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Welcome to Rockyland: Sylvester Stallone’s Viagra Cinema

Welcome to Rockyland: Sylvester Stallone’s Viagra Cinema (photo)

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On July 6, 2011 Sylvester Stallone will turn 65 years old. At an age when most Americans are considering their Social Security benefits, Stallone’s career is the healthiest it’s been in decades. He recently revived his long dormant franchises, “Rocky” and “Rambo,” with new entries that were received to modest critical acclaim and less modest financial success. His latest film, “The Expendables,” was the first he’s headlined to gross over $100 million in the U.S. since “Rocky IV” back in 1985. Ten years ago, Stallone’s career was dead and he was a joke. Now he’s the world’s leading manufacturer of viagra cinema, movies designed to showcase the aging male frame as it performs unnatural but remarkable physical feats.

What Stallone’s done is basically without precedent. All of his former rivals for action film supremacy have faded away or moved on; all of his predecessors turned to moodier and more reflective work by the time they were his age. This is a situation that suits Stallone, since endurance was always the most important value of the “Rocky” movies. Rocky Balboa’s greatest strength as a boxer wasn’t his footwork or his punching power; on those fronts, he was mediocre fighter. What made Rocky extraordinary was his ability to take a punch and never go down. Though he has occasionally tried to distance himself from the character in his career (typically when he’s working on something other than blue-collar action films) it’s clear that Balboa is an extremely autobiographical character for Stallone. Rocky’s story is Stallone’s story: the dreams of an opportunity to prove your greatness, the struggle to remain hungry amidst the trappings of success and fame, the realization that you’ve lost your spark, the desire for one last chance.

12292010_rocky1.jpgAt the beginning of 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky runs a restaurant named after his late wife Adrian (I guess “Planet Hollywood” would have been too on the nose) and spends his days there telling stories about his career. His old friend and brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young, not so much anymore) is still around and they get together to commiserate about the state of world. Assessing the crumbling facade of the gym where Rocky used to train, Rocky remarks “Signs falling apart, Paulie.” “The whole world’s falling apart,” Paulie replies.

That in a nutshell is the world of Stallone’s viagra cinema: a place of physical and moral decay, the Philadelphia of “Rocky Balboa,” the Burma of “Rambo,” or the corrupt fictional island of Vilena in “The Expendables.” The heroes Stallone plays in these films refuse to concede to the decay around them or bend to the physical limitations of their age. The world may decay; Sylvester Stallone does not.

In “Rocky Balboa,” characters constantly harp on Balboa’s age. “Don’t you think you’re too, y’know, old?” his son asks him when he mentions that might want to start boxing again. He replies, “Yeah but you think you ought to stop trying things just because you had a few too many birthdays?” And so Rocky is offered an exhibition match against the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). While everyone expects Balboa to embarrass himself — just as everyone expected Stallone to embarrass himself making another “Rocky” — he prevails. He loses the fight but he endures, proving his manhood and regaining his dignity. As Rocky refuses to go down, HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant chuckles, “Welcome to Rockyland!”

“Rocky Balboa”‘s allusions to mortality — Adrian’s death from cancer, Rocky’s battle against public perception that believes him to be washed up — are the closest Stallone’s viagra cinema has gotten to acknowledging its creator’s age. The two films he’s made since revel in their defiance of their creator’s age. Nobody tells John Rambo he’s too old to kill Burmese militants. And he proves pretty definitively that he isn’t, by killing dozens upon dozens of them with ease.

12292010_rambo2.jpgThough he’s twenty years older than the last time we saw him, and he’s spent who knows how much of that time working in Thailand as a snake wrangler and river boat captain, by the start of “Rambo” Vietnam veteran John Rambo has inexplicably packed on twenty or more pounds of muscle since the last time we saw him in 1988’s “Rambo III.” In “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky’s trainer talks about his bad knees, the arthritis in his neck, the calcium deposits on his joints. But at 60, John Rambo appears to be in peak physical shape. He’s strong enough to rip a man’s throat out with his bare hands and spry enough to sneak around a military camp, leaving no trace except the flutter of an Asian flute on the soundtrack. Maybe snake wrangling will become the next big fitness craze.

Rambo was a combat shocked basket case in “First Blood,” but he grew steadily in stature through the older “Rambo” sequels until his killing skills took on near-mythic qualities. In “Rambo,” Stallone elevates the character again up to the level of a small deity. In the film’s action climax, the Burmese militants are about to execute Christian aids workers by the banks of a river when Rambo saves the day by firing hundreds of rounds from a jeep-mounted machine gun at the top of a hill. The blocking of the scene — Rambo at the top of the hill, the villainous Burmese below — gives it the feel of divine retribution, as if God himself is raining down hellfire to punish the wicked. And it’s Stallone who gets to do the punishing.

Somehow, Stallone’s physical feats grew even greater in “The Expendables.” There he plays Barney Ross, an expert marksman and the leader of the titular group of mercenaries. His closest buddy is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), an expert in edge weapons. During their missions, the two hold friendly competitions to see who is quicker on the draw. “You’re not that fast anymore,” Christmas warns. “The only thing faster is light,” Ross responds.

Given Stallone’s age, and the fact that he surrounded himself in “The Expendables” with fresh action stars like Statham and Terry Crews, it seemed reasonable to assume that he was making the film as a symbolic passing of the torch; that it would be about what it’s like to realize you’re not faster than light anymore. Nope. Ross is correct about his skills. He fires his handguns so fast that they sound like an automatic rifle. Stallone edits the action so that the camera is constantly struggling to keep up with him. We’ll see him pull his gun and fire, and by the time we cut to his victim, the poor schmo’s already on the ground, as if Ross really is faster than the light being projected onto the screen. Characters repeatedly refer to the fact that Ross never sleeps, and it seems to be true: we never see him sleep. Or eat. Or do anything other than get tattoos and murder people. “The Expendables” isn’t about making way for a new generation. It’s about putting that new generation in their place and showing them how it’s done. Casting Stallone’s old contemporaries like Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke was good for some chuckles; it was also good for showing how good Stallone looks in comparison to them.

12292010_expend1.jpgAnd he does look good. But in viagra cinema there is a disconnect between the onscreen ease with which Stallone carries out his manly activities and the offscreen difficulties he encountered achieving them. In “Rocky Balboa,” it appears that a simple regimen of jogging and keg lifting gets Balboa into phenomenal shape. There’s no mention of the human growth hormone and steroids Stallone really needed to take to achieve that transformation. To see more of what I mean, take a look at “Inferno: The Making of ‘The Expendables'”, a behind-the-scenes documentary that is now available on Netflix Instant. In “The Expendables,” Stallone leaps from a dock to a moving sea plane, dives out of the way of exploding helicopters, gets tackled into a brick wall, and never stops moving. In “Inferno,” we see the grueling physical toll all those activities took: broken bones, torn tendons, and so on. He got more MRIs making “The Expendables” than most people will get in a lifetime. Doctors advised him to put the film on hold and get surgery to treat his injuries; Stallone refused. It’s as if he’s willing to kill himself to look invincible onscreen.

Look closely, though, and you’ll see the signs of strain. His total lack of grace in the boxing ring in “Rocky Balboa.” The uncomfortable way he lumbers around in “Rambo.” The fact that he never takes his shirt off in “Rambo” after spending 98.3% of the previous two “Rambo”s stripped to the waist and covered in baby oil. Cutting frames from shots in “The Expendables” to make his movements appear faster than they really are. Even that finale to “Rambo,” which sees Stallone basking in near omnipotence, suggests his physical limitations. Though he kills plenty of men, Rambo stands perfectly still for the entire climax. He just shoots people with his jeep-mounted machine gun. Meanwhile a bunch of much younger actors playing mercenaries provide the obligatory quota of heroic leaping, running, and punching. That tension, between the invulnerable image Stallone is projecting and the vulnerability we see bubbling below the superficial superheroics, is fascinating to watch. Rocky, Rambo, and Ross are sort of like really old Twinkies; they should have gone stale years ago but artificial preservatives have kept them fresh well past their sell-by date.

Regardless, these men refuse to acknowledge their limitations. Stallone began dealing with the hard truths of aging way back in the early 1990s. In “Demolition Man” he cast himself as an old-school cop and metaphorical neanderthal who’s outlived his usefulness to a society that has moved on. In “Rocky V,” when Rocky was forced into retirement (a first time), his constant refrain was “I didn’t hear no bell!” signifying that his life is not over and that he continues to endure. Twenty years later, Stallone is still fighting, still refusing to hear the bell. The longer he refuses, the deeper he gets into Rockyland, the more strangely compelling his viagra cinema gets.

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[Additional Photos: “Rocky Balboa,” MGM, 2006; “The Expendables,” Lionsgate, 2010.]

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

E.coli-class-

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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