In Review: 'Creed III,' 'Palm Trees and Power Lines'
Treacherous battles take place in different arenas this week, as Michael B. Jordan tackles a frenemy dynamic in 'Creed III' and a teenager sees a much older man in 'Palm Trees and Power Lines.'
Dir. Michael B. Jordan
The mythology of Adonis “Donnie” Creed is the open wound at the center of the three films that bear his name, distinct even from the hardscrabble roots of Rocky Balboa, that pugnacious underdog from the streets of blue collar Philadelphia. He is the son of former world champ and Rocky rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed, of course, but he was not born into the privilege that might have suited his pedigree, like LeBron James and his two NBA-ready sons. He was the illegitimate product of an affair between his father and another woman, both long dead, and until Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him, he bounced around foster homes and a juvenile detention center. This accounts for his toughness. It also accounts for his vulnerability.
By the time the original Rocky series reached its second sequel, it had given itself fully over to the pulp spirit that was always present in Sylvester Stallone’s series, even in the Oscar-winning original film, which still pivots on the fantasy of an unknown pushing the heavyweight champion to the brink in a tune-up fight. But Creed III clings more stubbornly to that sober backstory, to the point where it feels like the movie itself, along with Adonis, has to be dragged to the ring to fulfill an obligation. Stepping behind the camera for the first time, franchise star Michael B. Jordan has made a drama about a troubled relationship that’s eventually worked out in the center of Dodger Stadium, but spends most of its time in a psychological arena.
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Sacrificing juice for gravitas doesn’t always work in the film’s favor, especially since its tied up in a backstory that’s slow to reveal to the audience what the people involved already know. In an opening flashback to early 2000s Los Angeles, a teenage Donnie, now living in comfort and safety with Mary Anne, sneaks out of the house to spend time with Damian, an old buddy from the group home. The two slip into a nightclub where Damian, a Golden Gloves champion, makes swift work of an opponent in a backroom bout. But when Donnie and Damian go off to celebrate afterwards, Donnie runs into a man from his past that sends him into a violent rage and his friend shows up with a gun for support. The police arrive and their futures diverge sharply at that moment.
In the present, Donnie is a wealthy, retired champ living happily with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a sought-after music producer, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). When Damian (Jonathan Majors) suddenly turns up after finishing his prison stint, he feels like he’s owed the boxing career that fate denied him and Donnie feels guilty enough to bring his estranged buddy into his inner circle. But Damian’s erratic behavior suggests that their renewed friendship might be on unsteady ground, and his quick ascendence up the boxing ranks sets the table for old resentments to be settled in the ring.
Creed III takes the issue of masculinity seriously, as something to be interrogated rather than merely displayed. Donnie and Damian may have parted ways, but they both come from a place where trauma tends to be worked out with aggression, not therapy sessions or heart-to-hearts. Donnie’s life of luxury has made him “soft” in ways that Damian resents and seeks to exploit, but money and a stable family life hasn’t changed him as much as people might assume. The film wrestles with that inner torment as much as it can—and introduces a subplot in which little Amara deals with a bully as her dad might—but there’s no getting around where it ultimately needs to go.
For all its dramatic seriousness, Creed III often feels turgid and overlong, dogged by a backstory that’s parceled out with agonizing pokiness. Majors’ terrific heel-turn performance as Damian suggests the more exciting movie that might have been had Jordan allowed it to be that colorful. Under Stallone’s watch, the Rocky series had moments when it got so drunk on cartoonish excess that it tried to sober up on tonal downshifts to its roots, but that never really worked for it. Creed has fared much better with the Donnie character—and, in the second one, with a grounded portrait of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son—but there are limits to how mopey this series can get. By the end, Creed III needs the big fight just to snap out of its funk. — Scott Tobias
Creed III opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
Palm Trees and Power Lines
Dir. Jamie Dack
An unsettling coming-of-age story that plays like a trainwreck slowed down to spotlight every excruciating detail, writer and director Jamie Dack’s feature debut unfolds across a long, boring summer in a small town located somewhere in the least-glamorous stretch of Southern California. It’s home to Lea (Lily McInerny), a bored, insecure 17-year-old who spends her days sunbathing and gossipping with her best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel) and her nights getting messed up and fooling around in the back seat of cars with a boy who clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing and doesn’t really care. Her realtor mom, Sandra (Gretchen Mol), occasionally puts in the effort to nag Lea about her summer reading and hang out with her when she’s between boyfriends. Otherwise, Lea has nothing but time to fill and not much with which to fill it.
Enter Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who rescues Lea from an uncomfortable run-in with a restaurant manager after an attempted dine-and-dash, then stays in her orbit. He’s handsome, charming, vaguely self-employed, and drives a nice truck. He’s also seemingly honest with Lea about his intentions—he’s smitten with her and can’t believe how lucky he is to have met her—and his age, never trying to hide the fact that, at 34, he’s literally twice as old as she is. In a key early scene, Tom follows Lea and tries to smooth talk her into letting him give her a ride. She says “no” until she says “yes.” And, from that moment on, every time she says “yes,” she’s pulled a little further away from the dull world she knows into treacherous, unknown territory.
Lea is naive but she’s not stupid and much of the unsettling impact of Dack’s film comes from its emphasis on her internal life, which Dack lets play out in long takes anchored by McInerny’s fragile, naturalistic performance. (That the 22-year star could easily pass for even younger than her character doesn’t hurt.)Lea clearly knows she’s crossing a series of dangerous lines but crosses them anyway. It’s not like there’s much for her on the other side of the line. And for every red flag Tom sends up, he gives Lea reasons to ignore them. Sure, he lives in a hotel room and seems to have nothing but time on his hands (and occasionally gets some strange visitors). But Tom never rushes her and pays attention to her dreams and her body in ways that the boys her age never do. He knows if he rushes, he won’t get what he really wants. Palm Trees and Power Lines stays by her side through every exploitative tactic Tom employs in this horrifying and believable depiction of sexual grooming. It stays by Lea’s side every uncomfortable step of the way, but its real power is in conveying why she takes those steps. —Keith Phipps
PALM TREES sounds compelling, and similar to Joyce Chopra’s SMOOTH TALK. Keith, you used that phrase in your review, but did not otherwise mention the earlier film. Was this a coincidence or a subtle reference? Have you seen SMOOTH TALk?