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Tuesday, November 24, 2015




One of the greatest mysteries in movies is solved in Creed, the newest sequel to the Rocky saga about Apollo Creed's son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) following in his daddy's footsteps and becoming a fighter: Who won the private third fight between Apollo and Rocky Balboa at the end of Rocky III? When the answer comes, we find we would rather have just kept wondering. Creed is a mixed heavy bag; half an exploration of what it's like to be the progeny of a legend you never met but contain the innate talent of and the other half getting to spend a few more rounds with one of your childhood heroes, Rocky, nine years after his last improbable comeback fight left you cheering for more. Guess what wins the fight between the two? In style and substance, Creed is very much a Rocky movie, endearingly familiar and at times a rousing crowd-pleaser, but shouldn't it really have been more of a Creed movie?

Writer-director Ryan Coogler's love for Rocky and the Rocky series is palpable but largely swallows up poor Adonis. Coogler trades heavily on nostalgia, employing flashbacks, clips of past Rocky vs. Apollo fights, familiar posters of the Italian Stallion 30 years ago, and Rocky's stirring musical cues. Sylvester Stallone reprises Rocky once again, and, no surprise, he is the best thing about Creed. Rocky is even older, sadder, but also wiser and more resigned to being a rock, a survivor, when all his loved ones have passed on, including Paulie. Quick exposition explains his son Rocky Jr. has moved to Vancouver with his wife, leaving Rocky all alone in the restaurant he owns. But he remains a local legend beloved by the people of Philadelphia, and his unique Rocky wit and demeanor remain intact. When Adonis Johnson -- we learn Apollo had an affair and died in the ring against Ivan Drago before Adonis was born -- turns up at his restaurant claiming to be Apollo's son and asking for training, well, as Rocky states, "I've seen this sort of thing before." He reluctantly takes the kid on as his protege and finds much more success than he did training Tommy Gunn 25 years ago. Rocky relishes being the crusty old trainer this time, delving into Mickey's old bag of tricks like making Adonis catch a chicken.

Adonis, a lean, trim light heavyweight, is a curious cat. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died soon after Apollo, he grew up in the system, a violent kid prone to fighting, until he's adopted by Apollo's wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis grew up in Apollo's mansion, loved, surrounded by wealth, college educated, but he spends his weekends secretly fighting in Mexico. Adonis throws away a promising business career because he feels the need to fight, so he moved to Philadelphia to seek the tutelage of his father's best friend and greatest opponent. The quest of the son to find and become like his father is a classic and compelling narrative, but Creed muddies the waters by latching too much onto following beats from Rocky's story instead of discovering more about what is/was special and unique about Adonis and Apollo. Wouldn't you know it, after one professional fight as "Adonis Johnson," Adonis' parentage is discovered and he's offered a one in a million shot to go to London to fight the light heavyweight champion of the world because of his name -- just like Apollo once offered Rocky because he loved the nickname "the Italian Stallion."

Adonis' personal crisis becomes whether or not he should accept his father's famous last name and all the pressure that comes with living up to it. Meanwhile, old man Rocky receives truly distressing medical news. When that happens, we and Adonis become much more concerned with Rocky's mortality than with the success of Adonis' career. Adonis spends the entire movie in the shadow of two legends and never really fights his way out from under it. Jordan, a charismatic actor, does his best, though in the ring, he's an angry bull who fights like Rocky -- take hits until you get mad -- and lacks the fancy footwork and charming pizzazz of his old man. But does Adonis have the heart, of Apollo or Rocky? Does he have the Eye of the Tiger? We are forced to ask ourselves, why root for Adonis? He's not an underdog or a hard luck case; he's "Hollywood" Adonis Creed, the rich son of a beloved former heavyweight champion with a beautiful girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and Rocky Balboa in his corner. He has a long way to go to be as good as his father, if ever, and wearing the stars and striped-emblazoned trunks Apollo and Rocky both wore may speak to a legacy, but Adonis never really becomes his own man. He's certainly not yet a champion. If Creed wishes to go the distance and further continue the Rocky saga, Adonis and the audience will really, truly be lost when the sad day inevitably comes Rocky Balboa loses his final round.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2




A black cloud of inevitability hangs over The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2. It all comes down to this. War between the thirteen Districts of Panem, united under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) is in full effect. Opposing the will of the gathered people is the Capitol, the preening, privileged upper class of Panem, ruled over by the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The Rubicon has been crossed, as the old saying goes. There's no turning back and restoring the country to how it was. Snow, himself dying from an illness, is singularly concerned with the Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the rebellious teenage girl who has grown into his arch nemesis and is the living symbol and rallying cry of the resistance against the Capitol. The feeling is mutual; early in the movie, Katniss resolves to assassinate Snow. Everyone and everything in the resistance falls into place to support this plan, whether Katniss knows it or not. 

Mockingjay, Part 2 really only has one thing on its mind: placing Katniss in the Capitol to confront Snow and ending the Hunger Games saga with violence and despair. The preamble has all been established in the previous chapter; Part 2 is focused, for better or worse, on its grisly resolution and price Katniss must pay to end the worst years of her young life. In Part 2, a strike team consisting of Katniss, her two devoted male suitors Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), videographers Cressida (Natalie Dormer), Pollux (Elden Henson), Castor (Wes Chatham), soldiers Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Jackson (Michelle Forbes), and Katniss' fellow Hunger Games victor Finnick O'Dair (Sam Claflin) slip into the Capitol, which has been evacuated and transformed into a deadly new Hunger Games Arena, filled with lethal booby traps like landmines, machine gun turrets, and boiling oil tsunamis that is somehow easily outrun and outclimbed. Ostensibly, they're just there to shoot more propaganda video starring Katniss. Katniss claims she's on a secret mission from Coin to assassinate Snow. Everyone knows otherwise; this is Katniss' personal vendetta. They're all cool with it. Most of them don't survive, but in for a penny, in for a pound. 

Francis Lawrence, who previously directed Will Smith in I Am Legend and the short-lived but beloved by those who watched it series Kings, dips into both wells for Mockingjay, Part 2 with some thrilling results. The best sequences in Part 2 see Katniss and her team wading through the dark, forbidding sewers beneath the Capitol, where they battle new "Mutts" unleashed by Snow. We've come a long way from Gary Ross' first Hunger Games movie, with its ugly, unfinished-looking CGI hybrid dogs. These new "Mutts" look like an evolved version of the "Dark Seeker" vampires in I Am Legend, and they're horrifying, screaming out of the shadows to tear at our heroes with razor teeth and claws. Perhaps the best and most relentless action we've seen in the entire Hunger Games franchise is Katniss and her friends battling these vampire Mutts with their guns, swords, bow and arrows, desperately trying to escape to higher ground. When they reach a subway platform, Capitol storm troopers are there waiting for them, opening fire with guns and grenades in a sequence as ruthlessly violent and unfit for this franchise's young audience as any war movie. 

When it comes to the grim realities and casualties of war, Mockingjay, Part 2 is playing for keeps. Katniss tragically learns this first hand as she tries to slip into Snow's mansion incognito, only to be caught in a bombing raid that murders dozens of children, including her beloved sister Primrose (Willow Shields), who arrived as a medic to aid the injured. For a teenage girl who has suffered as Katniss has -- she has the PTSD to prove it -- the death of Prim is a dagger to the heart. Taking Prim's place in the Hunger Games is the reason for all of the death and destruction that followed. The liberation of Panem is the prize hard won, but for Katniss personally, what was it all for when her sister died anyway? Mockingjay, Part 2 brings the rivalry between Snow and Katniss to a satisfying conclusion, when he reveals to her that they've both been pawns -- so busy paying attention to each other that they both played right into the usurper Coin's hands. Turns out Coin is no better than Snow; her first order of business as President is to hold yet another Hunger Games. Snow's laughter when Katniss chooses to put an arrow in Coin's heart instead of his - payment in full for engineering the events of Prim's death -- was chilling. The devil you know is better than the devil you don't.

As for the two boys in Katniss' wake, waiting for her to choose between them, Gale blows his chance with Katniss when he essentially reveals it was his kind of military strategy that Coin used which lead to Prim's death. Gale laments he should have taken Peeta's place in the Hunger Games originally; maybe he's right and maybe for him being dead would be better than living the rest of his life in Katniss' Dead Zone, forever banned from even her Friend Zone. Meanwhile, Peeta, who is still suffering from being brainwashed as Katniss' assassin at the hands of Snow, is essentially dragged along for the march into the Capitol for reasons that are inexplicable. Why bring a ticking time bomb who wants to kill your Mockingjay? He was of no use in battle and had no bearing on the final events that lead to the defeat of Snow. No matter, Peeta is the one for Katniss, and always was. Their ultimate reconciliation and future together was written in the stars, or at least by creator Suzanne Collins.

While fan favorite characters like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) make token appearances, The Hunger Games saga, the most successful female-lead Hollywood action franchise of all-time, ends as it began: singularly focused on Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, and the woman who portrays her, Jennifer Lawrence. No one else could have anchored this franchise with the force and ferocity Lawrence brought to her megastar-making role. Mockingjay, Part 2 satisfyingly wraps up this story of war, loss, trauma, and revolution, which began with children dying in a forest for blood sport and ends with the reluctant face of a rebellion cradling a child of her own. Katniss will be haunted by the trauma of the Hunger Games for the rest of her life, but because of her sacrifices, her children will never know the horror of being forced to murder other children and survive in the Hunger Games. Was it worth it? For real.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Peanuts Movie



It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was wintry snow day where all of the kids in Charlie Brown's whimsical unnamed American suburban town were ice skating and playing in the snow. Then the Little Red Haired Girl moved into the house across the street from Charlie Brown and upended his life (for the better). Of course, during this snow day, Charlie Brown was futilely trying to fly a kite and avoid the dreaded Kite-Eating Tree, to no avail. That blockhead. The Peanuts Movie immerses us like never before in the world created by the late Charles M. Schulz, brighter, more colorful, as idiosyncratic and filled with boundless optimism as ever. The gang's all here, just as Schulz wrote and drew them for 50 years, with the filmmakers taking his designs and gorgeously animating them for the big screen vividly in three dimensions. The Peanuts Movie is the big screen party with Charlie Brown and Snoopy we've always waited for.

Eternally children, but with the inner complexities and anxieties of adults, Charlie Brown and his friends are just as we remember them. The Peanuts Movie dutifully calls back to all of their greatest hits and defining personality quirks: Charlie Brown is still the world's worst baseball manager. Lucy is still Charlie Brown's biggest detractor, yet also his psychiatrist (for 5 cents a session), and still in love with Schroeder. Schroeder still loves Beethoven and can perform concertos on his tinker toy piano. Linus is still wise and attached to his security blanket, hoping the Little Red Haired Girl will believe in the Great Pumpkin. Sally, Charlie Brown's little sister, is still in love with Linus, her sweet baboo. Pig Pen is still perpetually covered in dust. Peppermint Patty is still an oblivious tomboy and Marcie remains her smart, loyal assistant. A couple of interesting changes The Peanuts Movie makes places Peppermint Patty and Marcie in Charlie Brown's neighborhood and classroom; in the comic strip they lived across town. Linus, Lucy's little brother in the comic, is also in Lucy and Charlie Brown's class, which must either make him Lucy's twin or he's smart enough to be moved up a grade. And of course, there's Snoopy, with Woodstock at his side, Charlie Brown's incredible beagle who sleeps on top of his doghouse and can do pretty much anything. The very best change The Peanuts Movie makes is to have Snoopy, who's usually a little distant to his owner in the comic unless it's suppertime ("Oh yeah, the round-headed kid"), be a devoted best pal to Charlie Brown, who needs all the help he can get.

In The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown is in love and must overcome "all of his inadequacies" and find a way to talk to the Little Red Haired Girl (who remains nameless. Schroeder and Franklin also still amusingly lack surnames). His own wishy-washy worst enemy, Charlie Brown is still a sweet, compassionate boy with good intentions. He tries his best to impress the Little Red Haired Girl by winning a dance contest and actually reads the entire volume of "War in Peace" to write a shared book report while she's out of town. When Charlie Brown mistakenly gets a perfect score on a standardized math test, he becomes a local celebrity with all of the other kids becoming his followers, to Lucy's chagrin. (Sally taking the opportunity to market and merchandise her famous big brother makes her a pretty sly dog.) Meanwhile, continually spurned from attending school with the other kids, even when in the guise of Joe Cool, Snoopy discovers a typewriter and lets his imagination loose writing the Great American Novel and living out his adventures as the World War I Flying Ace dog fighting with the Red Baron over the skies of France while trying to rescue his beagle love Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth). A fantastic running gag is Snoopy imagining himself as the Flying Ace shot down behind enemy lines in Occupied France trying to make it back to his barracks, when he's actually appearing in the other kids' homes, in their backyards climbing on their clotheslines, or in their tubs during bath time. 

A smart, joyous and beat-perfect adaptation of Charles Schulz's comics and the holiday cartoons generations grew up with (complete with the beloved Vince Guaraldi "Linus and Lucy" jazz theme and the honking sound for every adult in the movie), The Peanuts Movie warmly trades on the three key lessons Charles Schulz's comics teach us: Like Charlie Brown, you can overcome your anxieties and be the best person you can be, and it's enough. And you are not bound by your circumstances, like Snoopy, who may just be a beagle, but uses his limitless imagination to live a rich, full life of adventure. The third lesson may be the best one: there's no greater friendship than a boy and his dog. The Peanuts Movie is a love letter to Charlie Brown and Snoopy, to Linus and Lucy, to their creator and to the millions of fans who grew up with them. It's a victory deserved and well earned, especially for a boy named Charlie Brown.

Friday, November 6, 2015



The Dead Are Alive

SPECTRE, like the tentacles of its octopus logo, brings all of Daniel Craig's James Bond movies together, merging them as one complete narrative. The nefarious organization bent on world domination that Sean Connery defeated, that left George Lazenby emotionally wounded, and that Roger Moore ended once and for all returns in a 21st century incarnation to plague Daniel Craig's 007 in SPECTRE, revealing itself as "the architect of all of [Bond's] pain." Indeed, James Bond unwittingly played a part in SPECTRE's very creation. This new SPECTRE is bigger than the original 1960s crime syndicate; now, SPECTRE is a multinational organization secretly running much of the world, its tentacles reaching further and deeper than ever before. Instead of stealing nuclear missiles to blackmail NATO or highjacking the space program, the new SPECTRE's stock and trade is information and surveillance, controlling and manipulating anyone and anything by seeing and hearing virtually everything. Nearly every enemy Craig's Bond has faced, we learn, was part of SPECTRE: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in Casino Royale, Greene (Mathieu Amalric) in Quantum of Solace, Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall, the entire Quantum organization, and even his late, beloved Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Naturally, the only one who can stop such an insidious threat is an extremely well dressed man with a gun.

A globe hopping action yarn that's also a very personal story of revenge, SPECTRE tries to have it all but tends to overreach. In a spectacular opening sequence at the Dia De Los Muertos festival in Mexico City, we find Bond gone rogue, on a manhunt for a man named Sciarra, that ends in explosive fashion, as all of Bond's manhunts must. Bond is once more "grounded" by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and stripped of his spying privileges as MI6 continues to reel from the events of Skyfall, faced with being replaced by a new global organization of shared intelligence headed by C (Andrew Scott, the malevolent Moriarty from Sherlock), who is clearly in league with SPECTRE. We learn that Bond, rather touchingly, is still taking marching orders from his mentor, the late former M (Judi Dench), who charged him from the grave to find and destroy the secret organization she has been aware of probably since the beginning. Bond absconds to the continent; to shadowy Rome, to the snowy peaks of Austria, to the dusty deserts of Morocco, searching for SPECTRE and finding more than he bargained for, as a ghost from the past emerges from the shadows. Meanwhile, on the homefront, the MI6 crew led by M, including Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Tanner (Rory Kinnear), get plenty of field time trying to save the Double 0 program as a whole from extinction. (Though why they didn't call for backup from the other Double 0 agents, M only knows.)

Director Sam Mendes and his screenwriters, John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, having emptied the clip and scored the biggest bullseye with Skyfall, this time delve into the classic James Bond movies. They emerged with a Greatest Hits of the franchise collection, letting Daniel Craig's 007 walk in the footsteps of his predecessors. SPECTRE is a cornucopia of tributes to past James Bond movies, specifically Connery and Moore's. A striking new silent but deadly hulking hitman in the vein of Oddball and Jaws, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), all but destroys Bond in a devastating fight scene on a train from Tangiers with odes to From Russia with Love. The watery catacombs beneath MI6 invoke the tunnels beneath Istanbul in From Russia with Love. Bond engages in a breakneck car chase in Rome, putting his souped up new Aston Martin DB10 and its gadgets through its paces, complete with gags in the Roger Moore fashion. Craig's Bond behaves more scandalously than ever before, especially when forcing himself on Monica Bellucci, who is not quite in mourning for her husband Bond killed in Mexico City. Bond brazenly attends a shadowy SPECTRE meeting (the first time James Bond has ever been to one), an updated version of the SPECTRE meeting at the onset of Thunderball. And what SPECTRE meeting is ever complete without an execution at the conference table? When Bond arrives at SPECTRE headquarters in the Moroccan desert, we see it's a sprawling fortress inside an impact crater that very much resembles the SPECTRE base inside the Japanese volcano in You Only Live Twice. And when Bond comes face to face with his arch nemesis, Franz Oberhauser (Christophe Waltz) a former childhood mate presumed dead but now the leader of SPECTRE, well, the blinded eye and facial scar Bond gifts him with, plus the white fluffy cat, means Oberhauser must really be the ultimate blast from the past: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Their final confrontation over the Thames and the ruins of the M16 base Silva demolished in Skyfall takes place with a helicopter -- a helicopter is the means by which Roger Moore finally executed Blofeld at the start of For Your Eyes Only.

More settled and comfortable in Bond's skin -- more James Bondian than ever -- Craig attends to his business of action, seduction, and death with efficiency. Unlike Skyfall, which challenged Craig's Bond's very existence and stripped him of M, the second woman in his life he actually loved besides Vesper, Bond, and therefore SPECTRE, feel a bit cold and distant, despite its splendid locales and incredible spectacle. It's only when he meets his new Bond Girl Madeleine Swann (the fetching Lea Seydoux), the daughter of his one of his oldest foes Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), does Bond's blood begin to run red hot. Bond's scenes with Swann are some of SPECTRE's best, and there's a palpable chemistry between them lacking between Craig's Bond and every Bond Girl since Vesper Lynd. Bond's confrontations with Blofeld feel a bit underwhelming, despite their shared past (the young James came to live with Franz Oberhauser for a time after he was orphaned -- they are ersatz "brothers") and Blofeld gleefully admitting he personally had everyone Bond ever cared about killed. Bond is once again tortured like he was in Casino Royale, this time by needles bored into his neck, but despite Blofeld's promises of amnesia and catatonia, Bond emerged unscathed, despite a couple of pricks. When he does get to interact with his fellows in MI6, Bond classically toys with Q, stealing the newest Aston Martin right from under his nose, and flirts with Moneypenny. Both Bond and Moneypenny seem relieved that she doesn't pine for him as others have for previous Bonds.

Could SPECTRE ever have equalled Skyfall, a one in a million (or rather, one in a Bond -- the third film for a Bond actor is usually the best one) achievement for the Bond franchise? Perhaps not. One can even surmise this from the title song: Sam Smith's "The Writing's On The Wall" is no "Skyfall" by Adele. But as a love letter to the best of the franchise's past, brimming with blistering action, global adventure, awesome spectacle and copious amounts of destruction and death, SPECTRE delivers admirably. Overall, SPECTRE falls in line with Connery's fourth, Thunderball, a bigger, more sprawling and ambitious follow up to his most popular, Goldfinger, but not quite its equal. That is still much preferable to what followed Moore's finest Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bond in outer space misstep Moonraker or Pierce Brosnan's franchise-stopper Die Another Day.  If Daniel Craig indeed stars in a fifth 007 film, he will still be two short of Connery and Moore, but by that time, about 12 years, Craig will be the actor with the longest tenure as James Bond. SPECTRE concludes with Bond seemingly out of the British Secret Service, driving off into the sunset with Madeleine in his Aston Martin DB5, leaving behind all of his ghosts. Of course, James Bond will return. Bond chose not to exercise his license to kill and let Blofeld live, an act of mercy that will likely ensure no matter what adventure awaits him next, James Bond will not soon escape the spectre of that mistake.