STANDALONE NOSTALGIA

Posts found under **** feature commentary about (you guessed it) **** rated films. For this inaugural entry, I wrote about my two favorite films of 2015. Both of these movies are sequels to decades old franchises, but both of them have become immediately essential to the works and worlds of the films that preceded them. 

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Mel Gibson in the original Mad Max (1979)

Mel Gibson in the original Mad Max (1979)

Hollywood's lack of genuine inspiration has driven it to a nadir of creativity, as box office patrons encourage the endless conveyer belt of superhero stories, sequels and reboots. Occasionally though, it is worthwhile to visit the past; case-in-point a 4th iteration of an 80s franchise, that once starred the (up until recently) ostracized lunatic Mel Gibson. Directed by a 75 year old George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road is a thunderous action spectacle – the best of the genre since the 90s. As comedian Patton Oswalt so eloquently put on his twitter account a year ago “if you can’t wait to see MAD MAX FURY ROAD; just snort 10 cubic feet of meth and jump into a gasoline fire.”

For all intents and purposes this is a 2 hour chase scene, a no frills of a screenplay with a blank check of a canvas for its auteur to mold into his own. A world on screen with limited input of script or dialogue – a masterpiece of visual storytelling; if you told me Tom Hardy’s Max had only 4 lines of dialogue I would probably believe you. A fully realized world exists in snippets of time – making us wonder along the way, almost nothing explained overtly as we forge full speed ahead down that aforementioned road. There’s images of this world, which are paid only a passing glance here, that would probably take up hours of exposition in lesser films - because Miller is at the helm and it’s time to get into the War Machine and gun it.

The film picks up after a brief reintroduction to Max, with Charlize Theoron’s Imperator Furiosa attempting to spring four imprisoned captors of the malevolent Immortan Joe. Joe is the lord of all these post-apocalyptic albino (and/or) boiled covered people inhabiting this particular desert wasteland. Now that 15 months have gone by since its release, I like to think that Joe and his flock are the evolutionary next step of the man-children who got enraged at the all female Ghostbusters reboot. The captors are four unboiled/healthy complexioned women, affectionately known as breeders.  While Joe's gang pursues Furiosa, our title-character is being held prisoner by one of Joe’s War Boys (Nicholas Holt); the two of them (much to Max's chagrin) get dragged into the pursuit of Furiosa and eventually end up being chased alongside with her. That’s basically it as far as plot, this is entirely a what’s on the screen, ocular experience.

Lots was made about Max’s boundless progressive political subtext, a notion I am somewhat baffled by. I do yield that the decision to focus the narrative on Furiosa, framing her as the true ass-kicking heroine of the story, with Max happily conceding to her when a moment warrants it - is an unconventional one as far as far as Hollywood blockbusters are concerned. However, non-traditional gender tropes aside, I’m not sure if you are to take Miller’s world in which women are used and referred to as breeders and the lord of said society holds all water hostage from his people as true 21st Century political allegory. I mean what kind of a demented asshole would you have to be to be on the side of Joe and his War Boys?

Subtext aside, Fury Road is a visual marvel to watch and beyond worthy entry into the series. These Mad Max movies basically have nothing do with one another in terms of continuity/storyline and it’s refreshing how Miller’s 4th entry is devoid of nostalgic callbacks. Unlike JJ Abrams’ Star Wars 7, Road stands on its own without the support of preceding films. There's a great contrast between Miller, the original captain of this series’ ship not leaning on its great past and a fanboy like Abrams heaping on the nostalgia in order to convince you his vision is better than it is; a dichotomy that was blended and perfected in another 2015 film...

 

CREED

A triumph 39 years in the making – undoubtedly the best 7th entry in any series ever (sorry JJ). All due respect to the rush of adrenaline that is FURY ROAD, this is the 2015 film that at its climax made me want to run through a god damn wall.

Crafting a believable stand-alone narrative, rooted in reality in a way that none of the comic-book like sequels are,  director Ryan Coogler has delivered us a cinematic gift, evoking the memories of the original film in a way that never feels forced.  Almost like it is exponentially building on your love of the original films like a reverse Ouroboros, while it merges in your memory to seamlessly become part of that same glorious personal connection; I have seen this damn thing 5 times and each time it has reduced me to a blubbering mess.

Standing in stark contrast to his quiet slow-spoken mentor; Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis ‘Hollywood’ Creed is an arrogant, raging bull of a boxer – first glimpsed hissing and pounding a wall before a fight as if he’s about to charge a matador, channeling a personification of Jake Lamotta's moniker. Adonis on the surface seemingly has no interest being compared or connected to his old man – but a chip on his shoulder the size of a Buick slowly reveals itself as a desire to prove to his old man that he is worth a damn and not some misbegotten product of a superstar athlete’s infidelity.

To manufacture his own legacy, Adonis seeks out his father’s legendary foe turned friend Rocky Balboa. It is hard to articulate just how great Sylvester Stallone is in this movie – I cannot even remember a movie the guy has made in the last 30 years that was meant to be taken seriously, or at the very least didn’t feature a cast of people acting with their neck muscles. Stallone carries the weight of the world on his shoulders; a relic left behind by the ghosts of his friends and loved ones. Not since The Wrestler has a performance so successfully evoked the current state and arc of an actor's career; there are quite a few apt comparisons to be made between the close to 70 year old Rocky, and Mickey Rourke's Randy 'the Ram' Robinson. Rocky has resigned to watching over his restaurant, and visiting the graves of Pauley and Adrian – reading the newspaper and updating them on current events at the expense of our dry-eyes. Sly gives a couple of crushing soliloquies, seemingly taking a 39 year step from the understated lowly charm of the original into Coogler’s equally grounded current Rockyverse. Stallone brings with him the weapon his character advises Adonis to arm himself with – wearing ‘everything that has ever hurt him and all the pain he has inside’ on his sleeve. 

Creed works as a direct sequel to 1976's Rocky, while brilliantly taking all the events of the stair-steppingly stupid sequels as canon. Coogler wisely outlines details of Apollo’s fateful last night, while avoiding the Captain America plot of Rocky seemingly singlehandedly ending the cold war (I recently revisited the fourth film, and it's jarring how far it veers from the small and grounded original). Moments of intimacy serve to restore the lived-in everyday feel of the 1976 Best Picture winner. Between Michael B Jordan and Tessa Thompson, Coogler creates a believable start to finish narrative and romance that feels of today while also fitting within the comically grandiose universe of the series. The film shows great restraint, never once abandoning its Philly-streets roots. The fight scenes are riveting, while never devolving into cartoon slugfests. Ludwig Göransson provides a soaring score, that is more or less an interpolation of Bill Conti's original music but with a thunderous head of steam to go along with our more insatiable bullet-train of a protagonist. I challenge anyone to throw on Goransson's If I Fight, You Fight while exercising, and successfully control their pace during its duration. 

Similar to the music's integration into the franchise- the film itself works within the structure of the original Rocky movies, but knows what made the highlights of them work. Coogler has wisely developed Adonis into a uniquely troubled persona, whose problems differ from those of the Italian Stallion. Outside of the tangental relationship they share - these guys' backgrounds couldn't be more divergent. Adonis is adopted at a young age by Apollo's widow Mary-Anne Creed, he is raised in a Hollywood mansion and at the story's outset Adonis holds a job in finance. I don't recall Rocky taking calls on behalf of JP Morgan Wealth Management before going on his first date with Adrian. What draws these two bruised souls together is the pain they've experienced; their common relationship acts as more of a detriment to their friendship at the start of the film then anything else. The two of them haunted by the memory and death of Apollo since its inception, estranged and impassioned by it. 

In Adonis, Coogler has created a unique voice deserving of its own path; although structurally Creed unfolds very similarly to the original film, its this new protagonist's handling of those same events that serve to shape his own story. Nothing demonstrates this more than Adonis' reaction to the outcome of the climactic fight. While Balboa was content with being able to go toe-to-toe with the champ, going the distance is not enough for the young Adonis, he expected to win no matter what. The familiar mechanics of the final fight, do nothing to damper its sheer emotional wallop. A final motivational pep-talk from Rocky becoming Mickey, words leading to a crescendo as that classic Bill Conti tune from that tiny little underdog story 40 years ago follows Adonis into the ring. New and old blending together into a familiar but masterful heavyweight underdog story - as I have to stop myself from getting out of my seat and cheering. Adonis becoming a great like his mentor and his father; Creed cementing itself as great like Rocky.