drama

REVIEW: Air (2023)

With Nike’s basketball division failing, sport marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) sets out to beat the competition – Converse and Adidas – and sign basketball rookie Michael Jordan.

Air fits into one of my favourite subgenres of film – people being really good at their jobs. There’s something really satisfying about seeing people work hard, believe in what they’re doing and working together. Plus, there’s the element of it being an underdog story which always works well in sports movies. It also does the most important thing a sports film can do, make a sport understandable and interesting for anyone, no matter how much or little they know about the sport which is basketball in this instance.

Air is superbly directed with director Ben Affleck making a bunch of phone calls absolutely thrilling. It’s a testament to how good the script is when it makes a story where you know the ending so engaging. It’s also a surprisingly funny film and is downright hilarious at times thanks mostly due to Chris Messina’s David Falk, Michael Jordan’s agent. Any phone call between him and Damon is excellent and usually a bit chaotic too. (more…)

REVIEW: Creed III (2023)

Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is living the highlife; he has a loving family and while he’s retired from boxing he’s still in that world as a gym owner and boxing promoter. When his childhood best friend Damien Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a boxing prodigy, re-enters Adonis’s life after a long stint in prison, he’s eager to prove he deserves a shot in the ring – no matter who might stand in his way.

Creed III takes place seven years after the events of Creed II and the film does such a good job at showing that passage of time and how the characters lives have changed. Donnie has retired though is still heavily involved with the boxing world and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has been winning awards for her music and while Donnie is shaping up-and-coming young boxers, she’s writing and producing new musical talent. Their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) is deaf and it was so good to see how her parents and grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) were fluent in sign language and how their home was fully accessible for her too, such as having lights flash when the doorbell rang. Obviously, any loving parent should be eager to learn new things in order to communicate with their child, but it was so nice seeing this kind of family which you don’t tend to see in a big mainstream film. (more…)

REVIEW: Creed II (2018)

Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the champion and has everything going for him in his life with his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) by his side. When Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Donnie’s father in the ring, steps onto the scene, Donnie has the fight of his life on his hands.

There’s something about the films in this franchise that brings out performances one wouldn’t expect from its aging action stars. Stallone is still great here, like he often was throughout the series, but it’s Lundgren that impressed me this time. You don’t get to spend a lot of time with the Drago’s but it gives you enough to see what the relationship between this father and son is like. Almost naturally Viktor is full of hate thanks to the environment he grew up in but seeing how he and his father clash as Ivan pushes him in order to reclaim the family honour is interesting and the other side of the coin compared to Rocky and Donnie’s relationship.

The parallel of Rocky training in the snow for his fight against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV with Donnie training in the desert for his fight against Viktor Drago is exquisite. Sure, like Creed was a twist on the first Rocky, Creed II has similar beats to a few other Rocky films, but that doesn’t mean Creed II isn’t a really enjoyable time. The desert training montage is one of the series best and the music choices there, and throughout the film to be honest, are brilliant.

In Creed, Stallone was kind of the scene stealer but in Creed II it is most definitely Michael B. Jordan’s film. Donnie goes through a lot of physical and emotional turmoil and the way Jordan captures that, especially some of the internal battles he’s going through, is excellent. Donnie and Bianca’s relationship is wonderful and it’s so nice to see the romantic couple still together and stronger than ever in the sequel. Thompson and Jordan have great chemistry and adding a baby into their family dynamic adds a whole new set of responsibilities and pressures on Donnie’s shoulders.

Creed II is a worthy sequel as it has all the emotional beats you’d expect from this franchise plus the fights are exciting and here you really feel the punches. Thanks to the sound design, when there’s serious injuries like broken ribs you can hear them happen and the performances makes these fights feel a lot more real and dangerous. Creed II is a great continuation of the Rocky and Apollo legacy but I’m looking forward to seeing how Donnie and this franchise can step out of their shadow with Creed III. 4/5.

REVIEW: Creed (2015)

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) never knew his famous father, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died in the ring before he was born. Fighting is in his blood and Donnie tracks down his father’s former rival turned friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to ask him to train him.

While Creed is a sequel/part of the Rocky franchise, it’s definitely the kind of clever “reboot” where you can watch it without knowing anything of the previous films. That certainly what I did the first time I watched it and I loved it then, just as I loved it this time. I won’t lie though, there is something nice to see the references and call backs to the previous films in this one and there’s the odd scene that has maybe a bit more emotional weight knowing what came before it decades ago.

The other smart thing Creed does is how it balances the legacy of this franchise with what Donnie as a character is going through. Donnie wants to carve out his own name for himself and not just get things handed to him because of his family name, but as things progress he comes to a realisation that he can be his own man but that doesn’t change the fact of who his father is. He can embrace the name “Creed” without living in his father’s shadow. The film itself goes a similar route and while it is no doubt an excellent film on its own, embracing what came before it just adds something extra special to Creed.

There are still fights in Creed but it’s really the characters and their everyday relationship drama which is the focus of this film. That’s not to say they skimp on the fights, when they’re there, they’re exciting and well shot. The fight about midway through the film is a standout as while I’m sure there’s the computer trickery putting in the edits where needed, it looks like the whole fight, including when each boxer is in their corner in between each round, is all in one take. It really immerses you in the action and I have no clue how they got the cuts to appear on each fighter’s face without you seeing the makeup artists.

Michael B. Jordan is excellent in Creed and conveys that emotional turmoil of trying to find a place to belong and a family without just living off your famous relatives’ names. The family he builds is Rocky, who he starts calling “Unc” pretty much as soon as they met much to Rocky’s bemusement, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his musician girlfriend, and his adoptive mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). I kind of loved what Creed says about family because here’s Rocky that’s lost his wife and best friend/brother-in-law and his own son lives in another country, so while he doesn’t have any close blood family either, with Donnie’s help he also gets a second chance at a different kind of family.

Stallone is just jaw-droppingly good in Creed and his Rocky is just tired and almost willing to give up on life until Donnie comes along. Their relationship is at the core of this film and they both push at each other to keep fighting.

Everything about Creed is so well done which shouldn’t be a surprise now with hindsight as director and co-writer Ryan Coogler repeatedly surrounds himself with excellent artists and collaborators. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s score has its own vibe to it but when it incorporates the Rocky theme it does so at just the right moment.

In the era of reboots/legacy sequels Creed is far better than probably anyone was expecting. It does exactly what it set out to do, pay homage to great characters like Rocky and Apollo while forging a new character in Donnie that can stand on their own two feet. Creed blends emotion, drama, and high stakes fights brilliant and overall, it is an excellent film, whether you’ve seen the Rocky films or not. 5/5.

REVIEW: Rocky Balboa (2006)

After a computer-generated matchup between current heavyweight champion Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) and ex-champ Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) puts Balboa as the winner. Dixon’s people look to make the match a reality. Meanwhile Rocky’s looking for a way to process his grief and decides to come out of retirement to try and find some purpose – even if that means he’ll face an opponent who’s faster, stronger and thirty years his junior.

Maybe it’s because I’ve watched all the previous Rocky films so close together but Rocky Balboa did get me a bit emotional a couple of times. Where we see Rocky now at this stage of his life just feels right for the character. He’s still grieving for his beloved Adrian and it becomes clear that he hasn’t even started processing his feelings and grief even though she’s been gone a few years now. Stallone is wonderful in the scenes by her grave and when talking to Paulie (Burt Young) about his memories of her.

Rocky’s got his own restaurant and has a decent life for himself even if he’s not as close to his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) as he’d like. Their relationship was interesting and not what I was expecting because there’s a lot of love there, it’s just Robert doesn’t know how to step out of his father’s shadow.

A trope I tend to love is unlikely friendships, especially when the two friends are different generations or genders and Rocky Balboa surprised me by having that. Rocky meets bartender Marie (Geraldine Hughes) and their friendship is really sweet, especially when Rocky is up front about not being over his wife and Marie wasn’t expecting anything like that anyway. It was a fresh dynamic compared to the familial relationships Rocky already has and worked really well.

The final fight in Rocky Balboa is one of my favourites in the series. Just how it’s shot and edited together, along with moments that are in black and white with just a pop of red for either fighter’s blood was so cool and engaging and made it stand out after seeing a bunch of other Rocky fights very recently.

Rocky Balboa is about an aging fighter battling with his emotions and still putting on one hell of a fight in the ring. Obviously there’s the Creed films where you get to see more of Rocky and how his life turned out, but even if you didn’t I think this is a wonderful place to leave the character. He gets one last hurrah and is surrounded by those he cares about which is all anyone like Rocky could want. 5/5.

REVIEW: Rocky V (1990)

Recently retired from fighting due to the risk to his health, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) takes on Mickey’s old boxing gym and begins to train Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), an up-and-coming boxer with a lot of potential. Rocky’s focus on Tommy though begins to put his personal life at risk.

The scenes of Rocky V with Rocky’s shaking hands and then him and Adrian (Talia Shire) receiving his prognosis about his brain injuries are brilliant. The opening especially is a chance to see Rocky vulnerable in a way we’d not seen before and showed how strong his and Adrian’s relationship is. With that setup it’s easy to presume that Rocky V will go a more serious and different route to we’ve seen before in this series so it’s then a shame that his ill health is barely mentioned again and doesn’t have a real impact on the plot.

Instead, you have Rocky taking in Tommy, and putting all his focus and love on him as they share the love and skills for boxing, while ignoring his son. It’s easy to see why Rocky is like this at least to begin with but his family has seemingly always meant more to him than boxing or titles so it’s not enjoyable seeing him put someone he’s just met onto a pedestal to the detriment to his loved ones.

While the Rocky films have always been underdog stories, often showing the tough life Rocky has had, they’ve also always had some fun to them. Rocky V doesn’t have that fun element. Too much of it is a downer on Rocky and his family. They lose their house and money, Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone) feels replaced in his father’s eyes by Tommy, and Rocky struggles to balance his love for the sport and his love for his family. And Paulie (Burt Young) is continuing to be his cantankerous and somewhat irresponsible self.

Sylvester Stallone still gives a great performance and is probably the thing that kept me somewhat interested throughout this slog of a film. I’ve seriously been impressed with him when watching this franchise as I’ve always been under the impression that he may give the odd great performance but generally isn’t a good actor. Overall, Rocky V is just very predictable and not that exciting, Stallone’s performance and the final fight are the only worthwhile things about this film and even then, it feels like that’s being quite generous. 2/5.

REVIEW: Yes, God, Yes (2019)

After an innocent AOL chat turns racy sixteen-year-old Catholic Alice (Natalia Dyer) discovers masturbation and struggles to suppress her new urges as the act would be considered a sin.

Yes, God, Yes is a wonderful coming-of-age story that tackles religion and female sexuality. Alice attends a Catholic school and, when she suddenly gets these new urges that everyone tells her are sinful, she attends a religious camp to help get her back on the straight and narrow.

The script for Yes, God, Yes is great as it pokes holes in the hypocrisy in religion (specifically Catholicism) and does it in a way that’s natural. It allows moments to breathe and often the focus is on Alice as she observes different people breaking the rules/committing sin and how that goes against what those same people had been preaching hours earlier. Natalia Dyer is such a compelling lead and she captures that naivety of sheltered teenagers when it comes to sex and then the interest and anticipation when Alice discovers how to pleasure herself. When Alice starts to get more conviction in herself and how she views God it’s truly great to see.

Yes, God, Yes is set in the Midwest in the early 2000’s which makes Alice’s uncertainty about sexual slang all the more believable. When rumours spread about her, she denies everything and even says she doesn’t know what she’s being accused of even means. All the 2000’s references are wonderful with Alice playing Snake on her chunky Nokia, the computer with the huge screen, and Titanic being on VHS and a formative influence when it comes to Alice’s sexual awakening.

Yes, God, Yes puts forward a compelling argument as to why a lot of films should be just 90 minutes or less. At 78 minutes, Yes, God, Yes never overstays its welcome and instead manages to capture all the cringey, awkward, funny, and difficult things about being a teenager who is trying to figure out who they are. It’s hard enough trying to figure out what you enjoy in life without having just about anything fun or pleasurable considered to be a huge sin. 4/5.

REVIEW: Rocky IV (1985)

After Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a highly intimidating Soviet athlete, kills Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in an exhibition match, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) comes to the heart of Russia for revenge.

Even though Rocky’s driving force is the loss of his friend which is obviously a big deal, Rocky IV feels goofier than the previous films. It doesn’t really help that there’s a talking robot in the Balboa household which is probably the most 80s and out of place thing they could’ve added to this series.

Considering Rocky’s reaction and emotional fallout in losing Mickey (Burgess Meredith), his reaction to Creed’s death and his perceived role in it is a lot more muted. Creed’s death doesn’t have the big emotional impact that it should do and then the rest of the film never really recovers from that.

I love a good montage as much as anyone but in Rocky IV it feels like they didn’t have enough character work or a strong narrative to make a decent film and instead just filled up the runtime with montages. There are two training montages back-to-back and are purely split up by one scene of Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire) having a conversation and then it’s back to the training montage. There’s also a montage to song “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper while Rocky is driving and it’s all footage of the previous three films. Perhaps if I hadn’t watched these films in quick succession it wouldn’t have felt so redundant but even then though it begins with Rocky reminiscing about the evolution of his and Apollo’s relationship, it ends up being a highlights reel of everything that happened in the previous films. Not too sure what they were going for there.

The fights between Drago and Apollo, and Drago and Rocky are still pretty good. The framing of how much larger Lundgren is than both Weathers and Stallone is really good. It especially works with Stallone as he’s the leanest of the three and the reach of Lundgren’s arm is so big that it’s hard for Stallone to get close to him. The camerawork definitely paints the David vs Goliath picture well.

Overall, Rocky IV is a bit sillier than its predecessors and doesn’t really have the emotional weight it should have. The fights are still engaging though and Rocky and Adrian’s relationship is still one of my favourite things about this series and Paulie (Burt Young) is one of the worst. 3/5.

REVIEW: Rocky III (1982)

World champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is living a life of luxury and is at the top of his game until Clubber Lang (Mr T) arrives on the scene. After a bitter defeat Rocky gains guidance from the most unlikely of places, former rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

After wondering when “Eye of the Tiger” was going to make an appearance, it’s finally arrived in Rocky III and it arrived in style. It’s present throughout the film but it’s the backing song for the opening montage which I loved. It was so clever to use that montage to not only see what Rocky’s life is like since we last saw him in Rocky II, but then compare his life to that of Clubber Lang’s. While Rocky is getting all the fame and fortune, big sponsorship deals and celebrity moments, his boxing appears to be falling by the wayside a bit even though he’s still winning. Meanwhile Lang is training on his own and winning fights in just a couple of rounds, instantly proving to be a dangerous adversary.

Adrian (Talia Shire) is brilliant in Rocky III. She’s always been quite quiet and mousy but as it’s been a few years since she’s had their son and been by Rocky’s side for everything, it’s great to see how she’s come out of her shell. Her and Rocky’s relationship is still pretty great and loving but now she really feels like his equal, not afraid to push him to get him to say what he truly feels and shows how she really knows him.

The fights in Rocky III are my favourite in this series so far. The way they’re shot puts you right in the action with more point-of-view shots of Rocky, Lang, Creed, and wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan). The fights are entertaining and gripping and they work so well – especially the ones featuring Lang. Mr T is a great addition to this series and unlike Creed who’s always had a little bit of likeability to him even when he was the “bad guy” in the previous films, Lang is portrayed as a straight up villain. Sure Mr T has the charisma but he channels it into a ferociousness that’s different to Creed’s and makes him a real, intimidating threat to Rocky even before they get into the ring – especially as well as verbally antagonising Rocky, he takes jabs at Adrian too which gets under Rocky’s skin.

I know there’s obviously a lot more Rocky films to watch but I do feel like Rocky III rounds out a pretty perfect trilogy of films. It covers the highs and lows of Rocky’s story so well without anything getting stale, and each film goes deeper into the different relationships Rocky has. Whether that’s his romance with Adrian, his working relationship with Mickey (Burgess Meredith), or even the start of a potentially great friendship with Apollo. Everything wraps up really nicely so it’ll be interesting to see if the next Rocky films have some of the same emotional weight to them as Rocky III and its predecessors do. 5/5.

REVIEW: Rocky II (1979)

After Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) goes the distance with champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), he retires from boxing and plans to get an everyday job and settle down with the love of his life Adrian (Talia Shire). But when Creed wants a rematch in order to restore his reputation, he begins to insistently goad Rocky to accept the challenge.

I don’t know how controversial this may be but I preferred Rocky II to the original. One of the fun things about watching these films for the first time is that while I’ve been aware of them though pop culture osmosis, I don’t know what happens in each film nor do I really know which films are considered to be the best/worst.

Everything in Rocky II just clicked better for me. Perhaps it helps that now I know these characters so I’m not starting from scratch and am more invested in their relationships. Rocky II follows a similar format to the first in the sense the first half is Rocky trying to live a life away from boxing before getting pulled back into it again and then the second half is the training montages with the boxing match at the end. There’s a surprisingly emotional hurdle for Rocky in that second half though and Stallone really brought a level of sincerity to this character/story that I wasn’t expecting.

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve often thought of Stallone as more of just an action star rather than a proper actor, at least when he was young (I have seen Creed and admit he deserved a load of awards for his performance there). Seeing how Stallone portrays the love he has for Adrian and the life he’s trying to build makes me think there was always a great actor in this action hero stereotype. Knowing also how this character/story was created by him, makes this franchise feel like a real labour of love and I’m already looking forward to revisiting Creed once I’ve seen Rocky’s story in full.

One thing I really enjoyed was Rocky’s relationship with his coach Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Their dynamic was excellent and while Mickey was no nonsense and gave Rocky tough love when training him, he also was ready and willing to be by his side when Rocky needed it the most. Mickey’s monologue to Rocky in the church was excellent and possible one of my favourite moments in the film – alongside the training montage where hundreds of schoolkids though the streets of Philadelphia with Rocky. Both scenes got me emotional for different reasons.

Rocky II provides a great rematch for these two larger than life characters and it was good to see more of Creed’s home life to as it made him more sympathetic and it was a good juxtaposition with Rocky’s situation. The final boxing match was really engaging and all the character elements came together really well. A very worthy sequel. 4/5.