Indie Focus: Old and new collide in 'Chi-Raq,' 'Creed' and 'Youth'

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

As the year barrels to a close we’ve still got some screening events and Q&As coming up. Check here for more info:

My colleague Rebecca Keegan and I recently hosted a series of conversations among actors, actresses and directors that will air on the Ovation TV channel starting in mid-January. For now you can see clips and read condensed versions of the Q&As for the lead actress and supporting actress panels. Keep an eye out for more.

Between awards news, new releases, the Sundance program announcements, list making and all that, this time of year has me feeling overwhelmed and fulfilled, looking back at the year that was and looking ahead to the year to come at the same time. It reminds me of another of our semi-official mottoes around here:

Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.


Spike Lee directs "Chi-Raq," an update of the ancient Greek play "Lysistrata." (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

With his new film “Chi-Raq” Spike Lee proves he is one never to be counted out, as he turns in a vibrant, outrageous movie that still takes its deadly serious subject matter seriously. Told largely in verse, the film is set against the contemporary gun violence epidemic of Chicago in the form of an adaptation of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” in which women go on a sex strike to stop their men from going to battle.

In his review, the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips said, "If 'Chi-Raq' disarms even a small percentage of those who see it, and provokes any reflection about a gun culture, the uses of satire and the plight of a sadly emblematic city, it was worth the effort. However mixed-up the results."

Steve Zeitchik was at the film’s recent New York premiere. And Tre’vell Anderson spoke to the film’s star, Teyonah Parris, and Lee himself.

In her review in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis called “Chi-Raq” “Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”


Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, left, and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson in "Creed." (Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.)

While the newsletter took a vacation last week, the film “Creed” opened and it turns out to be such a surprising and rousing treat that we couldn’t resists mentioning it here. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the film is simply far, far better than you might have expected. An update and something of a reboot within the universe of the “Rocky” franchise, the film finds a young boxer (Michael B. Jordan) stepping into the spotlight for the first time. The movie also features a fantastic performance by Sylvester Stallone, who brings new life to his iconic character of Rocky Balboa.

In his Los Angeles Times review, Kenneth Turan called “Creed” “a film that is nominally a spinoff of the celebrated ‘Rocky’ series but actually plays like something more interesting: a spiritual remake of the 1976 film that retells the original story in the kind of involving way one would not have thought possible.”

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott called the film “a dandy piece of entertainment, soothingly old-fashioned and bracingly up-to-date.”

Josh Rottenberg talked to Coogler and Jordan, who had previously collaborated on “Fruitvale Station.” Coogler spoke of the enduring appeal of the character and the franchise.

"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."

Tre’vell Anderson also talked to Tessa Thompson, the female lead of the movie and whose character in the film is more than just a typical love interest.

For the New York Times, Mekado Murphy spoke to Coogler about one the film’s boxing scenes, shot in a single unbroken take.


Harvey Keitel, from left, Rachel Weisz, Michael Caine and Paolo Sorrentino attend the "Youth" red carpet affair in London. (Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images for BFI)

Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino won the Oscar for best foreign language film with “The Great Beauty” and now he is back with his new film “Youth.” It’s actually his second film in English – after the oddball Sean Penn vehicle “This Must Be the Place” — but more completely manages to capture all that is dreamy and weird and wonderful in his work.

In the film, Michael Caine plays a semi-retired classical conductor and composer who is trying to enjoy a holiday in a secluded resort with an old friend (Harvey Keitel) but the world seems to keep intruding on them. Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda all have supporting roles.

Times critic Kenneth Turan called “Youth” “a film that goes its own way. Quixotic, idiosyncratic, effortlessly moving, it's as much a cinematic essay as anything else, a meditation on the wonders and complications of life, an examination of what lasts, of what matters to people no matter their age.”

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott takes a less kind view of the film when he says, “Good as it looks, the film starts to feel like an airline magazine collaboratively produced by the editorial staffs of Playboy and Modern Maturity.”

Susan King recently spoke to the 82-year-old Caine, who revealed that he considers himself retired but allows that, "There may be one that comes along that forces me out of bed, you know what I mean?" Apparently there are a lot of them because Caine seems as busy as ever.


Director Alfred Hitchcock, right, and director Francois Truffaut. (Philippe Halsman / Cohen Media Group)

Also opening this week is a fun and insightful documentary, “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” directed by Kent Jones, which takes a look at the series of interviews in 1962 between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut that produced the landmark book. The documentary features comments by David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater and other filmmakers.

Film scholar David Bordwell wrote at length about the film, noting, "At first glance, this is a clips-plus-talking-heads doc. But that impression doesn’t do it justice … the film’s perspective is far more sophisticated than what we usually find in the genre. ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ respects its viewers enough to summon up suggestive and subtle links between sequences, between image and commentary."

In the New Yorker, Richard Brody declared “Jones’s film is a personal work as well, a wise and loving tribute to a book that clearly matters to him, to two filmmakers whose films matter deeply to him, and to an entire world of movie-love, of passionate devotion to great movies — to the understanding, appreciation, preservation, and transmission of great movies and of the art of the cinema over-all. ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut,’ a movie about a glorious cinematic legacy, plays its own part in maintaining that legacy, and makes its own place in that history.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.