Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Sylvester Stallone, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lungdren, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris
Amongst a sea of reboots and revivals, 2015’s Creed set the high water mark, pleasantly surprising audiences and critics alike by bringing a new relevance to a beloved but diminished franchise. Ryan Coogler’s film effectively functioned as both sequel and remake, continuing the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) into his older years, while also presenting a new hero for a new generation in Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). With Creed II, Steven Caple Jr, who has taken the reins from Coogler, is attempting a similar balancing of the old and the new, crafting a film that serves simultaneously as a sequel to Creed and to Rocky IV.
After starting out his career as a curiosity, as Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis Creed has earned legitimacy and claimed the world heavyweight crown. He is engaged to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose music career is going strong, and they have a child on the way. In short, life is pretty good for Donnie. But again, the shadow of his father proves inescapable. Continue reading
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Thirty years on and Max is still king of the road. It is not often that you see an action movie at the pointy end of lists like this, but in 2015, at the ripe old age of seventy, George Miller took the world’s directors to school. Mad Max: Fury Road showed that a singular creative vision can elevate the action film to the level of art. Miller effectively tapped back into that part of his imagination where Max resides and delivered a visually stunning, kinetic action masterpiece. Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes but Charlize Theron is the real star. Full review
2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
It is exciting to see something you have never seen before, an entirely original cinematic vision. There is no other way to describe Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. While much was made of its visual style, with the whole film appearing to be one continuous shot, Birdman is so much more than a single shot gimmick. Birdman has complete unity of form and vision. Every cinematic element, without fail, is consistent with Iñárritu’s vision and the thematic concerns of the film. The casting of Michael Keaton and subsequent critical acclaim for his performance also made for one of the stories of late 2014/early 2015. Full review
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a special little movie, an indie which won over audiences on the festival circuit before getting a theatrical release. It is a coming-of-age story about an insecure high school senior, and aspiring filmmaker, whose mother insists that he befriend a girl from school who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Genuinely funny without ever undermining the seriousness of its subject matter, touching and poignant without being schmaltzy or overly sentimental, the film is a beautifully affecting piece of cinema brimming with youthful creativity. Full review
4. Ex-Machina (Alex Garland)
The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is great small science fiction. A young programmer is invited by his enigmatic boss to put a humanoid robot he has created through a Turing test, a series of interviews intended to determine whether she has achieved artificial intelligence. With only three real characters, Ex Machina is an impressively performed chamber piece which draws its drama out of conversations and dialogue. Shot on a modest budget, that money has clearly been spent in the right places because the visuals are outstanding, with the robot, Ava, being one of the year’s best CG achievements. Full review
5. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
After a pretty underwhelming last decade, Ridley Scott returned to form with The Martian. Following the fight to survive of a botanist left stranded on Mars, it is a different type of science fiction film, one that turns on the solving of problems and seeks to excite us more with its intellect and ideas than with explosions. Carried by the charismatic performance of Matt Damon, The Martian is enjoyable, irreverent and absorbing, a much lighter film than you might expect after reading the one line synopsis. It also features a great disco soundtrack. Full review
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
In the hands of a director, J.J. Abrams, who grew up with Star Wars and understood what the fans loved about it, The Force Awakens managed to recapture the look, feel and fun of the original trilogy. A transitionary film, it allowed us to catch up with beloved old characters while also introducing a collection of engaging new ones who will carry the franchise forward. Faced with almost impossible levels of expectation, to have people walking out of The Force Awakens not underwhelmed would have been a victory. That audiences have come out of not just satisfied but genuinely excited is a testament to how good it is. Full review
7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Sometimes a film gives you something you didn’t even know that you wanted. There were very few people openly hoping for a seventh Rocky movie, but writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Creed, functioning at the same time as a sequel and a remake, was the pleasant surprise of the year. The first Rocky film not written by Stallone, Creed offers a fresh take on the material, knowing when to lean into the cliché and when to turn it on its head. While Rocky himself is only a supporting character in this story, Sylvester Stallone delivers a career best performance. Full review
8. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen)
Taking us inside the mind of an eleven year old girl with a cast of characters made up of anthropomorphised emotions, Inside Out arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen employ sophisticated visual metaphors to simply and effectively explain how memory, personality, subconscious and dreaming all work. Deceptively simple yet deeply profound, Inside Out is a beautiful film about growing up, farewelling the simplicity of childhood and learning to appreciate the full gamut of emotions that bring depth and texture to life. Full review
9. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Finally The Big Lebowski has a friend in the ‘stoner noir’ subgenre. Inherent Vice is the most flat out enjoyable of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (a filmmaker whose work in the past I have tended to appreciate rather than enjoy). Set in early 1970s California and featuring some magnificent costumes, Inherent Vice is an aggressively, unapologetically confusing mystery which will require a second or third viewing to comprehend the ins and outs of its multiple narratives. But if you can embrace the confusion and go with the flow, it will only take one viewing to enjoy this humorous head-scratcher. Full review
10. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Not the most high profile doco of the year, but it was the pick of them for mine. During his life Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself: memos, memories and recollections, self-hypnosis tapes. Listen to Me Marlon uses these recordings to narrate a biographical documentary on the legendary actor. The result is practically a posthumous autobiography, an intimate exploration of a brilliant but tortured soul. Amusing, intriguing, sometimes funny and often quite sad, it is a unique documentary befitting a unique talent. Full review
The Next Best (alphabetical): ’71 (Yann Demange), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor), Selma (Ava DuVernay), Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
The Interview (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)
If there was one winner out of the Sony hacking scandal it was this horrible film. Cyber terrorists demanding that Sony not release this comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un was a sure fire way of turning a film that would otherwise have shuffled quietly into obscurity into one of the must-sees of early 2015. Attention grabbing concept aside, The Interview did not warrant this spotlight.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew
Released in 2006, Rocky Balboa was a fitting farewell to the beloved character. Fifteen years after the previous instalment it allowed the Italian Stallion to walk off into the sunset with dignity, well and truly making up for the travesty that was Rocky V. The book seemed to be closed. But Ryan Coogler, the young writer and director of 2013’s Fruitvale Station, found a reason to open it again and Stallone was receptive to it. The result, Creed, is one of the genuine cinematic surprises of the year.
In 1998, young Adonis Johnson, who has bounced between foster homes and juvenile detention, discovers that he is the illegitimate son of the deceased legendary heavyweight boxer Apollo Creed, and is invited by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) to come and live with her. Flash forward to 2015 and Donnie (Michael B. Jordan), as he prefers to be called, has been working in a white collar job during the week and sneaking off to Tijuana to box on the weekends. Deciding he needs to throw himself into his fighting, he relocates to Philadelphia to try and convince his father’s great rival and friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to become his trainer. Continue reading
Director: Peter Segal
Hollywood has a history of mashing together popular franchises in the search of blockbuster success. We’ve had AVP: Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason. Back in the 1940s you had Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The same mindset is at play in Peter Segal’s Grudge Match, which may as well have been called ‘Rocky vs. Raging Bull.’ Of course, technically it is not a mash up as it presents new and original characters. But in casting Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in the leads, the filmmakers have inherited the audience’s associations with the legendary pugilists they have previously portrayed. It’s an odd pairing because despite both being about boxing, the two films couldn’t be more different. Rocky is an uplifting sports movie about a likeable underdog who finally gets his shot. Raging Bull is an art-house film about a damaged man whose anger and violence destroys his life. There is a reason there are six Rocky movies and only one Raging Bull.
But this isn’t Balboa vs La Motta. It is Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp vs. Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. Razor and The Kid enjoyed one of the great sporting rivalries in their prime. They met twice in the ring for one victory a piece, with each loss being the only defeat of that fighter’s career. But the third and deciding bout never happened because in the lead up to the anticipated fight Razor shocked the world by announcing his retirement. Thirty years go by before a down-and-out, motor-mouthed promoter manages to coax them back in the ring for the grudge match the world has been waiting to see.
Grudge Match clearly wants to trade off the legacies of Rocky and Raging Bull. So we first meet The Kid doing a rather pathetic nightclub show which is reminiscent of the final act of Raging Bull, and we have the obligatory scene in a meat locker where Razor shapes up to punch a beef carcass before being told not to. There is also a key plot point relating to Razor and the final fight which comes straight out of Rocky II. But as much as it tries to get you to think of those movies, you are also very aware that what you are watching isn’t them. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the training montage which feels eerily quiet without the brass of ‘Gonna Fly Now’ blaring over the soundtrack.
Rather than being a straight up sports movie Grudge Match is a comedy, and that doesn’t help it. The jokes aren’t good enough to make the film genuinely funny, but they are constant enough to be a distraction. Some of the jokes are also in surprisingly poor taste. While De Niro has settled into a career as a comic actor, and Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin are right at home, the comedy format doesn’t make the best use of Stallone. Sly is a better actor than many people give him credit for. He has a real ability to elicit sympathy for a character – it’s part of what made the Rocky franchise work – and in the more dramatic scenes of Grudge Match he acts rings around De Niro. But he struggles with comedy. His sense of timing and his delivery aren’t as strong as his co-stars and the material isn’t good enough to compensate for that.
All of the film’s plot complications feel unnecessarily forced and the final fight, despite being the thing the whole movie has built towards, doesn’t quite crescendo the way that it should. In the end this movie feels as tired as its two aging stars must have after going ten rounds. The most interesting part of the movie comes in the final credits where there is a short scene between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.
Rating – ★☆
Review by Duncan McLean