Home » New films: Creed, Trumbo, Legend, The Good Dinosaur, Victor Frankenstein
Film Review

New films: Creed, Trumbo, Legend, The Good Dinosaur, Victor Frankenstein

Creed
Directed by Ryan Coogler

Sac State film alumnus Ryan Coogler has followed his outstanding feature-length directorial debut (“Fruitvale Station”) with another equally strong film, this time breathing new life into the “Rocky” franchise without requiring Sylvester Stallone to take his shirt off.

In “Creed,” Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed who’s also an aspiring young fighter. It’s an interesting approach to the series, in a story also written by Coogler, by introducing a legacy-based character in a way that doesn’t conflict with any of the previous films, including the already successful comeback film “Rocky Balboa.”

In this way, conceptually, it’s brilliantly simple. Stallone/Rocky is too old to be back in the ring himself and so there has to be a hook (pun intended) to drag him out of his quiet retirement – and what better way than to have a young fighter with a link to his past who needs a trainer? Short of giving Rocky himself a son he doesn’t know about, conjuring up a son of Creed who has flown under the radar, spending years in state care and using his mother’s last name, feels like the perfect approach.

The outcome is also remarkably good. Jordan, who previously starred in “Fruitvale Station,” is solid in both his build and his acting, with Tessa Thompson matching wits as his love interest. And Stallone is likely to gain supporting actor nominations for his seventh time playing Rocky Balboa – for the first time bringing him to the screen in a subdued and vulnerable, non-leading performance. For want of a better word, it’s a relatively graceful appearance from an actor who has hung onto action roles in recent years primarily through the “Expendables” films, which largely succeed through the stunt casting of action stars who would otherwise be too old to be action stars.

But then, whatever you might think of his acting, Stallone has made a lot of good business decisions, including when and how to bring back his signature characters. Even those seemingly ridiculous “Expendables” films have been successful enough to be threatening big screens and audiences with a rumored fourth iteration for 2017.

“Creed” is a good film and a very well done boxing film – a sub-genre that’s been seen a lot over the years. There’s only one moment in the film where it lost me temporarily, when an opponent took off his robe and looked too pudgy to be a world champion. But that perceived lapse was short-lived as the action kicked back in and won me over again. It may not be the most famous seventh installment of the year, but it’s well worth the time and money – and it proves that both Adonis Creed and Ryan Coogler are serious contenders.


Trumbo
Directed by Jay Roach

“Trumbo” might be the best, least seen film in the Sacramento area this year, opening on only a couple of screens in Elk Grove and Roseville, and absent in Sacramento itself. Which is a huge shame as it’s really quite brilliant and worthy of far more attention and real estate.

Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, an ironically, similarly underappreciated screenwriter who had the misfortune to be an outspoken communist during the period that Congress apparently forgot the value of freedom of expression and political thought. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted in the industry and imprisoned after being cited for contempt of congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

However, instead of sitting on the sidelines, Trumbo not only continued to write under assumed names or with other credited writers, but organized other blacklisted writers to do the same. During this period, he wrote such films as “Roman Holiday,” “The Brave One,” and “Spartacus” – each of which are detailed in the film – and it’s impossible to gauge how successful he might have been had he been free to write whatever he chose to.

“Trumbo” manages to be moving, inspiring, inherently shaming, and frequently hilarious. Cranston is simply excellent and is supported by a fine ensemble cast, including Louis C.K., Diane Lane, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, and Helen Mirren as Hollywood’s own muckraking period gossip columnist and blacklist proponent Hedda Hopper.

The film is expertly helmed by Jay Roach, more known for much broader comedy (think in terms of the Focker family and Austin Powers) and demonstrating broader talent here. It also makes great use of both modern actors playing period stars and original film footage. And so we see, for example, Dean O’Gorman playing Kirk Douglas, including recreated scenes from “Spartacus” pieced together with actual scenes from the original film.

Overall, the film seems capable of garnering multiple Oscar nominations, not just for acting and writing categories, but for such things as design and editing – which brings me back to its limited release schedule. “Trumbo” may be one of those films that makes assorted best of the year and award lists and yet leaves casual observers wondering what all the fuss is about, given that they won’t have had the opportunity to actually enjoy it on the big screen where it belongs. While that may be far less shameful than the events the film depicts, it’s still disappointing to see Trumbo’s legacy getting swept aside again.

Moviebriefs

Another wonderful film this week, with marvelous central performances, is “Legend.” Tom Hardy plays both of the infamous Kray twins, who were high profile crime bosses in London in the 50’s and 60’s. These are meaty roles, as depicted, with Reggie as the relatively calculating, business-minded brother and Ronnie as the out of control psychopath who also happened to be openly gay at a time when that was only marginally more acceptable than bludgeoning rival gang members with hammers. I’ve seen some accounts online that cast doubt on the exact accuracy of these portrayals, but that doesn’t diminish Hardy’s dual performances – and it’s possible that he may even be competing against himself in some categories when award seasons rolls around. Other noteworthy performances include Christopher Eccleston as the detective pursuing the Krays, David Thewlis as their bookkeeper, Emily Browning as Reggie’s ill-fated wife, and Taran Egerton as one of Ronnie’s preferred henchmen. But “Legend” will primarily be remembered for its double-dose of Tom Hardy.

At the other end of the scale, for me at least, is “The Good Dinosaur” – a film I disliked from start to finish with an intensity I’ve only experienced once before with a Pixar project (with respect to their short film “Lava”). I’m tempted to say that the only thing that’s good about “The Good Dinosaur” is the second word of the title, but that wouldn’t be fair to the background artists who did amazing work behind some of the least enjoyable character animation of recent years. The basic premise is that the dinosaurs didn’t become extinct and, instead, developed intelligence and an agrarian economy, farming corn and herding cattle while humans were still grunting and transitioning from four legs to two and apparently mimicking wolves in the process. However, you basically have to check all you’ve ever learned about evolution, adaptation, brain size, and specific species of dinosaurs to even begin to enjoy this, even if you buy the missed asteroid starting point, and that was too much for me (however, if you can make that leap, you might enjoy it). It’s also a remarkably dark film for youngsters, with prominent themes of death and violence throughout the story. The other odd aspect of the film is that it’s paired with the short “Sanjay’s Super Team,” about a young boy who comes to appreciate his father’s Hinduism by picturing the gods as superheroes. I enjoyed it far more than the feature (which wasn’t hard) but it seems likely to upset some of the same people who will most enjoy a film about dinosaurs and humans co-existing. After watching the film, I read that it had been through multiple re-writes, cast changes, a director change, and numerous delays – and it still feels like it could have used a few more of those things.

Sitting relatively blandly in the middle of this week’s major releases is the latest version of an often told story in “Victor Frankenstein.” Re-telling the story from assistant Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) perspective, it has a style that makes it seem as though Mary Shelley had originally written a graphic novel, but one with far less depth. James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein, here significantly more monstrous than his monster. Although both lead actors seem to have fun with their roles, the film just doesn’t have much going for it, with Igor being alternately torn between gratitude for Frankenstein’s patronage and disgust with Frankenstein’s ambitions, but with the story abruptly ending where the original took off. It might work well enough for somebody either unfamiliar with or only vaguely aware of the source material, perhaps just looking for a mild creature feature, but it’s more of a different story than simply a different perspective. Plus, it’s a flaw when the final creature encountered in a film is less intense than the first.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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