Classic Movie Review: Raging Bull (1980)

Title: Raging Bull
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions

Growing up, Raging Bull was the other Italian-American boxer movie, the one in black & white that wasn’t Rocky. I never had much desire to see Raging Bull until I saw it was #4 on the AFI List and #55 on the Sights and Sounds list.  The movie is based on the true-life story of midweight boxer Jake LaMotta who was active in the 1940s and 1950s. Robert De Niro, almost unrecognizable beneath the prosthetics, stars as LaMotta, while Joe Pesci stars as Joey, his younger brother and manager.  Cathy Moriarity makes a stunning debut as Vickie, Jake’s second wife.

The movie is basically 2 hours of concentrated toxic masculinity, and that doesn’t include the 10 minutes of scenes within the boxing ring.  Jake and Joey spend a lot of time hurling profanities at one another.  Then the already-married Jake creepily stalks down the 15-year-old Vickie, eventually marrying her.  (The early scenes where Jake, Joey, and Vickie are supposed to be 19, 16, and 15 are hard to swallow since the actors look far too adult, but they do age well into their roles).  The heart of the story then becomes LaMotta’s jealousy of Vickie, and his brutal abuse of her, on the unjustified belief that she is cheating on him.  Eventually he even turns against Joey in a scene that – a surprise to me – is the source of the oft-quoted line “You fuck my wife?!”

I guess I’m going on record as a Scorsese naysayer.  I can’t fault Raging Bull for it’s acting, cinematography, editing, and sound design, all of which are top notch.  The behavior of Lamotta and others are certainly true to life. But like Taxi Driver, I have no desire to watch stories about nonstop abuse, cruelty, violence, and unredeemable inhuman behavior.  I wouldn’t recommend watching Raging Bull without a good sense of what you’re getting into, and I certainty won’t watch it again.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Creed (2015) BONUS #AtoZChallenge

To complement my review of Rocky, I decided to watch and review the movie Creed for the first time.  I’ve been meaning to watch Creed since it first came out and got good reviews, but somehow five years have passed by.  So no time like the presence.

Title: Creed
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Chartoff-Winkler Productions

In the movie prologue, we meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Alex Henderson), a preteen in juvenile detention who tends to get into fights.  Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of champion boxer Apollo Creed, visits Donnie, informing that Apollo fathered Donnie in an affair shortly before his death.  Mary Anne adopts Donnie, and we flash forward to 2015 where we see Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) is racking up wins and pesos fighting in clubs in Tijuana.  He quits his office job in Los Angeles and tries to get the trainers at Apollo’s old boxing company, but no one is willing to take him on (shades of Mickey in Rocky).

To Mary Anne’s disappointment, Donnie decides to pursue his professional boxing dreams by moving to Philadelphia.  There he begins training at Mickey’s old gym and starts dating his downstairs neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with a progressive hearing disorder.  He approaches Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), revealing that Apollo was his father, and asking that Rocky become his trainer .  Rocky is reluctant to return to training, but Donnie is persistent and Rocky begins showing Donnie the ropes.

Another boxer at Mickey’s old gym,an undefeated light heavyweight fighter named Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabriel Rosado) agrees to a bout with Donnie. In a surprising upset (in-movie, not too surprising to movie viewers), Donnie knocks out Sporino. In revenge, Sporino’s team leaks to the news that Donnie is Apollo’s child.

The world light heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) of Liverpool, is looking for one more bout before he begins a prison sentence on gun possession charges.  His manager agrees to allow Donnie to challenge Conlan for the light heavyweight title if he is willing to change his name to Creed, knowing that the attention that would bring to the bout will make for a huge payday.  At the same time, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer.

And so the stage is set, Donnie must prepare to fight for the title while Rocky fights for his life.  Where will their journey lead them?  The plot points in Creed are pretty similar to those of Rocky and it’s full of cliches and full-on corniness. Nevertheless it works because of Jordan and Stallone’s performances.  Their relationship develops naturally and believably and there’s just an undeniable sweetness to it. The movie also feels more authentic in depicting African-American experience than any Rocky movie, no doubt due to the direction and writing of Ryan Coogler.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Rocky (1976) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Rocky
Release Date: John G. Avildsen
Director: John G. Avildsen
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions

Just before Thanksgiving, down-on-his-luck boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) wins a local boxing match in Philadelphia.  Nevertheless, the manager of his boxing gym, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), has all of Rocky’s gear removed from his locker at the gym.  To make ends meet, Rocky works as an enforcer for a local loan shark, although he tends to be too soft on those late on their debts.  Mickey disapproves of Rocky’s life choices and wasted potential and suggests he should retire.

At this time, Rocky pursues a romance with a shy pet store clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire).  Rocky’s frenemy Paulie (Burt Young) is Adrian’s brother and invites Rocky to Thanksgiving dinner although he is shockingly dismissive of his sister.  World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) plans to kick off the bicentennial year with a title fight in Philadelphia, but his challenger has to back out with an injury and no other ranked boxers are able to accept the challenge.  Creed decides to make the fight a novelty by selecting a local Philadelphia boxer to get the opportunity to participate in a title fight. Creed selects Rocky because his nickname “The Italian Stallion” ties in with the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

Internally reluctant, Rocky decides to take up the challenge. Mickey offers to be Rocky’s manager, and after an argument over their past disagreements, Rocky takes Mickey up on the offer.  The news media are intrigued by Rocky’s unique training methods, which include punching sides of beef at Paulie’s meatpacking business and running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Knowing he cannot beat Creed, Rocky hopes to be the first boxer to “go the distance” by fighting all 15 rounds with getting knocked out.  Defying the odds, Rocky does just that in the brutal title bout that concludes the film.  Both Rocky and Apollo immediately state that they don’t want a rematch, so there won’t be any sequels or anything like that.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

A lot like Jaws, I saw the sequels (particularly Rocky III) before I saw the original.  And much like the Jaws sequels, the Rocky sequels tend to miss the point of what made the original great.  Instead of being movies about sharks and boxing, Jaws and Rocky are rich human stories about deeply-flawed people who nevertheless step up to a challenge.

My dad always liked the Rocky movies so they make me think of him and how I drove him nuts when we visited Philadelphia and I ran up every set of steps we came across.  My father died when I was 17 and the night after his funeral I didn’t know what to do so I flipped on the tv just as Rocky was starting.  That seemed like to much of a cosmic coincidence so I left it on and watched it all the way through for the first time in my life.  I was really impressed by how much deeper a story it was than the sequels I’d watched when I was younger.

What Did I Remember?:

The basic plotline was in my head but not the details.

What Did I Forget?:

I’d forgotten that Rocky and Mickey were actually in an antagonistic relationship when the story began and that they argued before Rocky agreed to let Mickey be his manager.  I’d also completely forgotten that Apollo enters the arena dressed as George Washington while throwing coins to the spectators.  In retrospect, it’s kind of ironic that a Black man in the 1970s is depicted as the super patriotic character (consider that the real life World Heavyweight Boxing Champion at the time this movie is set was Muhammad Ali, who was highly critical of the US government and Americanism).

What Makes This Movie Great?:

As noted above, this is a well-written, well-acted human drama (Stallone, Meredith, and Weathers stand out in the cast).  It’s less a sports movie and more a movie about how an ordinary person deals with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And while the “Training Montage” has become a tired cliche in movies, Rocky did it first and best and you’d have to have a rock-hard heart to not find it a little inspiring.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This movie depicts working class white people in the 1970s who don’t exactly have the most progressive views.  That being said, I don’t think that the movie ever endorses any racist or sexist behavior so much as give a realistic depiction of how people behave.  The one part of the movie I’ve always found creepy and weird is Paulie’s obsession with Adrian’s virginity.

Is It a Classic?:


Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with R:

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark  (1981)
  2. Real Genius (1985)
  3. The Right Stuff (1983)
  4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
  5. Roman Holiday (1953)

What is your favorite movie starting with R? What would you guess is my movie for S (Hint: The final line is “Nobody’s Perfect.”)? Let me know in the comments.