Creed 2 (2018)

Creed 2

Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) stares into the face of the son of Ivan Drago, Viktor (Florian Munteanu).

As in all great sports films (including the 2015 predecessor), Creed II is not about boxing but about development of character. Perhaps the only reason why it is not as great a film as the first is because it is not as fresh, but it still packs a whallop.

The film begins as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, who is having a great year with this and Black Panther) has just won the belt and is more than in his prime. He has proposed to his longtime girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose music career is still going steady (despite the fact that she has in fact lost her hearing due to illness), and both are on the verge of starting a family. Even outside the ring, he is still looking for advice from his mentor/friend Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). There is still a vibrant electricity in their scenes together, filled with humor and heart.

All of this takes a back seat when Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby, who was recently in The Hate U Give) is set to promote a fight between Creed and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the infamous killer of Apollo. There is indeed intensity bubbling on the screen when we see the meeting between Rocky and the elder Drago. Ivan has been an outcast ever since his loss in the fourth film, and needs to win not only the promoted fight, but the respect of those he once considered family.

There is so much emotional baggage going into the ring for the audience (let alone the characters) that it is pretty impossible not to be invested in the action on-screen. Director Steve Caple Jr. handles the script as if it were a Hollywood relic (and rightly so). That is not to say the boxing scenes are boring. Far from it. He is smart enough to handle them with as much care as he does what happens outside the ring as well.

Parents, as long as your kids have seen the original films in the series (except number five), they are fine here. There is one mild scene of sensuality at the beginning, and some swearing (not to mention obvious violence), but I would say middle school and up is fine.

I left the film with one concern: where do we go from here? Topping off this face-off will be a hard act to follow, but one I will gladly pay for in a heart beat.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (2018)

Fantastic Beasts The Curse of Grindlewald

Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is back, and in for more than he bargained for.

One of the best things about the original Harry Potter films was that all were such good entertainments on their own merits that I still have a problem of picking my favorite (though the 5th and 8th are strong contenders). One thing is for certain: none of the prequels are in the conversation.

Which brings us to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald, and while I am a fan of J.K. Rowling’s magical universe, I feel the movie is more for the hardcore fans than the casual ones. Basically, this not a movie for those who may want to start off in the Potter universe. One thing the movie does keep in tradition with is the good casting choices. We see the return of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) after the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film where he helped with the capture of the evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). The film starts with Grindelwald’s escape and Scamander having a meeting with a young Dumbledore (Jude Law), who asks Newt if he could help catch Grindelwald again, who is now in Paris.

We get returning characters such as Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), along with Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob (Dan Folger). Tina is in a race with Grindelwald to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is on a search for his own past before he was adopted.

While this sounds simple enough, the main problem with the film is that there are far too many story lines to follow, leaving one scratching his or her head. Only in the last third or fourth of the film does the drama pick up, and we begin to finally see some things we have not seen much of before in this universe.

Parents, the movie is fine for anyone who has ever seen any of the other films that were also rated PG-13. There is nothing completely sexual, and there is some swearing. It is the thematic elements and mild violence that make this for middle schoolers and up.

I admit there are some parts that hint at the original stories (my favorite was the inclusion of Nicholas Flamel), and a twist at the end that I am still debating on whether I liked or not. What has me most upset though is that this is only the second of five planned films. That is right, five, which makes me feel like it will tread down the path of the underwhelming Hobbit prequels. That, in the long run, would be a crime.

 

Overall: Two and a Half Stars **1/2

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Ralph Breaks the Internet

The mysteries of the internet await Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman)

When we first met the titular character in 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph, the atmosphere revolved mainly around that of the retro gaming world. Six years later, Ralph Breaks the Internet has jumped into the modern world. Thankfully, Ralph and his friends have remembered to bring along the warmth, charm, pathos, and humor back as well.

Still friends after the events of the first film, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have a mishap in Vanellope’s racing game which causes the player to break the wheel. They discover that the owner of the arcade Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) will have to shut the game down since the company of the game shut down and only one wheel is available for sale on Ebay (or the “Eboy”, as Ralph calls it). Thankfully, Litwak has also recently installed the arcade’s new WiFi, so Ralph and Vanellope take it upon themselves to travel to Ebay and get the wheel to save her game.

There are still some wonderful returning characters such as Felix (Jack McBrayer) and his wife Calhoun (Jane Lynch), but plenty of new characters to boot. Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) is the go to guy for answers (aka the search engine). The two key new standouts are Yess (Taraji P. Henson) and Shank (Wonder Woman‘s Gal Gadot). Yess is the diva who knows what is what when it comes to popularity on the internet, and Shank may be the only racer who can challenge Vanellope.

One of the best things an animated film can have is what I would call “rewatchability”. As in the first film, there are easter eggs a plenty to discover here. Perhaps the best part of the movie is when Vanellope has to travel to the Disney part of the internet (you will see why), and meets the Disney princesses. It is safe to say you may never look at the idea of a Disney Princess the same ever again.

Parents, if your kids saw the first film, they are fine with this one. The only thing they might feel confused of is about why adults are laughing as well.

Is it better than the first? My first response would be no (I admit it started off a little slow and does not have the freshness of the original), but it should not detract from how good the second film is. As was the case in the first, one of the best things about this film is that it actually has a message for kids. Even if you take away the humor, this is one of the better movies about friendship I have seen in some time, animated or otherwise. Disney has always been the best at bringing out the kid in all of us, and they did it again.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Green Book (2018)

Green Book

Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali)

There is a sense of some old school magic in the real life story inspired film Green Book. This magic appears in (nearly) everything from the performances to the chemistry to the message to the drama as well as comedy. It has been a while since I had a warm glow inside after leaving the theater.

I doubt I was alone when I heard of the title. It refers to an actual book that was distributed in the Jim Crow era for African-Americans, letting them know which places would allow them to visit if they were to travel in the southern states. This is one of the last things given to Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian bouncer hired by musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to aid him through his musical tour in the south for two months. Lip assures him that, down south, “there’s gonna be problems.”

There should be no surprise when you realize the heart of the movie is the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. While Ali (who won an Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight) is much more subtle and nuanced, Mortensen (someone I always thought was very underrated as an actor) is much more out there. He eats a lot (and I mean a lot), probably does not know how to whisper, and can be rather ignorant at times. That does not, however, mean he is stupid. We don’t laugh at the racism, but at the situation in which they are said. Both actors give rather wonderful performances in their own right with each of their characters showing multiple layers as the film progresses.

Parents, this is one of the rare times I actually applaud the MPAA, because they could have easily made it rated R but thankfully it is PG-13. There is swearing (I think two F bombs and one use of the N word), a little violence (nothing graphic) and no real sexuality (aside from one scene that I am not sure if it was needed for the story). Middle School and above.

One of the bigger surprises is knowing that the film was directed by Peter Farrelly, who is more well-known for comedies like Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something about Mary (1998). Green Book (which Farrelly wrote with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s real life son Nick, who also has a minor role) has given a film that does have some speed bumps on the way, but delivers a film that crescendos to a very satisfying film that will make you want to go back and experience more than once.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Widows (2018)

Widows

Veronica (Viola Davis) directs her cohorts in what to do.

As someone who has lived his whole life in the suburbs of Chicago, I had mixed emotions to Widows. Is the city full of corruption? Sadly yes, but that does not detract from how well the mood and atmosphere is set in the film. It only adds to it.

After a robbery gone wrong leaves all involved dead, we see the grief unfold for one of the widows, Veronica (Viola Davis). Her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) was the one in charge of it all, but when the wreckage was looked over, it is discovered that the money went up in flames as well. The money was stolen from one of the candidates running for the local district, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). He warns Veronica that she has a month to pay him back. The plot thickens more when we learn he is running up against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is still under the thumb of his retired father Tom (Robert Duvall).

Of course, Veronica is not the only widow. She meets up with the others whose husbands died that night. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has lost her clothing store, while Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is going through her own emotional turmoil with little help from her mom (Jacki Weaver).

Ok, that is as far as I will go with the plot, since the movie has plenty of twists (especially one that I did not see coming) to discover for yourself. What is remarkable about the film is that each character could have had the movie told from his or her own point of view. All of them are so well written and acted it is as though the depth of the characters could not go any deeper. This is all due to the nearly perfect script by director Steve McQueen (whose last film, 12 years a Slave, won Best picture five years ago) and Gillian Flynn that is based off of material by Lynda La Plante.

It is close to impossible to say which of the actors would be in talks for Oscar consideration, because Widows is an ensemble film in every sense. Davis has always been a force of nature on-screen, and is no different here. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Debicki, who I have only seen recently in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017). Here she seems dumb, but shows more beneath the surface. My favorite would still probably be Daniel Kaluuya as Jamal’s brother and right hand man. To say he does all of Jamal’s dirty work is an understatement. I have a theory that, after Kaluuya was mistreated (to say the least) in 2017’s Get Out, he now gets to unleash that anger here, and it is fantastic to watch.

 

Parents, not for kids. Not at all. More than enough swearing, violence, and sexuality (two scenes, not to mention photographs showing hardcore details of a sexual act). The R rating is justified.

 

There are some moments in the movie that I would question (especially one with Linda’s character), but it does not take away much from this amazing thriller. Movies like Widows are why we sit at the edge of the theater seat.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave no Trace

There is no trace of any falseness in this father/daughter relationship.

With only a few minutes before the start of Leave No Trace, the only thing I knew about the film was that it starred Ben Foster. Then I realized it was directed by Debra Granik, who made my favorite movie of 2010, Winter’s Bone. This got me excited and eager to watch her newest flick, and I am happy to say it did not let me down at all.

I will leave very little room for what happens, because it is one of those great films that you need to see with little knowledge going into. Therefore, I will just give the basics. Will (Ben Foster) is living on his own with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) after returning from military service and suffering from PTSD. The best way to cope for Will is to be as far away from culture as possible, with the exception of his daughter.

Like great film artists, Granik paints with the finest of brushes for characters. Events happen, and they are introduced to people in the world but father and daughter don’t react the same way. The same can also be said for the look of the film, which is luscious to say the least (it had me thinking if any other film had used natural light with negative results, which is not the case here).

Something else about the film I truly enjoyed was the rating of PG. I don’t recall any swearing, but the most is the thematic elements and some thematic material (involving injuries that are bad but not gruesomely so). A friend of mine took his preteen daughter, who I hear is now obsessed with survival skills.

The only two movies I know for sure I have seen Ben Foster in for sure was 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Hell or High Water (2017). In both films, he was the character we loved to hate on. That is far from the current case. He gives us a damaged guy beyond repair, with only his daughter to possibly help fight his personal demons.

This brings us to Thomasin McKenzie. It is admittedly hard to say how great her performance is, only since I have yet to see her in anything else. It is far easier to say how affective her performance is. We see a character arc in Tom that is so relatable we can almost touch it.  She may not get awards consideration, but Granik did direct Jennifer Lawrence to an Oscar nod in Winter’s Bone. So if anything, it will surely launch her career.

This is one of the year’s very best films.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Stan Lee (1922-2018)

'Iron Man 3' film premiere, Los Angeles, America - 24 Apr 2013

You don’t need to be a fan of baseball to have heard the name of Babe Ruth, or of basketball to hear the names of Michael Jordan or Lebron James, and you never needed to have read a single comic book to have heard the name Stan Lee, who died today at the age of 95.

In the time when DC comics was king of comic books (with heroes such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), it was Stan Lee (as well as other writers) in the early 1960s who offered more relatable superheroes. They did not come from made up cities (Gotham, Metropolis, etc), but from real world cities (New York seemed to be his favorite). Unlike those in DC, Lee never liked the idea of the “sidekick”: all were heroes in their own right. They also suffered from more than just fighting the bad guy: we got relationship issues as personal as they come.

We got heroes from him like the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Black Panther, Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool, and (arguably his most popular) Spider-Man.

The last ten years of Marvel movies have helped Stan Lee become much more than a house hold name among nerds. He appeared in almost all of the movies based on his characters (not just in the MCU), never shy of poking fun at himself.

The world has truly lost one of the most unique imaginations it has known.

Excelsior!

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can you ever forgive me

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) does what she can to survive.

I made a startling realization about half way thru Can You Ever Forgive Me?: It was the first time I had seen Melissa McCarthy on the big screen (I would later find out the only other film I had seen her in was 2010’s abysmal  Life as We know it, which I don’t remember her being in. I take it she would be thankful for me for that.)

Oh, I have seen plenty of her clips online from movies like Bridesmaids (which she got an Oscar nomination for) as well as her skits on Saturday Night Live, so I knew enough going into this film that this would be a change of pace for her. Change of pace is a gross understatement. The fact that her Lee Israel swears a lot is really the only thing even close to resembling Melissa McCarthy. The performance is nothing short of revolutionary, and will surely be in the Oscar conversations for the next couple months.

Based on a true story, Israel is a struggling writer living in New York in the early 1990s, whose books have been all but forgotten. Her biography on Fanny Brice is a dead end, there are an abundance of flies in her apartment, and her cat is sick. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) invites Lee to her party, and we see right away people skills are not in Lee’s skill set.

By accident, Lee comes across the letter of a famous writer, and realizes she can do well at impersonating them as she writes fake letters, later selling them to collectors. The only person she informs her plan to is her homosexual writer friend Jack Hock (an equally great performance by Richard E. Grant), who is not the best drug dealer out there. The chemistry between Grant and McCarthy is near magic.

The rest of the supporting cast is spot  on (including Ben Falcone, real life husband of McCarthy), but the unsung heroes in my mind are screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. The dialogue is as near perfect as it can be. They deserve Oscar consideration right along Grant and McCarthy.

Parents, the R rating is justified, as there is a lot of swearing that I would think no middle schooler has heard before in context (at least I hope not). There is no sex in the movie, but we do see some rear male nudity. High School and above.

The title of the film comes from a letter from author Dorothy Parker, one of the many authors that Lee Israel tried to impersonate. In a way, it is also fitting to some of the roles Melissa McCarthy has had throughout the years (I know, I never saw them, but I can only speculate from what I have heard). It may have taken some time, but after her performance here, I can safely say I can forgive her.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Mid90s (2018)

mid90s

13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) has set his mind on skateboarding.

 

It would come as no surprise to me if there were many parts of Mid90s that are based off of events from Jonah Hill growing up. He was born in 1983, making him near the same age as the films protagonist, but it goes deeper than just that. The movie is not about a set of performances (all great), but on mood and setting. From super soakers to Walkman CD players (which I doubt I am the only one who does not miss) to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”, Mid90s is indeed its own form of period piece.

The protagonist is 13-year-old Stevie (newcomer Sunny Suljic). He lives at home with his mom (Katherine Waterston) and older brother Ian (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges). We see Stevie in that stage of life where what is “cool” isn’t anymore, and new interests must be found. He decides on skateboarding, and discovers a group of (mostly) older kids to hang out with.

The leader is Ray (Na-kel Smith), also easily the best skater of the bunch (and one of the best in town). His best friend is F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), called so due to his tendency to say that phrase followed by “That is Crazy!”. The youngest in the group (closest to Stevie in age) is Ruben (Gio Galicia), who is no longer the runt of the litter. The final member is Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so-called because it represents his IQ (or lack there of).

There are many things that work so well in Mid90s. Take for example the time it takes for Stevie to be excepted. There is clearly a care for the characters that Hill (who also wrote the film, his first ever directed) shows us in how he takes his time for them to develop. Stevie is clearly a nice kid, even trying to give his older brother a thoughtful birthday gift despite the fact that Ian lets out all his frustrations on his kid brother. Yet the movie is smart enough to know that Ian (who clearly has a thing for orange juice) does love his brother deep down, but has no one else to turn his anger on.

Parents, this far from a kids movie. There is clearly a lot of swearing, some violence and many thematic elements. There is also one of the most uncomfortable sexual content scenes I have witnessed in a long time, which involves Stevie at a party with an older girl. Nothing is really shown, but the atmosphere is very unsettling (and he describes what happens afterwards.) The R rating is more than justified.

Mid90s packs a lot into the short runtime of 85 minutes, but that does not at all take away from it. There are many clichés that could have occurred in the film, but are (for the most part) avoided. I urge my fellow millennials to search this film out like one may search out an old yearbook.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Bohemian Rhapsody

Don’t stop him now, because Rami Malek is having a good time as Queen’s lead man Freddie Mercury

“Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?”

These lyrics could be attributed to Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. He does do a rather fantastic job, but the film makers seem to be holding so much more back that he could use (basically, they are telling him “we won’t let you go”).

Malek is easily the best thing about the film. I feel the negatives of the film (and there are a more than a few) may actually hold him back from an Oscar nomination (though I could see him getting a nod for a Golden Globe). We meet Freddie Mercury in a flashback just before he and his band are to go perform at the live aid tour in 1985. Years before, we see how he met his band members Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), as well as his wife Mary (Lucy Boynton). Those who have any idea about the late singer knows he hid his homosexuality as much as possible, as well as his diagnosis of AIDS until the day before he died.

If the movie were to be split into three parts, I would say the weakest by far is the second. I knew little of Mercury going in, but did discover he was someone who totally lived life to the full. The movie seems to only scratch the surface, with only Malek seeming to want to dig deeper. If I could ask director Bryan Singer a question, it would be why they did not go with an R rating. My only guess so far is that they may want younger people who don’t know the band Queen to discover them (which I totally would think they should). Still, it does rob the movie of much authenticity.

Parents, I mentioned the movie is PG-13. There is no nudity, but a lot of partying and kissing. I would say High School and up (or at the least, very mature middle schooler).

I will admit to not recognizing Mike Myers in the role of Ray Foster, the person who said the title song would not be anything kids would want to bang their heads to in the car (cough, cough, Wayne’s World). Also, when you hear the performers that will be at the live aid concert (Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elton John, to name a few), it makes it even more hard to believe that people would only be calling in to donate when Queen is playing. My personal qualm with the film is they barely make a mention of the song “Under Pressure”, which is my personal favorite (along with the title song).

Oh well. Anyway the wind blows.

Overall: Three Stars ***