Creed

I’ve lost count of the boxing movies I haven’t seen. I didn’t see that Jake Gyllenhaal one, didn’t come close to watching that Mark Wahlberg one, and actively avoided that Russell Crowe one. A typical exchange between bright young things in Hollywood must go something like “you done your boxing film yet?” “Next year” “What plot you got?” “Troubled home life, boxing is his salvation”. Rocky and Raging Bull didn’t invent this genre, but they have a lot to answer for. They represent the two main approaches – boxing as entertainment or boxing as backdrop to troubled life.

Creed doesn’t dodge (duck, weave, cover) any of the usual boxing cliches. But it handles them well. There are several elements of this film that I liked a lot:

  • The relationships between Rocky and Adonis, and between Adonis and Bianca are given the right amount of emotional shade and credibility.
  • The performances of all three leads are believable and edge away from the desperate need to be street tough that seems to draw so many actors to boxing movies.
  • There are some nice cinematic flourishes – the entrance into the ring of the big fight and the recreation of the running scene with motorbikes are memorable and tread the line between rousing melodrama and cliche expertly.
  • The opponent, Ricky Conlan is a Scouser. The fight takes place in Goodison Park. This is so down to earth, a deliberate alternative to the Drago type cartoon fighters from previous Rocky movies.
  • The music motif. The old Rocky tune is repeated as subtle background music, and gradually given further prominence. The recognition of an old friend it drags some of the emotional appeal the audience might hold for the early Rocky movies while maintaining the independence of this film in its own right.

But ultimately it is a boxing film. The narrative arc of such films is always in plain sight – the hungry outsider, tribulations in training, the fight denoument. Sometimes they win the final fight, often they lose, but by losing, you know, really win in the whole boxing as metaphor for manly struggle thing. In the Rocky-Raging Bull dichotomy, Creed comes down more on the entertainment side, which is actually refreshing to see, but it also has enough substance to it that you care enough about the person getting punched several hundred times. Like Adonis Creed himself struggling to demonstrate he is both worthy of the legacy he carries and an individual in his own right, the film Creed stands well on its own. It might even be the best of the bunch. But just as Adonis is told he is creating his own legacy, I guess that means we are in for Creed 2, 3, 4. Son of Drago may yet make an appearance.

Zoolander 2

I go to the cinema with my daughter quite often, and for such films I have a different set of standards. If it’s something we both enjoy, then I’m grateful for that in itself and that separates it from a critical perspective. So, although I’d heard Zoolander 2 was a stinker, I was prepared to give it the critical Get Out of Jail Free card. Luckily my daughter hated it, and asked to leave before the end, so now, I am free to unleash on it, and I’m snatching back that card.

As literary agents who wade through unsolicited manuscripts can attest, the quality of many books can be gauged from reading the opening page. So with Zoolander 2, the opening sequence – which features a cameo from Justin Bieber, being gunned down at the end of a Mission Impossible type chase – tells you everything you need to know. This could be funny if it mocked Bieber, but it feels more like an ingratiating attempt to get as many cameos in as possible. And it does, each celebrity more annoying than then next, more desperate, more back-slapping.

There are many ways to got with a comedy – narrative driven with gentle laughs, character focused, satirical. Zoolander 2 rejects all of these, with an overblown, ridiculous plot, and no real characters. Which is fine, that worked in the first movie. But if you go that route, there is no reason for the viewer to sit in the cinema except gags. They have no involvement in the story or characters, so those gags had better come along thick and fast. Having a celebrity appear, say something bland, and disappear is not a gag. In fact, not only is it not funny, but it becomes offensive, us plebs are all supposed to sit here and admire the lovely people. Aren’t they all great? Thankyou for letting us look at you having what you think is fun. Oh, and Sting? Get lost.

By the time Will Ferrell escapes from a high security prison (it’s not a spoiler, because you can’t spoil shit), I had become distracted by pondering how much this lumpen, crass, overblown dollop must have cost. I felt insulted by that waste of money. The main joke in the film is that Zoolander is fashion model who is now out of date, and with its boob jokes, and desperate sexual innuendo, that’s exactly how this film felt. This film is like a cool friend you knew in college, who shows up one night. Tour pleased to see them, so you take them out with your friends for the evening. The college friend spends the whole night making dirty jokes and bragging about how much they earn, and who they know. Your friends are all looking at you with “who is this loser?” expressions. You shrug hopelessly, thinking, they used to be so cool, maybe I was wrong.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

This documentary of Janis Joplin follows on from the excellent Amy last year. Not only is it similar in style, but the stories are depressingly similar too. Both of them try to suggest that the death of their stars occurred just as they were getting their lives on track, but it’s the seeming inevitability of both that is more tragic. Documentaries such as this often struggle to find sufficient material to sustain a narrative, and resort to interview snippets with the same four or five people. Janis skilfully interweaves archive footage, interviews, and letters (narrated by Cat Power) to make a seamless film that could almost have been created in the moment.
In our generally accepting society it is difficult to appreciate just how oppressive the culture was for a different girl in Texas. Joplin grew up in a town with an active KKK chapter FFS. I’m somewhat wary of the psychology 101 that is played in retrospect in such documentaries, but the use of Joplin’s own letters creates a compelling case here. A drawing with “this is a pretty girl” annotated next to it, or when some douchebags vote her most ugly, it is not difficult to then understand both the abandon she felt when she discovered acceptance in the counter culture, but also the howl of rage that defined her vocals.
Joplin herself comes across as erudite, reflective, caring and confused in her letters. “I wanna be happy so fucking bad” she writes, and the film helps the audience appreciate the pain in those words. Little Girl Blue is a fine addition to the intelligent rockumentaries that are neither hatchet jobs or fan eulogies.

Spotlight

The cinemas this time of year are populated by Oscar candidate films. I am largely ambivalent about this, an Oscar winning film rarely makes it onto my shortlist at the end of the year, and I have come to the stage in my life where I really don’t care if people have won, or not won, awards, I’m comfortable enough with my own assessment of a film. But one useful function of the Oscars is that they facilitate films like Spotlight (a downside is that they also validate crap like The Help). My guess is the exchange at the film studio goes something like this:

A film about the child abuse scandal in the church?
Yeah, it’s something Hollywood _should_ address, but who’s going to want to see that?
If we get the right people on board, it’s got Oscar potential…
Ok, I’m in

And they’re right, this is the sort of topic Hollywood should address. You sense there is a list of “Topics we should make films about but which won’t get big audiences” pinned up in every studio. Alzheimers? We did Still Alice, tick it off. And the abuse, cover up and damage caused by the Catholic church comes under this category, as did the market crash of 2008. Whereas the Big Short could address that topic in a quirky, stylistic manner, the sensitivity of this topic demands a more respectful, straightforward account. Approaching it from the perspective of the investigative journalists is ideal for this. It provides a familiar cinematic trope, the outsider team battling to uncover a conspiracy, while allowing scope to convey just how the abusers used their power, and the damage it caused to the victims.

It’s a fine film, restrained, solid performances that don’t attempt to hijack the story, and the right degree of narrative arc to make it engaging. As others have commented, it’s really a tale about the role of of investigative journalism, and in some ways a plea to maintain this in the Buzzfeed world. But that implies that the subject of the investigation could almost be anything, but the subject is the story here, investigative journalism is just the proxy by which we can construct a film around it.

There are topics that Hollywood should make films about. The Oscars help these films get made. Usually they are self congratulatory or cliched, but Spotlight gets the balance right.