Tuesday, 19 January 2016


Creed is an overly sentimental, overblown and often cringe-inducing fiasco which is not to be taken seriously under any circumstances. But it's no less enjoyable than many of the other memorably demented Rocky sequels for all that.

Acutely aware that nobody is having Rocky VII as a concept, Sylvester Stallone and the co-producing Winkler-Chartoff axis have rather cleverly made Rocky VII and called it Creed. That's because it follows the fortunes of the spectacularly talented and self-taught Adonis 'Donny' Johnson, the illegitimate son of former Rocky rival turned mentor Apollo Creed. In a barely believable and cliched fashion, Johnson's rags-to-riches-to-rags journey sees him hook up with legendary former champ Rocky Balboa and pursue his hobby of knocking people out. He's his father's son alright.

Once Michael B Jordan's Donny leaves the luxury of Apollo's old mansion the tale begins it's relentless homage to the Rockys of the past. Rocky, like his own trainer Mickey, is a reluctant trainer for Donny but agrees to it eventually in a stunning display of what-the-heckery. He's sold on Donny's parentage, although any of the facts that Donny throws at him to prove his origins could have been gleaned by spending a couple of hours watching Rocky III. By this time he's already been fobbed off by the son of Apollo's former trainer in LA and fled to Philadelphia, and his and Rocky's visit to that city's art museum was for me, despite the many Liverpool locations featured (St George's Hall, Goodison Park, The Liver Buildings and the Radio City Tower to name a few) the one exciting 'I've been there' moment.

We'll get on to where Liverpool fits in later but for now Donny's only boxing experience to date are the 15 legally dubious contests he fought out in Mexico. The name of his trainer (and not his father because he's not telling anyone about that just yet, he wants to make his own legacy) is enough to get him a match with the local pro at Mickey's old gym. He's 17-0 in his pro career and if you were taking this shit seriously you might question the choice of opponent for Donny's first official pro fight. But you're not so you accept it, just as you accept it's unlikely outcome.

First step on the road to stardom completed, Donny's life is complicated slightly by his relationship with hard of hearing bar room singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson). She's no Adrian but she's passable love interest fare and a reasonable device for helping us find out more about what Donny's really made of. Which is pretty stern stuff as it turns out, although Jordan's mannerisms fail to invoke the spirit of Apollo for me. He lacks his wit also. When Apollo boasted that he'd retired more men than social security some time in the late 70's or early 80's the writers were deliberately channelling his inner Ali. Donny's too serious for that. He's confident but focused. He's not so far ahead of the competition that he can laugh his way to victory like his father could. And the entertainment value drops accordingly to a degree.

And so to Liverpool. If Donny's first pro fight was a stretch to believe, his second is the kind of match only made in Rocky Heaven. Needing a financial boost after some gun-related tomfoolery in Toxteth (no, really) light heavyweight champ Ricky Conlon gets wind of Donny's heritage and is persuaded by his mockney cardboard cut out manager Tommy that it could be a nice little earner. Just one condition for a shot at the title. He has to use the Creed name. Cue more reluctance and nore what-the-heckery and the fight is on.

Now remember those great Rocky foes of old, including Apollo? Clubber Lang? Ivan Drago? They weren't the most rounded of characters but the use of an actual actor did offer a certain something. Conlon is played by Liverpool light heavyweight Tony 'Bomber' Bellew and consequently the character development is kept to an absolute minimum. Clearly the wooden attempts at thespianism were too weak even for a Rocky film, so Conlon is limited to press conference insults, in-fight trash talking and of course physical violence.

The final fight scene is a horrid mangle of styles. The early rounds are all gritty close-ups until with the fight nearing its conclusion we go back to old school Rocky wide shots in which every punch thrown is a preposterous haymaker. In another nod to the franchise there's always someone who can't be at the fight watching at home on television. That used to be Adrian but in her absence Apollo's wife, who had taken Donny in at a young age but lost him when she forbid him to box, will suffice. Without giving the end away the climax is dying on its arse before it is boldly rescued by the one thing the film has lacked to this point and is the only sure fire way to give it a boost. The Rocky theme. This is now officially Rocky VII, whatever they want to call it.

This being Stallone you might expect his unwillingness to let Rocky go spawn more Creed sequels. That is still possible but the way that Creed explores Rocky's mortality suggests that Sly might just be seeing the end of his most famous incarnation sliding in to view. Rocky VIII to be the last, last, last hurrah anyone?

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Joy (spoilers)

Joy is anything but joyful for the most part. Through the narration of her grandmother (Diane Ladd) it tells the almost relentlessly despair-ridden tale of Joy Mangano, divorced mother of two who clearly overcame some adversity (but not as much as the film suggests, surely?) to become one of America's most successful capitalist bastards. I mean entrepreuners.

She did this by inventing a self-rinsing mop with a cotton head that can be cleaned and re-used. Which mundanity is probably the reason why the storytellers decided to have so much go against Joy and to make so many of the people close to her such outstanding piss-hats. A divorced mother of two, Jennifer Lawrence's Joy pays the mortgage in a home which accomodates not only her and her children but also her dad played by Robert De Niro, her mum (Virginia Madsen) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramiez). Her dad has already ruined her wedding day some years previously and goes on to bring preposterous greed-loving Trudy (Isabella Rosselini) into the house after meeting her on a dating website for widows and widowers. He's not even a widower but he has split from Joy's mother, who spends an unrealistic amount of time in her bedroom watching the same monstrously bad soap opera. Before Trudy, Joy's dad Rudy (I know...) shares the basement with Tony, with whom he gets along with about as well as Teddy Sheringham got on with Andy Cole. Half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) pops up less frequently, but is no less contemptible.

Joy's life is perfectly awful, so it's understandable that she tries to find a way out through her invention. She was Valedictorian, which is American for the brightest pupil in her high school, and she puts those brain cells to good use designing her invention with her daughter's crayons. Which is really where the film starts to get bogged down in the legalities of patents and fraud and what-not. Despite attempts to make it dramatic it is hard to get past the fact that it's just a mop. Yes the stakes are high for Joy and even for the rhyming Rudy and Trudy as the triumphs and disasters come at them thick and fast, but it's still just a bloody mop. Perhaps Tony, a wannabe singer from Venezuela who to his credit is a much better friend to Joy than he was a husband, is the one who realises this first as his role is significantly and bafflingly reduced in the second half of the film.

The strength of Joy is in its performances. Lawrence is this writer's definition of watchable but despite that bias I don't think many would argue that she's not the best actress in film at the moment. She even makes you care about Joy, which is going some. It's just a mop, remember. Bradley Cooper delivers a brief but diverting turn as a high powered QVC executive, but despite their best efforts the trio of Lawrence, Bradley and De Niro can't get near the heights of their work in the cinematic gem that is Silver Linings Playbook. I fell asleep during American Hustle which also featured all three, but it was my love of Silver Linings Playbook that persuaded me that Joy might be another pleasant surprise.

It was not, but remained watchable if only for another stellar performance from Lawrence.