Creed  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     133 Min        12A

‘Creed’ marks the seventh instalment in the Rocky franchise, after Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed and starred in the original back in 1976 – guiding it to Oscar glory for the best picture win, and giving him his one and only acting nod for his iconic turn as Rocky Balboa, beaten posthumously by Peter Finch for ‘Network’. His only nod until now, that is, as his emotional return to the character saw him deservedly nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, whilst Michael B. Jordan takes the lead playing the titular Adonis Creed; illegitimate son of Rocky’s original opponent Apollo Creed, who was of course wonderfully portrayed by Carl Weathers in the first three movies.

Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, and directed by Coogler who worked previously with Jordan on their hit ‘Fruitvale Station’ (13), the film suffers initially from a lack of any emotional connection to the central character. Taken out of juvie and the foster care system to be raised in opulence by Apollo’s widow, Adonis shows a determination to fight just as his father did, but as the screenplay points out he has all the advantages in life that his father before him did not, giving him many more avenues to explore. In the beginning we see him receiving a promotion and promptly leaving his office job to pursue his fighting career, and whilst his office job presumably wasn’t all that fulfilling, he is wealthy and educated enough to try his hand at any sport or endeavour, there’s no need to pick one that could leave you fatally wounded or brain damaged.

The screenplay acknowledges this conceit, and there’s a wonderful piece of dialogue from Phylicia Rashad (playing Mary Anne Creed) where she explains she had to wipe Apollo’s ass because he couldn’t do it himself after some fights. The whole premise is that Adonis is trying to prove his own self-worth given his roots and his never having even met his father, but lack of emotional depth early on still leaves this feeling like a struggle foisted onto the main character by a plot blind to its weaknesses in its eagerness to make and justify another Rocky film.

Similarly, we find the young character of Bianca (Tessa Thompson) who is working as a singer, her passion in life, but suffering from permanent gradual hearing loss, although she seems quite content to listen to music full blast in her apartment; without so much as a thought for her neighbours let alone herself. Later on a key theme of the movie is anchored when Adonis tells someone who is sick to fight it and not give in – but this is completely at odds with the character of Bianca, as she says she just wants to do what she loves for as long as she can, and yet is actually caving in to her condition by propelling it ever forward at the fastest rate possible, doing things that would stand a good chance of damaging anyone’s hearing.

From a writing stance all of this fails and comes across as far too naïve, good general concepts poorly realised, but then enter Stallone, who reluctantly agrees to train Adonis and the two develop a father-son relationship that is both convincing and touching at times, and it looks for all the world like that very relationship had its effect on the performers too, as all the raw nerves that were only really there in print in the beginning exist on the surface by the end. Jordan delivers not only a likeable, and believable given how ripped he is for the role, performance throughout, but also a vulnerable and sympathetic one by the end, with Stallone on top form and really operating as the pulsating heart behind the movie.

Coogler has managed to shoot the film in such a way as to make it feel modern and down-to-earth, perfectly in keeping with the original, but also reasonably cinematic where it needed to be, although they’ve tried too hard to fit in bites of the original soundtrack into the new one and it usually feels out of place. When the story gets going though, the pace and momentum is such that it’s easy to be carried along with it, and Stallone’s guidance grounds and carries everything forward, not particularly hindered by the weaknesses of the first half.

It’s well shot throughout, although some scenes don’t come off as well as intended – such as a fight ambitiously done in one take, all the rage these days, that sees the camera in all the wrong places and a distance created between us and the action, and although the performers have done the scene well, the nature of it being a fight means the slightest of hesitations and going through their paces is really noticeable. Comically, the ending sees Adonis given an affectionate shove by Thompson, who unintentionally pushes him back several feet – at the culmination of that arduous and probably stressful scene, the irony isn’t lost on the cast.

Oddly enough, they watch ‘Skyfall‘ just afterward, which not only has a parallel with a protagonist deemed physically below par compared to his task, but also had Sam Mendes in his next instalment, ‘Spectre‘, attempt his own one-take scene.

‘Creed’ marks the best instalment in the Rocky story for decades, and although it doesn’t have the thrills and spectacle of ‘Rocky III’ or ‘Rocky IV’, its character based realism, for the most part, delivers a very ‘real’ feeling film.

Carol  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     118 Min        15

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ and adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy in her feature debut, Todd Haynes (‘I’m Not There’ 07, ‘Far from Heaven’ 02) directs this tale of forbidden desire and romance set in the Big Apple in 1950 with an obvious loving devotion to the era and the setting, but it’s here that too much of the focus clearly lies, leaving his characters largely stifled and suffocating in all the hazy nostalgia. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young and uncertain shop assistant, too accustomed to saying yes to people, who one day lays eyes on the well-to-do and elegant Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who enters her store in search of a gift for her young daughter and encounters an instant lustful attraction between the two of them.

The initial sexual atmosphere prompts the pair to arrange a meeting but it actually largely disappears from there on in, appearing in intimate moments in the future but never really creating the tension that was set-up at the onset. Indeed, their first moment of real physical contact comes when Therese places a comforting hand on Carol’s shoulder and their fingers deliberately touch – but then the camera cuts out and we are taken to a scene later in the evening when they’re outside talking about family matters. That’s terrible, we really needed to see that scene play out, to see the reactions and the body language, to feel either tense and uncomfortable or excited, or to at least see each of the characters’ reaction to the touch, as it is we view the moment from behind as well so we know nothing and then it’s all gone, much like the romance and the libidinous exposition from the film.

There’s an element of the material having lost some relevance, what was perhaps written to deliberately provoke and challenge readers in 1952 is simply no longer considered remotely risqué, and much of the background: Carol’s husband is vying for custody of their daughter now that he realises his wife prefers carpet munching to spending time with him and Therese’s boyfriend wants to get married but she thinks she might want to be a photographer and be gay instead, all carries the artificial feel of the movie with it, a set of traps placed to confine the women and potentially doom their affair, conveniently providing a framework for theoretical tension and reasons for them to want to be together – as much to share in an escape from their constrictive lives as friends as to begin a new physical and emotional entanglement.

Carol’s daughter looks remarkably like a younger version of Therese, and this is both no accident and one of the more interesting elements of the film, the rest could have done with more insights into the human condition but alas the trysts never really bite, not even in bed, and moments of charm are leavened out by the dominance of effusive boredom and meaningless aesthetics, driven home by dressing Mara up like Audrey Hepburn at the end of the film, even though it’s too early for her to be copying her anyway unless she really took to Hepburn’s cigarette selling cameos. Similarly, if we look at the pic above, which is where the pair first meet, we can see all the thought gone into positioning and staging, much like a Vetriano painting with suggestive angles all over – note how the pen points phallically toward Therese following precisely the eager bent of Carol’s gaze and posture, see the way she pinches the card she’s holding and look at how Therese’s right breast is perfectly framed to be protruding proudly toward that which is making her heart race. All this is fine, but there’s too little soul beneath the surface artistry.

The leads both offer promise, especially Mara, but they never fully convince romantically and one hopes the affair doesn’t become another female Oscar winner purely because of its content and its brief moments of nudity – which one does question the film’s need for, and yet they provide some of the more memorable moments and I think there’s always going to be a certain, ahem, je ne sais quoi about watching two of Hollywood’s most attractive leading ladies going at it under the sheets. Visual peaks aside, I found myself wondering, would changing the sex of one lover alter the film in any way? No, is the answer, it would be just as tedious.

Crimson Peak  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     119 Min        15

Visually rich and well acted but lacking in almost every other department, Guillermo del Toro’s latest after ‘Pacific Rim‘ is a fairly traditional take on the horror genre with a 19th century haunted house mystery, except pointless gore predominates where there ought to be suspense and, critically, the entire premise is undermined by poor writing from the very offset. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the virginal, one presumes, young beauty about to come to the attention of one Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and the cardinal sin of the screenplay is that it lets us know these two are up to no good all the way through, with nothing about their ultimate purpose proving to be very interesting nor surprising.

The sets and costumes are impressive enough, and as with the director’s other work he has overly committed to the aesthetic, albeit successfully, whilst not paying nearly enough attention to the storytelling (he was joined by Matthew Robbins for the screenplay). Everything simply plods along delivering nothing we haven’t seen before, apart from perhaps ghosts with all their flesh still on but minus the skin, simply for ‘shock’ value, all dancing around the loose thread of the siblings trying to mine the grounds around their crumbling English manor for the lucrative minerals in the earth surrounding it, and travelling to the States in the beginning to petition Edith’s business magnate father for investment. Fans of both horror and del Toro are likely to be disappointed, although the latter probably won’t completely hate it at least.

Cold in July  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     109 Min        15

A film that begins in darkness and yet still becomes relentlessly more and more opaque. Michael C. Hall plays a husband that shoots dead an intruder at the witching hour in his livingroom, without really meaning to. The police tell him he has nothing to worry about, but he is rather understandably shaken up by the ordeal and things start to intensify when it is revealed that the perps father (Sam Shepard) has just been released from prison and isn’t too thrilled at learning his son has been popped off, irrespective of the circumstances.

A few of the character choices will have you asking questions, but mostly it holds up quite well – although the wife (played by Vinessa Shaw) is incredibly irritating. Hall fits bars on the windows the day after the incident and buys a new sofa since the old one has been splattered a new shade of crimson, all of which seem like perfectly reasonable things to do, and all his wife can offer in support is to give him a hard time about not consulting her about his interior decorating choices, the fist of a few out of place whines and gripes.

Adapted from the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale and directed by Jim Mickle (‘Stake Land’ 2010) the film is set in the early eighties and sports a retro synthesized score, giving it a slightly unique feel for a contemporary piece, and with its fast pace and decent if not fantastic acting it should prove compelling throughout, just expect to encounter some pretty horrid stuff while you’re in there. Also with Don Johnson.

Chef  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     114 Min        15

Jon Favreau writes, directs and stars in this feel good film about a divorced chef experiencing creative restraints at work and trying to connect properly with his young son. A showdown with the biggest critic in town (played by Oliver Platt) leads him to embark upon a self employed adventure with his own food truck, where he bonds with his son (Emjay Anthony) by showing him some of the tricks of the trade as they travel from Miami to California.

Sumptuous shots of food being prepared feature heavily throughout – from the never to be underestimated classics like cheese on toast to dishes which, as far as I’m concerned, have no name, with meats and vegetables ranging from the common to the exotic, and a similar infectious passion for some of the locations shines through, especially Miami and New Orleans. It’s a convincing and enjoyable drama that, bar a couple of slightly contrived moments of confrontation, simply focuses on the story it’s trying to tell, with the acting and character interactions feeling grounded and real, and just enough moments of comedy thrown in for relish on top. With Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara and Favreau’s chums Robert Downey Jr. (at one point, during a brief father-son montage, we can tell from the sound effects that they are watching Iron Man at the cinema) and Scarlett Johansson in support.

Calvary  (2014)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     100 Min        15

Another film featuring Brendan Gleeson and a healthy dose of Irish black humour (see ‘In Bruges’ 08 and ‘The Guard’ 11 for good examples of more) and once again featuring topical satire at the expense of the Catholic church, here courtesy of Gleeson’s central character, father James Lavelle, who is told during the film’s introduction he will be killed in a week’s time by a victim of child abuse at the hands of a different Catholic priest in years gone by. The setting is a small Irish town in County Sligo (Easkey was the main filming location) so Lavelle knows who his would be assassin is, but we the viewers do not. This mixture of dark comedy, serious issues and not quite whodunit but who is going to do it, creates a unique film with another predictably great leading performance from Gleeson, but also very solid support from the likes of Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly Isaach De Bankolé and David Wilmot. The title is taken from the name of the site just outside of Jerusalem where the Bible tells us Jesus was crucified, and it’s written and directed by John Michael McDonagh who’s last project was the aforementioned ‘The Guard’ – here he has maintained the same level of humour as before, but injected it with a memorably dark and astute portmanteau of the often scandalous situation the Catholic church finds itself in worldwide, combined with ever relevant questions, and tests, of faith.

Captain America : The Winter Soldier  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     136 Min        12A

I’m torn on this one, I was never completely sold on the original ‘Captain America : The First Avenger’ back in 2011, and I would say this one is better, but it kind of smacks of contractual agreements for some of the cast and a very determined view towards Marvel’s spin-off TV series ‘Marvel : Agents of Shield’, featuring story elements aligned with both these agendas and which very much flit around the borderline between interesting and idiotic. First and foremost it is enjoyable though. We begin with Captain A (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (the enigmatic Scarlett Johansson) sent to deal with pirates that have taken the crew of a large military vessel hostage, and the info they retrieve there will lead them and Shield onto a much larger and far reaching plot.

The action sequences throughout the film have clearly had a lot of thought and effort put into them, but some are marred by a jerky aspect to the motion of the camera which is a shame, though a number of them are definitely heading in the right direction in terms of creating real tension, just as some of the aerial shots are obviously still playing it a little safe but do create a bit of vertigo in the audience. The superhero genre still has the fundamental problem of avoiding the trope of good guy and bad guy duel it out in the end and good guy wins because either he has the moral high ground or he is smarter than the bad guy, with the occasional flourish of bad buy squishes someone the good guy cares about in the process, and here there are still too many moments of the hero achieving something at the last possible second etc.etc. and of all the Marvel superheroes Captain America probably has the least appeal outside of the States, partly because of the inherent jingoism, which to be fair they have done a good job of keeping to a minimum, but also in a general sense as his powers are in many ways comparatively less interesting, so his personality really has to shine through and the story really has to bite.

It is in this sense that the film doesn’t work so well, even for a souped-up soldier some of what he achieves is too over the top and the most off-putting aspect is when Fury (Samuel L Jackson) shows him early on the new airborne defences that Shield have been constructing and we hear C.A. moan about how unethical it all is, much like he’s done in the past, but it just doesn’t work. Earth has just been invaded by aliens who were narrowly prevented from annihilating everything (see ‘Avengers Assemble’ 2012), it would be ludicrous for every government in the world not to be working on new defence measures, but he could quite easily have approached the same moral perspective from a more believable angle, perhaps worrying about safeguards and things like that. As a supposed strategic genius he himself should really have been coming up with plans for national and international security, rather than just still being on the frontline for the military.

The camaraderie between Black Widow and C.A. is a bit stilted, and despite the wonderful character and the actress playing her, I wonder if she isn’t a bit too cutesy for a deadly assassin, but then Marvel are owned by Disney. As a curious aside, the take down she performs in ‘Iron Man 2’ (2010) where she wraps her legs around her opponent’s neck and then uses her body weight to bring him to the ground has been aped by films countless times since then, but I believe that was where the trend began.

Ultimately worth going to see but with a few provisos regarding believability, and as usual there are two end credit sequences to wait for, and if my suspicions are correct it looks like one of these scenes introduces two characters (Stephen Strange is also mentioned during the film, incidentally) who are the offspring of another Marvel character currently owned by a different studio …

Interestingly, here is the symbol of the bad guys in the first film, Hydra, compared to a coin originating in Eretria (the ancient Greek city, not modern day Eritrea in Africa) circa 500 BC

Cuban Fury  (2014)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       98 Min        15

So derivative, it’s a wonder they bothered at all. Starring leading man Nick Frost – the whole concept for the film allegedly originates from a drunken email he sent to his producer, although it operates as essentially his own version of his pal Simon Pegg’s ‘Run Fatboy Run’ (07). He plays Bruce Garrett, a shy and introverted office worker who has a passion for salsa that he’s buried deep inside after some kids gave him a beating for dancing when he was a kid. The fact that this incident was a one off, doesn’t really speak highly of the main character, but that also forms the core of the story as he falls for burgeoning salsa enthusiast Julia (Rashida Jones) and must regain his self confidence and win her away from the affections of office rival and massive sleaze Drew (Chris O’Dowd).

The main problem, asides from the dire lack of any originality, is that’s it’s just so overwhelmingly drab, set in some uninteresting corner of England with very intermittent dance scenes all shot with such poor editing and direction that it’s not easy at all to say whether or not Frost is physically any good in the role, all asides from one scene where he has a dance-off in the car park at work with O’Dowd, which was quite well worked. The only other scene of any real note is when his quasi-mystical dance instructor (Ian McShane) has Bruce play board games with him and needles him when he refuses to properly engage with it, eventually producing a pretty impressive Scarface impression from him, making board games more fun for the pair and curing his self esteem issues in the process.

If you’re a big fan of Frost then you’ll probably still enjoy this to some extent, but if you’re simply a fan of salsa or otherwise then this isn’t really worth the time.

Compliance  (2012)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       90 Min        15

This is a notably disturbing film, in no small measure due to the fact that it is based on a true story and pretty much follows events as they occurred in a Kentucky McDonald’s restaurant in 2004 (click here for some of the details). Indeed, if it hadn’t been based on real events then it would be very tempting to cry ‘as if that would happen in real life’, and although the film focuses on the people within this store, the full impact of the story doesn’t hit home until some way toward the end. It’s well acted to the point that we feel like we’re watching a documentary, and it aptly demonstrates just how pervasive the concept of authority is as we see one employee accused of robbing a customer, and how the chain of command deals with the accusation – purportedly coming from a trusted source and yet with a distinct lack of any real evidence. With Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker as store manager Sandra and the accused Becky respectively.

Carrie  (2013)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     100 Min        15

The remake of the 1976 classic horror film (based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel) does a pretty convincing job, but unfortunately loses its way toward the end. Chloë Grace Moretz takes on the titular role of Carrie White (originally immortalised by the wonderful Sissy Spacek) a shy and bullied young girl in high school who discovers she has telekinetic powers, and who also has to contend with her unhinged religious zealot of a mother (Julianne Moore). Moretz is convincing throughout – not an easy role for her given the existing iconic status of Carrie, and also the fact that her character here is in many ways the opposite of her own immensely popular onscreen persona of Hit-Girl in the ‘Kick-Ass’ franchise. It’s just a shame there isn’t a more rewarding release of all that tension that is successfully built up in the first two thirds of the film. It should mostly satisfy, but is unlikely to either delight, or overtly offend.