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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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:

 


THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)

August 18, 2014

expendables3 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether you saw the first two in this series will directly correlate to whether you head to the theatre for this third entry. The filmmakers’ attempt at attracting a younger audience by adding a “new” crew and dropping to a PG-13 rating backfires, and will not provide the legs this franchise needed for more installments.

The regular old geezers are back: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jet Li (briefly), and Arnold Schwarzenneger. In addition, we get new “old” blood in the form of Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammar, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, and the dominating presence of Mel Gibson as the bad guy. The young blood comes in the form of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, boxer Victor Ortiz, and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey. The blandness of the newbies simply steals valuable screen time for the old folks, and the movie suffers because of it.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, comes courtesy of the all-time champion screen hog: Mr. Stallone. We understand that this  franchise is his baby, but why field an all-star team if you won’t let them play? Stallone gets a ridiculous number of close-ups and probably three times the dialogue of the runner-up. Snipes gets some time early in the film, replete with a reference to his real life prison sentence for tax evasion, and Ford and Arnold get in a few shots, but the only savior here is Mel Gibson. It’s a reminder of just how good he can be on screen … if we could only forget what a horrible person he can be off screen.

There is no need to go into detail on the plot or describe any of the characters. You know what you are getting if you buy a ticket. It’s just a shame the film’s direction and script aren’t at the level deserving of a cast that includes: Rambo, Mad Max, Blade, Conan, Han Solo, Hercules, Zorro, The Transporter, He-Man, and even … Sideshow Bob!

**NOTE: while Bruce Willis demanded too much money and does not appear this time, there is a Die Hard reference with the “other” Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi)

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012)

August 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. As we get older, we expect to learn from our experiences. That’s exactly what happened here. It’s been almost two years to the day since The Expendables hit theatres. That first entry was directed, produced, written by, and starred Sylvester Stallone. This time around Sly sticks to acting and a script credit. Con Air director Simon West is now at the helm and the film clearly benefits from better action, improved characters and especially MUCH more humor … the key reason it works.  However, fear not, Stallone’s face is still on screen the majority of the running time.

Most of the familiar faces are back. Stallone as Barney, the leader of this pack of mercenaries; Jason Statham as Christmas; Dolph Lundgren as Gunner; Terry Crews as Hale Caesar; Randy Couture as Toll Road; and Jet Li as Yin Yang, though he is unfortunately only in the fantastic pre-opening credits sequence. Also back, after brief but funny cameos in the first, are Bruce Willis as Church, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Trench. If somehow that’s not enough testosterone for you, the second installment also provides Liam Hemsworth as Billy the Kid, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Vilain (pronounced vi-LANE, get it?), martial arts expert Scott Adkins, and 72 year old Chuck Norris as Booker … the “Lone Wolf” soldier.

 For what passes in balance in this world, the female lead is played by Nan Yu as Maggie. She is a brilliant fighter, speaks multiple languages, yet unfortunate enough to fall for Stallone (guessing that was his contribution to the script). While the story is necessarily simple, her role is vital in that she softens some scenes, while at the same time holding her own with the sea of steroid and botox stars.  This time around, love plays into the story a bit more.  In addition to the beautiful, intelligent, 30 + years younger character falling for his Barney, Statham’s romance picks back up, and a true love story featuring Hemsworth takes place (no, it’s not with Miley Cyrus).

 A couple of sequences are noteworthy.  Even though it’s in the trailer, the scene with Willis and Arnold in the SMART car driving inside the airport terminal is quite entertaining.  Also, the chaotic opening rescue scene finds Stallone getting shot twice, yet somehow he is immediately healed and never again bothered by something so minor. Something I found quite funny, was watching JCVD leave his sunglasses on even while filming his scenes underground in the plutonium storage facility. And, like the first one, the music seems picked to purposefully be a punchline … oh, and Frank Stallone (Sly’s brother) once again manages to gain a musical credit, right there along side Little Richard.  

 This version is extremely likable and filled with tongue-in-cheek humor, sarcasm and wit. Sure, it’s quite cheesy and some of the one-liners are obvious and telegraphed, but it’s fun to have references to The Terminator, Die Hard and Rambo, among others.  The guys are not hesitant about poking fun at themselves or each other … all the while surrounded by nearly non-stop action, gun play, missile firing and other forms of over-the-top violence and action. The body count is impossible to track, which goes right along with the extreme ammunition usage. In other words, it’s exactly what we hoped it would be!

** Note: Rumor has it that Harrison Ford may join for the next sequel

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some cheesy fun provided by nostalgia, wrapped in an over-the-top action film stocked with stars from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Where else are you going to get that?

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your action movies to be more intense and reality based like “Bourne” or “Mission: Impossible”.

watch the trailer:


ZOOKEEPER

July 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are all fine with the endless stream of animation featuring talking animals. The rules change a bit when the movie is live action … and the animals still talk! Not only do they talk, but they are giving lessons in love to zookeeper extraordinare Griffin (Kevin James) ala Dr. Phil.

Personally I think Kevin James is more suited to television, but it’s hard to argue with the huge box office success of Paul Blart Mall Cop. This movie isn’t quite as creative as that one, but for mindless summertime fun in an air-conditioned environment and a kid-friendly theme, it’s passable.

 The kid-friendly theme is somewhat misleading. To me, it’s the greatest flaw of the movie. It can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a kids movie or a “clever” film for kids that adults will enjoy. I don’t think most adults will enjoy it much, and I think most kids will be confused and bored by the adult plot of helping Kevin James land the girl and discover his true self.  But for kids, the animal scenes should sustain them.  I am not sure that TGI Fridays is enough for adults.

If you are going to have talking animals these days, you must have high priced voices … even though you can’t recognize them. Some of the vocal talent on display includes Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions, Nick Nolte as the gorilla, Jupp Apatow as an elephant, producer Adam Sandler as the monkey (“throw poop”), Faizon Love and Jon Favreau as arguing bears, Maya Rudolph as an off-key giraffe, and Don Rickles as a frog.

 The story is this: Kevin James is a nice guy zookeeper who is loved by the animals, but spurned in marriage proposal by his girlfriend Leslie Bibb, who wants him to make more money. He works with nice gal Rosario Dawson who likes him so much that she agrees to help him get the shallow Bibb back. Other zoo co-workers include Donnie Wahlberg and Ken Jeong, who must be in every third movie released this year. Yada, Yada, Yada … animals give advice, Kevin James learns about real love, gorilla learns some people can be trusted, they all live happily ever after. I don’t consider that a spoiler.

The movie is produced by Adam Sandler and directed by his buddy Frank Coraci. Coraci also directed a comedy I kind of like (The Wedding Singer) and a couple I absolutely couldn’t stand (Click, The Waterboy). Anyway, if you are looking for mindless fun with the family, this one is safe though not inspired.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t believe anyone (including a gorilla) can have fun at TGI Fridays.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a step down from Night at the Museum is a step you prefer not to take


THE EXPENDABLES (2010)

August 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well since I got pressured into posting full comments for Eat Pray Love, I figured it was only fair that I also post comments for the other half of my “Cinematic Battle of Estrogen vs. Testosterone.”  The most difficult movies to comment on are those in which even the filmmakers don’t take themselves seriously. Here, Sylvester Stallone creates a movie with his tongue firmly planted in his plastic surgery-enhanced cheek. It is a bit goofy and meant to be so. The good stuff is actually pretty good, but the stuff that misses the mark is a bit painful to watch.

The good stuff includes the already infamous cameo scene with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has the single best line (maybe two) in the movie and it’s just great to see Arnie back on screen. The other funny touch is the character names: Barney, Christmas, Ying Yang, Gunner, James Munroe, Toll Road, Paine, Hale Caeser, and of course, Tool. More work might have gone into the character names than the balance of the script.

The parts that don’t work include the lame one-liners that Jason Statham is forced to recite throughout. Also, after all these years, Stallone remains in love with his own face. I believe he is off screen for a total of 3 minutes. And enough with the Jet Li short jokes. One was plenty. We could have really used more of Terry Crews. He lights up the screen when he starts his trail of destruction.

Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture and David Zayas all have their moments. But therein lies the problem. Just can’t do justice to so many characters … or is it caricatures? This one is exactly what it was meant to be. Don’t expect the world’s greatest action film. Think of it as more of a Tribute Film with non-stop stunts. Oh and a blasting version of “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain with Leslie West.


EAT PRAY LOVE vs. THE EXPENDABLES

August 18, 2010

 EAT PRAY LOVE                               

 vs.

 THE EXPENDABLES 

 

The Cinematic Battle of Estrogen vs. Testosterone!

This past weekend provided a very interesting sociological battle at the box office or what I like to call … “The Cinematic Battle of Estrogen vs. Testosterone”.  The two biggest new releases were Eat Pray Love and The Expendables.  The first is based on the best-selling (and Oprah blessed) search-for- enlightenment book by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The latter is a Sylvester Stallone labor of love/fun featuring an ensemble cast of some of the most popular action film stars of the past 25 years.

What makes this battle interesting is the clear line of demarcation among movie lovers.  Almost no one is interested in seeing both of these movies.  You either want to see the no-holds-barred chick flick OR you want to see the full-bore action film.  Maybe neither, but not both.  Because of the extremes, I thought it would be a hoot to compare the two movies side-by-side. 

For the record (and full disclosure), I was more drawn to the action film than the chick flick, but in the interest of art and fun, I decided to keep a (somewhat) open mind and see both.  What follows is the categorized comparison of the two movies along with a bit of editorial commentary.  Please remember, this is all in good fun and I am by no means making a judgment on which is the stronger sex … even though The Expendables (SLY) did annihilate Eat Pray Love (EPL) at the opening weekend box office!

While this looks like a narrow victory for the BOYS (9 to 8, 5 ties), it’s understandable if your preference remains unaltered.  Of course, the battle of the sexes cannot be won in a movie theatre … The choice is yours to make!  And if you still aren’t sure … just try an icy stare and a look of disgust – over a plate of pasta and a full glass of Italian Chianti.

By David Fergsuon

www.moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com