Like a lot of people director Ryan Coogler has a personal connection to the Rocky movies.
“Whenever I had a big test at school or a football game (my father would) say, ‘Take 10 minutes and watch this scene from Rocky. That’ll get you fired up. That’ll give you the juice to score five touchdowns. Or get an A on that test.’ I’d look over and think, ‘Are we watching this for me or for you?’”
It’s one thing to have the emotional connection; it’s another to convince Sylvester Stallone to make a seventh Rocky movie.
“I think the most important thing was that this movie was following a different character’s arc,” said Coogler.
“Rocky is there in a role that’s very important to the film but very much supports this other character’s journey to find themselves. That was important because no matter how good the idea was he wasn’t going to make another Rocky movie.”
The result is Creed, the evolution of a story that began in 1976, 10 years before Coogler was born. Michael B. Jordan is Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s old friend who died in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago.
Born after his father’s death, Adonis never knew his dad but seems to have inherited the old man’s love of boxing and much of his skill, but can Rocky whip him into shape for a title match? Cue the underdog theatrics and signature swelling trumpet score.
“Creed is about a sense of identity,” said Coogler, “which is what I think the first Rocky was but the other themes are what make this fresh. What happens to someone dealing with an absentee father? What does love look like in the millennial generation when women are just as career oriented as men, or are expected to be? This idea of a generational handoff, baby boomers handing off responsibility and jobs to millennials; what does that look like?”
It looks like Rocky 1.0, a new story for a new generation.
“I was always honest with (Stallone) and let him know what the movies meant to me. I think he has an understanding that the movies kind of belong to everybody at this point.”
Michael B. Jordan’s love affair with Rocky
“The things that came to mind (while watching the Rocky films was) inspiration. Then this project came up and I had the chance to fall in love with the Rocky franchise all over again.”
There’s something missing in the new Adam Sandler movie. Notable in their absence in this story of a cobbler with the uncanny ability to change into other people, are jokes of, how to put this delicately… a gastrointestinal nature, one of the hallmarks of the Sandleronian oeuvre.
In “The Cobbler” he plays Max Simkin, a shoe repairman from a long line of cobblers. Like his father and grandfather before him, he runs the family business on New York City’s Lower East Side. He’s dissatisfied with his work, with his non-existent love life and living with his elderly mom. When he repairs Leon Ludlow’s (Method Man) shoes on an old stitching machine, unused since his father left the business years ago, Max discovers the machine imbues the shoes with the magical power of transformation. With that discover Max steps into a world of wonder where he can be anyone he wants… as long as he has their shoes and they are size 10 ½.
This is a slight movie; a one-joke idea stretched to feature length with the addition of a crime subplot. There will be no spoilers here, but let it be known that by the end of the movie he becomes known as The Cobbler, a guardian of souls.
There are jokes to be made about walking a mile in a man’s shoes before you can presume to know them, but this movie doesn’t make them. In fact, it makes very few actual jokes. There are laughs but this isn’t one of those Adam Sandler movies that strains to make you giggle several times per minute.
It’s one of his kinder, gentler fantasies, like “Click” or “Bedtime Stories.” Sandler is the likeable center of the story, and he carries it through the first half until the plot starts to become cluttered with characters and later, sentiment. The amazing transformation shoes could have been used to deepen the story by showing Max learn about himself as he learns how the other half lives. Instead he goes undercover to get money to buy his mother a headstone which leads him to help an old man keep his apartment and possibly even get a date with a pretty activist (“Fruitvale Station’s” Melonie Diaz). Deep it ain’t.
Then it flies off into a wild flight of fancy that I still can’t decide if it is the greatest or stupidest plot twist ever in a movie. There’ll be no spoilers here, but let’s just say the film is set up to be the first in a series.
“The Cobbler” has more sole than soul, and is a bit flatfooted in its approach to the story, but it is a nice change to see an Adam Sandler movie and not be bombarded with bathroom humor.
TOP THIRTEEN HITS (click on the title to see trailer)
1. 12 Years a Slave. There’s a key line near the beginning of “12 Years a Slave, “ the new drama from “Shame” director Steve McQueen. Shortly after being shanghaied from his comfortable life as a freeman into a life of slavery Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) declares, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Based on Northup’s 1853 memoir the movie is an uncompromising story about will, suffering and injustice.
2. American Hustle. “American Hustle” is one of the year’s best. It’s an entertainingly audacious movie that will doubtless be compared to “The Wolf of Wall Street” because of the similarity in tone and themes, but this time around David O. Russell has almost out-Scorsese’d Scorsese.
3. Before Midnight. “Before Midnight” is beautifully real stuff that fully explores the doubts and regrets that characterize Jesse and Celine’s (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) love affair. Done with humor, heart and pathos, often in the same scene, it is a poignant farewell to two characters who grew up in front of us.
4. Blue Jasmine. Darker than most of Woody Allen’s recent output, “Blue Jasmine” doesn’t go for laughs—very often anyway—but is an astutely crafted psychological character study. Jasmine is a modern day Blanche Du Bois, a faded bright light now forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. Getting in her way are delusions of grandeur and a continued sense of denial—likely the same sense that kept her guilt free during the years the illegal cash was flowing—that eventually conspire to fracture her psyche. “There’s only so many traumas one can take,” she says, “ before you end up in the street, screaming.”
5. Captain Phillips. I don’t think it’s fair to charge audiences full price for screenings of “Captain Phillips.” While watching this exciting new Tom Hanks thriller I was reminded of the old Monster Trucks ads that bellowed, “You Pay for the Whole Seat but You’ll Only Need the Edge!”It a film about piracy and I don’t mean the sleazy guys who bootleg movies but the real pirates who were responsible for the first hijacking of an American cargo ship in two hundred years.
6. Dallas Buyer’s Club. In “Dallas Buyer’s Club” Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has made an emotional drama that never stoops to melodrama. Instead it’s an inspirational film about standing up for what you believe in.
7. Frances Ha. The seventh film from “Greenberg” director Noah Baumbach isn’t so much a traditional narrative as it is a character study of Frances (Greta Gerwig), an underemployed dancer struggling to find herself in New York City. It plays like a cleaned up black-and-white version of “Girls”; an emotionally rich and funny portrait of twenty-something ennui. “Frances Ha” is a collection of details. There is an engaging story, but it’s not exactly laid out in three acts. It feels more intimate and raw than the usual twenty-ish crisis flick and with each detail we get another piece of the puzzle that makes up Frances’ life.
8. Fruitvale Station. It’s important to remember that “Fruitvale Station” isn’t a documentary. Director Ryan Coogler has shaped the movie for maximum heartrending effect, and by the time the devastating last half hour plays out it’s hard to imagine any other movie this year packing such a emotional wallop.
9. Gravity. “Gravity” isn’t an epic like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or an outright horror film like “Alien.” There are no monsters or face hugging ETs. It’s not even a movie about life or death. Instead it is a life-affirming movie about the will to survive.
10. Her. “Her” is an oddball story, but it’s not an oddball film. It is ripe with real human emotion and commentary on a generation’s reliance on technology at the cost of social interaction.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a fictional look at the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene. Imagine the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” come to life. Sharp-eyed folkies will note not-so-coincidental similarities between the people Llewyn meets and real-life types like Tom Paxton, Alert Grossman and Mary Travers, but this isn’t a history, it’s a feel. It gives us an under-the-covers look at struggles and naked ambition it takes to get noticed.
12. Nebraska. The humour doesn’t come in the set-up-punch-line format but arises out of the situations. A scene of Woody’s gathered family—his elderly brothers and grown sons—watching a football game redefines the word taciturn but the subject of the sparse conversation, a 1974 Buick, is bang on, hilarious and will likely sound familiar to anyone with a large family.
13. Wolf of Wall Street. “Wolf of Wall Street” makes for entertaining viewing, mostly because DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are able to ride the line between the outrageous comedy on display and the human drama that takes over the movie’s final minutes. Both are terrific, buoyed by the throbbing pulse of Scorsese’s camera. With its fourth wall breaking narration, scandalous set pieces and absurd antics “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an experience. At three hours it’s almost as excessive as Balfort’s $26,000 dinners. It feels a bit long, but like the spoiled brats it portrays, it will not, and cannot, be ignored.
TOP FIVE MISSES
TREND: Big stars don’t guarantee box office!
1. The Fifth Estate – Budget: $28 million, Global box office: $6 million, Return: 21% Late into “The Fifth Estate” Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) says, “most good stories start at the beginning.” I argue that he’s right– about 99% of the time. Unfortunately this look at WikiLeaks and hacker-turned-whistleblower Julian Assange falls into the 1%.
2. Bullet to the Head – Budget: $25 million, Global box office: $9 million, Return: 36% With a name like Bullet to the Head you know the new Sylvester Stallone movie isn’t a romantic comedy. Although he paraphrases the most famous rom com line of all time, “You had be at BLEEP BLEEP!” the movie is nothing but an ode to testosterone.
3. Getaway – Budget: R180-million, Global box office: R105-million, Return: 58 percent. On a scale of zero to stupid, ”Getaway” ranks an eleven. It is what we call in the film criticism business a S.D.M. (Silly Damn Movie). OK, I made that last part up, but I couldn’t really think of any other category to place this movie under. Maybe E.S.D.M. (Extremely Silly Damn Movie).
With the name Trayvon Martin on everyone’s lips, along comes a movie that may be the timeliest film of the year. “Fruitvale Station,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, tells the true story of Oscar Grant III (“Friday Night Light’s” star Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old who was shot in cold blood at in Oakland, California’s Fruitvale subway stop on New Year’s Day, 2009.
The movie begins, film noir like, with the death of the main character. Except it’s not a character, it is grainy cell phone footage of the real Grant being shot to death. It’s a jarring way to begin the film, particularly given the events that follow.
Grant woke up on December 31, 2008 filled with a sense of purpose.
The ex-convict saw the New Year as a new start, a chance to be a better person to the three women in his life, mother (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and four year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
The movie counts down his final hours and attempts to affect change in his life, culminating with a tragic showdown with BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department) officers after midnight on the first day of the year.
“Fruitvale Station” is a quiet movie, one that builds in intensity through a series of scenes detailing how being a better man is harder than Oscar thought it would be. “I thought I could start over fresh,” he says, “but it ain’t working out.”
Despite the film’s gritty style—hand held cameras, down and dirty language—the character of Oscar is portrayed in a positive light. He’s a flawed man trying to reform himself, and if the movie has a failing it’s in its treatment of the lead character.
Finely portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, Oscar is the key to the film’s success or failure, but it occasionally feels that director Ryan Coogler doesn’t trust the story or the character to win over the audience. He over compensates, manipulating situations for maximum emotional effect. A scene in which Tatiana tells her dad she doesn’t want him to go out that night, that’s she’s scared he’ll get shot, for instance, feels heavy handed and unnecessary.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that “Fruitvale Station” isn’t a documentary. Coogler has shaped the movie for maximum heartrending effect, and by the time the devastating last half hour plays out it’s hard to imagine any other movie this year packing such a emotional wallop.