Movie Review: Creed (2015)
It’s just a suggestion at first. Just a few musical notes here and there, reminding you of Bill Conti’s iconic “Rocky” soundtrack. And not just “Gonna Fly Now,” which, besides being a staple for high school bands everywhere, went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts back in 1977. No, I’m talking about glimmers of, say, “Philadelphia Morning” (the somber one, from Rocky’s first out-of-shape run), and “Alone in the Ring” (also somber, when he can’t sleep the night before the big fight), as well as “Going the Distance” (plodding for the fight montage, then rising and triumphant as Rocky is knocked down and gets back up in the 14th round—my favorite, to be honest). Throughout Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” as Adonis Johnson, or Donnie Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, tries to make a name for himself—tries to prove, as he says in the end, that he’s not a mistake—we keep getting suggestions of this music.
It’s not until the final round of the climactic boxing match (because the arc of the Rocky universe is long but it bends toward the final round), that we get more than just a suggestion: We get the full, triumphant monty. A.O. Scott reports that in his screening room, at that moment, critics erupted in spontaneous applause. As a veteran of screening rooms, I can let you know: That’s rather unusual. But then all of us have grown up on Rocky.
Together we fill gaps
I keep reading that “Creed” is the best Rocky movie since the original in 1976, but that’s not saying much. The first was great, and, at the time, massively original in being a feel-good Capraesque throwback in an era of cinematic anti-heroes and anti-Christs. “Rocky Balboa,” a lion in winter tale from 2006, is pretty good, too. But the others? The less said, the better.
“Creed,” in fact, almost redeems one of the worst of them, “Rocky IV,” the cartoonish, jingoistic movie in which Apollo Creed is killed during a boxing exhibition with the Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago, setting up Rocky’s “World War III” battle in Russia. It gives Apollo’s final moments a seriousness, and a kind of dignity, they never had in the original. In a way, Coogler does to it what Coppola did to Mario Puzo’s trashy novel.
“Creed” begins with a fight in a juvenile detention facility in L.A. in 1998. A woman (Phylicia Rashad, the third actress to play Mary Anne Creed) comes to visit the troublesome boy, and lets him know she’s the wife of the father he never knew. “What was his name?” the boy eventually asks, and that’s when we cut to the title in big block letters, a la “Rocky.” But not scrolling across the screen. Just there. It’s a nice open. Then we get the equivalent of the Spider Rico fight: a now-adult Adonis in Tijuana, Mexico, clobbering a guy in one or two rounds. Twelve hours later, he’s back at work at a financial consulting firm; but when he gets promoted, he quits. He’s got fighting in his blood.
At this point I’m thinking, “Wait, why does Adonis need to travel to Philly to have Rocky train him? He’s Apollo Creed’s son—anyone would jump at the chance.” But his mom, in cahoots with the son of Apollo’s trainer, makes sure no one in LA will touch him. That’s why Philly.
As for why Rocky? It’s probably more than the fact that he’s the two-time heavyweight champ. Early on, we see Adonis watching the Bicentennial superfight, and mimicking the movements. But he’s mimicking Rocky; he’s beating on his father. The man who never married his mother and never knew him. His feelings about his father, as we say today, are complicated; and in Philly, Rocky becomes a father figure for him. He calls him “Unc.”
The key to a good Rocky movie is in the relationships, and “Creed” goes the distance here. Rocky, still running his restaurant, and now bereft of all of his supporting cast—Paulie, Adrian, Apollo and Mickey—is reluctant to take on Apollo’s son. He tried training in the past (“Rocky V”); didn’t work (both ways). But Adonis keeps at him, “like a woodpecker” Rocky says with a smile; and one day after visiting Paulie and Adrian’s graves, reading to them from the newspaper, he gets a look on his face, and returns to Mighty Mick’s Gym, where Adonis is training under the name Don Johnson. At first nobody gets it: Why does the champ care about this black kid, who calls him “Unc”? After his first professional fight, word gets out about who he really is.
Adonis’ other key relationship in the movie is with, Bianca (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”), the woman in the apartment downstairs, and it feels more than just the sidebar romance. Coogler handles these quiet moments so well. He makes them smart and tender. The way he shows you how people can get under each other’s skin gets under your skin. These scenes are also fun in a Lois and Clark kind of way: We’re waiting for Bianca to find out Don is not just another kid from the neighborhood. When she meets Adonis’ uncle, her first comment is “You’re white.” (“For a while now,” Rocky nods.) But she knows. To Adonis, she says, kind of starry-eyed, “When were you going to tell me your uncle was Rocky Balboa?”
Was you on a cruise or something?
Should we get into the race issue here? Coogler, who’s African-American, has stated over and over that he wanted to do this movie as an homage to his father, who loved the “Rocky” movies, particularly “Rocky II.” Then there’s Eddie Murphy’s take. You do wonder how much the success of the “Rocky” series owes to white audiences thrilling at a white man reclaiming territory long yielded to black men in real life. Coogler has to be aware of this, even as he sets about reclaiming that territory in fiction again. Because we are our fictions.
Yet there’s a great respect for the original movies. The references are everywhere: Mighty Mick’s, turtles, the chicken-catching thing, the one-armed push-ups, “Women weaken legs.” Seriously, has any movie series been as carefully catalogued and self-referenced as the “Rocky” series? Before this, though, it was a self-contained world. It felt too much in Stallone’s head and heart. Coogler opens the windows on this universe without knocking anything over; he just lets the fresh air in.
He lets the air into Stallone, too. Good god, maybe Sly just needed a better director all of these years. Rocky has a line in the locker room, where he’s talking about all that he’s lost (“Everything I got has moved on”), and his voice breaks, and it’s just heartfelt and beautiful. Stallone is now the same age that Burgess Meredith was when he first played Mickey, for which he was then nominated best supporting actor. There’s talk, not unjustified, that Stallone might get the same treatment. He might even win. He’s certainly got sympathy on his side, and it would be a shocking turnaround after decades of Razi awards. The whole end of his career was a million-to-one shot.
There are mistakes. I would’ve abandoned the “12 O’Clock Boys” motorbike racers zipping alongside Adonis during his final run—as if they were the kids in “Rocky II.” Doesn’t work. Apparently Stallone also foisted the stars-and-stripes boxing trunks upon Coogler, and thus Adonis, for the final bout with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (well-acted, by the way, by three-time ABA heavyweight champ Tony Bellew); but it muddies the thematic waters. Adonis is worried about embarrassing the name, and wearing the trunks would exacerbate that. Hell, his father died in those trunks—and his widow sends a facsimile version to her adopted son before his title match? Makes no sense. Plus Rocky urges Adonis to fight for the very reason Ivan Drago is vilified in “IV”: for himself.
Is there too much drama before the fight? Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, Adonis doesn’t like being called “Baby Creed” and decks Bianca’s headliner (she’s a singer, of course). But I’ll take drama that creates the fight rather than drama that prevents the fight, as in “Rocky II” (he’ll go blind), “III” (he’s lost the eye of the tiger) and “V” (he’ll die).
We don’t get the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum until the very end—after the title bout—when Adonis walks alongside a cancer-ridden Rocky Balboa up those steps again. Adonis urges them up those steps. It’s touching. What those steps mean and how often we’ve returned to them. Has any character, played by the same actor, and allowed to age, been with us as long as Rocky Balboa?
Movie Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)
Everything is good about “Bridge of Spies” but the pace. There’s drama but no real drive. Since director Steven Spielberg reinvented pulse-pounding with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” et al., one wonders if this isn’t a conscious choice (reminding us of the pace of life in the 1950s) or an unconscious one (he’s 69 now).
OK, I didn’t much think of the color scheme, either. Not a fan of those muted grays and blah blues that Spielberg and longtime DP Janusz Kaminski seem to prefer now. The past didn’t always look like a winter day in Seattle, guys.
But I recommend the film. Start with two words: Mark Rylance.
What makes an actor compelling? At one point, Rylance’s character, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, is talking with his lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in federal prison, and says the following:
Standing there like that, you reminded me of the man that used to come to our house when I was young. My father used to say, “Watch this man.” So I did. Every time he came. And never once did he do anything remarkable.
It leads to a good, self-effacing line from Donovan (“And I remind you of him?”), and then a story, typical of Hollywood films, about The Man Who Keeps Getting Back Up. I quote it here because it reminds me of Rylance’s Abel. Never once does he do anything remarkable, yet he’s always remarkable. We’re drawn to him. As an actor, Rylance is able to convey a humanity and a depth of understanding at odds with the flurry around him. He seems quietly, sadly amused by it all.
Here’s another quote—a good, repeated line in the movie:
Donovan: You don’t look worried.
Rylance: Would it help?
Think of all the ways to say this line. It could be delivered with a slight sneer, or an eyeroll, or a as an insidery joke. And Rylance says it, yes, as a kind of joke, but not insidery; there’s almost a small bubble of hope at the end. His lawyer is a smart lawyer, after all, so maybe he knows something about American jurisprudence that he does not? It’s a voice that knows the ways of the world yet remains open to possibility. How lovely is that?
A few words about Hanks’ performance. Over the past 10 years, as senior editor of a legal publication, I’ve interviewed upwards of 250 lawyers. And Hanks’ Donovan feels like one of the most lawyerly lawyers I’ve seen on a movie screen. He exudes the profession: the quiet, plodding advocacy; the toughness in negotiation without seeming tough. He makes his arguments with a friendly face even as he’s working levers behind the scenes.
The trailer plays up his ordinariness—“I’m just an insurance lawyer”—but, c’mon, he’s a top lawyer who also participated in the Nuremberg trials. That’s why he gets the gig. Also because everyone else turns it down. No one wants to represent a commie spy in the middle of the Cold War. Look at what happens to Donovan for repping Abel:
- Ostracism: Exemplified by a woman on the train who gives him a dirty look.
- Professional setback: His law firm partners grow weary of his advocacy and shut him out.
- Violence: Shots are fired through his living room window, where his teenage daughter is watching TV.
For most people, even the judge (particularly the judge), the trial isn’t a real trial. We’re giving the world a show trial. But Donovan isn’t part of that game; he goes all out. Was there a search warrant? How much of the evidence against Abel is admissible? What’s the difference between a criminal case and a national security case? He winds up taking Abel’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and makes a strong argument there. Of course, he loses. That’s the first part of the movie.
The second part is the titular part. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union and doesn’t have the decency to kill himself. So a trade: Powers for Abel, and Donovan is called in to negotiate things. Except it’s almost like “Mission: Impossible.” He’s not really representing the U.S. government, so if caught we’ll disavow any knowledge of his actions. Worse, Donovan is negotiating with both the Soviets and the East Germans, and each has their own agenda. He makes his situation more difficult by including in the negotiations an American economics student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who was caught on the wrong side during the building of the Berlin Wall.
I wonder about that impulse. Donovan is told repeatedly, by everyone, to forget about Pryor. He doesn’t. Why risk everything? That would be a good question to ask Hanks, or Spielberg, or screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman. Is it that he senses an opening? A weakness? Is it ego? Or is it just something in his nature?
As a man who can negotiate nothing, I’m fascinated by this impulse.
Take a bite and end it
Endings are not a bright spot for Spielberg. He’s the anti-Hitchcock in this regard. Hitchcock cut the cord quickly, and often beautifully, but Spielberg usually can’t let go. He drags things on.
I should add that I liked each of his possible endings of “Bridge of Spies.” But they do contradict each other in subtle ways.
The first ending is on the bridge. Before the exchange is made, Donovan, solicitous about Abel, asks if he’ll be OK in the Soviet Union. Abel says that if he’s embraced on the other side by the Soviets he will be; if not, not. And he’s not embraced. And the camera pans up and out.
That’s how Hitchcock would’ve ended it. But Spielberg continues.
We wind up on the transport plane back home, in which Powers gets the first taste of the ostracism he would feel for the rest of his life. Everyone ignores his attempts to explain himself. Everyone but Donovan, who tells him: “It’s not what people think; it’s what you know.” Then they settle back, these two very different men, and head back home, where, to different degrees and for different reasons, both are ostracized.
That could’ve been a good ending. But it’s not a Spielberg ending.
Instead, he shows us Donovan returning to his family, who thought he was on a business trip in England. But as soon as he enters his home, it’s all over the TV news about Powers’ release, and who negotiated that release; and his wife and little girl look up at him with eyes full of wonder and admiration. Then he goes upstairs and collapses on the bed.
The end? Nope.
Cut to the next day as Donovan takes the train to work. His story, and photo, are all over the front page of The New York Times, and that same woman who sneered at him before, who regarded him as a traitor when he was defending Abel, now looks over at him with understanding ... and pride. Donovan acknowledges her with a little head nod, then looks out the window of the elevated train and sees boys climbing fences in backyards; and it reminds him of a horrific moment in Germany when, from a similar elevated train, he witnessed two people being gunned down trying to get to the West. It’s a reminder that it continues.
Then we get an afterword about what happened to each of our principles. In 1962, Donovan negotiated the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners from Cuba (sequel, Steven?), while Abel led a long and seemingly satisfying life in the Soviet Union. The End.
Me in the audience: Wait, Abel lived? What about the non-embrace? Wasn’t that supposed to imply danger? Possible death? Why give us that scene and this afterword?
Then there’s the lady on the train. Doesn’t that entire scene, the need of it, contradict Donovan’s advice to Powers? It’s not what people think; it’s what you know. This is the Spielbergian corollary: “It’s not what people think; but, c’mon, isn’t it nicer when people think highly of you?”
I still recommend “Bridge of Spies.” It’s a movie about grown-ups and for grown-ups. There’s a certain propriety to everything, a set of expected manners. On some level, those expected manners are as vanished as the Cold War.
My Second Meme
The rest of the quote: “Most large fortunes are made by men of mediocre ability, who tumbled into a lucky opportunity and couldn't help but get rich.”
My interview with the director of “Rosenwald,” Aviva Kempner, can be found here.
Amy Davidson on the latest appeal to the worst devils of our nature from the Donald here.
SLIDESHOW: The Suspect Training of Rocky Balboa
Slideshow: “Creed,” the latest installment in the 40-year cinematic history of Rocky Balboa, opens this week, and this time Rocky is the trainer. He's Mickey. (It's a living, not a waste of life.) The movie's been getting good notices, and so has Stallone reprising his iconic role. Some are even talking Oscar nomination for the former worldwide box office champ. But the following is a reminder that Rocky's training methods have never been what you'd call traditional.
Yeah sure, running. That's easy.
But a raw egg diet? This led to a lot of dares in the 1970s.
And pounding frozen slabs of beef in a meat locker can't be good for the hands.
One-armed push-ups were big in the original, so for “Rocky II” they added one-armed pull-ups.
Mick had Rock chasing chickens.
And pounding junk at the junkyard.
And doing whatever this is.
At some point, it begins to feel cruel.
To get back the eye of the tiger, Apollo made Rocky live with black people in LA in “Rocky III.” They also went for runs along the beach.
And celebrated in the surf when Rocky's herky-jerky motions incomprehensibly beat Apollo's smooth strides.
“Rocky IV' contrasts the suspect, chemically-engineered Ivan Drago with the naturalism of Rocky. It's the grandfatherly advice of training montages: Go outside and get some fresh air.
And cut some wood while you're at it.
Then do this.
A metaphor here.
Rocky is the trainer in ”Rocky V,“ and, to his credit, he doesn't force his protege, Tommy ”The Machine“ Gunn, to pull him on a bicycle. Instead, they do the iconic run through Philly's Italian market.
For ”Rocky Balboa“ in 2006, Stallone gives us the greatest hits. He chugs eggs again for the first time since ”Rocky."
And he pounds meat in the meat locker.
But there are innovations.
What training methods will Rocky suggest for Adonis Creed? We'll soon find out.
Why the Yankees Suck This Week
The same day Bryce Harper was the unanamious MVP in the National League for the Washington Nationals, I came across these tweets from Yankee fans:
Same old same old. See Reason No. 6 here.
Box Office: ‘Hunger Games’ Joins the Ranks of the Fallen
The odds were ever in its favor, but the final “Hunger Games” fell at the box office.
Is it the “Part 2” or merely the “Mockingjay”?
The fourth and final “Hunger Games” was upon us this weekend, and, though the odds were ever in its favor, it disappointed at the box office.
Here are the opening weekends for each “THG”:
- “The Hunger Games” (2012): $152 million
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013): $158 million
- “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014): $121 million
- “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015): $101 million
So over two years, it lost a third of its opening weekend value.
What went wrong? Is it the fact that we’re tired of Hollywood stretching out these stories with all of these “Part 2”s? Except the final installment of “Harry Potter” broke records, while “Twilight”’s last go-round improved upon its “Part 1” box office.
Is it “The Hunger Games” itself? I’ve heard the later books aren’t as good as the earlier ones. Maybe the audience knew that and drifted away. Maybe they grew up.
Brad Brevert on “Box Office Mojo” has another suggestion: “Star Wars VII” anticipation. It’s sucking all the air out of the room.
Obviously it’s still a good weekend, but “Hunger Games” joined the ranks of the fallen less than triumphantly.
The latest James Bond, “Spectre,” dropping 56.7% in its third weekend, grossed antoher $14.6 for a domestic total of $153.7. That’s about half of what its predecessor did. Bond fatigue? More “Star Wars” anticipation?
“The Peanuts Movie” dropped 46% and grossed another $12 mil for a domestic take of $98 million. Not exaclty a warm puppy.
Two new movies, the R-rated Seth Rogen comedy “The Night Before,” and the U.S. remake of the Argentian award-winner “The Secrets in their Eyes,” finished fourth and fifth, with $10 and $6 mil respectively.
Office, Box Office
The highest-grossing Bond flick, unadjusted.
“Spectre,” which Patricia and I are going to see today, is the 25th incarnation of James Bond, not including the first two Casino Royales ('54 American TV; '67 movie spoof), and it's doing well enough at the box office. But apparently we've reached a saturation point.
Here are the top 10 James Bond box office hits of all time—unadjusted. What do you notice?
|2||Quantum of Solace||$168,368,427||2008|
|4||Die Another Day||$160,942,139||2002|
|6||The World Is Not Enough||$126,943,684||1999|
|7||Tomorrow Never Dies||$125,304,276||1997|
Since Pierce Brosnan took over the role in 1995, every James Bond flick has done better than the previous one. It was a stock that kept rising. “Spectre” is the market adjustment. It'll probably get to second place but won't get within $100 million of “Skyfall.”
Other observations: Bond didn't break the $100 million barrier until Brosnan. Kind of shocking, isn't it? And it didn't break the $200 million barrier until the last one, “Skyfall,” in 2012. So the original “Hunger Games” made more in three days than all but four James Bond movies did in their entire runs.
That's unadjusted. If you adjust for inflation, things change. Big time:
|4||You Only Live Twice||$299,439,300||$43,084,787||1967|
|6||Die Another Day||$230,050,800||$160,942,139||2002|
|7||Tomorrow Never Dies||$224,439,200||$125,304,276||1997|
|8||From Russia, with Love||$222,371,000||$24,796,765||1963|
|9||Diamonds Are Forever||$221,487,900||$43,819,547||1971|
|11||The World Is Not Enough||$207,280,700||$126,943,684||1999|
|13||Quantum of Solace||$195,570,000||$168,368,427||2008|
|15||The Spy Who Loved Me||$175,172,400||$46,838,673||1977|
|16||Live and Let Die||$166,695,600||$35,377,836||1973|
|17||For Your Eyes Only||$164,438,400||$54,812,802||1981|
|19||Never Say Never Again||$146,765,000||$55,432,841||1983|
|21||On Her Majesty's Secret Service||$133,760,000||$22,774,493||1969|
|22||A View to a Kill||$118,235,300||$50,327,960||1985|
|23||The Living Daylights||$109,179,100||$51,185,897||1989|
|24||The Man with the Golden Gun||$93,532,900||$20,972,000||1974|
|25||License to Kill||$72,826,900||$34,667,015||1987|
If you adjust for inflation, “Thunderball” is the 29th biggest hit in U.S. box office history (although only the third biggest movie of 1965—behind “The Sound of Music” and “Dr. Zhivago,” both of which are in the top 10 all-time).
In the early '60s, Bond was a stock that kept rising, too. Here are the adjusted domestic grosses of the first four movies: $157 million, $222, $552, $623. Bang zoom. Then two years off and a massive fall, back to $299. Then an even bigger fall to $133 in 1969. This last can be ascribed, in part, to a new actor, George Lazenby, taking over from Sean Connery, back when actors taking over iconic roles wasn't an everyday thing.
But what accounts for the drop between “Thunderball” and “You Only Live Twice”? Saturation? Too many Matt Helmish copies.
Or was it the difference between 1965 and 1967?
In '65, it was all well and good to go see a movie about a British spy who travels the world and kills bad guys and sleeps with broads. By 1967, half the people who went to the previous one weren't interested anymore. Maybe they were a little more serious. They went to see “The Graduate” instead. Or “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was the beginning of the age of the ordinary hero or the anti-hero. And Bond was neither.
No wonder for a time Bond's producers considered Adam West for the role. If West could turn Batman into a pop icon, surely he could ressurect Bond.
As it was, with Roger Moore at the helm, it was still a long slow slog throughout the 1970s to reach the point where, in 1979, “Moonraker” eclipsed the adjusted box office of 1963's “From Russia with Love.”
Then the '80s and a fall again. Then the casting of Brosnan and the steady rise.
I'd like to think that the market adjustment of “Spectre” presages a more serious age for all of us, as “You Only Live Twice” seemed to. But then you look at the top of this year's domestic box office—“Jurassic World,” “Avengers/Ultron,” “Furious 7”—and you know, no, we're still not a serious country, Virginia.
The highest-grossing Bond flick, adjusted. (A history of Bond posters can be found here.)
My First Meme
I created this a few days ago because these types of memes seem the lingua franca of the internet. I'm forever a late adopter.
It's a pretty simple message. It's actually a two-fold simple message: 1) Sinatra's, 2) How many steps backward some of us have taken since 1945.