“Creed” delivers a movie far beyond expectations. Up and coming actor Michael B. Jordan, whose break-out role in “Fruitvale Station” makes him an actor to watch, plays the son of Apollo Creed. Apollo was Rocky’s great foe who later became his good friend. Jordan discovers his inbred talent for fighting and moves to Philadelphia as part of a search for his father. As Rocky fans know, Creed died in the ring, as it turns out not knowing his mistress was carrying this son. Stallone won our hearts as “Rocky” with the same kind of realism that made “Marty” so timeless. “Creed” has a similar timelessness. Jordan meets singer Tessa Thompson and their attachment has the feel of a genuine urban romance. The fight sequences include a couple of one take wonders, like something out of Scorsese’s playbook for “Goodfellas” or “Raging Bull.” The connection between Stallone and Jordan works. As for Stallone, when I saw the trailer for “Creed” I laughed out loud thinking “Not another one of these.” But Stallone won me over, partly for stepping aside to let Michael B. Jordan shine and partly because of Stallone’s ability to tap into the humanity of his franchise character. Don’t roll your eyes. “Creed” is pretty good. Does it deliver what it promises? Another chapter of the “Rocky” saga enjoyable even for newcomers. Is it entertaining? Winning story and performances. Is it worth the price of admission? A nice holiday surprise.
The coming attraction trailer for “Secret in Their Eyes” caught my attention. Julia Roberts makes a rare appearance as an FBI investigator sent to a crime scene where she discovers her daughter has been brutally murdered. Roberts gets a big moment of discovery and grief. The investigation starts and the criminal appears to get off the hook. Robert’s friends in the FBI do some undercover investigating of their own. The excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor takes the lead. Their suspect is an informant Homeland Security will protect in order to move their terrorism work forward. Nicole Kidman joins the plot as an assistant district attorney for whom Ejiofor is quite smitten. “Secret in Their Eyes” remakes the 2010 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner from Argentina. Most who see this American version won’t know how much better the original worked in a South American setting. Julia Robert’s looks terrible as the grief-stricken mother. Her look is appropriate but never do we forget we’re looking at an unglamorized Julia Roberts. A subplot of a fizzled romance between Ejiofor and Kidman distracts due to the couple’s lack of chemistry. The twist at the end which delivered a genuine shock in the original feels disappointing in this American remake. Flashbacks between 2002 and 2015 get confusing and hard to follow. The best thriller I’ve seen this year is “Room.” “Secret of Their Eyes” doesn’t come close. Does it deliver what it promises? Slow confusing crime thriller. Is it entertaining? Slow and confusing. Is it worth the price of admission? Skip it.
“Spotlight” celebrates newspapers and newspaper reporting. Comparisons to “All the President’s Men” hit the mark with an extra bit of sadness. The kind of work shown in this feature may not exist much longer. Based on the 2002 Pulitzer prize-winning reporting by the Boston Globe of the Catholic Church’s coverup of abuse by priests, Michael Keeton leads a group of reporters looking for the big picture. They include passionate Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy. The story captures the city wide institutional pressure to look the other way. This isn’t told in black and white but rather shades of grey. Even the media shares some of the blame. Keeton stands out as the leader of the team. The great John Slattery adds heft as their editor. Liev Schreiber plays a credible executive editor new to town looking in from the outside. Several segments are thrilling, especially the finale when the presses print, the trucks deliver, and the story hits the front stoop. Does it deliver what it promises? One of the year’s best. Is it entertaining? Compelling. Is it worth the price of admission? A must see.
“Brooklyn” is a grand old-fashioned movie in the best sense of the word aided by an award worthy performance by Saoirse Ronan. Based on a novel by John Crowley, Ronan begins the story in Ireland working in a shop. Her sister wants a better life for her and engages the local priest to sponsor Ronan’s relocation to America. Ronan endures sea sickness, homesickness, and the fear of finding one’s way. As her life improves, and love finds her, tragedy strikes, sending her back to Ireland. “Brooklyn” explores the value of home and choices and making a life. Julie Walters has some especially great moments as Ronan’s landlady, and Jim Broadbent stands out as a kindly priest. Ronan’s two love interests, American Emory Cohen and Irishman Domhnall Gleeson gain our attention equally. “Brooklyn” is one of the year’s most enjoyable and heartfelt stories. Does it deliver what it promises? Great coming of age love story. Is it entertaining? Wonderful story telling. Is it worth the price of admission? Go see it.
“The 33” presents the true story of 33 miners trapped for more than two months in a cave in deep inside Chile’s Atacama Desert. The event took place in 2010 and many watched in real-time as the men ascended from a depth comparable to the Empire State Building in a state of the art rescue capsule. The story balances efforts on the ground with the determination of the men to survive. Antonia Banderas takes the lead of the trapped men, while Gabriel Byrne commands the engineering force required. “The 33” feels like the shorthand version of the story, a sort of graphic novel approach. The mostly American cast tries to sound like Spanish speakers with mixed to poor results. Cote de Pablo and Juliette Binoche don’t seem well used as concerned wives and relatives demanding their loved one’s return. A segment at the end with the real survivors adds a note of realism sadly missing from the rest of the production. Does it deliver what it promises? Attempt to recreate an amazing rescue. Is it entertaining? Lone and slow. Is it worth the price of admission? Skip it.
Brian Cranston does a lot of talking in “Trumbo” — the film biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. A Communist in the 1930’s. Trumbo refused to answer questions and name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940’s. His actions landed him in prison for contempt of Congress, but his greater punishment came when he returned to Hollywood. In spite of his proven talent, no one would hire him. Trumbo fought back writing scripts under assumed names and getting screen writing jobs for his friends as well. Ultimately one of Trumbo’s scripts won an Oscar and redemption, work and proper credit followed. The story of the Black List during the Communist scare of the 1950’s has been told often, as has Trumbo’s tribulations. This new film turns several Hollywood figures including John Wayne and columnist Hedda Hopper into cartoon style villains. Diane Lane adds a note of grace of Trumbo’s long-suffering wife. Elle Fanning stands out as Trumbo’s teen aged daughter, enduring adolescence as well as her father’s struggle. “Trumbo” could have benefited from a more subtle approach. In spite of a heavy hand, it remains easy to watch and enjoy. Does it deliver what it promises? Heavy handed history with a Hollywood touch. Is it entertaining? Brian Cranston can do no wrong. Is it worth the price of admission? Worth a look.
“Spectre” sticks to the successful James Bond formula that’s a good thing. I felt like I was watching an update on “Goldfinger” and that’s a compliment. “Spectre” opens with a long no cut tracking shot that would make Orson Wells jealous. Bond works his way through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade into the bedroom of a beautiful woman and then out her window to an assignment that leads to a bomb and an earthquake of an explosion capping off with a fight inside a careening helicopter. The sequence looks so breathtaking you shake your head and mutter “how’d they do that?” And that’s just the opening, followed by the usual credits featuring Bond and a screen filled with suggestive women. In this episode, the now dead Judy Dench as “M” leaves Bond a beyond the grave assignment. As he goes rogue, Daniel Craig channels the great Sean Connery. Rumor has it this is his final Bond feature but I doubt it. The plot takes Bond to Morocco, Italy, Austria and London. The forces of evil have an opportunity to infiltrate Bond’s agency, something Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” is determined to stop with Bond’s help. The young French actress Lea Seydoux emerges as the daughter of one of Bond’s enemies becoming our agent’s lover as well as a helpful partner. A bloody battle on a luxury train with Bond in white dinner jacket and Seydoux in an evening gown especially resonates with the roots of the series. The former wrestler Dave Bautista stands in for “Oddjob” from “Goldfinger” as one of the heavyweights Bond must finish. Their fight almost demolishes the dining car. Christopf Waltz steps in as the master villain, complete with long speeches explaining his motives while a timer runs down to disaster. Always a count-down, eh? The plot feels familiar and the movie at two and a half hours sometimes feels long. I doubt that Bond fans will mind. Step aside and make way for “Spectre.” Does it deliver what it promises? By the numbers Bond adventure. Is it entertaining? Very much. Is it worth the price of admission? Bond fans will love it.
“Suffragette” reminds viewers of the harsh history of the women’s movement in England a hundred years ago. After years of official foot-dragging, women demanding the vote turn radical—breaking windows, bombing postboxes and ultimately fire bombing the summer home of the Prime Minister. We watch these events through the eyes of washerwoman Maud Watts played by Carey Mulligan. Trapped in a life of poverty working at a laundry alongside her husband, she gradually joins the movement, and pays a price. Mulligan captures the hopelessness of her situation. The excellent Helena Bonham Carter adds life as a movement leader who takes Mulligan under her care. Meryl Streep makes a quick appearance as movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Brendan Gleeson appears as a detective who takes an interest in Mulligan’s case even as he repeatedly arrests her. The story builds to a moment in history that hits with a shock. Does it deliver what it promises? A harsh history lesson. Is it entertaining? Gives the viewer much to think about. Is it worth the price of admission? A worthy story.
Sandra Bullock turns in another winning performance as a burnt out political operative talked into one more impossible assignment: turn around the long shot campaign of a former Bolivian President who seeks reelection. In usual comic manner, Bullock arrives jet lagged and in need of oxygen because of the altitude. Her campaign wobbles and mistakes are made. She discovers she’s competing with longtime nemesis Billy Bob Thornton. The screen crackles every time Bullock and Billy Bob square off. Other scenes inserted for fun feel forced and unfunny. “Our Brand in Crisis” is based on the 2002 Bolivian election in which candidates turned to U.S. style marketing, research, and negative ads. Bullock revels in her strong character, but “Our Brand in Crisis” feels less groundbreaking and more like a by the numbers comedy. A turn at the end adds a nice twist, just a little too late. Does it deliver what it promises? Political comedy with implications for the U.S. Is it entertaining? Hit and miss. Is it worth the price of admission? Mixed review.
Bradley Cooper plays a talented down on his luck chef who finds his mojo in a London restaurant. He throws major tantrums in the kitchen, acting like Steve Jobs when his computer wouldn’t say “Hello.” “Burnt” reminds me of “The Hundred Foot Journey” and of the superior “Chef.” Both films tell a similar story better. However, the food looks beautiful. Sienna Miller shows up as Bradley’s lover and sous chef, and I found it interesting to see Matthew Rhys (the super spy from “The Americans”) almost unrecognizable as a competitor and rival. My favorite food movies beyond “Chef” include “Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night” from which “Burnt” lifts a scene combining forgiveness and breakfast. Watching “Burnt” on the heels of “Steve Jobs” feels like a slog. At least Jobs changed the world. This guy just screams and cooks. Does it deliver what it promises? Comedy romance with food and tantrums. Is it entertaining? Feels derivative. Is it worth the price of admission? Cable bound soon.