Mike at the Movies

Creed (PG-13) *****

Sylvester Stallone reprises his Rocky Balboa role, and this is by far the best work he has done in it. Restrained, textured, emotionally rewarding, he is ably aided and abetted by Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed-Johnson, Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son. That fact is vital to the plot because “Donny,” as he now calls himself, has tons of issues with his dead father, so many that he refuses to fight under the Creed name.

Donny goes to Philadelphia to find his mother (Phylicia Rashad) and to start a boxing career. He quits a good job at a brokerage and starts hanging around the gym that still contains Rocky’s old posters and many memories of both Rocky and Apollo, who died in the ring some years before. He leaves his mother, moves into an apartment over a young and very attractive singer, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who, like Donny, is starting a career.

Donny finally corrals a professional fight—if he will fight as Adonis Creed, something he does not want to do. He is persuaded, has a tough fight and he is on the way. Ironically, his name causes an Irish promoter to propose a bout with the current light heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). The bout has to be done quickly because Ricky is about to go to jail and may never fight again. Everything looks good until a singer calls Donny “Baby Creed.” The fight is imperiled by their dustup but finally gets off. The finest and most effective close-up scenes in boxing film history mark the 12-round bout.

In the meantime, Rocky has been diagnosed with cancer. Refusing chemo, Rocky is told by Creed, “If I fight, you fight.” Things are set up for a soupy finale but the scriptwriters (NOT Stallone this time) avoid the worst of the pitfalls and deliver an honest and emotionally powerful ending. An unavoidable moment happens at the start of the twelfth round as the musical score swells with the fanfare start of the Rocky theme. I dare you to suppress the shivers.

Jordan is hypnotic as the young fighter, Thompson warm and engaging and Stallone surpasses anything you might think him capable of. This is a relentless film that keeps flirting with a parade of clichés but never falls over the cliff. Don’t be ashamed if you find your cheeks a bit wet or your throat a bit choked. This film is so good that it MAKES you react. Not for the very young or those who do not like boxing or bloodshed, but the violence is honest here. Terrific filmmaking.

Trumbo (R) *****

A very strong cast and a compelling true story drive this film to a triumphant totality. Bryan Cranston is utterly convincing as Trumbo, Hollywood’s top screenplay writer until caught up in the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) tragedy of the 1950s. Though he spent only a year in prison, along with the others in the “Hollywood Ten,” it almost destroyed his marriage, his family and his income.

Writing for hack companies and other friends at a frantic pace, Trumbo manages to have a subterranean career and even wins two Oscars under assumed names (“The Brave One” and “Roman Holiday”). That fact alone shows the stupidity of the HUAC mission, but the committee was assisted in its idiocy by such Hollywood personalities as John Wayne (David James Elliott), Ronald Reagan (himself), Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and other lesser lights who all folded under pressure from HUAC.

The segments featuring HUAC are uncomfortably familiar as we see an earlier version of the attempted character assassination of today’s politics. Particularly odious in the ‘50s was the Hollywood reporter Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) who blackmailed numerous people by threatening to repeat rumors and assumptions that they were all Communists—without proof. Others included a character in the film known as “Buddy Ross,” a combination of Dore Schary and Walter Wanger, both liberals who turned on their colleagues when threatened. The film emphasizes what we have apparently not yet recognized: the dangers of violating our democratic principles for the expediency of character assassination, rumor, gossip and refusing to recognize the difference between rhetoric and performance. Even if there were Communists writing and producing in Hollywood at the time, there is no evidence in their work of any attempts to propagandize American citizens.

Finally, the bravery of Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (Roman Holiday) broke the blacklist by naming Trumbo as the screenwriter. The blacklist, as the film reminds us, is still in place in many circles, particularly the paranoid right wing. The film reminds us that those attempting to control Hollywood or any other institution by threat and blackmail should be ignored and fought vigorously. This is wonderful moviemaking and Cranston is apt to win an Oscar on his own for his performance.

The Good Dinosaur (PG) ****

This is a Pixar film for kids so it carries almost a guarantee of excellence. This one has a caveat, however: If your kids are sensitive to danger, loud noises, thunderstorms, or characters dying or appearing to die, be prepared to comfort them. The large audience that greeted the film on Black Friday was almost immobile when they should have been, but not a few ducked under Mom’s or Dad’s shoulder during the tense scenes, of which there are many.

First lesson: Dinosaurs and humans did not co-exist no matter what some politicians might say. Neither did they talk, of course, but “Spot,” a canine-like human, doesn’t quite pass as a dog. The humor is gentle and very subtle: A triceratops with associates says, “He protects me from unrealistic goals.” (Score one for Mom and Dad.)

Scary moments? The first is the fierce thunderstorm that sweeps Papa away from Arlo (the good dinosaur who is also a bit of a coward). Spot fights off a fire lizard who is very scary. Every appearance by the pterodactyls and raptors is frightening. There is a buffalo stampede that Arlo and Spot are caught in. There is a brilliantly executed rescue of Arlo that is still taut with suspense and near-death, and a general atmosphere of threat to Spot and Arlo.

Beautiful is an appropriate description of the scene in which Arlo and Spot both figure out they are orphans, the appearance of fireflies and a scene in which Arlo outlines his new relationship with Spot when he meets his kind. Overall, this is a fine family movie, given the warnings of the emotionally loaded scenes.

Secret in Their Eyes (PG-13) ****

An Academy Award winner in 2009 for Best Foreign Language movie (Argentina), this remake stars two incandescent beauties: Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts. Roberts, as Jess, the haunted mother of the slain Carolyn, plays the role sans makeup and the haggard look matches her character’s desolation at losing her daughter (Zoe Graham) 10 years earlier. Nicole Kidman, who is at her most beautiful in several scenes, thus has the edge in glamor but certainly not in acting ability as she, the assistant DA to the malevolent Alfred Molina’s DA, radiates while Roberts suffers. (My son, Adam, was 2nd 2nd Assistant Director on the film and testified that the scene early on in which Jess discovers her dead daughter was frightening to watch and that Roberts suffered greatly while making it.)

The plot involves an attempt by Jess’s good friend, Ray (Chiwetal Eliofor), to find Carolyn’s killer. He scans thousands of photographs in the FBI database for 13 years and finally finds the guy he is sure committed the murder. He finally focuses on a cartoonist named Marzin whose inarticulate arrogance convinces everybody of his guilt—that plus the fact that he flees police every chance he gets and is a lowlife scum. There is a remarkable chase through Dodger Stadium in LA, for example.

This is a psychological thriller, so the characters are more important than mere plot. Jess, a widow, seems to have a thing for Ray except that she early on accepts that Ray has an eternal crush on Claire. They both insist they are just best friends and we come to believe them. He is warned that “… Stanford and a community college don’t mix,” but he pursues her anyway. The fact that she is ambivalent about her fiancé adds to his frustration and, eventually, hers. Jess pursues Marzin with slightly more zeal than Ray pursues Claire and states, “I always thought it would be me and him in an alley” as she sees Marzin in jail.

End of scene, wrap and go home? This is a thriller and has at least five points at which the film could end. But it doesn’t. This is a film for adults and those younger who are mature enough to tolerate a film with a minimum of bang-bang and a maximum of heartbreaking thought and emotion between mother and daughter, man and woman and people in general.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (PG-13) ****

The long wait is over. After several years of growth, physically and dramatically, Jennifer Lawrence can finally move on in her career unencumbered by Katniss Everdeen. This film brings a pastoral end to one of the most spectacular special effects series of films in recent history. All the story lines are brought to conclusion by survival or death.

A special unit composed entirely of former Hunger Games winners gets together for a final assault on the Capitol and arch-villain Snow (Donald Sutherland). Those thousands of you who have read the books know how it all turns out, but I find it hard to believe that the novels resorted to an extended zombie scene as does the film. Does EVERYBODY have to do a zombie scene these days?!!

The special effects are no longer amazing because we’ve seen them in so many movies since this series started and Katniss still has more trouble smiling than she does creating havoc with bow and arrow, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still out of balance—he asks to be restrained when he feels a spell coming on—and we finally determine the nature of Pres. Coin (Julianne Moore), something about “… absolute power … .”

There are other betrayals for the gang as they wrap things up, but only those who read the book will know how sticky the ending is. All that’s needed is a little Mozart. Fans of the series will be pleased that things turn out like they did in the book. Newcomers may be a bit special-effects fatigued by the end. Lawrence is, however, transcendent.

Victor Frankenstein (PG-13) ***

A re-telling of the Frankenstein story, this one is heavy on the emoting of James McAvoy (Victor), made even more so by the underplaying of Daniel Radcliffe as Igor. (I kept hearing: “Walk this way.”) Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil in “Downton Abbey” and Lorelei the aerialist here) provides motivation for Igor and is the person to succor his wounds as the film winds on.

The writers and director turned the plot sort of on its side, making it a religious struggle between a fundamentalist and a humanist rather than allowing the prejudices of the townsfolk to determine the Monster’s fate. Bad choice. Another bad choice was to make the Monster a modern, huge, creepy thing out of the WWF. A monkey-like monster is tested first but goes berserk and Victor declares, “I need a thinking, creative man” for his next go-around.

Igor is a former hunchback from the circus who, it seems, is suffering only from a cyst on his back that Victor drains. He puts Igor in a back brace for no discernible reason and all that does is make Igor’s love life more difficult.

Andrew Scott gets a turn as Inspector Turpin, the Fundamentalist who bedevils Victor, and Charles Dance is properly offended as the senior Frankenstein. (“If you only could be more like Henry.”) We never meet Henry but he is pivotal to the new plot.

The lightning is there, the secluded castle, body parts and the crucial second heart in the Monster and the Inspector properly (VERY properly) ties Victor to the Darkness: “That man has an allegiance with Satan and must be stopped.” There is spectacular movie making in the violent scenes and the storms, but they are not enough to make an aware audience forget the original story that had the Monster as a sort of popular hero by the end. McAvoy turns that part of the story on himself and fails as a hero. He shouts and spits well, however.

The Night Before (R) *

Why anyone needs to make a profane, obscenity-laced holiday film is totally beyond me, but then, again, this film seems like a war on Christmas anyway. Seth Rogen as Isaac, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ethan and Anthony Mackie as Chris, stumble around trying to make their schtick funny and failing. The holiday spirit is destroyed by very non-festive language and the plot limps along from bad joke to curse to unfunny situation until the whole thing ends unsatisfactorily with some phony love scenes that are as unbelievable as the fact that this is taking place at the holidays.

Does this even sound funny? Isaac throwing up in the middle of a church aisle at a wedding? Mylie Cyrus and Ethan singing a duet (Gordon-Levitt cannot sing)? The slight Mackie playing a pro football player? An obscenity replacing any word in English at any time for mere effect? James Franco making gay jokes with Rogen?—again! If so, then you and 10,000 teenaged boys will love this film. I simply lost patience with it about ¼ of the way through and suffered until the soupy, phony ending. The depth of the “serious” dialogue: “Sometimes being uncomfortable can be a good thing.” Definitely NOT in a holiday “comedy.” Avoid.