two short but thrilling brawls with Clubber Lang that saw Rocky going 2-for-4 and avenging losses to both fighters, audiences probably didn’t want to see the same formula repeated again. In the first two films, Apollo was either too cocky (and still won) or tired himself out chasing a knockout (and lost, though he could have won easily). After destroying Rocky easily in the third film, Clubber lost the second fight because Rocky got into his head, which resulted in a knockout after Rocky hit him so hard it sounded like a jet took off in the arena.
What makes the fight between Rocky and Drago unique is the way Rocky makes Drago realize he’s a mortal. Drago has never faced a real challenge; his training partners seem like KO fodder, and Apollo clearly didn’t take him seriously. Sure, Drago’s power is near superhuman, and even when he misses, the air is enough to push Rocky back. But once Rocky opens up a cut on his face, and the crowd starts turning against him, he’s caught off guard, seemingly unprepared for any scenario in which he isn’t a dominating force. Rocky shatters Drago’s confidence and his nerves by standing toe-to-toe with him and forcing him to acknowledge and respect his iron will.
The cherry on top is the catharsis of seeing Drago destroyed. In Rocky and Rocky II, Apollo was supremely charismatic, and you weren’t exactly rooting against him. In Rocky III, Clubber Lang is also magnetic and larger than life, and aside from his trash talk, he was just an excellent boxer Rocky had to overcome. Drago, however, killed Apollo, showed no remorse, trained on steroids, and represented America’s greatest threat during a tense period of the Cold War. When Rocky finally turns the tide of the fight and unleashes the decisive flurry on Drago, it’s thrilling and satisfying in a way that none of the franchise’s previous climactic bouts have been.
Fun side note: In order to make the action more believable, Stallone and Lundgren actually punched each other during the fight, and at one point, Stallone insisted Lundgren “cut loose as hard as you can.” Stallone ended up in the ICU for four days.
With an average of 89% on the Tomatometer and close to $400 million at the worldwide box office, Creed and Creed 2 reinvigorated the Rocky franchise, focusing on the rise of Adonis (Donnie) Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as a champion boxer under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa. The presence of Ivan Drago can be felt throughout the two films, as Adonis attempts to fight in the sport that killed his father and ultimately faces a Russian showdown of his own. In a clever callback to Rocky IV, Creed 2 specifically focuses on the battles between Donnie and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan. Their first fight sees Donnie overwhelmed (like his father in Rocky IV), and the second meeting plays out like the Rocky/Ivan fight, as Viktor becomes dismayed that he can’t knock out Donnie and loses when Ivan throws in the towel to save his son from further punishment. The two Creed films owe a lot to the legacy of Rocky IV, introducing a new generation of fans to Ivan Drago.
Even outside of the franchise, the wonderful College Humor 30 for 30 parody has racked up millions of views, and the legend of Lundgren sending Stallone to the hospital after a Swedish super punch has mad the rounds. Recently, Stallone announced he was working on a Rocky IV director’s cut; the news started trending on social media and the controversy surrounding the decision to remove the weird robot subplot has gotten a lot of press. People love Rocky IV, and that’s why 35 years later, it still inspires passionate discussion and remains one of the most popular sports films ever made.
Rocky IV was released in theaters on November 27, 1985.
Thumbnail image by (c)United Artists courtesy Everett Collection
In 1976, on the country’s bicentennial, America got the the great underdog movie of its time: Rocky. The story of Rocky Balboa is one borne out of the streets, a place where a young fighter could emerge from working class Philadelphia chasing a dream of victory in the ring and in love, paralleling writer/actor Sylvester Stallone’s own rags-to-riches story. Stallone directed the next three movies in the series, including the communism-defeating Rocky IV, while original Rocky John G. Avildsen returned for part V.
Not one to squander a good redemption arc, Stallone revived the character 16 years later in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, delivering the respectful ending his creation deserved. Stallone was able to rest easy until a young upstart director named Ryan Coogler came knocking, screenplay in hand about the son of Rocky’s rival, Apollo Creed. Inspired by Coogler’s vision and passion, and the opportunity to bet it all on Rocky once more, Stallone came on-board to train the next generation’s underdog hero, Michael B. Jordan. The two Creed movies are among the highest-rated of the franchise, with a third incoming, the director’s chair to be filled by Jordan himself. Until then, we’re ranking all Rocky and Creed movies by Tomatometer!
(Photo by courtesy of HBO)
As this year’s Marvel’s Spider-Man proved, games based on popular film and television properties are best served when they don’t attempt to retell the same stories we’ve already seen on the big and small screens. Following in Spidey’s spandex footsteps, a number of new and upcoming games have adopted similar approaches, cleverly expanding on existing universes rather than retreading them for the interactive entertainment medium.
From blockbuster film franchises (Fast & Furious) to streaming serial hits (Game of Thrones), more and more of our favorite fictional universes are offering fresh, original opportunities for fans to interact with their characters, live in their worlds, and even shape their stories.
Whether you’re a gamepad-clutching Potter fan, a Ghostbusting smartphone geek, or a virtual reality enthusiast with a superhero complex, these 12 titles include some that should keep you busy between TV binge sessions and movie marathons this holiday season, a few great video games to give as gifts for Christmas, and others that you can look forward to in 2019.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Systems: iOS, Android, Steam
Release Date: Available now
Game of Thrones doesn’t return to HBO until next year, but winter has already come in the latest game based on the Seven Kingdoms-conquering series. Offering a fun twist on the high-fantasy franchise, Reigns: Game of Thrones puts players under the capes and crowns of would-be rulers — from Sansa and Tyrion to Cersei and Daenerys — and lets them live out potential alternate futures and fates based on Melisandre’s mysterious visions.
Developer: Next Age
Publisher: FourThirtyThree Inc.
Systems: iOS, Android
Release Date: Available now
A new take on the location-based, augmented-reality genre that saw millions of players capturing Pokemon in their local park, Ghostbusters World puts players behind a Proton Pack. Well, fans will actually wield their smartphones, but they’ll barely notice the difference once they’re using the smart-devices to suck up Slimer, battle the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in their backyard, and bust hundreds of other ghosts in real-world locations.
Developer: Wolf & Wood
Publisher: Fun Train
Systems: PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Release Date: Available now
Thanks to the immersion-cranking effects of virtual reality, The Exorcist: Legion VR subjects fans to scares more terrifying than those that defined the classic horror franchise. Beneath the reality-ratcheting headset, players assume the role of a demon-hunting detective who — over the course of five nerve-fraying episodes – explores creepy tombs, investigates ritualistic killings and, of course, raises a few crucifixes in the face of demonic possession.
Systems: PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Release Date: Available now
Based on the rejuvenated Rocky franchise, Creed: Rise to Glory isn’t just another mindless, button-mashing boxing game. Brought to face-pummeling life in virtual reality, the experience not only puts you in the gloves of Adonis Creed — while training with the Italian Stallion himself — but its physical gameplay offers a workout that’d make Ivan Drago break a sweat.
Developer: Sanzaru Games
Publisher: Oculus Studios
Systems: Oculus Rift
Release Date: Available now
Marvel fans who’ve dreamed of smashing foes from behind Hulk’s fists or webbing-up baddies with a flick of Spider-Man’s wrists will want to suit-up for Marvel Powers United VR. A fan-pleasing mix of virtual reality and Marvel’s massive roster of heroes and villains, the game lets players unleash all the powers and weapons — from Thor’s hammer and Cap’s shield to Deadpool’s katanas and Wolverine’s claws — from a first-person perspective that feels incredibly real inside the Oculus Rift headset.
Developer: TT Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Systems: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4
Release Date: Available now
Whether you’ve adventured through the LEGO Harry Potter games a hundred times or you’re a newcomer looking to bust some bricks in the Wizarding World, this definitive, remastered edition provides the absolute best way to kick Voldemort’s block-y butt. This Hagrid-sized compilation, which features both games and spans all eight films, includes enhanced graphics, environments, and visual effects, as well as a pair of magic-expanding DLC packs.
Developer: DIGIT Game Studios
Publisher: Scopely/CBS Interactive
Systems: iOS, Android
Release Date: Nov. 29, 2018
With Star Trek: Discovery prepping to beam up for its second season and Jean-Luc Picard’s return confirmed, there’s never been a better time to be a Trekkie. The fan service continues with Star Trek Fleet Command, a multiplayer mobile offering that combines role-playing elements and real-time battles to deliver story-driven, deep-space skirmishes that should please fans of any faction.
Developer: SMG Studios
Publisher: Universal Games, Digital Platforms
Systems: iOS, Android
Release Date: Late 2018
The next Fast & Furious film has been delayed a year, but fans needn’t wait till 2020 to satisfy their need for speed. Fast & Furious: Takedown puts players behind the wheel of 60-plus licensed rides, including favorites from the films — like Dom’s Dodge Charger and Hobbs’ tank-like truck — before letting them tear up the blacktop in missions guided by the movies’ popular cast of speed limit-breaking characters.
Developer: Blue Giraffe
Publisher: FTX Games
Platforms: iOS, Android
Release Date: Late 2018
This mobile-game take on the long-running CBS crime drama puts fans behind the case-cracking skills of a Behavioral Analysis Unit agent. Alongside favorite characters Rossi, Prentiss, Reid, J.J., Garcia, Lewis, Alvez, and Simmons, players race against the clock to profile suspects, analyze crime scenes, and follow the clues that’ll ultimately help the BAU team put the country’s most twisted criminal minds behind bars.
Publisher: Universal Games, Digital Platforms
Systems: iOS, Android
Release Date: Early 2019
Ahead of next year’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World from DreamWorks Animation, fans are invited to reunite with their favorite fire-breathers in a match-3 mobile offering based on the animated fantasy franchise. Titan Uprising puts a fresh spin on the popular genre, challenging players to build the ultimate team of winged creatures by hatching, nurturing, and creating powerful dragon hybrids to conquer nearly 800 puzzle battles.
Developer: WB Games, Niantic
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Systems: iOS, Android
Release Date: 2019
The clever folks behind the Pokemon GO phenomenon are applying their augmented-reality magic to a new, Wizarding World–themed take on the genre. Of course, it’s the fans who will be casting spells, as they wield their smart-devices like wands in the real/muggle world to interact with the Potterverse and its populace of menacing creatures and mysterious characters.
With Space Jam 2 headed to the big screen, it’s the perfect time for Looney Tunes fans to reacquaint themselves with their favorite friends and foes from Warner Bros.’ stable of animated stars. Looney Tunes: World of Mayhem invites players to do just that, as they build a dream team of toon brawlers, from Yosemite Sam and Sylvester to Tweety and Taz, to take on opponents in epic, explosive, over-the-top displays of cartoon violence.
Every family engages in its own shared holiday traditions around this time of year, from gift giving to ill-advised overeating, and many of them include some time spent huddled cozily in front of a screen, watching a seasonal favorite film or TV special. Film critics are no different, but since they watch movies for a living, we thought it would be interesting to find out what holiday entertainments resonated most with them when they were young. We asked a handful of our friends in the film journalism community to chime in, and while we received a fair share of the classics, we also got some unexpected — and fascinating — responses.
“Having grown up in the 1970s, it was pretty much a guarantee that It’s a Wonderful Life was constantly showing on one TV channel or another throughout the entire month of December. I would catch bits of it here and there — and sometimes my family would all sit down and watch it from start to finish — but I always remember that movie as the wallpaper of the holiday season, even with its bleakest moments playing in the background as we wrapped presents or baked cookies or did something that was very un-Pottersville. As an adult, I still love it, but I only watch it from start to finish, and (since we’re lucky about this sort of thing in Los Angeles) on the big screen with an audience.” — Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, author of Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas
“My favorite movie to watch during the holidays wasn’t a movie at all. It was A Charlie Brown Christmas. In some ways it was more exciting than a movie – movies played in theaters for weeks at a time, offering several opportunities to catch them. Charlie Brown came on once a year, and if you missed it, you missed it. You had to wait till the next year. (And yes, this was before the days of DVRs and VCRs and other ways of recording and storing shows and movies. And yes, that means I’m old.) I loved everything about the special – certainly Vince Guaraldi’s music, the snow, the kids having the stage to themselves (I was a kid at the time, so that was important), the way Linus says, ‘Lights, please’ before delivering the True Meaning of Christmas speech (actually a reading from Luke). The word “classic” gets tossed around every time something is better than worse, but A Charlie Brown Christmas lives up to the description.
It was special in a couple of ways. For one, you never outgrow it. My thrill watching it in the third grade was in no way diluted by 10th grade. I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t going to watch it – everyone did. It’s timeless in that regard. Just check the reaction of anyone who hears “Linus and Lucy” for proof. The other thing that was special was that it meant a visit to my grandmother’s apartment, and the cookies that this promised. She loved Charlie Brown – and she had a color TV, which my parents did not. Of course we had to watch this in color, and going to see her was the only way. It’s a great memory.” — Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
“I loved watching, and still do love watching, White Christmas. This film, plus A Charlie Brown Christmas, were the two seasonal offerings that put me in the holiday mood, even though I didn’t see it in color until my family purchased a color TV in the early 1970s. We also enjoyed watching its predecessor Holiday Inn — this was probably my first experience with a major Hollywood remake. I dig the musical numbers, which strangely now seem nostalgic rather than silly, but most of all I love the innate sense of optimism. That post-war mood that anything can be achieved if everybody pulls together, and ain’t America grand and who doesn’t enjoy Christmas? Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are the Fab Four of the Yuletide season.” — Peter Howell, Toronto Star
“It’s a totally obvious answer, I realize, but I have to go with The Sound of Music. For whatever reason, it was just on TV every year at Christmas as I was growing up, ostensibly because it’s a family movie with singing siblings and seems like wholesome holiday viewing. (Really, it’s about increasing Nazi oppression in Austria and doesn’t even take place around Christmastime, but whatever.) But I’m old enough to recall when there weren’t that many channels and something like the annual showing of The Sound of Music was appointment viewing — a ritual, even — for me and my parents, who were huge influences on my career writing about movies. My dad loved musicals and loved singing along with every song; my mother tolerated us being goofballs, basking in the sound of our own voices. To this day, now that I’m a mom myself, I can’t help but sing along with Liesl in the gazebo during ’16 Going on 17.'” — Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com
“I’ve always had a gooey soft spot for Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Kim Novak is a modern-day witch in Manhattan who’s all alone for Christmas because witches can’t fall in love. Her only companions are goofy brother Jack Lemmon and spooky cat Pyewacket (who’s excellent!). Then James Stewart turns up, bringing the promise of romance. It’s a great-looking romcom — the Greenwich Village we see is pure backlot, and the snow is big fat fake Hollywood flakes (the best kind). But today the movie seems marred by serious flaws: Stewart’s once-beloved mannerisms are now irritating, and a very little bit of Lemmon goes a very long way. This is a picture that cries out to be remade. Alicia Keys was going to do it, but then didn’t. Somebody else needs to step up.” — Kurt Loder, Reason Online
“Liza With a Z, the television special with Liza Minnelli directed by Bob Fosse. Our family did not have the typical holiday movie traditions because (1) we are Jewish and therefore would observe the ritual of our people: Chinese food and a new movie release in a theater, and (2) I grew up before video recorders, cable television, Netflix, and streaming video, so even if there was a film we wanted to share every year, there was no way to obtain it. Whatever was on the three commercial networks and the early days of PBS was all there was to choose from. So sometimes we would watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life, but we always watched Liza with a Z. My mother had met Bob Fosse at a dinner party and he was — like everyone else who meets her — utterly captivated by her. So, of course he sent her a copy of Liza With a Z. It was on a big metal reel, a 16mm film with an optical track. Now, it just so happened that my family not only owned a 16 mm projector, like the ones used by schools of the 1960s, but we even had a very cool screen that pulled down from the ceiling in front of the bay window in the living room. My dad had a client who provided films for schools and they let us borrow titles from their catalogue. Our family favorites were Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and On the Town, both of which we watched dozens of times. But the only film we ever owned was Liza With a Z and we never got tired of it. We showed it all the time, and as we grew up and left for college and jobs, showing it when we came home for winter vacation brought us back together. Decades later, when it came out on DVD, I bought copies for my parents and both of my sisters. We still love Liza. You gotta ring them bells!” — Nell Minow, Beliefnet
“My parents took me to movies at least once a week when I was young, but I suddenly realize to my surprise — and dismay — that we didn’t have a movie-going ritual during the holiday season. My only recollection that might be useful is being taken to see The Wizard of Oz a couple of months after it opened at the end of August in 1939 and being upset by the opening sequence. It wasn’t the storm that upset me but the black-and-white photography. I had heard, god knows where, that the movie was in Technicolor — a big treat at the time — and I felt cheated by the lack of it. My parents had no explanation to offer, and must have been relieved when Dorothy finally entered a multicolored world. I look back on that moment not so much as reflecting what a troublesome kid I could be as predicting how my love of movies — and in that case briefly thwarted expectations — would send me on a long and winding career path that culminated in my becoming a movie critic.” — Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
“My family wasn’t sentimental about the holidays. Instead of a tree, my father strung chili lights on a giant wooden cactus. Naturally, our Christmas movie was one of the weirdest disasters ever made: a goofy sci-fi flick about aliens who kidnap Santa so he can teach martian children to have fun. There’s tin can robots and TV-antenna space helmets and even an early starring role for Pia Zadora, who would grow up to be declared the Worst Actress of All-Time. Fittingly, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is actually officially ranked as one of the Worst Movies Ever, which seems a bit unfair because its theme song, ‘Hooray for Santy Claus’ — yes, Santy Claus — is a cruelly perfect earworm that will rattle around your head for days. Watch at your own peril.” — Amy Nicholson, L.A. Weekly
“I loved all the old Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation classics. But this was my favorite, largely for the songs, the best of which was ‘One Foot in Front of the Other.’ I found it wonderful and unexpected that the villainous Winter Warlock was able to find such moral redemption. This was only made better in adulthood when I realized he was voiced by the ubiquitous-for-decades character actor Keenan Wynn, who was terrific in (among many, many others) Song of the Thin Man, Kiss Me Kate, Dr. Strangelove (Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano!), and Once Upon a Time in the West.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
“I had two favorite movies that I watched with my family during the holidays when I was young: It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis. They both were movies my parents loved, made in their era. MMiSL had a special significance since my mom — who was born in Mexico — had been on contract with MGM, in her 20s, to dub films into Spanish, and she had dubbed the role of Judy Garland. (She had a very mellifluous voice, as did Judy Garland, of course.) Also my mother’s name was Esther and the Garland character in the movie was named Esther, so she felt particularly connected to it, while I think I identified with the young mischievous Margaret O’Brien character. My mom had lots of funny stories associated with doing the dubbing on that film, including a line that drove her crazy. The older brother’s name was Lon and in one scene she had to greet him after coming in from seeing the boy next door. It was the most innocuous of lines: ‘Hello, Lon,’ which of course translated to ‘Hola, Lon.’ But the Spanish version sounded to my bilingual mom like she was saying ‘All Alone’ with a weird accent. She had the hardest time dubbing the line without cracking up. I’ve carried on the tradition with my own daughters. We watch Meet Me in St. Louis on either Thanksgiving or Christmas, or both. And my husband and I like watching It’s a Wonderful Life late on Christmas Eve.” — Claudia Puig, longtime critic for USA Today
“This is going to be hard for anyone under 40 to believe, but when I grew up there wasn’t even cable, let alone DVDs or streaming. So your movie choices were always limited to whatever the TV channels were showing. In New York, because of a weird tradition on local TV, that meant Thanksgiving started with Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers, followed by a triple-feature of King Kong/Son of Kong/Mighty Joe Young. (I don’t know what was particularly Pilgrims-and-Indians about the Kong series, but the story was the owner of Ch. 9 had kids, and so always made sure the station programmed things to keep them out of his hair.)
For Christmas, you could usually count — at least from the time I was 6 or so — on CBS to run Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and I loved them all. They were events, too. Missed them? Wait til next year. (Another hard-to-believe fact? It’s a Wonderful Life hadn’t been rediscovered yet, or claimed as a seasonal classic; if you knew it, it was only because it had showed up randomly one night on late-night TV.)
By the 1980s, though, I had cable and VHS (and by the 1990s, my own kids). So I’ve kept some old traditions (still love Charlie Brown and the Grinch, and occasionally put on King Kong, to the confusion of out-of-town turkey-day visitors) and started new ones. Musts sometime before Dec 31: A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim only, please), Great Expectations (David Lean version) and maybe Kind Hearts or Coronets (there’s something about British Victoriana that always works for me, whether or not its holiday-themed), and yes, It’s a Wonderful Life. A good New Year’s Day choice? The Apartment.
The family favorite of all of these is probably still either Charlie Brown or the Grinch; my wife and I love It’s a Wonderful Life, and I always tear up at A Christmas Carol, at the scene where Scrooge hesitates going in to see his nephew, and the maid nods at him. But we’ll need to add some new movies to this tradition I know. Something that speaks to the season’s message of brotherhood and self-sacrifice. I’m thinking Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Seriously. ‘We are Groot’ and ‘I have been and always shall be your friend’ — Is there anything better?” — Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger
“I’m sure it drove my parents insane, but my siblings and I must have watched Home Alone a hundred times. We had a small but overtaxed VHS library growing up, and admittedly watched Home Alone all the time, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a version of Top Gun recorded off a TV broadcast, and two versions of Robin Hood — the animated Disney one and the 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. So what made watching Home Alone special during the holidays was that it was actually seasonally appropriate, unlike all the other times we watched it. We were what the French call ‘les incompetents.'” — Alison Willmore, Buzzfeed
Rocky Balboa’s back on the big screen this week, nearly 10 years after we thought we’d seen him for the last time — and darn it if the big lug’s latest appearance, in the franchise spinoff Creed, doesn’t look like one of his long saga’s finest chapters. In honor of this unlikely comeback, we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s feature to honoring the filmography of the man who brought Balboa to life. Yo film fans, it’s time for Total Recall, Sylvester Stallone style!
Before he was Rocky Balboa, Stallone got one of his earliest big-screen breaks with 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, a period piece about a leather-jacketed gang of street toughs and their efforts to grow up while struggling with peer pressure, romantic entanglements, and unexpected demands of adulthood. It’s perhaps chiefly of interest as a look at some future leading men before they made it big — in addition to Stallone, Flatbush stars Perry King and Henry Winkler — but the movie boasts no small amount of charm on its own merit as a modest slice-of-life story told within a timeframe that would later be ruthlessly mined for nostalgia. The end result, as Time Out wrote, is “a small masterpiece that places the mood and general ethos of the ’50s with absolute precision and total affection.”
Take a story about a dystopian future in which an authoritarian government soothes the masses with the bloody spectacle of a cross-country race, add the words “a Roger Corman production,” and what do you get? 1975’s Death Race 2000, a cult classic starring David Carradine as “Frankenstein,” the champion racer who always defeats his competitors — including the perpetually frustrated “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Stallone). Even bloodier and more gleefully gratuitous than the similarly themed Rollerball, Death Race 2000 earned sniffs of derision from critics like Roger Ebert, who deemed the whole thing tasteless — but most scribes disagreed, including Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, who called it “an elaborate and telling fantasy about our peculiar popular entertainments” and “fine work carved from minimal materials.”
You’re supposed to write what you know, goes the old saying, and although Stallone wasn’t a boxer when he wrote the screenplay for Rocky, he was certainly a dreamer, and he understood the painful pursuit of a dream in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Like Rocky, Stallone needed a big break, and he got it with this critically lauded box office smash, which earned ten Oscar nominations, winning three, and launched what would become arguably the signature franchise of his career. Though the Rocky movies would eventually lose sight of the qualities that made the original special, the franchise as a whole stands up better than some might remember: Rocky II, which picked up right where the original left off, earned critical accolades while briefly setting the all-time box-office record for a sequel, and the overblown antics of the third and fourth installments are not without their charms. The less said about Rocky V the better, but the belated sixth chapter, Rocky Balboa, brought the saga poignantly back to its roots with a grittier — and deeply melancholy — return to the ring. It all started with one of the most enduring dramas of the ‘70s, and although Roger Ebert was describing the original, he could have been describing substantial portions of the series when he wrote, “A description of it would sound like a cliche from beginning to end. But Rocky isn’t about a story, it’s about a hero. And it’s inhabited with supreme confidence by a star.”
He’d later find it difficult to be taken seriously as anything other than an action star, but for Stallone’s first post-Rocky project, he demonstrated an eagerness to display his dramatic range with F.I.S.T., a Norman Jewison drama that uses the saga of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union as the loose inspiration for the story of a warehouse worker’s rise through the ranks of the fictional “Federation of Inter-State Truckers.” Responsible for carrying the film as its leading man as well as substantially rewriting Joe Eszterhas’ original screenplay, Stallone acquitted himself well in the eyes of most critics, some of whom saw signs of steely-jawed greatness in his performance. F.I.S.T. is rarely mentioned when people discuss Stallone today, but perhaps we should; as Variety argued at the time, “F.I.S.T. is to the labor movement in the United States what All the King’s Men was to an era in American politics.”
For a movie refashioned from what was supposed to be the script for The French Connection III — and was eventually, in Stallone’s words, “cut to pieces” by the studio — 1981’s Nighthawks turned out a lot better than it probably should have. Starring Stallone and Billy Dee Williams as a pair of NYPD cops on the trail of a terrorist known as Wulfgar (played by Rutger Hauer in his American debut), this is a quintessentially 1980s police thriller — which is to say that it’s soaked in blood and riddled with plot holes. But a good number of critics looked past its deficiencies to find a solid action flick; as Janet Maslin wrote for the New York Times, “All of it is standard stuff, and yet Nighthawks has been assembled with enough pep to make it feel fresh.”
Like Rocky, 1982’s First Blood acted as a launchpad for a series of progressively more cartoonish action films — and like Rocky, it’s a much darker, more sensitive film than you might remember. The role of haunted Vietnam vet John Rambo took full advantage of Stallone’s gifts, giving him ample room to display his knack for portraying quiet, haunted men as well as his athletic build, and while the end result didn’t exactly stay true to the David Morrell novel it was based on, it resonated with audiences and critics alike, and managed to provide some legitimate social commentary to go with all the action. That largely fell by the wayside as the series wore on, with Rambo repeatedly pressed into action as an increasingly ludicrous fantasy corrective for American foreign policy, butStallone managed to restore at least a little of the character’s haunted soul with 2008’s grim, blood-spattered Rambo. “This is a dark drama about war and the exorcising of demons,” wrote Eric D. Snider of the original. “And an unforgettable one at that.”
By the early 1990s, there wasn’t much Stallone hadn’t done as an action hero — and in the post-Die Hard era, the entire genre was starting to feel a little stale. The solution? 1993’s Cliffhanger, which embraced action movies’ inherent silliness (by tapping the marvelously hammy John Lithgow as the villain) while taking them someplace semi-original (the top of a mountain). It certainly didn’t win any points for believability, but it did sate thrill-seeking filmgoers — not to mention critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who cheered, “Despite the don’t-look-down Olympian settings, Cliffhanger‘s spirit is brutal and earthbound. The movie is like one of those computer-designed simulator rides that whip you around until you’re dizzy and aching but don’t actually take you anywhere.”
The decade wasn’t a total wash for him, but it isn’t a stretch to say that the 1990s weren’t exactly kind to Sylvester Stallone — and it was partly his fault. After dominating the box office as one of the biggest action heroes of the 1980s, Stallone decided he wanted to branch out, and the epic bombs Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot were the disastrous results. He never quite regained his box office mojo, but Stallone remained an underrated actor, and with 1997’s Cop Land, he took advantage of a rare opportunity to show his depth. As the overweight, ineffective police chief of a small New Jersey town, Stallone delivered a quietly intense performance, holding his own against a cast that included Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. In the end, of course, Sly gets his guy — but Cop Land played so effectively against type that TV Guide’s Sandra Contreras didn’t mind: “It sizzles toward an explosive and satisfying climax in which everything — Stallone included — fully bursts into life.”
He’s always been most successful as an action star, but Sylvester Stallone is capable of more — and while many of his attempts to branch out have been met with varying degrees of failure, he hit critical paydirt with 1998’s Antz. As Weaver, the burly best friend of Woody Allen’s Z, Stallone got to do something besides fire weapons and throw blows for a change; in the process, he also made history, as part of the voice cast of the second feature-length CGI film. Though it was overshadowed commercially by Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, Antz was a favorite among critics who appreciated the film’s political subtext and sharp wit. It is, as David Denby wrote for New York Magazine, “A kids’ movie that will leave grown-ups quoting the best lines to one another.”
Stallone’s highest-profile role of 2003 came in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, but he earned his best reviews as part of a little-seen (and surprisingly well-cast) drama about the world of high-stakes underground gambling. As the legendary card shark known as The Dean, Stallone lent Shade extra heft — and added a little low-key dramatic muscle to a storyline about a pair of small-time crooks (Gabriel Bryne and Thandie Newton) looking to make their mark with a big score. Its brief, limited theatrical run meant that Shade was in and out of theaters before most filmgoers were even aware of it, but critics were mostly kind, including Todd Gilchrist of FilmStew, who wrote, “With so many sucker bets coercing your hand before you’re really ready to make a safe cinematic wager, this will be one film you won’t mind losing your money to see.”
Happy Thanksgiving! This week at the movies, we’ve got a new top contender (Creed, starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan), a pair of prehistoric pals (The Good Dinosaur, featuring voice performances by Raymond Ochoa and Jeffrey Wright), and a dogged detective (Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe). What do the critics have to say?
Everybody likes an underdog, and everybody likes Rocky, the lovable lug who has taken his share of punishment but refuses to be K.O.’d. Critics say he’s a contender once again: Creed is one of the best entries in the venerable franchise, with fantastic performances from Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan and kinetic, sympathetic direction from Ryan Coogler. Jordan stars as Adonis Johnson — the son of Rocky’s old rival-turned-friend, the late Apollo Creed — who sets aside his promising white-collar career for a shot at glory in the ring under the tutelage of the former champ, who’s looking for a little redemption of his own. The pundits say the Certified Fresh Creed understands what made Rocky so compelling in the first place; its characters and gritty sense of place are as satisfying and hard-hitting as the fights themselves.
Pixar has ruled the computer animation genre since it debuted Toy Story in 1995, but it’s never attempted to release two films in one year before. That changes this week with the release of The Good Dinosaur — which follows on the heels of this summer’s widely acclaimed Inside Out — and critics say it’s a worthy entry in the Pixar canon, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the studio’s best. Set on an alternate version of Earth where dinosaurs have survived extinction, the story centers on Arlo, a timid Apatosaurus who finds himself lost after chasing a caveboy into the wilderness. In order to find his way home, he must befriend the feral boy and face his fears. The pundits say the Certified Fresh Good Dinosaur boasts lush animation, gorgeous landscapes, and charming characters, which help the film overcome its rather ordinary narrative.
It’s… alive? Critics say Victor Frankenstein resembles its title character’s creation: it’s a bunch of disparate elements fastened together, lacking the spark needed to come to life. James McAvoy stars as the doctor and Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor; together, they team up to create artificial life, but (spoiler alert!) their macabre experiments eventually spiral out of control. The pundits say Victor Frankenstein leaves its talented cast stranded in a tonally inconsistent mishmash that does little to distinguish itself from Frankenstein films of yore beyond a few would-be knowing winks.
The Man in the High Castle is unlike anything else on TV, with an immediately engrossing plot driven by quickly developed characters in a fully realized post-World War II dystopia.
Jessica Jones builds a multifaceted drama around its engaging antihero, delivering what might be Marvel’s strongest TV franchise to date.
Also Opening This Week In Limited Release
The stars of Creed, Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, and Tessa Thompson, along with director Ryan Coogler, talk about why everyone loves Rocky. Then, Stallone tells us about Jordan’s initiation by KO, and Grae challenges everyone to a round of Rocky trivia; until Tessa Thompson turns the tables on her! We also discussed Creed‘s iconic boxing shorts, found out whether this movie has that song, and asked Coogler what it’s like to step into Stallone’s shoes as director.