Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Rocky/Creed Saga (1976-2018)


Self-Reflection is threaded through the whole narrative: 
"That's the toughest opponent you're ever going to have to face" is the Rocky franchise Credo (Latin for Creed).

"All eight films remain firmly optimistic about relationships, life, and possibility. They are emotionally honest, frequently looking in the mirror."

After watching eight Rocky/Creed films over ten days, nothing stands out more than how affectionately these characters are written. They are deeply loved by the writers, actors, directors, and fans. Even when an episode is lacking (or just plain awful), characters like Paulie or Duke or Bianca can remind us why we are still watching. Every character has their own fight, contending with disabilities that often mirror our own. Taking the time to visualize these qualities is also a strength of the series. The streets, housing, gyms, stairways, pet shops, meat factories, ice skating rinks all reveal something of their inner lives. Paulie wears his emotional poverty, Adrian her shyness, Apollo his ego, Mickey his heart, Bianca her hearing loss. And of course, Rocky and Adonis are both clothed in their fear and insecurity, often looking both strong and weak in the same image. It seems impossible to disguise vulnerability in the Rocky universe.

"I'd like to kill the freaking guy who broke this mirror" says Paulie, himself fractured and sharp.

Each of these individual deficits are also opportunities for connection. Rocky defines it this way:
Paulie: [talking about Adrian] You like her?
Rocky: Sure, I like her.
Paulie: What's the attraction?
Rocky: I dunno... she fills gaps.
Paulie: What's 'gaps'?
Rocky: I dunno, she's got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.
Thousands of books have been written on relationships and "intentional" community, but Rocky's summation doesn't require a PhD in idealism, only honest intuition. They meet each other's needs. It's how the characters survive, how they love, and why they fight. Through conflict, failure, forgiveness and grace, they become community, and eventually family. Even into the first Creed, "If I fight, you fight" becomes the mantra between Rocky and Adonis. Rocky wrestles through cancer, grief, and loneliness. Donny needs a trainer and a father figure to believe in him. Together they fill gaps.

All eight films remain firmly optimistic about relationships, life, and possibility. They are emotionally honest, frequently looking in the mirror. Whether a Rocky/Creed film was released in a cynical, optimal, or (currently) nihilistic era, they stay true to their humanity. The series never embraces self-pity politics, but holds securely to self-reflection (and maybe surprisingly to some, spirituality).

Resurrection Athletic Club

The first image we see in Rocky (1976) is a Christian icon of Jesus offering the Eucharist. The shot (above) pans down to a sluggish Rocky boxing with Spider Rico at the Resurrection Athletic Club in Philadelphia, PA. The image of Christ hovering over Balboa stands as a prophetic invocation. Rocky will soon learn to contend with possibility, mystery, and fantastic opportunity. Like Christ, he must suffer through the pain of being himself, sharing in communion with messy, imperfect folk who believe in him. From faith and blood comes his trial. One where true victory happens through losing. A baptism of sweat and determination purposed for connection, not conquest.

The theme of death & resurrection* is a core part of the Rocky formula/liturgy, where various forms of loss or losing must be experienced before any kind of winning can happen. In Rocky III, Clubber Lang tells everyone he is going to crucify Balboa. In Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI), his final fight is described as the last supper, with Spider Rico reading "It is not by strength nor by might, but by His Spirit that we have already claimed victory". In Creed II, Rocky takes Adonis to the desert for fasting and training (mirroring IV's wilderness). He tells him he must go through Hell (Apollo said the same to Rocky in part III) to be prepared for Viktor Drago. While running through the desert, Adonis collapses on the road, Rocky whispers "get up kid", and Donny dramatically rises. A baptism by fire.

Adonis in the desert, confronting his demons.

Stallone's Catholicism is ultimately more hopeful than the "Catholic Guilt" found in the films of Hitchcock and Scorsese. It's what allows his characters to expose their insecurities, confront their fears, and contend with something bigger than themselves. They are willing to look in the mirror. They are able to submit to forces they can't control. In Rocky II, Rocky spends most of his time chasing chickens or praying in hospitals. Mickey is impatient with both, but he has a great moment of fore-giveness with Rocky in the hospital chapel. He says, "This guy (Apollo) don't just wanna win, you know, he wants to bury ya, he wants to humiliate ya, he wants to prove to the whole world that you was nothin' but some kind of a freak the first time out. He said you were a one time lucky bum! Well now I don't wanna get mad in a biblical place like this, but I think you're a hell of a lot more than that kid! A hell of a lot! But now wait a minute, if you wanna blow this thing, if you wanna blow it, then damn it I'm gonna blow it with ya. If you wanna stay here, I'll stay with ya. I stay with ya. I'll stay and pray."

Mickey homilizing in the chapel.

Creed II offers a similar sentiment through Ivan & Viktor Drago. An unexpected surprise that I barely noticed the first time I saw it. After the second watch, I realized I wanted to see an entire film about the Drago saga. By sidestepping the current Trump era politics, the Dragos become real people. Their story plays quiet, told visually with emotional nuance seen mostly in their faces. [Spoiler] Though once designed to be superhuman, Ivan is now capable of making the regular human, empowered decision to "throw in the towel" (recalling and/or reconciling Rocky's regretful inaction from IV). This choice is layered with humility, grace, and forgiveness. It's his version of "if you wanna blow it, I'll blow it with ya". He doesn't leave Viktor's corner in shame. They stand together in their own "lose to win", rectified narrative.

Some of the Viktor Drago sequences in Kiev resembled Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel".
Strong visual literacy & direction. I definitely wanted more of those images.

This is an outstanding legacy created by Stallone & Coogler (cue Gonna Fly Now). Who knew the saga would continue on like Wu-Tang? Rocky & Creed have built a cinematic universe. For that I'm grateful. Apparently Stallone has said Creed II is his last rodeo, but I am inclined to be skeptical. Regardless, Michael B and crew are heavyweights themselves now, and I am already anticipating a Creed III. From early childhood I have watched these films with my father, and now with my own children. None of us are boxers, but we have our own battles. It helps to see them reflected on screen with such dynamism, character, and A-1 quality.

Ryan Coogler measures strength with vulnerability in Creed.

Definitive Ranking (Worst to Best):

8.Rocky V: My 6th Grade 1990 self thought this was the best Rocky. It had Tommy Gunn, Rocky Jr (the same age as me), the old neighborhood, and a Hip-Hop soundtrack with Hammer and Rob Base. (I had a walkman that automatically flipped the cassette. It played on repeat over several seasons of Super Tecmo Bowl that year.) It seemed like this was probably the last Rocky based on the Elton John Measure of a Man montage at the end. It was emotional, and I already loved feeling part of a legacy. So it's too effing bad that the movie is actually a disaster. It's undisciplined, overstuffed, poorly written, talks too much, lacks visual composition, and is generally off-balance. But it does have it's quotable moments, and a few building blocks for Balboa and Creed. (V is the first to reveal that Rocky grew up with out a father) Anyway, I'm glad the saga didn't end in '90, and I still enjoy the brief nostalgic feelings.

7.Rocky II: The first of the series that Stallone directed. Not sure if it was the new director or the new DP or both - but the disciplined, exceptionally composed images of Rocky I are nowhere to be seen. It feels more like '70s television than cinema, and it's too long. But it accomplishes it's goal, while building a deeper chemistry between Mickey and Rocky.

6.Creed II: For a film in the Trump era with a Black director, Black protagonist, and Russian villains, the narrative is refreshingly non-political. Choosing to focus on the characters and their relationships is the strength of the film, making me again wish the Dragos had their own movie. Overstuffed like V, but much more disciplined filmmaking. It pulls from at least three Rocky films, requiring more than one watch to appreciate. A great addition to the franchise, leaving plenty of room for more.

5.Rocky III: The film is most notable for subverting Reagan Era machismo stereotypes. Rocky grieves for Mickey. He gets real/vulnerable with Adrian about his fear (one of my favorite scenes of the whole series). He also submits himself to Apollo's training and teaching. They share an intimate moment (below). Mr. T pities the fool. Eye of the Tiger lives on as an inspired 80's tune. Our high school marching band performed it every football game for a decade or more. It was embedded in our small town zeitgeist. Iconic 80's cinema.

4.Creed: Arguably the most 'American' film of the 2010s decade. Like the first Rocky, it undermines the surrounding politically divisive narratives. A story that invites us to fight along with these beloved characters who are searching for purpose & meaning from the past & present. Ryan Coogler brings his humanizing narrative abilities (as seen in Fruitvale Station) to the Rocky franchise. He generously creates a sensitive portrait about an assertive, determined young Black man and a depressed, stubborn old White dude struggling to redefine family and community in 2015 USA. Lovingly conceived, sharply executed, and emotionally piercing. Not to mention - the most dynamic (and realistic) fight scenes of the whole franchise!

3.Rocky Balboa: A rarity in franchise cinema - a sequel primarily about grief, bringing the series back full-circle to loss and reconciliation. Strong visual compositions, classic Rocky life lessons, and Spider 'got religion' Rico combine to make a unique portrait of fighting through life in a post-9-11 world. Not the self-parody that the nihilist critics suggest. Instead an incredibly mature film that takes itself seriously, rejecting self-pity, embracing vulnerability and intuition.

2.Rocky IV: Visually dynamic, but politically misunderstood in the same vein of Springsteen's Born in the USA. Rocky's journey into the Russian desolate wilderness challenged American arrogance & greed as much as Soviet technology & progress. Balboa's soul is at stake, and "into the wild" he goes. There is No Easy Way Out. He learns that Change is possible through this (micro) inner discipline. Hope is the winner in this fight, not nationalism.

1.Rocky: Not just the best film of the series, but one of the all-time greats in American Cinema. In a post-Vietnam, post-Nixon depression, Rocky pushed back against the Taxi DriversNetworks, and Exorcists of it's time, winning some awards along the way. In my research, no one person or reason stands out as to why it works so well. Many of those involved point to Stallone's screenplay as the foundation, but it was their mutual respect and communal effort that brought it to life. Like any great film, it is a story told with constructed, formal images that are layered with meaning that reflect the characters, their struggles, offerings, failures, and victories. A masterpiece that has truly 'gone the distance'.


*Death & Resurrection has literal meaning in Christianity, but often reflects various versions of the "Dark Night of the Soul". It is found in many traditions, religious or otherwise, including modern Depth Psychology (Jung). Industrial/technological based cultures often reject or resist this process, correlating with the rise of anxiety, depression, and mental health disabilities. This also correlates with the breakdown of communal traditions, loss of elders, and modern mid-life crisis.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)


This critical review was published by The Porch Magazine. <===Click to read the whole article. Read an excerpt below...

Each of Wes Anderson’s short & feature length films since 1994 (including his newly released Isle of Dogs) follow characters who inevitably experience failure & forgiveness. Anderson seems incompatible with cynicism, though not an idealist either. He unpretentiously "knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness” says Martin Scorsese. Anderson’s fifth film, “The Darjeeling Limited”, was released in 2007 amidst a harsh & abrasive “war on terror” environment that produced several masterpieces that same year. Being critically dismissed in favor of films portraying serial killers and greedy psychopaths, there seemed minimal margin for Anderson’s lack of pessimism. His film about three wealthy, self-indulgent brothers traveling across India on a spiritual journey appeared politically obstinate. To that end, however, I believe it was significantly subversive. By shedding a humane light on a microcosm of white male narcissism (as portrayed by regular players Owen Wilson & Jason Schwartzman with newcomer Adrien Brody), Anderson subsequently allows for the possibility of transformation. He paints a graceful picture of personality disorder, remaining compassionate about how we heal these (not-so-hidden) emotional wounds infected with fear & shame.

Read more at The Porch!


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Robby Muller (1940-2018)


Paris, Texas (1984)

"When I choose to work on a film, the most important thing to me is that it is about human feelings. I try to work with directors who want their films to touch the audience, and make people discuss what the film was about long after they have left the cinema." Robby Muller, Cinematographer


Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)


"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a story at once emotionally intimate and chillingly detached. That contradiction is the key to an art that, although it seems steeped in nostalgia and sentimentality, is finally marked by an arctic clarity". Geoffrey O'Brien

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) - John Ford

Stray Dog (1948) - Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa's love & study of early John Ford films is well documented. Lesser known is Kurosawa's substantial influence on later Ford films. Because of this, 'The Shadow' emerged in Ford's pictures to represent an internal struggle rarely seen in the Western genre. These films were more Spiritual than the "psychological Westerns" of the fifties, and more mature than the cynical, ultra violent narratives of the sixities & seventies (that Tarantino worships). 'The Searchers' is the obvious masterpiece, but 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' reveals new layers with each watch. It's a truly reconciled narrative that successfully manages to humanize the legend of John Wayne.


Long Way Back Home (2018)


"In my hand I hold a pistol
In my heart I hold the weight"

This is a cinematic short film that developed from a music video, directed by Jeff Nichols. Maybe (hopefully) it develops into something long form. But as it is, the question of "what you gonna do with that pistol?" isn't just between the brothers. It's also between each of us who find ourselves digging deeper into the corners of self-righteousness, judgement, and fear. #thisisamerica #longwaybackhome


A Star is Born (2018)


"Bradley Cooper has constructed a broad bridge between life and death, art and capital, success and failure. But it is also a narrow one, so therefore, Jack and Ally can only cross this chasm alone, and must gamble whether or not they will meet again on the other side. The startling sincerity and disarming beauty of this stems from the film's earnest pursuit of a true self, beneath the singing and the posturing, and its hope that two true selves could persist together. The tragedy, it seems, is that this co-existence is attainable, but not without an unlearning of the world." From Mubi Notebook

A Star is Born is not a great film, but it is an intimate one. It maintains a strong sense of itself, pulling the audience closer, rather than pushing, hiding, or dividing. Lady Gaga holds the film together with a deep vulnerability that comes primarily through her eyes. She was impressively human.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Back in 2016, I wrote, "I found Captain America Civil War fascinating for it's willingness to confront the consequences of justified violence...particularly with Black Panther who enacts a bold, powerful, and personal (rather than political) act of non-violence." Having seen most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the Captain America trilogy has the most to offer in terms of complex character development and narrative structure. CACW is The Dark Knight of this decade, seamlessly weaving together superb entertainment with complicated grief, questions of moral responsibility, political exposition, and the ethics of justification. Truly impressive.

Black Panther is introduced in CACW, traveling with his father King T'Chaka to address the UN regarding recent acts of violence in Africa involving the Avengers. A terrorist bombing kills T'Chaka - which integrates T'Challa (Black Panther) into the various dilemmas confronting the split super-factions. Iron Man leads the White Guilt liberal side, while Captain America's side maintains his 1940s conservatism. T'Challa caring more about the truth than politics, advances himself to a moderate distance, observing and learning before acting. This allows him the objective (but still empathetic) position to confront major villian, Helmut Zemo (who has lured Iron Man & CA into violence against one another).

T'Challa explains to Zemo, "Vengeance has consumed you. It's consuming them. I'm done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough." Zemo tries to commit suicide, but T'Challa won't allow it. "The living are not done with you yet", he proclaims with a mix of compassion and justice. Continuing down this spiritual path, T'Challa also grants Bucky Barnes asylum in Wakanda, offering to free his mind from captivity. Black Panther in CACW brings a sacred energy (beyond vibranium) that allows for new possibilities, new choices.

Marvel's Black Panther (2018) film is set in the days following the events of CACW. We quickly catch up with T'Challa traveling back to Wakanda, who makes a stop somewhere in rural Africa to obtain Wakandan missionary/warrior Nakia - so she can attend T'Challa's coronation ceremony. She is undercover, riding with (kidnapped?) women who are being transported by an African military convoy. Unfortunately, this extraction requires the unprovoked violent extermination (rather than de-escalation) of the heavily armed soldiers and subsequently, the awkward abandonment of innocent women and children in the dark of night. (Why can't they hitch a ride on the Wakandan aircraft?) Already, we seem to have departed from the ethical concerns & spiritual consciousness of T'Challa in CACW. It's a small scene meant to introduce characters, but there is still an opportunity to philosophically separate yourself by how a situation like this is handled. (Not to mention the technological possibilities of vibranium) Is King T'Challa not capable of offering something more?

The prologue previous to the Nakia pick-up was a flashback to 1992 in Oakland, CA (with Too $hort, rather than Tupac, on the radio) where King T'Chaka is seemingly forced to kill his own brother (Prince N'Jobu, Wakandan spy) - who pulled a gun when confronted with the truth of his underground activities. The situation has an Old Testament vibe to it, but still perpetuates the Black on Black violence narrative (as above). This too could have been handled differently, but was focused on the ends (rather than the means) of introducing the backstory of our villain, Erik Killmonger, the newly orphaned nephew of the King.

I know I am holding Black Panther (2018) to higher standard, but if there was even a hint of internal conflict in either of those initial sequences, it would be less an issue. The question I keep wrestling with - How can T'Challa be a champion of non-violence with Whitey Zemo in Civil War - and only days later commit acts of violence without provocation against his own people - and have nothing to say about it? It doesn't translate.

There obviously aren't many spiritual concerns in the film, but the narrative is heavy with resurrection symbolism - no less than three times. Not once does the symbolical or literal act of "rising from the dead" broaden the perspective of T'Challa or Killmonger. (is The Matrix really that old?) Like Shape of Water, it breeds something smaller. Killmonger arises bent on destruction and power. "Burn it all!" he yells. T'Challa rises (for the second time) only to violently confront his own people. Is that really his only option? Can he not emotionally flank this situation? Killmonger is a wounded orphan. Maybe he just needs someone to (seriously) listen to him? To include him? Both their father's failed to listen - isn't it now T'Challa's responsibility to right this wrong? Can't we dig a little deeper? (Maybe takes some notes from The X-Men?)

Why introduce emotional trauma if you can't follow through? I don't understand. Ryan Coogler intuitively handled these issues in the non-political, humane portrait of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station - and of course again with the exceptional Creed. (Of note - the Michael B Jordan characters in all three Coogler films are fatherless) This makes me think Coogler was somewhat restricted by Marvel. An obvious loss, if so.

"I'm telling you God's words, not no hustle. Remember that, Brother Baines?" asks Malcolm X upon learning the layers of moral & spiritual betrayal within the Nation of Islam in Spike Lee's 1992 landmark film. Baines had led Malcolm to salvation in prison, but Malcolm's true baptism would come after his voice, power, and position were stripped of him. Maintaining dignity, he journeyed to Mecca, seeking God & Truth beyond the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad. There he found a deeper salvation, a stronger integrity, and new eyes to see the people around him. It was for this perspective that he would be martyred. Erik Killmonger's story shares some similar themes with Malcolm's. They lost their fathers to violence, grew up in poverty, experienced betrayal at the hands of those who had promised protection. They were both victimized by systems of oppression, but only Erik maintains a victim narrative - becoming a self-inducted martyr for it (at the hands of the screenwriters). Where is Killmonger's Mecca? Is he just another monstrous villian?

*Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y'all want me under
All hail King Killmonger

Killmonger is fatally wounded by Black Panther in the final moments after a long chaotic mess of a fight scene. T'Challa brings him to the summit and offers compassion & hope..."We can still heal you." Killmonger, assuming the worst, replies, "Why, so you can lock me up!?" This is a good, but insecure question. T'Challa is unfortunately not given a chance to answer.

Killmonger goes on, "...Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage." I can't argue with his ancestors, but why are the screenwriters so intent on Killmonger being imprisoned by his anger and rejecting reconciliation with his own people? Is he not more than his victimized narrative? What about listening, healing, forgiveness, empowerment? What is honorable about suicide? Is the audience supposed to empathize with this decision? I hope not. Sounds like sympathy at best.

*Tell me who's gon' save me from myself
When this life is all I know
Tell me who's gon' save me from this hell
Without you, I'm all alone
Who gon' pray for me?
Take my pain for me?
Save my soul for me?
'Cause I'm alone, you see

Worse still, T'Challa, who delayed Zemo's death because "the living aren't done with you yet" is somehow indifferent to intervention here with his own cousin (who obviously cannot see beyond his own emotional wounds and doesn't have the spiritual maturity to choose life). Why the sudden apathy? How much more redemptive would it have been if Erik Killmonger was with T'Challa and Shuri in Oakland to begin work on their first outreach center? Full circle in his own neighborhood. Seems like a glaring omission. Unless there is something I don't know (maybe they save Erik anyway - and he heals alongside Bucky?), the Killmonger narrative was a complete failure. "Vengeance has consumed you". Indeed.

His name was N'Jadaka, son of Prince N'Jobu. He deserved better.

As-Salaam-Alaikum Brother.

*Lyrics from the Black Panther soundtrack (written by King Kendrick Lamar)