For Ben

Benjamin Robert Carrillo passed away last week. He was my friend. Heartbroken doesn’t do this justice. Shattered: mentally, emotionally and physically; is the only way to describe it. There’s a Ben sized void in the lives of his friends and family right now…and Ben was a big guy [Bane voice: “For You”].

Tall, dark, handsome…loud. That was Ben. The life of the party. He was a joker, a button pusher, a smooth talking smart ass who loved making fun of everything; especially me. He rarely if ever used my real name; I was always “The Douche.”  We first met when he “transferred” to my store; of all the In-N-Outs in all the world he walked into mine. We butted heads immediately. He was so arrogant and standoffish; he managed to piss me off within the first five minutes of meeting him. I would have never guessed that this jerk would wind up becoming one of my best friends.

We were both left handed; with short tempers and sarcastic tongues. We bonded over music and movies, talking shit about everything and laughing. We were always laughing. We worked well together, an unspoken competition pushed us to try and outdo each other. I was the faster cook, but he was more consistent. He was so tall and strong, he could scrape the grill and throw rows of seven like nothing. I’d work twice as fast to compensate; working until my paper hat disintegrated; or until his bad knee flared up and he’d demand a break ASAP.

That was the difference between us. Ben always spoke his mind. He wasn’t one to sugarcoat things or kiss ass. Sometimes that meant he didn’t play well with others, but he was always upfront about how he felt. I tend to over analyze things, Ben was blunt and to the point. Whereas I have an unusually high tolerance for pain/bullshit; he was straight up allergic. In Fight Club terms: Ben was like my Tyler Durden, he was free in all the ways I was not. I like to think we rubbed off on each other in a Yin and Yang sort of way. Ben was an ardent DC comics guy. Batman and Superman were his BOYZ. In 2012, we went and saw The Avengers on it’s opening night at the Arclight in Pasadena. It was packed to the brim with Marvel fanboys like myself. Ben was the only guy in the theater shouting “Justice League baby!” at the screen before the movie started.

The Justice League film finally came out last week; but Ben never got to see it. He passed away on November 16, 2017 at the age of 30. For the past year, Ben quietly fought against cancer. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma specifically. That’s the son of a bitch that did it. It’s a rare and aggressive cancer; but cancer all the same. It pains me to acknowledge this but, it’s probably safe to assume that everyone has a personal cancer story of their own. I did. I’d seen the different results of this fight before; but was convinced cancer picked the wrong dude this time. Ben was the most stubborn, strong willed human being I knew. He rode his bike, was an early riser, he watched what he ate and although that late 20’s beer belly started creeping in, he still busted out handstand pushups from his CrossFit days whenever challenged. Ben was also a musician. Hell, I was convinced he would just plug in his guitar and bludgeon the cancer like Marty McFly in Back To The Future. If anyone was going to beat this, it was Ben.

Ben in the studio, with his band Cheers To Vanity. 2017.

But cancer doesn’t play fair. It’s not an evil, malicious entity, it just doesn’t care. Cancer, nature, the universe in general, they’re all cruelly indifferent to our wants and needs. They’re going to do what they do, our hearts and psyches be damned. Ben being taken in the prime of his life is a tragedy. It’s mind boggling, infuriating and yeah, utterly unfair. I still can’t wrap my head around this; I just know it’s real and not the most fucked up dream I’ve ever had. Ben kept many people in the dark about his illness. Perhaps to shield them from the harsh reality he was facing, or maybe to save his time and energy for the fight of his life. He told me in August and I was shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner’ I thought? Let me just get this PhD in Molecular Biology really quick so I can kick this cancer’s ass for you dude. That’s probably how all his friends felt. Ben was that type of influence in our lives. He was the biggest shit talker, but also, the biggest champion/supporter you’d ever have. I wanted to offer him that same support ten fold. I saw him in October and it was hard. Very hard. I thought I did an admirable job keeping it together in front of him but looking back, Ben’s bullshit detector probably saw through me in a second. We laughed, and talked about old times but most importantly we talked about the future. He seemed determined to fight and turn the tables on this thing. But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

I’m going to miss my friend. A lot. To this day, Lebowski Fest remains one of my favorite movie going experiences, ever. When I needed help busting my car out of this expensive ass parking lot in Korea Town he was the first person I called. His impromptu, intentionally out of key singing will always be in my head. I can’t hear “Jesse’s Girl” or “Beverly Hills” on the radio without thinking of him. He claimed to hate heavy metal music [probably just to piss me off] but he cut his teeth learning guitar by playing along to Metallica tunes while growing up. There are so many good stories in my brain’s ‘Ben’ sub folder. I just wish we could still add more. The last time we hung out before this nightmare took over was in April. He came by with Sophia to see Linda and I’s new place. It felt like old times, like a throwback thursday but in real life. Instead of talking in the back room at work, we sat on our couch and took goofy pictures with my DSLR outside. Although the girls looked exactly the same as the decade before, Ben’s beard and my ever present grey hair made it obvious that we were all in fact older and more appreciative of silly moments like these. Ben was ready to start a new chapter in his life, these pictures were supposed to mark it’s beginning. They’re great photos, some of my favorites I’ve ever taken; but it’ll always kill me a little inside knowing what should have been.

I would have liked to have said my goodbyes in person but I know Ben would have hated getting all mushy and probably would have called me a pussy like he always, so lovingly did. The pain and anguish he endured in those final months is over. As much as I miss my friend, I’m relieved to know that he’s finally at peace.

I’m writing this to help work through my grief but mostly, to reflect on how fortunate I was to have met Ben in the first place. Truth be told, we actually first encountered each other at Coachella 2007. We had mutual friends rocking out in the desert, we crossed paths but but never actually spoke to each other. It wasn’t until he wound up at my store that we became friends. All the burger joints in all the world and he walks into mine remember? How tragic would it have been if we never, really met? So I’m sharing this to celebrate the impact he had on my life, and introduce a little Ben magic to those who never had the privilege of knowing him. As much as it sucks eulogizing one of your best friends, keeping his spirit and memory alive is well worth it. I’ll never forget you Ben. Thank you for all the encouragement and support over the years. You had faith in my abilities long before I ever did. No matter what I do in life, I’ll always strive to make you proud. We love and miss you dude.

Good night, sweet prince. Vaya con dios.

Here is a link to information regarding Ben’s memorial service and fundraiser to help cover his medial expenses:
Feel free to donate whatever you’d like or just share the link to spread awareness. Anything will help. Thank you.


Movie Review: The Witch


The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers’ mindbogglingly phenomenal debut film, is not like most modern horror movies.  While many of today’s Hollywood fright flicks are heavy on cheap, immediate jump scares and/or gore overload, Eggers’ film is a methodically slow paced psychological nightmare. Where other scary movies are satisfied with simply popping out and yelling “boo!” at the audience, The Witch is all about embedding itself under the viewer’s skin and chipping away at their souls.

Set in 17th century New England, The Witch is actually a twisted period drama about a doomed Puritan family and not the supernatural spook fest some people are expecting. The film follows Thomasin, a striking young teenage girl, and her devout Christian family as they struggle to farm an untamed patch of land near an ominous forest. Her father’s fervent religious beliefs, deemed too extreme for their local Puritan village, has led her family to be exiled from their community and forced to rely on each other for survival. When their crops begin to fail and after suffering  a string of tragic and bizarre mishaps, the group’s rigid and repressive beliefs begins to tear their family apart and leaves certain members susceptible to darker, outside influences lurking in the woods.

Eggers’ film is brilliantly subdued and terrifyingly patient. The director sprinkles just enough twisted visuals on screen to keep the audience on edge and packs the film with dozens of hints and callbacks all leading up to The Witch‘s glorious and fiery conclusion that will leave mouths aghast and have cinema fiends jonesing for repeated viewings. Rarely has such drab and murky cinematography looked so beautifully haunting. The film’s 1:66 aspect ratio stretches the menacing tree lines even higher and makes the fearful expressions on it’s actor’s faces all the more real. Speaking of authenticity, the sets, costume design, and Olde English dialogue [some of which was taken from actual 17th century records] adds another layer of OCD approved creepiness to the film. That, coupled with the amazing cast [comprised of some remarkable new child actors and kind of freaky animals] whose intimate and in some cases, legitimately spellbinding performances, makes The Witch feels less like a Hollywood horror flick and more like a pre-Salem Witch Trials documentary. Oh, and the film’s completely unnerving score, easily the most unsettling aspect of the entire feature; makes Daniel Plainview’s nails on chalk board ridden crawl through the desert in Their Will Be Blood seem like a cake walk.

The real unspeakable monster in The Witch isn’t Satan or his cauldron boiling maids, but the horrors of 17th century Puritan society and by extension, any noninclusive, oppressive hivemind. Thomasin and her family are repeatedly tested and put through the ringer in The Witch and cling to their faith for guidance throughout their ordeal, but it’s these same archaic/misogynistic beliefs that permeates every aspect of their culture that actually propels them further into darkness. When speaking truth to the hypocrites in power, or displaying the slightest hints of intellectual or sexual freedom results in scorn, who’s really the villain here?

The Witch is a staggeringly brilliant film and is basically 90 minutes of absolute dread, no matter how you slice it.


Movie Review: Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers are back with another all-star, Roger Deakins shot, irreverent side-splitter of a film titled: Hail, Caesar!  Now the Coens are revered as masterful filmmakers who imbue all of their projects with a hive mind jolt of creative passion, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time. Hail, Caesar! is an ode to the golden days of classic Hollywood and features some of the best world building and inside jokes about the industry imaginable. Some might say the Coens have jumped the shark with this film, and sacrifice storytelling for random pokes at the brilliance and absurdity of the old studio system; and those critics wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but in response one should look to another classic Coen brothers tale of meandering irreverence, and quote The Big Lebowski‘s immortal The Dude who said:

That’s just like, your opinion man.

Set in 1950’s tinseltown, Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the head of production and backdoor “fixer” of Capitol Pictures. He’s tasked with keeping the busy studio’s filming schedule on track and it’s myriad of troubled movie stars inline. When the star of Capitol’s new big budget historical epic Hail, Caesar! goes missing, Mannix has to move heaven and Earth to find their man and get production moving again, while simultaneously re-casting the lead in the studio’s new highbrow prestige picture, discreetly resolve one of their leading lady’s very…unladylike paternity issues, set up meetings, take calls all day and somehow manage to return home to his family and occasionally, sleep. Mannix is a busy man, but in this wacky studio system gone haywire world the Coen Brothers have expertly crafted, he’s definitely the best man for the job.

First things first, Hail, Caesar!‘s plot is pretty much irrelevant. The film, which features multiple films within films, is really just an excuse for the Coens to play in the exuberant sandbox of Golden Age Hollywood. The pre-internet, pre-VCR, pre-television, era when a few Hollywood studios molded American culture to their liking via genre flicks screened in movie palaces across the country. Mannix and the odd assortment of Hollywood archetypes he encounters exist solely to take us from one dazzling homage/set piece to another. In lesser hands, a rudderless trip like this might prove tiresome or annoying, but the Coens gleeful and meticulous attention to detail proves contagious. Their irreverent joy at recreating a tap dancing musical or a schloky western rubs off on the audience. The absurdity of seeing George Clooney sport his “iconic” short cropped Caesar haircut, playing an actual Roman general, or Tilda Swinton’s overzealous/old timey pronunciation of Mannix’s first name [“EDieeh!”] takes precedent over narrative or character development. On paper Hail, Caesar! is about a mysterious kidnapping plot but in practice, it’s just an excuse for Channing Tatum to deliver some awesome dance moves and ace physical comedy. Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich’s fish out of water cowboy is easily the funniest, scene-stealer of the entire film. His best moments have little to do with propelling the plot forward, but every butchered dialect and lasso twirl he commits onscreen is simply marvelous. Hail, Caesar!‘s gorgeous cinematography, beautiful costumes and set designs, brilliant dialogue and purposely ham-fisted performances transport the viewer into the heart of the Coens zany love letter to old Hollywood, story be damned.


Movie Review: The Revenant

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold or in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s latest film, The Revenant‘s case, completely frozen and riddled with frostbite. Once again joining forces with his Birdman cinematographer/co-conspirator, Emmanuel Lubezki, Inarritu has crafted another must see, technical marvel of a film but unlike their last project, which had heart hidden under layers of bombast, The Revenant; while beautiful, remains joyless and frosty throughout.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a 19th century frontiersman who leads a hunting expedition through the rugged American wilderness. After leading his party to safety from a deadly Native American ambush, Glass is brutally mauled by a bear and suffers grave injuries. Glass’ half-native son Hawk and two volunteers stay behind to care for and ultimately bury their critically injured guide. Unfortunately for Glass, the most brash and unsavory member of their group named Fitzgerald [Tom Hardy], is one of his appointed guardians. Fitzgerald ultimately betrays Glass, killing his son Hawk and leaves Glass for dead in the hands of an unforgiving winter and the warring natives still on their heels. Driven by vengeance and nigh superhero resolve, Glass resurrects himself from certain death to find the man who took everything from him and extract his cold revenge.

The Revenant is actually a remarkably simple movie. It’s a chase film with gorgeous visuals and ghastly violence. Natives chase the trappers, Glass chases Fitzgerald and everyone’s out to kill or swindle the next guy. The movie stops every once in a while to soak in Lubezki’s unfathomably beautiful vistas, and goes on some weird spirit guide tangents with DiCaprio’s dead family for a moment or two, but The Revenant‘s finest moments lie squarely within the hunt. Searching for fortune, hunting for safety, longing for vengeance, the film’s characters are constantly moving, driven by both internal and external forces to trudge forward in the punishing heart of winter. DiCaprio is being praised for his extremely…intense performance, but for my money, his role is actually the least interesting of the film. Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, the guilt ridden commanding officer who orders Glass be left behind and Will Poultier’s naive young Bridger are all fascinating characters who run the gamut of emotions that we only see in glimpses yet leave you wishing for more. The same can’t be said for DiCaprio’s barely two dimensional portrayal of Glass. He’s stoic and distant, then writhes around in agony and foams at the mouth for over an hour, then he’s back to stoic and distant. If anything, Tom Hardy’s dastardly yet strangely charismatic take on Fitzgerald is the best thing The Revenant has going for it [aside from Lubezki’s killer camera moves]. He’s clearly a deplorable person but his motivation for doing such heinous things makes him feel like a real person and not just a stock movie villain.

Initially, comparing The Revenant to The Hateful Eight made sense. Both are gargantuan films with gorgeous sights, gnarly violence and set in monstrous snow storms. Now, it’s become clear that The Revenant is the yin to Mad Max: Fury Road‘s wild yang. In Fury Road, Tom Hardy plays a gruff, one dimensional outdoorsman who says few words and forges through an unforgivable desert on a quest for vengeance and redemption. Sound familiar? Of course when Hardy did it earlier this year, it was wildly entertaining. Mad Max was all style and adrenaline while The Revenant is all style and adrenaline trying to hide behind emotional heft. While still a solid slab of film making, The Revenant would do well to lighten up à la it’s Australian doppelganger and remember where it’s bread is buttered [bear attacks, not spirit guides].


Movie Review: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight, much like it’s oddly brilliant writer/director, is a hard film to pin down. Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature film finds the firebrand auteur scaling things down in terms of scope from his last two projects, yet filming in ultra huge 70mm and delving even further into the wacky eccentricities that have come to define Tarantino’s unique cinematic universe. No matter where you land on the Tarantino fanboy scale, it’s hard to deny that The Hateful Eight is a visually stunning film to behold [especially if you see the film’s 70mm roadshow presentation] and wildly intense.

Set during a blizzard in post-Civil War Wyoming, The Hateful Eight is a claustrophobic mystery film, packed with historical [and allusions to present day] racial tensions, graphic violence and some of Tarantino’s zanniest dialogue to date. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Major Marquis Warren, a former Union solider turned bounty hunter marooned during a snow storm. Warren hitches a ride with a fellow bounty hunter named John “The Hangman” Ruth [Kurt Russell] and his murderous captive Daisy [Jennifer Jason Leigh], and strikes a uneasy alliance with Ruth after they take refuge from the storm at a remote mountain lodge and become trapped in close quarters with a group dangerous figures. Unlike the sprawling scope of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most subdued movie since his 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs. Both movies feature a bunch of strangely charming no-goodniks trapped in confined spaces, questioning each others motives before throwing down in a bloody Mexican standoff. The Reservoir Dogs connection goes even further, as Tarantino casts Tim Roth and Michael Madsen [Mr. Orange and Mr. Blonde] once again, and just like his debut film, The Hateful Eight ends with two prominent characters bonding in a pool of blood.

Robert Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s masterful score help the director create the cold and paranoid atmosphere that permeates every frame of The Hateful Eight and serves as some of the finest world building of Tarantino’s career. The 70mm print is massive and captures the grimiest of details, while the script is even more verbose than usual and feels more akin to a stage play than a Hollywood motion picture. The plot’s tight quarters and epic wordplay/details makes The Hateful Eight seem larger than life and helps ground the film in something that many feel has been lacking from Tarantino’s recent pictures: realism. Ever since Kill Bill, Tarantino has gone out of his way to write his name in crayon across his films in giant colorful letters. This works in pulpy genre flicks like Death Proof, but can hurt the tone of quasi-drama’s like Django Unchained. Part of Tarantino’s charm  is his exuberance and no fucks given attitude, but after spending the last fifteen years shooting ninja assassins, Nazi hunters and old west vigilantes, how great would it be if Tarantino focused on regular humans like the ones from his first three films again? There are moments when The Hateful Eight feels like those “real” films of his early career, but then an exploding head or over indulgent use of the N-word snaps us back into the animated pocket universe of Tarantino-land. In 1992, Harvey Keitel launched into the following rant as Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs:

Toby Wong. Toby Chung? Fucking Charlie Chan. I got Madonna’s big dick coming out of my left ear, and Toby the Jap… I don’t know what, coming out of my right!

It’s nearly 25 years later and now we’ve got Samuel L. Jackson ranting about his big black pecker and the status of Mexicans in Wyoming. In short, Tarantino’s madcap style that launched him to stardom in the 90’s, sometimes feels like an artistic crutch nowadays. That being said, this gripe shouldn’t hinder ones enjoyment of The Hateful Eight all that much…it just momentarily dampers the otherwise superb atmosphere/world building that’s established throughout the film.


Movie Review: Spotlight

Brilliant and gut-wrenching, Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight illustrates what happens when society’s sacred cows collapse, and when good people sit idly by and allow atrocities to go unpunished. Based on The Boston Globe‘s 2002 expose of the Catholic church’s sexual abuse scandal, the film follows a team of investigative journalists as they interview survivors and uncover previously missed or sometimes, flat out ignored clues into this dark chapter of their hometown’s history. Spotlight is less a “whodunit?” mystery and more of a, “How in God’s name does this keep happening?!” horror story, but remains an engaging and thrilling film throughout.

Michael Keaton stars as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the leader of The Globe‘s crack investigative team, Spotlight. Robby and his team are tasked with following up on a small story buried in the paper’s metro section, regarding the closed records of an accused local priest in a sex abuse case. As the Spotlight team soon learns, the church’s influence in the uber Catholic city of Boston is far reaching. The crew hit the streets and search through catacombs of records and heartbreaking testimonials before discovering an even ghastlier story in their midst, not only is the scope of their investigation larger than they imagined, but evidence proves that there was a massive cover up to make this scandal disappear.

Keaton follows up his larger than life, comeback in last year’s Birdman, with this sublimely low key, but passionate performance in Spotlight. His character, based on the real Globe reporter, is a Boston native and becomes incensed when  he learns about what’s been happening in his backyard for decades. Mark Ruffalo and Rachael McAdams both shine as Robinson’s main Spotlight field agents, handling the bulk of this grim investigation as it slowly picks away at their psyches and personal beliefs. Stanley Tucci plays a gruff and eccentric lawyer who ends up being one of the few honest men in Boston and becomes Spotlight’s greatest ally in their quest for justice and his weary yet resolute performance is marvelous. Ruffalo has the flashiest scenes in the film, officially going off the rails after spending the last half of 2001 dealing with pedophiles and 9/11 hijackers, but aside from his outburst in the third act, Spotlight is a generally subdued, but engrossing film that feels more like a documentary than Hollywood melodrama. McCarthy doesn’t glamorize his insanely stellar ensemble cast, they’re not print media super heroes or crime fighters, they’re just honest people trying to do their jobs the best they can. He guides their earnest performances through the script’s murky, sorrow filled waters and turns what could easily be the feel bad movie of the year into a gripping, must see procedural and proves Burke’s saying correct:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing

Thankfully, Spotlight was on the job for this one.


Movie Review: Star Wars- The Force Awakens

J.J. Abrams had one job and one job only: avenge us. It’s been a rough two decades for Star Wars fans. The Special Editions in the late 90’s mucked up many of our childhood’s and Episode’s I-III did their best to absolutely ruin the Star Wars legacy at every turn. With Lucas gone and Abrams in charge, would we finally get a decent Star Wars flick or were we doomed to sterilized CGI porn for all eternity? Fear not, Abram’s delivers. The man who’s spent most of his directorial career aping his heroes [turning Star Trek into Star Wars-lite, and Super 8 into a long lost Spielberg/Amblin project] turned out to be the chosen one indeed. Abrams successfully recaptures the magic of the original Star Wars trilogy and leaves the life sucking drivel that was the prequels in the dust.

The Force Awakens [officially, Star Wars: Episode VII] takes place some 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Rebel Alliance’s celebratory jamboree on Endor proved short lived as the tyranny of the former Galactic Empire has morphed into a new threat, the dreaded First Order. This new group of space fascists are determined to reconquer the galaxy and are led by a mysterious Dark Side Force wielder called Supreme Leader Snoke and his fiery apprentice/Darth Vader substitute, Kylo Ren. They’re also hellbent on eradicating the last remaining Jedi and their biggest threat in the galaxy, Tatooine’s favorite son, Luke Skywalker. Princess Leia’s resistance forces need to find Luke before the First Order do, and use his Jedi skills to help them save the galaxy…again. Sound familiar? That’s because plot wise, The Force Awakens is basically a rehash of A New Hope [aka the original Star Wars film…Episode IV]. A sheltered teen from a backwards desert planet gets mixed up with some criminals and all of sudden finds themselves in a fight against intergalactic tyrants whose sinister plan is building a real big space gun. Even Han Solo can’t shake this feeling of deja-vu when he’s basically tasked with destroying the Death Star 3.0, saying:

“How do we blow it up? There’s always a way to blow it up.”

Fear not, while The Force Awakens‘ plot isn’t too fresh, everything else about the latest Star Wars film is excellent. The new kids on scene, Rey, Fin, Kylo Ren…even BB-8, deliver lively performances and all have great chemistry with each other onscreen. Daisy Ridley shines as Rey, carrying the weight of this new film and all future Star Wars episodes on her shoulders and does so marvelously. Her eyes gleam with wonder, tremble with fear and in some scenes, explode with passion and kick-assery. She and the new masked villain Kylo Ren, simply ooze emotion out of every frame, unlike the drab pout fest that marred the prequels, The Force Awakens features exciting characters that feel alive. Abram’s use of practical effects helps keep The Force Awakens inline with the original trilogy’s vibe/continuity, and when he does use CGI effects, it’s to sell rad X-Wing battles, not bludgeoning his film to death with green screen like the last guy. The Force Awakens is a campy, exciting space opera, like the original Star Wars. Sure, Abrams played it safe and kind of repackaged our favorite 1977 birthday gift for Christmas 2015, but it works and sets the stage for some high stakes force rattling in Episode VIII.

GRADE: B [nostalgia points = B+]



The final lightsaber battle in the Starkiller Base forest is raw as hell. The tension between this unexpected force user and Ren is phenomenal. From their clash in the interrogation room to their “duel” in the snow, these two are going to wreck shit in Episode VIII and I am stoked.

Movie Review: Creed

In an era when every intellectual property and film franchise is being rebooted, re-imagined and prequeled ad nauseam, I was skeptical about this new Rocky spin-off. Creed, the tale of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son striving to forge his own boxing career, felt like a bit of a stretch if not completely unnecessary; especially after 2006’s Rocky Balboa brought the series back to it’s humble roots [in reality] and appeared to wrap things up nicely once and for all. Well…I was mistaken. Big time. Creed is not only a brilliant film but quickly just became one of my favorite movies of the year.

Director Ryan Coogler’s follow up to his much lauded debut, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, is the perfect Hollywood sports drama. The high energy boxing scenes are fantastic, while the out of ring, personal fireworks are just as dynamic. Michael B. Jordan stars in the titular role as Donnie Johnson, aka, Apollo’s long lost son, Adonis Creed. Growing up without a father and losing his biological mother at a young age, Donnie bounces around foster homes and juvenile institutions for years until his would-be step mother, Apollo’s widow, takes him in and raises him as her own. Despite his rags to riches upbringing, Donnie still can’t shake his feelings of inadequacy. Fearing that he hasn’t truly earned his namesake, he decides to become a professional boxer like his late father and prove to the world, and himself, that he truly is Adonis Creed. What follows is the best damn boxing tearjerker I’ve ever seen.
Coogler’s love for the Rocky films is on full display in Creed. Turns out that Coogler’s family has a long and touching history with the series and as he explained to the Los Angeles Times recently:

“I was born in 1986, and ‘Rocky’ was always around,” Coogler said. “There were these things that existed for us as millennials, like ‘Star Wars.’ ‘Rocky’ was like ‘Star Wars’ for the underdog, like ‘Star Wars’ for the street.”

Having grown up with the franchise, Coogler handles the film with both nostalgic care for long time fans, and auteur precision behind the camera. There are technical elements of Creed that will get cinephiles drooling, like the film’s insane second fight that was filmed in a single, unbroken take. Coogler also packs the film with enough Easter eggs and call backs to keep die hard Rocky fanboys happy. From Balboa’s love of turtles, revealing who won his secret third fight with Apollo in Rocky III, to incorporating the iconic Rocky theme song into Adonis’ epic final match, Coogler’s film is both a love letter to the franchise’s past and an exciting new step into the future. Jordan’s physical performance in the boxing and training sequences is impressive, but not as intense as his emotional portrayal of the perpetually isolated and dysfunctional Donnie. His chiseled physique hides his inner vulnerability. Haunted by the ghost of his absent father, the bastard son of the world’s greatest fighter lashes out at the world, even those closest to him, while exhibiting no fear inside the ring. Why would he? When your entire life is an open wound, what’s a few more hits?

The relationship forged between Donnie and his father’s old partner Rocky Balboa, is truly the heart of the film. Hands down, Sylvester Stallone gives the best performance of his career. Stallone, the man who wrote, directed [four of the six originals] and starred in the original series, graciously passes the torch to Coogler behind the camera just as his character Rocky moves out of the ring and into Adonis’ corner as his trainer and surrogate father figure onscreen. Watching the Italian Stallion, go from being an inhuman piece of iron, to an ailing and fragile Yoda figure; essentially becoming his mentor Mick from the original film, is both humbling and heart wrenching for anyone who grew up watching Rocky save the day on television. During their first encounter, Rocky tells Donnie, “Time takes everybody out. Time’s undefeated.” With the Rocky universe now in Coogler’s skilled hands, Jordan’s firebrand performance and Stallone’s renewed vigor onscreen, it looks like father time won’t be claiming the Rocky franchise just yet.


R.I.P. Scott Weiland

Former Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver frontman Scott Weiland died yesterday. He was 48 years old. Anyone who listened to rock radio in the 1990’s knows his work. Weiland’s booming baritone helped launch Stone Temple Pilots to stardom, selling some 40+ million albums worldwide. Initially dismissed as a Pearl Jam knockoff, as pretty boy grunge pretenders, Stone Temple Pilots spent most of the decade changing musical styles, winning a Grammy, owning the charts and eventually even winning over critics as well. Weiland’s unique, shapeshifter prowess on the microphone [or bullhorn] kept the band’s ever evolving tunes sounding fresh. They went from Alice In Chains-lite on Core, to 90’s alt-rock on Purple, to full on experimental mind-fuckery on Tiny Music…Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop in only four years.  Only a singer as gifted as Weiland could not only survive such rapid stylistic shifts, but thrive among them. Scott Weiland was a true rock-n-roll chamelon, and also one of the most bizarrely entertaining frontmen of the last twenty years. Unfortunately, a slew of personal problems, most notably his notorious battle with drugs, kept the singer from achieving all that he was capable of. Frequent arrests, stints in rehab, and the occasional drug overdose would mar Weiland’s tenure with Stone Temple Pilots and eventually lead to his expulsion from the band. Weiland found success in the 2000’s fronting the rock supergroup Velvet Revolver, basically serving as Axl Rose’s replacement with the true members of Guns N’ Roses alongside him. Weiland hit platinum sales and won another Grammy with his new act but once again, the man’s erratic and self destructive behavior cost him his position with the band. Weiland was found dead on his tour bus last night while on the road with his latest project, Scott Weiland & The Wildabouts. It’s too early to tell if drugs played a role in the singer’s demise or if a lifetime of hard living finally took it’s toll on his body, either way, hopefully Scott Weiland finally finds some peace.

On a personal note, I grew up listening to Stone Temple Pilots. They served as one of those all important gateway bands that got me into rock music. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Scott Weiland was one of the defining voices of my childhood. I hear him singing “Big Empty” whenever I think of  The Crow or 90’s action montages. I remember him dancing with Buffy The Vampire Slayer like it was yesterday.

The man was insanely talented, and had the uncanny ability to sing like anyone he wanted. Who else could fill in for Jim Morrison, Layne Staley and Axl Rose? Too bad Weiland seemed to have the most trouble just being himself. I eventually got to see him perform with STP in 2008, part of one of their many botched reunion attempts. Musically, the band sounded great but Weiland was having an off night. He moved like a rockstar but sounded slow and like he was on another planet. I didn’t really care though, I was stoked and completely star struck. This was Scott Weliand after all. I’d come to accept that the man did whatever the fuck he wanted. Rest easy Scott.

here are a few of my favorite Scott Weiland performances:

Finally, what looks like the coolest Stone Temple Pilots gig ever:

“I am I am I said I’m not myself I’m not dead and I’m not for sale
Hold me closer, closer let me go Let me be just let me be…”