CREED II (2018)

November 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theatre was packed and I don’t recall having heard a louder outburst of cheering for any movie moment. Was it predictable? Yes. Did it deliver what the fans wanted? Absolutely. Is it (as my son asked) “Was it just ROCKY IV in 4K?” Yes, that’s pretty much exactly what it is. So despite CREED (2015) director Ryan Coogler opting to make BLACK PANTHER instead of this sequel to his own movie, I’ve seen proof that it’s clearly a crowd-pleaser … which is what the “Rocky” franchise has always done best.

Michael B Jordan returns as Adonis Johnson/Creed and Sylvester Stallone is back as Rocky Balboa. And although that would likely be enough, we also have Tessa Thompson as Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca and Phylicia Rashad as Adonis’ mom, both also from CREED. We see an early training/boxing sequence in Russia featuring (professional boxer and chiseled human mountain) Florian Munteanu as Viktor Drago being trained by his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). If you are a fan of the franchise at all, you know exactly where this is headed – and so does opportunistic boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby).

Think of it as ‘Revenge vs Redemption’. Adonis fighting the son of the man who killed his father Apollo is the obvious revenge side, and Viktor fighting to redeem his disgraced father Ivan, who lost to Rocky 30 some years ago. This one lacks the real world Cold War element of ROCKY IV (1985), and while it’s missing the political heft of that film, it still packs quite a punch as a revenge flick … even if there was no other possible route this sequel could take. If anything, the filmmakers should be commended for not force-feeding any cheesy political statements on today’s environment.

What are you fighting for?” This must be both a necessary boxing question to answer and a tough one, as it seems to get asked over and over during the film. The combination of writers: story by Cheo Hodari and Sacha Penn, characters by Ryan Coogler, and screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, place quite a bit of focus outside the ring. Relationship quandaries are at every turn: young married couples, father-son (double whammy), mother-son (another double whammy), and first time parents.

Director Steve Caple Jr seems more comfortable outside the ring himself, as the boxing match camera work does not hit the level of the first, although audience members’ emotions run even higher. Perhaps to overcompensate for the more basic camera work, some of the sound effects for rib punches may have been pulled right out of battle scenes in war movies – they sound like explosions, and are exaggerated so that we viewers might “feel” the ribs cracking.

Wisely the relationship between Adonis and Bianca is a key element this time. Mr. Jordan and Ms. Thompson have tremendous chemistry, and the filmmakers deserve credit for hitting the hearing-impaired issue head-on. It’s a topic that’s rarely seen in movies, and appears to be very well handled. There are some other ties to the “Rocky” franchise with Wood Harris playing “Little Duke”, son of Duke, played numerous times by Tony Burton throughout the Rocky films, and there are a couple of other (very) familiar faces that pop up from both IV and ROCKY BALBOA (2006). On the music front, Ludwig Goransson is a rising star composer thanks to FRUITVALE STATION, CREED, BLACK PANTHER, VENOM, and now CREED II. He toys with the familiar Rocky numbers, but some will argue not enough.

This sequel is more grand scale than the first (which was identity driven), yet more restrained than IV. Sure we have the mandatory zany training montage (zany may be too mild), and the final bout is held in Moscow (even though it makes no sense that the champion would agree to this), but it’s definitely more low-key when comparing Bianca’s musical intro to James Brown’s “Living in America”.

For fans, it’s great to see Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago back in the ring together – even if only for a moment; however, maybe not as thrilling (dramatically speaking) as when the two first reunite Godfather-style in a table at Adrian’s Café. It’s a surreal moment that both Lundgren and Stallone play perfectly – one with pent-up emotional turmoil and the other quite content with what life has delivered. Of course, Sly can play Rocky in his sleep … and no that wasn’t meant to encourage one-liners followed by rim shots. He’s comfortable with the shuffles and mumbles of an elderly Rocky and it’s a pleasure to watch an old friend. The only real question remaining … is the “Creed” franchise gonna fly now?

watch the trailer:

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BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

watch the trailer:

 


CREED (2015)

December 23, 2015

creed Greetings again from the darkness. Tis the season for the revival of two extremely successful and popular film franchises, each nearly 40 years old.  Both stay true to their roots. For Star Wars that means big budget and ground-breaking special effects, while for Rocky, that means a personal mission and Sly. Writer/director Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station (2013) star Michael B Jordan unite with the Italian Stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone, to add another chapter to a story we all thought concluded with Rocky Balboa (2006).

Thirteen year old Adonis Johnson is an angry boy who doesn’t shy away from fights. While being held in a juvenile detention center, he is visited by a woman named Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad); she adopts him and fills in the gaps of his family tree. Adonis is the illegitimate son fathered by Apollo Creed, the champion boxer who died during Rocky IV. Mary Ann is Apollo’s widow and she plops Adonis into her world of affluence, and sets him up for a career in finance. Of course, thanks to YouTube, Adonis studies his dad’s old fights and promptly sneaks off to Tijuana to test out his own boxing skills.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Adonis will persuade his father’s old adversary/friend to train and mentor him, and just like that, the owner of Adrian’s Restaurant slips into a similar role made famous by Burgess Meredith. That’s right; Rocky Balboa becomes the Mickey to Adonis … right down to the (slower) chickens. Sure, it’s a bit formulaic, but that’s the idea behind a franchise. We have a history with Rocky, and know that he is basically a sweet guy who thrives on competition. Here, he has to tame a wild, self-trained young boxer who is connected to him through history.

The film does so many things right that it’s easy to forgive the missteps. Adonis’ love interest is a young singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who easily could have had a more substantive role in the story – in fact, it’s a bit disappointing when she disappears for long segments. Also, there is a medical/health sub-plot that comes across a bit contrived and serves only the purpose of putting Stallone’s role on more equal footing with Jordan’s. Minor qualms, but annoyances just the same.

What the film does right is create a terrific synergy between Rocky and Adonis. It’s a bond both men need, though for different reasons. Stallone is so good as the aging Rocky that it’s reason to forgive and forget his many cinematic foibles over the years. Also, the boxing cinematography from Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, 2008) is stunning … especially her extended long take in the ring during Adonis’ first professional fight. For the final fight, Adonis dons a special pair of trunks and takes on the nasty, thunderous punches of “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by boxer Tony “Bomber” Bellew), providing some of the most realistic cinematic boxing scenes (right there with Southpaw from earlier this year).

It’s a relief that Mr. Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington avoided the expected cheesiness, and instead focused on the intimate personal stories while also paying tribute to the legacy of the franchise … Bill Conlon’s original score is heard at least once, the Philadelphia MOA steps have their moment, as does the Rocky statue that draws fans and selfies. Heck, there is even a disclosure of who won the Rocky III fight between Rocky and Apollo. It’s that kind of nostalgia that complements this modern story and contemporary character.

watch the trailer:

 


THAT AWKWARD MOMENT (2014)

February 1, 2014

awkward Greetings again from the darkness. Writing about lousy movies is no fun, but if I can save even one person from wasting $10 and two hours on this garbage, it’s worth it. The only way this got the green light is because of the success of The Hangover movies, Sex and the City, and HBO’s “Girls“. The difference is that all of those projects had a sense of humor and style, while writer/director Tom Gormican somehow finds it creative to end numerous scenes with someone calling someone else either ‘a f***ing idiot’ or ‘an A-hole’.

Mr.Gormican’s only other listed credit is as Producer for the gross out Movie 43. Let’s just say he is now 0-for-2, and here’s hoping he never gets a shot at number 3. This is such a waste of a talented group of up and coming actors. Zac Efron loses whatever credibility he has built up since High School Musical by playing Jason the Jerk. OK, I added the Jerk part, but it’s true. Jason is best friends and co-worker with Daniel, played by Miles Teller, who was so good in The Spectacular Now. Daniel is a simple-minded misogynist with a razor sharp tongue. They are both friends with Mikey, a young doctor whose wife dumps him. Mikey is played by Michael B Jordan, a standout in last year’s Fruitvale Station. These twenty-somethings make a drunken pact to stay single and build their roster of casual sex partners, thereby avoiding the awkward moment of “So … where is this relationship headed?”

The guys live like frat boys, guzzling booze while spouting “jokes” on such thought-provoking topics as poop, penis, masturbation, homosexuality, and Viagra. To add even more insult to humanity, there are four female roles that could set back women’s advancement by 100 years … should anyone actually see this pile of junk. Imogene Poots, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin and MacKenzie Davis each play smart, beautiful women who somehow associate with these dunces. For the record, Jordan’s character is not as classless as the others, but guilt by association cannot be ignored.

Miles Teller still has the potential to be the next John Cusack, and Michael B. Jordan clearly has a future if he avoids projects like this, and Zac Efron will probably take his perfect face and go back to sweet romantic comedies. The four key actresses should all bounce back soon with far superior projects … movies that don’t denigrate men, women and movie soundtracks (it may be the worst since the 1980’s).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are related to director Tom Gormican and he has promised you a role if somehow someone asks him to make another movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have an ounce of decency or even a minor reason to spend your days doing something worthwhile

watch the trailer … and then forget about this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE_bE_kswEw

 


FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

July 13, 2013

fruitvale1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not politically correct to criticize this movie, yet it seems only fair to treat it as I do every other movie on which I comment. If that sounds like a bashing is coming, you are mistaken. In fact, this is an emotionally-charged, well written and exceptionally well-acted movie that provides much anticipation for the future projects of its first time director Ryan Coogler. However, in my opinion, it is also flawed in its “Based on a True Story” placard that is then followed by much manipulation (3 Oprah references), some of which could even be considered misleading.

If you are unfamiliar with the tragic story, 22 year old Oscar Grant was inexplicably shot and killed (while subdued and face down) by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop after watching New Year’s Eve fireworks with his girlfriend and buddies. An altercation/fight occurred on the train and the officers pulled Grant aside to detain/arrest. Much of this was caught on cell phone video by train passengers, and the aftermath brought protests in the city. The officer was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. He claimed he mistook his gun for his Taser.

fruitvale4 No one can argue that this was anything but a senseless tragedy. Director Coogler even begins his movie with actual cell phone footage of the incident. The ending is known and seared in the viewer’s mind before the story even begins. Whether the senseless shooting was racially driven is a topic for debate, but the current media focus on the George Zimmerman trial, and his killing of Trayvon Martin, makes the timing of this movie quite compelling.

Coogler certainly points out that Grant (adeptly played by Michael B Jordan) was no angel. We learn about his prison stints, his drug dealing, his unfaithfulness to his girlfriend (the mother of his daughter), his lack of responsibility (losing his job due to chronic absence), his string of lies, and most glaringly … his terrifyingly quick and violent temper. My issue with the film is the seemingly inordinate amount of time Coogler spends on the flip side — the focus on Oscar’s desire to get his life back on track. So fruitvale2much effort and so many scenes are written to exhibit how Oscar is a charming guy with a big heart. He helps out a white lady in the grocery store, he takes a big step towards leaving the drug dealing life, he plans his mother’s birthday party, heck … he even cradles a poor dog that was hit by a car. This inequity in storytelling apparently has only one purpose … to create another symbol of racial injustice. We are not left to ponder if the real Oscar is the one who inspires his daughter to brush her teeth or the one who bows up to a foul-mouthed convict, rather than ignore him. Instead, Coogler wants us to believe that Oscar was now a good guy who had put his past behind him … all in the 24 hours leading up to his death.

The fact is, there are two sides of Oscar, just like everyone has multiple facets to their personality. Most of us learn to control the sides that don’t mesh well with society … others really struggle to do so. Michael B Jordan delivers a powerful performance as Oscar, and he and Octavia Spencer (who plays his mom) will both garner awards attention. Other supporting work is provided by Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his precious daughter, Ahna O’Reilly as the shopper, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray as the BART cops.

fruitvale3 This film was the hit of both Sundance and Cannes, and was produced by Forest Whitaker. A major tip of the cap to BART for allowing the filmmakers to work on location at the actual Fruitvale station, for a level of authenticity. Coogler chooses one last bit of manipulation with his closing video of Oscar’s daughter Tatiana at a recent memorial outside of Fruitvale station … followed by on screen text of the officer’s two year sentence. We get no details on the trial, only the assumption that the sentence does not deliver justice, but rather another example of racial bias.

Lastly I’ll say that the decision to make a dramatization rather than a documentary was interesting. This allowed the director to focus on Oscar the good guy. A documentary would have required facts from the trial, a better perspective of the train disturbance and probably fewer Oprah references. The dramatization makes the movie more emotionally charged and more effective at inspiring outrage, rather than debate. Despite all of that, this is extraordinary filmmaking from a first time director, and I will certainly look forward to Ryan Coogler’s next project.

**NOTE: An interesting take on the real life events that led Oscar to this moment, could have been an analysis of the many decisions he made in his short life. Parents are always trying make their kids understand that every decision and every choice has a consequence. What if Oscar had never dealt drugs or gone to prison?  The altercation on the train would not have occurred and the tragedy would have been avoided.  I am by no means blaming Oscar for what happened that night, it’s just another example of how even the smallest decisions add up to impact our life.

***WARNING***

Rather than post the trailer to the film, I have elected instead to post a 1:42 YouTube video of the actual incident,  The video is short but contains very harsh language and you can hear the gun shot.  It is not easy to watch and certainly not appropriate for kids

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0P8TSP2YJU&oref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DS0P8TSP2YJU&has_verified=1