When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Stay Alive

This one is for all the daydreamers and travelers out there who want to be anywhere but stuck at home right now.

The song ‘Stay Alive’ is one of several the Argentinian-Swedish indie folk singer/songwriter José González contributed to the soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a 2013 adventure drama/fantasy starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott. The movie is an amazing journey, taking audiences on a globetrotting adventure when Life magazine photographer Walter (Stiller) embarks on a search for a famous photographer whose work is to be included in the final print edition of the mag, which is about to transition into digital form. While a lot of critics were divided on Stiller’s direction and the whimsical, disjointed narrative, few took issue with the visual composition.

What’s more amazing than the cinematography and scenery is that, even after all these years, it’s the music that stays with me. Few soundtracks move me in the way The Secret Life of Walter Mitty did. Put together by Theodore Shapiro, it features, among others, Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson and David Bowie, so there is no shortage of inspiring songs I could have used here.

But ‘Stay Alive’ — and I do stress the fact this is the one without the gerund, because f**k The Bee Gees — is just one of those songs that marks a moment in time for me. From the opening piano keys and the ticking clock, through to the drum-fed crescendo, the poetic lyrics written by Ryan Adams and Shapiro and vocalized by González, it’s a quietly profound song that swells with great hope. It’s a meditation on life and love; a journey toward fulfillment that both compliments the physical journey Stiller goes on and transcends it. Indeed, this song captures the spirit of the movie best.

Then again, I have a propensity for being dramatic and often suffer delusions of grandeur so, I don’t hold it against anyone for not being moved in the same way.


Stay Alive (lyrics by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro)

There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

Sometimes there’s things a man cannot know
Gears won’t turn and the leaves won’t grow
There’s no place to run and no gasoline
Engine won’t turn
And the train won’t leave

Engines won’t turn and the train won’t leave

I will stay with you tonight
Hold you close ’til the morning light
In the morning watch a new day rise
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Well the way I feel is the way I write
It isn’t like the thoughts of the man who lies
There is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Look into the sun as the new days rise

And I will wait for you tonight
You’re here forever and you’re by my side
I’ve been waiting all my life
To feel your heart as it’s keeping time
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes

Look into the sun as the new days rise
There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

But there is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming open your eyes
Look into the sun as a new days rise

The Dawn Wall

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018 (limited)

→Netflix

Directed by: Josh Lowell; Peter Mortimer

Generally speaking, if you want climbing films done right, you turn to the Lowell brothers. In 1997 Josh and Brett Lowell co-founded Big UP Productions, and over the last two decades have documented some of the most stunning climbing achievements across the globe, even earning a Sports Emmy for outstanding camerawork. Their latest is The Dawn Wall, which follows big wall climber Tommy Caldwell on a seven-year quest to conquer a previously unclimbed section of the famous El Capitan.

2018 was a great year for climbing documentaries (and for Yosemite Valley, apparently), with The Dawn Wall being the first of two such films to get a theatrical roll-out. It predated the Oscar-winning Free Solo by a mere three months, and while it did not receive the same amount of fanfare I found The Dawn Wall to be the superior film both in terms of the story it tells and the climbing action featured.

There is no denying Free Solo deserved the mainstream spotlight. The life-and-death aspect of Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the 3,000 foot monolith without any protective gear made that film immediately attractive to an audience beyond the climbing community. Along with the gut-wrenchingly obvious consequence of failure came the complicated morality of the undertaking, with the filmmakers actually having to brace for the potential reality of capturing a death on camera while going to lengths to ensure they wouldn’t be a distraction to Honnold during the ascent. (For the record, Free Solo hasn’t changed my opinion on free soloing — it still seems to me to transcend the realm of reasonable risk-taking. I did however appreciate that the filmmakers included multiple perspectives on the matter and how clear it was to see the strain this endeavor put on the camera crew and others.)

The Dawn Wall, in stark contrast to the loneliness of Honnold’s quest, is this epic buddy adventure that takes place for the most part on the Wall and gets more into the nitty gritty of climbing, whether that’s the technique involved in a tricky section or the broader tactics of big wall climbing. Before it gets into the gory details of the Dawn Wall project, the film takes a step back into the past and builds a profile of its meek-and-mild-mannered subject, tracing his rise from a painfully shy kid (and the son of a gregarious bodybuilder, to boot) to one of the elite climbers in the world, as well getting into debates surrounding nature-versus-nurture and dedication versus obsession.

It almost seems like an epidemic in movies where a cold open teases a big moment in the present before that gets put on hold so we can get the backstory, but with Tommy Caldwell, you really need that backstory. This film is about so much more than the physical act of climbing; it’s about everything that went into the ambition. The Dawn Wall‘s first half hour or so proves to be every bit as dramatic and compelling as the titular event it covers. A treasure trove of archived footage mixed in with interviews in the present day introduce several personalities that have been instrumental in Caldwell’s life and the experiences that they have shared together — such as the time Tommy, his then-girlfriend Beth Rodden and two other friends were held hostage for six days by armed rebels in Kyrgyzstan during an expedition there. To a lesser extent we also get to know his Dawn Wall partner, Kevin Jorgensen, a lauded and fearless boulderer who isn’t as experienced in the travails of big wall projecting.

Because ropes and harnesses play crucial supporting roles here you likely won’t find yourself sweating like you were in Free Solo, but what The Dawn Wall lacks in peril it makes up for in humanity . . . and pure, unadulterated climbing psych. The drama that unfolds circa Pitch 15 — a desperate traverse across a 300 foot ribbon that hinges around dime edges and features the hardest climbing on the entire 3,000 foot climb — is quite an amazing display of graciousness and selflessness, with Caldwell refusing to leave a comrade behind in battle. (Editorial: the ideal situation in big wall climbing, at least at the professional level, is for all participants to climb the entire route without falling.)

Let’s get one thing clear: this climb, defined largely by swaths of slick, seemingly feature-less granite, is so intensely difficult it is all-out war. The 32-pitch route is considered by many within the community the most consistently difficult climb in the world, while outsiders like John Branch, a sports writer for The New York Times and the first to break the story (and usher in the media circus), view it as among the greatest athletic feats of a generation. Skin is scarred, torn, chafed, bloodied, bruised. The mind brutally pummeled by doubt. All the while the saga is gaining traction in the media and the world is watching. Waiting.

The Dawn Wall is the more engaging film because, well, A) the subjects just aren’t Alex Honnold — the dude is an enigma and for me it probably helps that I have actually met Tommy in person — and B) the supporting material rummages through some pretty personal stuff, with Caldwell addressing his divorce in the early 2000s and how loneliness, perhaps desperation, motivated him to seek a new way up the face of El Capitan. (As an aside, he’s responsible for several first ascents up the face, and even did two routes in a single day — that’s 6,000 feet of climbing in 24 hours). Between Caldwell’s geekiness and Jorgensen’s indefatigable positivity the film is absolutely the warmer, dare I say the more relatable experience, even if the climbing involved is alienating.*

The Dawn Wall is about teamwork, physical endurance, and unbelievable willpower. It is ultimately a celebration of an historical climbing achievement but delivered in a way that allows the layperson to get a feel for the effort and hardship involved. The emotional crescendo to which the saga builds, coupled with the obligatorily breathtaking cinematography**, makes the film a must-see experience.

* One aspect the film does leave out is that while Tommy and Kevin weren’t alone on the Wall by virtue of the camera crew being there, they also had a team of climbers shuttling supplies up and down the wall frequently — with none other than Alex Honnold making a quick lap up to their “base camp” to provide lip balm 
** In my review of Free Solo I incorrectly assumed drones were used in the shooting. it is illegal to fly helicopters and drones through the park.

Tommy entering the crux sequence of Pitch 15.

Me and my friend Todd (green jacket) with Tommy and Beth circa October 2006 at Foster Falls, near Nashville, TN. The couple were premiering their section for a new Big UP Productions film, wherein Tommy did two El Cap routes in a single day

Recommendation: Comparing the two films is inevitable, especially when they came out basically back-to-back. For climbers, The Dawn Wall has more climbing action to get giddy over, making it perhaps the purer climbing film. But for those who were won over by Free Solo and don’t climb, this is kind of an ideal companion piece. It gets you even better acquainted with El Capitan, the practicalities of living on a rock face for days and weeks at a time, and to me it truly embodies the spirit of climbing. What Alex Honnold did and continues to do for a living is impressive and takes an enormous amount of courage and a rare kind of focus, but it doesn’t really represent what I know and love about rock climbing.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.sandyrussellcreative.com

Queen of Katwe

queen_of_katwe_ver2_xlg

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: William Wheeler

Directed by: Mira Nair

Despite the illusion of diversity and the notion that films are now being tailor-made for niched audiences, director Mira Nair’s latest feels like a rarity, one that’s not only good for the soul, but good for Disney. Here is a work of substance that is going to satisfy, dare I say move, those seeking a more refreshing point of view. Better yet, themes of poverty and desperation are never overwrought, the drama working comfortably within the PG rating to effect one of the year’s feel-great experiences.

The film was shot entirely on location in Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it features a Ugandan director in Nair, who was born in India but presently lives in the country and it is her vision and her choice cast that earns the film a refreshingly authentic African vibe. Though it does visit some dark places, the narrative chooses to forego any sort of political commentary in favor of celebrating what makes African culture so distinct; rich in personality and heart, warm in spirit and color — much of which is reflected in the stunning wardrobe courtesy of Mobolaji Dawodu.

With Disney of course you’re never short of a few doses of cloying sentimentality but in Queen of Katwe the feel-goodness feels really good and it feels earned. It’s also not that simple, as you’ll likely feel on more than one occasion, really, really bad.  It doesn’t hurt that the picture features two of the year’s finest performances and a star-making turn from Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Incidentally, Nalwanga has experienced considerable changes of fortune in her own life having afforded an education subsidized by the dance company she performs with. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it was the second time she had ever seen a film in a theater, and this time she was the star.

The story tells of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slum village of Katwe — a region within Kampala, Uganda’s capital — who manages to transform her life by competing in major chess tournaments. The movie traces her rise to prominence while delineating the tension between the gifted Phiona and her mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter’s dreams crushed. Phiona comes from an especially impoverished family of five — she has two younger brothers and an older sister. Her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is the glue that holds everything together, working tirelessly to keep the family under a roof and to keep her children fed. She often goes hungry and works long hours selling vegetables on the streets. Life’s desperate and Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has already had enough, having become infatuated with the city life after meeting a man of some wealth.

One day she comes across a group of kids playing chess in a tent. They’re being mentored by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who also happens to be working for the town ministry. After quickly learning the basics, Phiona shows promise as a player, often beating her fellow competitors, which stirs up quite the fuss as no girl should be allowed to beat a boy. It’s not long before Katende realizes her quick wit and intellect separates her and he finds himself jumping through hoops to encourage her mother to allow Phiona to pursue this. There are cash prizes awarded at these tournaments, he says. But Nakku pushes back, concerned that exposure to an altogether unattainable life will ruin Phiona.

Queen of Katwe falls upon familiar underdog story constructs but Nair employs them such that they’re necessary plot propellants. The most familiar of the obstacles manifest themselves in the competition scenes. When the youngsters travel to their first competition nerves are high, the opponents are well-dressed and contemptuous. Perceptions of inferiority and illegitimacy can be traced back to the moment Katende advocates for Phiona’s inclusion in competitive chess to members of the Katwe school council. Bureaucrats tell him bluntly that those from the slum should not intermix with people of another class. Additionally, the constant degradation on the home front as the family find themselves temporarily evicted isn’t anything we haven’t experienced before but there’s a rawness to these developments that just can’t be ignored.

The resolution is far from unpredictable, even given the oppressive circumstances into which this bright young girl has been born. Phiona is obviously an anomaly. We know she’s going all the way to the top, and we know she’s going to ultimately succeed. It’s the journey getting there, and getting to experience her family’s struggles and their perseverance that ultimately rewards. And when the film is so handsomely mounted and beautifully acted, particularly by Nyong’o and Oyelowo who offer powerful resilience and unwavering support respectively, that makes the culmination of all things positive and predictable that much more acceptable. Queen of Katwe is a Disney film that reminds us of the power of perseverance and the importance of intellect, one that creatively parallels the complexities of chess with the decisions one has to make in life, whether the end game is elevating one’s social standing or finding a way just to make ends meet. This is a born winner.

medina-nalwanga-and-lupita-nyongo-in-queen-of-katwe

Recommendation: Powerful performances allow Queen of Katwe to transcend cliché and they also help the film speak to a larger human experience of rising above circumstance and overcoming serious odds. It’s nice that the film focuses on a part of the world that doesn’t get the big screen treatment very often. And as to the sport that lies at the heart of the film — I concede I don’t find chess altogether exciting but the way the director and the screenplay works it in to the story actually makes it pretty compelling. I personally have no idea what’s going on on a chess board but I had no problem believing that this brilliant girl did. That’s the mark of a good actor.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

30-for-30: Four Falls of Buffalo

'Four Falls of Buffalo' movie poster

Release: Saturday, December 12, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Ken Rodgers

It’s easy to see why Ken Rodgers’ retrospective has been described as a love letter, not just to sports fanatics but to the city of Buffalo itself. Pro football has a certain stigma attached to it in this part of the country. The Bills are more freely associated with blown opportunities than they are with blowing out their opponents. Four Falls of Buffalo chooses to block out all that noise, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives — not an easy thing to do all things considered.

The film recounts a period in the early 1990s in which the Bills managed to make four consecutive Superbowl appearances. Unfortunately they lost every one of those games and typically in heartbreaking fashion. Influenced by nostalgia and reverence for accomplishments the rest of the nation dismissed instead as embarrassments, the tone often strikes deep chasms of melancholy and the story, much like a devoted fanbase that braves frigid winter temperatures for the sake of a good pre-game tailgate, longs for different results in the Wins/Losses columns. But as the cliché goes, if you were to ask members of the ’91-’94 squad if they would do it all again, you’d receive a resounding response in the affirmative.

After all, it’s not every season you see last year’s Superbowl “losers” return to the big stage. And then do it again, and then a third time. Four Falls of Buffalo shows how history can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and those recounting it here show impressive levels of stoicism as former players and executives alike open old wounds by reliving the moments. Rodgers works through the timeline chronologically, focusing on the unique situations that arose on each Superbowl occasion: missed field goal opportunities, mysteriously disappearing helmets, excessive trash-talking, critical missed tackles.

Along the way actor William Fichtner, a Buffalo native, steers us through the major events that shaped the era. Viewers are invited into the personal and professional lives of this rich fraternity of football talent. Here are but a few stand-outs:

  1. Jim Kelly, quarterback (1986-1996). Kelly once spurned the harsh wintry environs of northern New York for a couple of seasons to play in the United States Football League, but when the USFL folded he decided to check out what Buffalo was all about. He then spent his entire professional career with that team, his incredible athleticism and devotion to the community marking him as a fan favorite. In the comfort of his home he draws parallels between the mental battle he endured in those Superbowl defeats and his private battle with cancer. He also bravely discusses the impact the loss of his 8-year-old son Hunter had on him.
  2. Scott Norwood, kicker (1985-1991). It’s long been debated whether it was Norwood’s failed 47-yard field goal attempt — a miss so famous you can dig out the footage just by Googling ‘wide right’ — or if it was the way the game went that put the kicker into a position he never should have been in that ultimately cost the Bills their first Superbowl victory. Watching him relive the moment face-to-face with Rodgers and his camera crew is surprisingly difficult. Perhaps it was his honesty and refusal to hide from the media in the immediate aftermath that established Norwood as one of the most class acts you will ever see, not just in a professional athlete but in a person.
  3. Thurman Thomas, running back (1988-1999). Thomas became a crucial component in the “no huddle offense” inspired by Kelly’s preference for up-tempo football, a style of play that netted the team four consecutive division titles. Unfortunately he didn’t always benefit from such attention. Thomas has never been able to untangle himself from a series of misfortunes speculated to have played some part in the Bills’ losses. The first hiccup was his helmet being removed from its usual spot (on the 34-yard line) by stadium officials setting up the stage for Harry Connick Jr.’s Superbowl Halftime Show, a fit of confusion that ultimately resulted in him missing a few critical plays. The next year Thomas created a costly turnover which was converted into a pivotal Dallas Cowboys touchdown. And the fourth and final Superbowl he wasn’t able to impact the game as he would have liked thanks to an ailing body. Despite all that, fans have continued to revere him as one of the great household names.
  4. Don Beebe, wide receiver (1989-1994). As one of the fastest runners in the open field in NFL history, Beebe has been linked to one particularly stunning play — his chasing down of Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was so sure he had a touchdown that he slowed down before the goal line only to have a rude awakening in the form of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Beebe. The man was clearly destined for glory and went on to join the 1996 Superbowl-winning Green Bay Packers. His justification for leaving may not sit well with everyone but, and lest we forget, at the end of the day football is a business.
  5. Bill Polian, general manager (1984-1992). It’s not often we pay much attention to the front office, but Polian seems an exception — an amiable sort with a great love for Buffalo and the game itself. He rose to league prominence with his assemblage of the four-time-Superbowl-appearing squad, even if he wouldn’t be around to manage them during their fourth run at the title. Polian is now an analyst with ESPN.

Four Falls of Buffalo develops into a powerful testament to the pride and character of a community long plagued by hardship — a not-so-great economy, bad weather, even worse football. Season in, season out Buffalo endures. Looking back, the ’90s were comparatively an oasis amidst a sea of mediocrity. No one on the current roster was even in the league the last time the Bills saw a post-season. Indeed, many dark days have followed since. And they will continue to come.

But silly little things like “losing relevance” and “credibility” in terms of how they have stacked  up against the competition ever since don’t really seem to bother Bills fans. It still hasn’t really stopped them partying in hot tubs in near-subzero temperatures before games. That’s a spirit no force of nature, not even a bullheaded NFL commissioner can extinguish.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Bills kicker Scott Norwood

Recommendation: For Buffalo Bills fans, it’s a must-watch. The tradeoff for reliving painful memories is watching a film treat your hometown/city/whatever with the respect and dignity it deserves. It also is a good one to watch to gain a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices professional athletes make. So often sports are dismissed as trivial events, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are, but Four Falls of Buffalo is a great story, one that has much to offer even casual fans. (Full video included below . . . with apologies in advance for the quality of the audio.)  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.cuyahogafalls.trade 

Paul G — #6

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was being held hostage by Samuel L. Jackson in a tense dramatic thriller F. Gary Gray made back in the late ’90s. Let’s negotiate our way past that and look at a more substantial supporting role he’s had as part of one of Ron Howard’s many prestige pictures. Here is a character that somewhat flies in the face of a career built upon playing untrustworthy, shady types and you know what? The nice guy act really suits him.

Paul G in Cinderella Man

Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/sport/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The story of James Braddock, a supposedly washed-up boxer who came back to become a champion and an inspiration in the 1930s.

Character Profile: Boxing manager Joe Gould met a then-20-year-old James “Cinderella Man” Braddock at a crumbling gym in Hoboken, New Jersey. Gould immediately liked what he saw: a tough, durable competitor, a well-spoken, decent man with one hell of a right hand. The two struck up a friendship that very soon developed into a mutually beneficial professional relationship, and under Gould’s management Braddock turned pro in 1926 as a light-heavyweight contender. Ron Howard’s 2005 biographical drama, set against the backdrop of The Great Depression, focuses on a tumultuous but ultimately miraculous period in both men’s careers, capped off by Braddock’s historic upset of current World Heavyweight Champion Max Baer in 1935. This was the unlikely result of a series of victories Braddock claimed after Gould begged for him to be re-instated as a boxer following the infamously embarrassing, one-sided loss to light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran six years earlier. It was Gould’s pitch that became instrumental in setting the “Pride of New Jersey” back on a course to stardom, necessarily establishing Braddock as one of the few rays of light amidst one of the darkest periods in American history.

Why he’s the man: In an Oscar-nominated supporting turn, Giamatti embraces a much less shifty character than he has in the past, though Joe Gould wasn’t exactly a man without foibles. (In 1942 he enlisted in the Army and earned the rank of First Lieutenant, but was later sentenced to three years’ hard labor for conspiring to accept bribes; and Cinderella Man tends to cast a less favorable light on his decision to pitch Braddock’s comeback as a major profiteering venture for fight promotor James Johnston.) Giamatti, despite a sense of two-facedness, remains a thoroughly likable guy throughout, his closeness to Braddock and the respect he has for Braddock’s love for his family readily apparent. He plays such an excitable, emotional fella, the kind that’s easy to root for, so it was a shame Giamatti lost that year to Morgan Freeman for his work in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. A shame, but also understandable.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.realtimewriteups.com

Creed

Creed movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Ryan Coogler; Aaron Covington

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Perhaps it’s the fact that Creed feels more akin to a warm family reunion than a cold cash grab that unnecessarily extends a beloved boxing franchise that has allowed it to curry favor with both critics and audiences alike. The end product certainly doesn’t stand on shaky legs, with early responses seeming to indicate this could be a Dark Horse for Best Picture next February.

Underdog story manifests as a reunion in more ways than one, throwing on-the-rise actor Michael B. Jordan back into Ryan Coogler’s ring for the second time following their collaboration on 2013’s emotional gut punch Fruitvale Station. Meanwhile, an aging Sly returns to Mighty Mick’s Gym for the first time since he abandoned his responsibility to maintain it; it also re-teams Jordan with his The Wire co-star Woody Harris, who plays Tony “Little Duke” Evers, one of the young boxer’s many assistant trainers. Needless to say, Creed benefits greatly from the coziness of familiarity.

This is the tale of the rise of Adonis Johnson, illegitimate son of the legendary Apollo Creed. He adopts his mother Mary Anne Johnson’s last name early in the film even after (or perhaps due to) learning that his father lost his life in the ring at the hands of Soviet brute Ivan Drago. Donnie’s introduced as a rather angry child with a knack for getting into fist fights.

We flash forward to the present where a muscular Jordan is preparing for a brawl in a hole-in-the-wall Mexican arena. He holds down a job at a securities firm in Los Angeles before up and quitting it to pursue boxing full-time, much to the dismay of Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). It’s a matter of time before Donnie tracks Rocky down at his Italian restaurant in Philadelphia.

“Train me,” he insists. “No,” Rocky replies.

Then of course Rocky starts training him, scribbling down on a sheet of paper a series of training exercises that Donnie captures on his cell phone for later use. But you know Rocky will be drawn back to the ring, only in a different but no less effective capacity. Coogler builds the relationships in such a way that even all of these potential eye-roll-inducing developments pay great dividends. This is a massively enjoyable film, reminiscent of the pure entertainment value of Ridley Scott’s most recent effort. It remains to be seen how much pull it’s ultimately going to have down the stretch when it finds itself squaring off against the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming western thriller, critically acclaimed dramas such as Brooklyn and Spotlight or the various other stand-outs from earlier this year.

Its reverence for everything that has come before is both a blessing and a curse. It means newcomers get to share in the experience fans in 1976 reveled in without really having to do any homework. Creed is Rocky VII, that much is obvious, but it also throws so many similar jabs and hooks it’s a stretch to call this a truly original work. There are moments during which we get the sense we’re walking in the shadows of a legend, yet when other sequences beget the euphoric triumphs of Gavin O’Connor’s family feud Warrior, the negatives are somehow easier to shake off. When Rocky warns Donnie that he’s “seen this fight before,” we believe him yet we still have to see it for ourselves; that terrible sinking feeling be damned.

Creed‘s soundtrack thumps with original and familiar beats alike. Its hip hop-heavy focus helps set the feature apart; these songs are all attitude. They represent the spoken portion of Donnie’s near poetic, fully meteoric rise to fame as he soon finds himself taking on the light heavyweight world champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) in a Liverpool-based match-up for the ages. Tessa Thompson, who inserts herself into the narrative in the form of neighbor-turned-love interest Bianca, a musically-gifted young woman, contributes her voice to a few tracks. She also is a welcomed presence though her character’s career aspirations get lost in the shuffle all too quickly.

And of course this wouldn’t be a complete review without mentioning Stallone returning to these hallowed grounds. The film finds a galvanizing power in his physically broken, emotionally burdened Rocky Balboa. I suppose if Creed stands for anything other than the mesmerizing power of professional boxing it’s the vitality of family, even if that unit has been cobbled together from undesirable (and highly unlikely) circumstance. The most potent conversations take place between trainer and boxer when they have a disagreement over whether or not they’re actually a family at all. Watch Sly struggle to hold back tears as he rattles off the losses he’s experienced in the past.

I wasn’t prepared for the gravitas this unusual acting duo offers up, but that’s what I took home with me after witnessing the reinvigoration of a franchise that once looked to be hanging lifeless on the ropes.

Rocky and his protege atop the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Recommendation: Creed rests on tried-and-true formula but in the process it manages to focus on the emotional power of a legendary character being brought back to life by a possibly never-better Stallone. It finds new life in Jordan’s gung-ho Adonis Creed and I have to admit I wasn’t prepared to be carried so far away from the seat in which I sat over the course of this two-hour journey. The blueprint for future installments has seemingly been laid down. If you’ve been a fan of the Rocky franchise this is a must-see.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “This guy right here, that’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to face. I believe that’s true in the ring and I believe that’s true in life. Now show me something.”

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The 33

'The 33' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 13, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Mikko Alanne; Craig Borten; Michael Thomas; Jose Rivera

Directed by: Patricia Riggen

Patricia Riggen’s optimistic, spiritual account of the 2010 San José mining accident in which 33 miners were trapped 2,300 feet below ground for nearly three months collapses under the weight of a feebly written and executed script.

Disaster films aren’t known for their star-making performances nor their Oscar-baiting screenplays, and The 33 is perfectly okay with continuing that trend, rendering everyone whose name isn’t Antonio Banderas cardboard cut-outs of characters. Because disaster films aren’t known for their acting pedigree, it might seem odd that my major complaint with this picture is the abysmal acting on display. And yet, this thing is painful to sit through folks, even despite an outcome that is quite uplifting because, you know . . . it really happened.

Riggen finds herself combatting the odds with a roster the size of two Marvel films put together. There are at least 33 main characters, and those are just the miners trapped beneath the earth — more specifically, under a rock that apparently weighed twice as much as the Empire State Building. Collectively, I suppose, you could consider them one singular character, only one that’s not very exciting to watch. On the surface, both literally and figuratively, we deal with Chilean government officials, concerned more with public image than the safety of those involved and the grieving family members whose desperate requests are often stymied by bureaucratic bullshit.

Speaking of, there’s Bob Gunton as President Piñera, a far cry from his Warden Norton and Rodrigo Santoro as Chilean engineer Laurence Golborne, whose handsome exterior makes him the perfect candidate as a pseudo-public relations manager, a character so ill-defined I don’t think I’m making that title up. He’s meant to be an engineer, although he’s reminded several times by Gabriel Byrne‘s Actual Engineer character that he should start thinking like one. Duh. Isn’t it obvious? People’s lives are in danger, get it together man!

Gunton and Santoro are rendered as puppets, wooden and largely void of charisma in their Suits, the kind you expect to see in films dealing with real lives hanging in the balance, lives dependent upon their political clout to ironically save them. Even more nebulous are the aforementioned family members, though one in particular stands out because she’s played by Juliette Binoche (for some reason). She’s sister to the alcoholic Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba); the pair have more issues communicating than Hellen Keller. Apparently they’ve suffered some sort of trauma in the past.

Clearly, something was going to have to be sacrificed given the extensive roster. But Riggen, along with a quartet of writers, sacrifices the wrong thing, reducing virtually every miner and their corresponding family members to a few lines at most. It’s nigh on impossible to root for these people when we already know the outcome and when we can’t tell Adam from Eve. Fans of The Office will get some mileage out of Oscar Nuñez as Yonni Barrios, one of the miners who is experiencing marital woes and who apparently farts in his sleep. If I weren’t such a fan of his character in that show I’d label this characterization as annoyingly juvenile. Actually, it still is just juvenile, but at least there’s an attempt to shove some humor down into these dank caves.

There are a few positive takeaways, however. What saves this largely uncharismatic cast is the level of diversity in the casting itself. Chilean, Brazilian, Filipino, Mexican, Cuban and Colombian actors congregate to play their Chilean parts, and once again it’s apparent how much Banderas believes in this material. His Mario Sepúlveda is one of an elite few with energy and passion. And quite frankly I was prepared for the religious overtones to be off-putting. Instead this adds weight to proceedings. It’s also one of a few elements that signify the passage of time, lending gravity to the collective despair.

Unfortunately these elements are not enough to qualify The 33 as a natural disaster/biopic worth digging into.

Antonio Banderas inspiring his mining brothers to keep the good faith in 'The 33'

Recommendation: The 33 represents a cinematic treatment of a fairly recent and highly unlikely rescue mission that garnered global attention and support. The optimism is a welcomed attribute, but weak writing and poor acting do a lot of damage here. If you’re looking for basic coverage of the event in cinematic form, I think this is currently your only option (unless there’s a documentary out there somewhere). Inspired by the book ‘Deep Down Dark,’ written by Hector Tobar.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not a rock, that’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”

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Spare Parts

spare-parts-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Elissa Matsueda

Directed by: Sean McNamara

Well-intentioned but also thoroughly cliched, Sean McNamara’s strict adherence to the inspirational Wired.com article ‘La Vida Robot’ still manages to surprise with an atypical performance from George Lopez.

Lopez plays Fredi Cameron, a substitute teacher whose inexperience with the troubled Carl Hayden Community High student body is predicted to eventually overwhelm him. A grilling interview with the principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) suggests he should take his engineering mind elsewhere. His character is actually an amalgamation of real-life instructors Fredi “Ledge” Lajvardi and Allen Cameron and is a personality that meshes well with Lopez’s kind eyes and warm smile.

Mr. Cameron decides to tough it out and soon discovers a group of students with some unique talent, the likes of which are doomed to be overlooked in favor of the statistical probability their undocumented status in the States will lead them down a dead-end road. There’s Oscar (Carlos PenaVega), a senior with aspirations of joining the Armed Forces after school and whose confidence masks his deep-seated fear of being deported; Lorenzo (José Julián), a 16-year-old with a penchant for getting into trouble on the streets but more importantly a mind for building and designing things; Cristian (David Del Rio), a genuinely good kid whose youth belies one of the sharpest minds in the community, possibly in the greater Phoenix area and whose home life has him living in a small shed off to the side of the house; and Luis (Oscar Gutierrez), a quiet and unconfident young man undoubtedly conscientious of his physical size and self-assessed lack of practical skills.

The foursome rally around an extremely amiable Lopez even as he’s somewhat reluctant to invest his own time in the school’s robotics club. He sees the kids desperately need some direction, but it’s not until he’s finally won the support of a cute colleague (Marisa Tomei), who believes the students don’t need any more misleading, that Mr. Cameron realizes his passion for engineering can actually marry with his desire to help others. The robotics club sets their sights on the underwater robotics competition hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara where they will have to pit their $800 robot, built out of PVC piping and nicknamed ‘Stinky,’ against teams with arguably more talent, confidence and community support and most assuredly more financial aid.

The end result of said competition is a foregone conclusion since there’s now a film based on the story, but in getting there the journey really has to be seen to be believed. Spare Parts falls back on trope after trope but it’s not doing this to intentionally harm anyone’s image, least of all those of the student subjects. If anything — and here’s a more cynical way of considering the production — this is a career-booster for the Californian talk show host who has made a habit of providing ridiculous faces and fluff commentary on his show Lopez Tonight. Here he is putting in substantive work and it is appreciated. The actors portraying the students leave a stronger impression than Lopez, though and are the real stars of the show. Convincingly portraying the utter despair and turmoil that their individual situations have thrust them into, these relatively undiscovered actors will hopefully pick up some more work later on down the road.

Richard Wong’s gritty and saturated color palette tends to flick the dirt and grime of the Phoenix area in our faces with an effectiveness that might overshadow any other element present here. This world looks and feels real; intimate and often dimly-lit settings emphasize serious overtones that are otherwise frustratingly undermined by cringe-inducing dialogue and contrived plot development.

Spare Parts manages to sustain its enthusiastic spirit and reverence for not only Joshua Davis’ excellent in-depth examination but the team itself. It is a joy to see a visual interpretation of an extraordinary chapter in this Phoenix-based school, a school that has since gone on to receive global recognition for its technical achievements. However, that’s nothing compared to what these trials and tribulations have done for young Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian and Luis. How do you not applaud these kids.

george-lopez-in-spare-parts

3-0Recommendation: An uplifting family drama through-and-through it’s difficult not to root for Spare Parts. It’s full of heart but also filled with a lot of things that could have been done much better to limit the eye-roll factor. And why, again, does Marisa Tomei have to be relegated to such a restricted role? Ugh. I’m getting tired of this; she’s better than this! Or, maybe not? Cliched or not, this is a story that does deserve to be watched. I give it one-and-a-half Roger Ebert thumbs up (one of my thumbs is like, turned sideways . . . or something).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “They’re not adults, they’re kids. Every day in a hundred ways they are told they are worthless. . .”

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The Theory of Everything

theory-of-everything-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony McCarten 

Directed by: James Marsh

If you want to talk ambition, meet British director James Marsh. He once thought it realistic to stuff everything Stephen Hawking-related into a two-hour romantic drama. There are obvious issues with such a strategy. Not so obvious perhaps are the compromises he’s made in producing something worth watching.

Or, maybe they are. Either way, it looks like it will still be some time before we get the definitive guide on the inner workings of one of the greatest minds this world has and likely will ever see.

Marsh (Man on WireShadow Dancer) blends elements of the standard biopic with those of a romantic drama while infusing the production with at least the pretense of science. More often than not intellectual stimulation is sacrificed in favor of powerful emotional recoil at the sight of a body enduring prolonged deterioration. Yes, the experience fails to manifest as an interesting journey as much as a heartrending commitment to watching what we already are aware has happened. But it’s a perfectly inoffensive approach all the same.

Considering the number of similar films attempting to fashion glamorous takes on the lives of many an ill-fated genius or savant — Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind being one of the most memorable in recent years — it’s hard not to feel the nagging tension of having been there, done that this time around. Howard’s muse happened to be brilliant economist John Forbes Nash. The crux of that particular film revolved around schizophrenia and how it nearly eroded the passionate love shared between an ailing Nash and his fiercely determined wife Alicia Lardé. Fast-forward to 2014 and you simply change the variables. The constants remain, though: bodily dysfunction, emotional trauma, and the very human ability to somehow ignore and even triumph over it all.

The Theory of Everything plays out like the autobiography Professor Hawking will probably never write. (That’s not intended as a cruel joke, in any way, shape or form. I simply just don’t envision this man ever writing one.) And by rights, it should. While camera angles hew intimately to Hawking’s views of the world, it’s his first wife whose work has most directly inspired this particular Oscar-hopeful. Adapted from her memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,’ the film logically detours away from the scientific to focus on the romantic aspects of a life less ordinary.

Leaning on mush and sentimentality does not crush Marsh’s project, luckily enough. After all, he has been afforded a pair of breathtaking performances in the form of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. The pair of young performers will seem inseparable after this. In the last several weeks, a certain someone has been knocking on this blog’s door with more questions about whom he should consider grooming next for the big stage in the Dolby Theatre. Now it would seem to be the young and freckled Londoner’s turn to be called upon. What he accomplishes in Theory is nothing short of revelatory in practice.

Twisted, pained expressions dominate Redmayne’s facial features for the film’s later stages, a development made all the more heartbreaking when given his cheerful, exquisitely nerdy countenance early on. It’s one aspect of the film that absolutely demanded perfection regardless of the surrounding material or narrative flow. Redmayne understood this and courageously ran with what will down the road be described as one of his career’s most challenging and daring decisions.

This is also Felicity Jones’ finest hour. She is a force to be reckoned with alongside the towering Redmayne, channeling her inner Jennifer Connelly appropriately. As Jane Wilde, Jones exudes strength and bravery in a situation that would surely demolish both in any ordinary mortal. There is nothing theoretical about the performances here. The film radiates sincerity and the rapport between Jones and Redmayne single-handedly elevates a somewhat pedestrian narrative. That much is most certainly clear.

What’s less clear is how much Marsh actually appreciates Hawking himself. Regrettably The Theory of Everything ends terribly. The final scenes threaten to drown out any sense of originality on the subject, as the narrative merges with the collective populace’s impressions of the guy: he’s no doubt an inspiration. But we know this already. That’s why there’s now several movies made about him. These last shots may resonate, but they resonate for the wrong reasons. It becomes evident in Theory‘s awkwardly sweeping yet rushed conclusion (why do these stories always end in big auditoriums or conference halls?) Marsh doesn’t want to put too fine a point on the harsh reality of Stephen’s triumph. He doesn’t want to betray the public perception of the iconic wheelchair-bound professor.

That’s why he saves one of the film’s most inspiring lines for the very last moment. Too bad I can’t say the same for this review.

eddie-redmayne-in-the-theory-of-everything

3-5Recommendation: Arguably laden with cheese and sentiment, The Theory of Everything features a lot of heartbreak and cold science (of at least the medical variety) to help try to balance the equation. Two incredible performances help stabilize it a little more, though ultimately this is a movie that belongs on the Hallmark channel more than anywhere else. This is a light year away from being a bad film, but it’s just as far from being original or truly moving. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”

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The Fault in Our Stars

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Release: Friday, June 6, 2014

[Theater]

For every hundred or so saccharine romances that Hollywood will churn out in a year, probability suggests there will be the odd exception or two that comes along and says “enough is enough.”

The cinematic adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, is at once a beautiful and heartbreaking celebration of life and love, a journey fraught with emotional highs and lows and enriched by some of the most endearing characters to ever fall head-over-heels in love on the big screen. Jack and Rose may have “I’ll never let go” trademarked, but the main characters presented here prove equally hard to part ways with.

What this particular adaptation has that many romances often lack — I’ll refrain from comparisons to the book as I have not yet had the opportunity to read it — is a keen awareness of cliché. Director Josh Boone bucks convention wherever he can, despite not being able to flush them out completely. Predictability fails to lessen the blow of what is to come in this case, though.

The Fault in Our Stars is intensely likable, maybe even hauntingly so. In fact it takes a perverse pleasure in constructing a beautiful reality before shattering it into pieces — a hammer into a fabergé egg. Newcomers to the story are introduced to Shailene Woodley’s latest character, while the majority of the audience who have already been following along finally get to see the beautiful Hazel Grace Lancaster reincarnated in visual form.

Hazel, your otherwise typical teenager were it not for the thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs (hence her portable oxygen tank), insists she is not depressed about her situation. Her parents (Sam Trammell and Laura Dern) likewise insist she attend a cancer support group. Surely that’ll be healthy for her, although Hazel can’t help but scoff at the irony. Fortunately for her, there’s an incentive to keep attending after she meets the handsome and hilarious Gus (Ansel Elgort) whose own cynicism seems to mirror the one she quietly harbors. Immediately sparks fly.

(Meanwhile, Nicholas Sparks is sitting in the back of the theater, furiously taking notes.)

This is, after all, the kind of conviction about a feeling as complex as love that doesn’t come around too often, let alone in a mainstream Hollywood production. As well, the film isn’t just about a couple falling in love. It deals with an extremely weighty concept such as facing mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars tracks the two lovesick youngsters as they embark on a physical and emotional journey that perhaps neither were expecting to experience prior to meeting one another. Gus’ powers of observation — he takes an interest in reading Hazel’s favorite book, written by American author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) — are responsible for transforming Hazel’s presumably very limited days into a series of extraordinary adventures that simultaneously captivate and devastate.

In addition to extracting mesmerizing performances from it’s young leads, the film accomplishes something else that further separates it from other romances. As the time with Hazel and Gus dwindles, the film feels ever more precious. There’s a very pressing sense of urgency in the film’s closing moments, a desperation for knowing what will become of not only these wonderful characters, but of us in the end. What’s it going to be like? And in these moments the film feels the heaviest, and in effect the most rewarding.

Optimism is neither a word nor a concept The Fault in Our Stars is comfortable with dwelling on. And by the same token, neither is pessimism. The characters aren’t so much fatalists as they are brave. Focus falls on realism and honesty, rather than despair and misery. Yet, there is no escape nor any hiding from fate. A script from Scott Neustadter provides little in the way of shelter from harm, and the result is a story that becomes mightily weighty as it progresses. Though not bereft of comedy completely, it’s fair to say romantic-comedy is a term that does not apply here.

The fault isn’t in the stars, nor is it in the genre of romance. Rather, it’s in Hollywood itself and a general fear of owning up to the truth so readily as John Green and his wonderful characters clearly are.

A Fault In Our Stars

4-0Recommendation: Hard to imagine this being anything but a must-see for those who have read the New York Times Best-seller. However, the adaptation proves to be an incredibly potent drama that deserves to be viewed by a much greater and more diverse audience. Anyone with a sensitivity for believable love stories and memorable personalities be prepared to bring tissues.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

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