Macbeth(12/13/2015)

I’m really worried about Michael Fassbender.  The guy emerged late last decade as a major rising star who seemed like he could restore a particular kind of tough intensity to the screen in an era where most of the movies stars seem to be wisecrackers like Chris Pratt and prettyboys like Chris Hemsworth.  These qualities have certainly endeared him to film buffs, who are constantly searching for the next Robert De Niro and he’s won awards for his work in movies like Shame and 12 Years a Slave but I’m worried that for all his star quality the wider public just hasn’t caught on.  Fassbender has had roles in mainstream blockbusters like X-Men: First Class and Prometheus but I don’t know that he’s ever really been able to “sell” a movie to the public and that weakness came to a head earlier this year when the Fassbender starring biopic Steve Jobs failed spectacularly to interest the general public and one can’t help but wonder if this was simply because they didn’t really recognize the man at the center imitating the titular tech mogul.  This lack of popularity may in fact have less to do with his qualities as an actor than it does with his refusal to behave like a movie star.  He doesn’t campaign for awards and shies away from making appearances on talk shows.  I certainly understand why he’d want to avoid all that nonsense, but I fear for all the performances we may lose if Hollywood decides he isn’t “bankable.”  The litmus test for his place in the mainstream may come next year when he stars in a big budget adaptation of the “Assassin’s Creed” videogame series, until then he’s decided to cross another challenge off his thespian “to do” list: tackling Shakespeare.

That Michael Fassbender’s foray into Shakespeare would be in an adaptation of Macbeth probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.  Fassbender’s main asset as an actor is his quiet intensity and few Shakespeare characters are as quiet and intense as the title character of his Scottish play.  On top of that, Macbeth is a much bigger badass than most of Shakespeare’s characters.  One would hardly believe Fassbender as a weak and dithering Hamlet or as a more conventionally heroic character like Henry V or Mark Antony and of course his presence in one of the comedies is even harder to picture.  As you would expect, Fassbender is pretty damn good in this role.  This adaptation focuses more on Macbeth’s psychology than usual, positing the character less as a Machiavellian schemer and more as an insane demagogue who lusts for power but isn’t even sure why.  Meanwhile Lady Macbeth, played here by Marion Cotillard, is viewed more as a sort of enabler than as a mastermind and here eventual madness comes less from guilt of her own actions than from the fact that she’s created a monster and unleashed him upon Scotland.  If I have any real complaint about either of these performances it’s that they’re maybe a little too quiet and restrained for their own good.  They spend a lot of the movie whispering lines that were pretty clearly meant to be projected to the back of a theater and I would have liked it if they had maybe unleashed a bit more of that sound a fury here and there.

The film was directed by an Australian filmmaker named Justin Kurzel, who is also slated to direct the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed movie.  Kurzel’s first movie was a fictionalized dramatization of an infamous Australian crime story called The Snowtown Murders.  That movie was appropriately grisly but also knew how to not go so far as to be distasteful and it also had a tone that was extremely somber and understated almost to a fault.  Macbeth is of course another story about a killer and the film also sort of has a quiet and understated, almost kind of dreary, tone.  Here Kurzal has opted to emphasize the fact that the play is meant to be set well before Shakespeare’s time and in a Scottland that is still rather entrenched in a sort of tribalism.  Much of the film has been placed outdoors in military camps rather than in opulent palaces and things are a lot dirtier and rustic than what we usually associate with Shakespeare.  It’s also not entirely clear how much of the film’s tone is meant to be taken literally and how much of it is partly informed by the character’s mental state.  For instance it is perhaps an open question whether the weird sisters, who in this adaptation seem almost spectral, are even real in the movie or whether they’re a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.

So, is this movie good?  Well, yeah.  This is one of the greatest dramas ever written, it’s kind of hard to screw up, especially when you have a cast like this.  The bigger questions are whether the movie lives up to its potential and whether it’s better than the other adaptations of this play (and there have been a lot of them).  Given that Macbeth has such a rich cinematic history this latest adaptation doesn’t have the easiest road to becoming memorable and it certainly isn’t the boldest and most cinematically exciting option out there.  However, I do think there’s value to having a well-made and relatively “straight” adaptation of the play and I suspect that the film may prove to be popular among high school teachers who want a film adaptation of the play that’s closer to the original text than Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and who doesn’t want to deal with all the nudity and 70s haircuts that go with Roman Polanski’s Macbeth.  If you’re in the mood for a little Shakespeare this will probably give you what you’re looking for, if you’re looking for a particularly striking cinematic experience you could certainly do worse and it definitely has its moments but this isn’t going to blow your mind.

*** out of Four

Home Video Round-Up: 12/2/2015

Love & Mercy (11/25/2015)

Given how long music critics have speculated and argued about the psycho-drama that is Brian Wilson’s life it’s maybe surprising that it’s taken this long to make a movie about the Beach Boys and that when it finally came out it did so in a rather low key and independent fashion.  Well, maybe it isn’t so surprising.  Wilson was never the kind of “monster of rock” that they usually make big budget musical biopics about maybe a small scale biopic suits him.  This film employs a unique structure which intercuts the story of the younger Wilson played by Paul Dano recording “Pet Sounds” with the story of the older Wilson played by John Cusack as he’s recovering from his breakdown but is still under the thumb of a domineering therapist who maybe doesn’t have his best interests at heart.  I was a little weary that the filmmakers were taking on this unconventional structure just for the sake of taking on an unconventional structure, something that I worry that some filmmakers are doing now just to avoid the hostility that critics have for linear biopics these days.  As it turns out, I think this structure was used for the right reasons but I also don’t think it really worked spectacularly, in part because I think one half was simply executed a lot better than the other.  The Paul Dano segments are an interesting recreation of rock history told in a dignified and low key way, the John Cusack segments by contrast feel rather underwhelming.  I don’t think John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks are great in their respective roles and it doesn’t help that the film turns Banks’ character into this almost saint-like figure whose interest in Wilson is never made particularly clear.  Overall, it’s a pretty decent movie for anyone with an interest in the subject matter, don’t know that it’s going to be enshrined in the annals of great musical biopics.

*** out of Four

3½ Minutes Ten Bullets (11/29/2015)

I was pretty interested in the “loud music murder” trial when it was going on in part because I’ve always been fascinated with just how angry African Americans playing loud music in their cars seems to make old people and secondly because it seemed like a counter example of the Trayvon Martin case where the justice system actually seemed to work.  However, watching the new HBO documentary about the case I couldn’t help but think “man, some news stories just really don’t need to be turned into feature length documentaries.”  True crime and courtroom documentaries are at their best when they keep you guessing and make you re-think your assumptions and as such this documentary was very much at a disadvantage because this case proved to be exactly what it looked like from the beginning: the story of a jumpy white guy with a gun making a psychotic decision that left a black teenager dead.  The documentary doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond what you could have learned from the initial news reports about the event.  You get a little bit of a glimpse at what the whole ordeal was like for the family of the deceased, who reacted pretty much exactly how you’d think they would… and that’s about it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the presentation but there’s just not a whole lot of insight.  Skip the movie, google a couple of newspaper articles about the case and you’re probably good.

** out of Four

Heaven Knows What (11/28/2015)

Heaven Knows What is a low budget New York indie adaptation of an unpublished memoir by its star Arielle Holmes about her experiences on the streets while addicted to heroin and in the throes of a relationship with another junkie who could be rather abusive.  As you can probably guess this isn’t what you’d necessarily call a pleasant watch.  These kind of drug addiction dramas were something of a staple of independent cinema in the 90s when movies like Drugstore Cowboy and Another Day in Paradise told similarly miserablist stories but felt a lot more passionate and relevant while doing so.   This certainly feels pretty authentic but it never quite built the necessary empathy for its characters and doesn’t do a whole lot to help make you understand why these characters would want to live the way they do.  Also, the film has a really misguided synth score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink which feels like it belongs in It Follows or something, not in a gritty drama about street life which probably shouldn’t have any score at all.  As micro budget indies go, this does have some good things going for it and Holmes’ acting is quite strong, but I never really saw much of a point to the whole thing.

**1/2 out of Four

Best of Enemies (11/30/2015)

Much as everyone seems to think reality TV is garbage, most people seem to agree with the notion that arguments between windbag pundits are ruining the discourse.  And much the way reality seems to be watched by a lot of people in spite of the universal naysaying people still seem to enjoy watching said pundits yell at each other.  The new documentary Best of Enemies seems to posit that the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Party conventions was sort of the genesis of this state of affairs.  Of course the film is also something of a requiem for an era of more enlightened discourse.  As much as Vidal and Buckley bickered and argued they did at least seem to be intellectual giants rather than trained partisan hacks and they spoke in a way that didn’t seem to pander to the lowest common denominator.  I guess the biggest lesson I took from the documentary, which combines original footage from these debates with a pretty impressive roster of talking heads providing background, is that things can get out of hand very quickly when you make exceptions and loosen the standards.  Letting the discourse turn to borderline fisticuffs seems harmless and fun when you have the likes of Buckley and Vidal doing it, but once the floodgates open and the imitators start trying to do the same you’re setting yourself up for a world of Tucker Carlsons and Glenn Becks.

*** out of Four

The Overnight (12/2/2015)

What is it about movies about millennial yuppies that make me so angry?  I’m a millennial myself so I guess it’s not a matter of simply being angry about the “kids these days” and I don’t get too worked up about the movies that depict other kinds of privilege so it’s not a matter of class warfare.  Maybe it’s just the way these movies just blithely assume you’re just like the films’ characters and are going to relate to them when more often than not I fucking don’t, and even if I did, so what?  “Relatability” always seemed like a rather shallow and narcissistic thing to demand of a movie and these movies tend to coast on it, and given that this was produced by the king and duke of hipster bullshit the Duplass brothers and starred Jason Schwatzman and Adam Scott, so I expected to be in for a bumpy ride.  To the film’s credit, this does diverge from some of the usual hallmarks of this genre.  It’s not set in Brooklyn, the characters are a little older than usual, and there’s no indie rock soundtrack but it’s still pretty firmly entrenched in upper-middle-class yuppidum of the worst kind.  The film is about two married couples who have a dinner party and then end up in a sort of game of liberal one-upmanship in which the hosts do something open-minded and European and the guests who are desperately afraid of looking square go along with it.  In other words it’s a movie about juvenile peer pressure carried into adulthood… and some borderline swinger shit.  I can see how this would work for somebody but it certainly wasn’t for me.

** out of Four

Brooklyn(12/5/2015)

It’s no secret that Hollywood loves adapting popular novels in order attract said novels’ readership, but not every book that gets adapted is necessarily going to be popular.  Often Hollywood catches on to the fact that certain authors’ work ends up being uniquely adaptable even if their work only achieves moderate popularity in its printed form.  Elmore Leonard is probably the author that had the longest run of sway within Hollywood but other authors like Dennis Lehane who have had similar runs of success even if their books alone didn’t make them household names.  In the early 2000s one of those authors appeared to be the English novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote relatable novels about people in their 30s and their various relationship problems.  Hollywood’s interest in this work resulted in the movies High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch.  And then they just kind of stopped being interested.  Maybe the underperformance of that American Fever Pitch adaptation put them off, maybe his later books just didn’t work as well for adaptation purposes, I don’t know.  But Hornby has had something of a second career as a screenwriter adapting other people’s books.  This started in 2009 when he adapted a memoir by Lynn Barber into An Education and last year he adapted another memoir into the film Wild.  Now he’s come back again, this time adapting a literary novel by an Irish author Colm Tóibín into the new film Brooklyn.

Set in 1952, Brooklyn tells the story of a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who lives in a small town and has few career prospects.  Fortunately for Eilis her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) knows a priest who’s been living in New York named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who agrees to sponsor her in immigrating to America, finder her a place in a boarding house, and getting her a job.  Eilis is nervous about this but makes the journey and after an initial bout of home sickness she begins to adjust to life in the film’s titular borough.  Soon she’s working at a department store and going to night school in order to brush up on bookkeeping and eventually she meets a young man of Italian decent named Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) and begins a relationship.  Suddenly though, circumstances force her to take a trip back to Ireland and she finds herself reconsidering her old life back there and compare it to her new life on the other side of the Atlantic.

Movies about European generally tend to focus on the 19th century but Brooklyn is set a lot later, which is a curious choice that makes the film a little different than what you’d expect.  For one thing, the struggles that Eilis is trying to escape in her home country are a lot less dramatic than what we usually see in these narratives.  There’s no famine or civil war going on that she’s trying to escape and her motivations generally seem a lot less desperate.  Mostly she just seems to want to leave the one horse town she lives in and rather than go to Dublin or London she finds herself going to New York.  Additionally, once she arrives in America they seem mostly prepared to receive her without too much controversy.  The “Irish need not apply” stuff is ancient history at this point and whatever tensions people might have had about Irish immigration at one point seem to have mostly evaporated by 1952.  In general the movie does a pretty admirable job of avoiding a lot of the usual clichés of immigrant narratives and manages to escape a lot of obvious pitfalls.  Just when you think she’s going to become the victim of a mean boss or a sexist professor or a pair of intolerant potential parents in law the movie pivots and goes down the mellower path where the world isn’t conspiring against her.

In fact the characters in this movie are so damn reasonable that it removes a lot of drama and conflict from the movie for a lot of its running time.  In fact it isn’t really until the last half hour or so that the film really sets up a complicated decision for its lead character which is a little weird because this structure almost makes the first three quarters of the movie feel like a very elaborate setup for the last quarter.  I also didn’t really like the way that the film finally resolved the dilemma she faces in that last quarter (which is a spoiler that I am very carefully dancing around in case you haven’t noticed).  She seems to makes a potentially life altering decision on a whim related to one side character and the choice she makes didn’t strike me as a particularly realistic one.  Fortunately that decision does lead to a very well executed coda which makes you give it a pass but I still think that there’s something of an off note to the film right where it mattered the most.  But perhaps worrying too much about that is to miss the point.  This isn’t really a plot-based movie, it’s a character study and the film does do a good job of drawing Eilis and her journey thanks in no small part to Saoirse Ronan, who seems to have finally really made the transition into adult roles after playing children and teenagers in films like Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Brooklyn is a strange beast because it is undoubtedly a good movie but also kind of underwhelming.  The movie has really good period sets, quality cinematography, a great cast, strong direction by John Crowley (who got his start in the theater but has also quietly made a handful of films), but to what end?  It’s hard to explain, the movie does so much right and aside from the aforementioned issues I have with the ending I have very few real complaints or things I wish they had changed, but I also feel like the movie we got is a little insubstantial.  At the end of the day the movie is a pretty safe piece of work that doesn’t really have much thematic resonance.  Actually it reminded me a lot of the Nick Hornby penned 2009 film An Education, which was another movie that I kind of liked and which a lot of other people (including the Academy) liked, but which left almost no impression on the film world and which almost everyone forgot ever existed after about six months.  So I’m left with a conundrum when trying to reach a verdict on this one.  It certainly deserves a positive review but I wouldn’t really be too inclined to urge anyone to rush out and see it under the assumption that it’s some awards-worthy triumph.

*** out of Four

Chi-Raq(12/10/2015)

What happened to Spike Lee?  When he emerged in the 80s he seemed like an incredibly vital voice who would go on to be a major figure in American cinema and for about a decade that was certainly the case but things started to go a little off the rails somewhere in the late 90s and since then there’s been a bit of a split in Spike Lee’s work as he found himself increasingly unable to hit a sweet spot between his sometimes wild vision and mainstream accessibility.  On one hand we got movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and Bamboozled which emphasized some of the filmmakers more alienating stylistic traits, on the other hand we got movies like the Oldboy remake which seems to have been a naked attempt to make money and stay relevant in Hollywood, and then we get movies like Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna which somewhat awkwardly attempt to do both.  Scattered in-between we’ve seen a couple of triumphs like 25th Hour but also a lot of decent but minor efforts like Red Hook Summer and odd little documentary side projects like Passing Strange and Bad 25.  In other words, the dude’s filmography has been all over the place, but the broad pattern remains: energetic political provocations and slightly misjudged Hollywood efforts.  His latest movie, Chi-Raq plainly falls in the former camp but it does so with more success than we’ve seen from this brand of Spike Lee joint in a while.

Chi-Raq is a rip-roaring satire adapted from Aristophanes’ Ancient Greek satire “Lysistrata” in which all the women of Greece swore off sex in order to force the men of the country to end the Peloponnesian War, which was an ongoing conflict when Aristophanes wrote the play.  For the film this action has been moved to the violent streets of South Chicago and focuses in on a woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who is the girlfriend to a man named Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), who is the leader of a purple clad gang called The Spartans.  Chi-Raq is currently in an unending war with an Orange wearing gang called The Trojans led by an eye-patch wearing man named Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).  This relationship is by all accounts very hot and heavy, but Lysistrata becomes increasingly conflicted about her paramour after a little girl is caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout.  After hearing about a successful sex strike which ended a civil war in Liberia Lysistrata considers forming her own sex strike in Chicago and rallies all the local women around it, which quickly causes all hell to break loose.

Spike Lee is really going for broke with this movie and sets it in a sort of exaggerated and broadly comedic world where crazy stuff happens and everything is exaggerated.  As you can tell by the names he’s gone all in on the Greek origins of this concept and has even gone so far to include Samul L. Jackson as a fourth wall breaking narrator of sorts who stands in for the chorus… oh and most of the dialogue in the movie is in a rhyming verse that’s sort of a cross between iambic pentameter and hip-hop.  Yeah, the movie’s batshit, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Before you roll your eyes at any of this it’s probably worth remembering that the Greek theater that the story derives from was pretty nutty itself.  This was a theatrical form where there was a chorus on stage chanting, plots were known to be resolved by gods swooping in on machines, and all the actors were wearing wood masks.  I read Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” in college and can attest that even by Greek theatrical standards it is particularly crazy and was filled with bawdy jokes that would make Amy Schumer blush.  This is a play that climaxes with all the male actors walking around wearing giant erect phalluses in order to represent the characters’ blue balls so no matter how nutty Lee’s movie gets one has to sit back and remember that he is ultimately working off of a very specific tradition and I was consistently interested in the ways he was able modernize a lot of this material.

That having been said, this is a movie that is so over-brimming with ideas that it frequently loses focus and goes a bit off the rails.  The film’s central high concept would seem to make a pretty strong statement about black-on-black violence and I suspect that when Spike Lee originally envisioned the project it had a stronger focus on that one issue but that as race relations became more and more topical in the wake of the #blacklivesmatter movement Lee found himself trying to fit more and more things into the movie.  All too often the movie seems to forget all about the central sex strike concept in order to go off on other tangents like shaming the life insurance industry or displaying fifteen minute sermons about gun control by a catholic priest played by John Cusack to speaks like a black pastor.  It also goes down some rather questionable comedic paths like a running gag about a guy named Oedipus or an extended bit of cartoonish crudity in which the Lysistrada character seduces a strange Southern born military officer who wears confederate flag underwear in an attempt to commandeer a military base… yeah that happens.  In fact the whole movie starts to get especially weird in its final act where it starts to resemble some kind of radical 1960s hippie movie like Wild in the Streets except with very current references which may or may not make sense to people watching the movie a few years down the line.

To be clear this is definitely a movie that is preaching to the choir, I would not send a Republican in to see it and expect them to be persuaded about much of anything.  Also, even for those who are already on the film’s side it doesn’t really offer a lot of realistic solutions to the various issues that are brought up.  Sure this sex strike is proposed but it isn’t really interested in presenting any plausible way that such a thing would catch on.  In the movie it just sort of works and all the women just jump on board.  Other ideas about ending the cycle of violence like gun control are brought up but the movie also seems to understand just how monumentally difficult it is going to be to get something like that to change.  If anything this is mostly a movie about just how untenable the situation is on the streets of cities like Chicago and just how frustrating it is that it seems impossible to do anything about it, but again this is in keeping with the spirit of  Aristophanes’ play, which was being written right in the midst of the seemingly endless and highly destructive Peloponnesian War and had a similar sort of fatalism hidden in its unrealistically successful solution to the conflict it was addressing.

Interestingly, I saw Chi-Raq the day after I saw the movie Brooklyn and oh boy could two movies not be any more different.  I don’t just mean that because of the obvious differences that the two movies have in tone and setting, but rather in their ambitions.  Brooklyn is a movie that makes very few missteps because it plays things very safe, goes down expected avenues, and for all its seeming perfection ends up feeling like something I’m not going to remember for long.  Chi-Raq by contrast is a movie that is fascinating in its recklessness and its energy.  It was like going to a punk rock show immediately after listening to a lounge act.  That isn’t to say I like one approach over the other (there’s a place for both kinds of movies) but the contrast really illustrated something about why this movie appealed to me even though I suspect that a lot of people are really going to hate this thing.  The movie is undoubtedly flawed but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glued to the screen for the entire running time and while I wouldn’t call it a laugh riot it definitely has a wit to it that carries it and more than most movies I see I really can’t wait to see it again.

*** out of Four

Creed(11/29/2015)

The 1976 film Rocky is really really good, possibly great.  Depending on your perspective that’s either an insanely obvious statement or a bit of a surprising reminder.  Obviously Rocky is a very popular movie, one which once won an Academy Award for Best Picture and which has been loved by audiences for generations, but if ever there’s been a movie that’s been tainted by things outside of its control it’s that one.  Rocky’s legacy has largely been tainted by five mostly superfluous sequels as well as the increasingly disreputable career of its star/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone.  Honestly I’m not sure that even the greediest of studio executives would have watched the original Rocky and said to him or herself “I bet we could turn that into a seven film franchise,” rather that’s something that seems to have just happened over time and not necessarily with the worst intentions.  Rocky II was an unneeded but serviceable follow-up, with Rocky III the franchise started to feel like a cash grab, and then came the infamous Rocky IV which featured Rocky fighting a steroid using Soviet champion before giving one of the most ridiculous speeches in film history to a cheering crowd of Russians who have suddenly been inspired by his American tenacity.  Rocky V by contrast didn’t even have the energy to be stupid, the franchise had clearly run out of ideas and run out of places to go and it was only still going on out of sheer obligation.  The series was put on ice for a while as Stallone went on to start in something like a dozen terrible movies through the 90s and early 2000s but was revived by 2006’s Rocky Balboa.  A lot of people like that movie and see it as a worthy capper to the story, but I never thought much of that film and as the years have gone by find it have been a rather forgettable waste of time.  Fortunately they’ve found a way to come back for one last time all over again, this time with a more promising premise that seems less like a conclusion and more like the passing of a torch.

The film is not a reboot, it acknowledges all of the established continuity of the series but focuses not on Rocky Balboa but on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), a long lost son that Apollo Creed sired during an affair.  Johnson born after Apollo was killed in the ring and was orphaned shortly thereafter.  He had a rough childhood before Apollo’s wife finally tracked him down and took him in.  From there Johnson lived a life of relative privilege, but still had psychological demons and daddy issues to work out and he did it by taking part in low level boxing matches in Tijuana.  Eventually he grows tired of his day job and decides to take on boxing professionally but isn’t really welcomed in his father’s old gym.  Instead he decides to travel to Philadelphia to seek the advice of Rocky Balboa, who is now firmly retired from boxing and focusing his efforts on his restaurant.  When Johnson asks Rocky to train him he’s initially hesitant but given his strong affinity towards Johnson’s father he finally agrees.  Soon, word of Johnson’s parentage gets out into the media and Johnson is offered a chance to take part in a championship fight despite his inexperience, an offer that would require him to fight against some pretty stiff odds.

Creed was directed by a guy named Ryan Coogler, who made a pretty big splash in 2013 with a drama called Fruitvale Station, which proved to be incredibly topical given that it was about an unarmed young black man being killed by a police officer.  I had problems with that movie (in brief, that movie’s thesis is that black men are three dimensional and therefore don’t deserve to be murdered, that the movie expects this to be a shocking revelation to its audience is kind of insulting) and I kind of got the impression that it was a movie that a lot of people maybe wanted to like more than they actually did, but there was no doubt that it was skillfully made and that its director had a lot of promise.  That movie also proved to be something of a breakout role for the actor Michael B. Jordan, who had previously had notable teenage roles on the shows “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” as well as in the movie Chronicle, but Fruitvale Station showed that he was going to transition pretty easily into adult roles and wasn’t going anywhere.  The two reunite here with Jordan starring as the titular Creed and showing more of a movie star quality than we saw in his previous Coogler collaboration where he seemed to be going down more of a character actor route.

Sylvestor Stallone is back of course, this time in more of a supporting role that frequently threatens to take over and become a lead all over again.  Stallone has been playing this role for forty years and seems to pretty much have it down, he isn’t doing anything radically different this time around from what he was doing in Rocky Balboa but the fact that he’s receiving direction this time around seems to have given him a little big a fresh eye on the character that was maybe missing when he was directing himself.  Stallone should also be given some props for not letting his vanity get too much in the way this time around because this version of Rocky really does seem to be dipping into senior citizen territory.  In fact, at 69 years old Stallone is actually the same age now that Burgess Meredith was when he played Mickey in the original Rocky.  Tessa Thompson rounds out the cast as Bianca, an Adrian figure in Adonis’ life who has a penitent for music despite the fact that she’s going deaf and Phylicia Rashad as the perhaps too saintly widow of Apollo Creed and Adonis’ adoptive mother.

The basic structure of the film will not be unfamiliar to anyone who knows this series.  Adonis starts at the bottom, learns the ropes from an older father figure, goes through a training montage, then finds himself in a boxing match that is probably out of his league but which he’s going to try his damnedest to win and maybe get the girl along the way.  The film does find some clever ways to avoid pitfalls though.  The idea of making Adonis the product of an affair is a pretty brilliant way to have your cake and eat it too in that it lets Adonis be an underdog from the streets and still be the son of a world famous boxer and it even finds a somewhat plausible way to get him into a championship fight at the end despite his inexperience.  The film also benefits greatly from the fact that Ryan Coogler is, frankly, a much more talented visual stylist than John G. Avildsen (who directed 1 and 5) and Sylvester Stallone (who directed 2, 3, 4, and 6) ever were.  The boxing scenes in particular are quite strong in the film.  The fights aren’t terribly realistic (at this level boxing matches are a lot slower and much more defensive) but they are exciting and Coogler really finds a way to keep the camera at right at the fighters level and put the viewer right into the middle of the melees.

Creed is, if nothing else, a very smart career move for everyone involved.  Ryan Coogler gets to show off his visual prowess and endear himself to the studios without having to resort to directing a superhero movie or something, Michael B. Jordan gets a starring role in a major film, Sylvester Stallone gets to reprise his most famous role without coming off as if he’s desperately going back to the well, and of course the studio gets to make use of a profitable franchise without having to make some kind of soulless remake.  Indeed all these parties have put together a well made and audience pleasing sports movie, but they’ve done it through rather formulaic means.  Deep down, I don’t know that this really has a single thing to offer that wasn’t already there in the very first Rocky forty years ago.  For what it is, Creed is very enjoyable, let’s just not make it into something it’s not.

*** out of Four

The Assassin(11/22/2015)

I’ll be honest, the cinema of Taiwan has been a pretty big blind spot for me for a variety of reasons, some of them out of my control.  The biggest reason is almost certainly availability, which is a problem that a lot of Chinese language movies outside of the martial arts genre tend to have.  For example, I love Edward Yang’s movie Yi Yi (one of the few Chinese language movies to have gotten the Criterion treatment) but for the life of me can’t seem to find any of his other movies anywhere.  Meanwhile, my exposure to his countryman Tsai Ming-liang has been limited in part because I was scared off by a misguided screening of his film What Time is it There? which is a film I admittedly might have liked better if I went in with different expectations but which I frankly found rather boring.  The reasons for my limited exposure to Hou Hsiao-Hsien (that’s roughly pronounced “ho shao shen”) have been pretty similar to my reasons for missing out on Edward Yang’s work: very limited availability.  You go onto Netflix right now (this is their disc service I’m talking about, not their more limited streaming library) and you’ll only find four of his movies available.  That’s better than their Edward Yang selection (which is nothing but Yi Yi) but it’s kind of a misleading number just the same as some of these DVDs feature really poor transfers that kind of make you not want to bother (as was the case when I tried to rent his film Puppetmaster only to then turn it off because it seemed to be in the wrong aspect ratio).  All this is to say that The Assassin, which won the Best Director award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is my first Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie and I was kind of going in blind to the greater context of his work, which may have been a problem.

The film is set in the 9th century in a Northern Chinese province called Weibo which had been established about a century earlier by the Imperial court as a buffer between central China and the various barbarian invaders.  This region’s ties to the Emperor are tenuous and it is currently being ruled by a general named Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), whose rule is thrown into chaos when he discovers that a female assassin has been coming after him.  This assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained from a young age by a nun named Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) to go out and eliminate corruption… a bit like the assassins in “Assassin’s Creed.”  As the film goes on it becomes clear that this killer has complicated feelings about this assignment and that she may have had a connection with this latest target at one point in her life.

The Assassin has a story that is simultaneously very simple and very complicated.  If told in broad strokes the film basically feels like a fairy tale but this is hidden under a thick layer of court intrigue and ancient Chinese politics that can be a little tricky to parse, especially for Western audiences who lack a lot of the historical context that the film requires.  Some of the film’s character, particularly Tian Ji’an, do have real historical analogues and the story seems to have been previously tread in an ancient story called “Nie Yinniang,” and I suspect that the filmmakers may have expected audiences to have some familiarity with this legend.  Additionally, the film isn’t always super generous with the exposition and characters occasionally talk to each other in a semi-cryptic manner.

Having said all that, I don’t really think storytelling is the point of The Assassin rather I’d say that this is mostly meant to be a formal exercise.  In fact it kind of reminded me of anther recent film that also won the Best Director award at The Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive in that it’s a movie that makes certain overtures towards action cinema while remaining a rather slow paced and moody affair filled with people staring into space and ruminating about… stuff.  That isn’t to say that fans of that movie will necessarily like this one, but its objectives seem to be in the same place.  The thing is, the film’s formal elements here struck me as interesting rather than good or engaging.  The film was shot in the old Academy ratio aside from two seemingly random shots of a woman playing a stringed instrument which expand out to 1.85:1.  We’ve been seeing a lot of Academy ratio movies recently and I really don’t get why, modern theaters are not equipped to do them justice and nothing about a period wuxia film like this seems to call for the sense of claustrophobia that the ratio can sometimes give.

The movie is certainly colorful, at least outside of the first fifteen minutes which are in black and white, and the film’s camera placement is often interesting, and while the film certainly isn’t trying to appeal to action fans there are some fight scenes in it that play out fairly interestingly.  I’ve been very careful to avoid just saying “this is boring and I don’t get it” because there is certainly something interesting to be found in the filmmaking on display but truth be told this was not a movie I found very engaging on a whole.  I can’t help but compare the film to another admittedly more conventional wuxia film from a Taiwanese filmmaker of a different type, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and can’t help but find this newer film to be eminently less beautiful and less engaging by comparison.  That said I’m willing to concede that I might just be missing something here.  I don’t know Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work and I don’t know a lot of the cultural background involved in this film and that information might have helped me see this thing in a different context, then again maybe I’m not missing anything and the emperor really does have no clothes.  Either way I’m willing to give this another chance someday but until then I’m inclined to write this off as “not for me.”

**1/2 out of Four