Movie Review: “Creed” (Ryan Coogler, USA 2015)

Nostalgia can be difficult to use in a film. Making references to earlier films, characters, etc. can be a great nod for older fans but can be empty for newer viewers. And if you’re borrowing too much, the winks and nods turn the film into a rehashing of the past. Look at the Back to the Future films–the second largely plays as a successful sequel, in part because of its nodding to the first film, but the third plays as a film with zero new ideas, because the winks and nods have now taken over.

Creed, as essentially the seventh Rocky film, has plenty of nostalgia to play with. And as much as the series has been a source of humor for its endless series of sequels, it has typically been a series built of its time, one that until its final entry never really cared about its past self. Rocky III includes Mr. T and a cameo from Hulk Hogan but isn’t full of references to the previous two films. Rocky IV‘s closest thing to a winking reference is that Survivor provides the theme song to the training montage again (and it’s very nearly the same song as “Eye of the Tiger”). They go back to some of the same plot points again and again but it’s not to make us laugh at the reference–it’s because they’re simplistic, basic plots that go exactly where makes the most melodramatic sense. Continue reading

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Movie Review: “Begin Again” (John Carney, USA 2013)

One thing I should get out of the way immediately: This is a music movie, and I absolutely detested the music. It’s everything I hate–vapid, radio-friendly wuss-pop filled with “delicate” piano lines, far too many people singing in falsetto, and horrible over-loud simplistic drums. The best part of the music was the dirty, feedback-filled mess of a guitar that Violet played in “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” and that wasn’t even very good. I have a broader musical palate than most, but this type of intentionally inoffensive music-for-the-masses generally horrifies me, and the work in this film was no exception. With the exception of Adam Levine, the singing was all competent if lacking in any real character (well, except for the brief moments James Corden got to sing–he had character), but the lone professional singer in the main cast sounded an absolute mess and made everything he sang even worse for it. Also, I swear every song in the film was 90% the same. All that said, I am by no means a musical expert–I may technically be a musician for having played guitar for the last 14 years, but I’m an exceptionally poor one–so the music may be far better technically than my subjective opinion suggests.

Begin Again is a journey through the creation of a debut album from a young songwriter (Gretta, played by Keira Knightley) who is forced into performance by heartache and an old veteran studio exec (Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo) forced into producing by his professional failures. Along the way, Dan’s experienced cynicism helps Gretta to find her voice both as a musician and especially as a single person while Gretta’s joie de vivre and willingness to eschew material wealth helps Dan to fix his broken family.

It’s a bit of an unusual love story in that the central couple is never actually a romantic pairing–while Dan and Gretta repeatedly stare at each other in clear moments of deep, loving emotion for one another, they never actually get together. However, it still manages to follow many of the tropes of a love story, even including yet another attempt to repeat the falling in love by the river sequence from Manhattan (Woody Allen, USA 1979), something seemingly every film including any romance in the last 35 years has included and few have done with any success. Each member of the couple has a specific type of damage that the other partner is uniquely qualified to fix, each member swears off love before meeting the other, etc.

The film’s unwillingness to take its premise in any non-troped directions renders it so predictable that it grows stale within the first 20 minutes and that staleness never lets up. It’s a shame for a film that begins with a premise that had the promise of adding an interesting twist to a tired love story formula.

Further, the film has absolutely no point to make. The closest I can come to a defining point is that music is revealing about people’s inner feelings, as most powerfully exemplified by the terrible, overproduced performance of “Lost Stars” that Gretta’s ex-boyfriend Dave records and then scales back nowhere near far enough for a live performance that is supposedly for Gretta. However, then much of the film is rendered pointless. The falling in love through the splitter scene becomes the entire film, and the rest of it exists only for the purpose of allowing that scene to play out when it didn’t even need any context.

Then, to top it all off, the film has a completely ridiculous ending wherein Gretta and Dan, without speaking to the label that employs him and has just signed her, decide to release the album in its entirety online for $1. Dan comments that he will be officially “going to war with” the music industry, but all I could think of was Amanda Palmer’s store including every song she has ever recorded for whatever price one wants to pay, even if what s/he wants to pay nothing. It may be fair to say that AFP is always at war with the music industry, but the fact that she’s able to survive doing that suggests that putting out the album digitally for $1 would not be the type of revolutionary move that the film thinks it is.

And yet, the film is not without its saving graces–Gretta, Dan, and Dave are all very well-drawn characters with some real depth and subtlety that grows as the film plays and (not coincidentally) some of the acting is excellent.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo serve as the film’s stars and are a tale of two performances, the latter in a far more complex, deeper role than the former. Ruffalo’s Dan is a tortured but well-intentioned old music pro who desperately needs exactly the kind of help he can get from Gretta. Knightley, meanwhile, has a habit of smiling inappropriately and rarely seems to look like the emotion we hear that Gretta is feeling. There are some good moments, like her realization of Dave’s infidelity and subsequent slapping of him, but those moments are not too close. James Corden was his usual ebulliently likable self in a small role as a friend of Gretta’s who is failing in his own pursuit of his musical dream. In only one brief scene, Rob Morrow manages to put in a great appearance as a slimy record company executive that really came across as the most natural characterization in the film. Mos Def was his usual self–amazing if you close your eyes but painful to watch. That leaves Adam Levine, who spent the entire film with the same pained but also deeply pleased with himself look on his face that betrayed the fact that he is not an actor. Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener were way overqualified for parts that gave them nothing to do, a waste of some real talent on Carney’s part.

Carney and cinematographer Yaron Orbach didn’t have anything to say visually, making a film that visually could just as easily have been a made-for-television feature. It’s all standard lighting, standard camera movements, etc.

All told, this film was some really good characterization that led to some good performances surrounded by nothing at all interesting. It’s a pointless mess that would still be fun if the music were half as good as it thinks it is, but sadly it is not.

Notes

  • I did like that Dan says that Dave is “a rock star, even if he didn’t know it,” explaining succinctly why Dave and Gretta can’t work–Dave loves the audience and the adulation more than he will ever love her.
  • Dan first sees Gretta in a little club and she plays a song solo with just an acoustic guitar. That song isn’t bad. Then, he “arranges” it in his head, adding strings, piano, over-loud drums, etc. and it becomes horrendous. When she says, “I think you’ve lost the song in the production” to Dave later, I actually laughed aloud because that was true of every song in the movie.
  • The fact that it’s a film about New York musicians so soon after it invited comparisons to Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013). That’s not a comparison in which this film is going to fare well.
  • I have only seen him a few times and he’s never had to do much, so I don’t know if James Corden has much talent as an actor, but he is one of the most eminently likable actors I’ve ever seen.
  • The way the camera longingly fetishizes Hailee Steinfeld’s body immediately after pointing out that the character is supposed to be a high school-age teenager (seemingly too young to drive, though the only thing we know for sure is that she is definitely not 15) is slightly creepy.
  • Hailee Steinfeld was so clearly not playing what was coming out of the guitar after the first few notes that it made me laugh.

Movie Review: “Draft Day” (Ivan Reitman, USA 2014)

Ivan Reitman is still around 30 years after directing Ghostbusters (USA 1984). In that time, he has directed such other classics as . . . okay, so he’s directed nothing else that anyone should see.

When I first saw a trailer for Draft Day, I really did laugh out loud. I could not believe that someone was actually making this movie that seemed to be a movie about an NFL general manager on draft day and nothing else. Kevin Costner was making the media rounds talking about how his other sports movies were all actually love stories (Which is true of just about all sports movies.), but that didn’t make me feel like it was any more likely to be any good. I thought it might be the sort of laughably stupid, bad film that Trouble with the Curve (Robert Lorenz, USA 2012) was. That sort of horribleness is almost fun, because one can start laughing about all of the obvious beats coming and pure idiocy while cataloging the baseball mistakes. Having Kevin Costner around made it seem less likely to be fun, because his awfulness is so boring and wooden (even compared to Clint Eastwood, and that’s saying something), but I still planned to go watch it to laugh at it.

Then, a weird thing happened: the reviews that came back were, while not great, decent. Costner was getting his usual (and never deserved) praise and critics were discussing the film as a fascinating window into the world of the NFL. No one was even remarking on the borderline-absurd 17-year age difference between Costner and his love interest, which would seem ripe for jokes!

So, now I was going into the film expecting it to be a treacly little family-friendly affair like the mediocre-at-best Moneyball (Bennett Miller, USA 2011) that would similarly get praise for its star for doing nothing at all. It turns out that I was closer to right the first time in expecting the film to be an outright disaster.

The film is the story of a day in the life of Sonny Weaver, Jr., the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, as he makes a series of bizarre moves on the day of the NFL draft to build the team he wants to build while getting the coach and owner off his back. The owner wants Weaver to “make a splash.” The coach wants a running back. He pulls off a series of moves that manage to placate both while reshaping the team as he wants it. Meanwhile, he of course puts his shattered love life in order and makes his mother happy. I’m sure he did something kind to a puppy that we didn’t see, too.

This film defines the word pointless. It’s a film about a guy who supposedly just needs to trust himself but then undermines that point entirely by using a folded piece of yellow paper as a plot point that turns out to say who he wants to and does eventually draft. Clearly he already did trust himself or he wouldn’t have written the note. So, instead it’s really just a story about how Sonny Weaver Jr. is the smartest GM in football . . . proving that a fictional character is the smartest person in a fictional world is not a point strong enough to carry a movie. And that’s where it starts to fall apart.

Then, the story that the film tells is absolutely silly–it’s just a series of football trades to end up trading three second-round picks for the first overall draft pick and taking a guy who apparently might not even go in the first round otherwise. Meanwhile, he’s trying to put together the shattered remnants of a relationship with the team capologist, who is apparently pregnant with his child. Of course, there is never any explanation of how or why their relationship is broken and apparently all he has to do to fix it is want it to be fixed, because he’s Costner the Almighty.

And the film can’t even stay on point with the stories it is telling, because it’s so excited to show us the amazing cameos by Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, Chris Berman, Mel Kiper Jr., and others, many of which are shoehorned into the film with no concern about how they fit the overall story. (“When did you get drafted, Ray?” . . . I nearly left the theater at that.)

As if to add insult to injury, the acting in the film is a mess. Kevin Costner is one of the worst actors in the world, and he doesn’t redeem himself here even though the part is quite simple. The moments in the film that count on him, like his statement to the Seahawks about how he wants their punt returner just because he feels like it, fall flat because of his woodenness. Mercifully, the film mostly has Weaver keep his feelings to himself, which keeps Costner’s weaknesses from being on display too often. Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman plays a talkative, arrogant linebacker whose character is such an extreme example of every stereotype of african-american athletes that it’s at best borderline offensive, and he plays those stereotypes to the hilt, overacting to the point of being painful. Jennifer Garner and Griffin Newman share comic relief duty, and neither gets the opportunity to to do much else. Denis Leary is also way over-the-top as a neanderthal coach who is apparently based on Barry Switzer, but that’s reasonably appropriate for the role.

Visually, the film was a much bigger effects-fest than it should have been. There was no reason to make such constant use of split-screens and CGI for this film, but that doesn’t stop Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg–they turn the entire film into a bad television segment, and it is not a welcome development.

Draft Day is an abomination. I know I’ve said that a few times lately, but this might really be the film that takes the cake.

Football Minutiae

  • Denver won’t take Bo because they have an “all-pro” QB even though they’re picking fifth in the draft. There are apparently four teams in the top five who don’t need QBs at all. I guess that’s not impossible, but it sure is weird.
  • The $100 bill story is presumably based on an old story (whether true or not) about Randall Cunningham. Supposedly, one of his coaches stuck a $100 bill halfway through Cunningham’s Eagles playbook when he checked it out. When it came back, the $100 bill was still in it.
  • The Seahawks drew boos from the crowd in the theater. That’s what happens in Colorado.
  • A running back is never worth the seventh overall pick. Perhaps in 1960, but not in modern times.
  • One of the many Cleveland Browns to appear as himself is T.J. Ward, who now plays for the Denver Broncos. Another, Alex Mack, came very close to leaving town for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Funny.
  • Obviously, the entire selection process shown is ridiculous. They didn’t notice that Vontae got kicked out of that game before? They didn’t bother to research the top QB in the draft because he wouldn’t be there for their pick? There was no consideration of cap ramifications until after trades? I’m not really upset at those, because they’re adjustments made to reality for dramatic reasons.