Saturday, December 5, 2015

Creed: Worth the hype


The last time I watched a Rocky movie was almost a decade ago. While I really liked the first movie, it's never been a franchise that stuck with me. Kinda like the Rambo movies -- after First Blood, they just turn into increasingly cartoonish repetitions of the same underdog story. They forget where they started.

Ryan Coogler is a genius. That's the only word I can use to describe how he made me feel during this movie. Somehow Creed managed to make me care about these characters and world in a way I never have. I don't care about Rocky, Paulie or Adrian, and yet every time this movie evoked the series' past, I was a broken man. There was this one moment where Adonis takes out Apollo's stars'n'stripes shorts which almost made me tear up. What the hell is with this movie? Anyway, let's get into it.

The story is fairly simple. Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Born after his father's death, he spent years going through foster homes and juvie centres, until he is given a second chance after Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) finds him. Searching for purpose, he has become a fighter in underground bouts in Mexico while sleepwalking through a desk job. Obsessed with becoming a professional boxer, he leaves his comfortable life to go to Philadelphia and build himself into a true fighter. To do this, he seeks out a reluctant Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him...

On paper, this synopsis sounds dopey and cliched as heck. And to be honest, if you want to be cynical, it is basically the same template from Rocky. There are a few nods to the previous movies (and I'm sure I missed plenty of others), but Coogler and his collaborators have done a marvellous job of making this movie feel like its own beast. The filmmakers clearly love this franchise and take great care to enliven all of the tropes and conventions of the typical sports movie. The way he does this is through character. That's what made the first movie great in the first place, and Creed spends every second of its 2 and a half hour runtime making you care about these people and their problems (if you are worried about pacing, don't worry. This thing flew by).

Michael B. Jordan continues his impressive run of performances with Adonis. Impulsive and even tempered, mature and childish, this is a character filled with contradictions and Jordan makes you believe every one of them. Even though his arc echoes some familiar moves from the first movie, the characters are so distinctive it never becomes an issue.

While Jordan is great as the young Creed, he is more than matched by his co-stars.


Tessa Thompson plays Bianca, Donny's neigbour who becomes his love interest. She's a singer with deteriorating hearing. Unlike Adrian, she will not give Donny an inch and stands up to him. She's a fully fleshed out person who has no illusions about her boyfriend's life. Together with Balboa, her relationship with Donny is the catalyst for his eventual growth. Like everything else in this movie, it is a familiar character type, but one lent a degree of nuance and complexity which elevates Bianca beyond the poor Adrian clone she could have been. Between this and Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, Thompson is definitely one to watch.



On the Sly front, can't say anything you haven't already heard. Stallone is terrific. I would not be surprised if he got some awards attention. Hopefully this inspires him to put aside the guns for awhile and make some more dramas. When the first Rocky came out, people thought he was going to be the next Brando. This performance should give him another shot at more character roles. It's that good.

On the technical front, everyone is talking about the long take of the first fight -- what's great about it is that you don't notice it for a long time. And unlike the opening salvo in Spectre, it is not designed to draw attention to itself -- it's all about following Adonis as he is put through the ringer in his first real bout. The choreography of the camera and the performers adds to this great sense of escalation as Adonis finds his feet (and his fists). It's great.

If you like Rocky already, you'll love it. If, like me, you don't have a lot invested, you'll enjoy it a lot. Maybe there will be a sequel. I hope not. This movie is great, and should be left to stand on its own. Irregardless, check this movie out.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Double bill: Youth & 5 to 7

Took in a couple of new indie releases yesterday. Here's the reviews!

Youth  

This one was... interesting. For the second time this year I am reviewing a film featuring Rachel Weisz in a hotel where weird stuff happens.

The plot is fairly simple: two old friends, a retired composer (Michael Caine) and a film director (Harvey Keitel), take a vacation at a resort near the Swiss Alps. While the composer tries to ignore an invitation to stage a concert of his most famous work, the director is hard at work on what he plans to be his last film.

This is a very interesting film. While the story is linear, it is broken up by a series of vignettes and surreal dreams that offer glimpses into the fading psyches of our protagonists. Caine and Keitel are good, although I feel like these are roles I've seen them play before.

Rachel Weisz turns up as Caine's daughter, and Paul Dano plays an actor using his vacation to research his next role. All these people are searching for purpose, and the hotel serves as the catalyst for change.

Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Youth is all about ageing, memory, nostalgia and regret. If the symbolism occasionally feels obvious and the dialogue clunks with metaphor, it does not really matter when so much of it works. My main issue is with the dialogue, which betrays its writer's origins all too often.

Actually, since the film does so much of its work visually it is surprising that there is so much emphasis on words to explain what we are seeing. The movie would have been more interesting without the dialogue, or in the filmmaker's natural tongue -- what sounds obvious in English may be more palatable in Italian.

Occasionally however, the film manages to leaven the characters' conversations with a much needed sense of humour -- as in the excruciating scene in which Dano's self-pitying thespian is cut down to size by Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea). That's not her name, she just won Miss Universe and no one bothers to give her real name.

Occasionally inspired but somewhat hackneyed, Youth is a solid showcase for its stars. Check it out.

5 to 7


Struggling writer Brian Bloom (Anton Yelchin) meets an older French woman, Arielle (Berenice Marlohe). Smitten, they begin a relationship. She informs him that she is married, but that they can continue their relationship from 5 to 7pm each day.  

Though he is uncomfortable with the arrangement, Brian agrees and is drawn into Arielle's family. Through this new, unorthodox relationship, Brian grows as a person and his stagnant writing career begins to take off. And then he falls in love... 

This is a movie that lives and dies on the chemistry between its leads -- on that count, it does not quite work. While Berenice Marlohe and Anton Yelchin do have a rapport, it feels more like a casual fling than a genuine romantic frission. The story is pretty formulaic, and so are the characters -- everyone is playing an idea, not a fully realised person. The only one who rises above her archetype is Olivia Thirlby as Marlohe's husband's mistress, who becomes Brian's inner voice of reason.

Writer-director Victor Levin is clearly trying to evoke the romance narratives of another era -- the glistening, subtle innuendo of Lubitsch and the more prosiac but iconic Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961). However, this kind of material, in which characters navigate a specific code of sexual etiquette, requires a deft touch to avoid it feeling contrived. Sadly, Levin does not have it.

Technically, there a few issues. Levin often frames his characters in long shots, and at the other end of rooms and through doorways and windows. This gives scenes a cold, clinical feel that works against the modern fairy tale Levin is trying to create -- it also highlights the tepid chemistry between his leads. He also uses a lot of deep and shallow focus in a haphazard and seemingly unnecessary way. It just gives off the air of someone who is trying to dress up scenes with unnecessary touches which detract from the simple story.

The reliance on the references to old Hollywood romance also means that the film winds up too conventional to really take advantage of its premise. While the film never outright condemns the characters for their unconventional approach to romance and relationships, the neat ending in which heteronormativity is restored, reduces the film to be yet another tired story of a young man gaining 'experience' from sexy older woman. 

Ultimately, 5 to 7 is a souffle that fails to rise.