Sunday, November 29, 2015


Now with the seventh and most recent installment of the Rocky series, Creed, the series brings in some fresh blood to the mix creating a potent and moving film that stands toe to toe with the original. That's right, you heard me. Creed is the best Rocky movie since the first one. 

Adonis Johnson has had a rough life with a father who died before he was born and a mother who died when he was young. He bounced from foster home to foster home until he wound up in Juvenile Detention. It is there that he is found by Mary Ann Creed (played by Phylicia Rashad) who offers to take the young man in for you see Adonis is actually the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed. We then jump ahead as an adult Adonis (played by Michael B. Jordan) is trying to find his place in the world, working an office job in Los Angeles and fighting in Boxing Matches in Tijuana, Mexico. But he feels the call of the ring and wants to fight professionally so he decides to quit his job and try to get a trainer. When he can't get a trainer in LA, he hops the next plane to Philadelphia. His plan is to look up his Dad's old friend and former rival Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), which he finds right where we left him working at his restaurant, Adrian's. Rocky is understandably hesitant to train Adonis, remembering all too well what happened to his father. But through the boy's persistence, he eventually agrees. 

Meanwhile, Adonis meets a young woman living in the apartment below him, Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson). She's a spiky up and coming musician and sparks fly between the two almost immediately. As Adonis and Rocky train, Adonis gets the chance to fight another local fighter. It's just before that fight that the manager of the other fighter figures out who Adonis really is and before long the press has caught wind as well. This catches the attention of the manager of Liverpool boxer "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by Tony Bellew). Sensing an opportunity, he proposes a fight between Adonis and Conlan. Unsure if he's ready for it, Adonis decides to think it over. While training, Rocky falls ill and is rushed to the hospital. It's revealed that he has Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and it is recommended he start chemo immediately. Rocky turns him down, stating the chemo didn't save Adrian. Adonis finds the pamphlets and confronts Rocky, refusing to accept that Rocky just wants to give up. He makes a deal with Rocky that he will fight if he does. Rocky begins taking chemo treatments as he trains Adonis by his side, practicing his punches and running up and down the hospital stairwells. The two must both prepare themselves to face the fights of their lives.

Creed was directed by Ryan Coogler as well as written by him along with Aaron Covington, marking the first film in the Rocky series not written by Stallone himself. By centering the story on Adonis, they found a way to inject some new life into both the series as a whole and into Rocky Balboa himself. This film was a passion project for Coogler, who had to coax Stallone into agreeing to take part, who was reportedly as hesitant to take on the project as Rocky was to take on Adonis. Thank god he said yes though because Stallone gives the performance of his career with this film. By this point, Rocky has lost both his wife and his best friend Paulie and just content with shuffling along doing his thing when Adonis shows up in his life, shaking up his entire world. Michael B. Jordan likewise does a great turn as Adonis, who does a great job showing the inner turmoil and conflict in the troubled young man. He develops a strong father-son dynamic with Rocky as the story goes on, even eventually moving in with Rocky, sleeping in Paulie's old room. Tessa Thompson rounds out the trio nicely as the strong willed, fiercely independent Bianca. Her relationship with Adonis nicely mirrors Rocky and Adrian's in the first film. It was a nice touch for Bianca to be the polar opposite of the Adrian we first meet in the original film. Likewise, it's nice to see Phylicia Rashad turn up as Apollo's widow Mary Ann. She does wonders with a disappointingly small role. 

This film strikes just the right note, keeping the overly nostalgic temptations to a minimum, focusing instead on telling it's own story. There are nods here and there (we finally found out who won the rematch at the end of Rocky III!) and the traditional Rocky theme does kick in at a critical moment of the climactic fight (not gonna lie, I teared up hearing it). Creed wins with flying colors, ranking as the best in the series since the original.      

Rocky Balboa

Now this is more like it. Realizing he didn't want to close the book on the Rocky saga with Rocky V, and who would want to on that low note, Stallone crafted the perfect swan song for Philly's favorite fighter. With deep sentiment, we get to see one last fight in the ring with Rocky Balboa

It's sixteen years since the previous film and a lot has changed for Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone). His beloved Adrian has passed on after losing a battle with cancer. He owns a Philadelphia restaurant named in her honor and spends his evenings regaling his guests with stories of the good old days. He's also trying to reconnect with his son, Robert (played by Milo Ventimiglia), as the two have grown apart over the years. Looking to find something to do, Rocky applies to get licensed again as a Boxer, figuring he'll try his hand at some local fights. When ESPN runs a computer simulation pitting former champ Rocky against current Heavyweight Champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by Antonio Tarver) and the computer states Rocky would win, some boxing promoters get the wild idea to stage an exhibition match to see how it would play for real. Rocky accepts the challenge and once again begins training for the big match. After an argument with Robert, who has found it hard living in his father's shadow, he reconciles with his father and leaves his job to help him train for the fight.  

This film goes a long way in righting a lot of the wrongs with the previous film. It does a much better job of bringing Rocky back to his roots without taking him all the way back to square one. This was the only Rocky sequel not to open with a recap of the previous film, so the desire to distance itself from Rocky V is clear from the get go. There's a lot of growth for Rocky as well as he tries to figure out how to live his life now that the love of his life is gone. Paulie (played by Burt Young) is still hanging around but other than that Rocky is pretty much flying solo running his restaurant, which as we see by the sign had been in operation for a good ten years or so. His relationship with his son, Robert, provides a lot of the heart of the film as Rocky tries to reconnect with him, wondering why Robert doesn't come around anymore. Stallone, who once again writes and directs, gives the film perhaps it's most well rounded opponent in Mason "The Line" Dixon since Apollo Creed. He too has his own problems with his managers not setting him up with any real opposition but rather people he can easily beat. A big part of the reason Dixon accepts the fight is to prove that he can go toe to toe with a real fighter. It's a refreshing change of pace after the rather cartoonish villains of Rocky III and Rocky IV

This was supposed to be the wrap up film for the Rocky series and as such, I feel it was quite successful. As I was re-watching it for this review for the first time since it came out nine years ago, I was surprised at how emotional I became towards the end of the film. There is something so endearing about the character of Rocky Balboa that I can't help but love and seeing how much people love the character as well, captured so well in the scene when he exits the arena for the last time as a boxer with the whole crowd chanting his name, I couldn't help but tear up a little. Yes, it's sentimental, but I don't care. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Rocky V

After taking Rocky about as far as he can go as a Boxing champion, I can understand why Stallone made the choices he did with Rocky V. The only problem is I don't think anyone, myself included, wanted to see the guy lose, which is exactly what happened in more ways than one.

The fifth film picks up right where the fourth one left off with Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) defeating Ivan Drago and returning to the US. It is revealed that the fight with Drago left Rocky with brain damage and as a result can never fight again (considering the pummeling he took in Rocky IV, this should come as no surprise). To add insult to injury, through some poor management by Paulie (played by Burt Young), Rocky's accountant managed to obtain Power of Attorney over the Balboa financials and a few bad investments later, they are now bankrupt. Forced to sell off his assets, Rocky, Adrian (played by Talia Shire), Rocky Jr. (played by Sage Stallone) and Paulie move back to the neighborhood. Rocky even pulls out his old hat and leather coat to mark the occasion and make his regression complete. Left with few options, Rocky re-opens Mickey's gym and begins training other boxers. One in particular, Tommy Gunn (played by Tommy Morrison), repeatedly asks Rocky to train him to be a World Champion Boxer until Rocky eventually agrees. Things start off well but as Tommy begins to win fights and rise in the rankings due to Rocky's tutelage, he attracts the attention of slimy promoter George Washington Duke (played by Robert Gant), who is basically Don King if he got a haircut. Under Duke's influence, Tommy quickly changes from hungry kid to ungrateful punk who leaves Rocky behind for greener pastures. However, when the press takes him to task for turning his back on the beloved Rocky Balboa, Tommy decides he wants a shot at the former Heavyweight champion for a one on one fight of his own. 

After having Rocky basically end the Cold War in the previous film, I can understand wanting to take the old lug down a few notches and make a more grounded film. The problem with this is that none of it really works. After seeing Rocky grow and even mature over the last couple films, it's disheartening to seem him regress back to his old bum routine from the first two films, not to mention at times annoying. Likewise, Paulie is back on the sauce and becoming about as unpleasant as he was in the first film as well, which is a shame because he was downright lovable in Rocky III and Rocky IVMeanwhile, Tommy is a bit of a selfish brat right from the get go, which everyone but Rocky sees but Rocky keeps training him anyway. He even lets Tommy wear the Apollo Creed trunks that Apollo wore in the first film and Rocky wore when he fought both Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago despite not even coming close to having earned that right. Perhaps the most disheartening thing is seeing Rocky neglect his own son in favor of Tommy, which seems so uncharacteristic for someone who previously stated that the birth of Rocky Jr. was one of the best things that ever happened to him. The whole thing is such a depressing and mismanaged slog of a film. The street fight between Rocky and Tommy at the end was a nice change of pace for the series. The closing scene between Rocky and Rocky Jr. was also sweet, especially since it was between real life father and son and even more poignant since Sage's untimely passing in 2012. But there is a lot of cloying, annoying and questionable plotting to get through to get to that point. It almost doesn't seem worth it.   

Overall, Rocky V is the unquestionable dud of the series. I can understand the desire to take things back to basics and if it had been handled well, it could've been a winner. As it is the film just falters for much of it's run time, which is a shame because the potential was there.  

Rocky IV

Before we get into the review itself, I feel the need to make a blanket statement covering all plot points in this film: I swear to God, I am not making this up. Welcome to Rocky IV.

This film, much like the previous sequel, picks up right where the last film left off recapping Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) defeating Clubber Lang as well as the private rematch between Rocky and Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), although annoyingly it still doesn't divulge the outcome of the latter fight. We then jump ahead some time as Russian boxer Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren) has traveled to America to challenge any worthy opponents to demonstrate the superior strength of the Soviet Union. Apollo Creed accepts the challenge, expecting it to be a silly exhibition match, striding in dressed like Uncle Sam to a live performance by James Brown. Apollo's hubris is his downfall as he takes a beating so severe he dies in the ring within two rounds. Feeling responsible for not ending the match sooner, Rocky challenges Drago to a fight, determined to beat him in retribution for killing Apollo. Adrian (played by Talia Shire) pleads with Rocky not to go through with it, but Rocky leaves to train in Russia ahead of a Christmas Day face off with Drago. 

There's something funny about Rocky IV in the way it's plotting is so amped up, so over the top and so preposterous that I should hate it, but yet somehow I can't. With a thumping soundtrack that includes Survivor's Burning Heart and John Cafferty's Hearts on Fire, this entry is just a brisk popcorn movie that doesn't overstay it's welcome. Once again Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed the film in addition to starring in it and you can kind of get the feeling he was running out of ideas this time out. The movie is padded out with not one, not two but three montages, one largely made up of flashbacks to the previous three films that is meant to be Rocky thinking back on his past with Apollo and resolving to fight Drago, but the sheer length of it comes across more like the cinematic equivalent of a clip show. Then we get two training montages that while exhilarating and inspiring to an extent, you still get the feeling that we're padding the running time. Then there are moments that are so completely nonsensical, no more so than Paulie's birthday party where Rocky gives him a full sized, completely automated robot, with full artificial intelligence capabilities (although kudos to Paulie (played by Burt Young) for being able to reprogram it with a seductive female voice). The entire final fight is equally ridiculous, from Rocky being able to go the distance with Drago despite nearly falling just after fighting Apollo and Clubber Lang, suddenly he's strong enough to take repeated punches to the head from the superhuman Drago, who's punches are rated to be double that of what he was getting from Apollo? I'm calling bullshit movie. Then, on top of that, somehow he manages to turn the tide of the audience to where they are all chanting, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" So, in essence, Rocky Balboa has ended the Cold War.     

But yet there is something irresistible about the film. It's cinematic junk food for sure and it knows it. It is no longer trying to recreate the sentimentality of the previous films, but rather giving itself over entirely to the 80's action movie mindset and in that regard it actually kind of works. With a thumping good soundtrack and slick direction, the movie is plenty of fun, with Paulie along as the comic relief. The scenery is nice and the Russian setting for the bulk of the film makes for a nice change of pace for the series (even though it's really Utah). The movie has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer as it barrels through it's plot at record speed. But while it's entertaining, it doesn't have the same weight as the previous films and is therefore less satisfying overall.  

Overall, Rocky IV is without a doubt the most ridiculous entry in the series of films. It throws any sense of plausibility out the window and embraces it's popcorn movie mentality. On that level, despite all odds, it actually kind of works. When you look at it with any sort of depth, it's a rather preposterous hour and a half of cinema, but at least it's never boring. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rocky III

I have a soft spot for Rocky III. It takes everything from the first two movies and then takes it up another notch with Rocky facing his biggest adversary yet with some unexpected help from an old rival. It adds some interesting twists to the familiar story line and expands on the relationship between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.

After winning the rematch at the end of previous film, Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) has become an international sensation as the new title holder of the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He manages to defend the title over several more fights, attracting the attention of up and coming boxer Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T). Clubber challenges Rocky to a fight during a dedication ceremony for a bronze statue of Rocky at the stop of the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. Rocky initially declines, intending to announce his retirement from boxing at the ceremony. He hastily reconsiders and accepts when Clubber Lang starts taunting Adrian (played by Talia Shire) instead. However, tragedy strikes right before the fight and a distracted Rocky is easily defeated by Clubber Lang. Once he recovers, Rocky gets a visit from Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers), who offers to train Rocky for a rematch with Lang. With the help of Apollo, Rocky trains harder than ever and is determined to regain his title once again.

This time around, the story is very much centered on Rocky and Apollo as it takes their story in a new direction away from being rivals and very much becoming friends, which I really loved as both Stallone and Weathers find new dimensions to their well known characters. Unfortunately, in the process Adrian gets a bit of the short shrift as Adrian is relegated to standing around either cheering on Rocky or looking concerned, aside from one scene where she manages to get Rocky to pull himself together and quit feeling sorry for himself. The film also marks the screen debut of Mr. T playing Clubber Lang, a disappointingly one-note character. Yeah, he's a worthy adversary that is stronger and meaner than any other opponent that Rocky has faced before, but that's all he is. After Apollo Creed in the first two movies where he was a developed and three dimensional character, Clubber exists just to well, club Rocky and disrupt his world. He doesn't seem to exist beyond that clear cut plot line. While he certainly is intimidating, I just wish there had been a bit more to his character at the same time. On the other hand, remember when I said Burgess Meredith stole the show in Rocky II? Well, I think Burt Young was taking notes because he steals the show this time around as Paulie. From the opening scene onward, where Paulie has fallen off the wagon again and has to get bailed out by Rocky only to admit how jealous he's become of Rocky's success, it was the first time in the series that I really liked his character. From that moment on, he becomes part of Rocky's team and just quietly manages to steal every scene he's in. 

Stallone, in addition to acting in the film, also returns to write and direct the film and does craft and all together stronger film than the previous film, with many of the pacing issues fixed this time around.    

Overall, Rocky III is a decent installment in the series. I appreciated the growing friendship between Rocky and Apollo that gave the film it's heart. Originally, this was supposed to be the closing chapter of the series, and fittingly has the best ending, or at least my favorite of the series.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rocky II

I suppose the plot of Rocky II was the most obvious one of the series, the rematch between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed after the split decision result at the end of the first movie, but boy does it take it's sweet time getting there.

The sequel picks up essentially right where the first film ended, with a recap of the fight between Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) and Apollo (played by Carl Weathers) at the end of the first film. As the two are wheeled into the hospital, the press start asking them questions about the fight. Apollo breaks his promise of there being no rematch in record time when the press challenges his performance. Rocky turns down the offer as time passes. Rocky tries to trade on his notoriety by doing some commercials, but discovers he can't act and has difficulty reading the cue cards due to an injury to his right eye from the fight. Rocky proposes to Adrian (played by Talia Shire) and she accepts. The two buy a house together and before long they have a baby on the way. Rocky is having difficulty finding a way to support his new family and thinking of returning to fighting despite his promise to Adrian not to. Meanwhile, Apollo is getting hate mail claiming the fight was fixed, only fueling his desire for a rematch. Rocky finally accepts the challenge and with the help of Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith) he trains harder than ever with the goal of defeating Apollo in the ring.

There is a lot to like about Rocky II. Seeing the continuing romance of Rocky and Adrian was very cute and heartwarming. Seeing Rocky trying to build a life for his new family and hitting roadblock after roadblock was heartrending. Of course the training sequences were inspiring and awesome, especially with the admittingly corny but still awesome scene where Rocky runs through the streets of Philadelphia only to have some of the neighborhood kids start running with him, only to turn into a full on mob by the time he gets to the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. I know it's cheesy as hell, but it's still one of my favorite scenes in the movie. The climactic fight is also quite epic, even if the ending isn't exactly a huge surprise. While all the performances are good this time out as well, I have to give special mention to Burgess Meredith this time around. I swear, while everyone else wasn't looking he just picked up the movie and walked off with it. Every time he showed up on screen, I perked up a little as he interjected a little extra life into the film.     

The real problem with Rocky II, and it's not enough to ruin the movie by any means, is that is takes forever to get going. The front end of the movie is burdened with scene after scene of Rocky marrying Adrian, blowing through the money he got the from the fight, trying to find work, etc. All of this is important and everything, but it also gets a bit repetitive and drags things out when the audience really wants the plot to get going. We know the rematch is going to happen. There's no suspense there, it's why we bought the ticket. Like I said, it's not enough to ruin the film, but the pacing is a bit off and the beginning is more drawn out than it needs to be.

Overall, Rocky II wasn't quite as good as the first film. Sequels rarely are, but it is still a strong follow-up to the original film. It's not a perfect film, but it is a frequently entertaining one, especially any time Burgess Meredith is on screen. 

Monday, November 23, 2015


There is a certain amount of life imitating art when it comes to talking about the first Rocky film. Written by Sylvester Stallone with the clear idea he would star in it, the movie was eventually greenlit by United Artists begrudgingly agreeing to let Stallone star with the proviso they make it on a smaller budget. This little film would wind up winning three Oscars, including Best Picture, and catapult Stallone into super-stardom, as well as launch a film franchise that is about to release it's seventh installment (although tragically it's not called Rocky VII: Adrian's Revenge no matter how badly me and my fellow Simpsons fans wanted that to happen).

Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), a bit of a loner, socially awkward and gets by fighting the odd boxing match and working as an enforcer for a local loan shark. He spends time around his Philadelphia neighborhood with his friend Paulie (played by Burt Young). He has his eyes on Paulie's shy sister Adrian (played by Talia Shire) who works at the local pet store. Much of the rest of the neighborhood thinks he's a bit of a bum. Meanwhile, World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) has announced he plans to hold a fight in Philadelphia as part of the Bi-Centennial. However, with five weeks before the fight, he is informed his scheduled opponent is injured and a replacement needs to be found. He decides spice things up and give a local contender a chance. He settles on Rocky, liking his moniker of "The Italian Stallion" and figuring he will be an easy fight. Rocky is surprised by the offer and accepts. Local trainer Mickey Goldmill (played by Burgess Meredith) offers to train him, which Rocky accepts. Using whatever he can to get in shape, either punching meat carcasses at Paulie's work, climbing the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or using old bricks in the place of hand weights. As the fight approaches, Rocky starts to get nervous, but is determined to go the distance with Apollo to prove himself to everyone.

There is something about this movie that I just can't help but love it and I think a lot of that centers around the main character. Stallone has taken a lot of heat over the years over his acting talent (or as some claim, lack thereof), but he crafts a character that is so unabashedly lovable. Yeah, he's a bit of a slob and a definite underdog, but beyond that beats a heart of gold and you just can't help but root for the guy. Talia Shire likewise gave a good performance that had an arc similar to Rocky's, as their relationship deepens, she comes more and more out of her shell, culminating in a powerful scene when she finally stands up to her alcoholic brother Paulie, who lives with her and takes advantage of her. Burgess Meredith likewise gives a great performance as the surly trainer Mickey who isn't afraid to tell it like it is, such as an early scene when he tells Rocky he's wasting his potential. I also have to single out Bill Conti's epic and iconic score for the film. All these years later, it's still being heard. Most recently it was used in a Best Buy commercial and all that accomplished was making me want to watch Rocky again, hence here we are.

Overall, Rocky laid the groundwork for a series of films that are still going today with the soon to be released Creed. While it is a fantastic film in it's own right, did it deserve the Best Picture award? On a ballot that includes All the President's Men, Network, and Taxi Driver, even I have my doubts. But I kind of like that it did. It has a certain odd symmetry with the film itself. The underdog rising to the challenge and taking the prize.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Young Sherlock Holmes

My first introductions to the Sherlock Holmes canon were the Jeremy Brett series and this film, Young Sherlock Holmes. Of the two, this film was that one that I responded to more, which makes sense since I was a kid at the time. Before I unintentionally raise the ire of others, I must state I have come to appreciate both equally now. 

While it is well documented in the Conan Doyle stories that Holmes and Watson first met as adults, this film portrays them meeting as young men at a British boarding school and their first adventure together. Really, it does make sense that Holmes and Watson met and became friends as kids because everything about their friendship and adventures together felt like the adventures of two guys who never really grew up. No wonder they appeal to me, since I never really did either. 

Anyway, this film focuses on the meeting of Holmes (played by Nicholas Rowe) and Watson (played by Alan Cox) at a boarding school in Victorian London and their first adventure together. Watson's previous school had closed due to the lack of funds and he transferred to the new school in the middle of the term. The two quickly become friends as Watson becomes quite enamored of the unique and intriguing Holmes. Rounding out the group is a young girl at the school, Elizabeth (played by Sophie Ward). She is the niece of the former headmaster, Rupert Waxflatter (played by Nigel Stock), who has taken residence in the school's attic and works on various inventions. He has also become a mentor of sorts to Holmes. Elizabeth, being the only girl at the otherwise all boys school, gets plenty of affection from the other boys, but is only interested in Sherlock.

Meanwhile, throughout London there have been a series of seemingly unrelated accidental deaths. Sherlock's interest is piqued when he notices newspaper clipping relating them among Waxflatter's papers in addition to Waxflatter getting a strange visitor and being rushed out the door. Seeing there is a connection between them and his mentor, and perhaps fearing that his mentor may be on the hit list, Sherlock and Watson begin to investigate. They discover that prior to their deaths, each victim had been shot with a poisoned dart from a blowpipe. This poison causes intense nightmare like hallucinations, which caused each victim to inadvertently cause their own death as they tried to escape said hallucinations. Holmes and Watson, along with Elizabeth investigate further to try and find out why these people were killed, who did it and how it all connects together, which leads to quite the adventure.

The film was directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg. This film fits in quite nicely among the other Spielberg produced films of the era concerning young boys having adventures, while also playing to Sherlock Holmes fans as well. Nicholas Rowe is wonderful as Sherlock, showing a younger and more inexperienced Holmes. He already has his finely tuned intellect, but the rest of his well known persona is still in flux and the adventure he has would come to greatly impact how he is as an adult. Alan Cox is likewise a great Watson, showing how he grows as well over the course of their first case together, from a slightly weak willed young man to a far more courageous one by the end, even going so far as saving Sherlock during the climax. Sophie Ward does well, creating an intriguing character that you can see why she could be the only woman Sherlock loved, while also being a strong character on her own and not one content to sit on the sidelines. The film also has some fantastic special effects. The stand out is one of the earliest uses of pure computer animation in a feature film, a stained glass knight come to life in one victim's hallucination, and animated by Pixar no less, in one of the first cinematic uses of CGI. 

Perhaps the most curious thing about this movie is certain parallels I couldn't help but draw, even as I was starting to read the books the films were based on before they were even films, to the Harry Potter films, especially the first two or so. I'm sure it's unintentional, but there are distinct similarities between the two. The trio of characters match up remarkably well, Harry/Sherlock, Ron/Watson, Hermoine/Elizabeth, then the other characters such as the school's resident knob Dudley/Draco, Waxflatter/Dumbledore (I can go further, but that would lead to spoilers). I found myself drawing these parallels when I first read the books because really this movie was my cultural touchstone for British Boarding School life. You can probably imagine my bemusement when it was announced Chris Columbus was going to direct the movies, given that he wrote the screenplay for this one (whether or not that eventually turned out to be a good or bad thing is the subject of another review that I will no doubt get to...eventually). 

Overall, Young Sherlock Holmes remains one of my all time favorite movies. It's by no means perfect (the voice over narration from an Older Watson can get to be a bit much at times), but it is a consistently entertaining film anchored by a trio of engaging performances, and certainly one that got me into Sherlock Holmes. So, there is that at least.   

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mr. Holmes

There have been many different incarnations and tales of Sherlock Holmes over the years, with countless adaptations led by many different actors. The majority of them were taken directly from the stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. While most of them focused on Holmes during his time at Baker Street (or his youth, in the supremely enjoyable Young Sherlock Holmes), his later years had never really been explored. Mr. Holmes accomplishes this quite wonderfully and exquisitely. 

Sherlock Holmes (played by Ian McKellen) has long since retired from the detective business and living a quiet life in the English Countryside a few years after the end of World War II. He is looked after by Mrs. Munro (played by Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (played by Milo Parker). Mrs. Munro tries her best to tolerate Sherlock's eccentricities whereas her son looks upon him with a sort of hero worship. Sherlock is getting on with age and dealing with the slow loss of his once sharp intellect. He is trying to write an account of his last case he took and the woman at the center of it, a story previously documented incorrectly by the late John Watson. His aim is to correct the story, if only he could remember it. Prodding him along is young Roger and the two make an unlikely pair as Roger helps jog the old detective's memory so he can put the one case that still haunts him behind him once and for all. 

I must say Ian McKellen gives a fantastic performance as Sherlock Holmes, both at the older man and as the younger Sherlock as we see in flashbacks. He captures both handsomely, giving his own unique take on the character. He has plenty to work with as well, as we see Sherlock as a much older man than we are used to, trying to keep his mind sharp through various methods. In fact, there is a subplot, told in flashbacks, as Holmes travels to Japan to recover a rare plant that grows there, the prickly ash. He believes extracts from the plant will help stave off the early signs of dementia. He also finds himself re-evaluating the choices he made in his life. Before, he always believed his work and his intellect would be enough to make a satisfactory life for himself. Now, nearing the end of his life, he finds that may not be true any more. Laura Linney is equally wonderful as Mrs. Munro, who is contemplating a career change and taking up a friend's job offer in another town. She fears she will no longer be able to manage and assist Mr. Holmes as he continues to age, while also potentially providing a better life for her son. Roger meanwhile is quite content to remain where he is, spending time with Sherlock and helping him look after his beehives he keeps on the property. It is the unlikely friendship between Sherlock and Roger that provides the heart and emotional backbone of the story.  

Bill Condon directed the film, mounting a handsome and charming production. The script was written by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin's novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. Unlike other Sherlock Holmes tales, this one is light on adventure but is rather a tender and moving tale focused much more on Holmes himself. The film also makes some fun nods to previous incarnations of Holmes, such as addressing the deer stalker hat as an invention of Watson. They also cast Nicholas Rowe, who played Sherlock in Young Sherlock Holmes, as an on-screen Sherlock Holmes in a movie Holmes sees in a theatre in London. I thought it was a nice touch and a nod to both Young Sherlock Holmes as well as the Basil Rathbone films that they take delight in poking a little fun at. 

Overall, Mr. Holmes is a fantastic and well done look into the later life of Sherlock Holmes. I think any true fan of the famous consulting detective would enjoy it immensely. I certainly did.     

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Spectre

2015 has been a banner year for spy films, with a total of four big budget films coming out. All four were good and very different. From the hyper-violent and outrageous (but also kinda brilliant) Kingsman: The Secret Service to the comedic Spy and the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible series. But the main event was always Spectre, the latest installment in the James Bond series. How does it stack up with the previous 23 films? Well, it's pretty decent for the most part, but I do have a few criticisms.

The film opens in a rather spectacular fashion with an impressive tracking shot as we follow James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) through the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, following him through one long tracking shot through the festival, up into a hotel and then onto the roof, where he takes his place to attempt to assassinate Marco Sciarra (played by Alessandro Cremona), a known terrorist. While listening into their conversation, he discovers they are planning to blow up a Mexico City stadium. Bond is discovered and in the ensuing firefight, the bomb destined for the stadium is detonated, taking out the building they were in and part of the one Bond is on as well. Bond then pursues Sciarra, who survived the explosion, and in the ensuing fight is able to steal Sciarra's ring inscribed with a symbol of an octopus before killing him.  Upon his return to London, Bond is placed on indefinite leave by M (played by Ralph Fiennes). Bond ignores M's decision, steals Q's prototype Aston Martin DB10 and travels to Rome to attend Sciarra's funeral and talk to his widow. Sciarra's widow is terrified and tells Bond of the mysterious criminal organization her husband belonged to called SPECTRE. Using Sciarra's ring, James infiltrates their meeting. To his surprise, his presence is discovered and pointed out by the leader of the organization, Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz). Narrowly escaping with his life, he finds himself in a car chase with Mr. Hinx (played by Dave Bautista) through the streets of Rome, with Bond narrowly escaping.

Using the information he overheard from the meeting, Bond tracks down Mr. White (played by Jesper Christensen), an MI6 fugitive and former member of Quantum which was a subsidiary of SPECTRE. Mr. White, who is slowly dying of thallium poisoning, directs Bond to his daughter Madeline Swann (played by Lea Seydoux), who can show him to a hotel in Morocco called Le American, where he will find everything he needs to learn about SPECTRE and it's leader on the condition that Bond protects her from SPECTRE. Bond locates Swann working at a private clinic in the Austrian Alps, a place that no doubt reminded saavy Bond fans such as myself of Piz Gloria the clinic setting of much of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Anyway, after eluding SPECTRE goons at the clinic, Bond and Swann escape to Morocco. Once there, Bond is able to retrieve the documents to help him track down SPECTRE's base and it's leader. Bond and Swann join together to journey to SPECTRE's headquarters and take them down for good.

There is a lot I liked about Spectre. For starters, the full reset of the Bond series is now seemingly complete with this entry. We have the gunbarrel opening at the front of the movie again (where it belongs, dammit!). We have M back in his old office. We have Q and Moneypenny back as well and finally we have the infamous SPECTRE criminal organization and his chief baddie Blofeld back. Yes, I said it and it's not much of a spoiler since most called it from the start. Christoph Waltz is playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, aka Franz Oberhauser, and he's just as magnificent as you can imagine. Any complaints I have are at the fault of the writing, not his performance. In fact, I would've been pissed if he hadn't been Blofeld. The movie is called Spectre for crying out loud! Daniel Craig, despite his genuine grouchiness towards the role of late, is actually quite good as Bond once again. He is even allowed to have some fun with the role this time out. The car chase between him and Mr. Hinx being a memorable standout as Bond tries to figure out all the DB10's added features. Sam Mendes once again imbues the film with plenty of style and substance, staging some genuinely memorable action sequences in the process. I appreciated the nods to previous Bond films as well, notably the nods to On Her Majesty's Secret Service I mentioned earlier and the smashy smashy fight on the train recalling both the iconic one between Bond and Grant in From Russia with Love as well as the one between Bond and Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (the Bond filmmakers sure do love their trains).   

However, some of the writing is a bit spotty this time around. In particular there is a plot point concerning Blofeld that I won't spoil but is so obviously a half baked attempt to have continuity between all the Daniel Craig Bond films, which is notable for a series that until the Craig films seemed to carry a motto of continuity be damned! I mean, there were occasionally returning characters, sometimes even played by the same actor. But that was about as far as it went. I'd be fine with it if this was all planned from the start, but it so clearly was not and the movie kind of starts to fall apart as a result. It's not enough to destroy the movie, but it is a glaring flaw in the writing that is hard to ignore. Likewise, Judi Dench is sorely missed as M. She brought so much to the role and her absence is felt this time around. Ralph Fiennes has a tough act to follow, but thus far he's doing well with that he's given.

Overall, Spectre is a decent Bond film. It's not one of the best, but still plenty entertaining. I just wish they had thought through some of the plot points better. It's nice to see the series returning to the classic sensibilities of the Bond series and see the mainstays make their triumphant returns. I'll admit it, I can't wait to see what comes next, because as always James Bond will return.      

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Skyfall

When Skyfall hit theatres in 2012, it was falling on the 50 year anniversary of the Bond series as a whole. So, perhaps it was fitting that for this entry that we dig deeper into the character of Bond as well as the complicated relationship he has with his boss, M. By doing so, we wind up with what was one of the most satisfying Bond films for me.

After a failed attempt to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing the names of undercover operatives, Bond (played by Daniel Craig) has been shot and is presumed dead after a fall from bridge into the watery depths below. Meanwhile, M (played by Judi Dench), receives an ominous message and soon after witnesses her office at MI6 being blown up. When Bond, who is laying low in the tropics somewhere, hears of the attack, he heads home to help M find the culprit. Bond is placed back on active duty and assigned the task of finding out who the culprit is and capturing them, with assistance from fellow agent Eve (played by Naomie Harris). M is also feeling the heat politically as the contents of the stolen hard drive are released and identities of undercover agents are revealed. Suspecting the two are related, Bond investigates and the path leads to Silva (played by Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent disavowed by M who is executing an extensive revenge plot against his former boss. 

This film borrows certain plot points from a previous Bond film, The World is Not Enough, and perhaps executes them better by bringing them front and center. Namely, M's sins coming back to haunt her. More than any other Bond film, M is very much a central character this time out and it really gives Judi Dench some material to sink her teeth into. From the opening scene when M has to make the tough call for Eve to take a shot in order to take out the thief with the hard drive even if it results in killing Bond as well, you can get a taste of the tough calls M has had to make, for better or worse. Silva is the personification of all those bad decisions coming back to haunt her. In fact, Bond and Silva are two sides of the same coin in a way. Bond is upset at her decision, but understands and remains loyal to her, whereas it has destroyed Silva and the torture he received by the hands of the enemy has left him insane and thirsting for revenge. Likewise, we also get to dig in a bit more with Bond himself, as the climax takes place at the Bond family estate, Skyfall, as Bond, M, and the Bond family groundskeeper Kincaide (played by Albert Finney), make their last stand, Straw Dogs style. Fun bit of trivia, the role of Kincaide was initially written with Sean Connery in mind and was considered for about two seconds until the filmmakers came to their senses and realized it would be too distracting. But, on the upside we get Albert Finney, who is reliably fantastic in the role. 

Sam Mendes stepped into the director's chair for this Bond outing and managed to create one of the best looking films in the series. Among the many well executed and thrilling action sequences, it's actually a fight scene between Bond and an assassin in a darkened Shanghai highrise that stands out to me. Mostly seen in silhouettes, it's both thrilling and kind of beautiful. You can also tell he has a real love for the Bond series as a whole as the film slowly comes full circle, bringing back the much missed Q (played by the adorkable Ben Whishaw), although with a bit more modern sensibility (His crack to Bond, "What were you expecting? An exploding pen? We don't really go for that anymore," provoked to responses from me, one a nod of recognition of that great GoldenEye gadget and a bemoaning, "Aw, but I liked the exploding pen!") Much like his predecessors, he never jokes about his work either. There is also a late in the film return of the classic Aston Martin DB5 in a scene that Mendes himself described as an orgy of nostalgia when paired with the classic Bond theme and considering my reaction and the reaction of the audience I initially saw it with, I'm inclined to agree. 

Overall, Skyfall is everything a Bond movie should be. It is enormously entertaining, with some emotional depth as well. I'm immensely curious to see where the Bond series goes from here as by the end of this one the reboot of Bond seems complete, with all the familiar players back in place, as they should be. 

Bond-a-thon: Quantum of Solace

Out of all the Bond films, only Quantum of Solace is a direct follow up to the film that came before it, Casino Royale. In terms of a follow-up to that particular film, this outing is certainly found wanting. However, judged on it's own terms, it's a lean, mean freight train of an action movie with a strong second outing for Daniel Craig and a rather unique villain as well.

This film picks up more or less where we left off with Casino Royale, as Bond (played by Daniel Craig) is tracking down the men responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd. The train leads to enviromentalist Dominic Greene (played by Mathieu Amalric), who is using his business as a cover as a leading member of a criminal organization named Quantum. Meanwhile, M (played by Judi Dench) is concerned that Bond's actions are clouded by the rage he feels over Vesper's death. Meanwhile, Bond crosses paths with Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko), who has been romancing Greene to meet her own ends. The two decide to team up to take down Greene and his organization after realizing each can help the other reach their own goals. 

My only complaint with Casino Royale is that it was a bit too long. The same can not be said here. There is a sort of slam, blam, thank you ma'm sensibility to this one. It doesn't pause for much characterization, but makes up for it in a dazzling array of action set pieces, stylish direction and straight forward plotting that is nonetheless hard to resist. It does however lack some of the finesse, characterization and classiness that made the two films that bookend this one stand out. Some of this could be attributed to the unexpected production troubles that impacted the film, primarily a writers strike that left the production with beginning filming with an unfinished script.  

Still, the filmmakers do make a game attempt at keeping the ship afloat, and for the most part it works. Daniel Craig is a bit more relaxed in the role of James Bond, adding a bit of simmering rage to the role and giving Bond a level of unpredictability. We again find Bond on a personal vendetta of sorts, not unlike Dalton's second outing Licence to Kill. Olga Kurylenko does a good job as well, portraying a character that isn't quite what she seems. Mathieu Amalric makes for an interesting Bond villain. There is something curiously pitiable and slight about him, yet behind that lies a rather devious, if rather insecure mind. It's not something I've seen in a Bond villain before and I kinda dug it. Director Marc Forster keeps the film moving at a brisk pace so while the film doesn't have the same emotional weight as the two films that bookend it, you can at least say it's never boring. 

In the end, there probably isn't a whole lot that is particularly memorable about Quantum of Solace. It doesn't reach the substance or emotional heights of either Casino Royale or Skyfall, but it has it's own charms and it content to just be a full force action extravaganza, and I can't help but appreciate that. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Casino Royale

After the lukewarm response to Pierce Brosnan's fourth outing as Bond, Die Another Day, it was decided a fresh approach was needed. Dropping the gadget heavy approach and finding themselves a new take on the character with actor Daniel Craig, they decided to give the series a hard reboot with a Bond just promoted to the 00 status. Casino Royale, with a much more serious attitude and action, intrigue and suspense to spare turned out to be just what the series needed. 

The newly promoted James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) is in hot water after botching a mission to apprehend a bomber left both said bomber dead as well as significant damage to an embassy. M (played by Judi Dench), puts Bond on leave while she decides what to do with him. Instead, Bond continues his invesitgation, picking up a trail that leads him directly to Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelson), a notorious arms dealer M suspects is staging terrorist attacks to manipulate the stock market. When Bond manages to stop one such attack at the Miami International Airport, Le Chiffre finds himself indebted to some very dangerous people for some serious money. He enters a high stakes poker tournament to try and recoup his losses. Bond is sent to try and keep him from winning, with treasury agent Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green) sent to watch over the money.  

Daniel Craig made an impressive splash as the new James Bond, defying expectations and helping take the series back to it's gritter and more grounded roots, much like Timothy Dalton did when he came in after Roger Moore (and Dalton is getting a fairer re-assessment as Bond thanks to Craig's turn as well). Martin Campbell returned to the director's chair for this outing, relaunching Bond for the 21st Century much like he did with Goldeneye, as Brosnan's first outing. Keeping Judi Dench on as M (because why wouldn't you?) and chucking out the rest (including Moneypenny and Q, who I will admit I missed), they rebuilt Bond from the ground up, creating a more human and at times vulnerable hero in the process. As Bond's love interest, they found the magnificent Eva Green, who does a fantastic job at playing Vesper, portraying the hidden pains and the secrets of the character beautifully. She and Daniel Craig are magnificent together. Dench likewise continues to take the character of M to new and impressive depths. Mads Mikkelson likewise makes for an intriguing villain for the film in a star making turn for him. 

The action is well executed, with the opening construction site chase between Bond and the bomb maker being an impressive stand out, even if I found myself wondering why when a villain starts climbing up during a chase the hero always follows, especially when there is clearly nowhere to go. Just once I'd like to see a hero character stop, realize they have no where to go and just say, "You know what? He has nowhere to go. I'm just going to wait here...and have a sandwich." Likewise, the climactic showdown in a crumbling, sinking Venice mansion is equally impressive and well staged. It's all the more impressive because there is very little CGI in the film, which is refreshing after the CGI overkill of Die Another Day. Likewise, the lack of gadgets in this film is a nice change and clearly needed after the ridiculous and notorious invisible car from the previous film. I always seem to like it best when Bond has to more rely on his wits than his toys from Q and this entry is no exception.

Overall, Casino Royale was a triumphant return to form, breathing new life into the franchise and creating one of the best entries yet. The film is one of the longer ones, clocking in at close to two and a half hours, but it is time well spent.