Tag Archives: drama

Gold

“We work hard in this business. Sometimes for nothing.”

I’m gonna go ahead and say this straight away, if you’re going to release a “based on true events” film in February, do yourself a favour and make it good. Because having just sat through Gold, hoping for something worthy of the time of year it’s been released in, I’m starting to burn out on uninspiring true stories.

Matthew McConaughey is Kenny Wells, a third generation miner who’s struggling to keep himself afloat. Desperate for a lucky break, he turns to fellow prospector Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) in a last ditch attempt to find a score worth talking about.

When the pair start digging holes in Indonesia, what seems to be a waste of time soon turns more than a little profit. With their freshly golden find, the money starts pouring in at a rate nobody can believe and as the list of investors grows, so do the zeros on the bank balances of everyone involved. But as is always the case, things aren’t as great as they may seem on the surface and between bigger businesses muscling in on Wells and Acosta’s mine and Wells himself spiralling out of control, it’s a fight to see what will ruin things first.

Gold tries so very hard to be a film it clearly isn’t. It’s got the DNA of so many brilliant films yet always feels like it’s playing second fiddle to greats like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street. Watching Kenny Wells and his partner struggling at the tail end of the financial crash should be a thrilling tale of a guy (or guys) pulling themselves up from the dirt they’re digging around in.

Instead, it’s a story that’s paint-by-numbers in every sense. Every twist and every turn is telegraphed and predictable in a way that ironically I honestly didn’t expect. By the end, I was spending more time looking at my watch in bored frustration than I did the screen.

Oscar winning writer and director Stephen Gaghan – the man responsible for films like Syriana and Traffic – seems to have let his stars hit the auto pilot, as he has done too. The man that made such well thought out, tense pieces in the past has settled for what I consider possibly the blandest film he’s ever been a part of. The same goes for its stars: McConaughey and Ramirez are both usually so good nowadays and yet here they seem quite content with phoning in a performance just to get the film made. I’m just so disappointed with the pair of them.

The best acting on that screen was from Matthew McConaughey’s makeup department. Most notably from the annoying snaggletooth that seemed to stay pearly white as the rest of the man’s teeth got progressively more yellow. It was the best bit of acting of the entire production, and a literal standout performance.

There are a dozen biopics that tell this story much better than Gold. I honestly cannot recommend it. I mean, it’s ok, but it just seems like a project that everyone got involved in to get a few bills paid. No one here put a full effort in. I expected great things from this in Oscar season, but it turned out to be another movie put out with the trash, ready to be forgotten with everything else out this month.

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Hacksaw Ridge

“I’ve never been more wrong about someone in my life.”

Well here’s a thing we never thought we’d see, huh? Mel Gibson back in the director’s chair for a big budget film. More impressive, by the time the film had been released in the UK, the film has been nominated for a slew of awards, including that of Best Film and Best Director. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day.

Hacksaw Ridge is the unbelievably true story of Private Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the son of a veteran and a man compelled to enlist in the army in 1942 once the Japanese became a part of World War II. Signing his life away to the military and wanting to serve as a medic, Doss actively defied orders in the name of his religious and moral beliefs by refusing to pick up a rifle. Refusing to be beaten out of his unit, the young Private passes basic training with his squad mates. His refusal to carry a rifle because of his pacifist beliefs lands him in a court martial that could end his career in the military before it has even begun. With a little help from a higher-up, and an impassioned plea from his father, Doss earns the right to head into battle armed with nothing but prayer.

Despatched to Japan, Doss and the 77th Infantry division are sent to Hacksaw Ridge; a key strategic point that the Americans need to take in order to further their campaign to Okinawa. Starting with a 400 foot climb heading directly into the battlefield, the American forces are at a severe disadvantage against an entrenched Japanese army. As the battle becomes unwinnable and the Americans retreat in a hail of artillery fire, Doss finds himself stuck at the top of the ridge, refusing to leave a single casualty behind.

In the hours that follow, Private First Class Desmond Doss shows a level of bravery most people could only imagine when he singlehandedly rescues 75 stranded soldiers from the field with very little care for his own safety.

War films as a genre have been done to death. There’s no denying their impact in today’s climate, but they always run the risk of being preachy more than entertaining; and that’s not why we go to the cinema.

We all know that being a pacifist idealist would make you a better person than most, but in this world it’s hardly ever possible. I was expecting to come out of Hacksaw Ridge thoroughly annoyed that I had been preached at for two and a half hours for not being a better person. Instead, I came out just a little bit sad that I am most certainly not as good a person as Doss.

Mel Gibson has taken this over-used genre and made it something worth talking about again. Clearly he was inspired by a few other greats of the past – namely half-inching Kubrick’s hilarious and genius opening forty minutes of Full Metal Jacket, letting Vince Vaughn be his own Gunnery Sergeant Hartman for a bit, with outstanding results – but he’s also taken as much inspiration from the history books as he has from films like Hamburger Hill and unashamedly made them into something worthy of its award nods.

Gibson proves his worth behind the camera by crafting a slow paced opening hour that tells you everything you think you need to know about Doss and his reasons for his conscientious objection to combat. He tells the story of his father’s time in the Great War, with Hugo Weaving on superb form as the forgotten veteran. We see Desmond hastily fall in love with a nurse (Theresa Palmer) at the same time as he’s inspired to become a medic; a not totally coincidental crossing over of these passions.

None of this build up seems slow or drawn out; it all feels necessary as we head into the young Private’s basic training where his objections are ignored and ridiculed. You don’t necessarily feel for his predicament either, which speaks to the lack of being preached at in this film. You do have moments where you feel “oh for Christ’s sake, kid. Don’t be there if you don’t want to fight in a war”, and the greatness of Gibson’s filmmaking (and Garfield’s acting) is that we are allowed to be convinced he’s doing the right thing at the same time his Commanding Officers are. We’re not preached at, we’re taught that the Private’s purpose may not be to kill, but to help those who are signing up to do just that.

Once we get to the war and the terrifying fight ahead of Doss’s platoon, we see the full effect of the now veteran director’s skill as every shot fired, every grenade thrown and every body that falls to the floor is a chilling and visceral reminder of the horror facing these men taking on an enemy with perhaps more fortitude and conviction than any American forces have ever faced. Shown in frightening detail in a scene destined for that “One Perfect Shot” twitter account we all follow, we see what seems to be an endless stream of Japanese soldiers running from bunkers and underground caves like a river running down a mountainside. In a film with near perfect direction throughout, this scene stood out to me as one of the scariest moments I’ve seen in a war film in quite some time.

What I found equally as impressive was Andrew Garfield’s performance. Outside of Silence I haven’t cared for him much and after Hacksaw Ridge I might just start calling myself a fan. His portrayal of this soldier that’s the very definition of a hero is nothing short of brilliant. I thought his hillbilly accent would annoy me for two and a half hours; instead it made him a little endearing. After the first twenty minutes or so, I didn’t even realise it was still there – concentrating more on what he was doing than how he sounded while he did it. The young actor amazingly had me believing his convictions on screen and rooting for him as the world was against him. As he fought and struggled to rescue his comrades, I was scared for him and praying along with him. A sublime performance from a guy a have only recently lambasted for being a shit Spider-Man.

Clearly the star of this film, I would consider Garfield the lead here the same way Charlie Sheen is the lead in Platoon. Of course he’s the guy in top billing and the guy whose story is being told; but he has such a fantastic group of actors behind him that to cheer and marvel over each of them would be another two thousand words. Much like you would when reviewing Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic, you have to pick a few key performances from the line-up. In this case though, the people you’re almost forced to focus on are more deserving because of who they are and their generally poor standing in the eyes of a lot of people who would be going to see his film.

I’m speaking, of course, of Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell and Sam Worthington’s Captain Glover. Both guys aren’t particularly well known for their acting chops nowadays (although I’d argue that they are usually decent) but they seemed to make special effort to put across a good performance. I certainly give credit to them both for being more than just watchable – they were great. Vaughn’s channelling of R. Lee Ermey might seem derivative and cheap when he first breaks into it, but by the end of his first stint of yelling at the young recruits, he’s brought his own flavour of abuse to the scene and made it his own. Worthington’s performance is a little more run-of-the-mill as the captain going up against Doss, but once he’s in the heat of battle with the medic at his side, he’s as good as any on-screen soldier you’ve seen before.

All of this rolls into a two-and-a-bit hour-long film that doesn’t feel half as long as that once you reach the end. Hacksaw Ridge has hit the top of my favourites list so far this year when it comes to Oscarbait movies. A war drama that isn’t just a gruesome story about how horrific that (or any) war is. It’s a film that might actually restore a little faith in humanity; and considering I went into this flick expecting to be preached at, I can honestly say we need a film like Hacksaw Ridge in our cinemas more than we probably realised before it came out.

Finally, if you don’t know the subject very well, I believe that a film that’s “based on a true story” like this one should make you want to go out and read about the thing you just spent over two hours watching. Hacksaw Ridge definitely made me want to learn more about the battle it was based on and the man whose story it was telling.

Let me tell you: You might not believe everything you see on screen and a certain amount of completely acceptable poetic license has been applied to the story, but it’s nothing compared to the amazing things Desmond Doss accomplished in real life.

Sully

“It’s funny. I don’t feel like a hero.”

Round two of “based on a true story” season sees me a little conflicted. I wasn’t sure I was going to go see it because I really do not like Tom Hanks or the films he’s in. But on the other side of that coin, I adore Clint Eastwood as an actor (and even more as a director) and I try to watch everything he does. So when I finally made the decision to go and see Sully: Miracle on the Hudson I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Set in the immediate aftermath of US Airways captain Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger’s (Tom Hanks) heroic ditching of his Airbus into New York’s Hudson River after losing both engines to a birdstrike, Sully tells his story and that of his co-pilot First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). Specifically how they fought to prove that the events of January 15th 2009 played out in the only way that they could have.

Hailed by the press and the public as a hero, Sully is being railroaded by the investigative team who are looking to call the incident a “pilot error” and end his career. The captain has to fight the NTSB trying to blame him, the PTSD and the nightmares haunting him. With the press hounding him and his family, Sully tries to maintain his composure in the days following those few career and life defining moments in the cockpit.

Splitting the story between the captain’s predicament with the people investigating him and letting us get to see the two hundred and something seconds that made him a hero, Sully is a wonderful little bit of filmmaking that absolutely blew me away. More amazing is that it keeps the running time down to a tight ninety-six minutes, which isn’t just a miracle for an award-chasing true story, it’s a miracle for Clint Eastwood to make a film without flab and keep it down to a more palatable length.

Performance wise, I admit that I was very, very impressed with Tom Hanks. A man that I don’t usually bother watching on screen not only convinced me that he was an average guy in a beyond average situation, but he convinced me that he was struggling with it too. The man played it like your dad was the guy thrown into this extraordinary position; and like it was your dad, you desperately wanted to be there for him when things went sideways and to cheer for him at the good parts.

Now, I’m not going to go out and catch up with every Hanks film I’ve missed over the years, but I certainly won’t instantly dismiss any of his films from hereon in. Not for a little while anyway.

A little more understated, Aaron Eckhart was a pleasure to watch. As he and Hanks went mano-a-mano, moustache vs moustache, to see who could take the title of “most likely to have been fighting The Red Baron in a previous life” competition, the pair make a decent on-screen duo. The former Harvey Dent actor certainly holds his own with Hanks and makes the role his own.

Much less of a surprise, for me, was the quality in Clint Eastwood’s direction. I’ve loved the man for as long as I can remember and while his politics – and his chair berating – may be a little off for me, his films always deliver. Yes, even American Sniper and its rubber baby!

But what got me with Sully was something I wasn’t expecting. I remember the splash down happening all those years ago and I thought the same thing everyone else did: “Holy shit, the dude landed a plane in a river!” However, the thing that weirdly never crossed my mind was what people who weren’t on the plane must have thought. Eastwood does an amazing job of giving the audience a post-9/11 fear in the pit of their stomach while they watch the film.

Suddenly, we are seeing flashbacks of Joe Average public out of the blue watching another distressed passenger jet flying at building height in – not over, in – New York City. With very little effort, you’re sat with a puckered asshole as the combined fears of one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world comes true. It’s outstanding work from the veteran director.

The biggest problem with Sully is that there’s not much to say about it. It’s a good thing too, because I can tell you it’s an excellent film and you can just go and watch it and enjoy it. It’s a true story that almost everyone knows, so it’s more about the filmmaking and the performances than it is having to get every detail of a story no-one knows across. Suffice to say, in a weekend that has two “based on true events” Oscar-bait films, Sully is the one to watch.

Failed Critics Podcast: The Magic Number

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Counting on all of his fingers and toes like a mildly autistic Ben Affleck in this week’s main review, The Accountant, Steve Norman has discovered the magic number!

Turns out that De La Soul weren’t lying and it is three. Steve, Paul Field and Andrew Brooker, if you want to be precise, with Owen Hughes on a camping trip in Wales or something.

As well as yet another 2016 thriller to barely register any thrills, there’s also room on this week’s bitesize episode to review two other new releases, as Brooker dissects Nocturnal Animals and Paul kicks off the section with a new horror film, Rupture, starring Noomi Rapace.

We also have What We’ve Been Watching with competitive tickling documentary (no, really), Tickled, plus indie horror The Neighbour – and even a few softcore pornos make it on with the boss absent (sort of). Tsk tsk.

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The Accountant

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“You have to choose. Are you going to be a victim?”

So it seems my hopeful search for a great thriller in 2016 is over. The last of the high profile cinematic rollercoasters has hit the screens and now we must prepare ourselves of the onslaught of Christmas ensemble movies that are incoming.

Luckily, whilst most of this year’s thrillers have barely been able to hit average in my books – only really thrilling in the same way that paying £15 for a ticket to the latest churned out Halloween nonsense can be called horrifying – The Accountant at least has a decent stab at dragging us to the edges of our seats. And while it isn’t always successful in its endeavours, it’s a damn sight better than a lot of its recent competition.

Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, a man who has grown up with a few factors that decided his fate early on. First, he suffers from what appears to be Asperger’s Syndrome; an inability to communicate with the majority of the world, as well as a few other telling issues that we get to see as the film goes on. Christian has a difficult life ahead of him. A life made worse by point number two: Left with his tough-as-nails military father after his mother decides she can’t cope and leaves, Wolff’s traumatic childhood is made harder when his old man tries to teach him about the world his own way.

Fast forward a few decades and Wolff has made the very best of his situation. He’s become an accountant with the uncanny ability to unravel even the most complicated books around. This makes him an invaluable asset to everyone from the locals doing their returns, to crime bosses looking for skimmed cash. When a run-of-the-mill job for a corporation uncovers more than it should have, Wolff and the company accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) find themselves on the receiving end of an awful lot of guns-for-hire looking to take them out. All the while, he’s being investigated by a treasury agent (the always splendid JK Simmons) with a bit of a thing against our main character.

The Accountant is another one of these films that no one seems to know how to market. Delayed to let the market react to Batfleck earlier this year, it’s advertised as this strange action thriller hybrid and doesn’t really fully check either of those boxes. But whilst most of what I want to say about the film is complimentary, it doesn’t feel like it when I say that it’s played out better than most of its ilk this year.

But I do want to be positive and complimentary. There’s plenty of good stuff to say about The Accountant. For starters, Affleck’s portrayal of Wolff and his issues is nothing short of brilliant. The film goes to some considerable length to not name our main character’s affliction, yet Affleck does a wonderful job of convincing us that, even as an adult, he has issues leaving work unfinished or maintaining eye contact; all tell tale signs of his lifelong struggle with his condition.

Likewise, the way the film makes you feel hatred for Wolff’s father for the way he treats his son is beautifully offset when you realise that the accountant has essentially used his upbringing to turn what would possibly cripple some into something close to a superpower. When you see that Christian is really an accountant/lethal killing machine, you are almost impressed by what his old man did, whether or not it was cruel at the time.

With a superb cast supporting him, Affleck really does shine in his role, as do Simmons and Kendrick, with John Lithgow and John Bernthal doing a decent job bringing up the rear. Although, with such a cast, you may end up (as I did) wanting just a little more from the guys we got on screen.

And that’s something that can be said about a lot of the film. You’re left wanting just a bit more, and a bit more, and a bit more. Director Gavin O’Connor – the man behind films like Pride and Glory and Warrior, (favourites of mine) – seems to lose his way in the middle of his two hour math-a-thon. Our introduction to Christian Wolff goes very well, and the flashbacks to his childhood are interesting. I’m enthralled once the final act begins and we get to see Wolff the super killing machine, but the middle, say, thirty minutes, seem to sag. Not knowing how to push the story forward and get us to the reveal we all knew was coming, it just seems to stutter a bit trying to get to its last section. A real shame for a film with so much going for it.

But don’t be disheartened. I thoroughly enjoyed The Accountant. I just wanted it to be ever so slightly tighter than it turned out to be.

Failed Critics Podcast: 36th Cambridge Film Festival Special

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As the 36th Cambridge Film Festival nears its conclusion, we round-up and preview some of the best independent and international movies that you still have a chance to see!

In this episode, Owen Hughes guides you through our pick of the bunch as he’s joined by our world cinema experts Liam and Andy (who you may remember contributed to our World Cinema Special podcast back in January).

From Romanian and Greek, to Ecuadorian and Colombian films. From docu-dramas to short film compilations. On topics as diverse as incest and the Russian avant-garde movement. If you’re looking for a movie that’s just off the beaten track from the usual mainstream cinema, then we’ve got you covered.

In the podcast, we chat about:

Cloudy Sunday – Showing Wednesday 26th October, 4pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Next Generation Tiger Shorts 2016 – Wednesday 26th, 5.30pm (Cinemobile)
Wonderland – Wednesday 26th, 5.30pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Between Sea and Land – Wed 26th 8pm (Arts Picturehouse) & Thu 27th 12.45pm (cinemobile)
Alba – Thursday 27th, 5.30pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Illegitimate – Thursday 27th, 6.15pm (Arts Picturehouse)

Plus the Dutch Scottish drama Bodkin Ras, high-brow documentary Revolution – New Art for a New World, and Andy’s favourite from the festival, Austrian drama One of Us. All of which you’re too late to catch at the festival, but are worth digging out if you can find them!

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Imperium

“They need men of action, like you. Like me.”

If you want to remove your clean cut look in Hollywood, then a grimy thriller is definitely the way to do it. The nicer your previous characters were, the worse your next film has to be. And seeing as 2013’s Horns didn’t seem to land all that well, Daniel Radcliffe is going all kinds of hardcore to kick off his Harry Potter look. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I present to you, Harry Potter vs the Nazis.

Nate Foster (Radcliffe) is a young, idealistic FBI agent. He’s got a way with people and knows how to talk to criminals to get the most out of them. This skill grabs the attention of Agent Zamparo (Toni Colette) who convinces him that the tried and tested ways of staring at certain religious groups isn’t the way to catch the worst terrorists; looking at more domestic white supremacists is likely to be more fruitful.

Putting aside his suit and glasses and lacing up his boots after shaving his head, Foster finds an in with the local skinheads and works his way into the murky depths of the Hitler worshiping awfulness that is this group. Using a cover that includes a military background and a medical supplies company, the undercover agent is able to convince the Nazis that he can help them in their plans. But the young agent has to work to not only bring down the Arian collective he’s found himself a part of, but to also keep his head straight in a game that’s stacked against him.

Nazis, as an antagonist, are a very easy target for films like this – rightly so, they’re cunts – but where my issue begins and pretty much ends with this film is that no real development is given to these skinheads. You could literally drop Radcliffe into any bad-guy group and get the same result.

Ok, so he does try, and the writer (Michael German) and director (Daniel Ragussis) have done a little research to make it look like work went into the young agent’s infiltration, but I just don’t believe it. Instead of digging, just a little, into the reasons these guys do what they do, instead of looking at their motivations; the filmmakers simply trot out a few of the more well known Nazi/skinhead stereotypes and more or less leave it at that.

That’s not to say it’s not a good film. Far from it. I actually really quite enjoyed my time with Imperium, but it needed just a little more. You can’t substitute character development and good film making for an extremely famous goody-goody actor screaming racial slurs and throwing Nazi salutes and expect us to not notice how shallow your film is.

Imperium does do plenty right though. Most obviously in Radcliffe’s role. Going from comedically floppy hair to tattooed skinhead is one of the most drastic transformations I’ve seen in a while. Like I previously mentioned, he is pretty believable once he starts having to spout propaganda to keep his cover intact and there is plenty about his performance to like.

Tension (when it’s there) is decent and you are a little worried about the impressionable agent’s wellbeing. Sadly, it doesn’t dig deep enough into the “what if you spend too long undercover” thing that you expect it to. While no real time indicator is there, his rise through the ranks is too quick to be just a few days and anything more would affect your psyche, no doubt.

Overall, Imperium is safe and by-the-numbers. It feels like it has more than a passing acquaintance with 20 year old football hooligan film ID and if I was to give a recommendation, it’d be to go watch the ultra-violent British thriller first, just so you see what I mean.

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky

“Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.”

Sometimes a film comes out of absolutely nowhere and blows you away. Sometimes you go see a film based on, I don’t know, the awesome looking cast or because the synopsis makes it sound interesting or, like this for instance, timing just happened to mean you were seeing Eye in the Sky because there wasn’t a convenient showing of The Jungle Book when you got to your local flicks.

I plonked my arse in the chair having not seen a trailer (amazingly!) or really heard anything about what I was about to watch. Sometimes that’s my favourite way to go into a movie.

Gavin Hood – director of the okay Rendition and the pretty crap X-Men Origins: Wolverine – has put together an awesome cast for what may be the most tense drama I’ve seen in quite some time. British army Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has led a years long charge after a couple of violent extremists in Kenya, the sum of all her work culminating in a multi-national operation to apprehend and interrogate them. She soon comes to blows with her commanding officer, Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) and the politicians he answers to when her mission goes sideways and it quickly goes from being a target capture to an execution from afar.

Things are complicated further when the pilot of the drone that’s watching Powell’s targets (Aaron Paul), who has suddenly become the man with his finger on the trigger, refuses to pull it when the question of collateral damage isn’t one that is answered in a way that satisfies him. Demanding the Colonel and the General rethink their strategies and come back with a safer alternative, they all find themselves in a race against time trying to get a safe solution before their very high value targets, and the men they are grooming to be suicide bombers leave the building they are holed up in making them impossible to track.

I don’t know where to begin with this film. Almost everything about it is outstanding and I’m genuinely confused about where to start. Let’s talk for a second about the pedigree of two of the three main characters. We have the outstanding Helen Mirren, a woman who won an Oscar playing the Queen for Christ’s sake, sinking her teeth into a part that was clearly written for a man. Nevertheless, she grabs that ball and runs hard with it as the colonel at the end of her rope. We get to see this stoic military woman try desperately to hold it together as the last few years of work starts to slip away and she has to wonder where she can draw her line. On the other side of her monitor is the truly amazing Alan Rickman. A man who has dedicated his life to the military and, like it or not, he has to convince politicians on both sides of the Atlantic of the right thing to do. He has to fight with these men and women who’s priorities are skewed around protecting themselves first and everyone else second.

Bringing up the rear, in a way, is Aaron Paul. A man I was never really a fan of (yeah, I know he was great in Breaking Bad, but what else?) but is definitely on the road to converting me after this role. As the man with his finger on the trigger, his reaction to the situation on the ground is what makes this such an important film. He’s us. He’s the guy asking if he’s doing the right thing and making sure those giving the orders are doing the right thing too. It’s not a question of legality, it’s a question of morality; we know it, he knows it, and damn he’ll make sure his superiors know it. Ok, so maybe I am bigging him up a bit. Mainly he does that silly crying thing he always does and looks very sad, but I’m pretty riveted with every line he utters.

Hood’s direction, which in the past has left a shit load to be desired, is near perfect here. With the perfect pace the ramps up the tension to nail-biting levels and a beautiful editing job that never lets you forget all the players in this game, there’s no way you get to the end of this surprising little flick without gripping the arm of the chair. Not one minute of screen time, not one frame of film is wasted in the telling of this story. It’s a story of men and women that have to decide to kill people, or not. It’s a story of the decisions that are made probably more often than any of us want or care to realise and it’s the story of people that have to go through this hell, and come back the next day and do it all over again.

It’s the story of decisions that none of us would ever want to make.

In an impressive feat, Mr. Hood has taken a film with almost no explosions, fewer guns, and gone and made one of the greatest, most compelling war films of the last few years as the question of the morality of not just the war on terror but that of long-range drone warfare are brought to the forefront and a spotlight put on them like never before. Each person involved brings everything they have to convincing us of the turmoil they are going through. It would be awful of me not to mention the late, great, Alan Rickman in what is his last role on screen. There’s a certain melancholy to his part and a real sad feeling to watch him bring his driest of dry humour up there for the last time, but it’s one of his most memorable parts and as shit as it is that he’s not with us anymore, this is a great send off.

Eye in the Sky is one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. It’s an almost perfectly formed drama that leaves a knot in your stomach long after the credits have rolled. It’s pulled-from-the-headlines subject matter puts questions none of us want to answer up there in bright lights for us all to discuss and isn’t afraid to make you wonder which side is right. It’s a serious, grim story to tell; but it’s an affecting one. I can’t remember ever seeing such a quiet, somber audience as a cinema empties.

10 Cloverfield Lane

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Preamble warning: I’m not going to include any direct spoilers, but this 10 Cloverfield Lane review may give away some minor plot details. Consider yourself warned.

If the 2008 monster movie, Cloverfield, also produced by JJ Abrams, is an allegory for the end of the Bush regime in the US – as Callum Petch eloquently explained on the latest episode of the Failed Critics Podcast – then it stands to reason that this thematic sequel would be a metaphor for Obama’s reign as President of the largest super-power in the world.

Like almost all good creature-features, there is some semblance of truth in that suggestion. Whether we consider Godzilla and the Pacific ocean atom bomb tests, or I Am Legend for communism (well the novel was at least), District 9 for apartheid or even Ed Wood’s notorious b-movie Plan 9 From Outer Space and the nuclear bomb threat; these sci-fi thrillers are very rarely just about giant monsters, vampire-zombie things or alien invaders. Cloverfield was no different – and neither is Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut.

Taken unconscious from the wreckage of a car accident by Howard (John Goodman), Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens to find herself chained to the wall of a concrete room. Howard explains that he has saved her life, as the world outside of his underground survival bunker has been destroyed by an unknown force – possibly not even one of human origin. After meeting another survivor down in Howard’s bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), Michelle becomes even more suspicious of Howard’s apocalyptic claims.

“Where are the creatures?” I don’t hear you cry, but imagine you are thinking to yourself. Well, actually, forget about the fact that I compared this to a bunch of creature-features. It’s still a post-apocalyptic sci-fi of sorts, with three people holed up in one small fallout shelter with what may or may not be the end of the world. One of whom may or may not be slightly unhinged. And with what may or may not be a metaphor for burying your head in the sand, looking out for only yourself and the consequences of ignoring the world around you. Thanks, Obama.

Sure, all of that can be read into 10 Cloverfield Lane if you look for it. Should you find some extra comfort from observing a meta-text within this evenly structured, well paced and incredibly tense psychological thriller, then bully for you.

I don’t intend to sneer at anyone who can’t or didn’t see the parallels with the political state of the world; it’s entirely plausible that I’ve read too much into the plot considering the comments that I read and heard prior to sitting down in my cinema seat on Friday evening.

It’s quite likely that there may be some form of underlying thread running through the plot, and that it is about a transformational President’s attempts to change America, but that I’ve simply misinterpreted what that message is.

Hell, to be quite honest, it doesn’t even matter if there is or isn’t a subtext, or if you’re aware of unaware of it. What is most impressive about this “blood relative” (to quote JJ Abrams) of the original Cloverfield, is that it stands on its own two feet as a solid, atmospheric, borderline-great modern thriller. You don’t even need to have seen the original film to enjoy this. The two films are only as linked with each other as one episode of Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone is linked to another. Take it as a straight-up one-off story about a potential doomsday scenario if you’d prefer, and you will still enjoy it as much as the next guy. It really doesn’t matter.

On the surface, it seems as though the plot has been done a million times before, but I really can’t think of a film that it most closely resembles. Try and imagine Room mixed with that bit in War of the Worlds and melded with the paranoia of The Thing and I suppose you’re halfway there. Yet the beats are often unexpected and startling. John Goodman is fierce and pretty goddamn bonkers, a combination that serves to enhance the unpredictability of the plot. You are never quite convinced of the truth, but are constantly led to believe he’s both a firmly sincere gentleman and a downright liar.

Coupled with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s resourcefulness and A-Team-esque skills, alongside John Gallagher Jr (who does take a little time for you to warm up to), it’s a very strong cast whose individual character traits perfectly compliment one anothers’ excellent performances. The only thing you’re certain of is that they are all trapped in there together, whether intentionally or by circumstance, and it makes for some rather gripping drama.

Cube! It’s also a bit like the fantastic little science fiction b-movie Cube.

Sorry, got slightly sidetracked there.

To sum up, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not an action-packed thriller full of Kurt Russell one-liners, but neither is it a dull, slow burning, contemplative chore. The action sequences, much like the tension, escalate to the point that the finale is as big a showdown (probably bigger) than one might expect from a film set almost entirely within one small bunker. Whilst acknowledging that dropping the found-footage angle does mean that a piece of what gave Cloverfield its distinctive quality is noticeably lacking – it really does feel like it’s all been seen before – nevertheless, it’s still unlike 90% of generic sounding, run of the mill blockbusters that are due out this summer and for that it deserves your attention.

The Big Short

The Big Short

“You want to bet against the housing market, and you’re afraid we won’t pay YOU?”

I’m not a smart guy. I have absolutely no idea what happened in the housing market crash of 2008 and the economic balls-up that followed. I know my hard-earned money suddenly became less valuable and that it was gonna be a few more years before I got to own my house; but outside of that, I am a blinkered, clueless idiot as far as the last few years on Wall Street are concerned.

So what I needed was someone to explain to me what the holy crap happened back then, without talking to me like a complete muppet.

The Big Short was just what I was looking for. The intertwining tale of a handful of financial experts who, through one means or another, figure out that the housing market and the credit bubble associated with it are in the verge of collapse and work on making themselves rich in the process. Based on a true story (again), Christian Bale is the real-life Michael Burry; a brilliant but eccentric hedge fund manager who has a penchant for predicting insane financial changes that no-one else can see. When he discovers that a lot of money can be made when this collapse, that no-one sees coming or believes will happen, he sets about betting against the housing market and making him, and his clients, a fortune.

Obviously, making waves this big attracts attention and Burry’s actions eventually get him noticed by a few others that look to cash in on the banker’s foresight and savvy. Catching the eye of Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling – who also serves as a narrator of sorts), a trader smart enough to see that Burry is right and poised to make a fortune; he in turn mistakenly lets slip to a couple of traders who work for another hedge fund manager, Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, who also jumps in on the action. As the money hungry bankers are ridiculed for their predictions, more dodgy practices and money magic is discovered that takes the men’s predictions quickly from probable to inevitable and the men go all in; betting their reputations and other people’s fortunes against the incoming crash.

Do you want to know the thing about The Big Short that makes me love it so much? It isn’t the amazing cast. A cast that includes Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Marissa Tomei on top of those I’ve already mentioned that all chew the scenery up at any point they are on the screen; and it isn’t the direction from comedy veteran Adam McKay, a guy that can drag a laugh from almost anyone with his films – even if most of them do star Will Ferrell, I won’t hold that against him.

What this film has, much like Wall Street did but, say, The Wolf of Wall Street didn’t, was the ability to explain to me what was going on on-screen as it was happening. I learned a little bit and understood what was happening as it happened because the film let me understand it. More importantly, the book this film was based on was written by Michael Lewis; the same author that wrote the books that would later become Moneyball and The Blind Side. Much like the baseball drama and football biopic did before our film today, they explained what was going on without patronising me or making me feel like a complete imbecile; and that’s a miracle all on its own, especially since when it comes to finance, I am borderline retarded.

The Big Short is a surprisingly funny film that has a very serious message running through it. It’s a scathing look at the financial situation we all found ourselves in in the mid-2000’s and the people that put us there while simultaneously giving us that knew bugger all about what happened a lesson or two in the economics of stealing from the world. The film wonderfully balances the poking fun at the slew of true stories put to film recently with the stark warning that we will face another collapse if we don’t pay attention to the slick bastards in slicker suits.

This amazing film should be required viewing for anyone with a need to be able to spend the money in their wallets; it’s a harsh reminder of things of the past and a warning for our future. But just as important, at least as far as these last few paragraphs are concerned, is that it’s a brilliantly made film that kept me glued to the screen the entire time.

White Crack Bastard

unspecified

“This is my shock therapy.”

We are a horror loving house. We try everything from unheard of indies to Lionsgate paint-by-numbers shit in our efforts to find decent horror flicks. So when fellow Failed Critic – and one of the few whose recommendations I’d watch without question – pointed me in James Cullen Bressack’s direction with To Jennifer, I never looked back.

I’ve bleated on time and time again about my love for Bressack and his films, so I won’t go on too much about it again here. Suffice to say that, with his earlier work not available in the UK, when I get the opportunity to watch and review a JCB flick, I jump in with both feet, dead excited; and White Crack Bastard was no different. Although the side-step from horror to drama left me wondering what I was letting myself in for.

Luke Anderson is the White Crack Bastard of note, a well paid freelance photographer who, in his copious amounts of free time, likes to while away his hours with his raggedy friends and a crack pipe between his lips. Luke isn’t anywhere close to needing to live this life; he does it as a form of therapy and self-medication, justifying it by telling himself that he’s only doing it so that when his head is on straight, he can appreciate what he has in his real life away from the pipe. Luke’s problem is that he isn’t working as much as he should and he’s increasingly spending more time smoking his way towards self-destruction. As he spirals out of control, it starts to effect his life outside of his own personal drug-fuelled therapy sessions and begins to ruin everything for him.

Now let me get this out of the way, because I’m truly mortified that I have to say it. White Crack Bastard is not good. The film is riddled with issues that, when I wasn’t bored, seemed to be put in purposefully to annoy me. For instance, Rhett Benz’s Luke Anderson seems to have an issue keeping track of his car when he goes on a bender. But what might be a running joke in a TV series or a reason to giggle in a longer, more fleshed out film, is simply an annoyance that is apparently put there to use more than once and keep the running time up a bit. It didn’t work in Dude, Where’s My Car? and it certainly didn’t work here.

White Crack Bastard plays like a student film; and that’s ok. It’s fine that everyone from writers to directors need to hone their craft and sharpen their skills and the only way to do that is to keep doing what they are doing. But once you get to a point where your film is getting a VOD release, it’s time to realise that you’re going to be poked and prodded the same way any other film would be. Biases aside, I am aware that this film is a few years old now; that it’s only Bressack’s third film – and more importantly the first that he made but didn’t write or produce. With poor script work from first time writer Lisa Vachon and even worse editing from a guy who hasn’t worked in the industry since; James Cullen Bressack was fighting uphill, on roller skates, with one hand tied behind his back the entire time – and, sadly, it shows.

I’m not sure I can recommend White Crack Bastard to anyone that isn’t a devoted fan of someone involved in its creation; and even then, I think it would be hard to justify anymore than a one-time rental. Bressack’s earlier work, and the films he’s made since, far surpass this messy, incoherent film and I genuinely can’t see any reason to give this film the time of day.

Mr. Cullen Bressack, in the unlikely event you’re reading this, I love you man. Your films have quickly found a special place in my collection and I cannot wait to get my hands on Bethany when it arrives later this year. But man, this wasn’t a film indicative of your skills as a filmmaker at all.

White Crack Bastard gets its first release, three years after completion via BrinkVision on 20 February. Check out the trailer below:

Creed

First__Creed__image_with_Stallone

“One step, one punch, one round at a time.”

Forty years after we first saw Rocky Balboa take on champ Apollo Creed in Philadelphia in Rocky, putting together another film in a franchise that had some pretty extreme ups and downs was a definite risk. With a literal 50% success rate across the series, you’d be forgiven for going into Creed a little dubious. Thankfully, the series has now all-but-retired its original hero and in his place, given us a new underdog to cheer for.

Seventeen years after Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, was taken in by Creed’s widow Mary Anne, Johnson jacks in his job and decides it’s time to follow in his father’s footsteps and heads to the ring. Having been boxing on his own for years, Donny realises he needs a trainer – and when his brother refuses, he heads to Philadelphia in search of the man that beat his dad. Whilst Rocky might not be the guy Johnson expected, after he track’s him down at the restaurant the long-retired boxer spends his days in, Donnie sets about convincing the Italian Stallion to get in his corner and teach him how to go from the rough-around-the-edges brawler he is to a refined fighter ready to take on anything.

Donnie starts to make a bit of an impact locally, getting himself known around town and soon takes a fight with another local guy who’s had his upcoming bout cancelled. Expected to be a bit of a squash match, Johnson takes it to the more experienced fighter and beats him decisively. An impressive win is one thing, but once it gets out that Johnson is in fact Apollo Creed’s lad, the publicity sky rockets and the call comes in from the reigning champion’s guys offering Donnie a chance to climb in the ring with Liverpool’s Ricky Conlan in what could be Conlan’s last fight.

After last year’s Southpaw, and spending my Christmas holiday catching up with the Rocky saga, I thought I’d be all burnt out on boxing movies. It turns out that all I needed to blow the dust away was a great film, brilliantly made, with a stellar cast.

Starting with Michael B. Jordan, a guy I’ve been waiting to appear in something big and special since he finished his time in the awesome Friday Night Lights, plays the titular Creed. Cast perfectly in the role of the upstart son of a champion, Jordan; and his in-film brother played by The Wire‘s Wood Harris, not only look enough like each other to be brothers, but look like they could easily be Carl Weathers’ sons. Having been disappointed by half of the films in this series, I wasn’t sure even a guy I thought was great would be able to make a watchable film. But Jordan not only took to the role and made it his, he managed to embody everything that the original Creed was and bring it to the screen. Having clearly trained hard to not only look good for the role but to make his boxing convincing, Michael B. Jordan is nothing short of a revelation in his performance.

Similarly, Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky is just wonderful. Over the last forty years he’s gone from bruising boxer to sage-like mentor and he just plays it so well. Spending his days sharing stories and advice, the retired champion finds a new lease of life training Donnie and it’s evident that Stallone feels the same way playing the role. Slipping himself into his most familiar, comfortable slippers, Sly looks at home in his position as Donnie’s trainer, taking on the Mickey role from previous films and passing the torch on, in more than one way, to Michael B. Jordan and Adonis Johnson. The same goes for his audience; Rocky’s dulcet tones have a calming effect on us watching him, like listening to a war veteran in his rocking chair telling stories of his time battling, Balboa is the wise old man we all feel comfortable with.

I’ll be honest and say that my biggest surprise came from Ryan Coogler’s writing and direction. I had never heard of him prior to the film’s release and I haven’t seen his previous work. Although the fact he’s being tapped to helm Marvel’s Black Panther gave me a little confidence – add to that the fact that for the first time in the series, Stallone relinquished writing duties and handed them over to Coogler as well; hopefully getting a completely fresh perspective on Philadelphia’s hero and the boy he’s training.

It turns out that Ryan Coogler is actually a damn good director. Starting relatively straight and by-the-book, Creed’s direction is very good throughout, but it ramps itself up to amazing in Johnson’s first time in the ring under Rocky’s tutelage against Leo Sporino, a local light heavyweight. Coogler takes a page out of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s handbook and films each round, from within the ring, on a steadycam in one long take. Each round lasts three minutes and you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat, fists clenched, wanting to throw punches with him. Any longer than that three minutes and there would be people passing out from holding their breath with tension and fear. Coogler’s writing and direction are outstanding and let you care for everyone on the screen; this guy has a hell of a future.

Creed is a stunning film. Heartfelt, beautifully acted and a joy to sit and watch. It’s kept enough of its legacy to feel like it’s part of the Rocky series, whilst simultaneously feeling new and fresh enough to stand on its own two feet and be a film on its own. That, in itself, is a slight miracle. This year’s Oscar race has finally heated up for me.

Now, it may seem like an insult to the film to say that Creed isn’t the best film I’ve seen chasing an award or three, it is second only to The Revenant in my book; both surpass anything else I’ve seen from this year’s race up to this point that I’d be happy for either or both of them to be taking home the statues next month.

The Revenant

the revenant

“I ain’t afraid to die anymore… I did it already.”

Oh goody! Another “inspired by true events” film. I mean, for crap’s sake, I’m getting sick of reading “based on a true story” in trailers and at the start films. Aren’t you? And critical acclaim or not, sitting down to watch my third dramatisation of a true story in less than a week – the others being here and hereThe Revenant had absolutely NONE of my confidence.

Man. I’ve never been so happy to eat my words and stuff a bit of humble pie down my cake hole.

“Inspired” by the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper in 1820’s Montana, The Revenant is the latest film from the Oscar winning director of last year’s Birdman and 2007’s Babel, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. It stars powerhouse couple – and two of my personal favourites – Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in the good guy/bad guy one-two punch.

Set in the 1820’s, during the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Glass (DiCaprio) leads a team of hunters and trappers who narrowly survive a brutal ambush by some native tribes. Soon after escaping into the hills, Glass is savagely attacked by a grizzly bear. Stitched up to the best of their abilities by the remaining group members (including his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck)), Glass is reluctantly left for dead. Tom Hardy’s terrifying John Fitzgerald isn’t willing to wait for Glass to die and so decides to speed things up – only for Hawk to complicate matters.

Fitzgerald’s plans go horribly, horribly wrong when several miracles, a few strokes of luck and a twist of fate see Glass crawl from his makeshift grave. With revenge on his mind, the explorer must quite literally crawl after his prey. As time goes on and his body begins to heal, Hugh must brave the winter landscape, the roaming Native Americans and the wildlife to find retribution against his would-be murderer.

Man! Where to begin? Iñárritu’s direction, as expected, is stunning. The exceptionally long shots that have become a staple of his films in recent years are here in all their glory. For example, the opening ambush, filmed in one long, flowing shot, is comparable to the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan in its beauty and brutality. It is possibly one of the greatest scenes put to film in quite some time. Similarly, the bear attack is possibly the scariest, most viscerally affecting scene I’ve ever watched. As this animal literally tears strips out of DiCaprio’s hunter, every strike from those claws and every roar from this massive Grizzly had me pushing back in my seat wanting to get away from it. Every shot is beautifully framed. It looks cold, unforgiving and every splash of blood in the snow glistens beautifully.

Both guys in the lead roles are spectacular. DiCaprio’s performances over the years have always included stories of the lines he crossed pushing for the best performance he can; The Revenant is no different. Coming along with tales of making himself sick, forgetting he’s a vegetarian and chowing down on some raw bison liver, the man’s almost feral role of Hugh Glass is quite possibly his best role yet. If it wasn’t such a ridiculous ongoing joke over his constant snubbing by the Academy, I’d be screaming to give the man an Oscar for his role of the vengeful trapper. In the same vein, Tom Hardy’s cold and scary performance as Fitzgerald is maybe his best – and certainly his most terrifying since he spent his days being Charlie Bronson all those years ago. The pair chew up every scene they are in; and the ones they share – from the fast paced opener to the literally nail-biting last scene – are pure cinematic gold. And the supporting guys (including Domhall Gleeson and Will Poulter) all come together to bring you one of the most well performed movies in years.

The Revenant stands proud this year. In a sea of absolute dross chasing Academy gold, Iñárritu’s film is just a stunning masterpiece of a film that stays with you long after the lights have come up. It’s possibly the best film I have seen since last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The only reason I’m not screaming out loud for statues all around is because I haven’t seen Creed yet.

It’s not perfect, with a bit of sag in the middle that makes it feel needlessly long and some bloody awful dubbing of the native languages that stick out in such a great flick. But aside from that, The Revenant is easily in the running for the best film of the year already. Your move, 2016.

Rocky: A Retrospective – Part Two

rocky-balboa

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.”

Creed is getting closer. Just a few more days until one of Stallone’s most beloved characters returns to the big screen and has a go and relighting that fire we all saw in 1976. It’s been a fun time to revisit these films that have such a special place in the hearts of so many; and getting to spend some time with one of Sly’s most iconic creations has been amazing.

Last time, we left our hero, the Italian Stallion, having just beaten the mohawked Mr. T and won his title back much to the delight of us and the crowd. Having beaten the monster that embarrassed him, this should have been the official retirement of Rocky Balboa, the boxer with a legendary will to keep going. But common sense be damned. Unbelievably, we are only at the halfway point of Rocky’s story. So what do you say? Before this year’s latest chapter in Balboa’s saga comes through the curtain, you want to join me in seeing through the last of the iconic boxing franchise’s entries?


Rocky IV (1985)
Budget $28,000,000
Box Office – $300,400,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 40%

Mr T is done, Apollo and Rocky have had their little bit of fun, now it’s time to retire. Surely, now it’s time to retire?

Sadly, no. After watching his friend, Apollo Creed, die at the hands of a pre-Masters of the Universe Dolph Lundgren; our hero swears revenge on the seemingly indestructible Russian wrecking machine. Calling out the monosyllabic monster, Rocky and his entourage of mainly former Creed trainers and his lifelong pal, Paulie, head to a frozen cabin in Russia to train for the latest in a long list of biggest fights of his life.

After Creed embarrassed him with his Stars and Stripes entrance that includes fireworks, flags and James Brown, Lundgren’s Ivan Drago turns the tables and gets his own super-patriotic entrance for the Russian crowd. With Rocky getting nothing but boos from those in attendance as his entrance music, the stage is set for another dominant Drago performance.

Another fifteen round barn burner ensues, with the tables balancing well between the two. Drago knocking Balboa on his arse in the first round, with our hero coming back and opening up the challenger’s face in the second. It’s a tough match with both men having to dig deep for the win they both so desperately need. Call it luck, call it will, call it what you like, but Rocky pulls out a final round miracle as he floors the Russian monster and gets the knockout win. His victory speech includes a rousing call to the Russian people to remember that if they can change their tune towards him, the world can change its tune towards each other.

I think, at least quality wise, diminishing returns kicked into full gear here. Rocky III was passable as a film but there was a definite dip in quality; this time around I felt the struggle to keep watching was more powerful than the film I was sitting in front of. We were on the fourth straight copy/paste film in the series and I was beginning to lose my patience with watching the same formula over and over again. Simply changing location doesn’t change the fact you’re watching the same film. If this was a horror movie, it would be the one set in space hoping the change of scenery would fool the audience! I wasn’t invested in the fights at all. Worse, I just wanted them to be over. The subtle-as-a-sledgehammer implications with the beefy Russian juicing on multiple steroid cocktails versus the good, wholesome American were maybe the clumsiest “America! Fuck Yeah!” moments I’ve seen in a film in quite some time.

Rocky IV substituted the first film’s Oscar nominations for more than a healthy amount of Razzies. Stallone’s direction, writing and a large amount of his cast all fell foul of the Golden Raspberry nominations with quite a few wins to boot. The first film in the franchise to not have “Gotta Fly Now” in its soundtrack is much worse for that fact. Don’t let that box office take fool you; this film isn’t worthy of the Rocky name.


Rocky V (1990)
Budget – $42,000,000
Box Office – $119,900,000
Rotten Tomatoes Rating – 29%

Diagnosed with brain damage from years of taking abuse and suffering from a severe lack of money after a crooked accountant loses the Balboa fortune, Rocky and his family head back to where it all began. The dirty streets of Philadelphia.

Slumming it in a house much like the first one Rocky and Adrian bought together, the man of the house finds solace back at Mickey’s gym with no thoughts of being back in the ring; categorically turning down an offer to fight again. When Balboa gets the chance to mentor a young, raw boxer named Tommy Gunn, he jumps in so deep that it strains the bonds of his family. Caring more for the success of his young protégé than the problems his own son is having with bullies at school, Rocky quickly begins to lose all touch with his family.

After a string of healthy wins, Tommy is poached from Rocky by George Duke; a loudmouth, unscrupulous promoter who gets Tommy a title shot with the champion he also manages. After an easy win for the belt and little time for Tommy to celebrate, Duke’s intentions become very clear: He wants the fight with Rocky to happen whether it’s with his champion or Tommy Gunn – and now, he doesn’t even care if there is a ring involved. After an embarrassing press conference, Gunn seeks out his fight with Balboa in Rocky’s home town where a war of words ends with a war of fists in the street.

After both nearly killing each other, Rocky defeats Gunn; leaving him beaten and bloodied on the floor where our hero quickly puts Duke next to him.

Bringing back John G. Avildsen, the director of the original Rocky, was supposed to be a shot in the arm for the franchise. Hoping to rekindle the magic that made the early films such a success, Stallone went from boxing drama to family drama with-a-bit-of-boxing to try and change the tune a little. Sadly, it was a miserable failure. Undoubtedly the worst of the franchise and barely recognisable from the inspirational drama that saw us join the Italian Stallion on his path a mere fourteen years previously.

This killed the series for sixteen years, until…


Rocky Balboa (2006)
Budget – $24,000,000
Box Office – $155,700,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 76%

The world has long forgotten about Rocky Balboa. A former champion who now runs a restaurant named after his dead wife, he shuffles through life from one day to the next, passing on his little pearls of old man wisdom and thinking nothing of the life he once had.

That is, until a computer simulation shows an in-shape, championship holding Rocky of times long gone beating the current champ. Spurred on to do what he was born to do all along, realising the fire hasn’t quite fizzled out yet, Rocky gets his license back and heads out to train after securing himself an exhibition fight with the reigning title holder. Using current events as an opportunity to mend fences with his estranged son, Rocky becomes his most humble self as he looks to everyone around him – from his family to his community – for the inspiration he needs to dig deep for just one more training montage.

The big night rolls around and in modern boxing fashion, we are in Las Vegas. Champion Mason Dixon and Rocky lock horns for another full length boxing match where the pair trade blows almost evenly ending in a loss for Rocky via a close split decision.

Rocky Balboa brings back everything you loved about the early films: A reason to get behind our champ. A great, well built boxing film and (most of all) an amazingly written and directed drama that, once it gets to the ring, doesn’t pull any punches. A great, great fight is the delicious icing on a perfectly made cake that packs as much emotional punch as it does ACTUAL punch.

Easily the best of the Rocky series for me.

That brings us completely up-to-date and leads up nicely to…


Creed (2015)
Budget – $35,000,000
Box Office – $109,000,000 (so far)
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 93%

Stallone has handed both directorial and writing duties off to other people to focus on acting this time around. His and Michael B. Jordan’s performances (and the film itself) have been critically acclaimed since it released in the US at the end of 2015.

Come see me in a few days, when I can give you my full opinion on the film and whether or not it’s been worth me trudging through this series over the last couple of weeks.

Rocky: A Retrospective – Part One

Rocky-and-Apollo-02

“When we fought, you had that eye of the tiger, man, the edge! And now you gotta get it back.”

As I write this, we are a few weeks away from the UK release of Creed, the latest film in the Rocky saga. Having already been released to critical acclaim in the United States, I expect nothing but an amazing drama that has me punching along with its stars and wanting to scream at the screen the entire time I’m in the theatre.

Much as I did with Mad Max back in May, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to have myself a little Rocky refresher course before release and share it with you guys.

It’s been a long time since I watched the Rocky films; I’m certain I did a quick run through back when Rocky Balboa, the series’ comeback sequel, was released. “That wasn’t that long ago, right?” I thought to myself. Wrong. It was in 2006 that Stallone’s comeback film rightleft-hooked us to the canvas. Two years before Rambo’s comeback; four years before he assembled The Expendables for the first time and – by the time we get Creed on UK shores – ten years before the Italian Stallion took up the Mickey Goldmill role of trainer to long time opponent/friend Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis Johnson – a pornstar name if ever I heard one.

Forty years since we first cheered for Rocky Balboa. Forty years of ups and downs for our hero and forty years of films that don’t always live up to their heritage, but do try very hard. The original classic film and five sequels between 1976 and now; won’t you join me on my journey through the life and times of Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia’s number one son?


Rocky (1976)
Budget – $1,100,000
Box Office – $225,000,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 93%

The story of a down and out debt collector who makes a few bucks on the side boxing in clubs has become the stuff of legend. A fighter who has never lived up to his potential, almost reviled by the owner of the gym he works out in and errand boy to a petty loanshark; Rocky Balboa inexplicably gets a chance to prove himself to everyone as Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed gives the unknown fighter a shot as his World Championship when the original contender for the belt has to drop out.

Determined to grab at this opportunity with both hands, Balboa trains harder than he has ever trained before to prove to himself, his new girlfriend Adrian, and everyone watching that he deserves the shot he’s been given. Trained by gym owner Mickey, a burnt out boxer who’s happy to berate Rocky for being a bum – a recurring theme in these films, until I watched these again I never knew the insult “bum” was either used that often or really that offensive – Rocky captures the heart of boxing fans across America as he steps into the ring with he champ to fight for his self respect as much as the belt.

Ending with a tense fight between the pair, Balboa fighting his heart out to prove himself and Creed fighting a guy with more spirit than he could have imagined, Rocky’s eventual split decision loss after fifteen rounds of hard hitting action leaves the world believing that Rocky won the fight, whether or not he came out with the title.

Rocky is a rags-to-riches American Dream story as poignant as any made before it or since. Written by Sylvester Stallone and made on a shoestring budget, Rocky’s journey from unknown to worldwide sensation was mirrored by its star who, after the film made two hundred times its budget back at the box office, went from nobody to household name overnight. Winning three Oscars for best film, director (for John G. Avildsen) and editing, also earning Stallone nominations for his writing and acting, there can be no doubting the pedigree of the series when it starts this well.

And let us not forget the two most memorable parts of Rocky. First, that most quoted and parodied call from the down and dirty bruiser after his loss, “ADRIAAAAAAAN”, and second the most famous training montage music in the history of film, that montage that made Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” one of the most recognisable songs in movie soundtrack history.


Rocky II (1979)
Budget – $7,000,000
Box Office – $200,100,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 73%

There was no way a film as profitable as Rocky wasn’t going to get a sequel. We only had to wait a couple of years until Sylvester Stallone not only returned to writing duties, but took the spot behind the camera to direct as well.

Minutes after his defeat at the hands of the champion, Rocky finds himself face to face with Apollo Creed in the halls of the hospital they have both been carted off to. Angry that his win wasn’t decisive, Creed immediately goes back on his word, calling out our hero for a rematch that Rocky refuses. Opting instead to retire, recover from his bout and become the family man he wants to be with Adrian. But Creed won’t accept that, spurned on by hate mail and a bruised ego, he sacrifices the high ground and bullies Rocky into a return fight.

But Balboa’s heart simply ain’t in it. But the promise of a growing family means that going back to his old ways of earning money simply isn’t going to cut it. However, training for his bout puts more strain on his family than financial troubles ever would. When the stress takes its toll on a heavily pregnant Adrian, things look dire for the Balboa family as their son is born a month premature and complications leave Adrian in a coma.

Spurred on by the birth of his son and his wife waking up with a new found love for Rocky’s chosen career, the Stallion gets back to training harder and working to get faster and break not only some bad habits, but his lifelong fighting stance. Training orthodox instead of his natural southpaw – something that isn’t mentioned again across the next few films, I’m guessing it was a production choice to make it easier for a right-handed star to train and fight convincingly – to fool his opponent and get an early advantage over an angry Creed determined to knock out Rocky in the first couple of rounds.

Once again he’s seen running through the streets of Philadelphia to get his stamina up, but this time joined by a few hundred kids for his stroll through the community that looks up to him so much. In a repeat of the original’s montage, his run ends at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the same “Gonna Fly Now” soundtrack, but this time joined by a school full of children clearly bunking off in the middle of the day!

Fight night! Win, lose or draw Balboa has the moral victory over the champion, but this time Rocky wants to win decisively. Another tense fifteen rounder that has me on the edge of my seat the entire time is the order of this sequel. This time, a last second knock out of the champion gets Rocky the belt, Adrian the win she made her husband promise and us out of our seats cheering.

No Oscar nominations for Rocky II, but as the second of a one-two punch after the first, an excellent, beautifully filmed drama that gets the palms sweating and the heart pounding.


Rocky III (1982)
Budget – $17,000,000
Box Office – $122,800,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score – 63%

Two films grossing over 200 million dollars? A third film was absolutely on the cards. Although, in a post Raging Bull world, Stallone’s writing and direction had to come up big to make a statement and, depending on who you talk to, it either blew those expectations away, or failed miserably to meet them. Me? I kind of sit somewhere in the middle.

After taking Creed’s title from him, Rocky rolls through every contender put in front of him for the next couple of years. Content to enjoy his celebrity life and retire an undefeated champion, Balboa is called out and bullied into a title defence by the number one contender, a dangerous man named James Lang, nicknamed “Clubber”. Played by a relatively unknown Mr. T (just before his A-Team days), Clubber hands Rocky his most vicious and calculated beating, taking his title and embarrassing our hero in front of his home town.

Beaten, broken and dealing with the loss of his friend and trainer Mickey, Rocky wants a shot to get his title back but lacks the tools to get the job done. Enter Apollo Creed. Rocky’s long-time rival offers to train him, to get him fighting fit and to teach him to be a boxer; not just the bruiser that once won him the championship. His only fee? Rocky owes him a favour once it’s all over.

Flying out to California and going back to Creed’s original gym, Apollo and Rocky set about preparing the former champion for his bout against the monstrous Clubber. New fitness regimes, new ways to train and new techniques has Balboa as well prepared as he is going to be to face the man that took his title.

In his rematch, Rocky utilises all he’s learned from Apollo and outfights Lang, forcing the bigger, stronger man to tire himself out early on and sets him up for a nice, early victory; knocking out Clubber Lang in the third round and winning back his title.

And Creed’s favour? A third match between the pair, no crowds, no cameras, the decisive rubber match to see which of the pair is the greatest.

In my opinion, Rocky III doesn’t live up to the previous instalments. It was the beginning of a drop in quality for the series that was only slight at this point. Besides cementing Mr. T’s “I pity the fool” catchphrase into the annals of film history and introducing the world to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” – a song that became so famous that just me mentioning it back there will have it stuck in your head for a bit – this third entry to this franchise should have been the end of it.

Sadly, it wasn’t. More on that a little later on…