A Strange Review: ‘Creed’

Creed-Michael-B-Jordan-Sylvester-Stallone-1024x680Early on in Creed, a young Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) shadowboxes in front of film footage of the original, climactic Rocky Balboa–Apollo Creed fight. One of the more interesting aspects of this rousing, charming, and altogether winning “sequel” is that it works on two levels: as both one more (and presumably final) entry in the Rocky franchise, and as a commentary on the whole Rocky entertainment phenomenon.

Imagine a young African American watching the original Rockys (on TV, VHS, or DVD) and laughing at the prospect of some “Italian Stallion”—long after Italians were relevant to heavyweight boxing—humiliate, and finally defeat, Apollo Creed (played by a real-life pro athlete Carl Weathers), and saying to himself that he was going to flip the scenario and avenge the great ex-champ—yet do it with great love and affection for “Unc” Rocky.

Needless to say, I loved this film. I loved it about as much, if not more, as any film I’ve see in the past ten or fifteen years.

We meet the young Adonis in “juvie,” fighting, of course. Both his birth parents are dead, and he’s been kicking around foster homes for years. It’s not until Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) takes the young Adonis in that he learns that his father, whom he had never met, was the late great heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Seems Apollo had an affair and Adonis was the result. Mary Anne nevertheless opens her opulent Los Angeles home to him, determined to see that Apollo’s blood is raised far from the mean streets that are too often the scene of the shedding of same.

But Adonis has other plans. Years of soft living and a cushy white-collar job bore him. He tells Mary Anne that he has to fight, to her horror. The last thing she wanted for this young man was the kind of life that Apollo had led—that finally got him killed.

But a warrior’s got to war. And so Adonis takes off for Philly, to meet his late father’s best friend and one-time “trainer,” Rocky Balboa. Rocky is stunned to learn that Apollo had a son, never mind that he wants him to pick up where he left off with Apollo. It’s a hard sell, but Rocky finally relents, whether out of curiosity, boredom, or some send of guilt over the death of Apollo at the hands of Ivan Drago (“that fight should have been stopped—I should have stopped it”) is unclear. But Adonis is quickly put through his paces, much as Mickey put the young Balboa through his when he walked through those gym doors forty years earlier. The bond that Adonis feels for the ex-pug grows, as Rocky becomes both father-figure and mentor.

Director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) sprinkles musical and visual motifs from the original Rocky films throughout Creed. From Adonis chasing a chicken to push his reflexes, to one-arm pushups, to the love story. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a singer at the beginning of her career. Unlike Adrian, however, she is not some mousy, pet-shop clerk destined to be little more than a forgotten “spinster” (if her brother Paulie is any kind of prophet), but instead a vibrant and lovely artist who nevertheless carries the burden of another kind of fate: she is suffering from progressive hearing loss, and knows that one day she will be unable to hear her own music. She is someone who cannot afford to worry about the future, who must seize the day, as that’s all she has.

Johnson never tells Bianca that his real name is Creed: he is still trying to elude the shadow of his legendary father, determined to create his own legacy based on his own merits. It’s not until Adonis wins his first bout with Rocky in his corner that the entire world learns his true identity. Once this is out, the light-heavyweight champion of the world, a Brit named Conlan who’s headed to prison after one more defense of his title, chases a fat payday against the son of the great Creed.

Rocky sees this for the money-grab that it is, and counsels Adonis against taking the offer. After all, no one gives Adonis a chance in the world of winning (sound familiar?). It’s a freak show made possible by an accident of birth. But Adonis is slowly coming to terms with his own history, and is tenacious, and convinces Rocky to pursue the championship bout. The film then gears up for the grand finale.

Until Rocky passes out while working with Adonis in the ring. Turns out the old prizefighter has one last fight of his own. He’s pushing 70, looking it, feeling it, and the end is certainly within his sights. Not that he’s afraid of dying. After losing Adrian, death is rest. But there’s still more work to do, as he told the dying Mickey. Now Rocky and Adonis must now lean on each other as they struggle to push through days far tougher than either could have imagined.

The final question is, which Rocky will Creed takes as its template? One, in which the underdog loses the big fight but goes the distance and wins the love of his girl? Two, in which the underdog wins the championship? Three, in which the champ loses his beloved trainer and becomes rattled by a ferocious opponent? Four, in which the champ loses his best friend and former nemesis—and should have thrown in the towel (we’ll forget “and wins the Cold War”)? You’ll have to go see for yourself.

Jordan does a convincing job of portraying ambition and vulnerability, buried anger and the capacity for hope. Thompson, who bears a striking resemblance to Lisa Bonet, undoubtedly has a career ahead of her that should prove more durable than that of the ex-Cosby kid.

But it is Stallone who makes this thing click. My goodness what a glorious final bow for this character. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say about Rocky Balboa, that Stallone had nothing left to say as Rocky Balboa, Coogler digs deep into the mythos and writes yet another chapter to the story, with Stallone coming through like a champ to deliver a textured, melancholy, yet loving performance that is well worth an Oscar nomination.

Surrounded by Rocky memorabilia—posters and pictures and film footage of the old films—we’re never allowed to forget how long this character has been with us and the effect he has had on pop culture. In one scene, Adonis is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Why do I box? Because I can’t sing or dance”—something you’d expect to be able to buy in any Philly tourist trap today. In fact we see tourists having their picture taken with the Rocky statue now embedded somewhere on the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, home to those iconic steps. Yet I was surprised by how often this film surprised me. Coogler and co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, having watched the whole Rocky business, as a business, unfold over the years like the rest of us, have now purchased their very own franchise, Rocky character and all. Awash in iconic pop-culture imagery, they have entered the picture themselves and, deity-like, both comment on and inform the text.

Yet how could Coogler craft yet another pre-fight, adrenaline-pumping training run down Philly streets that didn’t look like the ones so familiar to us already? Damn if he didn’t pull it off, with a joyously original visual touch.

Creed is formulaic as hell. (One otherwise positive review called it “corny“; yet another, “far-fetched.”) But Coogler knew exactly what elements to plug into the formula to craft one helluva stirring bit of Hollywood entertainment. Manipulative? Of course—but effective, as I found myself literally on the edge of my seat as the final round of the Big Fight commenced, with Rocky conveying tips Apollo’s manager would have given the champion to take down his challenger back in 1976!

Creed is a film about finding family finally, and in the last place you’d think (“He’s your uncle?” Bianca asks Adonis. “He’s white”). It’s about owning and forgiving the past, never taking a single day for granted, seeing yourself as the only enemy you need worry over, and never giving up in a righteous fight. Just like Adonis Johnson, Creed works hard to earn its name, to earn its place in the Rocky series.

And it succeeds beautifully. It may not exceed the original, if for no other reason than it needed the original for it’s own life, as any son does his father.

But it is definitely a member of the family.

Posted in A Strange Review | Leave a comment

A Strange Preview: ‘Knight of Cups’

So the reclusive and elusive maestro Terrence Malick has another film ready to hit screens: Knight of Cups. It was shot right after To the Wonder, which means not too long after The Tree of Life, so for a filmmaker that went dormant for many years, he’s been making up for lost time.

Visually, this one evokes both Gaspar Noé and Christopher Nolan, with Malick thrown in for good measure. Like Tree, it apparently is a film of one man’s self-exploration, this guy a Hollywood type. Whether it turns out to be, like Tree, which I admired for all its excesses, a spiritually complex portrait of a man torn between being a success and being good, or a cinematographic indulgence that made sense to Malick at the time but leaves the rest of us scratching our heads, only time will tell. The preliminary response has been, according to /Film, “mixed,” which usually means you’re going to have to go and judge for yourself.

For the record, I never got to see To the Wonder, and so I still wonder what it was about.

Posted in A Strange Preview | Leave a comment

NYU Gets a ‘White Students Union.’ But Not Really. But Sorta Kinda.


Lewis Carroll could not have imagined the alternate reality that progressives have fashioned in institutions of cultural appropriation nationwide. I mean, the university was birthed in Western Europe, by Western Europeans, correct? Bologna, Oxford, Paris, Salamanca, Cambridge, Padua, Valladolid—these were, and remain, in Europe last time I checked one of those globe thingees.

Yet WEs appear to be the one group that doesn’t rate a university-approved identity of its own. Used to be, it didn’t really need one. We were all living it, in a manner of speaking, here in the good old U.S. of A., regardless of the soil on which our ancestors trod, just as we were all speaking it, even if we were more likely to hear our grandparents scold us in Italian, Spanish, German, Mandarin, or  Mullukmulluk.

That is, until we were told we weren’t, or shouldn’t.

Now I know that any group that has the word “White” in it has historically been up to no good, and in many cases really no good, and that its members are probably not sitting around a mission oak table somewhere reading aloud their latest contributions to world literature, Inklings-like, smoking pipes, drinking ale, and smiling wryly as apt snatches of Donne and Milton parade across their mental field of vision, like a chyron shuffling across Open University TV. They’re most probably grousing about, well, you know. Them. And them. And them.

But seriously, can you blame any group of college kids whose ancestry is rooted somewhere on that continent that dare not speak its accomplishments for growing tired of being demonized, marginalized, and ordered to apologize in carefully vetted non-hateful language for not being insufficiently chastened—in the midst of a WE institution created expressly to advance knowledge, research, and piety?

And should it shock, shock that these groups are not blossoming in the soil of the Old Confederacy only but also in … Greenwich Village?

For many NYU students, cultural heritage and identity-based social issues occupy their extracurricular time. Violets, as NYU-ers are known, can join the South Asian Business Society, the Alliance of Latino and Latin American Students, or the Muslim Students Association, among many others.

But not a “White Student Union.”

On Friday, however, a Facebook page by that name appeared online with NYU insignia (the logos have now been erased), setting off intense furor from both students who felt that the site’s premise was racist, and supporters – not all of them students – who believe opposition to a White Union is racist itself, claiming that “double standards” about student expression are unfair.

We unapologetically provide a safe space for white students to air their true feelings about the future of our nation, discuss and reflect on the lessons laid down for us by our great European writers, philosophers, and artists, and develop a positive program to restore the pioneering will and greatness of our unique and virtuous people.

Although the group says it does “not wish to denigrate or harm any other group or ethnicity.” However, many questioned if that could co-exist with organizers’ desire to “condemn the cowardly campaigns of moral subjugation and propaganda that seek to instill self-hatred and surrender within European-American youth and justify the continued invasion and degradation of the lands, institutions, and cultural heritage that is rightly ours.”

In other words, Euro-Americans are claiming for themselves…a safe space.

Now, this could be little more than parody. And given the ludicrosities committed on campi nationwide, so much to parody, so little time. Or it could be a deliberate attempt to push the limits of “diversity” such that the university is forced to act, or act like it’s acting, and perhaps bring on a lawsuit with repercussions that could reverberate beyond the white-washed walls of the all-Euro club.

Or it could be an opportunity for WE kids to speak frankly about the assaults on their character, heritage, and, oh, entire civilization in an environment that has degenerated into a censorious riot of un-American bitching and moaning about how certain groups didn’t get a chance to be Socrates, Leonardo, Shakespeare, or Einstein so stop asking us to take tests.

Or it could be something more sinister, by which I mean cover for a cadre of the euphemistically denominated “race realists,” for whom I have neither sympathy nor patience, and whose ideology, it is often argued, was the reason for the advent of “identity politics” in the first place. (Although, in a progressively relativistic world in which words mean everything and nothing, and in which subject A and subject B are interchangeable depending on feelings, what constitutes a “race” or an “ethnicity”—Hispanic, anyone?—is as open to interpretation, and refutation, as NCAA college football rankings.)

In any event, the fallout of WEs attempting to gentrify the victimization space should be fun to watch. And by fun I mean now is the time to start watching those 2,300 reruns of The Bob Newhart Show I have embedded in my DVR.

Full disclosure: I am an NYU alumnus but frankly doubt I would have joined such a union as described above. I remember being asked to pledge a fraternity my freshman year, and tossing the written invitation into the garbage, having no desire to be locked in a refrigerator and dropped out a window while wearing an elf’s costume or whatever those besotted doofuses were into back then. I may have joined the Swarthy Student’s Union, for Americans of southern European heritage, had there been one, so long as the menu was snappy.

Posted in A Blood-Curdling Maniacal Laugh Is My Spiritual Gift, A Strange Controversy | 7 Comments

Everything I Know I Learned from Watching ‘Rocky’

"One day, I'm gonna have so many daughters...so many daughters..."

“One day, I’m gonna have so many daughters…so many daughters…”

I wrote this quite a while ago, when I was copy chief for Beliefnet. A few years later I was able to get it to the man himself (and in return he autographed a Rocky poster for me). I thought I’d dredge it up on the eve of Creed.

Here’s how it starts:

It’s been almost 30 years* since the release of the original “Rocky,” the Academy Award-winning tale of a club fighter from Philadelphia who gets his big shot at heavyweight champion Apollo Creed–and goes the distance, creating a new metaphor for personal triumph. The film made Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in the movie, a household name. It also established the name “A-d-r-i-i-a-a-n!” as a cry of the heart, and spawned as many sequels as “Planet of the Apes.”

I first saw the movie in the fall of 1976, and I was immediately affected in a unique way: I left the theater wanting to be better–at everything. Over the years, I have used the film as a kind of working-class catechism for right behavior. Here are just nine of the things I have learned.

1. Compensate

Rocky: “My old man, he was never too smart, so he says to me you weren’t born with much of a brain, you know, so you better start using your body. Right? So I became a fighter.”

Adrian: “My mother, she said the opposite thing. She said you weren’t born with much of a body so you better develop your brain.”

Read the rest here.

*Someone along the way must have altered this time frame, because it was published in 2001, and so it would have been more like 25 years. Also, the bad paragraph breaks are no doubt the result of a web redesign that did not take the original formatting of archival materials into account.

Posted in "Entertainment" | 1 Comment

Alarm Clock Wakes You by Literally Slapping You in the Face

This article calls it “nightmarish.” I call it “Monday.”

Hand-alarm-clockWas just thinking: this is both a clock AND a terror device! I wonder if some kid thought it up…

Posted in A Blood-Curdling Maniacal Laugh Is My Spiritual Gift, I Scream You Scream We Al Scream Because We're in Unspeakable Pain, Inventions That Didn't Need to Be Invented | 1 Comment

Everything You Need to Know about Me in One ‘Scientific American’ Essay


My entire modus operandi has been vindicated by science. As Francesca Gino writes:

The use of sarcasm, in fact, promotes creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of sarcastic exchanges. Instead of avoiding sarcasm completely in the office, the research suggests sarcasm, used with care and in moderation, can be effectively used and trigger some creative sparks.

Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. The most common form of verbal irony, sarcasm is often used to humorously convey thinly veiled disapproval or scorn. “Pat, don’t work so hard!”, a boss might say upon catching his assistant surfing the Internet. …

In recent research, my colleagues and I discovered an upside to this otherwise gloomy picture of sarcasm. In one study, we assigned some participants to engage in either simulated sarcastic, sincere, or neutral dialogues by choosing from pre-written responses on a sheet of paper. Others were recipients of these different types of messages from others. Immediately after participants engaged in these “conversations,” we presented them with tasks testing their creativity. Not surprisingly, the participants exposed to sarcasm reported more interpersonal conflict than those in other groups. More interestingly, those who engaged in a sarcastic conversation fared better on creativity tasks. The processes involved in initiating and delivering a sarcastic comment improved the creativity and cognitive functioning of both the commenter and the recipient. This creativity effect only emerged when recipients picked up on the sarcasm behind the expresser’s message rather than taking mean comments at face value.

You’re welcome.

And yes. That was sarcasm.

Of course, this all presupposes that Dr. Gino, a behavioral scientist, is not just behaving like a scientist and is a real scientist practicing real science.

That was just snark.

Posted in It's Science Damn You!, Laugh Damn You!, Less Than Divine Communications | 4 Comments

Gospel of John Papyrus Found on eBay, Holy Grail on Craig’s List

"Leave the gun, take the cannoli. Hallelujah."

“Cable time doesn’t come cheap. Cough it up with the tithes.”

You never know the stuff you’ll find in Grandma’s attic, or at a yard sale, or on eBay. A rare baseball card, some signed piece of memorabilia—of an ancient copy of the Fourth Gospel:

Last January, Geoffrey Smith, a scholar of early Christianity at the University of Texas, noticed something startling: an eBay listing for an ancient Greek papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John — with an opening bid of only $99.

“I thought, This can’t be allowed to sell on eBay,” Dr. Smith said. “It will just disappear into a private collection.”

Dr. Smith contacted the seller and urged him to halt the online auction — apparently the first on eBay for a Greek New Testament papyrus, he and other scholars said — and let him study the fragment. The seller agreed, and now, on Saturday, Mr. Smith will present his research at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta.

The credit-card-size papyrus, which Dr. Smith dates from around A.D. 250 to A.D. 350, contains about six lines of the Gospel of John on one side and an unidentified Christian text on the other. If Dr. Smith’s analysis is correct, it is the only known Greek New Testament papyrus from an unused scroll rather than a codex, the emerging book technology that early Christians, in sharp contrast to their Jewish and pagan contemporaries, preferred for their texts.

Questions about the authenticity of the fragment remain, however, as that “Christian text” found on the other side includes a reference to “miracle bunny slippers.”

Posted in Another Year Another Credit Card Bill, Stop Looking at Me Like That | 2 Comments