REVIEW: “Creed II”

CREEDlarge

One of my biggest regrets of 2018 was missing “Creed II” in the theaters. The first film was a wonderful surprise. At first I didn’t buy into the idea of a “Rocky” spin-off focused on Apollo Creed’s son. It turns out I was selling short both Ryan Coogler as a writer-director and Michael B. Jordan as an actor. They actually had a good story to tell and it was one of my favorite films of 2015.

“Creed II” features most of the key elements that made its predecessor great. Ryan Coogler who wrote and directed the first film isn’t here for the sequel but the deeply grounded and character-centered approach he used definitely returns. Yes, it’s a boxing movie so there are certain sequences you know you’re going to get. But this is first and foremost a movie about its characters and the lives they live.

Creed1

As if we needed more proof, “Creed II” cements Michael B. Jordan as an all-out star. He returns as Adonis Creed, three years removed from the events of the first film and now on a streak of significant boxing wins that puts him in line for a title shot. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) still sits in his corner and his relationship with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has intensified.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine we see Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) training and handily winning a series of lopsided boxing matches. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Viktor is the son of Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundren) who killed Adonis’ father in the ring over thirty years earlier. Ivan then lost to Rocky earning the scorn of the entire Soviet government. See where this is going?

Adonis gets his title shot and wins the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. On top of the boxing world, he proposes to Bianca and the two contemplate leaving Philly for Los Angeles. The Dragos get word from an opportunistic promoter (Russell Hornsby) that Apollo Creed’s son is champion leading them to come to the States and issue a challenge to Adonis. Rocky wants no part of it which infuriates the bull-headed Adonis who sets out to fight Viktor Drago without his mentor in his corner. Gulp!

CREED II

“Creed II” is very much an underdog story in the vein of most other “Rocky” pictures. But as I mentioned it’s much more interested in what makes these characters tick. New director Steven Caple Jr. understands that and he never loses that focus. The script was co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor who plant most things firmly in the real world. This adds real consequences to the boxing matches as well as deep personal conflicts. That is until the big final fight when several of the characters who were once deeply concerned weirdly toss that aside and get onboard without a hint of conflict.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Creed II” is that you don’t feel the absence of Ryan Coogler. That’s not a knock on Coogler, but high praise for Caple, Jr. It helps to have a stellar returning cast (I didn’t even mention Phylicia Rashad who is back as Adonis’ mother. She’s so good). It all makes for a truly satisfying sequel and a second installment to a spin-off franchise that I never expected to be this good.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Creed”

CREEDPOSTER

If you had told me at the start of the year that I would pay money to go see a “Rocky” spin off with old man Stallone training the son of Apollo Creed I would have laughed in your face. Nothing about that concept sounds appealing. If you would have told me I would not only see the movie but thoroughly enjoy it, I would have called you insane. Yet despite my closed-minded skepticism “Creed” turned out to be one of the bigger surprises of 2015.

A ton of credit can go to the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. You may remember him from 2013’s “Fuitvale Station”. Coogler reunites with his Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan to give us a film that is one part spin-off and one part sequel to 2006’s “Rocky Balboa”. On paper this sounds like an all-around bad idea but Coogler does something special. Much like Fruitvale there is an earnest dedication to telling its story through human lenses. There is such a genuine humanity to the film that even when we get the big crowdpleasing moments, they feel completely earned.

Creed1

The movie begins by introducing us to Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan), a young man living in the shadows of a troubled childhood. He is the son of the late boxing great Apollo Creed and born from an extramarital affair. Apollo’s widowed wife (Phylicia Rashad) finds Donnie in a juvenile facility and takes him in. She gives him a plentiful life and helps him get a good job with a promising future.

But there is a perpetual inter-turmoil inside of Donnie. He is filled with anger and angst that he releases through fighting. First it’s small-time fights in Tijuana, Mexico, but later he quits his job to go pro in hopes of carving out a name for himself. He heads to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s close friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). He asks Rocky to train him but the aged former champ turns him down. Donnie’s persistence combined with loyalty to an old friend leads Rocky to take the young fighter under his wing.

You could say Coogler is simultaneously telling two different stories. Donnie’s is a search for his own identity. He wants no part of his father’s legacy and he keeps him a secret. He wants to make his own name and plow his own path. But at the same time he needs guidance and stability in his life and in the ring. We genuinely like the guy because he is an underdog. That’s why audiences first embraced Rocky way back in 1976. Jordan has the same charm and authenticity to win us over.

But there is also the story of Rocky. Gone is his swagger and larger-than-life persona. Replacing it is a melancholy contentment with where he is at in this stage of his life. He’s tired, older, grayer and Stallone wears it truthfully and without an ounce of show. The physicality is gone yet Sly is given a lot more to do. It’s a deeper and dramatically meatier role and I would call it easily one of the best performances of his career.

Boxing is certainly a key part of this film, but it mainly serves as a support for the true meat and potatoes. Coogler is interested in his characters and their relationships. Every boxing scene whether training or an actual fight tells us more about Donnie or it builds up his relationship with Rocky. Then there are other characters like a local musician (Tessa Thompson) who Donnie falls for. She opens up an entirely different side of Donnie. But these relationships work because Coogler takes his time and allows them room to grow and breathe.

Creed3

Coogler also shows a remarkable technical ability especially for a young filmmaker. There are so many things I liked about his presentation. There are several fabulous tracking shots that cleverly use lighting or darkness to give the appearance of long takes. And how many boxing sequences have we seen over the years? Yet Coogler’s slow-moving camera and his knowledge of when to pull the camera back and keep it still result in some exhilarating boxing scenes.

There are other impressive touches such as the way he shoots Philadelphia and the handling of the music (often teasing us with variations of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now”). It all works to service the characters and their stories. “Creed” has its clichĂ©s and its big mandatory crowd-pleasing moments, but even they are handled well by a confident filmmaker who is a true rising talent. For Coogler this is a step up from the admirable “Fruitvale Station”. For Jordan it’s a bold ‘getting back on track’ after “Fantastic Four”. And for the 69 year-old Stallone it could equal and invitation to the Oscars. Now that would certainly bring a smile to my face.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Fantastic Four” (2015)

FFposter

I doubt many people initially thought rebooting the Fantastic Four series was a great idea. Even though the previous two films made decent money, the cast has clearly moved on and calls for a third movie have been nonexistent. But that didn’t stop 20th Century Fox. Desperate to revive one of their lone Marvel Comics properties, the studio went ahead with their shaky venture. They compounded skepticism with some questionable casting choices and statements made during production that gave comics fans cause for concern.

Director Josh Trank was handed the reins and $120 million to bring his vision to the movie. Trank made a surprising splash with his 2012 debut film “Chronicle”, a movie loved by critics and audiences but one that I found to be inconsistent and predictable. We see these same issues fester up in “Fantastic Four”, but this film’s problems stretch much, much further (horrible pun intended) and the resulting mess of a movie is pretty tough to endure.

FF2

Sleep – Prepare to fight it.

The decision to completely rewrite the superteam’s history proved to be a bad one for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not convinced moviegoers really want to sit through another origin story especially about this group of heroes. Second, when you make the decision to rewrite well known characters and their history you better make sure you have a good story to tell. Unfortunately this is an painfully long and dull origin story and not a single new element offers anything of value.

When I say this is a long origin story I mean it is a LONG origin story. The film starts with Reed Richards meeting Ben Grimm in elementary school. The two build a close friendship around Reed’s garage-based teleportation experiments. Next we jump ahead seven years to Reed (Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) showing off the experiment at a high school science fair. They are approached by Professor Franklin Storm (Reg Cathey) of the Baxter Foundation who recruits Reed to help work on a dimensional portal called the Quantum Gate. Reed joins the research team consisting of Storm’s daughter Sue (Kate Mara), his rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a disillusioned young protĂ©gé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

FF3

I had the same reactions…

The film then lumbers through the completion of the Quantum Gate giving us loads of monotone exposition. It takes a few breaks for personal exchanges meant to add some life and emotion to these characters. It doesn’t work. Not one single relationship feels authentic and the emotionally inert characters are void of any compelling personality. Trank and Company want us to believe that Victor has a thing for Sue. They want us to believe that Sue and Johnny are actually brother and sister. They want us to believe in the inevitable team camaraderie that we get later on. But that’s tough to do when the characters are as interesting as tree stumps.

It’s a full hour into the movie before we get to the experiment that grants them their powers. With the evil U.S. government and specifically scientist and government liaison Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) breathing down their necks, the team decides to use the Quantum Gate and stake a claim on their discovery. Obviously things go terribly wrong. Each are imbued with unique powers but their reactions to their new abilities fractures the team. It’s only when they face a powerful and unexpected threat that they realize the strength they wield as a team. Blah, blah, blah.

FF4

Mara’s expression…through the entire film.

It doesn’t help when the performances are as drab as the story. People are high on Miles Teller but here he flatlines and is embarrassingly bad once the action ratchets up in the final act. Jordan doesn’t offer an ounce of charisma or good humor vital to his character. Cathey’s ultra-serious monotone dialogue is robotic. Mara is strikingly mundane. Yet it’s Tim Blake Nelson who gets the ‘prize’ for the worst performance. He constantly flashes this odd snarky smirk meant to show he is the man in charge. He actually looks like he just sucked on a dozen lemons. In his defense he does get some of the worst lines of dialogue. On the other hand they all get crappy dialogue yet no one is able to rise above it.

Trust me when I say this – reading about the movie is a lot more fun than watching it. You don’t always expect these types of films to be narrative masterpieces, but you do expect them to be spirited, whimsical, and energetic. “Fantastic Four” is a lifeless bore, devoid of any of the ingredients that make these pictures work. Trank has already started pointing fingers at the studios and the studios are already bracing for what looks like a big loss at the box office. I can’t say I’m surprised. Simply put, this is a bad movie and 20th Century Fox should be on the phone with Disney making a deal and getting whatever they can from this now dead-in-the-water franchise.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1.5 stars

K&M Commentary : Questionable Casting

typewriter-banner 1

Over the past few weeks several bits of big blockbuster casting news has made headlines and stirred up a great deal of discussion. One of the last commentaries I posted looked at movies and the books they are based on (you can find that post HERE). I talked about creative license and the space that should be given to a filmmaker when adapting a novel, comic series, etc. But I also talked about what I feel is the filmmaker’s responsibility to respect the source material and its spirit. These two particularly bits of casting news has me questioning just how much respect there is for the comic series’ they are based on.

Jesse Eisenburg as Lex Luthor

JESSEThe Superman/Batman film has ran the spectrum of fan reaction. I started off absolutely thrilled with the idea behind the project. I was also just fine with the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman. But since then there have been little comments here and there, especially from Zack Snyder, that has me a bit worried. Then came the news that the iconic villain Lex Luthor had been cast. He would be played by Jesse Eisenburg – a good actor who mainly excels in specific types of roles. While I can see him playing Lex in a Smallville type project, I have a hard time seeing him embodying what has made Lex Luthor such a classic DC Comics villain.

What is more worrisome are statements made by Snyder surrounding Eisenberg’s casting such as taking the character in “unexpected directions”. Then there were the rumors (and I do emphasis rumors) of the character being a streetwise young man. Lex Luthor is an accomplished corporate tyrant and was never the geeky neurotic type that Eisenburg is good at playing. Snyder has hinted at completely changing up the character and his origin which doesn’t seem a bit necessary. I’m still anxious to see this picture but a hint of skepticism has certainly surfaced.

Michael B. Jordan & Kate Mara as Johnny & Sue Storm

Michael B. JordanThe other casting news surrounded 20th Century Fox’s reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise. Let me be honest, none of the four who were announced excite me at all. But there is one glaring problem that seems to stand out beyond the others. It’s the casting of Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara as Johnny and Sue Storm. Now some will automatically assume that any criticism over this will either be normal fanboy rage or it will be because of race. To no surprise I’ve already read countless defenders of the casting pointing racially judgmental fingers at those of us who think the casting is bad.

maraSo what are my problems with the casting? First off I’ve never fully understood changing the race of a known character who is being borrowed from the original creator. That being said, if there is a better actor or actress who can strengthen the role on screen then race doesn’t matter at all. But in the Fantastic Four its quite different. Johnny and Sue are brother and sister with a rich background. By casting Jordan and Mara together the filmmakers are tossing that history aside to create their own. It’s a pointless and unnecessary change.

Between the two, Jordan intrigues me a lot more than Mara. So why not cast one of several talented black actresses to play Sue Storm and keep that defined brother/sister connection as a key part of their story? Look, I know there is adoption and biracial families which can explain away the differences. But frankly, I won’t be watching the Fantastic Four reboot for its deep and intellectual social and family commentary. This seems like a silly and unneeded move as well as a missed opportunity.

Obviously these are just first impressions. The filmmakers do know the story they are telling and maybe it will work out fine. But both of these castings look to be taking mammoth-sized creative liberties that really seem unnecessary. Are there attention-getting motivations behind them or are the filmmakers throwing aside the source material that made these characters worthy of big screen treatment. Time will certainly tell and regardless of my hesitation maybe these choices will work out.

THE END

Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

A light painting of the year 2013 written against a black background

This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost

ALL IS LOST

All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska

NEBRASKA

What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis

LLEWYN

I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

12 years

Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt

THE HUNT

Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “Fruitvale Station”

FRUITVALEPOSTER

For those who may not know, “Fruitvale Station” is a docudrama based on the shooting death of 22-year old Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. The shooting took place on January 1, 2009 and was caught on numerous cell phone videos from witnesses. The incident would spark protests, unfortunate rioting, and dialogues about a number of feelings and concerns. Some have said this is was a racially motivated crime. I’m not sure there is definitive proof of that. Others have said the shooting resulted from Grant resisting arrest. I don’t think there is any way this tragedy can be fully placed on Oscar Grant’s shoulders. One thing is for certain, a young African-American man, a father, lost his life and it should have never happened.

“Fruitvale Station” marks the filmmaking debut from Ryan Coogler. He was drawn to the story and spent time with Grant’s family in order to develop a deeper more human profile. Coogler stated “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.” It’s a smart approach that gives the film a real emotional kick. But some have criticized the overly sympathetic portrayal of Oscar saying that is glosses over some of his real personal and legal problems.

Fruitvale

When you go in the docudrama direction, especially when tackling such a potent incident, you open yourself up that kind of criticism. I did feel Coogler was softening the edges a bit in order to draw more empathy from the audience. That said, it never took away the hurt I felt for the family, the discomfort of watching the police aggression, or the sadness brought on by Oscar’s death. The film does a good job of drawing those emotions from us. Is the film emotionally exploitative at times? I think so. A few scenes are a bit heavy-handed and a more seasoned filmmaker would have probably avoided them. Still the overall impact of the film is strong despite these issues.

This movie is a remarkable feature film debut for Coogler but he’s not the only revelation found in “Fruitvale Station”. 26-year old Michael B. Jordan is excellent. Known mainly for his work in television and in last year’s “Chronicle”, Jordan has caught a lot of attention playing Oscar Grant. There is a raw authenticity to what he is doing on screen that works perfectly with the role. He’s joined on screen by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer who also helped produce the film. She plays Oscar’s mother and once again she is very good. Melonie Diaz does great work as well playing Oscar’s wife Sophina.

Minus a few small stumbles, which can be expected from a first time filmmaker, “Fruitvale Station” is still an emotionally powerful film that puts a spotlight on an unfortunate tragedy. Coogler makes a strong directorial debut but Michael B. Jordan also makes a statement in what should be a breakthrough performance. Even though I felt slightly manipulated as the story was moving along, the tense and gutwrenching ending was no less devastating. In the end this movie works, and it’s impossible not to be effected by it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS