dir. Sylvester Stallone
As a franchise, the Rocky saga has seen both improbable highs (IV's goofy triumph over Communism) and wincible lows (III's breakdancing robot), but the basic underdog formula feels untarnished by time and/or repetition. Rocky Balboa, the final, actual, this-time-we-really-mean-it last installment in the series, isn't a good movie, in most senses of the term, but there's something irresistible about the big lug that goes beyond mere nostalgia. Scoff all you want, but all I know is that "Eye of the Tiger" has now found its way onto my iPod.
Functioning as a partial apology/do-over for 1990's lame Rocky V, Stallone's script finds the former champ on the decline, shambling through the streets of Philly mourning the loss of his wife (Talia Shire, seen only in flashbacks) while rapidly losing touch with his white-collar son (Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia). Fortunately, before things get too mawkish, a shot at redemption comes in the form of a gimmicky Vegas exhibition fight with the current champion, an unloved fashion plate with the wonderfully cornball name of Mason Dixon. Cue the familiar montages of raw eggs, stair running, and meat punching.
Yes, it's even cheesier than it sounds. Still, dang it, it all somehow works on the screen, mainly by virtue of the star's sheer charisma.
Stallone the actor proves to be Stallone the filmmaker's best weapon, constantly undercutting the thud of his scripted dialogue with mumbled asides, dopey jokes, and a general air of hangdog vulnerability that proves impossible to resist. His days as a bankable action hero may be in the past (here's hoping that the rumored Rambo sequel remains a rumor), but as far as swan songs go, this is an improbably charming ride into the sunset that somehow trumps any attempts at critical objectivity. Rocky, Rocky, Rocky. ANDREW WRIGHT
Curse of the Golden Flower
dir. Zhang Yimou
Curse of the Golden Flower wants to be a tragedy of Shakespearian dimensions (or at least a carnage of wuxia proportions), but in the end it's about rainbows and pretty embroidered chrysanthemums. All the colors of human experience are shimmering there on the screen—they just look insipid. Director Zhang Yimou, who brought American audiences such wirework bonanzas as Hero and House of Flying Daggers (and the quieter melodrama Raise the Red Lantern, his last collaboration with Gong Li), has attempted his most baroque story yet. From overt incest that proves benign to covert love that proves blasphemous, Curse of the Golden Flower takes grand themes and pounds them flatter than pennies.
Sometime in the 10th century, two corrupt royals pad around their gilded rainbow palace, attended by hordes of courtiers who—in the wonderful opening sequence—prepare small quantities of rice and potions in endless assembly lines. Gong Li plays the buxom empress, who, when she's not pawing her stepson or quaffing strange elixirs, is prone to sudden tremors and sweats. Chow Yun-Fat, as the emperor, spends his time mourning his dead first wife and bossing around the imperial pharmacist. Surprise! Turns out something's fishy—or technically, fungal—about the empress's medicine. Subplots involving the royal heirs follow: The oldest son is a willowy mama's boy, the middle son holds promise, and the youngest is suspiciously perky. They're all ultimately disposable.
It's a relief when the mannered marital strife gets channeled into outright battle, but there's something disappointing about the fight scenes too. Ninja assassins swooping around on improvised zip lines are cool at first, but there's no ballet in the rectangular clash of color-coded armies seen from above. At root, this is a film about one color vanquishing another. You could watch a sunset for that. ANNIE WAGNER
We Are Marshall
On November 14, 1970, 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, along with its coaching staff and a number of fans, boarded chartered Southern Airlines flight 932. The plane went down in West Virginia, killing all 75 people onboard. My first thought was that, with Vietnam still grinding away overseas, Huntington, West Virginia must have had no young men left at all. How sad. How crippling. Hollywood's first thought was, "Where's McG? Is McG busy?"
McG. Of Charlie's Angels, of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, of Fastlane starring Bill Bellamy and Peter Facinelli, of Cypress Hill: Still Smokin', of the upcoming Pussycat Dolls the motherfucking TV show. I did sort of like that episode of Punk'd when he made Katie Holmes pee her pants, but still. Mc-FUCKING-G! I guess this is what the people want. I guess tragedy is easier to deal with if you make it into a music video.
The crash happens right away. No need to get sentimental, no need to grow attached to the doomed. After the requisite grief montage, Coach Jack Lengyel (a jokey, janky-jawed Matthew McConaughey) shows up to resurrect the team and teach Huntington how to believe in something again. Something like America. Or football. Or two hours of totally inappropriate flat-out comedy, bookended by meaningless sentimentality. ("Where once there was sound, now there was silence. What once was whole now was shattered.")
There's something creepy about the way movies make you take sides. We root for Matthew Fox (as Assistant Coach Red Dawson) because he is handsome, because we are maniacally obsessed with Lost, but his character in We Are Marshall is a real person. He's probably still alive. He's probably not as handsome as Matthew Fox. We're relieved that that anonymous fat assistant coach took Matthew Fox's spot on the flight, but that assistant coach really existed. He is an actual dead person.
We Are Marshall is shameful and useless. It is a comedy by a music-video director about a plane crash that killed an entire town. The Wikipedia article is more moving. Up next: Brett Ratner does Hurricane Katrina. LINDY WEST