Creed


Stallone gets a new lease on life.

Stallone gets a new lease on life.

(2015) Sports Drama (MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Richie Coster, Andre Ward, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Malik Bazille, Ricardo McGill, Gabe Rosado, Wood Harris, Buddy Osborn, Rupal Pujara, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Eye, Johanna Tolentino. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Legacies can be tricky things. We want our kids to end up better than us, to be their own people and to leave their own legacy, but sometimes our accomplishments get in the way of that. Our own success can put enormous pressure on our children.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) has had a hard time of it. Growing up in foster care after his mother passed away (having never known his daddy who died before he was born), he is raised by Mary Anne Creed (Rashad), wife of the immortal heavyweight champion. Eventually he finds out that his father was in fact Apollo Creed, the product of an extramarital affair. Mary Anne informed Adonis of this when he was younger and Adonis, who has the boxing bug pre-wired into him, prefers to go by his birth name so that he can make his own name in the sport. Sadly, that’s only gotten him so far – low-rent fights in Tijuana.

He wants to do better though and gives up a high-paying job in which he’d just gotten promoted and heads east to Philadelphia to look up an old friend of his father; Rocky Balboa (Stallone). At first, Rocky is not terribly interested. He is busy running his restaurant and has left the boxing game behind him. Just about everyone and everything that has meant anything to him is dead or gone; he’s alone in Philly, growing older and somewhat wiser and a little bit wary about caring for anybody ever again.

Still, he sees something in Adonis – his persistence, his passion perhaps – and decides to take him on. After an impressive fight against an up-and-coming middleweight, word gets out about Adonis’ lineage. That attracts the attention of “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real life pugilist Ballew), the World Champion from Britain who is getting ready to hang up his gloves after being convicted on a weapons charge (which somewhat ironically wouldn’t be a crime in the United States). When a sure-fire payday falls through, his manager (McTavish) is scrambling to find one last opponent and the son of Apollo Creed would have to do, particularly with ex-Champ Rocky Balboa in his corner.

As Adonis begins training, he falls for a neighbor, Bianca (Thompson) who has a burgeoning career of her own as a sultry R&B singer. Everything is going better than Adonis could have hoped; but things begin to fall apart, partly through circumstance and partly through his own bull-headed rage. Can Adonis overcome the chip on his shoulder and make a name for himself, or will he be doomed to be the failed son of a legend who couldn’t measure up to his dad’s legacy?

Coogler, who directed Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station, absolutely nails it for his big studio debut. A fan of the Rocky series since childhood (and bonded with his own father over), he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, but merely brings all the right elements forward to make this a 21st century Rocky movie, and succeeds in what may sound like a modest ambition but is in reality much more difficult than making an homage or a reboot.

He shows off some astonishing chops as a director including a jaw-dropping travelling shot that follows Adonis into the arena from his dressing room for one of his first fights. He also films each of the three boxing matches in the film differently and  in doing so makes each match unique and memorable, so that the boxing sequences never get boring.

Stallone in particular benefits from Coogler’s sure hand in the director’s chair. We see Rocky not as a strong man in the prime of life but as an old man, facing his own mortality having outlived his wife and best friend. In many ways, Rocky has given up and is just waiting to play out his hand but Adonis instills in him once again the champion’s will to win. We see Rocky as not so much an icon, or even the cartoon character he eventually became in many ways, but as a  complex man who is much more than a pug who talks like he’s taken one too many shots to the head.

Jordan, who showed tremendous potential in Fruitvale Station, fulfills it here and shows that he can be a major star. His Adonis can be tender but has a hunger in him that drives him, one that sometimes drives him to rage. That rage often sabotages his dreams and drives away those closest to him. Adonis has to find a way to make peace with his feelings for his father and move on, and in a sense he does but there’s a lot more to it than that. To Coogler’s credit (he co-authored the screenplay), this is the kind of movie that makes you think about it and discover little nuances in the story that suddenly appear when you examine the performances. That’s some good writing, right there.

Early on, the movie is a little slow-paced as the characters are established, but that can be forgiven as it allows us to connect with them more later on. However, with the movie nearly two and a half hours long, that may be a bit more than modern attention-deficient audiences to bear, so keep that in mind.

When this movie was announced, I was sure this was going to continue flogging a franchise that I considered to be a dead horse. I was a little more hopeful when I heard Coogler was directing it – I’m a big fan of Fruitvale Station. But seeing this exceeded all my expectations and showed that even when you think a film franchise has done and said everything it can, the right artist can come in and breathe new life and make it seem fresh and new again. A lot of folks are calling this one of the best films of the year and I can’t really argue with them. This is certainly a must-see movie for the holiday season, and should be seen the first chance you get if you haven’t seen it already. I’m certainly regretting waiting so long to get into the theater to see it myself.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally powerful. Some of Stallone’s best work. Jordan serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit, particularly early on. A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence (and a little outside the ring), foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Rocky film to not be written by Stallone, nor does he appear as a boxer in the ring. It is also, at just over two hours, the longest film in the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Holly and The Quill begins!

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Let Me In


Let Me In
Owen demonstrates the proper way to mess up a Rubik’s Cube to Abby.

(Overture) Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono, Sasha Barrese, Dylan Kenin, Chris Browning, Richie Coster, Dylan Minnette, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Nicolai Dorian, Rebekah Wiggins, Seth Adkins, Brett DelBuono.  Directed by Matt Reeves

As children, we dread the monsters, the ones that emerge from our nightmares and hide in the shadows of our room. As we grow older, we learn there are no monsters, but some children know better. There are all sorts of monsters.

Owen (Smit-McPhee) is a young boy growing up in New Mexico in 1983. He’s 12, small for his age, living in a run-down apartment because his parents are in the middle of a bitter divorce, which has led his mother (Buono) to alcoholism. As many emotionally traumatized boys are, he is fragile, aloof and a little weird. He is bullied at school by Kenny (Minnette), a boy much bigger than he.

To combat his loneliness, he binges on candy (particularly Now and Laters, his favorite) and hides the wrappers in the snow. He hangs out in the deserted playground of the apartment and watches the inhabitants through a telescope; a young fitness freak, a romantic couple. He has a small knife that he sometimes whispers threats to his tormenters with – never face to face. He is alone and terrified.

One night, he sees a young girl and her father move in to the apartment next door. The next day, the windows are all covered with cardboard, which seems a bit unusual but with many daysleepers in the complex, not that unusual. One night, the little girl comes out to visit with him on the playground. Her name is Abby (Moretz) and she can’t be his friend. This she announces in a sad but firm voice.

However, they do become friends. Abby has a thing for puzzles and Owen has a doozy – the Rubik’s cube. A very strong bond develops between the two of them, despite the warning of Abby’s father (Richard Jenkins) to stay away from him. Soon, Owen is finding the strength to stand up to those who are bullying him.

However, Abby is not what she seems. As they grow closer and a series of unexplained murders bring the police in the form of a single, unnamed dogged detective (Koteas), Abby eventually reveals the truth – she needs blood to survive. Yes, that would make her a vampire.

This is based on the acclaimed Swedish film Let the Right One In which in turn was based on a novel of the same name. Many who saw the first film cringed at the idea of a Hollywood version. Cringe no more; this is nearly as good as the original. Reeves captures the feeling of despair and hopelessness that was the backdrop to the first movie, and adds the dread and sense of something really terrible about to happen that was the original’s spice.

It helps that he has two strong juvenile leads to carry the movie. Moretz has made a name for herself with astonishing turns in Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer. She is clearly an actress of immense talent and should have a satisfying career ahead of her. Smit-McPhee, who was also in The Road, captures the innocence and sadness of his character very nicely, retaining the kid aspect in a role that lesser actors would have tried to make more precocious.

The adult actors tend to be moved off to the side, but Jenkins does a noble job in a thankless part, while Koteas continues his strong work of late. However, it is not so much the actors but the atmosphere that will get your attention. The movie is set in the dead of winter and the bleak landscapes and frigid temperatures contribute to the overall mood, which I will admit starts to get to you after awhile.

Still, it’s a great setting for a horror movie and this is a particularly well-written one. There is just enough gore and horrifying violence to satisfy the horror fan, and enough character development to satisfy the cinephile. I happen to fall into both camps, so this movie was like catnip to me. It’s not quite as good as the Swedish version, but it’s so close that the differences are negligible. It’s well worth your Halloween dollar.

REASONS TO GO: A vampire movie that will give Twilight-haters a reason to rejoice. Strong performances from all of the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The dismal atmosphere can get overly oppressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent, disturbing scenes and a fair amount of foul language. In addition, there’s an unexpected sexual situation; this is very much for older teens and above only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “vampire” only is spoken once in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the moody forest scenes benefit from the big screen, overall I’d say the movie is just as effective on your own television or computer screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Day Two of Six Days of Darkness

The Bounty Hunter


The Bounty Hunter

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are crusing the byways of New Jersey in a big blue whale.

(Columbia) Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler, Jason Sudeikis, Dorian Missick, Joel Marsh Garland, Christine Baranski, Jeff Garlin, Cathy Moriarty, Richie Coster, Carol Kane, Tracy Thorne, Adam Rose, Siobhan Fallon Hogan. Directed by Andy Tennant

Sometimes life drops a gift into our laps. It could be an inheritance from a previously unknown relative, or a long-forgotten stock gift hitting paydirt. It can even be something far more simpler but much more satisfying.

Nicole Hurly (Aniston) is a reporter whose life is her job. She is investigating the apparent suicide of a police property clerk under suspicious circumstances. When a snitch calls her to set up a meeting with important evidence on the line, she blows off a bail hearing for a traffic crime to go to the meet.

Milo Boyd (Butler) used to be a police detective but he’s made a few career missteps so now he works for his friend Sid (Garlin) as a bounty hunter for bail skip-outs. When he receives the ticket for his ex-wife – you guessed it, Nicole Hurly – over the fourth of July weekend, he is more than jazzed. He is simply ecstatic.

While searching his ex-wife’s apartment, he runs into her love-struck co-worker Stewart (Sudeikis) who believes that he is having a torrid relationship with Nicole (which was in reality a single night of drunken making out). With his intimate knowledge of the client he heads over to Atlantic City where Nicole has also blown off lunch with her cabaret entertainer mom (Baranski) to go to the track and think. He collars her at the track and its clear that she despises him and vice versa.

Milo is also in debt to some bookies for a good deal of dough and Mama Irene (Moriarty) wants it collected. A couple of thugs are on the look-out for Milo, and there are some crooked cops who are after Nicole. Now half the state of New Jersey is looking for both of them and they can’t stand each other – but they’ll have to rely on each other to make it back to New York.

In years gone by this would have been a screwball comedy with Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant in the lead roles, with lots of snappy one-liners and clever dialogue. Today, it’s a formula romantic comedy that shows little imagination in anything other than the casting of the leads with attractive, bankable stars.

Director Andy Tennant has made movies like Hitch and Sweet Home Alabama, both light entertainments that are way better than this is. This is bloodless and by the numbers. Aniston and Butler are both solid actors who have made some good movies but this isn’t one of them. Butler, who was solid in last year’s The Ugly Truth, is in a similar man-slob role but unlike that movie doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities. The sweetness that was at the core of his character in that movie is completely missing here.

There’s some talent in the supporting roles, from Baranski as Nicole’s oversexed mom to the great Carol Kane as a bed and breakfast owner. For the most part though, it’s wasted with pointless slapstick bits and one-liners that are punchless and none too funny. It’s not a complete waste of time, but it isn’t anything to write home about either.

In fact, this is a completely formulaic movie that holds no surprises whatsoever. You know where the romance is going, and you know who the bad guys are the minute they show up onscreen. It’s a no-brainer for even the non-discerning audience.  

REASONS TO GO: Aniston and Butler are attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: A passionless, formulaic script with no surprises whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and a little bit of violence and foul language but for the most part perfectly harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed at Monmouth Racetrack in New Jersey; notices were posted throughout the track that those who didn’t want to be filmed should leave the premises.

HOME OR THEATER: No problem waiting for this to hit the home video market.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Repo Men