Monday, January 11, 2016

My Take: CREED (2015, starring Sylvester Stallone)

Okay, now that ol’ Sly has won the Golden Globe for his terrific performance in this film (and is hopefully well on his way to an Oscar in the same Supporting Actor category) I guess I ought put down my thoughts, as originally intended right after seeing CREED on its opening day last Thanksgiving.

First off, the overall film is top-notch on all levels. If you count it as part of the Rocky saga stemming directly from Stallone’s original concept and the first film in the series, it would be ROCKY VII. By that measurement, it could be ranked at the very top level of the series, right beside ROCKY (I) and ROCKY BALBOA (VI). By my reckoning, that would place it in very rarified air indeed (even though I have enjoyed all of the Rocky films, even the middle ones with their varying degrees of weariness and over-the-topness).

But CREED is really a stand-alone film, telling the tale of the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (the former heavyweight boxing champ who gave Rocky his first big break). In the course of his drive to make his own mark in the boxing world, Adonis (Donnie) Creed seeks out the mentorship of an aged, somewhat embittered Rocky. At first, Rocky wants no part of the kid’s quest and Donnie doesn’t even use his father’s surname, wanting to make it strictly on his own skills. Eventually, the two bond (Donnie even takes to calling Rocky “unc” - short for uncle) and the kid’s raw talent starts to develop as Rocky’s vitality for life begins to return. A long-shot big match for Adonis comes along just as a serious illness hits Rocky, leaving them to each face his individual challenge but to do it side-by-side with the other. This bonding/dependency makes up the real core of the story and also provides some deeply emotional scenes that gives Stallone the chance to show his acting chops like he’s had too few times over his career.

The story and directing by Ryan Coogler is infused with a ton of love and respect for the established Rocky saga and then takes a fresh angle that pumps new life into it. It is the powerful, near-perfect acting of the three main characters --- Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, Tessa Thompson as his girlfriend Bianca, and Stallone as Rocky --- that elevates the whole thing even higher. And when the familiar strains of Bill Conti’s classic Rocky theme drift into the new musical score at exactly the right moment of the climactic big fight … well, if that doesn’t stir you, then your movie enjoyment capacity is on life support.

Even if you’re not a boxing fan or think the whole Rocky thing has been overdone and you’re tired of it, you ought to give this film a chance. I can darn near guarantee you won’t be sorry.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Another Look: SERGEANTS 3 (1962, Sinatra Rat Pack movie)

I saw this movie when it first came out in ’62. I was about 14 and remember liking it quite a bit. At the time, I had no awareness of the classic adventure film GUNGA DIN (upon which this is a blatant remake but curiously in no way acknowledged as part of the credits – yet always mentioned in any subsequent discussion of the film).

This is the second of four “Rat Pack” movies that Sinatra and his gang would make --- preceded by OCEAN’S 11, followed by ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS and then 4 FOR TEXAS. In summation: Two pretty good flicks; two quasi-clunkers.
SERGEANTS was really the last of the “full” Rat Pack ventures, as Peter Lawford was jettisoned from the group shortly thereafter when his family “in” with JFK wasn’t enough to keep Sinatra on the “in” (due to his mob ties) after he worked so hard to help get JFK elected. Lawford was gone from ROBIN and by the time TEXAS rolled around it was down to Frank and Dean Martin.
For a long time, SERGEANTS 3 was considered the “lost” Sinatra film since, after its initial release, it seldom, if ever, played on TV nor was available as part of the video or early DVD boom. That is no longer so, however. I recently re-watched as part of TCM’s “Sinatra 100” celebration, and it’s also now available on DVD.

Aside from a comparison to the vastly superior GUNGA DIN, SERGEANTS 3 is lackluster at best. It has its moments, but they are far between and not real strong when they come. This is surprising, given all the talent involved. And not just on the screen --- John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE MAGNIFICENT 7, etc.) was the director and W.R. Burnett (LITTLE CAESAR, THIS GUN FOR HIRE, etc.) did the screenplay.
This is a classic case of a “vehicle”, folks … Take a “hot” star (or a whole handful, in this case) put ‘em in a colorful romp or adventure never meant to be taken too seriously, serve up some light entertainment, make a little dough, and everybody comes out okay.
Trading India for the Wild West and the British Army vs. fanatical “thugs” for the U.S. Cavalry vs. fanatical Native American “Ghost Dancers” was a clever concept … but the handling after that turned pretty flat.

It’s not a terrible way to spend a little less than two hours.
The production values are good, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s kinda fun to see the Rat Pack pals cavorting at their peak. Dean and Sammy have the best moments and steal everything worth taking.
For the completest, it’s worth checking out … Just don’t expect too much.