Tag Archives: 3/5

Creed II

Michael B. Jordan steps into the ring once again as heavyweight boxer Adonis Creed in Creed II, a sequel to the 2015 film that was itself a reboot of a franchise that seemed to be down for the count but still had some fight left in it. While there are few fresh concepts or challenging ideas in this new entry, it willingly serves up the familiar pleasures and tropes that we commonly associate with boxing movies and specifically with the Rocky films of the past. Taking over for Ryan Coogler after his success with Marvel’s Black Panther, director Steven Caple Jr. isn’t able to match the rich emotional depths found in Creed although the fight scenes are often just as thrilling.

We’re re-introduced to Creed as he’s in the middle of hot streak, on the precipice of becoming the world heavyweight champion with his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and his fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner. We soon learn there’s trouble brewing in Ukraine as Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed Creed’s father Apollo in the ring during the events of Rocky IV, has been relentlessly training his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to overtake Creed on the world boxing stage. With the legacies of their fathers inextricably linking the two boxers together, Creed and Drago take to the ring in an all-or-nothing brawl.

As is to be expected, there are plenty of callbacks to past Rocky films and particularly to Rocky IV, although the tone of Creed II is thankfully much more grounded in reality than most of its predecessors. The chief issue this time around is that the overall narrative arc is painfully predictable from the first frame and save for a few notable character moments, Caple Jr. does little to stray from the formula that has worked quite well in the past. Still, he hits most of the familiar story beats with gusto and by the time we’re in the ring for the big fight, the groundwork that has been laid out is sufficient enough to root for our protagonist.

The script, co-written by Stallone along with Juel Taylor, spends plenty of time fleshing out the relationship between Creed and Bianca, which is a smart move given how much chemistry Jordan and Thompson have on-screen. However, I wish there had been more time dedicated to the Drago family and the tragic backstory that contributes to their presence in this film. A pivotal scene in Russia between Ivan and Viktor is a poignant reminder of just how separated they feel not only from one another but also from their own country as well. I wish Caple Jr. had taken more opportunities like this to balance the struggles of the hero with the villain.

Still, fans of boxing movies will find plenty to enjoy in the both the training montages (including a sequence in the desert with some memorable imagery) and the pair of electrifying fight scenes between the two heavyweights. Caple Jr. shoots these scenes with an appropriate level of visual verve and stages the action in a way that nicely juxtaposes Creed’s quickness against Drago’s seemingly insurmountable strength. Creed II is a serviceable entry in the Rocky franchise that doesn’t do as much as it could have done to distinguish itself from the pack but also isn’t the total letdown that it could have been either.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Ben Is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, is an addiction drama about a young man who returns home on Christmas Eve in an effort to re-connect with his estranged family.
Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, retells the true story of Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Queen Elizabeth I in 16th century England.
Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, centers around an international pop singer who struggles to hold onto her success amid mounting scandals that threaten her career.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Grinch

Illumination’s new take on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is the cinematic equivalent of sitting down next to a roasting fireplace in the dead of winter, armed with a piping cup of hot chocolate in one hand with a beloved pet resting under the other. Or perhaps it’s more apt to say that it’s like a plate of comfort food, piled high with freshly-carved Roast Beast. It’s a familiar pleasure and a welcome one, especially around the holidays, even if it’s one that won’t linger long in one’s memory after the experience. Riding high off the success of The Secret Life of Pets and the Despicable Me series, Illumination has crafted another family-friendly hit that kids (and possibly their parents) will likely enjoy.

Voicing the dyspeptic and diabolical titular character in this iteration is Benedict Cumberbatch, channeling an American accent not dissimilar from his work as Doctor Strange in the Marvel films. His Grinch has the same plan in mind as previous Grinches: dress up as a fake Santa Claus and attempt to crush the indomitable spirit of the Whoville citizens by stealing all of their decorations and presents on Christmas Eve. Whilst The Grinch devises his plan, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) also plots to catch Santa while he leaves presents so that she can ask a favor for her overworked mother Donna (Rashida Jones).

The Grinch is the third telling of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book and it lands right in the middle in terms of quality; it’s not as memorable as the 1966 TV special but also not nearly as off-putting as Ron Howard’s nightmare-inducing live-action version. The most remarkable thing about this entry is that it’s generally unremarkable, which isn’t exactly a bad thing while not being especially high praise either. It’s gratifying to see a film this uncynical in 2018 but it’s so good-natured that there are basically no stakes through the entire story and I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids are bored by the hour-mark.

The movie is so light on incident that it probably could have been half its runtime (the animated classic is only 26 minutes) and the conflict that does exist within the film doesn’t have much impact since the main character’s progression is so minimal. Except for an early montage in which he mildly inconveniences a few Whos during a trip to Whoville, The Grinch hardly exhibits any behavior that is particularly cruel or even mean-spirited. This Grinch, in comparison to the past film Grinches, seems generally more lonely than loathsome and the kindness that he shows to his adorable pet dog Max is present even before his heart grows three times larger.

Still, I give The Grinch credit for hitting the notes that it needed to hit and the animation is appropriately cheery and bright as we get plenty of shots swooping over the impeccably decorated Whoville. There are also some clever visual machinations during the Grinch’s Christmas raid as he deploys Wile E. Coyote-esque contraptions like throwing stars that wrap up a Christmas tree in seconds. There’s good reason why this tale of a curmudgeon who learns the value of empathy and kindness has been re-told several times and with hope, we’ll be telling it again and again in the future.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, starring Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp, is another entry in the Wizarding World franchise in which Newt Scamander and a young Albus Dumbledore square off against the titular dark wizard.
Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, is a family comedy about a married couple who gets in over their heads when they adopt three children at the same time.
Widows, starring Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, is a heist film from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen about four women who enter a life of crime after their husbands are killed during a robbery gone wrong.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Simple Favor

What would you get if you combined the pulpy thrills of a murder mystery like The Girl on the Train with the comedic strokes of Mean Girls and a dash of Gossip Girl for good measure? You’d probably end up with something like A Simple Favor, the new comedy-thriller by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig that probably shouldn’t work on paper but somehow finds its own niche and vibrancy on-screen. With its over-the-top characters and preposterous scenarios, this film may not work for those who like their stories to be even remotely grounded in reality but those looking for a frills-free escape should find exactly what they seek.

Based on the Darcey Bell novel of the same name, A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a quirky and self-conscious single mom who runs a successful homemaking Vlog from the comfort of her own kitchen. After the disappearance of her domineering and elusive friend Emily (Blake Lively), Stephanie teams up with Emily’s novelist husband Sean (Henry Golding) to launch their own private investigation and chase the bread crumbs that fall on the trail. As the two begin to dig deeper into Emily’s shadowy past, they realize how little they both actually know her and eventually uncover secrets that have unexpected consequences on their lives.

While everyone in the cast seems to be a good fit for their roles, Lively seems particularly well suited to play the deliciously cartoonish villain, who literally struts around with a skull-topped cane. Kendrick brings plenty of charm to Stephanie, though her faux-awkward schtick did wear out its welcome early on and the character is so wildly inconsistent that it becomes difficult to keep up with her at points. Golding, on the other hand, is saddled with a generally lifeless character who is largely reactive to the incidents that occur and he lacks the edge necessary to keep up with the more involving performances that are on display.

Scored with a buoyant French pop-inspired soundtrack and outfitted with decadent, distinctive costume design, the film routinely brings a light, campy touch to some of the darker subject material. This juxtaposition often creates a sort of tonal whirlwind that works more often than it doesn’t and also serves to keep the audience on their toes, as to easily throw them off balance for the story’s inevitable twists and turns. Jessica Sharzer’s densely plotted and often self-aware script is filled with the kind of biting dialogue that constantly shifts the advantage one character may have over another, much like a verbal tennis match at lightning-fast speed.

The screenplay, however, also includes contrivances that are beyond ludicrous and some (perhaps all, depending on the viewer) of the plot twists are easy to spot from a mile away. At two hours long, it also threatens to overstay its welcome and probably could have lost a plot tangent or two for the sake of brevity. Still, there’s something admirable about the go-for-broke spirit that’s on display and there’s little doubt that this is the most ambitious movie that Paul Feig has ever directed. A Simple Favor is a film that defies traditional description and if you’re looking for a twist on a familiar cocktail, this may just hit the spot.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Night School, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, follows a group of eccentric adult students who are attempting to earn their GEDs from a hard-nosed teacher with unorthodox methods.
Smallfoot, starring Channing Tatum and James Corden, is a new animated fish-out-of-water story about a group of Yeti who cross paths with a human, with either party previously believing the existence of the other was a myth.
Hell Fest, starring Reign Edwards and Bex Taylor-Klaus, is a slasher film which takes place in a horror-themed amusement park where parkgoers remain oblivious to the murderous spree of a masked killer among the rest of the park’s distractions.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

BlacKkKlansman

Those who have followed the work of Spike Lee during his 30-plus year career know that he’s not a director who shies away from potential controversy when addressing important political and social issues of the time. His latest Joint, BlacKkKlansman, proves that old age hasn’t extinguished the fire that has been burning in Lee since his monumental early films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. This time out, he’s telling a slightly more conventional tale based on a true story with a more intentional inclusion of humor throughout and while the results are varied, the conversations that they will inevitably inspire are worth the experience.

Set in 1970s Colorado Springs, the film stars John David Washington (his father Denzel has appeared in 4 of Spike’s past films) as Ron Stallworth, an ambitious young detective who seeks to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. To do this, he talks with its members over the phone and sends fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to their meetings under the guise that they are one and the same. Their investigation leads the pair to the very top of the organization and its Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs to witness “Stallworth”‘s induction into the KKK.

After a prologue of sorts, things get off to a good start as we witness the beginnings of Stallworth’s career in the police department and his first phone call to the KKK but around the hour mark, the film starts to stall and become repetitive. There’s meant to be a constant tension that Zimmerman will eventually be discovered by the group to be an undercover cop and it’s effective to a point but the cat-and-mouse element doesn’t develop enough as the story goes along. The script, penned by Lee along with three other writers, feels oddly light on incident and makes the big mistake of sidelining its most interesting character (Stallworth) during a large portion of the climax.

I don’t believe I’ve seen Washington in any other films before but his performance here as Stallworth will no doubt score him more screen roles in the future. I’m sure it helps that confidence and charisma run deep in the family but he also brings some playful humor and layers of irony to his performance that make him a very easy character to root for. Additionally, Driver continues his hot streak of selecting challenging roles that make the best of his range and make him that much harder to typecast. Other actors like Corey Hawkins, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Harry Belafonte make memorable impressions, even in their limited screen time.

Lee is no stranger to working with provocative material and he often finds the right tone of humor within beats of this story but the pacing overall feels too languid for the type of narrative that he sets up early on. This, however, is not the case with the concluding 5 minutes of the movie, which are bound to leave most audiences shaken as they leave the theater. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t mirror the sense of urgency that’s found in the film’s incendiary ending. BlacKkKlansman could have also benefited greatly from a re-write or two and some more judicious editing but as is, it’s a thought-provoking if messy entry in Lee’s oeuvre.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Happytime Murders, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Banks, is an R-rated crime comedy that takes place in a world where humans and sentient puppets co-exist.
Beautifully Broken, starring Benjamin Onyango and Scott William Winters, tells the true story of three families from different parts of the world struggling to find hope amongst genocide and war.
Also being re-released into theaters for a week-long engagement is the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Fans can see it in local IMAX theaters from August 23rd to August 30th ahead of its 70mm presentation at Indiana State Museum’s IMAX beginning September 7th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup