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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘Creed,’ ‘Room,’ ‘Love the Coopers’

By Susan Granger

With “Creed,” writer/director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) has not only revived “Rocky” nostalgia but also introduced an entirely new character: Adonis (“Donnie”) Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), son of legendary boxing champion Apollo Creed.

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Born out of wedlock to a mother who died, then shuffled through foster care and juvenile detention, adolescent Adonis is adopted by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who knows he’s her late husband’s illegitimate son.

Raised and educated in L.A.’s posh Baldwin Hills, Donnie lands a cushy corporate job but spends weekends prize-fighting in Tijuana - until he goes to Philadelphia to track down his father’s fabled nemesis/friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

Still tending Adrian’s restaurant (named after his late wife), Rocky is reluctant at first but soon relents, patiently teaching and training Donnie. Problem is: Donnie’s determined to use his own name, which turns off ambitious promoters.

“Every move that I make, every punch that I throw, everybody’s gonna compare me to him,” he admits. “I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing.”

Meanwhile, Donnie hooks up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a lovely singer/songwriter who is gradually going deaf. Aging, avuncular Rocky develops a warm relationship with her as well, as the plot propels toward a major match with Britain’s cocky Ricky Conlan (ABA Heavyweight Champion Anthony Bellew).

What’s extraordinary are the subtle choices that storyteller Ryan Coogler skillfully makes, along with co-writer Aaron Covington, delving into the lengths a man would go to in order to connect with the father he never knew. There’s skepticism but not cynicism, as the multi-layered characters deal with life’s challenges in his/her own way.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”) has become a pugilistic expert, making each match exciting.  And Ludwig Goransson’s integrated hip-hop/orchestral score is an important element - with Coogler cleverly saving Bill Conti’s iconic “Rocky” theme for a crucial, climactic moment.

Yet it’s Sylvester Stallone who delivers the most stunning surprise. Slipping into Burgess Meredith mode, he’s both forceful and fragile. As of now, he’s my top pick for 2015’s Best Supporting Actor.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Creed” is a crowd-pleasing 9. Albeit familiar, this redemptive spinoff could even be an Oscar contender. Wouldn’t that be a knockout punch?

In “Room,” Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) delivers an exquisite, Oscar-worthy performance as Joy, a young woman held captive in a small garden shed with her five year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).

Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her 2010 best-seller and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, it’s basically told from Jack’s point-of-view. Jack has never left the squalid, sound-proofed, 10-by-10-foot room in which his Ma has been imprisoned for seven years. He was born there.

Gazing through the skylight, Jack can see clouds, rain and an occasional leaf – but nothing else. Everything he knows about the outside world he’s learned from by playing games or watching TV.

On his fifth birthday as Jack grows more curious, Ma informs him that she was 17 when she was kidnapped by a psychopath known as Old Nick (Sean Bridges), who visits periodically to deliver groceries and rape Ma, while Jack cowers in the wardrobe.

She says it’s now time to plan their escape, a risky maneuver which will involve Jack’s being on his own for the first time in his life.

Eventually, Jack meets his grandparents (Joan Allen, William H. Macy), who divorced after Joy’s abduction, and Grandma’s new husband, Leo (Tom McCamus).

In the outside world, Jack is understandably bewildered by his newfound freedom, while Joy tries to cope with the brutal psychological trauma she’s endured for so long. Their adjustment process is complicated when Joy agrees to a major TV network interview, only to be sandbagged when her motivations as a mother are questioned.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay create an astonishingly intimate mother-son connection, although those who have read the novel may miss some of its daring frankness.

On the Granger Gauge, “Room” is a resilient, cathartic 8, combining a wondrous metaphor with a suspenseful thriller.

“Love the Coopers”? It’s difficult even to like them, despite the holiday theme and star-studded cast.

Charlotte Cooper (Diane Keaton) presides over a magnificent kitchen, its gleaming granite countertops jam-packed with appetizing edibles. Once a year, four generations gather under one roof on Christmas Eve - and she wants everything to be perfect.

Problem is: perpetually flustered Charlotte has a dysfunctional family and chaos reigns. With Steve Martin providing an omniscient narration, their individual and collective angst is revealed.

Struggling playwright daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) recruits Joe (Jake Lacy), a conservative Christian soldier whom she meets in an airport bar, to pose as her boy-friend. Dejected, divorcing son Hank (Ed Helms) arrives with his sullen teenager and a five year-old who crudely repeats: “You’re such a dick!”

Charlotte’s envious sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) shoplifts, so she’s whisked off in a police cruiser by a closeted cop (Anthony Mackie). Lonely Grandpa Bucky (Alan Arkin) has an eye for young ladies, particularly an insecure waitress (Amanda Seyfried). And there’s flatulent Aunt Fishy (June Squib).

To top it off: Charlotte is planning to end her 40-year marriage to Sam (John Goodman) after the festivities conclude, perhaps because Sam is determined to finally take a long-postponed trip to Africa.

Given this motley cast, one might hope for humor. But none is forthcoming from screenwriter Steven Rogers, whose flaccid, contrived dramedy is peppered with flashbacks and telegraphed deductions, as director Jessie Nelson vainly evokes memories of the classic comedy “Born Yesterday” (1950), directed by George Cukor and produced by my father, S. Sylvan Simon.

On the Granger Gauge, “Love the Coopers” is a tedious 3. Loath is more suitable.”


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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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