Café Society(7/24/2016)

7-24-2016CafeSociety

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Through much of his career the narrative around Woody Allen is that he’s a good writer with a strong flair for directing actors but that he’s been kind of indifferent about his films’ visual style.  I don’t know that this narrative was ever true but in the last couple of years this accusation has seemed particularly inaccurate.  Unlike most of the films in his long career Allen’s last three movies have all been shot in widescreen and he’s more often than not been working with A-list cinematographers like Darius Khondji and Vilmos Zsigmond.  For his latest movie he’s working with another major DP, the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who helmed beautiful movies like The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor.  This also differs from the average Woody Allen movie in that it’s a period piece.  This is far from unprecedented in Allen’s filmography but it clearly has a larger budget than something like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Bullets Over Broadway and it draws a lot more attention to its set decoration and costuming.  All of this is not to say that Woody Allen has suddenly turned into David Fincher, he hasn’t, but he’s clearly continued to challenge himself in certain ways as a director even if he doesn’t always get credit for it.  So the movie looks great when compared to the rest of his films, the question then is if the narrative is worthy of this extra effort.

Set sometime during the 1930s, the film follows a young New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who has traveled to Hollywood planning to find work with his uncle Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell).  Upon arrival he quickly learns that Phil doesn’t have a lot of time to deal with him but does ask his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the young man around town.  He soon forms a friendship with Vonnie and quickly falls for her.  However, she rejects his advances, saying that she is in a relationship with a reporter who “travels a lot.”

On the “serious to farcical” spectrum of Woody Allen movies this probably sits somewhere towards the middle like most of his movies but maybe leaning towards the less comedic.  It has some decent chuckle inducing moments here and there but it’s fairly sincere in its interest in relationship dynamics and actually has a bit of a dark streak when it deals with a  sub-plot about Bobby’s older brother who appears to be a violent gangster by trade.  First and foremost though it’s a movie about a love triangle and, on a more thematic level, it’s about missed opportunities and regrets and the perils of using too much logic when deciding who you choose as a mate.  In fact I kind of suspect that movie is meant as a sort of coded defense of Allen’s much criticized marriage to Soon-Yi Previn.  Whenever he’s asked about that particular tabloid scandal Allen has always said something along the lines of “I know it sounds crazy but the heart wants what it wants.”  With this movie he’s created two characters who do not follow what their hearts want, marry for all the logical reasons, and they end the film regretting what could have been.  It certainly isn’t a one-to-one analogue with Woody Allen’s own situation but I’m pretty sure it was in the back of his mind when he wrote it.  There was a similar theme running through his 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight and I’m kind of surprised that more people didn’t pick up on it there.

Beyond that little reading and beyond the pretty sets and costumes, Café Society is a pretty average Woody Allen movie.  Jesse Eisenberg generally avoids being a Woody Allen stand-in, which is nice, but he does it by just kind of doing his usual “awkward guy shtick,” which kind of makes sense in the role early on but not so well in later scenes.  The film also has a handful of sub-plots and elements that kind of never get a payoff.  For instance there’s an early scene involving a hooker named Candy, which is actually a fairly funny scene, but it doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose in the plot and doesn’t really get brought back up at all.  The whole gangster brother plot line also never really seems to fully integrate.  It takes up a lot of screen time but it actually has very little to do with the course of the main story at the end of the day even though it is kind of interesting in its own right.  I’m something of a Woody Allen completist, I haven’t seen all his movies but I’m well on my way.  As such my standards for what makes a Woody Allen movie “good” or “worth seeing” are maybe a little different than a general audience member’s standards would be.  This one provided me with a couple variations on his usual formula and for me that’s enough to make it kind of interesting.  Others’ mileage will probably vary.

Captain America: Civil War(5/7/2016)

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It’s weird how fortunes can change over the course of a single year.  Take Marvel Studios for example.  These guys were absolutely on top of the world in 2014 after putting out their weightiest movie to date in Captain America: Winter Soldier and their most successfully lighthearted one in Guardians of the Galaxy.  They seemed to be operating at the height of their power… and then 2015 happened.  The year started off with The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which certainly had spirit but was unquestionably an overstuffed mess of a movie that caved in under its own weight.  It has its defenders but it was a bad sign as it suggested that things were going to get really convoluted in this series.  Then there was Ant-Man which was… just kind of forgettable.  It was alright I guess but in a world where they’re making half a dozen comic book movies a year it didn’t stand out and felt more like the kind of super hero movie that would have been made circa 2003 than one from the biggest name in the business.  I would be discouraged by all of that, but crazy as it sounds given how many of these things we already have, the one year delay really just kind of made me hungry for a Marvel film that actually delivered and given that the Russo Brothers more than delivered with Winter Soldier all signs pointed to Captain America: Civil War being the movie that would do that.

Our story this time is set off when the newly formed Avengers headed by Captain America (Chis Evans) and featuring some second tier heroes like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansen) on a mission in Lagos where Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is attempting to steal biological weapons.  This mission goes badly however when Crossbones attempts to set off a suicide vest and Scarlet Witch is forced to use her powers to levitate him away from the crowd but misses her target and sends the explosion into a populated building.  The fallout of this leads world leaders to call for an accord which will regulate the Avengers and place them directly under UN control, a move which Captain America believes will put the world in danger.  Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), however, believes that this is a necessary check on the team’s activities and this causes a fracture among the heroes that is accelerated when Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) reemerges and seemingly kills the king of Wakanda.  When Captain America tries to save Barnes from police sent to shoot on sight he’s declared a fugitive and soon every hero is forced to choose sides.

Captain America: Civil War is in kind of an unusual place in the Marvel Cannon in that it is ostensibly a follow-up to what is clearly their best movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the sheer number of superheroes in it makes it feel a whole lot like it’s also a third Avengers movie.  Pretty much every Marvel hero is here except for Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and The Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man has a huge role in it to the point where he could be considered the protagonist just as much as Captain America.  There are no fewer than twelve costumed heroes involved in this plot including two (Black Panther and Spider-Man) who haven’t been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before and in light of how much of a mess Age of Ultron and a certain other superhero team-up movie from earlier this year, that was a pretty bad sign.  If anything Captain America: Civil War deserves a lot of credit for being as coherent and well-paced as it is given the immense amount of content it needs to pack into its 147 minute runtime.  The movie certainly moves along at a brisk pace and it wisely opts not to overuse certain characters and to mostly focus on the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America.

The basis for this whole conflict seems a bit odd to me.  The incident in Lagos would seem to be the main catalyst for all this division but more often characters cite the Sokovia incident from Avengers: Age of Ultron and the casualties there as a major influencer for people’s anxieties over superpowered people having free reign.  This is curious, in part because Joss Whedon kind of went out of his way to make sure that there were as few casualties as possible in that final scene out of a seeming desire to give the middle finger to the movie Man of Steel, a fact that was not lost in the cultural reception of that movie.  But even if that scene did result in a huge number of civilians killed in the crossfire it would still seem like an odd thing for the world to complain about.  All through Captain America: Civil War I kept waiting for Captain America to make the most obvious argument against these accusations: “Yes some innocent people died during that battle, but if we hadn’t been there Ultron would have sent his vibraniam machine plummeting to Earth killing every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth (including all the Sokovian civilians).”

What’s more it isn’t exactly clear what the checks and balances of the accords would do to save civilians from superhero activity.  If the UN was controlling The Avengers would they really have disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Ultron from causing apocalyptic extinction?  Would that have also disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Crossbones from stealing biological weapons… that could be used to kill every man woman and child on the plant (including the Lagosians in that office building that got blown up).  Seeing a pattern here.  Even if you view the movie strictly as an allegory for more earthly checks on power this global outrage still doesn’t exactly make sense.  We currently live in a world where the U.S. military routinely kills bystanders in drone strikes and even the most peace-loving among us can only barely muster any outrage over it.  Hell, the army once accidently blew up a Chinese embassy and everyone just shrugged and kept the military industrial complex going and quickly forgot the whole thing.  People are generally fairly willing to accept civilian casualties as long as they think they know who the “good guy” is.

But maybe cogent political allegory is a little too much to expect from a movie that most people are going to based on the promise of seeing a bunch of superheroes battle one another for a couple of hours.  On that level the movie certainly delivers, especially in a scene around two thirds of the way through the film where the two opposing teams of heroes have a battle royale which incorporates all the heroes’ various powers in some relatively inspired ways.  The scene’s impact is slightly diminished by the fact that all of the heroes involved have no intention of killing any of their opponents which kind of sucks the suspense out of the whole thing, but it’s pretty fun nonetheless.  There are of course some concessions to corporate nonsense.  While the Spider-Man that’s introduced here is strong it’s undeniable that he doesn’t really fit very easy into the plot and was almost certainly added as a cross-marketing move, but they somehow mostly get away with it.  It would be impossible not to watch this movie and compare it to this year’s other movie which pitted iconic superheroes against each other, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and marvel at how much better this one is.  That other movie’s complete and utter failure perhaps gave me a renewed respect for just how easy Marvel Studios makes the whole superhero team up thing look because this pretty much succeeds everywhere that that movie failed.  It’s not as good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which remains Marvel Studio’s best accomplishment but it probably is somewhere in the studio’s top five.

4

Carol(12/27/2015)

12-27-2015Carol

Warning: Review contains something of a spoiler

Todd Haynes is a tricky filmmaker to really assess because every one of his projects is interesting and bold and while I’m really happy he’s a voice in the film world I don’t know that I actually consider any of his movies to be unequivocal successes.  Haynes is an experimentalist who is primarily defined by his willingness to break the conventional rules of cinema.  This is, after all, a guy who’s made three different musical biopics (infamously among the most formulaically predictable of genres) and still managed to present his audience with movies as wildly outside the box as Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (a stop-motion film with Barbie Dolls in place of actors), Velvet Goldmine (which used a Citizen Kane format to present a figure who is not unlike David Bowie), and I’m Not There (which cast six different actors, one of them Cate Blanchett, as Bob Dylan).  That same experimental daring also holds back a lot of his movies because some elements of them end up working better than others and occasionally they can end up feeling a little too cute by half.  Also, Haynes is not a wildly prolific filmmaker.  He’s been making movies for almost twenty-five years but only has six feature length films to his name, which makes some of his less successful experiments stand out more than it might if it were being made by someone like Steven Soderbergh who has a huge body of work that his quirky misfires can blend into.  By contrast his latest project, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol, has been released to almost universal acclaim and may just be the Todd Haynes film to break through to the masses.

Set in the early 50s in New York, the movie follows a young woman named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who is working in the toy section to a large Macy’s-like Manhattan department store while harboring aspirations of becoming a photographer.  Therese is friendly with her co-workers and has an friendly if somewhat distant relationship with a boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacy), but one can clearly sense that she’s not happy and is missing something in her life.  Things start to look different when one day an older woman, a wealthy housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), comes into her department store looking to buy her daughter a Christmas present.  This seemingly benign interaction between clerk and customer seems to have a disproportionate effect on both, and when Therese realizes that Carol has left her gloves on the department store counter she goes out of her way to make sure that those gloves are returned and Carol goes out of her way to thank her for this gesture.  It quickly becomes clear that both parties are looking for excuses to meet each other again but neither are coming out and articulating why.  Soon it becomes clear that their interest in one another is not just platonic in nature and soon Therese will find herself in the middle of a battle of wills between Carol and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).

Todd Haynes is mostly identified as a member of the New Queer Cinema movement that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, but if you look at his filmography he’s spent just as much if not more time focusing on the plight of the upper-middle-class housewife in the mid-twentieth century as he has focusing on themes of homosexuality.  His 1995 movie Safe was about a discontented housewife and so was his six hour HBO miniseries adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.”  Then there was his 2002 movie Far From Heaven, which touched on homosexuality in the 50s but focused less on its homosexual character than on his longsuffering wife.  This new film Carol is in many ways about the flip side of that, it’s about a homosexual (this time the wife rather than the husband) who is stuck in a loveless straight marriage that society has pressured her into and can’t leave without potentially losing her daughter.  However, this story is mainly told from the perspective of her lover Therese who comes into this whole situation and gets caught up in the whirlwind.

Those expecting another wild experimental idea from Todd Haynes may leave Carol disappointed as the movie is told in a largely linear and naturalistic fashion.  The period detail is all here and is exquisitely detailed but the movie doesn’t luxuriate in it.  The film is set at around Christmas but there’s nothing jolly about the trappings, rather, there’s a deliberate aura of coldness that’s cast over the film in order to emphasize how lost the characters are in 50s society.  The film was shot on Super 16mm film, less out of any budgetary requirement and more out of a desire to add a layer of grain that would both help to capture the period but also to give the film a subliminal solemnity.  The film in many ways feels less like one of the proudly confrontational movies of the New Queer Cinema movement and more like something like Brokeback Mountain, another somber movie about homosexuals living in an unaccepting time and finding themselves suffering many indignities and heartbreaks because of it.

Of course this inherent sadness is slightly ironic because the Patricia Highsmith novel upon which the film is based was groundbreaking when it was published in 1952 (under the nom de plume Claire Morgan) it was considered groundbreaking because it dared to have a happy ending, or at least a happier ending than most novels involving lesbianism at the time which almost always ended with the lovers killed or unambiguously separated and unhappy.  The ending here appears to be the same one from the novel, but from the perspective of 2015 it sure doesn’t seem all that happy.  I suppose part of the reason for this is that the relationship between Carol and Therese doesn’t seem like much of a romance for the ages so much as it’s a rather doomed affair caused by Carol’s discontent with heterosexual domesticity and Therese’s inexperience; one gets the sense that if Carol hadn’t “awoken” Therese she would have continued to be adrift until she finally encountered another like-minded woman who would be forward enough to come on to her.  You can’t help but wish that Carol had lived in a time and place where she wouldn’t have been stuck in a marriage she didn’t belong in and Therese could have met someone here own age at lesbian bar rather than being dropped into a family drama with a woman who’s some twenty years her elder.

It would of course be a mistake to assume that all of these problems are safely in the past.  There are definitely still closeted gay people out there in marriages that their spouses don’t know are shams and there are probably still young gay people out there whose first partners are a lot older than they are (something that would be pretty unambiguously creepy in a heterosexual context), but one still wonders just how groundbreaking any of this material really is in 2015.  This is after all material that could be fairly widely published in novel form way back in 1952 without any major scandal.  The film in many ways seems less like the radical “New Queer Cinema” that Haynes was making earlier in his career and closer to something like 2004’s Brokeback Mountain, which was another somber melodrama set around the same time about gay people finding each other and having to live in secret because of the conservative society they were living in.  Between the two I’d say Brokeback is probably the better movie, in part because it’s western setting felt both more original and more subversive and also because I felt there was a bit more of a sweep to the central relationship in that film.  Additionally, I feel like Ang Lee (who’s made a career out of movies about repressed emotions and lovers separated by circumstance) was a lot more suited to this kind of material than the wild-child Todd Haynes.

Carol is definitely a very good movie but is it the great movie that it’s been declared by dozens of critics since its debut at Cannes?  I’m not so sure.  I really wanted to love it but something about it just kept it at arm’s length for me.  This has been happening to me a lot this year, I’ll see a movie that hits all its notes and hardly has a thing in it that I would want to change and yet I still come away having not quite been thrilled.  I don’t know this one might have just been a bit of a victim of its own hype for me.  The story never quite jumped out as anything wildly original and as solid as the filmmaking was it never really seemed terribly amazing either.  At the end of the day I’m not sure I got a whole lot out of the movie that I wouldn’t have gotten out of an above average storyline on “Mad Men,” but that was a great show so that shouldn’t be viewed as too much of an insult.  I don’t want to damn this movie too much with faint praise, it’s not the movie’s fault that I went into it with unrealistic expectations and there’s a whole lot to like about it and like a lot of movies this year I suspect that it will seem a lot better to me as soon as I stop scrutinizing whether or not it’s the chosen one and just accept it for what it is.

***1/2 out of Four

Chi-Raq(12/10/2015)

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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)

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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

Crimson Peak(10/25/2015)

10-25-2015CrimsonPeak

There are a lot of directors who rise to the occasion once their labeled as geniuses and then use the greater resources that their higher profiles give them, then there are other who maybe get a little too wrapped up in their own hype and fail to deliver because of it and I’m becoming increasingly worried that Guillermo del Toro is going down that second path.  Del Toro is a genre director who, for a while, pretty effectively played the “one for them, one for me” game.  He would provide his distinctive flair and love of genre to Hollywood blockbusters like Blade II and then go off to Mexico or Spain in order to make slightly more sophisticated fare like Pan’s Labyrinth.  In fact Pan’s Labyrinth is a big part of why Del Toro is so highly thought of, it’s easily the director’s best movie and it was bookended by his Hellboy movies, which were easily the best showcase for how his style could be applied to large scale entertainments.  That one, two, three punch made us forget some of the more questionable elements in his earlier films like Mimic.  Unfortunately after a long five year wait for his follow-up to Hellboy II: The Golden Army all we got was the movie Pacific Rim. That movie had some of that Del Toro creativity going for it which made it watchable, but it was still a pretty massive disappointment.  It was, at its heart, a rather dumb movie with a lot of the same sloppy mistakes hurt some of his lesser efforts.  That was something I could get over though because his next movie, Crimson Peak, looked like it would be a return to the kind of movie that Del Toro should have been making all along: smarter, smaller scale, more literary genre films in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.

Crimson Peak is a gothic horror film set around the turn of the century and focusing on a bookish young woman named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist named Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver).  Edith dreams of becoming a writer rather than a housewife but her plans are put somewhat to the test when a dashing, if somewhat suspicious Englishman named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in New York to present a business proposal to her father.  Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) belong to a lineage that has seen better days.  Most of their money has been lost, their old mansion is in disarray, and the clay mines that once made their family a fortune are no longer in use.  Carter Cushing comes to dislike the Sharpes but in spite of his objections his daughter soon falls for Tomas and after a tragedy makes her reconsider her options she runs away with him back to England, but soon she will find that Sharpe’s dilapidated home has a number of dark secrets that are waiting for her.

To make Crimson Peak del Toro has restrained a lot of his humor and his habit of recklessly throwing cool comic-con approved genre elements at the wall and hoping it all sticks.  Instead he’s adjusted his style to actually work quite well with the film’s period elements.  Buffalo New York and the high society thereof is quite well rendered here and Del Toro mines the time period for interesting little details.  When the film transitions to Brittan del Toro gives us a real haunted house for the ages, complete with the brilliant touch of having it be built on red clay which makes it look like it’s drenched in blood.  The film also has a really good cast that seems like it would be a perfect fit for a less macabre costume drama.  The classically trained Tom Hiddleston could probably do a part like this in his sleep, Mia Wasikowska shows that she’s aging into adult roles quite ably, Jessica Chastain continues to prove that she can do pretty much anything, and even Charlie Hunnam (who was boring as hell in Pacific Rim) is mostly able in his role here.

So why isn’t this movie great?  Surprisingly, it’s the horror elements.  I’m kind of surprised to be saying this, but I’m beginning to think Guillermo del Toro doesn’t really understand horror cinema.  Let me qualify that statement.  Del Toro definitely loves monsters passionately and has a long history of rendering them onscreen brilliantly and his knowledge of horror literature and tropes, however, I’m not sure he’s really the master of ratcheting on screen suspense that people thinks he is.  While he’s made a number of horror-tinged action movies in the last decade I don’t think del Toro has made something that was actually trying to scare anyone since 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, and as stylish and interesting as that film was it shared a fatal flaw with Crimson Peak: a lack of patience.  Rather than slowly teasing his monsters and ghosts here, del Toro has them show up in full view very quickly, which diminishes them of a lot of impact by eliminating their mystery.  It also doesn’t help that these ghosts look very fake and CGI-ish, and even on a design level they seem a bit uninspired as far as Guillermo del Toro creations go.  They have that same “matter floating in water” effect that was used previously in The Devil’s Backbone but this makes less sense given that they weren’t supposed to be drowning victims, and in general they look more or less like what you’d expect a ghost to look like.

On top all that, the film’s script has a couple of clear issues as well, mainly related to the main character’s motivations.  This is a character who, in the first scene of the movie, is visited by the ghost of her dead mother and warned to “beware Crimson Peak” and is then given yet another warning by this dead mother to “beware Crimson Peak” and yet she still finds herself doing a very bad job of being wary of Crimson Peak.  Even without that spectral warning it seems like there are a lot of warning signs that this character seems oddly oblivious to, especially given that she’s supposed to be this intelligent young woman.  Why does she just accept that this horribly dilapidated house is an acceptable living quarters?  That all the plainly creepy stuff that’s going on is something to be shrugged off?  That the man she’s decided to marry seems really shady?  The answer of course is that if she did act rationally and flee this situation there wouldn’t be a movie.  To some degree these are just genre conventions that you just need to go along with, and I’m not going to act like they were complete deal breakers, but there were things that Del Toro could have done to mitigate some of these concerns.

Crimson Peak’s other major problem is just that it isn’t a particularly original work, which is in part owed to the fact that Del Toro has opted to borrow heavily from similar works of gothic fiction like “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and to fit his work very much in that lineage.  There is, however, a point at which you have to diverge from your sources of inspiration and add your own twist and I don’t think Del Toro did enough to make his film stand out.  Frankly, I kind of felt like it was a story I had already seen before.  And yet, there was a lot about the execution here I did admire.  The film does have the skeleton of a great horror movie, the actors do sell the material, and Del Toro does adjust his style nicely to better suit his material.  Once all the cards are on the table the film does end pretty well and some of its gorier images are effectively disturbing and do feel somewhat unique when placed against a more upscale backdrop.  There’s the skeleton of a great horror film here, and I can’t help but think that with a little more finesse in the writing and a little more restraint with the ghosts this could have really been something.  As it stands it’s a pretty flawed film that is still entertaining in spite of itself.

*** out of Four