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Failed Critics Podcast: Your Toughest Opponent

hans gruber

Inviting you to listen to this podcast may make you uncomfortable. Not because we’re walking around naked, but as one of our longest episodes for a good while (at nearly one hour and three-quarters long), you may get something of a numb-bum if you listen to the whole thing in a single sitting! Unfortunately there are no ways to montage your way out of it either.

Nevertheless, in this bumper episode, your hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are joined by special guests Andrew Brooker and Tony Black to wag their fingers in the direction of the recent Oscar nominations, celebrate the life and work of Alan Rickman, and discuss a petition to actually lower the rated R status for the upcoming comicbook movie Deadpool.

As well as this, there’s room for Room, time for Creed, and for us to revel in The Revenant as we spend the latter part of the podcast discussing the three big new release reviews of this past weekend. We even take a look over what else we’ve watched in the past seven days. Brooker apologises to James Cullen Bressack for not getting on with White Crack Bastard; Steve, in tribute to Alan Rickman, revisits Kevin Smith’s 90’s classic Dogma; Owen reviews the recently released My Nazi Legacy documentary; and Tony is impressed with Ryan Reynolds after his surprising resurgence after seeing The Woman In Gold.

And that’s still not all as we start (as ever) with a quiz and Owen suffers through the first episode of Rob Schneider’s latest TV series, Real Rob, as penance for losing last week’s quiz.

You can see why it’s such a long episode!

Join us again next week as we bring back Liam and Andrew Alcock for a World Cinema triple bill.

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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.

Rocky: A Retrospective – Part Two

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“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.

Fantastic Four

Wolverine Origins. Elektra. Catwoman. Rise of the Silver Surfer. If you really think Josh Trank’s new Fantastic Four is on the same rung of the ladder as these appalling excuses for entertainment, then you should prepare yourself for some serious head-shaking if you decide to read on.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

fantastic four 2015Hi, my name is Owen Hughes and I am a comic book reader. Something that pre Marvel’s film renaissance was something to share with only a select few like-minded friends, not to admit to in public. Well, Batman was fine to confess to. Spider-Man too in some circles. But mention goofy names like Fantastic Four and you were on your own.

Admittedly, I’m not now (nor have I ever particularly been) an avid reader of Marvel comics specifically. I’m more of a DC kind of guy. If that doesn’t make much sense to you, then consider the age-old quote about Marvel heroes being aspirational, whereas DC’s roster are inspirational; whilst not quite as consistently black and white as that, I felt myself drawn more often than not towards DC’s God-like characters (and Batman. Everybody loves Batman.)

What comicbook issue or story I would pick up in next month’s pull list only ever came down to two determining factors: a) which characters I liked and had invested time in already; and b) what writer was working on a project. Cue my interest developing in Fantastic Four when, after some limited experience with their place in the Ultimates Universe via other titles, a friend foisted upon me the first trade paper back of the run by the immensely talented writer Jonathan Hickman. It was… difficult. Not completely impenetrable, but certainly confusing and disorientating to begin with, but at the same time impressively ambitious. It wove mind-bendingly intricate plots and character arcs that I couldn’t even begin to conceive of how they would end, let alone how the next page or panel would continue.

When Josh Trank started to talk about being influenced by the work of David Cronenberg, I wasn’t sure how to react. A part of me was still reeling from the lamentable 2005 film and its sequel. Yet another part of me remained optimistic. A Cronenberg-esque Fantastic Four movie? Yep, that could work. Taking his inspiration from the Brian M Bendis / Mark Millar (yes that Kick-Ass guy) interpretation of the characters in their Ultimate Fantastic Four comics, it should have been perfectly acceptable. You don’t have to make the characters and story primarily for young children just because the group’s name is embarrassing to say out loud as an adult. I’ve seen Hickman successfully do more adult and darker stories in the comics. Twice, no less, if you include the few issues of Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates that I’d read. If any young aspirational director out there could do it justice, then naturally the guy behind one of 2012’s surprise hits, Chronicle, could be that guy?

Unfortunately, from the moment the project was announced, it hasn’t been without its lion share of controversy. With Trank allegedly trashing the set, upsetting his crew and causing headaches for the higher-ups at Fox, however true or false the rumours were, it permitted a swell of negativity about the movie in the public perception even before its trailer had made it to the screen. Throw in the ridiculous furore over casting an African American, Michael B Jordan, as the traditionally Caucasian hot-head character Johnny Storm, as if this was somehow an integral part of the character’s make up, and it just fanned the flames (get it? Because Johnny Storm says “flame on” when he sets himself on fire! It’s a joke! I’m trying to add humour to a super-serious film review… oh, never mind.)

Whilst many fans rejoiced at the progressiveness of casting the best actor for the role regardless of skin colour, a small section of narrow minded idiots couldn’t deal with it. “What if they decided to cast James Bond as a woman?” “What if they made Batman a disabled child?” “What if they cast a midget as Jack Reacher?” Yeah. Exactly. What if? If the end product is good enough, then who honestly has reason to care?

I suppose that’s what this review should eventually boil down to. Was this a good enough interpretation of not just the Human Torch, but of all the characters in general? From Johnny Storm’s adopted sister Susan, played by Kate Mara, to best buddies Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) played by British actor Jamie Bell, and (the ever-growing in popularity) Miles Teller as the limb stretching Mister Fantastic, Reed Richards, they just don’t gel as a unit at any point. Trank often breaks the group up into smaller teams to demonstrate how they are weaker apart. Tragedy befalls the group every time they don’t work as a cohesive line-up, especially when they ditch a key component of their group to navigate some inter-dimensional travel in what is for all intents and purposes an origins story to a sequel that may never happen based on initial critical reception.

It should be pointed out that this isn’t clearly explained within the film itself. For a movie that appears to pride itself on developing its characters, it appears to have bitten off more than it could chew. Rather than let characters organically drift in and out of the story as and when necessary, it seems as though Trank presumably accidentally casts them adrift for large portions of the runtime. For example, when Ben has done his bit with Reed, off he goes for a good 20 minutes. Not that Reed himself is immune to the chop as he all but disappears for what must be about 8-10 minutes of the film too. Hoping to see the fallout from Victor Von Doom’s shenanigans? Think again. At least the other characters get name checked during their absence. Poor old Doom isn’t even alluded to during his time out. I can only assume that the point is to drive home the “better together” message at the heart of the story. Alas, like large chunks of proceedings, it just wasn’t portrayed well.

Admittedly that may be slightly harsh as it’s hard enough sometimes to properly develop a couple of characters in a 100 minute movie, let alone six or more. Nevertheless, it’s still a problem. There was also little to no balance between characters’ emotions as they one second appeared to hold a certain opinion before careering off suddenly into a completely different lane like an out of control Toyota.

Frequently scenes had me scratching my head. Not because of its complex Warren Ellis inspired levels of scientific detail, but because of either how badly edited and/or written they were, which is only the more infuriating as in some areas there seems to be a lot of care of attention to detail. If you are at all wound up by little niggly pedantic problems often labelled as “goofs” on IMDb profiles, then this won’t be the movie for you as they were all too common an occurrence to be ignored.

However, like most moments throughout, there’s both good and bad to be found in every scene. The specific moment when the characters first gain their abilities is one of the more entertaining sections, generating as much tension as the film could muster. The effects looked stunning and played their part in increasing the excitement. In contrast, the set of circumstances leading these characters to this point are so incredibly contrived and lazy that it makes my defence of it so much more difficult. Even the events immediately afterwards show very little of the fallout and are nowhere near as cataclysmic as they should be. Reg E. Cathey is arguably the most well cast member of the entire bunch, but the hints at backstory between him and Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom are underplayed and superficial. Tim Blake Nelson plays the government representative like a pantomime villain, but even the friction there with his interactions with the quartet is not utilised enough.

All in all, it’s great that Trank has at least attempted to avoid the all too common pitfalls of the genre. It would be an exaggeration to describe the opening third as exciting, but I count it as a positive that matters were very rarely resolved with a short period of clobbering. The seams start to come away through a plodding and stiflingly slow middle section which seems to be heading nowhere. That is until Trank can resist no longer and relents with a grand (albeit generic) action-packed finale. In keeping with the rest of the film, even this climactic showdown struggles to have a bit of fun with itself. If anything, I had the distinct impression that Trank was almost apologetic in the necessity of including such a mass-appeasing scene, rendering it rushed and unsatisfying in its conclusion.

What makes Fantastic Four hard to hate, and why I can’t get on the “this movie is terrible” train that is steaming past me at 100mph, is that despite what I’ve said, I honestly didn’t sit there bored. Instead, I was mostly in a constant state of waiting for the expected to eventually happen. Then, when it did happen, it disappointingly didn’t elicit any emotion in me one way or the other. The movie was over, and so too is presumably the franchise until the inevitable soft-reboot.

It’s a big budget superhero movie that will go down in the annals of history as a project that never fulfilled its potential with a director who never quite found his rhythm. It so nearly broke the mould for its type, but obliged to pander to its typical audience, it never strayed too far from what was familiar and ended up underachieving.