Creed

Director: Ryan Coogler (2016)

The long running boxing saga of Rocky Balboa is given fresh legs and a face lift in this knockout sixth sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976).

It bursts out of its corner to challenge the box office clout of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), itself the sixth sequel to Star Wars (1977).

Both new films utilise fresh talent while returning the familiar fan base-pleasing elements, enabling the franchises to maintain their core audience while attracting a younger demographic.

Of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Creed (2016) it’s the latter which rejects the opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and sets out to make a name for itself, much like its titular character.

Coming to terms with one’s legacy is the dominant theme of Creed.

Although many plot points will seem very familiar to fans of the original Rocky, director Coogler is determined to give the franchise a new perspective while always respecting the spirit of the series.

Plus his talent, energy and superb eye allows him to carry off some moves of breathtaking technical accomplishment, especially considering it’s only his second feature after Fruitvale Station (2013) and he’s not even 30 years old.

Coogler has been astutely teamed up with the veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Her CV boasts of working alongside Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Michael Apted, Alex Gibney and recently M. Night Shyamalan for The Visit (2015).

Following the work of directors John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone, Coogler references old characters, re-uses locations and gives new impetus and meaning to memorable scenes.

For long standing supporters of the franchise, the first whisper of Bill Conti’s outstanding theme tune will have your neck hair on end.

Composer Ludwig Goransson uses it intelligently and sparingly and incorporates it alongside more contemporary tracks.

They  share a similar approach to the casting, replacing the old white characters on centre stage with a young black talent, with the emphasis on talent.

The excellent John Boyega was pushed to the fore in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in Creed it is the charismatic Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson.

Black characters were supporting roles in the early films and unequivocally the bad guys. First Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, then Mr T’s James ‘Clubber’ Lang existed to be beaten down and metaphorically emasculated.

In Creed not only is Adonis the central character but he is absolutely the sympathetic and rampant beating heart of the story.

Stallone offers a poignant gravitas as Rocky, the former champ who’s still taking life on the chin.

Never more comfortable than in the Italian Stallion’s pork pie hat, the actor wisely refrains from donning his old gloves.

Rocky’s persuaded to train Adonis, the illegitimate son of one time adversary turned friend now deceased, Apollo Creed.

Creed’s death in the boxing ring weighs heavily in different ways on both characters.

Boxing offers Adonis the opportunity to come to terms with his father’s absence during his life, to honour his legacy while breaking free of his shadow.

Rocky has no desire to see another colleague and friend die from boxing injuries.

Living downstairs in Adonis’ Philadelphia apartment block is Tessa Thompson’s aspiring musician Bianca.

The fluid chemistry between the young actors serve as much as any aspect of the film to invigorate it.

Putting the focus on the pair allows for an introduction to a new generation of movie goers for whom the Rocky franchise may possess scant cultural cachet.

Events allow Adonis a title bout against the world champion Ricky Conlan.

Presumably real life boxer turned actor Tony Bellew was given his shot at the big time to add verity to the boxing scenes.

However he’s a less cinematic pugilist than Jordan and lacks the on-screen menace of the opponents in previous films.

Conlan is well short of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago from Rocky IV (1985) to name but one.

With artifice working more effectively for cinema than reality, this suggests it’s better to employ actors who can pretend to box than have boxers who aspire to act.

Despite this, the urgent and bloody bouts are pure Hollywood fiction in the best Rocky tradition and the story lands some brisk emotional punches.

The big fight takes place at Goodison Park, home of Everton FC. It’s the best drama seen there all season.

I Believe In Miracles

Director: Jonny Owen (2015)

Revisiting one of the more endearing successes in English football, this celebratory documentary has a joyous end of season feel to it.

A shameless and entertaining nostalgia trip, fabulous footage of Nottingham Forest’s fluid football is married to a soul music soundtrack to fun effect while former players contribute well practised anecdotes

It’s an energetic telling of the well trod tale of how maverick manager Brian Clough utterly transformed the fortunes of struggling Nottingham Forest FC.

And the Middlesbrough-born maestro did it in only five years.

Having made Derby County FC unlikely champions of England before falling foul as the boss of Leeds United, we begin in 1974 with a televised Teesside tiff between the unemployed Clough and the England boss Don Revie.

The next season Clough took charge at The City Ground and dragged the struggling team from the lower end of the domestic second tier to become 1980 European champions.

And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Clough lead his team to a second European Cup triumph the following year as well.

Rather than trying to cover every blade of contextual grass, a route one approach focuses on the players’ experience as John Robertson, Viv Anderson, Martin O’Neil and others contribute well practiced anecdotes.

As enjoyable as these misty eyed reminisces are, they carefully avoid any muddy swathes of personal problems by flying up the pristine narrative wings of on-field success.

Plus they fail to adequately explain why their achievements were astonishing then and practically impossible for a club of Forest’s fiscal flow to repeat now.

Other than the headline-making first million pound player signing, there’s little talk of the financial side of the game.

In a bygone world of halftime cigarettes, a diet of chip butties and booze and more days off than those spent training, tactical advice consists of ‘give it to the short fat b****** on the wing.

Or John Robertson as his parents named him.

Season ticket holders to the Brian Clough fan club won’t find anything new.

Surprisingly Old Big ‘Ead isn’t allowed the last word but the man who famously described himself as being in the top one remains as charismatic and engaging as ever.

Red Army

Director: Gabe Polsky (2015)

Russian sportsmen skate on the thin ice of Cold War politics in this cracking ice hockey documentary.

With drama on an off the rink, it’s an irrepressible combination of huge egos, fabulous action, political power games and private gain.

This film is built around interviews with the charismatic former champion player Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov.

Hugely rude, arrogant and compelling, he’s also the world’s most decorated ice hockey player.

He’s a shockingly refreshing antidote for anyone who suffers the bland, PR controlled and media-trained offerings of English football’s players and pundits.

The presentation of his achievements is one of many sequences that use humour to hurry the puck of narrative along.

In football terms Slava and his team mates play in a style best described as Total Hockey.

With even my limited exposure to or understanding of the game, the footage is as exciting and demanding as any sport I’ve seen.

Like many players Slava was specifically drafted to be eligible for the army team, it formed the vanguard of the USSR’s propaganda wing.

This relationship between the state and the individual is explored through the prism of Slava’s career, an astonishing accumulation of trophies, teams, air miles and vendettas.

With consummate timing Red Army holds back it’s best shot until the last minute.

For anyone with an interest in sport, history, politics or just wants to admire some really cool cold war kits, this is a brilliant watch.

 

McFarland

Director: Niki Caro (2015)

Spanish students face an uphill climb in this aspirational high school sports drama.

It’s set in the world of competitive cross country running. Free from surprises, it’s a leisurely jog along the route to self-improvement.

When PE teacher Jim White is sacked for misconduct, the only job he can get is in the down market California town of McFarland.

It’s an hispanic area and his beautiful blonde family struggle with the language, food and local hoodlums.

Keen to move on, up and out of the school and the neighbourhood, he seizes upon an opportunity for funding for a cross country team as a means of resurrecting his career.

Jim sees potential in the seven pupils he recruits to form a team, but they must run up real and metaphorical mountains in pursuit of success.

Kevin Costner is well cast as the coach, the film capitalises on his decent demeanour, gruff charm and physical presence to good effect.

Sadly the talented Maria Bello hasn’t much to do as Jim’s wife, though she fares better than the youngest daughter who serves no purpose whatsoever.

The film is careful to treat Spanish culture with respect, placing an emphasis on the importance of family, food and hard work.

It’s a struggle to give the individual boys’ screen time or fully develop their characters but they’re an agreeable, engaging group. Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles is given the closest to a genuine character arc.

Jim’s charges’ have to skip school and training runs to work in the fields. Though the script hints at domestic violence and gang culture, it shies away from showing it.

They race against teams of all-white privileged posh boys. Qualifying for the state championships offers the boys the chance of a university place, away from a future of fruit picking or prison.

As the team show signs of success, Jim faces a fork in the road between loyalty to his team or his career.

A nicely realised postscript saves this film from descending into a simple white saviour flick such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Dangerous Minds (1995).

McFarland is competently crafted and nicely acted. Though the pace slows in the uphills of sentiment, it has sufficient reserves to provide a satisfying finale.