Creed: Old Story, New Hero

Before Creed, I was a Rocky virgin. I know, shocking. Somehow, I managed to avoid the movie equivalent of a beat-em-up game. And every one of its subsequent sequels. I did not expect much. I never once considered Stalone a “good actor”. That felt like reason enough to avoid the franchise. Well, before I get into a wee analysis of Creed, the latest instalment in the series – arguably a new franchise if they keep it up – let it just be said that my judgement of these films based on my opinion of Stalone* was misguided, and I’ve since set myself up to watch the previous five films. We’ll call it film history. (*If Creed is anything to go by, he can act; unfortunately, I’ve also seen The Expendables, which seemed to come with a No Acting Required caveat, so long as you had the forearms for the job.)

Creed poster

Creed presents us with a new character: Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed. (Presumably from a previous movie.) The new Creed is smart, working in a professional environment, leading a good life. And he gives it up to box, looking to Rocky to be his coach. I was glad to see that every other character in the movie shared my sentiments on this career change – that it was stupid and arrogant. Rocky is old. Stallone slouches and carries himself slowly. As we begin to get to know Creed in his new life, we’re given a few glimpses into Rocky’s life, now – who’s dead, what happened with his son, what he’s been up to, the reputation he has in his town. Whether it was meant to tell new viewers some important info, or simply pander to the existing fans, it served to build the character of Rocky into something beyond a guy who seems to struggle talking in clear sentences, and who best communications with his fists. He’s a man adapting to modern life, and struggles through a number of emotional scenes that life in the ring couldn’t prepare him for. We’re given the impression that this man was able to face anything in the ring. He had all the control there. But outside the ring, when people get sick or leave, he’s powerless, and it shows on his face how difficult life can be when you’re exactly like everyone else.

sylvester stalone as rocky
Sylvester Stalone as Rocky

Despite his frankly absurd decision to enter the ring, Adonis is a believable character. He repeats old mistakes out of the frustrations of a difficult childhood in the system, and must take on his journey towards being a Creed in the public eye.

At the same time, we’re given some of the most engaging shots in cinema these past few months, within the ring. The lights go down. The camera doesn’t break momentum. Creed shares blows with his opponents. We’re in the ring with him, all that tension, all that focus, all that pain. The audience is drowned out. On-screen they shout mute in the dark; in the theatre, they sit on the edge of their seats, clutching their hands together, refusing to take their eyes off the screen.

michael b jordan and tessa thompson
Michael B Jordan as Adonis Creed, and Tessa Thompson as Bianca

And then we’re thrust back into the life of Adonis and Rocky, with a small collection of other characters around them, each with their own challenges to face, difficulties to overcome, weaknesses and desires. Creed isn’t just a boxing movie. It manages a host of characters in the same way any other drama would. It creates realism in this absurd world where people expect a man like Rocky to get back in the ring – even as a trainer – at a moment’s notice. But he’s old, and we’re told that over and over again.

This is an old story, with new heroes, and it’s told as gracefully as can be, while punches are thrown on-screen and blood splatters to the ground.

The Big Short: How to Break an Economy

The Big Short does not deal in subtly. The (mostly) true story is filled with jarring cuts, jarring personalities, loud music, and a whole bunch of people you’ll grow to hate almost immediately. Before all that, we get a voice-over from Ryan Gosling. (Before I get into the whole discussion on The Big Short, let it just be said that in any of his non-rom-com roles, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ryan Gosling talk this much.) As always, spoilers. In this case, looking at the history of the economic collapse might also qualify as a spoiler for the movie. Or reading the book on which the movie is based. Anyway, I have my principles, so you’ve been warned.

The Big Short Poster
The Big Short Poster

Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, introduces us to the banking climate: what used to be a boring job is now a high-stakes, money-making roller coaster. Everyone can get rich in the world of big banking, and the American economy grew as a result. While no one paid much attention to the finance sector, it became a dangerous sector. Vennett is but one of four different types of people who are responding to the idea that something terrible is bound to happen soon. He’s the profiteer. He’s also working in one of the big banks, and so cannot bet against them (which is, to put it simply, what a “short” is on a bond – a bet that it will fail, by means of unpaid mortgages.)

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett
Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett

Vennett got his info from Michael Burry (M.D.) played by Christian Bale – a doctor with an eye for detail (only one – the other is fake) who notices the bubble. He’s read the bonds. He knows what’s wrong, and too stubborn to consider that he might have made a mistaken (in gambling $1.3bn on shorts.)

Christian Bale as Michael Burry
Christian Bale as Michael Burry

Vennett, upon realising he can profit from this situation if he finds the right people to work with, stumbles upon Mark Baum – the man who wants to fix the world. He’s the original social justice warrior. He despises injustice. He’ll shout at someone in the middle of a store or in the middle of the street over it. He’s constantly on the phone. He skips his therapy. Steve Carell plays him excellently. (And further proves to me that, when playing more serious roles than, say those in Evan Almighty or The 40-Year Old Virgin, he actually can act. He’s fine in Comedy, but he stands out in Drama in an unexpected way.)

Steve Carell as Mark Baum
Steve Carell as Mark Baum

Finally, there’s the unlikely duo of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who stumble upon notes left behind by Vennett. If Vennett wants pure profit, Burry wants to prove he’s right, and Baum wants justice, Geller and Shipley want to prove that they can make it in the world of big finance. They’re the underdogs. They aren’t respected in the financial world. They recruit Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them. Presumably he’s got money and a reputation.

Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley and John Magaro as Charlie Geller
Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley, and John Magaro as Charlie Geller

Four approaches, four groups of people, one big problem.

Baum’s team expose us to the reality of the situation outside of the figures. They’re the only ones who bother to investigate if the numbers Burry’s looking at amount to anything. They show us a housing market struggling to stay in its feet, with people moving out of nice neighbourhoods because they can’t afford the mortgage anymore after they become unemployed. They show us the bankers who’ll give anyone a mortgage, whatever their income, because they can get rich off it. They show us a family man who’s landlord isn’t paying his mortgage, and a stripper with multiple mortgages on multiple houses. They show us the dirty reality of what the big banks did to America.

Throughout, we’re presented with a combination of stylised footage – some of it aged to represent the time in which the scene is set – and stock footage. The stock footage tells us when we are in American history, and demonstrates the mood of the era. It’s all about the money. Capitalism is at large. Everyone lives like the party will never end. Combined with our traditional narrative, this tells us an interesting story about banking – we’ve got the media mood, and the terrifying reality acted out for us. Banking terms are explained to us by famous models and scientists. The truth of every situation is explained by actors breaking the fourth wall. And all the time, there’s noise.

Noise pounds from the speakers. When it’s not Burry’s outrageously loud heavy metal, it’s the chatter of bankers, or the literal gambling of Vegas. There’s a laugh track when the big banking joke is revealed to Baum – who looks ready to explode. When no one’s talking, there’s music. When people are talking, usually there’s a lot of background noise present to drown them out. Anything important that could be said is covered up by the noise of the Big Bank America.

As our bankers and gamblers leave their Vegas hotel, anyone who would seek to do right leaves by cab. By now, they know that if they’re right, if they win big, the economy collapses. The global economy. It’s bigger than they realised. Geller and Shipley are the naive faces of young bankers, not realising the reality of the situation until Rickert points it out to them. Geller has to call his mother to deal with the anxiety. But while they leave in their cabs from Vegas, the bankers leave in expensive black cars, with private drivers. An SEC agent leaves by cab, after a long kiss with one of the big bankers – regulators and fraudsters are in bed together.

Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert
Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert

It’s a harrowing movie, in its terrifying truth. By telling us what everything means in layman’s terms, we can see more easily how much the big banks refused to care about the damage they were doing. The crumbling of the American Dream is seen too clearly, too painfully, in the faces of our more moral protagonists and the unfortunate people they encounter along the way. They come out rich, but miserable. There are no winners when there are big shorts, and the movie holds no punches in making that clear.

The Revenant: Wilderness and Survival

At the time of writing, the Academy Awards are in just over a month. By now, everyone’s probably rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio to win. For once. Considering his performance in The Revenant, and the fact that he’s already won a Golden Globe for the same role, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he was awarded it this year. As Hugh Glass, he dominates the screen, a singular force of survival in the wild pre-US-societal America. That’s exactly what we’ll be discussing here: the wild, and the drive to survive. As always, may contain spoilers.

revenant movie poster
Poster for The Revenant

The story we’re presented with is relatively simple (especially when compared to previous DiCaprio movies, like Inception.) Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is part of a company of men out to collect pelts. After a devastating attack by the natives – the Arikara – and a subsequent fight with a bear (no, really), the frontiersmen are at their wits end, and Hugh Glass is fighting for his life. His half-breed son, another young man from the group, and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay behind to see Glass through to his death, while the rest of the company press on. Glass is then left for dead, his son killed, and Fitzgerald on his way home to claim a reward to staying behind until the end. By that point, we’re already a big chunk into the movie, but that’s all in the trailer.

Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald
Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald

The frontiersmen, all of them, face two big challenges in their lives: the fight against the wild, be it the weather or the animals, and; the struggling to survive attacks by the Native American tribes, and the French. We’re in pre-Independence America. There are no towns in the wilderness, only a base camp several days away from Glass’s death bed.

The need to survive, the need for retribution, is all that keeps Glass alive. He dons the bearskin – his kill, and his alone – to fight back the winter, grunting and growling the whole time. In taking the beast’s life, he became the beast. He’s left with only his gnarling teeth, a knife, a canister, and the bear claws – a reminder that he’s more capable than anyone had any right to be when the world was out to kill you. Even when he recovers his strength enough to walk, he’s mostly without the use of his voice. He grunts, he points, he gestures. Communication for Glass is rare. The two people he encounters who don’t immediately try to kill him aren’t conversationalists. They’re natives, and he’s a white man. Glass keeps his bearskin over him, too. He’s a wild beast with a man’s face and a slashed throat. When the need comes to sleep inside his horse, Luke Skywalker style, he whinnies. He draws on the creature’s strength. As needs must, Glass becomes the animals whose skin he wears.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass
Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, in bear skin

The fight for survival is not just Glass’s. The Arikana tribe fight to stay alive against the oncoming tide of white men from across the ocean. They fight lies and deception, using bows against guns. They know what they want from the world, they have their crusade. Their morals and strategy are questionable at best – kill whatever moves that isn’t Arikana – but their intent is pure: survive. Glass may have a half-breed son – and formerly a Pawnee wife – but the racial divide, the struggle between two different types of people, is still a violent one. White men took everything from the Native Americans.

The Revenant gives us no breaks, just as the wild winter presses on against the frontiersmen. We must attempt to survive two hours of violence and bleeding, cringing at open wounds and holding our breaths when we think Glass might perish – or when it might be less cruel for him to die. Even when the walls are around Glass, when he has a roof over his head in the same way we do, there is no reprieve from the wild. His driving force for survival was retribution, and until then, even the walls of society cannot keep the wild out, nor can we look away. Until we know that Glass can survive wild – the outside world, and the wild within – we cannot let the movie end. If he can’t survive it, no one can.