Movie Reviews - 2018 postsThursday March 21, 2019
Movie Review: Creed II (2018)
It’s really more like “Rocky III,” isn’t it?
Yes, “Rocky IV”’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) returns with a chip on his shoulder and a superpowerful son, Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu, hunky), who grew up in the hardscrabble streets of Ukraine, knowing only fighting. But with the help of an African-American promoter who greases gears only to slip back into the shadows—so not exactly Don King—they challenge the new heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the man Ivan killed in the ring, to a title match. That’s the external drama. It’s “sins of the fathers.” And it’s all about “Rocky IV.”
The internal drama, which is most of the movie, is cut exactly from “Rocky III.” They don’t use the phrase—which has become a cliché and was silly to begin with—but Adonis loses the eye of the tiger. Meaning his motivations for the fight are muddy; his head isn’t right.
Which is weird in itself. Motivation? How about revenge, motherfucker?
I was surprised to see the film wasn’t directed by Ryan Coogler but Steven Caple, Jr., who has one feature film to his credit: “The Land,” a 2016 indie. Maybe that’s why the movie doesn’t work. Also Sylvester Stallone has a writing credit?
Actually, who are the writers? The story is by Sasha Penn, who’s mostly a producer with no feature-film writing credits, and Cheo Hodari Coker, who is also first-listed on IMDb as a producer but at least wrote some “Luke Cage” episodes. Screenplay is by Stallone and someone named Juel Taylor—his first. Most of his credits are in Sound: editor, mixer, boom operator.
So it’s mostly non-writers writing this thing. And it shows.
Another reason why it doesn’t work? It brings an indie aesthetic to a genre film. You can do this successfully—as Coogler did with “Creed,” where I wrote, “Coogler opens the windows on this universe without knocking anything over; he just lets the fresh air in.” Well, Caple and company close it again. The movie feels muted to me, and stale.
It begins with our hero winning the title. He’s successful, feted, in love. The small stuff that worked in “Creed”—the back and forth between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson)—is dullsville here. He proposes, awkwardly, and they visit his mom-but-not-mom, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Raschad), who figures out Bianca is pregnant before Bianca does. There’s a lot of this parents-know-best stuff in the movie. Then they worry the baby will be deaf like the mother but should they worry because isn’t she great? Plus Bianca has her music career that nobody watching gives a shit about. That’s a truly painful subplot—never more so than before the final fight in Russia when Bianca precedes the Creed contingent by live-singing a lukewarm melody. I couldn’t even watch; I was embarrassed for everybody involved. I was embarrassed for my country. We rule the world in pop culture and this is what you bring?
Hey does the movie ever give a good explanation why Adonis’ reaction to the Drago challenge is so nothing? Why isn’t he angry? Because he didn’t know his father? Because he resented his father? Because in a short span he’s become too comfortable? The fight arrives 45 minutes in, so we know Adonis will lose. He does and doesn’t. He’s crushed in three rounds, with broken ribs and internal bleeding, but the final blow comes after he’s been knocked down, a violation, so he retains the title. Sure. But all of it is very Clubber Lang in “Rocky III.”
In that movie, Rocky had to get back his tiger-eye by leaving his expensive mansion and training with black fighters in the mean streets of LA. This time, it’s the LA gyms that are too comfortable. So Rocky, who refused to train Adonis for the first fight, drives him into the desert, where they train with ... Mexicans, I guess? Illegals? Who knows? Where is this odd training ground in the middle of nothing? Is it based on anything beyond some weirdo macho fantasy? It’s also close to cultural appropriation: We need your anger over everything you’ve never had so we can battle someone who never had anything.
The fight scenes are done well, with Adonis slipping in and out of Drago’s punches. I also like Ivan’s story. They give him a kind of dignity and humanity he never had in the cartoonish “IV.” My favorite scene is probably when he shows up at Adrian’s—which is juxtaposed with Adonis learning of the Drago challenge via TV—and he’s subtly threatening. “Because of you, I lose everything. Country. Respect. [Pause] Wife.” It’s a ghost returning with bad thoughts. It’s scary. Good god, who knew Dolph Lundgren could act?
I particularly like him noting all the memorabilia on the wall:
Ivan: Nice pictures.
Rocky: Yeah, they’re okay.
Ivan: No pictures of me.
Rocky: No. There’s no pictures of that.
For Rocky, they’re reminders of tragedy. To Ivan, it’s just another example of him being erased from history.
Main character wanted, preferably single
Most of the rest is sadly dull. Bianca is ... who cares. But this is the bigger problem: Who is Adonis? What is he like? Who are his friends? He has no posse here, no bodyguards, no one beyond Rocky, Bianca and Mrs. Huxtable. Yes, he wants to box—determinedly—then he wants to marry. And beyond that?
Think of the personalities in the “Rocky” series. Start with Rocky, a garrulous nice guy from the neighborhood—too nice to even be a small-time thumb breaker for a local mob boss—so nice and talkative he even tries to give life lessons to teenage girls and gets “Screw you, creepo!” for his troubles. Or how about Apollo in the bigger-than-life mold of Muhammad Ali—talking in rhyme (“Be a thinker, not a stinker”), and taking care of business both in and out of the ring. How about Paulie—sleazy Paulie? Or Mick? Or Duke?
Who is Adonis? What is Creed’s creed—beyond trying to prove himself in the shadow of his famous father? It’s nothing. There’s nothing there.
Movie Review: Robin Hood (2018)
They keep mucking it up. Year after year, attempt after attempt.
First they gave the lead to an American who fumbled around with a British accent before giving it up entirely; then it went to an actor in his late 40s when it was an origin story about Robin’s early years. That one, with Russell Crowe, ended as the rob-the-rich legend began—anticipating sequels, no doubt. But it was poorly reviewed (43% on RT), and while its box office wasn’t bad ($105 domestic, $325 worldwide), no sequels came.
This one, too, anticipates sequels—ending, again, with Robin escaping into Sherwood to start the legend. But the reviews were damning (15%) and the box office more so ($30 domestic, $84 worldwide). Sequels seem unlikely. When will Hollywood learn? It keeps giving us throat-clearing as feature films and is surprised when we don’t show up.
Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who was fat and comic relief, is now thin and comic-relief—and not funny. There is no Alan-a-Dale or Much, the Miller’s Son. There is no King Richard or Prince John. It’s just Guy of Gisborne (Paul Anderson) who works for the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), who works for the Vatican (F. Murray Abraham), which is trying to overthrow the British throne.
Here are the two biggest changes. John Little is now a Muslim warrior, Yahya (Jamie Foxx), who owes a debt to Robin and thus follows him back to England. He’s basically John Little + Morgan Freeman’s Azeem. He’s actually the driving force here. While Robin would wallow in sorrow for losing Marian—she married Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan) when he was presumed dead in the Crusades—it’s John/Yahya who shakes sense into him. Not only does he help Robin hone his archery skills, he masterminds the entire robbing-from the-rich, giving-to-the-poor conceit. He’s basically Simon Cowell to Robin’s One Direction.
Meanwhile, Will Scarlet, Robin’s right-hand man in the Errol Flynn version, not only cuckolds him here, but he’s an accommodating politician who, once he realizes Marian still loves Robin, turns to the dark side. By the end, he becomes the new Sheriff of Nottingham. It’s supposed to shock, but the way the film industry plays with our legends now it’s as meaningful as a face turning heel in the WWE. Plus it’s setting up sequels that will never arrive. It’s sad.
But it’s not the worst of it. This, to me, is the worst of it. They’re the first words we hear in the film, via voiceover from Friar Tuck:
So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen
- The history wouldn’t bore me; in fact, it would be so, so welcome
- Yes, I would like to know what year it was
The reason he can’t tell us the year is there isn’t one. This thing is an amalgamation of centuries. It should be Middle Ages, right, Robin Hood and all, but most of the movie is set in a Nottingham township built around what appears to be 19th-century industrial mining. People wear leather coats and jackets, the parties are like raves, and there’s an early version of a roulette wheel and craps table. For a time, I thought, Oh, so is it updating Robin into the 19th century—like Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”? Or into the 20th per Ian McKellen’s “Richard III”? Except: Crusades: 1095-1492. So what’s up?
Elton and Ray
What’s up is that first-time screenwriters Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, and director Otto Bathurst (“Peaky Blinders,” three episodes), don’t seem to give a shit about history. They toss centuries into a blender and serve us the result with a hipster smile.
God, the hipsterism. “The Hood.” The clothes and the parties and the modern language and sensibilities. The camera shots—a la “Dark Knight”—that confuse rather than clarify. Is it a fight or is it jazz hands? You decide.
At the least, we got the actors who played Ray Charles and Elton John starring in the same movie. Shame they weren’t playing Ray Charles and Elton John.
As for the history of cinematic Robin Hoods, this isn't a bad place to start. Hope it doesn't bore you.
Movie Review: Boy Erased (2018)
At some point, I asked my wife what she thought was going to happen. Jared (Lucas Hedges) will obviously escape the “Love in Action” gay conversion therapy group, I said, and be out and proud. But what about his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe)? How will they react? Who will support him?
She: I think his mom will be OK with it; I think his dad will have a harder time.
At some point, I also said: I think this Cameron kid is going to die. He’ll probably kill himself.
And is that really Flea? Yes. Yes, it is.
Sometimes when you know what’s going to happen in a movie you still enjoy it. Not here. “Boy Erased” is an odd, careful little movie. Way too careful.
I admire Joel Edgerton for adapting, directing, and casting himself in this movie—about a subject wholly worth dramatizing—from a true-life memoir. It just doesn’t resonate.
BTW: If “Boy Erased” is an accurate representation of gay conversion therapy, then, ethical issues aside, simply in practical terms, gay conversion therapy is pretty fucking stupid.
How do Christian parents who don’t want their sons to be gay stop them from being gay? They remove them from their normal routines and put them in close quarters with a bunch of similarly aged boys who are also repressing every sexual urge they have. Then they make sure they don’t jack off so there’s no sexual release. There’s just sexual tension—day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute.
I don’t get the batting cage, either. I get it for the boys. It’s the dipshit version of gay conversion therapy—if there’s another kind—since it’s supposed to be about making them manly. So why bring the girls? Why mock the one girl who can’t swing the bat? By your lights, isn’t that a good thing?
The movie opens on the day Jared starts his therapy. It’s supposed to be for 12 days but he later finds out he might wind up there as long as a year. Because it might take that long or because they want the money? Does he get to decide or do his parents? Or neither?
In there with him is the girl who can’t swing a bat and gets hit by a baseball. Her father soon picks her up, threatening legal action. There’s also the handsome kid with a cut over his nose, and, later, a black eye. No one asks where his injuries came from—not even Jared. My favorite is Gary (Aussie pop star Troye Sivan), who gives Jared the following advice:
Play the part. Show ’em it’s working. You’re getting better. [Pause] Fake it until you make it, right? You don’t want to end up in one of those houses for any length of time. I’ve heard the stories and they’re not good.
Who’s saying this? A kid with dyed blonde hair, curls on top, for whom gaydar meters ring off the charts. Shouldn’t Jared have been honest? “Wait, you think you’re fooling them? At least I can swing a bat, dude.”
Also: “You don’t want to wind up in one of those houses” seems to indicate the real drama is there; but we never get there. Instead, a lot of the movie is flashback to Jared’s two gay encounters: the first, which is near rape; the second, which is sweet. Then the accusation that reaches his parents, and the admission: “I think about men. I don’t know why. I’m so sorry.” His father, a Baptist minister who runs a successful car dealership, is so shocked by this his left eyelid twitches. Twice. You can see it in the trailer. It’s my favorite part of the movie. I don’t how Russell Crowe can do that—act that. An eye twitch? It’s on another level.
Besides the batting cages, what does the therapy actually consist of? Well, the head man, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), tells the kids all the answers are in the Bible. They also do the usual gather-the-chairs-into-a-circle confessional. Then there’s role playing: You’re supposed to pretend an empty chair is your dad and say why you hate him. Jared doesn’t hate his dad, so, with the help of mom, he breaks free, but he never tells his dad why he breaks free. “Dad, they wanted me to hate you.” He never says that. He never helps his case.
Then it’s four years later, he’s living up north, and, during a visit, he finally has it out with dad: “I’m gay and I’m your son, and neither of those things are going to change,” etc. We get real-life photos of the family, learn Jared has a husband, then learn Victor Sykes also has a husband. So the warden escaped the prison, too. Next gay conversion therapy movie should probably be a comedy.
Last summer, this had awards buzz; then everyone saw it and the buzz died. It did manage to get 81% on Rotten Tomatoes—I assume, on the strength of the subject matter. It’s a movie you’re supposed to like. I wanted to like it, too.
Movie Review: Cold War (2018)
There’s a moment in this movie, about 15 minutes in maybe, that connected me in all of my American comfort with people under the yoke of Soviet domination in the early years of the Cold War.
The movie begins in rural Poland. Two musicians, Wiktor and Irena (Tomasz Kot and Agata Kulesza), and their handler, a Polish apparatchik, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), seek out and record folk songs from the people in the hinterlands—stuff most likely passed down from generation to generation. Then they find young singers, also from the countryside, and bring them to a school to train them in song and dance. They are putting on a show. It’s one of those endemic folk festivals we’ve all seen at some point, with colorful costumes and choreographed movements; but since it’s backed by the power of the government, which wants to celebrate “the people’s music,” and, more important, since it’s being birthed by music professionals, it doesn’t come off as kitschy. The opposite. It soars. It’s beautiful. On opening night, shocked by how good it is, Kaczmarek is busy backslapping while Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph.
Then they have a meeting with Kaczmarek’s superiors in which a few suggestions are made. The show was great, they’re told. But aren’t they ways to improve it? Might they not include, say, a song about land reform? Or in praise of Stalin?
There’s a pause. And Irena fills it by pointing out the obvious: Farmers don’t sing songs about land reform or Stalin; the songs wouldn’t be authentic; it goes against the program. Wiktor says nothing. He probably understands the program has already changed.
Irena winds up leaving the meeting—and the movie. Just like that she’s out of the picture. Shame. Agata Kulesza, who starred in Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, “Ida,” brings such intelligent intensity to her roles.
But that’s the scene. I’ve never lived under totalitarianism; I’ve never been involved in a meeting of such import. Yet when the bad idea is floated by powerful people, and there’s that pause, because everyone knows it’s a bad idea but no one can say that, I thought, “Oh yeah. I’ve been in that room before.”
What Cold War?
I left out something in the above. After the first performance, in which Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph, she’s feeling amorous and is looking to celebrate. She’s looking at him. He’s handsome, after all, rail thin, with a stoic, mysterious demeanor that suggests past suffering, and a few strands of black hair that perpetually fall over his forehead. Good news: he’s feeling amorous, too. Bad news: he’s looking at Zula (Joanna Kulig), one of the students. A moment later, he and Zula fucking. It’s a bit of a shock—the zero-to-60 of it. No time to waste under Soviet domination. Nor in this film. Pawlikowski keeps the story moving.
Was fucking Zula Wiktor’s plan all along? She was the only student obviously not from the hinterlands. She snuck her way in and glommed onto another girl’s folk song; then, when asked to sing one of her own, she sang a song she’d learned from a movie. She doesn’t fit with the program but he gets her in.
Their troupe is such a success, they’re soon playing bigger and bigger venues, and cities, and wind up in Berlin—recently divided between east and west, but before the wall went up in ’62. There, Wiktor plans to escape; and he wants Zula to escape with him. What is her reluctance? That they’ll be caught? That they’ll make it and she won’t know who she is in the West? We expect complications and suspense and drama in the way of movies but there really isn’t any. He waits for her, she never shows, so he just walks across the divide and into a new life for himself as a musician in Paris.
That’s another shocking thing about the movie—the relative ease with which Cold War borders are crossed. At one point Wiktor returns to—is it Prague?—to see the troupe again, and mostly her, but the secret police pick him up. And interrogate him? Put him in a prison for 30 years? Make him love Big Brother? No. They put him on a train back to the West. You chose your side, Wiktor, they seem to be saying. Stay there.
I forget how she’s able to join him. But suddenly she’s there, too, and you wonder where the drama is. Wasn’t this about the Cold War? He works on film soundtracks during the day and plays in a jazz band at night; and one night she joins him onstage and sings this beautiful, plaintive Polish song (oh yo yo), and they’re working on a French language version, and, I mean, how could life be better? They’re Polish émigrés in a loft apartment in 1950s Paris who live creative lives—in gorgeous black and white, no less—and yet she’s miserable. She drinks, she carps, she’s mad with jealousy. There’s a great moment when in we hear Bill Haley & the Comets on the jukebox, and it’s like a comet—American rock ‘n’ roll!—and she gets up, drunk, and dances, and you sense the age difference or aesthetic difference between them.
Anyway, they ruin themselves. She provokes, he responds; she’s jealous, then he is. Then she’s gone again—back to Poland. The Cold War is them. The battle between east and west hardly factors in. Until it does.
This Cold War
That’s another great twist. At the moment we’re done expecting the great powers to crush this relationship—to be the barrier keeping the lovers apart—we see her walking in winter in Poland next to ... is it a prison camp? She goes into a cabin and finds him there, head shaved, gaunt, all ’50s romanticism gone—more reminiscent of the Holocaust than Paris. He’d tried to sneak back into the country to be with her, and they got him. But it opens her up again. The Iron Curtain isn’t what keeps the lovers apart but what drives them back together. There’s too much freedom on the other side.
Is this a fault with the film? It’s as if it’s saying the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism are nothing next to a crazy broad.
“Cold War” is beautifully photographed and melancholic and still moves quickly. It’s only 90 minutes long and keeps surprising us. It’s nearly perfect but for that fault.
Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Based on the trailers we had to watch before “On the Basis of Sex,” I assumed I was in for a long haul. Trailers are usually matched to film—arthouse trailers for arthouse films, etc.—and the seven or eight trailers we suffered through prior to this were some of the godawfulest things I’ve ever seen.
We got that dog reincarnation flick with Dennis Quaid—sorry, the sequel to that. We got a horror flick with Isabelle Hupert as basically Jason. We got another “teens with terminal illness in love” thing. And we got not one but two pedantic Christian movies—“Overcomer” and “Breakthrough”—which is a bit odd considering our biopic subject isn’t, you know, Christian. Imagine if they’d played a trailer for a different Christian movie coming out in 2019: “Roe v. Wade,” a pro-life take on the SCOTUS decision starring every right-wing nut in Hollywood. Don’t imagine the RBG crowd would’ve been too docile for that one.
“On the Basis of Sex” turned out to be better than these trailers—or its trailer—suggested. But RBG still deserves a better biopic.
On the basis of gender
For starters, how about someone Jewish? Or at least someone who can nail a Brooklyn accent? Was Felicity Jones England’s retribution for Kevin Costner? Her accent was mostly nonexistent, and then every half hour it would come in over-the-top: loi-yah.
But that’s not the egregious part. The egregious part is that for the sake of imagined drama, they make their protagonist, one of the great legal minds of my lifetime, a shitty lawyer. They make her someone who is in constant need of pep talks: from her husband, from colleagues, even from her 15-year-old daughter. It would be like a biopic of Willie Mays in which he’s striking out and falling on his ass all the time but manages to get it together to make that catch in the ‘54 Series. You maybe want to remind people that Willie Mays was a little better than that. He was Willie Fucking Mays.
There’s so many false notes here; and they seem false as you‘re watching. Did RBG really run into a brick wall with the ACLU’s legal director Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux) in trying to promote gender equality? Of course not. Is Melvin Wulf Jewish? Of course he is. Is Theroux? Of course not.
I suppose I should also complain that Armie Hammer, as Martin Ginsburg, isn’t Jewish, either, but I like Hammer in this film. Although, good god, try to be a little less gorgeous, buddy. This is the movie where he completely won over my wife. Afterwards, she talked up the look of vulnerability and helplessness in his eyes when he’s stricken with testicular cancer at Harvard Law. When he’s trying to talk RBG down after another 1950s sexist moment, as he's lying across the bed resting his head on his hand, my wife leaned over and whispered, “I have to get you pajamas like that.” “I still won’t look like that in them,” I whispered back.
Anyone else uncomfortable during the boudoir scene? When he takes off her top, and they kiss, and she jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him? I’m like: Dudes, it’s RBG. Yes, your grandparents had sex; you don’t necessarily want to see it dramatized.
One thing that was true? Ginsburg’s secretary suggesting they remove the word “sex” from much of the original brief for Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and replace it with the less provocative word “gender.” Which is a great factoid but kind of undercuts the title, doesn’t it? Since Hollywood went with “sex”? For a change?
I did like that we got a half-hour scene before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. I was so excited when that was going down. Plus I don’t know who cast the three judges but kudos. They looked like judges.
But so much else is so wrong. RBG didn’t have to convince Moritz in a face-to-face trip to Denver to let her take his case pro bono; he agreed by phone. There wasn’t a moot court—and a moot court isn’t a punishment anyway, as the film suggests, but a privilege any attorney trying a big case would leap at. Moreover, if there had been a moot court, she wouldn’t have acted like a deer in headlights, necessitating getting hubby on board for half the oral argument. No, he was already on board for half the oral argument; that was the plan from the start. And I doubt when they were sitting there at the 10th Circuit, trading off like tag-team partners, they wasted long, precious seconds exchanging meaningful glances as argument time ticked down.
Oh, and when she finally finds her voice at the 11th hour and tears well up in her eyes? Remember earlier in the film when all those chauvinists said women were too emotional to be attorneys? So you have RBG tearing up in court? RBG? Who wrote this thing anyway?
Would you believe—her nephew?
Yes. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”), has one writing credit: Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. He admits having RBG freeze in moot court and before the 10th Circuit was Hollywood dramatization. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life,” he says. What goes unanswered is why they, or he, thought her flubbing it for most of the movie was a dramatic necessity. Why not make it like Loki vs. the Hulk? Loki taunts for two seconds and then ... whammo!
According to Stiepleman, when he proposed the screenplay idea to Ginsburg, she had two requests: get the law right and get Marty right. Shame she didn’t add: Get me right, too.