Somehow 2015 has seen two long running film franchises, Mad Max and now Rocky, turn in arguably their best entries. As the 7th movie in a franchise, Creed somehow not only reinvigorates the series, but explicitly ties its central narrative thread around the idea of a tortured legacy. As the title indicates, Creed shifts the main point of view from Rocky Balboa to the son of his rival Apollo Creed. Played by Michael B Jordan, the son’s name is Adonis(Donnie) Creed. Why the Creed’s are named after Greek mythology escapes me, but it’s almost helpful in setting the stage for the central conflict of a son having to live up to the reputation of a near godlike father, someone described by Rocky as a “perfect” fighter. Adonis comes to Rocky after being rejected by other boxing clubs; a clearly talented self-taught boxer, he needs professional polishing before having a chance in a real match. Rocky reluctantly accepts, perhaps because after the death of his wife as well as his best friend, Donnie is now the closest thing to a link to his happier past. From the fateful meeting in Rocky’s modest restaurant, Creed follows a predictable but powerful storyline that results in what is probably the best Rocky movie (although I’m hardly an authority on the franchise).
Creed is a pretty remarkable showcase for some major up and coming talent. While he has to deal with some pretty iffy characterization (I never quite understood his motivation), Michael B Jordan gives a pretty fantastic performance as Adonis. Director Ryan Coogler also manages to transcend his own good but not great screenplay with some outstanding direction. The boxing scenes in particular are among the best the genre has given in awhile, standing up well with the fights in movies like Michael Mann’s Ali. Tessa Thompson (playing Adonis’s neighbor and eventual girlfriend) isn’t given too much to do, but also delivers a very good performance. Sylvester Stallone meanwhile, mumbles his way through his lines well enough to not get in the way.
Creed doesn’t quite manage to land in the upper tier of boxing movies; the screenplay too dutifully hits the all too standard narrative beats and I had problems with some of the characterizations, but it’s a showcase film for Jordan and Coogler who, with their previous collaboration Fruitvale Station, have a chance to be one of the more interesting actor/director duos in Hollywood.
My Rating: 4/5
The Good Dinosaur
Speaking of powerful legacies, The Good Dinosaur is not only the most recent film from the Pixar miracle factory, it’s coming only a few months after Inside Out revitalized the studio after their first real stretch of mediocrity. Unlike Creed, The Good Dinosaur isn’t quite up to the task, and it might very well be the worst of Pixar’s original films.
The plot is a classic Pixar what-if. In this case, the movie is about a world where the dinosaurs survived extinction and now live side by side with more modern animals. While the plot is novel, the characters and narrative beats are anything but. The whole crux of the film is whether or not the main dinosaur, a runt of the litter sauropod named Arlo, will be able to overcome his natural cowardice and, literally, leave his “mark” on his families farm. While there’s still wiggle room in that synopsis for a potentially interesting story, the finished screenplay is boorishly safe and much more reminiscent of a mediocre Disney animated film than the best Pixar offerings.
What’s more is that a lot of scenes and characters in The Good Dinosaur feel a little out of place at best. There’s an odd encounter with a deranged Styracosaurus, a prehistoric acid trip, and several very abrupt scenes of matter of fact violence. In addition to the odd animation decisions (near photorealistic backgrounds and environment with equally cartoonish renderings of the actual dinosaurs), The Good Dinosaur has a bizarre dissonance that is hard to shake.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad film all around, but the good parts are few and far between (Sam Elliot’s T-rex feels like he’s part of a better film) and the ultimate product is disappointingly simplistic. This was supposedly one of Pixar’s most troubled productions and it shows, especially coming only a few months after one of the studio’s best films.
My Rating: 3/5
Here’s a very well-made, extremely competent film that I honestly don’t have much to say about. It’s about an Irish girl (played by the always excellent Saoirse Ronan) who moves from Ireland to Brooklyn and her attempts to make a new home for herself in America. It’s a lush period piece with an interesting central dilemma of finding where your “home” actually is. A year later, as Ronan’s character begins to get settled in to a new job and a new marriage, she’s suddenly recalled home after the death of her sister. There she has to decide whether to stay in her old home, or return to her new one. That synopsis leaves quite a lot of detail out of what is a genuinely good melodrama, but as I said I don’t really have too much to say about it other than that it’s a fantastically realized depiction of a different time and place. There’s not really anything to criticize it for, and quite a few reasons to recommend it, but as a complete piece of moviemaking, it didn’t ever quite become anything particularly memorable to me.
My Rating: 3.5/5
And finally, the clear choice as movie of the week and one of the best movies of the year is Spotlight, a film about the 2001 Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. To me it didn’t sound like a particularly appealing film, but as the odds on Best Picture favorite at this point I felt compelled to go. Spotlight ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year so far, with one of the most compelling and provocative screenplay’s I’ve seen in awhile.
The most immediately obvious feat Spotlight shows it’s that it’s a complete acting showcase; every major cast member does incredible work, and even some of the bit players turn in memorable scenes or cameos as well. In my opinion, Leiv Schreiber turns in the most complete performance as the new editor of the globe who brings the issue to the attention of the Spotlight team, a group of reporters who spend months or even years researching and investigating one major issue at a time. The team is headed by Michael Keaton’s character, arguably the most interesting in the film, and is staffed by three full time reporters, played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James. Ruffalo in particular is excellent, as is McAdams. James turns in a fine performance as well, but he perhaps unfairly gets overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Stanley Tucci plays an embattled lawyer who is years ahead of the Spotlight team and whose attempts to do the right thing before anyone even admits there is a problem give him a reputation as a paranoid troublemaker. As a sort of mirror, Billy Crudup plays another lawyer who mediates settlements between the victims and the Church. His character is wonderfully enigmatic and the film denies the audience the easy pleasure of condemning or absolving him. Both are excellent examples of making a big impression in limited screentime without resorting to sensationalism.
In addition to the cast the screenplay is a minor miracle in how it makes a movie that is mostly tense interviews and digging through archives into a compelling and entertaining film. Even more impressively is how it manages to be an “issue” film without lionizing its protagonist, making any sweeping judgements or simplistic assumptions about it’s real-life characters, or treating the end as some kind of final achievement. More than most films, Spotlight serves as more of a call to arms than most films dare to do. As the reporters find more and more evidence for the scandal, they encounter people left and right who, at some level, knew what was going on but decided that it wasn’t their responsibility to help with. In the end, even the Spotlight reporters have a share of the responsibility, and part of what makes Spotlight such an impressive movie is how it manages to take a firm moral stand on what should be done, without making any simplistic assumptions about whose “fault” anything was.
Spotlight is a pretty incredible accomplishment. It succesfully builds on itself scene by scene, building up to something that ends up being a fairly remarkable film.
My rating: 4.5/5