Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Intern

Director: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Nat Wolff, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The Intern reminds us just how much we take some of our biggest movie stars for granted. They're so omnipresent and overexposed in our culture it's easy to forget why we even cared about them to begin with. Sometimes it just takes them simply playing normal, everyday people to remember that some of them also happen to be great actors. Two such stars headline Nancy Meyers' latest, which is advertised as a harmless, fluffy workplace rom-com that's a reasonable enough excuse to kill two hours, for both younger and older audiences. That description is at least partially true, as it often is for many of Meyers' films. But there's really something to be said for doing it well, and The Intern manages to get all the little things right.  It's entirely pleasurable experience from beginning to end with very few problems and a plot that isn't so much surprising as it is insightful and easygoing. And it isn't all that unrealistic in terms of the central topic it deftly handles with the help of its co-leads, who are generations apart, but entirely on the same page when it comes to making this material click.

The timely script not only avoids talking down to audiences about topics like workplace gender politics, social media, stay-at-home dads, and the generation gap, but actually goes a step further in making intelligent observations about them. Few mainstream American comedies would actively avoid depicting a CEO of a major company (much less a female one) as a tyrant or an elderly retiree as anything other than a senile loon. This one does, finding Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway as charming and likable as they've recently been, with the former doing his most subdued work in years. Its two hours go down easily, as this delivers on nearly all its comedic and dramatic potential. 

Looking to escape the malaise of his retirement as a phone book company executive, seventy-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (De Niro) applies to a senior citizen internship program, with the hopes of briefly rejoining the workforce to positively contribute to society. He says as much in his YouTube video, which lands him an interview and eventual job with About The Fit, a Brooklyn-based e-commerce fashion startup founded by current CEO Jules Ostin (Hathaway), whose overnight success, but relative inexperience, is overwhelming her. When Ben is assigned to the Type A Jules, she begrudgingly takes him in, as her initial skepticism of this internship program (and seniors in general), begins to wane after realizing he's more than fully capable of handling a wide variety of tasks.

Charming the entire office with his winning personality and knowledge, Ben soon has a positive influence on Jules, whose marriage has been suffering since her husband Matt (Anders Holm) gave up his career to become a stay-at-home dad to their young daughter, Paige (JoJo Kushner). Crumbling under the pressures of running her company, she finds an unlikely friend and father figure in Ben, who finds he might also have a lot to learn from the younger generation.

Given its story structure and thematic content, this could still be considered your typical rom-com, though there's hardly any romance to speak of and most entries in that genre aren't typically this restrained. That's evident from the very first scene, in which Ben records a video resume you actually believe would get this clearly articulate senior through the door for an interview and land him the position in a heartbeat. While much of that credit goes to De Niro's firm grip on the material, he stills needs dialogue of substance to deliver and Meyers' script continually comes through on that front. It was inevitable we'd get jokes about Ben's cluelessness about current technology as he steps into a progressive, contemporary office filled with Millennials, but the movie doesn't dwell on it or make Ben the butt of the joke. Even social media is incorporated fairly well into the plot without hammering us over the head with it.

While we're frequently laughing with Ben rather than at him, it's easy to imagine a lesser script doing the opposite, instead depicting him as an old blowhard set in his stubborn ways. If anything, he's as open to learning new things as his far younger co-workers are to learning from him. They don't go for easy Millennial jokes either, as all the employees at this company seem fairly competent rather than coming across as extras in an SNL skit skewering young people.

Whether it's Father of the Bride or It's Complicated, Meyers' films are frequently criticized for living in fantasy land, enveloping its audience in a saccharine Hollywood wish-fulfillment. To an extent that's true, but here's the rare case where her depiction is actually closer to reality than a snarkier, more negative portrayal would be. And it's also nice to see a comedy where characters aren't living in impossibly expensive New York City apartments because it looks nice on camera, but because their salaries and income levels dictate that they should.

If the portrayal of Ben is smart, the depiction of Jules may be even wiser. Removing the fact she's a female CEO and the whole stay-at-home-dad issue, imagine how tempting it must have been to write this character as a total bitch for comedy and conflict. And with Hathaway in the role the temptation was likely far greater to create a kind of reverse Devil Wears Prada, this time sending up media and public perception of the actress. But Meyers is too clever for that.

By making Jules an insecure CEO full of self-doubt that she can even handle this job, it makes her eventual bond with Ben mean more because his advice becomes invaluable. And just look at Jules' husband. They actually had the guts to cast some unknown, normal looking hipster guy in the role opposite Hathaway. The second we see them together something seems off. Why? Because it's realistic. And he seems like just the kind of person who would be thrown for a loop when Jules' career ascension completely alters their lives.

There's a romantic subplot involving Ben and the company masseuse (played by Rene Russo) that's kind of a throwaway until you start to realize that if the roles were reversed and Russo's character were a man, her behavior could result in termination or worse. Did the movie intentionally do this as a sly commentary on gender politics? Of course not. But it's there. And as far as third act complications go, the one involving Jules is actually pretty good, taking that gender reversal theme as far as it goes. The ending is a bit tidy, but it isn't often that a romantic comedy goes into the final stretch with a woman holding as many cards as Jules does here.

At this point, Hathaway could convincingly play any occupation and as this uncertain CEO, she walks a fine line between being a little bit prickly and demanding, while almost being entirely too good-hearted a person to succeed in the position she's been put in. Making matters more interesting is that the person who put her there was herself, sometimes much to her own disbelief. Hathaway effectively draws a contrast in how Jules behaves at work and at home, startling for both its similarities and differences. And it's safe to say if the character was written as one-dimensionally as the trailers implied, she would have found a way to make that work just as well.

De Niro is pretty much a revelation here. "Subtle" isn't exactly a word that jumps to mind when considering his comedic work and so much of what he does dramatically rests on kind of a tough guy persona. This is so different from anything he's done recently because he dials everything down so much and just conveys this quiet, confident intelligence that lets us know that Ben knows the deal. At one point Jules remarks just how observant Ben is and the same description can just as easily be applied to De Niro's performance, which was good enough for a nomination if more people bothered to take it seriously. They really should have.

If there's one thing missing, it's conflict or stakes of any kind,It's so efficiently written and the characters so smart and likable that you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. But let's be honest. You don't see a Nancy Meyers movie for conflict any more than you'd watch Garry Marshall's Mother's Day for explosions. It's supposed to be a palette cleanser, as you root for good people essentially being good to each other for two hours. As that, it's a phenomenal success.

There's a couple of scenes in the film where Ben and Jules are talking about their lives and it feels so organic. Two people of entirely different ages and generations finding a common ground. The line between employee and employer disappears as two friends bond over their disparate situations, that aren't quite as far apart as you'd think. And it doesn't feel corny or creepy in the slightest because of these two great actors and the fact that the right creative choices were made by Meyers to have them land naturally at this point. The Intern doesn't reinvent the wheel but is does occasionally surprise with just how much it accomplishes with a relatively simple but engaging premise.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

Director: John Lee
Starring: Paul Reubens, Joe Magnaniello, Jessica Pohly, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Brad William Henke, Hal Landon Jr., Diane Salinger, Patrick Egan, Tara Buck
Running Time: 89 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Any analysis or criticism of Pee-wee's Big Holiday should be prefaced with the acknowledgment that Paul Reubens is a comic genius and the stage character he created in the late 70's, but perfected in the mid 80's with his own Saturday morning children's program and two feature films, is a national treasure. Whatever went wrong with this effort can't fall on Reubens, regardless of the fact he happens to share a screenwriting credit on it. I'd like to believe his contributions were likely limited to whatever was needed to finally get this made. And after 25 years of waiting for this, can you really blame him? While we know he's been working Pee-wee comeback scripts for years, we also know their descriptions don't even slightly resemble what's seen here. And therein lies the problem. Despite the excruciating wait, this somehow still feels like a rush job unbefitting his unique talent.

Big Holiday isn't exactly a poor film, but it's just kind of there, containing occasional moments of inspired lunacy and inside jokes that capture prime Pee-wee and should moderately succeed at bringing grins to fans' faces. All things considered, it's actually pretty decent. It just doesn't feel important and there's this undercurrent of apathy that permeates through the low-budgeted picture, making it feel very "made-for-TV." Of course, it is, and this shouldn't be a bad thing considering the quality of most of what's on TV now far surpasses that of feature films. But with a larger than life character like Pee-wee, it's a problem. It's almost as if a committee got together and agreed to paint with only the broadest strokes possible in order to churn this out. "There. He's back. Happy now?"

Even if I can accept the excuse that we should all just be happy to see him again and don't deserve more, Reubens and the character sure do. Since the industry still seems to strangely insist he continue paying for a mistake he made decades ago, this project could almost be viewed as the latest punishment. Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But after a really promising premise, it starts to drag its feet in an effort to mimic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, making its trim 89 minutes start to feel far longer. Director John Lee does an adequate job with what he's given, but he's no Tim Burton, nor does anyone expect him to be. Tim Burton isn't even Tim Burton anymore. But there's nothing wrong with admitting we expected better, no matter how much it stings to say it.

Grey-suited, red-bow tied man-child Pee-wee Herman (Reubens) lives in the idyllic town of Fairville, rising each morning to repeat the same routine of hopping into his car, grabbing breakfast and greeting well-wishers on his way to his job as a short-order cook at Dan's Diner. It's there where he meets actor Joe Manganiello (actor Joe Manganiello), who Pee-wee only knows as a really cool guy on a motorcycle. After mixing Joe one of the "top 5" best chocolate shakes he's had in his life, the two discover they actually have a lot in common and become fast friends, leading to an invitation to Joe's upcoming birthday party in New York City. One problem: Pee-wee's never left his comfort zone of Fairville and has little desire to. But with Joe urging to take some risks and live a little, Pee-Wee embarks on his very first holiday, traveling cross-country and, of course, meeting some unusual characters along the way.

If there any jarring aspects to this journey, Pee-wee Herman isn't one of them, as he's preserved exactly as we remember him. In more ways than one. Thanks to even more make-up than usual and some invisibly impressive digital re-touching, the character hardly looks like he's aged a day. It was the right decision since we'd need to get around the reality that Reubens is in his early sixties now and the very nature of the Pee-wee character is rooted in his childlike demeanor and appearance. He remains frozen in a perpetual state of youthfulness, a concept that couldn't be more relevant to the film's narrative. For everything that does look cheap and low-budget here, it's a relief that those effects don't, further de-aging an actor who already looks younger than his age. Of course, an even easier solution would have been not waiting so damn long to make the movie.

As expected, Reubens slips back into the role like he never left and his performance is consistently likable and tonally on point, even when the material he's working with isn't. That should be a given, but after all this time there's no guarantees, so the film earns most of its big points there, and with the general thematic outline of the story. Then the praise starts dwindling and it's my sneaking suspicion that's where most of Reubens' creative input ended. It can't be proven, but I'll go out on a limb and hypothesize that producer Judd Apatow and Netflix executives "finessed" his ideas (which were likely edgier and more subversive), molding them into much of what the final product became. This theory could either be completely wrong, or perhaps scarier, that description may represent a tamer, more diplomatic version of what happened. Let's go with the former since the thought of Reubens having to severely compromise his creativity is too depressing to entertain.

Stuck in his daily routine, the change-resistant Pee-wee Herman's Pleasantville-esque hometown of Fairville is a great starting point that works to not only satisfy fans with a reintroduction, but gives newer viewers a glimpse into what he's all about. It only makes sense that this grown man who acts like a five-year old would be so set in his ways, opposing growth of any kind. Nearly everything that occurs in Fairville works, including Joe Manganiello's fun performance as "himself," proving wrong those who thought Pee-wee sharing the screen with a semi-famous co-star would be a distraction. If anything, there scenes together prove to be the film's highlight, as Pee-wee's obliviousness to the actor's identity and career turns into one of their best exchanges.

It's when we hit the road that things start to go downhill, or at least seem more hit-or-miss in terms of humor. While the clear inspiration for this journey is 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, this film hasn't nearly the same scope or novelty to get away with that so it feels less like a spiritual sequel than an inferior copy. But we're apparently forgetting that film existed since they claim the character has never left his homtown or been on a vacation of any kind. The comic pit-stops vary in quality, with the worst taking up the most amount of screen time, as a 50's inspired biker gang of women bank robbers (played by Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz and Alia Shawkat) ripped right out of a Russ Meyer film kidnap Pee-wee. Better is his encounter with a farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) whose nine daughters each want a piece of him, but even that joke eventually wears out its welcome before being beaten into the ground.

Intermittent moments of genuine warmth and comedy are occasionally overshadowed by this feeling that something's off with tone or gags just simply drag on endlessly without a satisfying payoff. The exceptions involve two wonderful turns from Patrick Egan as a traveling salesman and Big Adventure alum Diane Salinger as a Katharine Hepburn-inspired aviator with a flying car. Those segments really hit the mark, as do Pee-Wee's fantasy flashforward sequences at Joe's party. Unfortunately, by the third act, the action feels like such a slog I was looking at my watch wondering if he'd ever get there. And when he actually does, it's actually kind of a letdown. Luckily, Mark Mothersbaugh's score does an effective job capturing the magical whimsy of Pee-wee's universe better than perhaps the screenplay does.

It's doubtful anyone was under the illusion that Pee-wee Herman would return in exactly the same capacity he left us over 25 years ago, nor would we necessarily want him to. Time has passed and that would be impossible. But what went wrong with this project speaks to a larger problem evident in the shocking lack of promotion for what should have been a big deal. Studios want to reap the rewards of cashing in on nostalgia without the monetary risk that comes from going all in, so they only dip their feet in the water. Yes, it's great to see him again, and even with all its flaws, it's a testament to Reubens' talent that the originality of his creation still manages to still shine through. And for that, Pee-wee's Big Holiday couldn't possibly go down as a complete disappointment. Just a partial one. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016


Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp 
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In David O. Russell's Joy, Jennifer Lawrence proves she can even make a mop interesting. The opening title card informs us this "Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular." That one woman in particular is Joy Magnano, a divorced mother of three who went from near- poverty to selling her invention of the Miracle Mop and becoming the queen of home shopping television. Knowing of her products but very little about the person behind them, I accidentally stumbled upon one of her shows on the Home Shopping Network right before the release of the film, the timing of which couldn't have been coincidental. "Wait, she's playing HER?" No way could I picture it. Even if she'd be playing Joy at a much younger age, the nature of the role still suggested the casting of an older actress, a complaint Lawrence must be sick of hearing by now. Plus, there's that pesky problem of convincing audiences to show up to a movie about a woman selling mops.

Upon its release, Joy opened with a thud, equally alienating moviegoers and critics, with the latter giving Russell some of his worst reviews since his creative reemergence a few years back. But what's so funny about this is how no one really came out and said exactly what was wrong with it, throwing around generalizations like "crazy" and "unfocused" and even going so far as to express disappointment that film dared to be more than its trailers insinuated. What's actually most perplexing about Joy is that it couldn't be any more straightforward.

This isn't a mess. There isn't a problem with tone. And whatever fudging was done with the facts or pre-production hiccups that occurred, it's very clearly Joy Magnano's story, as listed in the credits. But more than that, it's told brilliantly, furthering cementing Russell's genius and bolstering his reputation as one of the most visually innovative directors working today. Combing elements of comedy, drama and thriller into the biopic that really isn't, its biggest attribute is how unflinching it is in showing the painful sacrifices and obstacles that accompany invention. Few films covering this topic have been stronger or more illuminating.

It's 1989 and Joy (Lawrence) is a single mother of two living on Long Island with her young kids, divorced parents Rudy (Robert DeNiro) and Terri (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramirez). Between working the desk at Eastern Airlines, breaking up her parents' fights and balancing her father's books at the auto shop, Joy's barely scraping by financially, putting her dreams on hold to take care of her dysfunctional family. Frequently flashing back to happier times, she recalls a childhood full of building and creating things, a hobby that fell to the wayside when her parents divorced 17 years ago. Now her dad's dating a wealthy Italian widow named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and her mom lies on the coach all day, obsessively watching soap operas. 

For Joy, inspiration comes in the form of a blueprint for a self-wringing mop she hopes to patent and sell. Supported by her lifelong best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) but discouraged by just about everyone else in her family, including her overachieving half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), she attempts to secure the financing necessary to manufacture and sell the product. And that's where the trouble starts, as a series of severe mistakes and complications lead her to literally risk everything for the pursuit of her dream.

Joy takes care of the household since all the other adults in her life behave like grown children, but the second she needs one favor, they seem to rub her nose in it, at times almost willing things to go wrong. And do they ever go wrong. What the film does really well is show how frustrating it is to be an intelligent person surrounded by irritating know-it-alls. And when those know-it-alls are your family, it gets even uglier. Coming up with the idea is the easy part compared to what follows, as her struggles demonstrate that you could have the most creative, original idea on the planet and it's likely no one can notice or care unless you're willing to fight for it.

A good eighty to ninety percent of the story is about financial disaster, which is kind of fascinating when you consider how many people are out there are pitching their ideas, but just don't have the resources at their disposal to make it happen. The script also harkens back to this interesting notion that sometimes the clearest, purest vision of what you want to do comes in childhood, and your adult life can be spent drifting away from it, hoping you'll return to shore. That's why the flashback scenes featuring a young Joy (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) are so essential.   

This is really one of the first films to get into the nuts and bolts of patenting an idea, and since Russell keeps things moving and visually engaging, it never seems like a business procedural or tutorial session. Whether it's the hiring of an incompetent lawyer, getting ripped off by the shady manufacturer, or having to take out a second mortgage on her house, she really could lose everything. And the involvement of her family in this enterprise only seems to increase those chances, as they're all more woefully ill-equipped at making these decisions than she is.

The worst of the bunch is Trudy, who Rossellini plays with this unlikable iciness, embodying a woman who feels her unearned wealth entitles her to an alarming degree of control. It is her money Joy's playing with, but all bets are off once she arrogantly holds it over her and pretends to be an expert in something she knows nothing about. DeNiro's Rudy seems to be almost a comic figure at first, before the actor peels back the layers to reveal that Joy shouldn't have stood a chance in life with him as a father. As much as Joy's ex-husband, the failed singer Tony, is presented as a loser with few prospects, he's ironically the only person that has her back and best interests in mind, often sensing disaster before anyone else who should know better.   

The high-water mark comes about midway through when Joy finds herself at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania headquarters of then-fledgling home shopping channel, QVC and Russell takes us into a universe we've never seen before. For her, it may as well be another universe entirely. Everything that transpires in this entire section is enthralling, from how Russell shoots it to some of the backstage details and characters we're exposed to (including an out-of-left-field cameo by Melissa Rivers playing her mom). But what's most memorable is Bradley Cooper's brief but pivotal appearance as network executive Neil Walker. Tasked with explaining the company's purpose and taking her on a tour of the facilities, Cooper rattles an almost endless amount of dialogue and expository information about the inner workings of QVC without ever failing to completely hold our interest.

It's almost scary how effective Cooper is here, finding just the right note for this guy, who's no-nonsense and bottom line oriented while still being relatively sympathetic to Joy's situation. He doesn't get a ton of screen time, but his scenes are some of the most crucial of the film, and he plays them just right,  with Cooper continuing to prove how interesting a performer he's become. Of course, this eventually culminates in Joy herself having to pitch her product on-air and under lights, with no TV experience under her belt. A first for the network that relies on experienced sellers and celebrities to handle the on-air pitching duties. 

The moments of uplift in Joy are few and far between. In fact, you could really only name two. A seemingly certain victory that ends up being short-lived and a final confrontation in a hotel room that's so tense and tightly written it could easily be found in a psychological thriller. This should be admired on a number of levels, not the least of which being Lawrence's Oscar- nominated performance, as she somehow pulls it off again, amazing us in a role she should be completely wrong for.

If it seems as if the Jennifer is playing older than she ever has, it could be attributed to the fact that this character had to take on a huge amount of responsibility at a young age. As it turns out, Joy Mangano was actually in her mid-thirties at the time so Lawrence really is playing ten years older than she is. And once again, when the cameras roll, a transformation takes place in her we'd never think to question. It's a gift she has for playing these strong, but ultimately damaged women and the performance shies away from the ugliness of some of the character's questionable choices. But when push comes to shove, like Joy, she's capable of bringing it when necessary. It also speaks volumes that there's no love interest, making it clear exactly where this story's focus lies.

Reuniting with Russell earned her Lawrence a third Oscar nomination (following her 2013 win for Silver Linings Playbook) so it's impossible to argue she even needs to take things in a different direction, regardless of this film's reception. And while it can be a questionable habit for directors to continuously work with the same cast for multiple projects, there's no need to fix what isn't broken since he's also gotten such wildly different work out of Cooper and DeNiro in each of them, with the former at the top of his game in this.

It's ironic that those calling for a return to the more risk-taking Russell of his earlier days are complaining the style he employs here is too far out there and crazy. Other than the aforementioned flashback scenes, a soap opera framing device and a voice-over narration from beyond the grave (all of which work), this could be considered a straightforward biopic. Or at least it would be in the hands of anyone else.

Russell knows how to infuse a simple story with this manic energy and turn it into so much more than what it appears to be at its surface, a quality never more apparent than in the final minutes, when he transitions from the most hurtful, devastating scene into a succeeding one of pure triumph. We should have known better. If someone can make a compelling movie about the founding of a web site, there was no reason to believe it couldn't also be done for the invention of a mop. Like any story, you just need the right director and cast to make it.

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado, Ritchie Coster
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

If it's true that everything starts with an idea, it helps to have a really good one and the ability to deliver on it. I'd imagine director/co-writer Ryan Coogler's pitch of a new Rocky film was initially met with a skeptical eye roll from both studio executives and maybe even a few of the actors he approached to be a part of it. And given the state of the franchise after some underwhelming sequels and a disappointing 2006 curtain call, it's hard to blame them. Despite not counting myself a huge fan of the original and among those frequently questioning its 1977 Best Picture victory in a highly competitive year, even I'd have trouble denying its cultural impact. It's one of the few Oscar winners still remembered and talked about to this day, regardless of the extent to which its sequels somewhat tarnished its legacy.

Anyone looking to recapture the feelings of goodwill that first film generated in so many you'd need a really strong narrative hook. With Creed, Coogler finds it. And in doing so he makes the ultimate Rocky movie and the one everyone's been waiting for without knowing they wanted it. In the most purely honest way possible, he tricks us into watching another entry by not making one. It isn't until the last scene that you realize what happened, and by the point, you're at too much of an emotional high to get hung up on it. By their very nature, sports movies follow a certain formula, but in the best ones there's this magic that takes place that transports audiences and makes them forget, even as the script and its characters sink deeply into it. Formulas do exist for a reason, but a good director, like a magician, never reveals his tricks. In Creed, all the wheels are turning but we're never consciously aware of the machinations.

Cleverly, the sequel/spin-off is jump-started with one question: What about Apollo Creed? We know Rocky's opponent, friend and mentor (played by Carl Weathers) died in the ring, but he left someone behind. A son from an extramarital affair named Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who's been fighting and starting trouble since his days at a youth detention facility in the late 90's. It wasn't until Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) took him in that he started to have anything resembling a normal upbringing. Fifteen years later, he's on the fast track to a promotion at a Los Angeles-based financial firm, even as something eats away at him. He goes down to Tijuana on the weekends to box, demonstrating the burning desire to fight that's persisted since childhood.

After being rejected at his father's gym, he quits his job and heads to Philadelphia, landing at the doorstep of Adrian's restaurant and in front of the only man he knows can train him: His dad's opponent, friend and mentor, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Initially reluctant, Rocky agrees, but when word gets out that Donnie is Creed's son, the marketing potential of that teaming can't be ignored, so despite being nowhere near ready, Donnie must prepare for the fight of his life against the world lightweight champion, "Pretty" Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew), an intimidating British brute preparing for a retirement bout before he heads to prison. And in doing this, Donnie must not only come to terms with taking on his late father's name, but do justice to his legacy even as he struggles with his own.

All this manages to work so well due to a series of creative decisions made by Coogler that are played to perfection, each piece of the puzzle organically falling into place to create a maximum entertainment experience from start to finish. It isn't much of a stretch to buy that Apollo Creed has an illegitimate son who felt abandoned, or that he'd harbor much of the rage his father did, not to mention many of his fighting skills. And it's even less of one to believe that the emotionally beat down Rocky we see here (an incarnation that's a far cry from any previous outing) wouldn't want to be near the ring again in any capacity, either as a cornerman or trainer because of what it dredges up. But we also know that he can't resist and as much as the underdog story parallels that of the original, it's surprising just how different it feels in both tone and execution, shot and edited to more closely resemble something grittier, like Southpaw or The Fighter. And Ludwig Göransson's soundtrack effectively pays tribute to pieces of Bill Conti's original score without attempting to slavishly mimic or overuse it.

There's an urgency here that went missing through most of the sequels and a familiarity in also acknowledging their purposeful existence in getting the characters to this point, most of whom we're meeting for the first time. The result feels new and fresh, releasing the franchise of the baggage and stigma that's weighed it down over the past couple of decades. This is the mentor role Stallone should have probably played already, but feels strangely even more appropriate now because he's at the stage of his life and career where he's caught up to us, and feels ready. In a way, it's similar to Mickey Rourke's role in The Wrestler in how it works on this meta level that almost makes it impossible to separate the role from what we know about the actor playing it. He's not at all "playing himself" but rather using his and the character's rich history to create this whole other layer from which he draws from to create this deep performance, his strongest and quietest dramatic turn since Copland.

When a development occurs that turns Rocky's world inside-out it should feel manipulative, but doesn't because Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington understand that this is the natural progression for a lonely guy who's world really ended when Adrian died. Much like the series itself, he was just going through the motions. Training Donnie briefly alleviates that and Stallone's scenes opposite the perfectly cast Jordan are magnificent, recalling not only the best training sequences from the Rocky films, but some of the more memorable mentoring relationships captured on film, like that in The Karate Kid.

Previously working with Coogler when he played shooting victim Oscar Grant in 2013's Fruitvale Station, Jordan gave a superb performance in service of a film that didn't completely return the favor. With it came the responsibility of playing a real-life figure whose death ignited a firestorm of controversy. Here, he's shouldering a different kind of responsibility, and as the centerpiece and driving force behind an iconic franchise, he's the new Rocky. Or more accurately, the first Adonis Creed, with Jordan drawing on his own physical preparation for the role and natural charisma and intensity. He leaves little doubt Adonis is very much his father's son, and it's only when he comes around to fully accepting that, will he be able to step out from behind his shadow.

But his trajectory does seem to mirror Rocky's more than his dad's with not only his untrained underdog status as a fighter, but burgeoning relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a hearing impaired musician in his building whom he starts to date. Even this is handled exceptionally well, as intrinsically weaved into the plot as Rocky's romance with Adrian. It helps that the completely engaging and likable Thompson shines in every scene she's given, sharing excellent chemistry with her co-star. It's kind of one of those happy surprises that this turns out as well as it does, while also managing to be subtly touching at times, never forcing the issue. Just two great actors doing their thing.

For the first time in a while it feels like we're building to a fight worthy of the hype it's gotten through faux HBO video packages cleverly interspersed into the film, raising the stakes much higher than they've been in the franchise's recent history. Creed's opponent is a monster who carries himself like a serial killer and has about ten times the experience, practically mirroring Balboa's predicament in the original. With an outcome that's legitimately in doubt, the final fight is masterfully filmed and edited, giving us room to breathe and take in the action, showing just how far the staging of these sequences have come since the worst of the previous installments. Everything about this carries a "big fight" feel, and the result is the right one, despite my worries of its implications for the franchise moving forward.

As much as I care what happens to these characters, I'm still hesitant in wanting more. While I loved what we got, and maybe even prefer it to the original in many ways, part of me wishes they'd stop here before it's too late. We all know that won't happen as long as there's money to be made, but the last thing we need is a succession of inferior sequels made by rotating directors that devalue the achievement of Coogler and his talented cast. But who knows? Maybe it's possible to craft a worthy Creed follow-up if everyone's on the same page. But it'll be tough to top the rush you get here when the Rocky theme swells up at just the right moment, knowing it's being played again in a movie that's truly earned it.