Friday, November 27, 2015

“Creed” is a Knockout Franchise Rebirth

Working as both the seventh entry into the Rocky franchise and a spinoff, Creed follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of boxer Apollo Creed, deceased opponent and friend of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). When Adonis moves to Philadelphia in pursuit of a boxing career, he seeks out the long-retired Rocky to have the former champion train him and together, the two face new challenges in their personal and professional lives.

As the continuation of a franchise that has had plenty of ups, downs, and shifts in quality, Creed was clearly a gamble on the behalf of Stallone and director Ryan Coogler, who cowrote the picture with Aaron Covington. Rocky Balboa was a wonderful way to cap off the series, returning it to its roots and real quality filmmaking. So reopening it and changing the focus of the franchise could have been a cheap rehash of the original, a tone deaf cash grab, or a painful misstep. Instead, Creed is an absolute triumph that works as both a brilliant reinvigoration of the Rocky series and masterful standalone film. Like Adonis’ struggle with the Creed name, the film itself works to stand on its own while still incorporating the strengths and prestige of the franchise.

If you had any doubt as to whether Michael B. Jordan is one of the leading actors of this generation, Creed will knock the truth into you with the same power and tenacity of its lead character. Jordan has palpable charisma that is matched equally by his talent as an actor. He’s not just a star on display who is able to take over one of cinema’s biggest franchises, he wholly embodies Adonis by balancing the character’s raw talent, painful self doubts, and rapturous tenacity. While it would be easy for Jordan to be overshadowed by Stallone in his greatest role, Adonis becomes both relatable and inspiring like Rocky without ever becoming a carbon copy of the classic character.

But it’s not only Jordan whose abilities are on full display here, as Stallone puts on one of his all-time great performances in a return to the character most closely identified with his filmography.

With a career equally filled with beloved and loathed movies, Stallone has had one of the most perplexing filmographies of all time. His career-making roles in Rocky and First Blood can be defined as masterpieces that show him to have the spirit of an auteur and true talent as both a writer and actor. But he’s also been inextricably drawn to big, dumb action movies, both good and bad. General audiences likely think of him as the ‘80s action hero covered in bulging muscles and baby oil, firing massive machine guns while screaming unintelligibly. And while he’s perpetuated that idea through numerous sequels that skew further and further toward that mentality, Stallone’s best works are far removed from that idea.

In Creed, he returns to greatness in a way that will make you reevaluate your ideas of him as an actor. While Stallone did not write or direct this latest entry into the Rocky franchise, the spirit of his films greatly informs its heart and focus. Beyond that, his performance as the aged Italian Stallion is so captivating that you forget about the big actor behind it all. He’s Rocky heart and soul. But he’s not just the brave and funny boxer that people have loved for years, he’s wounded from numerous personal losses and in need of someone to help him find purpose again, which is found in Adonis. Jordan and Stallone have fantastic chemistry, sparking off one another in moments of comedy, action, and soul searching. There’s serious emotional depth plumbed here in their scenes that slowly squeeze your heart more and more. That dynamic alone would make the movie, but it’s only one of the many wonderful aspects of Creed.

Outside of the two leads, stellar performances make up the rest of the film’s surprisingly small scope. As Adonis’ adopted mother and wife to the late Apollo, Phylicia Rashad provides a tender and warm performance as the woman who gave the young boy a chance for the future and really shines in her relatively small role. Tessa Thompson also offers a great compliment to Adonis as Bianca, a singer who forms a relationship with Adonis and challenges him in the ways that he needs. While there may be no character that rivals Apollo Creed’s antagonist role in the original Rocky, Tony Bellew as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan is able to give Adonis the challenge he needs, especially when the two battle in the film’s brutal climax.

Coogler, who had worked with Jordan previously on Fruitvale Station, captures the spirit of the franchise without being indebted to it. You can feel the Rocky spirit in Creed without it ever feeling like a remake. Rather, this is the continuation of a story that has taken an unexpected yet extremely smart turn. Ideas of self worth and the struggle to find meaning in one’s life are deeply embedded in Creed, just like the original Rocky, and that overflowing heart at the center of the film makes it truly powerful. Yes, training montages and a shot at the title are here like so many other sports films, but the ideas are translated as timeless touchstones rather than worn-out clichés.

Most certainly, Creed falls into a certain mold of sports films, with the protagonist fighting to advance in the sport, finding love, nearly losing everything in the film’s nadir, and rallying for a rousing fight in the finale. If you find the format devoid of worth, you won’t discover anything brand new in the film. But Creed is so finely made that it makes the most it possibly can out of the formula until you don’t care about the highs and lows that are surely on their way.

Creed is also an impeccably shot film, with cinematographer Maryse Alberti combining a gritty and realistic viewpoint with artfully crafted framing. There’s a careful balancing act here between the overtly artistic and the realistic, as Alberti’s cinematography often enhances the storytelling on display. Most notably, Creed has some of the most breathtaking tracking shots seen in years, with both action and dialogue given long takes without cuts. The technique is employed from the onset of the film, making viewers more comfortable with the format in order to not distract from the performances on display and becoming part of its language.

>But you can’t help but be floored by Creed’s midpoint setpiece, as the young fighter’s first professional bout is done in one single take. While there are surely edits that have been composited to create the single flowing scene, the technical mastery on display here is truly jaw dropping. Coogler and Alberti literally put the audience in the middle of the fight, with both the camera and fighters dancing around the ring, exchanging thundering blows that bust them open and shake the arena. As the damage mounts and the pressure rises, you utterly buy into the real stakes of the fight in ways that few boxing matches have done in films past. The amount of time that was surely invested in the scene is a testament to the commitment made by the filmmakers who brought Creed to the screen.

That same intensity and emotional investment can be seen throughout Creed, informing both training montages and extremely emotional character moments. Together, they exhilarate and bring you closer and closer to the characters. Although the film’s final fight does not quite match its earlier single-take bout, the emotional investment elevates the climax greatly. Specifically, a moment where Adonis finally says why he’s been so determined to fight all his life is not only heart wrenching, but also takes the entire film to the next level.

Few franchises can hope for a rebirth that is as wonderful, thrilling, and inspiring as Creed. The future is bright for Adonis, Rocky, and the team that has lovingly brought them back to the big screen.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Games Come to a Quiet Close in “Mockingjay Part II”

Few film series have captured the attentions of audiences around the world like The Hunger Games has since the release of the first film in 2012. Now, Mockingjay Part II closes the series and its many plot threads through a sometimes thrilling, yet often underwhelming, action-focused finale.

Picking directly up where Mockingjay Part I ended, the finale to The Hunger Games Series sees heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) embroiled in the war to free the country of Panem from the rule of President Snow and The Capitol. In a brutal battle to reach her target, Katniss must fight her way through countless dangers while confronting her feelings for the two men in her life – childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

It should not come as a surprise that since Mockingjay Part II is the result of the source material being cleaved in half for the sake of making it into two parts, this film is far from a stand-alone. Rather, this series capper makes little to no effort at all to reestablish characters or inform the emotional context of any action happening on screen. Any feelings that a viewer has whatsoever for any character involved here is the direct result of films past, not this one. While that may work for some who are totally invested, it certainly does not do the developments here any favors. As Mockingjay Part II is wholly focused on bringing the series to a slam bang finish, most of its runtime is devoted to either the battle to take The Capitol or Katniss’ choice in her love triangle. All else withers on the vine. And when characters start being killed off, they feel strangely hollow.

Beyond striving the conclude the overarching narrative, the film also works to bring the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle to a fitting conclusion by giving it more focus  than the last four movies combined. While the dynamic has been part of The Hunger Games Series from the start, it has never been the driving force behind much of the story. Quite literally, the film is structured to have every other scene be a slow-moving discussion where characters hash out their feelings for one another, which only serves to bring the narrative to a grinding halt despite the thrills brought on by the action in between these pauses.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Many Versions of The Hulk

The Hulk is one of Marvel Comics’ most iconic characters and one of its most complicated. When Bruce Banner was exposed to massive amounts of gamma radiation when he saved the teenager Rick Jones from the detonation of his own gamma bomb, the mutation caused him to develop the split persona of The Hulk. In times of anger or extreme stress, Banner uncontrollably becomes The Hulk – a massive green monster with enough strength to level cities. But Hulk is not just a massive comic book version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he’s the expression of Banner’s childhood trauma and suppressed dissociative identity disorder. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only shown one version of Hulk – the famous Savage Hulk, there are actually multiple versions of the beast, which makes the character far more interesting than a simple giant monster.

From incarnations of his dangerous teenage self to noble warriors in search of justice, Hulk has taken on many distinct variations over the course of his more than 50 year history. With each new personality, Hulk takes on new characteristics, motives, and powers, each with their own appeal and unique stories. In addition to Bruce Banner’s Jade Giant, there have been many different gamma-powered heroes and villains over the years, such as She-Hulk, Red Hulk, Abomination, and the upcoming Totally Awesome Hulk. The following are the many versions of Bruce Banner in the main Marvel Universe.

Gray Hulk

The first ever Hulk, it was the Gray Hulk that Dr. Bruce banner first turned into after he was bombarded with radiation by his Gamma Bomb. Besides being a different color than the most famous iteration, Banner would turn into the Gray Hulk at night, with his alternate personality being more intelligent and cruel than the classic version of the character, which was far more in line with the Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde persona that clearly inspired the character. Famously, Stan Lee and the team at Marvel Comics decided to change the character to green because the color was far easier to regulate in print at the time than gray. In addition, the character quickly shifted to a manifestation of Banner’s rage and this original idea was simply glossed over. However, writer John Byrne brought back the Gray Hulk during his seminal run in the ‘80s, which established the version as an alternate persona of Banner and gave birth to the multiple personalities take on Hulk, which has been canon ever since.

Gray Hulk is the smallest and least strong of the Hulks, but has a higher intelligence than most. While still incredibly strong, he relies more on his wits than brute strength to defeat opponents. As he is not dependent on anger, Gray Hulk can remain calm and not revert to Banner and has been known to operate as a mob enforcer, wearing a suit and going by the name Mr. Fixit. His anger, arrogance, and lust reflect Banner’s teenage emotions.

Unique Characteristics: Not only is this version far more intelligent than the common green Hulk, he’s more cruel and cunning. His selfish motives and actions push further in the direction of anti-hero and even sometimes villain.

Savage Hulk

The definitive version of The Hulk, this alter ego of Bruce Banner is the one that most everyone associates with the hero. Activated by Banner’s rage and possessing incalculable levels of strength, The Hulk is a green behemoth with limited intelligence who is propelled by his anger. While he may lash out in rage at those around him, The Hulk is not driven to wanton destruction, but is most often looking to defend himself or accomplish very simple goals. Bruce was physically abused by his father at a young age and the man killed his mother, leaving him with deep psychological scars and rage issues, all of which are unleashed in Hulk, who has more in common with child Bruce than adult Bruce. Hulk also stands alone from Bruce’s personality and often despises his weaker human persona. While Hulk can often have heroic motives in his actions, his instability often puts him at odds with other heroes, frequently leading to fights and a falling out with any team he joins.

Savage Hulk has had many minor tweaks to his persona over the years, with his intelligence levels, appearance, and motives shifting from writer to writer. However, certain components remain a constant. Hulk is immensely powerful and only grows stronger and bigger the angrier he becomes. Should he be knocked unconscious or regain his composure, he reverts to Bruce. Savage Hulk also despises most of the other personalities in Banner’s mind, has a rivalry with The Thing of The Fantastic Four, and is often pursued by the U.S. Military, led by General Ross, father of Banner’s wife Betty.

Unique Characteristics: This is the one known and loved by all. His simple mind, quick anger, and terrifying strength make this version the defining portrait of The Green Goliath. Savage Hulk is easily the one most often featured in all media and the version that most defines the character.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

“Spectre” Blends Modern Bond with Classic, Stumbles in the Process

The James Bond franchise is composed of entries whose tones swing back and forth between gritty darkness and campy cartoonishness. When the series goes too far in one direction, it quickly swings back the other way, often finding proper levity in a film or two before going too far in its new direction. In Spectre, director Sam Mendes’ follow-up to the beloved Skyfall, the franchise swings wildly toward silliness in an uneven and misguided attempt to tie the Daniel Craig 007 films together with a newfound dose of hefty continuity.

Perhaps it’s due to the high bar that has been set since Casino Royale in 2005, or Spectre’s cloying desire to be Skyfall on steroids in everything from theme song to aesthetics, but this is a Bond film that constantly invites comparisons to its own detriment.

In the 24th official entry into the James Bond franchise, our dashing hero, played by Craig for the fourth time, is set on a collision course with a shadowy organization known as Spectre and the mysterious man who runs it, played by Cristoph Waltz. Meanwhile, MI6 faces obsolescence due to a merging with MI5, leading to new threats that must be averted by M (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond’s fellow agents. Together, these developments lead to revelations about Bond’s past and threats to his future.

While these elements may entice viewers to hope for a deep and thrilling journey into Bond’s world, Spectre is not only consistently shallow but often falls flat. As the film insists on being the culmination of everything that has come before, it’s difficult to not compare it to both the highs and lows of Craig’s run and the franchise as a whole. Combined with a dedication to throwing in more jokes, creating bigger action spectacles, and homaging as many previous entries as possible, Spectre finds itself as a Bond film that is both everything and nothing at the same time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Understanding the Six James Bonds

With James Bond about to return to cinemas in Spectre, it’s the perfect time to look back on the long-running cinematic adventures of Agent 007. For more than 50 years, Bond has brought fans back to the movies time and time again thanks to thrilling adventures, slick style, cool gadgets, and the magnetic allure of the character himself. While some things never change about the dashing MI6 agent, part of his continued appeal is the character’s constant evolution through the many actors who have played him. While some have come to define the character more than others, each man has brought something unique to the role.

Through highs and lows, cheesy camp and gritty darkness, and the constant push and pull between keeping a series both rooted and the past and current with new trends, James Bond and the actors who have played him have brought many different elements to the hero across the decades. Everyone has his or her own favorite Bond, but is one necessarily better than the other? Do the best and worst films dictate the impact of the actor upon the character? How does someone have a lasting impact on a character that will outlive the men who played him?

By taking an in-depth look at each iteration of Bond, we can see how the character has both progressed and regressed over time. Whoever may be playing him, the adventures of James Bond are some of the defining moments of big budget action cinema.

For more James Bond fun, check out the James Bond Theme Song Countdown Part 1 and Part 2.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

12 Truly Terrifying Movie Scenes

What frightens you the most? It really depends on each person. But the scariest scenese in film can transcend personal preferences and a wide range of fears to reach out and instill terror in people around the world. The greatest scary scenes on film get under your skin and refuse to leave your brain for days. And while you may think it's all cheap tactics and shallow thrills, the best pieces of fiction that terrify can say something about what we really fear and evoke a primal and genuine response in ways that other films cannot.

The following are 12 movie scenes that have frightened audiences everywhere for years. For the sake of all-ages content, there are no videos here, but you can find them online for yourself. Just be warned, they may keep you up at night.

Spoiler Warning! Many big moments from films will be openly discussed here.

He’s Right Behind You – Halloween

Horror movies are all too synonymous with the jump scare today. And while these sudden and shocking bursts have been a staple of cinematic scares for decades, the best scares are the ones that grip your soul and squeeze. There is no better example than the most terrifying moment in John Carpenter's Halloween. Pursued by the homicidal Michael Myers, babysitter Laurie Strode desperately tries to hide from the killer in a home. Believing she has finally escaped the killer, Laurie pauses quietly against a wall, but the pale white mask of Myers slowly reveals itself from the dark doorway behind her. It's a slow reveal without any musical accompaniment, making it the literal opposite of the jump scare. But the perfection of the reveal means that true fear washes over the audience, making it far scarier than any momentary "gotcha" scare.

Mother Revealed – Psycho

After seeing the spectral figure of Mother haunt The Bates Motel throughout Psycho and witness the disturbing behavior of Norman Bates throughout Alfred Hitchcock's terrific horror film, the ultimate reveal of Mother, who sneaks up on the investigating Lila, could have been silly. Instead, it's perfect. There's something about seeing Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates reveal as Mother, brandishing a butcher's knife and illuminated by a swinging single light, that sends a shiver of dread down the spine. With Bernard Hermann's shrieking score kicking in, the reveal of the killer is downright terrifying.