Creed

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Grade: A-

2015 may go in the books as the year Hollywood decided to recondition well-established franchises for a new generation (with the upcoming ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, the abysmal ‘Jurassic World’ from this past summer, and now ‘Creed’).

The first ‘Rocky’ movie, released in 1976, took home the Best Picture Oscar. There would, assuredly, be a sequel; at the time, Sylvester Stallone said he would end the series with ‘Rocky III’ and kill off the titular character. Of course, the series didn’t end there, and Stallone trifled with the idea of killing off Rocky in ‘Rocky V’. Stallone is now 69 years old, and he is reprising his role as Rocky Balboa for the seventh time in ‘Creed’.

In the prologue, we are introduced to 12-year-old Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former opponent, trainer, and friend Apollo Creed. Donnie bounces between juvenile detention centers in LA until Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), adopts the young man and gives him a home. Seventeen years later, we see Donnie resigning from his finance job to pursue his love of boxing. He heads to Philadelphia, tracks down Rocky Balboa who is still wearing that hat and still tending the restaurant named after his late wife. Donnie convinces Rocky to train him, and this is where the past and present merge.

The seventh movie in the series doesn’t deviate too far from the classic formula used in the previous six pictures. But, thanks to this screenplay co-written by director Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, Coogler’s steady hand behind the camera, and Jordan’s engrossing performance in front of it, ‘Creed’ emulates the established formula faultlessly. Stallone has mastered this role, and slips into it very comfortably.

The movie tries something new without betraying its roots. There are tie-ins to previous films but not as much as you would expect. We see the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art only once, and Bill Conti’s signature score operates with restraint and is reserved just for those big moments. Donnie does have a love interest – an affable musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The relationship between these two echoes the sweet, supportive one between Rocky and Adrian.

Donnie, like Rocky 39 years ago, is the underdog who is training for a fight against the world champion, while Rocky takes on the role that previously belonged to Mickey – the old mentor figure who finds a reason to keep going. Jordan and Stallone are just as great together as Stallone with was Burgess Meredith in the first three ‘Rocky’ films, and there truly are moments of beauty in seeing the former champ now pass on the knowledge that was imparted to him, not just about how to handle oneself in the ring but also outside the ring.

One of the best scenes: Rocky places Donnie in front of a mirror and tells him that the greatest opponent he will ever fight (in the ring or in life) is the reflection staring back at him. It’s a line of dialogue that took me back to ‘Rocky II’ – even though the film’s tagline stated that this was the rematch of the century, the villain wasn’t Apollo Creed – it was Rocky himself and his overblown ego. The mirror scene is also representative of Donnie’s identity crisis; Donnie Johnson, and Adonis Creed – in fulfilling his father’s legacy or fulfilling his own expectations. Rocky, too, faces a battle and I won’t say anything more about this. A scene involving Rocky trekking up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art nearly brought me to tears.

There are some great filmmaking choices here. We see the statistics of every boxer as an onscreen graphic superimposing a freeze frame. The fight scenes in ‘Creed’ are expertly handled: tracking shots, chilling close-ups, and the refined sound design which allows us to hear Rocky’s voice from the ringside – we are in the ring with Donnie. The better entries in this series aren’t exactly about boxing – they’re about a boxer and the colorful people surrounding him; the boxing scenes in the first ‘Rocky’ picture amounted to maybe ten minutes of screen time. The results of the fights, rousing as they have been, never mattered as much as why our protagonist was fighting. At 133 minutes, ‘Creed’ is the longest entry in the ‘Rocky’ series but I can’t think of a scene I would take out. We are drawn into the lives of these characters the hard way; not as a nostalgic corollary, but through a sharply penned screenplay that takes its time with fully fleshed-out characters. That’s why you believe in the relationships between these characters, and that’s why when that big fight inevitably arrives, you’ll find yourself with sweaty palms.

Coogler and Jordan teamed up for the director’s first feature-length film, ‘Fruitvale Station’, in 2013 (well worth seeing). We’re in the early stages of a very exciting filmmaking career and acting career for these two. Who would have thought we needed another ‘Rocky’ movie? ‘Creed’ is arguably the best movie in the series since the original ‘Rocky’. I say bring on ‘Rocky 8’. QED.

The End Of The Tour

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Grade: A

I know, I know, I’m late on this. ‘The End of the Tour’ opened at the Varsity in early September. No one saw it in theaters. It grossed under $3million in total and was only shown on 355 screens across North America. It was released on Blu-Ray/DVD this past Tuesday and is now downloadable on iTunes – you owe it to yourself to see this movie. ‘The End of the Tour’ is one of the best films of 2015.

The plot has an understated simplicity reminiscent to ‘My Dinner with Andre’ from 1981. ‘The End of the Tour’ chronicles the 5-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the final leg of a multi-city book tour for his 1,079-page bestseller ‘Infinite Jest’ in 1996.  I’ve never read ‘Infinite Jest’; during my most recent visit to Indigo, I picked up this 3-lbs book and was already intimidated by it. The cover looks fabulous, so I trust the book is as well. Over those five days, Lipsky and Wallace eat junk food, down soda, smoke cigarettes, talk…and talk….and talk – the film’s pleasures are largely vernacular.

Roger Ebert once said “Every great film should seem new every time you see it”. ‘The End of the Tour’ has significant re-watch value. On first viewing, you might watch it from Lipsky’s angle – from the point of view of a guy who is interviewing a celebrity writer, a writer who has reached a level of success that Lipsky has not yet achieved; Lipsky looks up to him, but is also extremely envious of him, which can make things challenging when everything is on the record. On second viewing, you can see it from David Foster Wallace’s angle – a writer who is clearly able to have a friendly connection with another writer but is unable to connect on a personal level because he can’t trust the man with the tape recorder. These are men with competing, contradictory impulses: being torn between dispirited seclusion and an eagerness for connection, exploring the channels of publicity and being weary about the insincerity of it all.

‘The End of the Tour’ isn’t going to be for everyone. If you are looking for a towering cradle-to-the-grave story, I don’t think this going to deliver what you want. That movie might get made someday, but with the movie we have today, director James Ponsoldt wisely focuses on a crucial period in Wallace’s career. The window may not be sufficient enough to understand the man, his work, or his metaphysics. What it is, however, is a scintillating commentary on the moral quagmire our celebrity-obsessed society anchors on the gifted and the undistinguished alike. These are two men at different junctures of professional success within the same field. One wants to be the other. The other wants something else. The movie’s insights into professional jealousy, public perception, and the fragile connection between writers obliterate the sort of reservations I typically have with biopics.   

A friend informed me that the screenplay was structured around the published transcripts of those tape-recorded conversations. That explains why the accelerated repartee between these two feel lived-in and organic as opposed to a product of screenplay workshopping. This is a marvelous screenplay, one that acknowledges the uncomfortable silences that punctuates these conversations. There is warmth, humor, and a curiosity about human nature. It made me wonder how Wallace would have responded to it; the conversations engage the mind, but there is also an emotional honesty within it. Wallace and Lipsky can have weighty conversations about what it all means, and moments later can turn off their brains to enjoy John Woo’s cheesy actioner ‘Broken Arrow’.

I’m not sure the Motion Picture Academy is going to recognize Jason Segel’s outstanding work in ‘The End of the Tour’, but they really should. You forget you’re watching Segel – his portrayal, regardless of whether it captures the true Wallace or not, is touching and sensitive – you hang on to his every word. We get a glimpse of Wallace’s neurotic behavior – his outburst at Lipsky, and his addiction to television. But he is also funny, and thoughtful. And Eisenberg, who has played everyone from a dorky park attendant to an a-hole genius tyrant, nearly equals Segel. I can’t imagine anyone else in these roles.

Though the movie opens in 2008 as Lipsky hears of Wallace’s death before going back a dozen years, the movie isn’t interested in doomful foreshadowing. There is no attempt to explain why Wallace killed himself, or define the less appealing aspects of his persona. “You don’t crack open a 1,000-page book because you heard the author was a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant.” Lipski conjectures. This is a movie about great minds made by people with great minds. QED. 

Steve Jobs

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Grade: A-
You’re probably reading this review on your Mac or your iPhone or your iPad and even if you aren’t, I’m certain I don’t have to explain who Steve Jobs is to you.

I didn’t know what to expect going into Danny Boyle’s ‘Steve Jobs’. In 2013, I’d witnessed Ashton Kutcher play the titular character in the atrociously bad ‘Jobs’. Shortly after, I’d read Walter Isaacson’s terrific 656-page biography ‘Steve Jobs’. And so, I’d entered the picture hoping to have a good experience, but with a measure of cynicism that I wasn’t going to see anything I hadn’t seen before. I was wrong.

Aaron Sorkin’s first-rate screenplay splits the movie into three parts, each based on a product launch orchestrated by Jobs. The first involves Jobs (magnificently embodied by Michael Fassbender) moments before the 1984 launch of the Macintosh computer (and shortly after the famous ‘1984’ Super Bowl ad). The second takes place in 1988 when he is preparing to launch his educational computer, Cube, via his tech company, NeXT, after being ousted from Apple. The third is Jobs back with Apple for the 1998 launch of the iMac. Essentially, this is a three-act stage play for the screen. And I love how daring and eccentric this storytelling choice is in selecting these pivotal moments in Jobs’ career. Both this movie and the recent ‘Love & Mercy’ break free from the leash of the standard, cradle-to-the-grave biopic blueprint. With its minimalist set design, and walky-talky histrionics, it isn’t hard to imagine ‘Steve Jobs’ as a stage production.

In the first act, Fassbenders’ Jobs has the appearance of a villain. Wearing a suit and bow tie, he threatens to publicly disgrace his subordinates if they can’t make things perfect by the time he gets on stage to introduce the Mac, and he is quick to repudiate his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and his 5-year-old daughter Lisa (Mackenzie Moss).

The same recurring figures in Jobs’ life appear backstage just moments before each product launch. I really doubt John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) asked Jobs how he felt about being adopted seconds prior to the unveiling of the Mac, but given the film’s structure, the script would have to place these conversations here – otherwise, it would just be technical jargon without any sort of glimpse into Jobs’ inner life.                               

Within these three glimmers, no attempt is made at redeeming these characters of their flaws. It’s a depiction that Jobs would be proud of. I recall Walter Issacson commenting on Jobs not wanting any control over what was written in his biography. He wanted people to speak honestly and was completely aware of how candid they would be. We see him how he was, warts and all. There is a tendency within us to instinctively anoint those who passed on for sainthood.

A different format is used for each of the segments: the first act was shot in 16mm film, the second in 35mm, and the third in washed-out digital, all to illustrate not only the time period, but also Jobs’ focus becoming more lucent as he emerged.

The filmmakers assume that you’re going into ‘Steve Jobs’ with a certain level of knowledge about his life. It won’t fill in the blanks for you. If you don’t know about the Apple 1 computer built in Jobs’ garage in Los Altos, or his long and bumpy friendship with Steve Wozniak (played amazingly by Seth Rogen here), this exploration into Jobs’ psyche may be lost on the viewer.

The energy is unrelenting and the actors more than meet the challenge of being able to deliver Sorkin’s dialogue with aplomb – after three seasons of ‘The Newsroom’, Jeff Daniels has mastered this. With the exception of two brief scenes, the movie takes place entirely within interiors; Sorkin loves his uninterrupted walking and talking through every hallway, stairway, and doorway. This gives the movie a sense of propulsive motion and energy and if Sorkin isn’t deviating much from his trademark, at least the aesthetic aligns with the storytelling choice since all the characters are backstage. Personally, I think he is as talented a screenwriter as anyone working today. Seth Rogen delivers the best line; Wozniak, after a heated confrontation with Jobs in a crowded auditorium before the 1998 iMac says: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary.” Jobs didn’t have Wozniak’s sense of empathy, but in some ways this relentless drive – the need to dismiss the problems in front of him, and look towards his next move helped him accomplish all the things he set out to do. The argument could be made that Jobs wasn’t necessarily all that indecent but for someone who was a brilliant innovator, we held him to such a high standard in all regards.

A nearly unrecognizable Kate Winslet is outstanding as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ poised yet mighty marketing guru and the voice of reason. Because she’s delivering dialogue penned by Sorkin, there is speechifying, but she brings a quiet intensity to the role. The banter between her and Fassbender are among the picture’s highlights and it’s a delicate feat – being able to make such rapid-fire dialogue seem like a piece of cake, but of course, it takes a lot of work to get that timing down perfectly.

Both ‘The Social Network’ (also penned by Sorkin) and ‘Steve Jobs’ are about real-life technology pioneers, and Sorkin is great at creating a portrait of total genius as a monster. “Computers aren’t supposed to have personality flaws, so I’m not going to design this one with yours.” Wozniak tells Jobs early on.

This dialogue doesn’t direct itself and Danny Boyle’s kinetic talents perfectly align with Sorkin’s supercharged writing. This enclosed structure is the right fit for Boyle – in ‘127 Hours’, he made a movie about a guy trapped under a rock so much more cinematic than anyone could have possibly anticipated. If I do have a quibble, it has to do with the reliance on montages to transition from one act to another. Sure, the majority of audience members would prefer to know what took place during the intervening years, but as an already innovative piece of cinema, I think it could have gone even further by simply providing a blackout which would have felt truer to its theatrical presentation.

Like the tech products released by Apple, this is a brilliant, ingeniously designed motion picture. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet will be in every awards conversation between now and the night of the Oscars. Expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Actress (Kate Winslet), Directing, and Screenplay. QED.

Top 5 James Bond Films

With ‘Spectre’ (the 24th James Bond film) opening in theaters this Friday, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at some of the high points of cinema’s most durable hero. Limiting this list to five selections wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

Goldfinger1) ‘Goldfinger’ (1964)
‘Goldfinger’ was my introduction to the 007 character, and remains unsurpassed by its successors and its many imitators. I can’t defend it as great cinema but it is great fun, establishing the template for all of the Bond films that followed: a highly inventive plot, cutting-edge gadgetry, beautiful women, classic villains, sly humor, exotic locales, and gargantuan set pieces. The picture has arguably the best encompassment of Bond (Sean Connery), the best villain (Auric Goldfinger is one for the ages), the best Bond Girl (Oh My God, Honor Blackman!!!), the best henchman, and the best car (The Aston Martin DB-5). Oh, and that theme song!

Skyfall2) ‘Skyfall’ (2012)
I actually reviewed ‘Skyfall’ when it opened in 2012. Here is an excerpt from my blog post: This is a very different Bond picture – one that is driven by developing its characters, and exploring the relationships between them as opposed to taking place in the gadget-filled live-action cartoon universe that this series seems to occupy. Yes, the babes, the cars, and the exotic locales are all present, but when I think back to ‘Skyfall’, it’s the characterizations that stand out for me. There’s a vulnerability to Craig’s version of Bond that makes him more compelling and helps create a rooting interest that I haven’t felt since the early Connery pictures.

Casino Royale3) ‘Casino Royale’ (2006)
‘Casino Royale’ was the first of the Bond pictures to star Daniel Craig. Gone is the cartoonish absurdity of the Brosnan-era; the ice hotel from ‘Die Another Day’ has melted away. This one functions more as an origin story (appropriately so, given that ‘Casino Royale’ was Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel). This isn’t the 007 we knew from decades before and I’m told Craig’s portrayal is more inline with Fleming’s creation – this is a man who is shattered by his job, and this level of impressionability (coupled with gritty stunt work a la Jason Bourne) is what has come to define this reincarnation of the classic character.

on-her-majestys-secret-service4) ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969)
Yes, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ is the George Lazenby one. Most fans of the series probably won’t have this title on their Best Of lists. And while I admit that Lazenby is stiff and lacks the charm Connery so effortlessly brought to the role, I have to say this is the first of the Bond pictures where I actually cared for the characters and felt as if things were at stake. I was very much moved by that shockingly abrupt, emotional ending. Of the 12 Bond pictures scored by John Berry, this was the very best one. Easily the most underrated entry in the series.From-Russia-with-Love5) ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963)
‘From Russia with Love’ is the second movie in the Bond series, and at this point, Connery had mastered his character. It is a much more accomplished work against its predecessor, ‘Dr. No’. This is the one that begins the tradition of using a main title song. I always thought this plot involving the search of a Russian decoding device was particularly brave given that Cold War tensions were high during this time. In terms of plotting, this is one of the most tightly knit in the series. It’s also the one that Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Daniel Craig have cited as their personal favorite 007 picture.