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?

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SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

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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.

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SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

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