FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY | Movie Review

Fighting With My Family

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

There’s a lot of Rocky in the tale of how Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) rose from the rough-and-tumble streets of Norwich, England to take the world by storm in the ring after adopting the stage name of “Paige.” Although there are times when Merchant adopts a tongue-and-cheek attitude toward his characters and there’s plenty of humor to be had, this is at its core a traditional story of someone defying the odds in pursuit of a dream.

The screenplay checks all the expected boxes. There’s a gruff mentor-type (played with acerbic wit by Vince Vaughn, who hasn’t been this funny in a long time) who rides Paige hard. There are obligatory training montage sequences . And there’s the fantastic bout in which she captures the world’s attention. (The movie ends with Paige’s first WWE victory and doesn’t detail her tumultuous 3 ½ year career, which included failed drug tests, serious injuries, and a leaked sex tape.) The whole thing seems a little too neatly packaged with most of the rough edges sanded off.

Part of the reason for the film’s pro-WWE tone is likely due to the involvement of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose star power was instrumental in getting Fighting with My Family made. In addition to lending his name to the production in an executive producer’s capacity, he has a small role (as himself) – nearly every second of which appears in the trailer.

This isn’t a “Rock” movie; the star is the fine up-and-coming British actress Florence Pugh, whose performances in films like Lady Macbeth and The Outlaw King have put her on a lot of critics’ “watch” lists. She is supported by Lena Heady and Nick Frost as her mother, Julia, and father, Ricky; Jack Lowden as her brother, Zack; and Vince Vaughn as her American coach.

The film is more interesting during its first act as it establishes Paige and her environment. She’s the youngest member of a wrestling-obsessed family. Her father, an ex-con who can’t hold down a “regular” job, runs a low-level touring wrestling show in which he, his wife, and his kids are the stars. He also owns an academy where Zack teaches classes. There’s a good deal of authenticity during these early scenes; the artificiality starts to seep in as soon as Paige passes her WWE audition.

The conflict between her and Zack offers some potential – he is jealous of her success and can’t let go of his own dream, resulting in a downward spiral. But this is treated as a subplot whose resolution is too facile. Paige’s admonishment to him about appreciating what he has and believing in himself feels like it was lifted out of a self-help manual.

Fighting with My Family is as likable as it is generic. Pugh’s performance is the best thing about the movie but the story, despite Merchant’s comedic flourishes, feels stale at times. The WWE’s seal of approval keeps everything carefully sanitized and, although there’s an admission that bouts are “fixed,” the film never goes into details. (In this version of Paige’s story, her big fight was unscripted – something that seems unlikely.) Like wrestling itself, this look at one of its superstars follows a script that isn’t entirely founded in reality.

© Copyright 2017 – 2019. ALL Rights Reserved.
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ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL | Movie Review

Alita: Battle Angel

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Heavenly visuals can’t compensate for a screenplay that languishes. In Alita: Battle Angel, a dystopian adventure that amounts to a high-concept exercise in spectacle over substance.

This lavish big-screen adaptation of the Japanese manga (by Yukito Kishiro) boasts an ambitious science-fiction scope and an impressive behind-the-scenes pedigree, including the involvement of James Cameron. However, it lacks emotional depth and complexity beneath its superficial thrills, slick gadgetry, cool weapons, and notoriously big-eyed protagonist.

The story is set 500 years in the future, after Earth was ravaged by an unexplained catastrophic war. Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg with human characteristics whose scientist creator, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), named his latest robotic creation after his late daughter.

Their relationship becomes complicated as Alita develops the characteristics of a human teenager complete with a boyfriend (Keean Johnson) while coming to terms with some secrets about her past as a female bounty hunter.

The film’s most exciting sequences revolve around a game called “motorball,” an intense competition that resembles a hybrid between basketball and roller derby, in which our tough-minded heroine proves tenaciously adept.

That also leads to Alita embracing her heroic calling and its associated dangers. She explores her potential as a lethal warrior following encounters with motorball’s overseer, the duplicitous Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his alleged lover (Jennifer Connelly), who happens to be Ido’s ex-wife and might hold the key to an evil empire.

The muddled screenplay by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) gradually fills in some contextual details for its character and setting, with the action picking up considerably after a dark first hour spent heavily on exposition.

Within its cyberpunk milieu, Alita: Battle Angel adopts a video-game mentality with a generic nod to female empowerment that waters down the source material for mainstream consumption.

As directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), the film is quite a technical achievement, with visually stunning 3D cinematography and a meticulously rendered futuristic landscape. It seamlessly blends live action with motion-capture animation and special effects.

Unfortunately, this latest attempt to ride the wave of superhero origin stories is little more than a 21st century coming-of-age tale in a 26th century setting, which seems a dubious bet as a legitimate franchise starter in an oversaturated marketplace.

© Copyright 2017 – 2019. ALL Rights Reserved.
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GLASS | Movie Review

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GLASS

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Glass brings an end to a saga over 19 years in the making. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Eastrail 177” trilogy started with Unbreakable in 2000 and picked up with Split in 2016. For the past few years, many have wondered how Shyamalan was going to merge the narratives of two of his arguably best films.

Picking up shortly after Split, the many personalities inside Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) have wasted no time in showing the world their true sinister potential. The criminal activities have caught the attention of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has increased his heroic status since the events of Unbreakable. One thing leads to another, and they find themselves locked in a mental institution alongside Elijah Price a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). The trio becomes part of a study led by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) and her goal is to prove to them that they possess no supernatural abilities, and are like nothing seen in the average comic book. This primary thread serves as an interesting follow-up to the previous two films, considering one was a heroic origin story and the other a villainous one.

Not only is this gist interesting enough to keep one’s attention, but the cast could not be more invested. Jackson and Willis slip naturally back into their respective roles and make it seem like they’ve been longing for this return. McAvoy continues to steal scenes, and even adds more surprises and depth that was not previously seen in Split. Returning supporting characters from the previous two films are just as committed and excited to finally collaborate with each other’s narratives. Shyamalan deserves credit for naturally merging the cast and tone of these two films 16 years apart. No one’s involvement in this crossover feels forced or out of touch with Shyamalan’s vision.

The only element that feels jarring within the cast is that of Paulson’s Dr. Staple. Paulson is a superb actress, and she connects with viewers throughout the majority of the film, but it becomes stagnant. Paulson has major screen time, but her talent feels somewhat wasted due to the lack of range she is granted by the script. However, she reminds the audience of her expertise by making the best of it, thus allowing her crucial role to stay relevant.

On the topic of the script, viewers may start to feel divided. Besides featuring a sometimes underwhelming antagonist, many will find Shyamalan guilty of diving too deep into the nostalgia pool. Nostalgia is always going to have some sort of presence in a sequel, relating to an older favorite, and Glass displays some of the basic forms of sentimentality such as re-spoken lines, visual callbacks, and glorified cameos. However, it’s so frequent that some nods start to feel repetitive. The nostalgia in Glass works best for those who are very familiar with Shyamalan’s trilogy. Unfortunately, for those who are not, and for those who are less sentimental, they’ll likely find some moments cliched.

One’s first viewing of Glass can be best described as riding a rollercoaster without a safety bar. Exhilarating and fun at times, but one sharp twist or turn can result in flying off the ride. Those who manage to stay on for the entire journey will probably favor the experience more than those who fell off. Even then, they still might question why they didn’t go over the edge.  There are plenty of other thrills though, such as sleek visuals by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and a superb score by West Dylan Thordson. It’s unfortunate that the rocky script will prevent many from giving enough praise to those elements.

Through its many ups and downs, Glass still stands as a decent sequel to two of Shyamalan’s best entries. For being such an unconventional filmmaker, a lot of what works in the film is quite conventional by today’s comic book movie standards. The more unconventional will surely find its audience. Even with this being the case, one may still be left feeling slightly disappointed and wondering what more this could have been considering its vast potential.

© Copyright 2017 – 2019. ALL Rights Reserved.
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THE GRINCH | Movie Review

The Grinch

by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Grinch’s 2018 comeback is to Christmas what Black Friday is to the holiday spirit: commercially perverted to the core. But what else should be expected from a family animated movie that has been promoting an updated Christmas staple since the early days of November?

Benedict Cumberbatch is the new voice of the ill-tempered but lonely Grinch, who lives a solitary life in his cave high atop a mountain that overlooks Whoville. The miserable green guy has only Max, his faithful dog and best friend, to keep him company and, other than occasional trips to Whoville to get food, has nothing to do with his neighbors in the valley.

It’s during one of his reluctant shopping trips that the Grinch encounters Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), a pig-tailed and fearless little girl with a precocious heart. For Christmas, she wants Santa to give her struggling single mother, Donna Lou Who (Rashida Jones), the break she needs and deserves. Only, Cindy Lou Who plans to trap Santa so that she can ask for her request in person.

Grinch, perturbed by family and friends gathering together to celebrate in Whoville, plans to dress up as a less-than-jolly Saint Nick to steal everything associated with the holiday and turn the town’s Christmas Day joy into grief.

In effect, our understanding of the Grinch’s motivations are the same and we get to see a little more into Cindy’s character. Sounds like a good way to add something late on so that the second half might not feel like retread! Unfortunately, albeit with a tad more set-up, the plot leads to the same Cindy and Grinch interaction and resulting events as the original version.

The Grinch does more than triple the running time of the original TV classic, which is to say this animated big-screen version is three times too long and ten times as unnecessary (much like Jim Carrey’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas from 2000).

Other than padding the plot, backstories for the main characters, and additional comedic relief, The Grinch is ultimately faithful to its source material. But it never improves upon it – for it may look better with more advanced animation but underneath the paint job is the same old overpacked sleigh.

Most disappointingly, the voicework, outside of Cumberbatch’s starring role, is unmemorable. Of the notable failures, Pharrell Williams replacing Boris Karloff as the story’s narrator and Tyler, the Creator’s update of Thurl Ravenscroft’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” amount to interesting choices by the filmmakers that, despite trying, cannot replace either of those iconic performances. The same could be said of this Grinch update itself.

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.
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RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET | Movie Review

Ralph Breaks The Internet

by REGGIE WOLTZ

It took six years for a Wreck-It Ralph sequel to take shape, and it quickly proves why. Ralph Breaks the Internet mostly eschews the video game cultural mash-up of the original to tell a kid-friendly story set inside the Internet. It’s such a different beast than its predecessor, and yet it’ll likely reach a similar adult audience as the original, as the barrier between gamers and memers isn’t too high, if it exists at all.

As far how the plot handles that transition, screenwriters Phil Johnston, also serving as co-director, and Pamela Ribon simply have the arcade owner plug in the establishment’s first Internet router. But an overlong first act has the unfortunate job of setting up the circumstances that bring Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) into the world wide web. There are too many scenes that exist to re-establish their friendship while they play in the same world as the original. It feels like a lifetime establishing Vanellope’s reason for going into the Internet (they have to find a spare part for her arcade machine on Ebay), and the script doesn’t clue us into Ralph’s arc until hers is ending.

But things pick up significantly when the pair starts exploring the Interweb. The jokes are largely simple, such as birds in a tree tweeting primarily photos of cats, and yet just clever enough that they feel fresh. The smart personification of pop-up ads (Bill Hader voices J.P. Spamley, get it?) breathes some life into the early Internet scenes, but the story really comes alive when Vanellope enters an online racing game far more violent and hardcore than her candy coated arcade machine. She’s inspired by that game’s popular racer Shank (Gal Gadot), and thus begins a journey of finding her true home. Splitting from Ralph, their individual journeys give Ralph Breaks the Internet some surprising emotional power in its second half.

Still, the animated sequel feels very much mass-produced and corporate-approved. When the entity doing the approving is Disney, the result is more often than not a mixed bag. When Vanellope visits a family friendly Disney fan site, it’s hard not to feel directors Johnston and Rich Moore sucking up to their corporate overlords. Nods to Marvel and Star Wars aren’t so much hidden as they drive the plot and humor. But then, sometimes the Disney brand is just undeniably strong and, when manipulated in clever ways, can be used effectively. Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s best scene sees Vanellope entering a room filled with all of the classic Disney princesses, from Snow White to Moana. It is an extended sequence written out of pure joy with not an ounce of cynicism. It’s one of the best moments of popular cinema this year, and gives way to one of the film’s other transcendent moments: a hysterical yet poignant song sung by Vanellope about finding where she belongs in a gritty, ultra-violent racing game.

The film draws her arc so smartly, that when it starts wrapping up as Ralph’s is getting started (far too late), the story at large starts to feel like overkill. And yet, the script still weaves in a powerful message about the nature of friendship that, while not wholly original, is relatively unexplored in children’s media.

So while the rough first half could definitely have been shorter, a lot of Ralph Breaks the Internet ends up being worthwhile. As a visual send-up of some of the Internet’s most popular corners, the film is clever and inventive, even if the jokes themselves likely won’t age well by the midway point of the 2020s. But this being as it may be, there’s an artfully written sequencing for the film and a strong heart rooted in friendship. By no means a classic, or capable of making much of a stir on the actual Internet, this animated sequel is coded to entertain, and that it does.

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.
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CREED II | Movie Review

CREED II

Reviewed by Reggie Woltz

While I’m still not sure Creed, with its 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was quite as good as everyone makes it out to be, it was certainly better than it had any right to be. What sounded like a joke—a spinoff of the Rocky series starring Apollo Creed’s son, (born out of wedlock), as he masters prizefighting under the tutelage of the Italian Stallion—was instead inventively filmed (the one-shot fight midway through the picture stands out as a brilliantly cinematic scene) and passionately performed.

Similarly, Creed II seemed like it would be a cash-in nostalgia play: newly crowned champion Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is challenged to a fight by Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his hulking monster of a son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Ivan, of course, killed Adonis’s father in Rocky IV before losing to Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and losing the Cold War altogether.

Creed II could have been a silly rehash of Rocky III (a champ abandoned by his trainer because he’s unlikely to beat the physically imposing, impassioned challenger) and Rocky IV (the Russians: still bad all these years later!). But, like its predecessor, Creed II is much better than it has any right to be. And that’s almost entirely because of the work done by Lundgren and Munteanu, who make the Dragos not only sympathetic but kind of sad.

After Rocky’s humiliation of Ivan in front of the Soviet Politburo—during which the Soviet crowd literally started chanting Rocky’s name, recognizing America’s greatness and the implacability of its champions in a moment that signaled America would triumph in the Cold War once and for all—Drago was cast out of Russian society. His leaders shunned him; his people spit on him; his wife left him and Viktor. This isn’t a mission of revenge; it’s a mission of rehabilitation. Drago wants to reclaim the family name, restore their glory, and maybe even win back his wife.

It’s rare for the villains in these films to have interesting motivations. Usually they’re just guys to beat, obstacles to overcome. But the Dragos are interesting, they have a life and world all their own. And that helps Creed II transcend the sequel doldrums that afflict much of the rest of the film. Steven Caple Jr. has replaced Ryan Coogler behind the lens, and his work here is competent but not much more. Visually speaking, there’s nothing particularly compelling about the climactic fight, or anything else, really.

Michael B. Jordan remains charismatic and compelling, his expressive face and chiseled body dominating the screen. By film’s end he too is a father, worried about the world his daughter will face and the challenges she will have to overcome—and weighing what he owes to his father, the boxing great cut down by the hulking commie. Rocky, who probably gets a bit too much screen time, gumming up the momentum of the movie, is having dad problems all his own, trying to work up the courage to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged son.

Creed II sometimes barely feels like a boxing movie, and I mean that in the best way possible: It’s a film about what parents owe their children, and vice versa. The physical combat that frames these conflicts is little more than window dressing.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS: The Crimes of Grindelwald | Movie Review

The Crimes of Grindelwald

Movie Review by Reggie Woltz

The biggest crime in David Yates’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is that it makes the dynamic and magical “Harry Potter” universe boring.

Set 70-odd years before the adventures of the “Boy Who Lived,” the second installment in the “Fantastic Beasts” series gets off to a decent start, as the evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) breaks out of custody during a high-flying prisoner transfer above New York City. But from there, things go downhill — fast.

The next two hours wander through a labyrinth of convoluted narratives, all loosely connected to a troubled young man with terrifying powers named Credence (Ezra Miller), who is hiding in Paris after having survived the events of the first film.

Grindelwald is convinced that Credence is the key to destroying his nemesis, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and hunts the boy in Paris. Dumbledore wants to protect Credence, but since he refuses to confront Grindelwald, he persuades magical beast enthusiast Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to find the wayward youth.

For their part, the Ministry of Magic believes Credence is a dangerous threat to society, so they’ve sent an agent named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Newt’s sidekick from the first film, to find him.

That’s the simple version of the plot, and it reads clearer in print than on screen. “Crimes of Grindelwald” also incorporates a number of romantic subplots that further complicate the story: Newt and Tina’s potential relationship is on the rocks after some miscommunication, and Newt’s friend Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) are back but wrestling with the realities of forbidden love since Jacob is a “no-maj” (the American term for Muggle).

Newt also has a brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), who works for the ministry and is now involved with Newt’s old Hogwarts crush, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). To top off the myriad characters’ romantic intertwining, there are also strong hints that Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship is … complicated. 

None of these subplots are crippling individually, but their cumulative effect easily distracts from the film’s underdeveloped core. About halfway through “Crimes of Grindelwald,” you start asking yourself: Is it a Dumbledore origin story? Is it about Grindelwald’s quest for pureblood wizard rule? Is it about social justice for wizards and muggles? “Crimes of Grindelwald” appears to be about a little of everything and a lot of nothing.

The production values are strong, but the dazzling effects of a dramatic third-act finale don’t carry any weight without narrative stakes to support them, and the competent acting goes to waste on characters the audience isn’t invested in. As its centerpiece, Redmayne may be a perfect match for Newt, but is Newt a perfect protagonist for a multifilm franchise? Supposedly, Yates and Co. have three more years to answer that question and correct these outlying concerns.

The introduction of Albus Dumbledore was a hopeful sign that “Crimes of Grindelwald” would help energize the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise, but Dumbledore is barely in this new movie at all, and a five-minute scene at Hogwarts feels like a glorified cameo. This isn’t to suggest that these new films have to recycle “Harry Potter” material to satisfy fans. Rather, the problem is that these fleeting elements are reminders of the sense of magic and wonder that was so palpable in that other series and so absent this time around—aside from the actual CGI magic. 

Where the “Harry Potter” films were grounded in Harry’s coming of age and driven by the conflict with Voldemort, the “Fantastic Beasts” narratives feel wandering and arbitrary. You could argue that author J.K. Rowling — credited as “Crimes of Grindelwald’s” writer — is a better novelist than a screenwriter. But even so, Yates’ film feels like a deep B-side track, fleshing out obscure details and offering extreme fan service while trying to force a retroactive square story into a round narrative hole.

If you’re starting to worry that we’ve got a “Lord of the Rings” vs. “The Hobbit” situation on our hands, you’re not alone.

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