Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pedophile Priests, James Bond & Rocky Balboa

I was in Las Vegas around Thanksgiving.  There are 20 or 30 multiplexes in Las Vegas and they all seem to show the films.  Mockingjay, Spectre and Creed were well screened.  I've run out of steam w.r.t. The Hunger Games series so I'll probably skip the latest installment.  On three consecutive nights, I watched:

Spotlight starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams & Liev Schreiber; directed by Tom McCarthy; (2015) - Official Website
Spectre starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz & Léa Seydoux; directed by Sam Mendes; (2015) - Official Website
Creed starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone & Tessa Thompson; directed by Ryan Coogler; (2015) - Official Website

All three of these films have been well reviewed.

Spotlight has been receiving Oscar buzz.  It's well made and well acted but somehow it doesn't seem to be an Oscar caliber film to me.  To bastardize a phrase better suited to Creed, Spotlight "punches below its weight."  The film begins with the Boston Globe investigating pedophile priests in 2001 and quickly expands to uncover the Boston Archdiocese's enabling and cover-up of the incidents.  Michael Keaton plays the editor of Spotlight, the Globe's publication specializing in investigative reporting.  A lifelong Bostonian, Keaton's Walter "Robby" Robinson leads a three reporter squad played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams & Brian d'Arcy James.  As they start to ask questions, they encounter institutional resistance from the Catholic Church, it's attorney & other civic institutions.  If there was one take away from the film, it is that although the Boston Archdiocese shoulders much of the blame, many people & organizations (including the Globe) were complicit either by their actions or lack thereof.  Stanley Tucci has a nice turn as the eccentric lawyer representing many of the victims.  Liev Schreiber is also memorable as the Jewish, new-to-Boston editor of the Globe.  With the exception of an outburst by Ruffalo's character, Spotlight shows restraint in not giving the audience's outrage an onscreen outlet.  It makes the story more powerful.

Spectre may be Daniel Craig's last turn as James Bond.  I could nitpick some of the more contrived plot points and that this film tried too hard to tie together the last three Bond films (all starring Craig) but this is 007 afterall.  Bond films have always been (and should always be) judged on their stunts and action sequences.  Spectre doesn't disappoint.  I can recall three outstanding sequences with no trouble.  The opening is set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead.  Bond assassinates a few people, avoids a falling building and gets into a fight while in a helicopter...and that's in the cold opening.  Wrestler Dave Bautista plays the evil henchman quite well.  He and Bond engage in a thrilling car chase in Rome.  Finally, Bautista & Craig have a hellacious fight scene in a moving train.

Christoph Waltz plays Blofeld the head of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a criminal organization which has put into motion all the troubles Bond has had in the past three films.  He also happens to an old friend of Bond.  I'm a big fan of Waltz and he's not quite a flamboyant as past villains (I'm thinking of Javier Bardem in particular) but does quite well in the role.  By giving a subtler performance (relatively), Waltz gives Blofeld more nuance and even seemingly genuine congeniality at times.

To best enjoy Spectre, it helps to be familiar with the James Bond franchise and in particular, the last three films of the series.  I would characterize myself as a modest fan of Bond films but enjoyed Spectre quite a bit.  Of the four Daniel Craig films, Casino Royale is still my favorite (primarily because of Mads Mikkelsen & Eva Green) but Spectre is a solid entry.  Sean Connery is still my favorite Bond with Daniel Craig being my second favorite by a large margin.  He played Bond a tad too sullen and self-pitying for my tastes but his portrayal was fascinating at times.  His relationship with M (Judi Dench) was particularly interesting.

People are raving about Sylvester Stallone's performance in Creed.  I have to admit that Stallone's Rocky Balboa is the best part of Creed which is otherwise a rehash of the original Rocky with Michael B. Jordan as the young boxer and Stallone as the wise boxing trainer.  The story has come full circle.  Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky's opponent and close friend, Apollo Creed.  Angry & resentful at having been abandoned by his father, the younger Creed takes his frustrations out on his opponents in the ring.  Self-taught and raised by his father's widow (Phylicia Rashād) in a mansion, "Donny" Creed quits his white collar job in LA and moves to Philadelphia to train under his father's greatest opponent.  Unfortunately, he forgot to ask Rocky if he would train him.  Being a Rocky film, you know they have to get together and overcome some adversity before Creed (improbably) gets a shot at the title.  Real life British boxer Tony Bellew is effective as the champ "Pretty" Ricky Conlan.  Creed reunites director Ryan Coogler and Jordan who previously worked together in Fruitvale.  Jordan is adequate in the role but never quite convinces me he could be a professional boxer.  Of course, the fight scenes in the Rocky films were outlandish but there was something about Stallone that suggested a broken down pug.  Burgess Meredith conveyed that sense also.  Coogler deftly intersperses some homage scenes to the previous Rocky films.  I surprised myself by catching a reference to a third Balboa-Creed fight which is the fade out scene in Rocky III (the action freezes and transforms into a painting by noted painter Leroy Neiman).

My viewing of Creed is noteworthy because it was the first time I saw a film at a drive-in movie theater in over 37 years.  I was driving in a part of Las Vegas I typically don't go to and saw a drive-in theater.  I went back to see it just to experience the drive-in theater experience.  The sound is now transmitted via a short range FM signal so you listen to the film on the car radio.  By scanning, I was able to listen to the other films at the six screen complex.

Rocky vs. Apollo by Leroy Neiman

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