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: “Cinderella” (Kenneth Branagh, USA 2015)

Back in the early ’80s, Kenneth Branagh was the most successful young Shakespearean actor since Laurence Olivier. Critics were never big fans of his work, but he showed a remarkable ability to connect with audiences. He nearly made his big break with a film many may recognize called Amadeus (Milos Forman, USA 1984) but his film career instead didn’t find much traction until he put together his theater troupe (including his then-wife Emma Thompson and his mentor Derek Jacobi) to create a film version of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, with himself taking on not just the lead role but the position of director in Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, UK 1989). The film was a huge success for Branagh both as a director and as an actor, and that success continued for several years with the minor exception of the quickly-forgotten Peter’s Friends (UK 1992). Then, his Hamlet (UK/USA 1996) met with a more mixed reception (wrongly, as far as I am concerned–it’s a brilliant film), with many finding the four-hour runtime excessive and Branagh’s performance an over-the-top attempt to outdo Olivier’s most famous role (Branagh was better–I’ll put that on record anytime). He was still a promising film director with some very strong credits already under his belt (Dead Again [USA 1991] is an impressive film that has since been forgotten, but it shows off that there’s more to Branagh than being a modern Olivier impersonator.) and a fantastically gifted, charismatic actor, but it seems that the criticisms of what he hoped to be his magnum opus stung him.

It took a few years before Branagh returned to directing with the ill-conceived Shakespeare musical Love’s Labour’s Lost (UK/France/USA 2000) and a few years again until he returned with another Shakespeare film and a return to his original fascination with Mozart, neither of which got much attention from anyone. Then, in 2011, he returned to directing with a surprising presence in the Marvel stable for Thor (USA), which he followed with another forgettable action film in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (USA 2014). However, the financial success of these films seems to have returned the once-promising director to the point where he can take on a top-notch project. Disney could hire whomever it wanted to direct its live-action version of Cinderella, and it went with Branagh–that says something about where he currently stands. A guy who was rejected repeatedly by the Harry Potter franchise now gets to take on one of the signature stories of the biggest-name movie studio in history, and I for one welcomed his return. Continue reading

Movie Review: “The Theory of Everything” (James Marsh, UK 2014)

The bare facts of Stephen Hawking’s life are astounding. One of the smartest men who has ever lived is, during his early adulthood, stricken with an illness that will so debilitate his body as to render him incapable of expressing that mental ability and is expected to end his life within two years. He not only survives well beyond the two years but uses a combination of his own perseverance and technology to become one of the two most famous physicists of his time (Carl Sagan being the other) and a celebrity who inspires even the non-science-minded.

That astonishing and profoundly inspiring story seems ripe for film, and so of course Hollywood came calling long ago, producing the biographical A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, UK/Japan/USA 1991) and a slew of science documentaries that use his background to interest the public in his science. However, James Marsh had a rather different concept for what as far as I can tell is the first non-documentary film about Hawking–his film is in fact based on the two autobiographies of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, instead of any of Hawking’s own work. As a result, it is a film that is largely focused on the relationship between those two people, with Hawking’s career serving as a plot point and part of the background for its love story but not as the film’s central plot. Continue reading