Creed shoulders the legacy of six prior Rocky films but it blazes its own path, establishing a concise mission statement in its opening scene. Set in an LA juvenile correctional facility, in which young Black boys are lined up like adult prisoners, the Ryan Coogler-helmed sixth sequel introduces us to a young Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) as he beats down a fellow detainee. Adonis comes from a background of fame and celebrity — his father, Apollo Creed, died before he was born — but he’s been raised in a world of violence and invisibility, a world from which Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) hopes to rescue him. When the widow first meets the orphaned child, his fist remains clenched, always on guard. But when she offers him a home, and the kind of love that had evaded him all his life, he relaxes his hand.
This is the world of Creed. It inherits both the violence of the ring — a more glamourous violence, albeit one whose effects are still deadly — and the violence of SoCal streets, to which Oakland native Coogler had at least some proximity (it’s worth noting that his father was a counselor at a juvenile hall). It’s a world where Adonis’ two lives must remain separate, the incompatible paradigms of a privileged son who has a fancy desk job and resides in a mansion, and a boy in search of some form of identity as he takes on cheap fights in Tijuana over the weekend. He wants to fight, certainly, but on some level he needs to, in order to reconcile being the nexus of two violent paths. The call to masculine showmanship is what got Apollo killed in Rocky IV, a toxic machismo Adonis would’ve inherited regardless (or rather, would’ve been raised with). Apollo’s absence, however, results in violence born of survival. Which one is Adonis truly a product of, he wonders?
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The Mumbai Film Festival began as a modest affair, though with the sponsorship of Fox’s Star network and telecom giant Reliance Jio in recent years, it’s exploded into a prestigious destination for cinema the world over. This year, the festival’s 20th, saw both premieres of Indian art-house films as well as arrivals of various 2018 festival darlings — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, you name it — but what separates the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI for short, after parent organization Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) from most festivals with such a vast selection is affordability.
For just 500 rupees — or $6.90 at the time of writing — the festival affords week-long access to over 200 films from the world over. I personally met folks who had travelled from all corners of the country (some, even internationally) to watch heavy-hitters like Roma, Border, Diamantino and Burning, films that may not otherwise see theatrical release in all parts of the world. It feels celebratory, too; given that the lineup is spread across half a dozen locations within a 12-mile radius, MAMI essentially becomes a city-wide affair. Cinema ought to be for everyone, not just folks who can afford skyrocketing ticket prices or the latest streaming service, and in that vein MAMI succeeds.
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Climax is a tragedy in the form of intoxicating sensory experience. An allegory for the collapse of modern society, as several critics have noted, Gaspar Noé’s dance-infused explosion of warring psyches and writhing bodies (backed by the French tricolor) may be, at once, his most abstract work and his most direct. It pulls from a career’s worth of cinematic ticks and eccentricities, spackling them with dance electronica from wall-to-wall — Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk even recorded new music for it — creating an audiovisual tapestry that’s equal parts haunting and exhilarating, as if the ghost of Oscar from Enter the Void decided to stick around the club he died in and watch the end of the world.
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If one were to introduce Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, Breathless (1960), to a class of unassuming film students without first providing context, it may seem, to them, an exercise in the rote and familiar. The film’s referential nature began to permeate American cinema not long after its arrival (crystalizing, arguably, in the works of Quentin Tarantino in the 1990s) with the long-take becoming a staple of Western arthouse, the jump-cut featuring prominently the YouTube vlog, and other stylistic flourishes seeding the very tapestry that is our modern visual language. These, of course, were uncommon before the French New Wave. The context in question is partially the post-World War II dominance of American cinema, out of which Godard sought to explore — and subsequently, discombobulate from within — cinematic imagery, as if tapping in to a fractured cultural psyche. After all, the film’s protagonist Michel yearns for some fundamental Americanism, whether through romantic pursuit of an American woman or through a self-fashioned, Humphrey Bogart-inspired “gangster” persona. Point being, Godard and his peers lived in the shadow of a neatly functional, largely American filmic image, the vernacular of “a secret cult only for the initiated” (per his Criterion interview) and a paradigm he sought to upset in the process of exploring.
Fast forward fifty-eight years.
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It’s hard to talk about Shadow without mentioning Zhang Yimou’s previous effort, Matt Damon-starrer The Great Wall, from which it could not feel more different. While the latter was accused of whitewashing based on the trailers, its true nature was much more troubling: backed by China Film Group, The Great Wall was a very literal propaganda movie about the West accepting the superior might of the Chinese military. It was also effective as a piece of pop filmmaking, with soldiers in candy-coloured armour fighting off jade green alien invaders (no, really), as if filtering the palette of his House of Flying Daggers through a million computers, which makes this new bare-bones approach to period drama a notable directorial 180.
For one thing, Shadow features almost no colour. That is to say, it’s a film shot in colour, but featuring mostly by black and white and grey, but more so than its stripped-down production design, it features a far more stripped-down ethos, to the point that little in the film actually matters. Take away Chinese government money, and you’re left with a Zhang who doesn’t need to deliver a specific message; so he doesn’t, by design, for better and for worse.
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(You can find Part 1 of our interview with Christopher Storer here, in which we discuss his collaborations with Bo Burnham, Chris Rock, Hasan Minhaj and Jerrod Carmichael, and why everybody loves Nanette. Our conversation continues and concludes below.)
In Drew Michael, the Christopher Storer-produced stand-up comedy special (if one can even accurately label it stand-up comedy), comedian Drew Michael performs a deeply troubled routine within the confines of a black-box theatre space, without the presence of a live audience. The camera, directed by Jerrod Carmichael, gets uncomfortably close to Michael, trapping viewers within his very thought process, turning it into one of the most must-see media experiments this year.
Drew Michael, which aired on HBO in August, plays with sound to mirror Michael’s partial hearing loss. It amplifies even his mildly frustrated gestures before cutting to a new setting entirely: a close-up of Suki Waterhouse, playing Michael’s long-distance girlfriend, amidst a Skype conversation with the comedian. The special deconstructs the physical context of comedy, placing us in the proximity of the comedian’s creative process as he struggles to love himself (and his mother — and, in an oddly existential sense, the very concept of a mother). It then abruptly takes us as far away from Michael as possible, allowing us to see him through the eyes of someone else as they’re falling in love with him.
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There’s a joke a few minutes in to what, Bo Burnham’s 2013 comedy special (now on Netflix) that’s almost elegant in its simplicity. The comedian, then twenty-three, begins talking about how he hates video editors before the special cuts abruptly to later in the routine, skipping over the bit entirely, as if the filmmakers, not the comedian, are in control. Whatever form the original joke may have taken on stage, its eventual end-point was the audience at home.
Such is the nature of the modern stand-up special, a form that is by no means new, but one that’s being constantly fine-tuned and experimented with as we plunge further into age of new media. Burnham is known for his hybridization of comedy and musical performance (and for directing recent A24 feature Eighth Grade) though few know his equally influential co-director on what and Make Happy, Christopher Storer, an unsung hero of the comedy special and one of Eighth Grade’s producers.
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Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, which made its way around the festival circuit last fall, is finally here, though it enters a world that feels even more volatile than the one it was meant to critique. Born out of the polarized reactions to Kahn’s “Wildest Dreams” music video for Taylor Swift — which came under fire for centering whiteness in the Serengeti on a fictional ’50s film set — the adrenaline-fueled satire follows white academic Adam Merkin (Callum Worthy, American Vandal) as he enters (and eventually, dominates) the world of underground rap battles. It’s a wildly entertaining movie, one that draws laughs and gasps and applause in equal measure, and it’s best watched with an audience with whom one can experience its thrills and debate their appropriateness after.
“Words. Are. Weapons,” a phrase spoken early on in the film’s first teaser, may as well be its mantra. It understands the power and the beauty of words, but it also understands their ugliness, and how these categories can shift and overlap depending on context. Its spoken dialogue is as poetic as its battle verses, and its visual palette is just as energetic (both feature Dostoevsky references, too!) though in an era where ugly words can galvanize entire hate movements into action, one wonders just how much fun can be had while exploring their power in a satirical setting. For my money, it’s worth the time, but as the film goes on to explore: we are all, each and every one of us, going to have a different approach to art.
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Conceptually, Legends of Tomorrow is… odd. Its first season brings together supporting heroes and villains from The Flash and Arrow and sends them tumbling through time, including (but not limited to) petty thieves Heatwave and Captain Cold (Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller of Prison Break, playing off each other in deliciously operatic fashion), scientist Martin Stein (Victor Garber) and car mechanic Jefferson ‘Jax’ Jackson (Franz Drameh), who combine to form a single, flame-headed nuclear superhero F.I.R.E.S.T.O.R.M., undead assassin The White Canary (Caity Lotz), John Constantine (Matt Ryan; yes, that John Constantine) and boyscout superhero Ray Palmer/The Atom, played by none other than Brandon Routh of Superman Returns.
Full disclosure: the first season leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a messy, dour collection of decent-to-good character moments focusing on an underwhelming villain, Vandal Savage (Casper Crump, who performs admirably) on the heels of two equally underwhelming heroes, Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) and Hawk-Girl (Ciara Renée), but the reason I’m keen to write about Legends is because its second season is functionally a soft reboot. The show changes up its structure entirely, leaning hard in to the inherent ridiculousness of inept superheroes given the ability to travel anywhere in history. I mean, why wouldn’t they go hang out with J.R.R. Tolkien during World War I?
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Global cinema lives at the New York Film Festival. The recently concluded 56th edition ran two straight weeks (four, if you’re press) at the prestigious Lincoln Center, offering everything from experimental shorts to director talks to virtual reality films, though, as one might expect, the wide array of features is undoubtedly a central highlight. I’ve been attending the festival for five years running, and having caught a good majority of the 2018 slate— 27 films, the most I’ve seen at any festival — I can safely say it’s one of the best lineups I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
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