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.

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THE UPSIDE | Movie Review

The Upside

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Upside, a remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, can’t help but feel a bit hackneyed at this point. (It’s actually the third remake of The Intouchables, following Indian and Argentinian versions.) It’s the kind of schmaltzy, feel-good movie Hollywood has been feeding audiences for decades, but sometimes they get it right. In the case of The Upside, the success is due almost entirely to the casting of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as the odd couple at its center.

Hart is recent parolee Dell, who’s looking to turn his life around and find a way to provide for his young son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and ex (Aja Naomi King). When he enters a New York City high-rise and takes the elevator up to the penthouse, he thinks he’s there to see about a janitorial opening. It’s a job that, even in his desperate state, he doesn’t want, so his only aim is to collect a signature to prove to his parole officer that he’s actively seeking work.

As it turns out, the opening is for a “life auxiliary,” i.e. a live-in caregiver, for billionaire quadriplegic Phillip Lacasse (Cranston). After sitting through a parade of endlessly sunny and corny applicants, Philip, who’s still mourning his late wife and the life he was forced to abandon after a paragliding accident, offers the job to Dell. It doesn’t come from some altruistic drive to be the struggling man’s savior; it’s Philip’s act of personal rebellion, seizing what he believes is the only piece of agency he has left to hire the least qualified applicant — much to the dismay of his trusted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman).

Dell bumbles his way through his early days on the job while gradually bonding with Philip and genuinely caring for him. It’s a reciprocal relationship, with Philip encouraging Dell to follow his dreams, whether they are to come up with an idea for a business startup or pursuing art, while Dell gives Philip the push he needs to find his way back out into the world again.

Directed by Neil Burger (Limitless) and written by Jon Hartmere, the amiable film has a few true laugh-out-loud moments, including a “that’s what she said” joke delivered by Cranston with impeccable comic timing and a cringe-worthy catheter-changing scene.

In his most dramatic role to date, Hart shows off some real acting chops instead of just mugging for the camera, while Cranston isn’t at all limited by Philip’s lack of movement; if anything, the stillness amplifies all of his emotions. On the downside, Kidman spends most of her time on screen doing little other than scowling at Hart, which seems like a waste of her talents.

Though it would have been more compelling had the filmmakers found a way to fit Yvonne into it more effectively, the upside is that the central relationship succeeds. Hart and Cranston play off each other nicely, and the movie works to the extent it does because they work so well together.

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THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING | Movie Review

The Kid Who Would Be King

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

In our darkest hour, King Arthur will return to save the world. Or, so the legend goes. With Tom Brady in the Super Bowl yet again, now seems an opportune time for some saving. In The Kid Who Would Be King, writer-director Joe Cornish has updated the classic story of Camelot, spinning an allegory for our fractured world.

London boy Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) and his best friend (Dean Chaumoo) are constantly bullied at school. One day, Alex wanders into a vacant lot (where luxury condos are set to be built, because of course they are, it’s 2019) and finds a sword stuck in a stone. Intrigued, he extracts the blade and begins to suspect that he’s the modern-day Arthur. His hunch is confirmed when an excitable boy, claiming to be the fabled wizard, Merlin, suddenly appears at his school. 

The wizard — who switches between a young form (Angus Imrie) and an older (Patrick Stewart) — proves his bona fides by casting powerful spells via a frantic series of hand slaps that look like a Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly bit.

Centuries ago, Arthur and Merlin bested the evil witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), imprisoning her in an underground lair so dank and stuffy, you expect the R train to rumble through any moment. Now that the aboveground world is leaderless and bitterly divided — the weaker we are, the stronger she gets — the time is ripe for Morgana’s return. She hopes to claim the magic sword, Excalibur, and presumably land a lucrative contract screaming in a corner box on CNN.

To counter Margana and her undead army, Alex builds his own roundtable, recruiting his one-time bullies (Rhianna Dorris and Tom Taylor) to the cause. Surprisingly affective lessons on the chivalric code and the importance of civility soon follow.

Cornish, who hasn’t directed a film since the excellent 2011 teens-versus-aliens movie Attack the Block, has created a movie with the goofy charm of 1980s kids adventure flicks, such as The Goonies or The NeverEnding Story. It’s gentle — and almost completely bloodless. During the climax, a fire-breathing Morgana battles an army of school kids and none appears to get even an eyebrow singed. 

In the end, the premise of the world needing Arthur’s return may not be so farfetched. With the blend of wholesomeness, humor, and classic adventure that Cornish infuses, the audience is easily enabled to escape into this alternate universe. Alas, after two hours, everyone must return to a reality where it might take magic more powerful than Merlin’s just to reopen the government.

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GLASS | Movie Review

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 9.21.59 PM.png

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.

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IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK | Movie Review

If Beale Street Could Talk

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk is a story about injustice, about institutional racism, and about the cycles of poverty. But above all it’s a love story, a celebration of romance and family connections in the face of constant adversity. The romance between childhood friends Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) is so overwhelmingly beautiful that it nearly makes all the forces aligned against them fall away. And even though their love is not strong enough to actually defeat those seemingly immutable forces, Jenkins never lets his film be similarly overpowered.

Set in Harlem in 1974 (the same year Baldwin’s novel was published), Beale Street starts with Tish telling Fonny that they’re about to have a baby. A nonlinear tale, jumping back and forth between their blissful early courtship and the more trying times as Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit, the story twists and turns. At just 19, Tish finds herself carrying the burden of their burgeoning family disproportionately on her own, although Fonny is far from a deadbeat dad. 

One of the most refreshing and joyful aspects of the story is the way that Tish’s unplanned pregnancy at such a young age is largely treated as a blessing, regardless of the circumstances. A new life is about to be brought into the world, and Tish, Fonny and Tish’s family all embrace the prospect with affection and hope.

That doesn’t mean they don’t agonize over the challenges ahead of them, though. Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) travels all the way to Puerto Rico to track down Fonny’s accuser, a woman who’s been coerced into going along with a racist police officer’s preferred (false) narrative, and Jenkins makes sure to give the victim a chance to speak her piece. Fonny’s own mother and sisters aren’t particularly sympathetic to his plight, although his short-tempered father (Michael Beach) makes some hard sacrifices for his son. An early scene showing the contrast between how Tish’s and Fonny’s families take the pregnancy news provides an elegant illustration of their different upbringings.

James (most recently seen in the Amazon series Homecoming) and newcomer Layne make for a wonderful central couple, with a heartfelt, relaxed chemistry, and they’re aided by an excellent supporting cast, especially King as the steely, unflappable Sharon, who takes every setback and unexpected development in stride. 

Dave Franco (as a Jewish landlord who tries to give Tish and Fonny a break) and Brian Tyree Henry (as an old friend of Fonny’s who’s recently been released from prison) make memorable impressions in their brief appearances. Jenkins depicts every minor character with care and understanding.

As he did in his Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins captures romantic longing with warm sensuality, conveying the bond between Tish and Fonny even in scenes that just feature them looking at each other. He retains a substantial amount of Baldwin’s prose via voiceover narration from Tish, which can sound a little florid in comparison to the more grounded realism onscreen, but which contributes to the lyrical timelessness of the central romance. 

Baldwin’s work always balances artistry and activism in its exploration of the black experience in America, and with Beale Street, Jenkins does the same. It’s impossible to watch these tender, fragile, indomitable characters and not empathize with their experience, whether that’s falling in love or facing injustices that persist to this day.

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HOLMES & WATSON | Movie Review

Holmes & Watson

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

In yet another adventure for the storied pair of alleged geniuses, Detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Doctor John Watson (John C. Reilly), are on the hunt for their usual nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). But when Sherlock becomes convinced that the real Moriarty has left the country, and that a copycat is pulling the strings, London is thrown into chaos. Soon there’s a threat against the crown, bodies begin to disappear, and the detectives have to depend on the help of the brilliant American doctor Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) to save the day.

Sounds like a pretty fun setup for a powers-of-deduction caper, right? Get ready to be disappointed.

Aside from one scene in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues five years ago, Ferrell and Reilly haven’t come together onscreen since Step Brothers. The following that mushroomed after that movie and Talladega Nights was surely a major inspiration for their reunion here, but Holmes & Watson offers virtually nothing that made either of those films so memorable. The pacing is slapdash, the jokes a mix of first-take sparring riffs and unbearable shoehorned gags about SoulCycle and selfies existing in the Victorian period. A gifted roster of supporting actors give their best to scenes which appear to have been cut and re-dubbed to the point of barely resembling whatever was originally filmed. There’s no style or comic inspiration. It’s good for a small handful of polite snorts, maybe, but not one big laugh in 89 minutes.

It’s not often you watch a movie that seems to be racing to end itself as quickly as possible, but that’s the impression that Holmes & Watson gives off for the majority of its runtime. That’s not to say that writer/director Etan Cohen‘s comic ideas set its performers up to succeed (it absolutely does not), but that the choppy nature of what made it to screen was never going to do anybody involved a favor. Middling-to-bad studio comedies built around a marketable name (or names) are nothing new; they go back to the earliest days of Hollywood, in fact. But even gifted improvisational actors won’t always find the perfect laugh line on the first attempt.

Yet there’s a growing reliance on famous comedians inherently being interpreted as funny, whether the movie around them is giving them anything especially funny to do or not. It’s a misconception that continues to drag down an entire era of comedy, and Holmes & Watson is one of the most egregious examples yet.

Holmes & Watson is the kind of sloppy production that’s almost easier to pity than hate. Watching a roster of stellar performers strain for the most forgiving of laughs against lifeless material borders on depressing after a while. The small handful of moments that do land usually emerge from sheer exertion, whether in Lauren Lapkus‘ committed absurdity as a feral woman or in the kind of bawdy Three Stooges banter that made Ferrell and Reilly such a beloved comedy duo to begin with.

Again, however, these moments feel incidental to what Holmes & Watson is trying to do. The movie itself is often confused about that purpose, racing through certain key stretches of storytelling with newspaper headlines set to anachronistic, generic pop music. At other times, it strains to tell a semi-competent Sherlock tale, but that mostly just amounts to stealing exciting visual motifs from Guy Ritchie’s Holmes movies and BBC’s Sherlock alike. 

Even by the standards of shapeless comedies, there’s almost nothing to Holmes & Watson. It’s a good idea, finished badly, chopped up to meet the inconsistent standards of focus groups and released for audiences who might have liked these actors in other, better movies. When people talk about Hollywood movies feeling more and more like product, this is what they’re driving at.

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BIRD BOX | Movie Review

Bird Box

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Bird Box is the type of apocalyptic horror thriller that has positively nothing stimulating or original to say, despite expert direction and an astoundingly overqualified cast doing everything in their power to wrestle something this tiresome and done to death into respectability. If you’ve seen any film where a mismatched group of survivors has to band together to understand and survive an unpredictable and ever growing extinction level event – from Night of the Living Dead to The Mist to The Happening to A Quiet Place – you’ll know every single thing that happens in Bird Box from the moment the plot kicks into gear, and no amount of great direction or nuanced performances will distract from the fact that this has all been done so many times before and that it has been done a whole lot better.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock), a visual artist, is pushing forty and about to give birth to a child as a single mother. It was her idea to have a baby, but she’s not even sure she wants such a responsibility, thinking that she’s obliged by society to put her maternal instincts to good use, and partially because she’s just really lonely. Not long before she’s due to give birth, hell on earth breaks out when a mysterious, unseen force starts hypnotizing people and forcing them to kill themselves. 

As chaos reigns in the streets, Malorie is rescued and brought inside a home where a small group of survivors with various temperaments are holed up. Before long, it is revealed that this psychological plague only affects the people who look directly at it, meaning that the survivors have to keep the blinds closed at all time and come up with creative ways of leaving the house to gather supplies.

Before the movie even establishes its characters, we’re told that all of the main action takes place in flashbacks. Bird Box opens and keeps cutting back to Malorie’s attempts to ferry her two young children, literally named Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair), to a secured and safe facility at the end of a treacherous river; a trip they will have to make while blindfolded and with only a pair of birds in a box that can signal to them whenever dangerous forces are nearby. 

From the start, it’s known exactly where the bulk of Bird Box is going to go through the simplest of observations and basic process of elimination. There are so many characters in Bird Box that it feels cluttered, and yet, we can’t care about a damn one of them other than Malorie because their fates are all but sealed from the second we lay eyes on them. Writer Eric Heisserer might be adapting a novel by John Malerman that might be following a similar structure, but I rarely see films shoot their stories in the foot so spectacularly from the very first scene as Bird Box does.

Director Susanne Bier can certainly make sequences that appear tense in a vacuum, and the film looks fine enough (with some great, atmospheric shots throughout and nifty sound design), but the material she’s given here is hackwork in the extreme. From scene to scene, Bird Box cycles through ideas, jump scares, characters, and themes that have been copied and pasted from a number of successful and unsuccessful movies that have come before it. The result might have monumental impact in the world of memes, but in reality it is nothing more than a slightly inspired retread. 

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VICE | Movie Review

Vice

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Like director Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the 2015 film that explained the housing market crash of 2007, Vice is a black comedy about a tragedy. McKay’s new film focuses on the backstory of Dick Cheney’s ascension from sloppy drunk ne’er-do-well to the heavy-breathing, heart-challenged Darth Vader behind the George W. Bush presidency.

The title alludes to “vice” in at least two of its meanings: as in the president’s back up and as in pure evil. This, I think, is one indication of how hard McKay is trying.

Comedy, say the scientists of the art, equals tragedy plus time. In the case of The Big Short, released almost eight years after the events satirized (and after the economy had rebounded), enough time had passed. Vice hits screens almost 18 years after Cheney was elected, yet it feels like a case of tragedy plus not enough time. Or, as comedians put it, too soon.

It’s not that the film is entirely misbegotten. The virtuoso performances of Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Lynne and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush are nuanced and wryly funny. I laughed at the actors’ sharp caricatures of Dick and Lynne Cheney as the Macbeths of the millennium. Here is a Washington power couple who use the 9/11 attacks to further consolidate their base of power—while embodying Henry Kissinger’s maxim that power is a great aphrodisiac.

I laughed at a scene in which Cheney, already depicted as an expert angler, reels in Dubya by feigning reluctance, agreeing to be his running mate if it’s not just a symbolic job. “I’ll handle the mundane things,” Cheney pretends to concede, in his ghostlike whisper. Mundane things like “bureaucracy, military, energy and foreign policy.” At the time, Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, which provides services to oilfields around the world. The film’s indictment of Cheney as the type of politician who led not in the public interest but in his own self-interest is clear in a subtitle informing the audience that Halliburton stock rose by 500 percent when, after 9/11, Cheney advocated war in the Middle East.

Given the present partisan chasm, though, it feels nihilistic to laugh at a movie that so puckishly delights in further polarizing Republicans and Democrats. I don’t hate Vice. That filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and McKay are creating American histories means that audiences can learn the stories behind the stories of U.S. political leadership. That said, these histories are drenched in political recycling of old and new contentions keeping the aisle from ever being bridged. 

 Vice is not a comedy that many can laugh at during the tenure of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It tries to capitalize on the current climate, yet is only falters because of its complexity. It can be rejected by both sides: one that will point out how far it went to make its point and the other that will think it didn’t go far enough.

The movie, however, does purvey one image that is hard to shake. It’s an exterior shot of a woman playing golf while behind her, on the horizon, is a huge fire about to swallow the back nine. I agree with McKay on this: America has no problem taking it easy as the nation burns.

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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.

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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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NEW YA Book Series
STcvr-SecretSociety-ReggieWoltz
Amazon $2.99

ST-Book2-CrypticCipher-a
Amazon $2.99