CREED: THE BEST ROCKY FILM SINCE ROCKY

Creed is a lot better than most audience members would expect it to be. Combining new talent in actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler with the venerable Italian Stallion himself Sylvester Stallone to produce a film that honours the original Rocky and yet pulses with a story for today’s world.

We first meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson as a youth serving time in juvenile hall. The offspring of an affair Apollo Creed had shortly before his death in Rocky IV, his mother has also passed on and Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s widow, having tracked him down takes him into her home. Adonis as an adult comes from two worlds and does not feel like he belongs in either. He’s made use of the opportunities Mary Anne afforded him to work a white collar job but on his weekends he heads down to Mexico, boxing in underground matches, eager to throw punches at the world. At night he watches Apollo’s old fights and shadow boxes not Apollo’s opponents but the father he never knew.

Shut out from his father’s old contacts he goes to Philadelphia to seek out the man who knew his father as a boxer best – Rocky Balboa. Balboa as a boy was told by his father that he didn’t have much of brain so he better learn how to use his body. Here Balboa sizes up Adonis pretty quick and says you sound like you went to school, you don’t have to fight. Yet fighters fight and even though he has to continually prove it Donnie is a fighter.

He goes to Mighty Mick’s Boxing Gym and trains while pestering Balboa any chance he gets for coaching tips. In the meantime he meets a girl, Bianca, in the apartment beneath his and they tentatively start a relationship. Played by Tessa Thompson, Bianca has got dreams of her own in the music business and deteriorating hearing that puts a clock on her time to achieve something the way an athlete’s body does on a boxer’s dreams. There are echoes of the original Rocky series throughout, two young lovers relax on a couch and long term fans will remember Rocky and Adrian sitting there while Donnie is now the energetic youth around Rocky the way Rocky once was around Mick. Yet Creed is telling its own story to tell with Donnie and tells it well.

The original Rocky was about believing in one’s self enough to take a shot at life. Creed is focussed on a character with a great deal more confidence but still intimidated by the shadow of his father and a world that he wants to enter. By moving Adonis to Philadelphia from his native LA, the film plays up his sense of discovery with the city, love, boxing and himself. Moving at a leisurely pace, equal time is given to the sweet love story and to Adonis learning his profession. Bianca and Donnie’s first date is really about them discussing their hopes for the future and whether the other person will support them or not, appropriate since this film series has at its heart always been about chasing dreams through adversity.

There are 3 matches that Adonis takes part in throughout the film, each shot differently and each displaying the growth of the character. The first shows a young man isolated with no support arrogant in relying on his anger to give him the edge. The second is a stand out sequence filmed in one take over multiple rounds with make-up applied in quick turns to the crowd or corners. This is where Adonis finds out if he can be a true professional boxer able to take hard hits and dish them out. Beyond the virtuoso filmmaking on display, Jordan has trained hard and sells himself as a professional athlete in this sequence. Like a boxer in a real ring, there is nowhere for him to hide any weaknesses. The third and final match is shot more conventionally like a HBO telecast as the young Creed takes on a world champion to prove worthy of his father’s legacy.

Ryan Coogler co-wrote and directed this film as a love letter to his father who was a huge fan of the Rocky series. The film is sprinkled with lots of references to the past that his father should enjoy, including a very poignant return to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, but Coogler is writing a new story to inspire today’s generation. A young kid who never saw Rocky could watch this film, relate to it and enjoy it without the trappings of nostalgia. Coogler’s own father was going through health issues when he wrote it and this inspired the subplot of Rocky Balboa getting sick with cancer. This sub-plot again gets a lot of emotion out of long term fans but does not require familiarity. The reason is that Sylvester Stallone turns in his best performance since Copland. Now the same age Burgess Meredith was in the original Rocky, it’s interesting to note that after all that plastic surgery Stallone looks like a character actor in this film. As a performer he’s gained himself enormous dignity by admitting Rocky and him finally got old. There’s a small scene where he visits Adrian and Paulie’s graves and talks about ageing in a warm casual manner. In his scenes with Jordan every now and again he smiles recognising himself in Adonis at a different time like a father with a son. Sure he shows the physical deterioration of the cancer but the small choices in his performance make him worthy of an Oscar win let alone nomination. Look carefully at Stallone’s face when Rocky is told his prognosis. Or how he plays the very next scene in the gym. If you think Stallone plays it too obvious you haven’t been paying attention.

Rocky Balboa allowed the character to retire with grace and dignity. Despite Coogler’s stunning debut Fruitvale Station, Creed sounded like something that could turn out to be a huge mistake. Instead it is something remarkably special, it gives us a delayed sequel to a beloved series that not only adds in quality to those films but can stand apart on its own. This is one of the best films of the year.

-Lloyd Marken

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD ROCKS BECAUSE GRANDPA MILLER KNOWS ACTION

fire explosion mad max mad max fury roadMad Max: Fury Road arrives with a bang easily the best blockbuster of the whole American summer. Like a howling breath of fresh air for the action genre, this fourth entry in the franchise both paradoxically shows how films could be shot going forward and revels in old school practicality. George Miller at 70 has led a cast and crew of all ages in the reinvention of a franchise and a genre with the kind of energy and zeal a man half of his years would shudder to muster.

Skipping an origin story with what is effectively a reboot we are plunged head first into this dystopian post-apocalyptic world with little water or petrol. Reducing all back to tribal loyalties and feudal pecking orders, those with muscle are the ones who wield power. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) himself is a man with capable skills and physicality but is subject to attack due to his loner status. His vulnerability shown up in the opening scenes where wandering the desert he is chased and captured by a group of thugs and taken to The Citadel where dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules supreme. Tellingly Max and Joe never meet, Max even following an escape attempt is never seen as truly remarkable but strung up to be used as a blood donor.

angry charlize theron mad max annoyed mad max fury roadThe lead character is arguably not even Max but Imperator Furiousa played by Charlize Theron who serves Joe as his best convoy driver for fuel or ammunition runs in her War Rig semi-trailer truck. Furiousa hides a secret though, she was taken as a child from a more peaceful place and she is planning her escape to get back there and to take with her the young healthy women that Immortan Joe has taken for his brides.

The film is effectively a chase film with character motivations and interactions taking place often on the run. Yet the story is deceptively deep as Immortan Joe clearly at the end of his life prizes women to possibly breed healthy children as more important than how many guns and wealth he can acquire. One powerful shot shows a pregnant woman placing her belly in front of Furiosa rendering a gun toting Joe impotent to fire.mad max mad max fury road immortan joe the splendid angharad hugh keays-byrne

Tom Hardy has always created tremendous physical presences in his films and he is no different here but his Max is a little chattier than Mel Gibson’s. mad max mad max fury road fight me because apparently i am the worlds tiniest puff pastryNonetheless he till mostly grunts through the film and like previous efforts, Hardy nicely conveys the theme of Max learning to co-exist and even rely on others. Charlize Theron packed on 9 kilograms of muscle to her frame for the film and here covered in grease and rags with a mechanical arm she is the most beautiful thing in the film. Conveying so much with glances from her shining green eyes she is unequivocally a fucking movie star but also one of the best actresses working today. Being liberated are the Five Wives some played by former models who all convey subtle personality traits that define each of their characters and make them all unique. movie film love couple sci-fiNicholas Hoult portrays a War Boy named Nux originally loyal to Immortan Joe and eager to die a glorious death hunting down Furiosa. He has possibly the biggest arc as a character and Hoult conveys a growing revelation that War Boy has always wanted to be liked and have friends. This need and its lack of gratification shows up the harshness of his world.

2015 behind the scenes mad max mad max fury road chromeThe music could be my favourite score of the year, certainly of any blockbuster. So much thought has gone into production design right down to things that may not even appear on screen in terms of gear sticks and interiors of certain vehicles. Such details inform about the characters reflecting their personalities and status as well as how they live. While a stunning array of real stunts were performed in shot, various rigs and wires are CGI’d out and the palette of the colours has been dramatically changed in post. It creates an epic new look for the film not dissimilar to comics and distancing the film from the original trilogy to stand on its own.

mad max mad max fury road fury roadSpecial shout out to this film’s Supervising Stunt Coordinator Guy Norris who performed many stunts on Mad Max 2 most famous of which was the bicycle stunt when he flipped over several times in mid-air after a crash and broke his femur. Now 54, Norris book ended the stunts of this film by first rolling Max’s Interceptor as seen in the trailers and at the end of filming driving a sixteen wheeler truck into the wreck of another at 60 miles per hour. Cinematographer John Seale also came out of retirement to do this film and his work is magnificent.

George Miller is making the best use of all modern technology can afford him but he has wisely foreseen that there is a growing recognition to feature women as more than love interests in genre pictures on a regular basis and that nothing beats the thrill of real stunts in an action film. This is a great movie.

-Lloyd Marken

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CAST SHINES IN BRIAN WILSON’S NON-TRADITIONAL BIOPIC

You’re going to hear a lot of talk about Paul Dano’s performance as a young Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy and it is all well deserved. He is the anchor of the scenes set in The Beach Boys early days as Brian retreats from performing and sinks into making the masterpiece that is Pet Sounds. We see a shy young man wrestle with his demons in a different time and place. There must have been a great burden placed on his family at the time and don’t kid yourself Brian got heavy into drugs and partying. The film focuses more on his obsession with making an album that would be like nothing anybody had ever experienced and fending off pressure from his bitter father and exasperated brother. These are choices made to make him more sympathetic perhaps but also to show cause and effect. John Cusack’s older Brian Wilson later says “I wasn’t a good father.” We don’t go further but there is child-like honesty and simplicity to that. He was sick and he lost his family and now here he is. John Cusack is one of the most likeable actors in the world and when he speaks with a child’s straight forwardness about these things we feel sorry for Brian’s loss and maybe don’t think too much on how hard it must have been for his family too. You couldn’t necessarily earn that sympathy with another actor.

Cusack’s Brian has regrets and there is an authenticity in having the older Brian played by an older actor. None of the people present in the Dano’s sections are seen in the Cusack years and vice versa. They’re separate stories, one about creating an album and the onset of an illness. The other a love story about the triumphant re-emergence of Wilson from that illness albeit not without some of the years having ravaged him. Period settings, film stock and different actors definitely set these two stories apart and yet as we build to both conclusions we can clearly see the connections being made. “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” – Jesuit Motto

I’ve been a big fan of Elizabeth Banks for a long time and this may be her best performance yet going toe to toe with great actors like Paul Giamatti as Dr Eugene Landry and Cusack. The latter has a puppy dog charisma that draws Bank’s car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter to him but it is an odd world the older Beach Boy lives in. Banks is able to communicate how tempting it would be to walk away and why as a strong woman she found herself patiently navigating Brian’s world. The extent of Dr Landry’s control gradually reveals itself setting up an inevitable showdown. When it comes on two sides of a closed door Elizabeth Banks steals the fucking movie from everyone. Please somebody give this woman a blockbuster with her in the lead! Cusack finds small notes here, in a lot of ways he lacks agency in his own story and puts aside vanity to be insulted or drugged in certain scenes. A key scene is when he becomes manic with worry that Eugene will punish him and you can see how confusing this would be for Melissa and how urgent this threat is to Brian.

Love and Mercy is well written and well directed by Bill Pohlad but it is the performances that make or break such a film. This movie soars thanks to them.

-Lloyd Marken

GET READY TO BE DISAPPOINTED LIKE IT’S 1999 OR…

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This is it in another 24 hours Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be playing across cinemas in my local cinema and the world. This is the last day I will know as little as I do. The last day I won’t know the answer to a million questions like did Han and Leia stay together all those years since we last saw them? Why not? What has Luke been doing? Are the new characters related to any of the old characters and who out of them will be Force sensitive? It is the last day anybody will really discuss the quality of the trailers because afterwards it will only matter if the film was good. Perhaps most importantly it is the last day to be this excited about a new Star Wars movie. There is something about the thrill of the unknown and the advertised but not yet consumed product. Tomorrow you might see a movie which you love dearly and go back to see 2 or 3 times. You’ll never be this excited about it again.

Disney have played this well. That last trailer has to be the best trailer of the year but it works mostly if you’re a fan. Recent trailers for blockbusters this past month have been shoddy when compared to the marketing for this movie. They’ve put the new characters Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren front and centre because they are where the franchise is heading and these films have to speak to a demographic that at best grew up on the prequels. Rey says she’s no one but we know she is going to prove to everybody she is someone. She dreams of adventure and seeing beyond where she grew up. A young man once looked out at two suns and thought similar thoughts. Finn does not know his purpose anymore or even who he is. We know he will find out both in this story. These are questions all of us ask of ourselves at different points of our lives but most keenly when we are young. Audiences could relate to Luke Skywalker in his dreams for adventure in the original Star Wars. Rey and Finn will do this for another generation.

Speaking of generations the trailers suggest Han Solo and Chewbacca will be guides for Rey and Finn throughout this universe and keepers of past stories much like millions of parents will be as they take their kids to see this space opera which is kind of like Guardians of the Galaxy only less funny sweetie. “A Jedi. The Dark Side. It’s true, all of it.” Han says in the trailer and these are the kind of words you would tell a child when telling Star Wars as a bed time story.

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For my generation they’ve handed out nostalgia hits with John Williams score and money shots of the Millennium Falcon which paradoxically may not hold much appeal for Millennials. But make no mistake this is the ultimate 4 quadrant hit. When the Falcon moved into hyper drive and the score kicked in I felt goose bumps all over. At the end when Lupita Nyongo told me “The Force it’s calling to you…just let it in.” the Meta was strong with me. A million fans who felt burned by the prequels would’ve all felt the same way – she’s talking to me directly and I do want to let it in. I don’t think it’s unnatural to feel directly addressed by a trailer and yet share that feel with millions. These are films after all that make fans feel a tremendous sense of ownership. Look at the furore over Greedo shot first and the insistence that is it Star Wars not Episode 4: A New Hope!

Disappointment over J.J. Abrahams last film Star Trek: Into Darkness has tempered some expectations but his Super 8 felt so much like a movie from the 1980s made for kids that I believe Abrahams will nail the feel of the original trilogy’s world. I’ll make a prediction here and now and it’s the safest bet. It will be good, it won’t be terrible and it’s won’t be great. It can’t be 1977 again. The freshness is gone. I suppose Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed and Skyfall felt like films of their franchise but reinvented for a new modern age and as good as anything that came before. Maybe Star Wars could do that too and I hope it does but that is a hell of a thing to pull off and even then can it possibly meet the expectations set by that final trailer?

Part of what has me nervous is how excited I was when The Phantom Menace trailer dropped back in the day. It’s fascinating to look back now and see bits of scenes that were awful in it. Look Obi Wan is shaking Jake Lloyd’s hand but that’s the kid that says “Now this is pod racing.” All that CGI which at the time was exciting because we’d never seen anything like it and the scale was so impressive. We couldn’t tell how fake it was all going to look. There’s Jar Jar Binks getting zapped by the engines but we didn’t know how maligned his character would be. Jar Jar, Watto, battle droids these were impressively rendered CGI aliens who opened up the scope of the universe like the aliens in the original had. Lots of space battles. None of that suggested the endless boring political subplot. Ewan McGregor sounded so much like Obi-Wan I wondered if he’d been dubbed by Sir Alec Guinness who was still alive at the time. Yoda my favourite character was back and his dialogue was good and Samuel L. Jackson was going to be a motherfucking Jedi!!! It’s pretty fashionable these days to hate the prequels and my sentiments are with the original trilogy but I’ve got to say I don’t hate them. There are things I find in all of them worthwhile. In The Phantom Menace I really like Qui-Gon Jinn as a character and I think Darth Maul was suitably awesome as someone who made two Jedis look brave for going up against him. The Pod Race was fantastic and meeting Anakin as a slave’s child on Tatooine was a really interesting choice. But I digress. I went to a midnight screening with two friends from high school. I was 18 and about to leave uni in my first year. We caught a cab into the city afterwards just to walk through it in the middle of the night. Desperate for freedom and to see the world, like a certain young Skywalker I guess. Dissecting everything, discussing where to go in the sequels we liked it but things nagged at us. The biggest thing for me was the flow of the film, the dialogue often seemed stilted and the scenes rushed quickly by but paradoxically dragged as well. To me the story settled down best on Tatooine but the beginning I had found very jolting.

If anything makes me real nervous it is that we haven’t seen any scenes from the film yet. I don’t know if the dialogue will not flow any better than a prequel at this point in time but JJ and Lawrence Kasdan haven’t written bad dialogue in the past so I remain hopeful. I’ll be honest as a teenager back in 1994 I read George Lucas was going to make new Star Wars movies and I got really excited. The original trilogy had alluded to such a rich history and vast universe that my head spun with the possibilities. Yet even as a teenager I sat and wondered if Lucas could still make good movies. Radioland Murders, Tucker, Howard the Duck and Willow were in the rear view mirror at that point. I was right to be worried then. I hope I am right to be optimistic now. One more day and we’ll know. May the Force Be With You.

-Lloyd Marken

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THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 OF WHAT COULD HAVE JUST BEEN ONE MOVIE

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 makes a very compelling argument that there should only ever had been The Hunger Games: Mockingjay made as much as Part 1 made the same argument. Fans of the book should enjoy seeing this world realised on the screen with a fourth film and breathe a sigh of relief that the ending was not compromised for the masses. However for the rest of us Mockingjay’s split was an indulgence engineered to stretch revenue at the cost of narrative economy.  Hollywood please take note.

This is not to say it’s a bad film by itself. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returns, last seen having been attacked by her former fiancé Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) after they were finally reunited at the end of Part One. Part Two immediately picks up from there with no refresher to the world or current developments, the casual filmgoer may struggle to understand some of the personal stakes here if they can’t recall characters and their backstories. For instance Finnick a past Hunger Games Victor gets married here to his love from a previous film but I needed Wikipedia to remind me of their history together. The Wikipedia page made me care more about their wedding more than the film did and that’s a problem.

I did better remembering the world of rich and poor Districts and where we were in the war. Katniss a propaganda tool for the rebellion is eager to go after President Snow (Donald Sutherland never better) who rules The Capitol.  So after Finnick’s wedding (like all weddings a useful narrative tool for getting all characters into a room for introductions or farewells) she stows away on a transport jet to go to the frontlines. President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the Rebellion, has other plans for her though to be included in a squad that shoots propaganda shorts behind the troops while taking out booby-traps. There is a lot of neat political and social commentary in this series. Katniss a heroine who came to attention by surviving with skill and courage in a deadly gladiatorial game is now being utilised in a war to inspire but not to lead or fight. Jena Malone as former Victor Johanna Mason at one point mocks her even after being shot because she had to be wearing a bullet proof vest due to her value to the cause.

The scene in the hospital between Katniss and Joanna may just be my favourite of the whole film. Mason has retained her sass despite having been held captive and tortured for the past year. Everdeen who is still in the fight knows Mason maybe understands them and their world better than most. It’s Mason who helps her escape to the front and it is Mason who gets her to enjoy a dance with her loved ones at the wedding. War brings uncertainty and loss, better kick up your heels while everyone is still breathing even if you don’t feel like it.

With the booby traps set in the Capitol it has now become a much larger Hunger Games arena with the squad getting picked off as they make their way to Snow’s mansion. The books no doubt would’ve added compelling back stories to these characters to make you worry about their fates but here in the film it is lot more difficult to care about most of them. The ones we do care about the most were in the previous films and again the memories can be dim for a few if you haven’t seen the films recently. Another compelling reason why one Mockingjay film would’ve been better. Of course we care if Liam Hemsworth lives.

film kate winslet liam hemsworth the dressmakerYet imagine all these characters introduced at the beginning and then put in jeopardy during a third act assault on the Capitol. There’s two days spent in this section of the film that could have easily been one. Still there is a fantastic sequence involving subterranean creatures that plays like a PG-13 Aliens scene with all of the intensity and less of the gore.

How the war ends is very important to the film and pivotal to Katniss herself. The rebel with integrity is left with only one choice after it and when she lifts her bow and arrow one last time onscreen I was smiling with anticipation. This series is fitting for the times and the youth of it. They’re savvy to media manipulation through the democracy of digital content, they’re grown up on reality TV that plays like a modern distracting Colosseum, the world is shrinking in the age of information and the different levels of wealth through it has never been more apparent. Since October 2001 we’ve been at war in the Middle East one way or another and there have been a lot of casualties and soldiers coming home but leaving parts of themselves back there. By comparison a simple good and evil tale would be too quaint for these times and this generation. Mockingjay is nicely sophisticated with a broad canvas of ideas and complex characters. Just not with a story that again, I must point this out, had to be split into two.

-Lloyd Marken