Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Opening today:

CreedThe title refers to the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent-turned-friend in the Rocky films. Our hero, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the posthumously-born and then orphaned product of an extramarital affair by the fighter, rather graciously raised by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis grows up a rich kid, but pursues a boxing career anyway, not using his Dad’s name initially because he wants to make it on his own. Unable to get L.A. trainers to take him seriously, he travels to Philly and talks his dad’s old pal Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), now a widower and restaurateur, into training him. Word of his lineage leaks, and this leads to a heavyweight title bout in Liverpool with a Brit brute (Tony Bellew) desperate for a payday.

This seventh Rocky movie is the one that most reminded me of the original, and that’s probably not by accident. Except for Rocky the first and Rocky V, it’s the only film in the series not directed by Stallone. Creed’s director is the talented Ryan Coogler, of 2013’s intense yet lucid Fruitvale Station. His naturalistic touch is similar to that of John G. Avildsen, who gave such a lived-in, convincing atmosphere to the 1976 Rocky.

Creed needs this edge, because it’s every bit as melodramatic, sloppily sentimental and realistically dubious as any other Rocky movie. And as with the original, knowing this isn’t likely to help you resist. Creed is a hair overlong—it has a plot complication or two more than it needs—but it quickly pulls us into investing in the hero’s fortunes, and Coogler’s handling of the fights is speedy and supple.

Stallone slips easily into his classic old role and is very entertaining. After four decades his line readings have become such a cliché that it's hard not to chuckle at them, but the chuckles are affectionate.

Probably the biggest key to the film’s success, however, is Michael B. Jordan, who also starred in Fruitvale Station. His Adonis is both wary and callow in a way that’s disarming; you can believe that Rocky would take an avuncular interest in him. He’s also given a love interest, a club singer (Tessa Thompson) who lives in the apartment downstairs. This strand felt obligatory at first, but the two play their scenes together with such directness that I came to care far more about their relationship than about the silly fight.

Victor Frankenstein“You know this story,” we’re told. “A crack of lightning. A mad genius. An unholy creation.” This retelling has all of the above, but is, of all things, a buddy picture. The buddies are the mad visionary of the title (James McAvoy) and Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), here not a toadying assistant but a brilliant collaborator, liberated from cruel servitude as a circus clown and self-trained big top physician. The doc even cures his new pal of his spinal curvature.

The two of them get up to all manner of gruesome mischief in 19th-Century England—piecing together a flyblown chimpanzee-creature is barely the start of it—while they are stalked by a pious, obsessed police detective (Andrew Scott). Igor even gets some romance this time, with a beautiful trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay) from his old gig.

It isn’t the first movie to push the “Igor” character to center stage; the idea goes back at least as far as the 2008 animated feature Igor. Nonetheless, this nutty, headlong gothic, directed by Paul McGuigan from a script by Max Landis, is a spin on this story you haven’t seen, throwing staggeringly improbable character development—when we first meet him, Igor doesn’t even have a name and says he’s never known any kindness, yet he can read, has somehow taught himself human anatomy, and draws like Albrecht Durer—together with 21st-Century-style psychobabble and self-esteem boosting, gore, theological conflict and wild melodramatic action. It’s often ridiculous, but I never found it dull, and McGuigan and Landis lace it with enough sly gags to reassure us that we aren’t being asked to take it seriously.

Radcliffe, with his sympathetic everyman quality, is pleasant company as usual. But it’s McAvoy who really puts on a show. Dashing and manic, he has some of the droll ebullience of the young Tim Curry. McAvoy is the true zap to this movie’s neck-bolts.

Still in theaters: 

BrooklynThis simple, straightforward account of a young Irish girl’s immigrant experience in the title borough gently grips like the reminiscence of a relative. Based on Colm Toibin’s  novel and directed by John Crowley, it follows Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, who sails from County Wexford in the early ‘50s, through seasickness, homesickness, love with an Italian-American guy, family tragedy and a choice between her old and new worlds. Ronan is luminous and sympathetic, the period detail has an idealized radiance, and the plot, though believable, isn’t predictable. You can take your grandparents to this one—it might be their story.

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