Creed Review

            Franchise reinvigoration is something that is attempted quite often these days.  Whether it’s reboots like Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond or the Christopher Nolan Batman series or nostalgia sequels like Jurassic World or the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, everyone is trying to cash in on franchises through as many ways possible.  Despite the greed that definitely influences these decisions, the final product does turn out to be quite good in most cases.  That is definitely the case with Creed, an example of franchise reinvigoration unlike anything else.  The job that director and co-writer Ryan Coogler does with this film is astounding.  By building a thrilling story that stands on its own on top of a ground breaking portrayal of an iconic cinematic character, Coogler gives us one of the most unique films of the year.

            Creed follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) as he decides to start a professional career in boxing.  With those in Los Angeles refusing to take him on as a trainee, Adonis goes to Philadelphia where he struggles with accepting his heritage as the son of Apollo Creed and trains with the legendary Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).  While the addition of Rocky Balboa into this storyline would in theory seem like a terrible way to get more people into seats, it actually strengthens the film.  As a sequel in the Rocky franchise, this film works really well as it gives us only a few homages to the other films and instead spends most of its time creating a new storyline for Rocky that gives Sylvester Stallone some incredible material to work with.  I don’t think anyone has taken an iconic character on this level on the route that Ryan Coogler takes Rocky on in this film.  At the same time the main storyline of the film, as Adonis comes to terms with his past and tries to become a professional boxer, works entirely on its own.  This film would still work really well without Rocky, and you can’t say that for most films like this.  The fact that this film strays away from playing on the audience’s nostalgia is really impressive.  The only time it really gets truly nostalgic is during the final fight, which ultimately is the only weak point of the film.

            Coogler isn’t the only one who deserves credit for the success of Creed as Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone and Maryse Alberti all do impressive work as well.  Michael B. Jordan has always played short fused firecrackers well, but this seems like a much more intimate portrayal of that type of character.  He truly feels like he belongs next to the likes of an iconic character like Rocky.  Speaking of which, Stallone might deliver the performance of his career here, as his raw portrayal of an aging Rocky makes him stretch his range to a degree that he hasn’t showcased before.  Meanwhile, Maryse Alberti brings some truly stunning sights to the screen.  His work during the fight scenes (especially the one-take middle fight scene that is the standout of the film) is impressive and unlike anything we’ve seen before, which is quite surprising because we have seen so many boxing scenes on the screen over the years.

            Creed is one of the most fascinating sequels ever.


Spotlight Review

            What is the difference between an important film and a great film?  That is a question I don’t ask myself enough to be honest.  However, it is one that instantly came to mind upon seeing Spotlight, the film about the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in Boston.  Parts of Spotlight are extremely well made and the film brings to light an important topic in an enlightening matter.  However, I find myself having trouble calling Spotlighta great film.  There is just something about it that prevents me from calling it so.

            Spotlight follows the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team as they are pushed by new editor Marty Baron (portrayed by Live Schreiber) to investigate the rumors of sex abuse by priests in Boston.  As the team gets into the thick of the investigation they begin to realize they have stumbled into something much bigger than anyone could have imagined.

            The Catholic Church has always been an entity considered to be untouchable.  The reporters at the Boston Globe proved this wrong, and this film once again does so.  It is very commendable how completely Tom McCarthy (who directed and co-wrote the film with Josh Singer) goes after the Church during the course of this film.  While at first seeming like a friendly, by the points depiction of what happened, McCarthy takes this film on a darker and darker course as the film goes along all the way to the final moments before the credits roll.  As important as the work McCarthy does with this film is, he brings one major weakness.  Everything about the film feels so cold.  The characters of the film all have drives but that’s about it.  There is nothing friendly about this film and it can feel quite mechanical at times.

            While the characters are hard to become invested in, this truly is a great performance by an ensemble.  There is no standout performance rather all the performances in the film complement each other.  Whether its Michael Keaton’s veteran presence as team leader, Mark Ruffalo’s manic energy as the lead reporter, Rachel McAdams’ calming presence as one of the Spotlight team reporters or even the unpredictability of Stanley Tucci’s performance as a lawyer who the Spotlight team must work with.

            There is a lot to like and even more to admire in Spotlightbut despite all of its noble and noteworthy intentions, it’s a cold and mechanical film that is difficult to fall in love with.


Suffragette Review

            There are many films out there that are created with good intentions but ultimately result in bad films.  Suffragette, the new film about the women’s rights movement in Great Britain, is certainly one of those.  The film was made to stress how important these women were to world history and to show that many of the themes brought up in the film are still relevant today.  Unfortunately, these good intentions do not forgive the film for being terribly directed and for fizzling out in the second half of the film.  Suffragetteis just a poorly executed film that does not do justice to its source material.

            Suffragette follows Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young laundry worker, as she is slowly convinced to join the Suffragette movement.  As she becomes more convinced by the cause, she comes across major events and major figures of the movement.  The film begins in strong fashion as the film does a great job of setting up the plot and introducing us to some interesting characters.  However, as the film goes on we begin to realize that director Sarah Gavron does not have as much of a grip on the film as we once thought.  The film starts to feel like a bunch of events rather than one cohesive film, and Gavron’s use of shaky cam is a complete misjudgment of what this film is.  Shaky cam works well in thrillers and action films, but in this film it just feels like an odd and glaring intrusion. 

            Fortunately this film has a strong cast to make this film at least watchable.  Carey Mulligan has had a massive year between this film and her work in Far From the Madding Crowd (while also finding time to work on Broadway), and with this film she once again proves she is one of the best working actresses out there.  Her combination of strength and fragility brings so many dimensions to her character.  Helena Bonham Carter and (especially) Brendan Gleeson also do great work in supporting roles.  It is a tad unfortunate, though, that Romola Garai has very little to do here as a minister’s wife.  Garai was fantastic in The Hour (which was written by the same woman who wrote this film, Abi Morgan), and this seemed like it would be the last chance for this gifted actress to breakout into the mainstream.  Alas it appears that will not happen.  It was also a disappointment to see Ben Whishaw completely miscast as an abusive husband.  It was embarrassing to see him in a role that he could clearly not handle.

            Suffragette does not live up to the events it sets out to portray.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 Review

            Fans and viewers of all ages have mostly derided the recent trend of breaking up a single book into two or more films.  They almost always say it causes a terrible first film that saves all of the great material for the later film(s).  I personally find the opposite to be true.  The breakup of a book usually allows the first film to be more experimental whereas the later film(s) end up being a predictable meandering to an even more predictable conclusion.  Just look at The Deathly Hallow films for this.  The first allows for David Yates to be at his best (showing he can really direct actors and have moments of inspiration such as with the animated short in the middle of the film) while the last is a predictable search for a bunch of boring Macguffins.  Even exceptions to this rule still prove the rule such as The Hobbit films where the films slowly falter as Peter Jackson gets more experimental the longer the trilogy goes.  Now we have another example in the form of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, which is a well made film that follows the book a little too closely to a terrible mess of an ending.

            The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from her wounds from her attack by former lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  Suffering both mentally and physically she must now accomplish the one mission she thinks she has left: kill President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and liberate the 13 Districts from his rule.  Unfortunately, the plot of this film follows the plot of the book a little too religiously.  The last half of Mockingjay, by acclaimed author Suzanne Collins, brings a bunch of interesting concepts up and then immediately drops them in favor of a clichéd ending.  It’s quite a mess so that’s what this film ends up being.  You have an incredible sense of bleakness that brings up some interesting points on politics and humanity only for all of this to be dropped out of nowhere so we get to the tired and clichéd romance.

            Yet there are still parts of Mockingjay – Part 2that are incredibly well done.  For a film series that began with looking to some much needed directorial innovation for any sense of world building it is stunning to see how much work is put into the creation of Panem in this film.  The production design is astounding, the action scenes very cinematic, and the score (by James Newton Howard) one of the best of the year.  The film also proves that it has the characters of the series casted almost perfectly.  Lead star Jennifer Lawrence has always been one of the best actresses for subtle acting through facial expressions, and this film (and the previous films in the series to be honest) makes immense use of that.  Even smaller roles make an impact in this film whether it’s Gwendoline Christie in a cameo appearance as a military leader or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s silent and final performance as Plutarch Heavensbee.  Even series weak link Josh Hutcherson finally find some comfort in the range that he is forced to act in with his PTSD suffering Peeta.

            The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2follows its source material to a disappointing ending.


Spectre Review

            While the Daniel Craig era hasn’t always been perfect for the James Bond franchise, it definitely has been its most ambitious era.  Whether it was the grittiness of Casino Royale, the serialization of Quantum of Solace or the auteurism of Skyfall, each of the Craig films so far have had something to offer that hasn’t really been seen in a Bond film before.  That tradition fortunately continues in Spectre, which sees both Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes returning.  This time around it’s a sense of closure that appears for the first time in a Bond film.  If this is to be Craig’s last Bond film, it will be a fitting end for the most effective Bond era ever.

            Spectre follows James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a rogue mission in Mexico where he picks up the hints of a rouge organization.  The hints lead him to an old nemesis in Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who speaks of an organization behind all of Bond’s problems.  The plot sounds a bit like the plot from this year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and it’s hard not to think that Spectre is somewhat of a lesser version of that film while watching it.  However, these coincidences are just coincidences unlike some of the other “coincidences” in recent Bond films (such as Skyfall’s borderline plagiarism of the The Dark Knight).  The plot still ends up as one of the weaker elements of the film even if there is some ambition on display.  The cheesy nature of so many of the first Bond films invades the plot here, but it was hinted that we were headed for a more classic version of Bond at the end of Skyfall.  Still it’s a shame how much of a buzz kill the main villain and his plot is.   Still there is a sense of closure throughout the plot that actually brings some uniqueness to the film.  Numerous plot threads throughout the previous three films conclude here, and it ultimately feels like Bond as a character has changed.

            If this is to be Craig’s final Bond performance he definitely is not going out on top.  Here the Bond character is beginning to transition into the campier version of the original films, and Craig just can’t pull off the humor that many of his predecessors have been able to with ease.  Fortunately, he is saved by a great supporting cast where people like Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott and Monica Bellucci (even if she just appears for a glorified cameo appearance) feel right at home.  Additionally, Ralph Fiennes and (especially) Jesper Christensen continue to grow into their performances.

            Spectre is far from the best Bond film but it brings some uniqueness that will cement it as a somewhat memorable addition to the franchise.


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