The 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

This week’s selection includes a few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • Creed II (2018)

    2019 #53
    Steven Caple Jr. | 130 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Creed II

    Creed II is, as its title suggests, a sequel. But it’s even more than that — it’s like a sequel squared; perhaps even a sequel cubed. How so? Well, it is, of course, a direct continuation of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a boxing drama which itself served as a follow-up of the Rocky films. But, as if being a sequel to a follow-up wasn’t enough, Creed II is also directly connected to the plot of Rocky IV. That makes for a funny old combination of influences: whereas Creed was arguably the most grounded and realistic Rocky movie since the first (and, with it, one of the series’ very best instalments), Rocky IV is undoubtedly the most cartoonish and ridiculous entry in the canon (although it was also the most financially successful and has a certain cheesy charm). Can Creed II reconcile the tonal disparity between its two primary forebears?

    For those not up on their Rocky continuity, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) killed Rocky’s mate Apollo Creed during a match in the ’80s (as seen in Rocky IV). Now, Drago’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is a boxer too, and with Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) newly crowned as the world heavyweight champion, Drago Sr arranges for Drago Jr to challenge Creed Jr — who, against the advice of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), accepts. But with the distraction of a pregnant fiancée (Tessa Thompson) and without Rocky to train him, is Adonis actually ready to take on a Drago?

    The film’s title is, obviously, meant to be read “Creed 2” because it’s a follow-up to “Creed 1”, but if you chose to read it as “Creed the 2nd” it wouldn’t be inappropriate to the movie’s themes. This is a movie all about parents and children, what they owe to each other, and how they live up to that — or fail to. It’s a meaty subject to chew on, and credited screenwriters Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone (there’s also a story credit for Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker) examine it from almost every conceivable angle. As Ivan pushes Viktor to vicariously reclaim their reputation, Adonis struggles with the legacy of a father he never knew, as well as the dilemma of becoming a father himself, to a daughter who may be born disabled (due to possibly inheriting her mother’s hearing condition). And while there’s a lot of father/son stuff — as you’d probably expect in a film about such a stereotypically-manly sport — the film doesn’t neglect the role of mothers either, with both Viktor’s and Adonis’s having key parts to play in how things unfold.

    Like father like son?

    One aspect of that is that the film does a lot to humanise the Dragos. In Rocky IV, they were just nasty foreigners — that film is, fundamentally, anti-Russian pro-US Cold War propaganda. Here, they’re presented as people who have problems and issues of their own. I remember Stallone talking before about how it’s always more interesting if the opponent isn’t just a Villain, but is a real character with their own arc (this was in the audio commentary for Rocky Balboa, for which Stallone injected some autobiographical material into the opponent’s storyline). That’s obviously something he failed to achieve in IV, but it’s reestablished here and, well, he’s right. It’s not like it confuses the drama of the fight — there’s no question that Creed is our hero and the one we want to see triumphant — but by giving depth to the Drago’s, showing why the fight really matters to them too, it rounds out the story; and, in this case, provides additional perspectives on the parent/child themes.

    It’s the way these films have something thematic to say that helps elevate them above mere punch-’em-ups. But it works as a sport/action movie too, finding some new twists within the familiar plot beats. I mean, when the Creed-Drago match comes before the film’s even reached the hour mark, you already have a fair idea how it’s gonna go. Without giving away specifics, what they’ve come up with leaves the contest as unfinished business, which is better motivation for the inevitable rematch than a simple “the hero lost the first time so he has to have a re-do so he can win”. This thinking extends to the final bout, too: it’s the first time in the series since Rocky III that the climactic fight doesn’t go all the way to the final round. It’s a nice change to dodge that predictability. Of course, these are really just variations on a theme — they’re still boxing matches; the options on the table are still “hero wins” or “hero loses” — but, as with many genre pieces, the devil is in the detail, and Creed II has good details.

    It's all about family

    Although this is primarily the second Creed film, there’s no doubt that it’s a little bit Rocky VIII, too. Stallone keeps saying he’s done with Rocky, then comes back for one more, but this really feels like it could serve as an ending. Well, so did the previous two films, but the idea of a grudge match between the sons of Apollo and Drago is an obvious one that I’m not surprised Hollywood came up with. It factors in and closes off so much of the series’ legacy that it’s difficult to see what would be of similar import to justify a second sequel. They could always do one “just because”, of course — there’s always a way; always more to a character’s life — but whereas the very existence of Creed suggested the potential for a sequel featuring Drago, now there’s no story left begging to be told. Nonetheless, Creed III has been announced. Whether Stallone is tempted back or sticks to his guns and lets the series move on without him, only time will tell.

    In the meantime, Creed II is a worthy addition to this storied franchise. If it can’t go the distance against some of the earlier entries, that’s through no fault of its own — the best Rocky/Creed films are all-timers; or, as they say in sporting circles, GOATs.

    4 out of 5

    Creed II is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

    Le Mans ’66 (2019)

    aka Ford v Ferrari

    2020 #177
    James Mangold | 153 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Italian |
    12 / PG-13

    Le Mans '66

    Did you know that Ford tried to buy Ferrari in the ’60s? I didn’t. As per this film, Ford were desperate to appeal to a younger market and an association with motor racing seemed the way to do that. Ferrari were the regular winners of the Le Mans 24-hour race but were struggling financially, so Ford made an offer; but Ferrari played them, merely using Ford’s interest to get a better deal from Fiat. Pissed off, Ford set about making a racing car by themselves to beat Ferrari at their own game. Enter former Le Mans-winning driver turned race-car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a smooth-talking American who’s as adept at charming higher-ups as he is at making fast cars; and his favoured mechanic and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a quick-tempered Brit who rubs the Ford execs up the wrong way. With Ford’s money behind them, but also management watching over them, can Shelby and Miles engineer a car good enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans?

    That the film goes by one of two different titles depending where you live might seem like an incidental point of trivia — it’s not the first time this has happened (Avengers Assemble is probably the most famous recent example), and it wasn’t an artistic decision, nor even a marketing one, apparently, but instead legal necessity (according to director James Mangold, you can’t use brand names in a title in the UK and/or Europe) — but it’s also a lens through which we can consider the film’s focus. To wit, is it more about the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari (as in the original title) or winning the 1966 Le Mans race (as in the UK title)? The consensus seems to be that the original title sounds more dynamic, but I think the international one is more accurate. The head of Ford has it in for Ferrari, but our two heroes are more interested in winning the race, rivalry or not.

    Winner!

    To some extent the story has been streamlined in that direction. The original screenplay was an ensemble about the entire team building the Le Mans car — more historically accurate, I’m sure, but I’d wager less dramatic and personal. That’s what’s gained by focusing on Shelby and Miles, the two key figures. To the film’s credit, it still doesn’t pretend they did it alone. The role attributed to other mechanics may not be as large as it was in real life, but nor does the film try to pass it off as the achievement of just two men. What it primarily adds is relatable drama. This isn’t just a movie about building and/or racing a car, but about these two particular men — what motivates them; how their ego gets in the way, especially in Miles’s case.

    The film plays to the lead actors’ strengths in this respect, with Damon turning on the easy charm and Bale, who famously stays in character throughout a shoot, embodying someone who is superb at their job but can be belligerent. The standout from a quality supporting cast is Caitriona Balfe. She may just have the typical Wife role, but she’s made to be a bit more badass than that usually allows… before getting relegated it to the sidelines for the finale, naturally.

    Said finale is the eponymous Le Mans event, of course. It’s not the only race sequence in the film, but it’s by far the longest. Nonetheless, they’re all suitably thrilling in how they’re shot and edited. One of the film’s genres on IMDb is “Action”, and though it doesn’t really conform to my idea of what an Action movie is — not least in the fact that there are only three or four of these “action sequence” race scenes throughout the two-and-a-half-hour movie — I can see where they’re coming from.

    We are golden

    That runtime is quite long, but it doesn’t drag… once it gets going, anyway. The slowest part is early on, getting the story up and running, which I feel could have been streamlined. Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari initially seems like an aside, but obviously it comes to frame the whole rivalry; but Miles’s woes with the IRS barely have anything to do with the rest of the movie, and, other than providing an extended introduction to the man, I don’t think you’d lose much by losing them. The film was clearly trimmed a fair bit, though, because there are loads of little bits you can spot in the making-of that aren’t in the finished film. Said making-of also highlights the choices behind the cinematography. The visuals are very golden — that kind of “wasn’t the past pretty” atmosphere — but the behind-the-scenes footage shows the shooting conditions to be much duller and greyer, revealing how much the orange/gold light comes from the camerawork and grading.

    Le Mans ’66 might look like a film for car nuts, and I’m sure they’ll get a lot out of it — alongside the likes of Rush, I guess this kind of thing would be their favourite movie (both those films currently sit in the IMDb Top 250). But the rest of us are by no means left out, thanks to involving characters and exciting race scenes, even if some plot beats border on clichéd. Le Mans ’66 may not reinvent the wheel, but it works hard at refining it.

    4 out of 5

    Le Mans ’66 is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from midnight tonight.

    The Karate Kid (2010)

    2018 #72
    Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

    The Karate Kid

    For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

    This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

    So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

    Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

    From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

    Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

    As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Free Solo (2018)

    2019 #36
    Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Free Solo

    Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.

    So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.

    Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.

    In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.

    Alex vs El Capitan

    That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.

    Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenge of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.

    Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.

    4 out of 5

    Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    High Flying Bird (2019)

    2019 #14
    Steven Soderbergh | 90 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

    High Flying Bird

    Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ continues with another shot-on-iPhone movie (following last year’s psychological thriller Unsane), this time going direct to Netflix. Whereas Unsane made a virtue of its iPhone cinematography to heighten a disquieting, untrustworthy atmosphere, High Flying Bird forges ahead with no such baked-in excuse for its visual quality. However, similarly to Unsane, the fact it was shot on an iPhone is almost incidental, noteworthy mainly just because it’s unusual. But more on that later.

    The movie is about Ray (André Holland), a basketball agent struggling to keep his players in check during a lockout… and already you’ve lost me, movie: I had to look up what a lockout is. I’m not much of a sports person, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have lockouts in British sports. Basically, best I can tell, it’s some kind of disagreement between the players (through their union) and the team owners, which results in games not being played when they should be, and people not being paid because nothing’s happening. So, it’s a bad thing, and it’s putting Ray in a bad situation — so he sets about trying to launch an “intriguing and controversial business opportunity”, to quote an IMDb plot summary.

    Something like that, anyway. Frankly, it took less than two minutes for High Flying Bird to leave me feeling lost and confused, as it dives into an “inside baseball” (as the saying goes) depiction of basketball right from the off. It felt like watching a French movie without subtitles, except here the language isn’t French, it’s basketball. In fairness, I did eventually get a handle on what the overall plot was, but mostly with hindsight and not ’til quite far in — my analogy still stands for what the viewing experience was like until that point.

    Lost and confused

    For fans of basketball, or at least those with some kind of knowledge of the workings of the business side of American sport, it might all be more palatable. I think there’s some good stuff in the plot and characters, but I can only say “think” because I made such a lousy fist of following what was meant to be going on half the time. The story culminates in a final twist/reveal about Ray’s actual plan. Fortunately, by that point I’d worked out (more or less) what events had happened, so I followed it — indeed, I got there ahead of it. Well, that’s because before viewing I read a comment which implied this was a heist movie (like Soderbergh’s previous work on the Oceans films or Logan Lucky), so I’d already been on the lookout for what the real con was. Nonetheless, I’m torn between whether the reveal was quite clever, or the film thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is. If I hadn’t had that heads up, maybe I would’ve been as mind-blowingly impressed as Ray’s boss seems to be when Ray reveals the real plan to him. Or maybe I wouldn’t’ve, who can say.

    Unsane suggested you couldn’t make a good-looking film on an iPhone. High Flying Bird says, actually, you can. It doesn’t all look great (especially when, for example, the shot literally wobbles from something as simple as someone putting a drinks bottle down on a table), but there are some beautiful shots in here too. Unsane almost had to make a virtue of its odd look, the weirdass visuals chiming with the story of a possibly unstable mind. High Flying Bird has no such excuses, and most of the time it doesn’t need them; though some parts do still look like a first-effort student film, which is very odd coming from a director as experienced as Soderbergh (this is the 56-year-old’s 29th feature, not to mention his 39 episodes of TV).

    Looking to the future

    While researching the film’s production I came across this interesting article at The Ringer, which uses High Flying Bird as a jumping off point to examine the history, increase, and future of using iPhones for professional projects. It basically contends that phone-shot films are the future for everything, and makes that sound reasonable. It’s reminiscent of the emergence of digital photography for movies: it was a big story back when Soderbergh shot Che with digital cameras (Criterion’s Blu-ray release has a half-hour documentary dedicated to it), but it was only a couple of years later that became standard for all major movies, and a few years after that it’s now noteworthy when something is actually shot on film. It seems inconceivable that one day they’ll be shooting an Avengers movie on a phone, but then it once seemed inconceivable you’d shoot a movie that big on digital video…

    It’s quite hard for me to give a concise opinion of High Flying Bird. I struggled through much of it, which made for an unpleasant viewing experience. But I acknowledge some of that lies with me knowing less about basketball than the film does. But then again, is it the film’s responsibility to explain to me the things I don’t know? I did get a handle on events by the end, and if I watched the film again I expect I’d follow it better, but I also don’t feel there’s much luring me back for a second viewing.

    3 out of 5

    High Flying Bird is available on Netflix now.

    Creed (2015)

    2018 #242
    Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Creed

    Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

    The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

    Creed and Balboa

    Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

    That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

    As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

    Adonis and Bianca

    In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

    Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

    Training hard

    Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

    The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

    Gonna fly now

    And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

    5 out of 5

    Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

    Rocky Balboa (2006)

    2018 #217
    Sylvester Stallone | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    Rocky Balboa

    Writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone returns to his boxing saga to give it the ending he fluffed 16 years earlier. Even as someone who didn’t dislike Rocky V, I don’t think it’s a great send-off for the character. Stallone felt the same, which is why he conceived this as a proper capstone for the series.

    Naturally, time has passed in the world of Rocky (Stallone) too. His beloved wife Adrian has died, and he spends half his time mourning her, to the distaste of his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). He spends the rest of his days running a little restaurant, regaling customers with tales of former boxing triumphs, and trying to connect with the grown-up son who barely wants to see him (now played by Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia, because Stallone was worried that if he cast his real son (as he had in Rocky V) viewers would be distracted wondering if their real-life relationship was like that). But when a computer-generated fight between Rocky and current champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) hands the victory to Rocky, he wonders if he might have more fight left in him yet; and Dixon, eager to prove his worth to a press who doubts his ability, agrees to fight the fight for real.

    Technically Rocky Balboa is a sports movie — because, y’know, it’s Rocky — but most of it is really a drama, with the sporting side only really coming in the second half. It barely matters that Rocky used to be a sportsman, it’s a portrait of any guy who used to be successful at something and now mopes around missing the good old days. It’s only when there’s a training montage and then then climactic fight that the film really enters the Sport genre. In that respect, it’s really taken Rocky back to its roots, because the same description of its structure and emphasis could be applied to the first and second films. Stallone tried to get there with the fifth, too, but ended up making it a bit melodramatic and clichéd. Here, he’s hit the nail on the head, with a story that packs as much punch outside the ring as inside it.

    Not-so-little Marie

    One subplot that gets a lot of screen time and works particularly nicely is when Rocky bumps into ‘Little’ Marie, the girl who Rocky walked home and advised against hanging out with boys back in the first movie. Marie was originally to appear in Rocky V, given a miserable storyline as a homeless prostitute, but it got cut. Thank goodness for that — that film’s bleak enough as it is, and it allowed Stallone to do something better with the character here. Now, Marie doesn’t exactly have a super life, but she’s got a house (albeit a crummy one), a job (albeit a crummy one), and a kid (who’s alright). Her appearance could’ve just been ultra-referential fan service — it’s bringing back a tiny character from the first, most popular film, after all — but it actually works really well as a subplot. A lot of that is thanks to Geraldine Hughes’ subtly developed, genuine performance. Her and Rocky have an interesting relationship: kind of fatherly, kind of romantic, but also explicitly not that. Rocky has always looked to help the “damsel in distress”, and he’s at it again — it’s his chivalrous nature. It’s also tied to him floundering around post-Adrian, looking for some kind of meaning to life, stuck in his grief — which is also what really leads to his return to the ring, thereby making the film thematically of a piece.

    The absence of Adrian is a major factor in the film, and deciding to ‘kill her off’ seems to have been the key to unlocking the screenplay for Stallone: she was alive in the first few drafts, but they lacked emotional impact. Stallone and actress Talia Shire mutually agreed Adrian should be left out, giving Rocky an “emotional chasm” to overcome. It was a smart move, I think. The Rocky/Adrian relationship is so central to the series (his post-fight cry of “Adrian!” in the first film is one of the series’ most iconic moments, even to people who’ve never seen it), and showing the end of that taps into a genuine and tangible sense of grief, both for the characters and the viewers. Indeed, the flashes we see of Adrian and Mickey, Rocky’s beloved coach (also deceased), during the final fight confirm something that’s quite apparent in various other bits of the film: this isn’t just using the Rocky name to do something different and new, like other belated sequels or soft reboots do, but is a true sixth entry in the series. It’s not completely wedded to the continuity of the other movies — you could probably watch this by itself and still get the main points of just about everything — but the full weight and impact of it is felt by being familiar with the entire Rocky saga.

    We're gonna need a montage

    On the other hand, it’s equally fortunate they didn’t go overboard on the fan service: cameos for Clubber Lang (the opponent in Rocky III) and Ivan Drago (from Rocky IV) were cut at the script stage. They do sound quite fun though, as fan service (you can read about them here), so it’s perhaps a shame they weren’t filmed and included in an extended cut or something. In his audio commentary on the Blu-ray, Stallone does talk about a director’s cut, and little wonder: his first cut ran two-and-a-half hours, but the studio insisted he lop out 45 minutes. It’s strange that the extended version has never materialised: in the commentary Stallone is clearly keen on it, the film was a success, and studios usually love a way to make even more money. I’ve no idea why it never happened.

    As for the sports aspect of the film… well, there’s a training montage set to the classic theme that ends with Rocky running up those steps… accompanied by his new pet dog. That’s a 6 out of 5 rating right there from me. But more seriously, Stallone had some interesting ideas about how to handle the climactic fight, and I’m basically going to paraphrase from his commentary a lot now because he’d clearly thought about this a fair bit and his decisions come across on screen. (Which is interesting, actually, because there are some editing decisions earlier on that I’d describe as odd and perhaps even thoughtless, like the way it intercuts Rocky reminiscing about Adrian and meeting Marie with Mason Dixon despairing about his career, to no particular effect.) On the commentary, Stallone talks about how the other Rocky films had cinematically-shot final fights, which made them more fictional, whereas for this film he chose to shoot on hi-def video and cut it together pretty much how HBO do it for real, with on-screen graphics and everything. His intention was to blur the line between reality and a cinematic fight. Well, that’s only ever going to work up to a point (we know it’s a movie, after all), but, as someone who’s never watched a boxing match on HBO (or at all) the veracity of the presentation comes across.

    It ain't over 'til it's over

    Interestingly, it doesn’t stop there. The fight’s first round is shown entirely in the ring, with no cutaways to other characters, again to evoke real fights; but you can’t do a whole fight that way in a movie (it would get monotonous, Stallone says), so with round two it begins to cut away, “layering in the emotion”. Eventually it becomes a montage, with black & white shots and flashbacks as well as the fight. Here, Stallone’s moved completely away from the realism and into depicting Rocky’s subjective experience, as he works out his emotions over Adrian while accomplishing something he never thought he could. So, across the entire fight, the film basically swings from one extreme of objectivity to the other of subjectivity, but executes it seamlessly, making one of the best climaxes of the series.

    It’s bolstered further by the plausibility of Rocky’s opponent. He may not be as memorable as Clubber or Drago, but Dixon is more believable as a human being. Or, as Stallone puts it, Clubber and Drago were Villains, while he tried to write Dixon as a character — someone on his own journey, which Rocky comes into. That’s part of why Dixon breaks his hand during the fight: it’s his “trial by fire”, his chance to prove himself after he takes the kind of beating he’s never had before. Of course, it also gives Rocky an in, because the old man never would’ve stood a chance otherwise. How much of a chance does he have? That’d be telling. In fact, they went as far as shooting four different endings, with every possible outcome for the fight, so as not to spoil the ending for the watching crowd. (For some reason, only one of these alternates is included on the DVD and Blu-ray releases.) But really the strict winner of the fight doesn’t matter, which is something Stallone also realised. He originally had Rocky stay in the ring for the final decision, but Stallone realised Rocky doesn’t care about that — by holding his own he’s proved himself to himself, and he’s ready to move on with his family. And, much like in the first movie, the crowd know who the real winner is, whatever the judges say.

    There's only one Rocky

    Once upon a time the Rocky films were held up as a more-or-less perfect example of the law of diminishing returns for movie sequels. I’m not sure that’s wholly true anyway (I quite enjoyed all of them), but Rocky Balboa certainly bucks any downward trend. With it, Stallone managed to create another crowd-pleaser that doesn’t sell out its roots in the previous films; if anything, it’s enhanced by them, and takes the series back to where it all began in an appropriate manner. As he’d intended, it’s a perfect button on the series. Though, as it turned out, Rocky’s story isn’t quite done yet…

    4 out of 5

    The latest Rocky movie, Creed II, is out in the US this week and in the UK next Friday.

    Rocky V (1990)

    2018 #206
    John G. Avildsen | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Rocky V

    With his career apparently on the wane, the promise of a payday tempted writer and star Sylvester Stallone to reignite the Rocky franchise for one final round (as it’s turned out, this was far from the end, but more on that another time). After the cartoonish excess of Rocky IV, Stallone tried to shepherd this film back towards the series’ roots as a gritty drama, going so far as to rehire the Oscar-winning director of the first film, John G. Avildsen. It didn’t work: Rocky V was met with poor reviews and poor box office. Stallone himself has admitted its failure in the decades since: when he was asked to rate each of the Rocky films out of ten, he gave this one zero. In spite of all that, I thought it was… fine.

    The plot picks up immediately after the end of Rocky IV, with the eponymous pugilist learning that the beating he took from Drago has left him with serious brain damage — one more fight could kill him. At the same time, a bad financial decision by Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) leaves the Balboa family in ruins, forced to move back to their old neighbourhood. Despite lucrative fight offers, Adrian (Talia Shire) insists Rocky remained retired, which leads to him encountering Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a wannabe boxer keen to be trained by the great Rocky. As Rocky begins to live vicariously through the increasingly successful Tommy, his son, Rocky Jr (played by Stallone’s own kid, Sage Stallone) is feeling neglected, especially as he’s struggling with bullies at his rough new school.

    Rocky Jr

    So, you can see how the film is trying to be more grounded — gone are the flag-waving ultra-patriotic theatrics of the last film, replaced with a grim story of financial ruin, inner city hardship, and what life is like after your dreams are over. It’s all a bit much. Indeed, it’s probably too much, because Stallone’s attempt to course-correct the franchise overshoots, sailing past gritty realism and into melodrama territory. There’s a lot of shouting and emotional theatrics, and the subplots are all a bit pat. I mean, Rocky neglecting his son because he’s training a fighter who he treats like a son is a solid enough plot, but it’s kinda obvious and we’ve seen its ilk before, and the way it plays doesn’t offer an original perspective on the material. So while it does work as a story, it’s part of what I mean about it being a melodrama — it’s not realism, it’s a heightened Movie story.

    The rest of the film is similarly afflicted — there are plenty of cheesy parts, but it wouldn’t be a Rocky movie if there weren’t — though some behind-the-scenes choices don’t help. For example, Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer, which probably seemed like a clever casting decision, but, given his limited acting ability, was possibly a mistake. That said, while he’s hardly a spectacular actor, I didn’t think he’s as bad as some people say. One thing that definitely doesn’t work is the soundtrack. The film is often scored with rap songs, which don’t fit the character at all. I don’t know whose decision it was, but presumably not Avildsen’s: in 2002 he snuck a workprint version of the film out online, dubbing it the “director’s cut”, and apparently it includes a lot more of Bill Conti’s original score. There were various other changes as well (you can read a review here). I don’t know how easy that version is to find nowadays, or what kind of quality it’s available in — in the 16 years since, it’s not been granted an official release.

    Balboa family values

    The originally planned ending for the film had Rocky dying after the final fight, but Stallone and/or the studio thought that didn’t really fit the tone and themes of the series. Quite right, too. It also left the door open for the series to eventually continue and redeem itself: there’s the revival movie, Rocky Balboa; the spin-off with Rocky as a trainer, Creed; and the spin-off where Rocky got turned into a squirrel or a moose or something, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I can’t wait to see how that came about. (I jest — I know he’s the squirrel.*)

    Altogether, I don’t quite see why Rocky V gets so reviled. It’s certainly not the best movie in the series — indeed, it’s probably the lowest point, lacking the realism of the early films, the entertaining ridiculousness of its immediate predecessors, and the feel-good zero-to-hero arc seen in all of those — but it’s a passable-enough drama in its own right.

    3 out of 5

    * I did not know this — I had to Google it. Never let it be said I don’t commit to a joke. ^

    Rocky IV (1985)

    2018 #152
    Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Russian | PG / PG

    Rocky IV

    Rocky goes a bit Rambo for an instalment that abandons the series’ early gritty social realism roots in favour of an anti-Soviet propaganda cartoon tone. And, in fact, it was released the same year as First Blood Part II, which actually marked Rambo’s shift from being about a vet with PTSD to an “America, fuck yeah!” action series. What was up with Stallone in ’85?

    Anyway, back to Rocky. This time, his opponent in the ring is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a poster boy for Soviet superiority and their advanced training methods. With Drago’s team harping about his brilliance, Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) elects to come out of retirement to fight him and prove America’s supremacy. But the fight goes sideways, setting up a grudge match between Drago and Rocky.

    Interpreting a sports movie as really being about the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union might normally be considered subtextual analysis, but that’s not the case here — it couldn’t be more blatant. Sometimes this is as hilariously preposterous as you’d expect (Rocky’s victory speech is greeted by a standing ovation from the Soviet politburo!), but other bits actually work quite well. Take the sequence before the Creed-Drago fight: on one hand it’s a ludicrously OTT musical number; on the other, that’s the point, as shown by Drago’s confusion at the flashy spectacle going on around him, intercut with his wife’s exasperated sighs. It’s the mentality of the USA vs. the USSR encapsulated in a glitzy floorshow vs. a heavy frown.

    USSR in the back

    This isn’t the only bit of music in Rocky IV, though. Oh no. Far from it. Halfway through, the film basically stops dead for the sake of a music video montage of scenes from all four movies. It’s meant to signify a moment of introspection for Rocky, but it goes on for the length of an entire song. And that’s certainly not the only montage. Oh no. Far from it. At one point there’s a training montage… followed by another training montage. It’s like a spoof of itself.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the robot that Paulie receives as a gift, which seems to have an AI. No, seriously. Later, he gives it a woman’s voice and refers to it as “his girl” while it delivers him beer and plays its favourite song. No, seriously.

    Some people were trying a bit harder than writer-director Stallone, though. There’s a good supporting turn from Brigitte Nielsen, giving off Lady Macbeth vibes as Drago’s wife — she’s like his voice, doing all the talking in America while he just glowers around as a silent hulk of muscle. Carl Weathers is also given some good material as a Creed who’s miserable when out of the limelight, jumping at the chance to revive his fame — he revels in the renewed attention, even if it might mean his death.

    Rocky IV is not a good film, but between the so-ridiculous-it’s-fun bulk and the genuinely good flashes, it’s certainly entertaining.

    3 out of 5


    And now, a special bonus review…

    Rocky VI
    (1986)

    aka Rock’y

    2018 #152a
    Aki Kaurismäki | 8 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Finland / English & Finnish

    Rocky VI

    An early work from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (one of those world cinema names I recognise but couldn’t tell you a single film by), Rocky VI is not, in fact, the sixth entry in the Rocky franchise, but a short parody of the fourth one (the Roman numerals in the title being an inversion of the real film’s IV, obv.). Kaurismäki described the short as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole.” Don’t hold back, Aki, tell us what you really think!

    The film is basically all a music montage — so that’s quite accurate, then. In it, weedy little American Rock’y fights burly bushy-browed Russian fatso Igor. Rock’y spends several rounds getting absolutely pummelled, eventually falling over dead without Igor having to throw a punch. And that’s the end.

    It’s too slight to be especially funny, with nothing to say other than “hey, wasn’t Rocky IV just pro-American propaganda?”, which I think we all knew. Really, Rocky IV is a better parody of Rocky IV than Rocky VI is.

    2 out of 5