Film Review: Creed (2015, directed by Ryan Coogler)


CreedOn Wednesday, I saw the movie Creed and what can I say?  Creed is exactly the film that we were hoping it would be.  Not only does it continue the story of Rocky Balboa but it proves that Ryan Coogler is a major directing talent and that Michael B. Jordan is a film star in the making.  Ever since Creed was first screened for critics, we’ve been hearing that “Creed is the best Rocky since the first one.”  I would go even further to say that Creed is one of the best boxing films to be released since the first Rocky.  Though the story may be formulaic, Creed is a film that will take you by surprise.  No one — not even the biggest Rocky fans — was expecting it to be this good.

When the movie opens, Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of the legendary boxer Apollo Creed, is just another kid in foster care.  His mother has recently died and Apollo was killed in the ring before Adonis was even born.  Adonis is adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad).  Fifteen years later, Adonis is working in an office and has just gotten a big promotion but he spends his weekends boxing in cheap venues in Mexico.  Eventually, over Mary Anne’s objections, Adonis quits his job and moves to Philadelphia.  Adonis wants to box professionally and he wants his father’s greatest opponent and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him.

But Rocky is no longer the man he used to be.  He stills owns his restaurant and he still goes out to the cemetery to visit the grave of his wife, Adrian.  Since the end of Rocky Balboa, Rocky’s best friend, Paulie, has died and his son has moved to Canada.  (Paulie still gets an affectionate shout out when Adonis comes across his old porn stash at Rocky’s house.)  Rocky is older, sadder, wiser, and more alone than he has ever been.  He is also still haunted by Apollo’s death in the ring.  At first, Rocky does not want to train Adonis but eventually, the younger man wins him over.  Under Rocky’s tutelage, Adonis wins his first professional fight.  When the news gets out that Adonis is Apollo’s son, he is given a chance to fight the reigning world champion, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).

Creed 2Watching Creed, it is obvious that Ryan Coogler knows his Rocky films.  Creed features call backs to every entry in the series, even the ones that have not received the positive reviews of the first Rocky and Creed.   Of course, the entire film is haunted by Apollo’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.  The restaurant and Rocky’s visits to Adrian’s grave were first introduced in Rocky Balboa.  When Rocky shows Adonis a picture of him and his son, it is a still photo of Sylvester and Sage Stallone in Rocky V.  When Adonis first meets Rocky, he asks him who won the fight that ended Rocky III.   Adonis’s fight against Conlan is a call back to Rocky’s fights against Apollo in the first two Rocky films.  When Adonis thinks about his father, a clip of Carl Weathers flashes across the screen.  Finally, just as Rocky fell in love with Adrian, Adonis falls for a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson).

Even though Creed is steeped in the history of Rocky, it still manages to establish its own identity.  Creed is not just a film about boxing.  It is also about a son’s effort to escape the shadow of his famous father and establish his own identity.  Michael B. Jordan gives a performance that feels so real and so honest that it constantly takes us by surprise.

StalloneSpeaking of surprising performances, Sylvester Stallone has never been better.  This is not only his best performance in the role of Rocky Balboa but the best performance of his underrated career.  It is a performance that is totally devoid of ego and Stallone has never been this vulnerable on screen.  If Stallone is not, at the very least, nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, it will be an injustice.

Coogler does a good job of capturing the mean streets of Philadelphia and watching Adonis’s training montage is an inspiring experience.  (It would not be a Rocky film without an inspiring training montage.)  Coogler also does a good job filming the action inside the ring.  The second fight, which is shown in almost one entirely unbroken take, is especially exciting.

Creed is a stunningly effective film.  When I saw it, the audience broke out in applause at the film’s final shot.  Rocky Balboa’s story may be close to finished but Adonis Creed’s has just begun.  I can not wait to see where it goes.

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Ant-Man Keeps the Marvel Train Moving Along


Ant-Man

Will Marvel Studios have it’s first misstep when Ant-Man arrives in theaters this July? Or will it surpass many people’s expectations the way Guardians of the Galaxy did when it came out late summer of 2014? These are questions that fans and critics alike have been pondering since the rather underwhelming teaser trailer which was released earlier this year.

Now, with Avengers: Age of Ultron just weeks away from bulldozing over everything in it’s way it looks like Marvel and Disney have turned their attention to getting the Ant-Man hype train up to speed. If any film needs some fueling up it would be this one which has had a more than contentious production. It loses it’s original director in Edgar Wright after he and the heads at Marvel Studios (Kevin Feige) disagreed on how to proceed with the film. The search for a director to replace Wright became a game of which comedic filmmaker would pass on the project next (Peyton Reed finally was the last man standing).

When the teaser finally came out the tone it gave seemed too serious for a film that was being billed as a sort of action-comedy or, at the very least, an action film that included more than the usual comedic beats than past films in the MCU.

Today we see the first official trailer for Ant-Man and gone is the super serious tone of the teaser and in comes a mixture of action and comedy. It’s a trailer that actually gives us an idea of the sort of powers the title character has outside of being just being tiny. Then we get more than just a glimpse of Scott Lang’s main antagonist with Corey Stoll in the role of Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket.

Maybe this film will still end up giving Marvel Studio it’s very first black-eye, but this trailer goes a major way in making sure it doesn’t happen.

Ant-Man is set for a July 17, 2015 release date.

Trailer: Ant-Man


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First they said that Guardians of the Galaxy will be the first misstep in the rolling juggernaut train that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How could a film adaptation of a comic book that even hardcore readers barely know ever hit it big with the general public. Yet, it more than shot down detractors and nyasayers to become the biggest hit of 2014 and help usher in a major change in how people will now look at the MCU.

So, Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t the first mistake. Then it has to be 2015’s Ant-Man starring Paul Rudd and a film already known for being the one where Edgar Wright was forced to leave as director. Yes, this will be Marvel Studios first misstep and it will show that Kevin Feige’s producer-driven plan will never trump the creative-driven director tradition.

So, during the season premiere of Agent Carter, we finally have the first official trailer for Ant-Man. Time will tell if this does become Marvel’s first bump in their road to world domination or will it surprise everyone the way Guardians of the Galaxy did this part summer of 2014.

Ant-Man is set for a July 17, 2015 release date.

Quickie Review: Dredd 3-D (dir. by Pete Travis)


Dredd

“Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: The men and women of the Hall of Justice. Juries… Executioners… Judges.” — Judge Dredd

In 1995 there was a little sci-fi/action film called Judge Dredd that was one very anticipated film by fans of the title character. Judge Dredd was one of those comic book characters who was beloved by the hardcore comic book fans (and British readers worldwide). When news broke that the character was going to get his own film adaptation there was rejoicing but then the first shoe dropped. Sylvester Stallone will play the title character and worse yet he will have a sidekick in the form of one Rob Schneider. Even with this casting news there was still hope the film will at least do the property justice. I mean how can one fuck up an ultra-violent comic book that was tailor-made to become an action film. Well, let’s just say that the filmmakers involved and everyone from Stallone to Schneider all the way to the veteran Max Von Sydow failed to deliver a bloodsoak look into a dystopian future with a no, nonsense lawman to police the streets of Mega-City One.

So, it was a surprise when there was an announcement that the character  will get another film but a reboot instead of a sequel. It seems everyone who had a stake in the Judge Dredd property wanted to forget the 1995 Stallone version. I couldn’t blame them for this decision. Out goes Stallone in the title role and in his place is Eomer himself, Karl Urban to don the iconic Judge helm. He would have a partner in the form of Judge Anderson (who’s a rookie in this reboot and it’s through her eyes that we get to learn the rules of the Dredd world) as played by Olivia Thirlby. The reboot was to be helmed by British filmmaker Pete Travis using a screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later and Sunshine) and was simply titled Dredd and would be filmed in 3-D.

There was trepidation about the film and rumored on-the-set differences between Pete Travis and Alex Garland marked the reboot as a troubled film at best and a dead-on-arrival at it’s worst. When the film finally made it’s premiere at San Diego Comic-Con 2012 the reaction from attendees who saw the film was a near-unanimous praise for it. The same could be said for the reaction of those who saw it two months later at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was being called a film that was a throwback and homage to the violent action films of the 80’s and early 90’s. This was high praie and one reason I decided to go see it.

I was very glad that I made the decision to see it when it made it’s worldwide release. Dredd 3-D was exactly as those who praised it turned out to be.

The film opens up with a fly-over of Mega-City One (looking like the location shoot of Johannesburg expanded to a 1000x through the judicious use of CGI and matte backgrounds effects) and the world which created the massive hive city of 800 million whose borders stretched from Boston in the north to Washington, D.C. in the south. It’s Karl Urban’s voice as Judge Dredd who we learn all this from right before the film segues into a fast-paced and violent action scene. One that shows just how violent Mega-City One is (people in malls and on the streets who get gunned down by stray fire get collected by automated garbage droids who also clean the pools of blood) and just how good Judge Dredd really is at his job.

Dredd 3-D is a simple story of a veteran cop who must evaluate a rookie whose psychic abilities would make her an invaluable member of the law enforcement group known as the Judges. The story brings these two disparate individuals into a massive apartment complex called The Peach Trees to investigate a triple homicide which brings them into conflict with the film’s villain in the form of Lena Headey as the brutal head of the gang called the Ma-Ma Clan. The film moves from one violent set-piece action to the next as Dredd and Anderson must find a way to escape the lockdowned Peach Trees and take out the Ma-Ma Clan in the process.

Yes, Dredd 3-D was a very good film and despite the story being so barebones that at times it resembled a video game with the way each sequence was a way to move from one floor to the next with the danger getting worst by the floor. It was the simplicity of the story that was also it’s major advantage. We got to know Dredd and Anderson (more of the latter than the former) and their actions throughout the film made for some very good character development. Even the tough, nigh-indestructible Dredd gained a semblance of sympathy for those he was very used to executing on-sight if the law deems it not whether it’s true justice.

Even the use of 3-D in the film was one of the better uses for what many still call a gimmick and a way for theater-owners to charge a higher ticket price for. The film was done in native 3-D and when it was paired with the super slo-mo sequences when characters where under the effects of the reality-altering drug Slo-Mo it literally created scenes of art. I suspect that we might see more films which uses this 3-D slo-mo effect in years to come. It was just that well done.

Now the big question is whether Karl Urban has erased the abomination that was Stallone’s performance in the same role 17 years past. The answer to that question would be a resounding yes. Urban never once takes off the iconic Judge helm and must act through his body language, dialogue delivery and, literally, the lower half of his exposed face. He made for a convincing Judge Dredd and not once did he go against character with one-liners and witty quips to punctuate an action scene. Not to be outdone would be Lena Headey as Madeleine Madrigal (hence Ma-Ma Clan) as the clan boss who was a mixture of reined in violence and psychopathy who was also going through a level of ennui that she made for a great villain. This was a woman who was so feared by the vicious and violent men in her command yet we never doubt that she was still the scariest of the whole bunch. There’s also Olivia Thirlby as the rookie Judge Anderson who brings a semblance of compassion and sympathy to the proceedings yet still able to kickass and take names not just with her psychic abilities but also with the Lawgiver (as the Judge’s firearms were called).

Dredd 3-D doesn’t try to explore the nature of violence that’s inherent in man or some other philosophical bullshit some filmmakers nowadays try to put into their action films. This film just decided to tell the proper Judge Dredd story and knew that ultra-violence would be a necessary component if the story was to remain true to the source material. In the end, the film did it’s job well and, even though it was by accident, it was still able to lend a level of thought-provoking themes and ideas about violence and its use.