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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Screen Rant Best of 2018


2018 was my second year as a Features writer for Screen Rant and this was the year I finally felt like I came into my own, especially in the latter half. Writing about Marvel, DC, and all the nerdy things I like - and being paid for it - is a privilege I'm very lucky to have. And while Marvel, DC, and Star Wars pay the bills, this year I was fortunate to diversify my subject matter and write about a lot of the other movies and television shows that interest me, which was particularly satisfying and something I plan to do even more of in 2019.

I wrote 255 Features in 2018 for a total of 471 since I began in January 2017 - for a guy who liked to review a few movies a month tops on this very blog, this is an output that staggers and surprises me. But I'm very proud of my growing body of work and I think I've improved immensely as a writer. I thank my very British editors Alex Leadbeater and Hannah Shaw-Williams for honing my skills the way Superman can crush a piece of coal and find a diamond inside. Or at least a very shiny cubic zirconia. 

Below is my selection of the Screen Rant Features I'm proudest of for a variety of reasons; mainly because I feel like with these, I brought the goods to a fun smorgasbord of nerdy subjects. I would call this my favorite and best work in 2018. Thanks to everyone who has read my Features and I hope they were worth the click. Onward to 2019 and year three - the best is yet to come!





Friday, December 21, 2018




Aquaman has sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to them - this movie is Dr. Evil's dream come true. Director James Wan goes for the gusto with the outlandishly entertaining Aquaman, the movie equivalent of tossing the biggest net you can find in the ocean and seeing how many crazy sea critters you catch. Turns out, the movie is an all-you-can-eat fish fry and clambake and it's kinda delicious: Aquaman is a superhero movie, a Game of Thrones-like political power struggle, a sweeping mythological adventure, a screwball rom-com, a Lord of the Rings-like epic fantasy, and a story about two brothers who miss their mommy and macho guys who love their daddies. It's a movie where a bunch of local tough guys confronts Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in a tavern, threateningly ask him if he's "the fish boy on the TV", and then do a 180 and beg for a selfie - which Arthur grudgingly acquiesces before doing a 180 and drunkenly parties with them like frat boys. Awright!

Momoa is certainly not without his gruff charms and musky odors and Aquaman takes full advantage of them. Arthur Curry might be a hairy, tattooed, hulking brute with bulletproof skin and super strength, but he's downright Hallmark card poetic about how his parents met. "Theirs was a love that was never meant to be," Arthur breathlessly narrates as we watch the meet-cute of how kindly Maine lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) found the beautiful Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) washed up on his beach during a storm in 1985. Soon, they fall in love and have Arthur, who is referred to as "half-breed" and "bastard" quite regularly by everyone in Atlantis, especially Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur's half-brother who is now King of Atlantis. Atlanna fled the lost undersea kingdom to avoid an arranged marriage but soon Atlantis' stormtroopers find her and force her back home. She's convicted of treason and sacrificed to the blind, ravenous sea monsters in the Trench.

Meanwhile, Arthur was trained by Vulko (Willem Dafoe) in how to use his superpowers and how to fight with a trident. Arthur's greatest power, however, is his ability to talk to fish, and it comes in really handy when Aquaman references Pinocchio. Of course, Arthur becomes a superhero known as the Aquaman and defeated Steppenwolf along with the Justice League, but none of that is important and DCEU admin only gets a passing mention - Aquaman has much bigger fish to fry. Orm wants to unite the remaining four of Atlantis' seven kingdoms and declare himself Ocean Master, then he wants to attack the surface world. Orm's beef with landlubbers is the hundreds of years we've callously polluted the seas with trash and toxic waste; his first-strike is to send tidal waves around the world, returning all of our trash right back to our shores. Frankly, it's hard to not see Orm's point here, and I was kind of on his side - people suck. But Arthur doesn't want the genocide of 7 billion people so he has to stop his half-brother. And the only way to do that, Mera (Amber Heard) the Princess of Atlantis, tells him, is to become King of the Seven Seas. 

However, Arthur is a guy who understands his limitations and knows he's not exactly king material. Regardless, after a Black Panther-like a mano e mano trident fight for the throne between Arthur and Orm, Mera commits treason for a reason and escapes with Arthur to find the lost Trident of Atlan, a super weapon that can command the seas and, according to dusty old Atlantean law, automatically makes whoever can find and wield it the one true King, and every fish man and monster has to obey that law no questions asked! This is where the goofy, Romancing the Stone-like adventure part of the movie kicks in as Arthur and Mera solve grade school riddles to find the Trident, but they also have a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-like romantic interlude in Sicily - before they're rudely attacked by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a deadly science pirate who works for Orm, now wears killer Atlantean armor, and has a grudge against Aquaman over the death of his father. Later, Arthur has a moment on a boat with Mera where he reflects on how he made Manta his enemy by choosing not to save Manta's dad and it's a surprising and pleasing level of thoughtful introspection that shows great depth to the Aquaman. (Wonder Woman also had a nice moment between Diana and Steve Trevor on a boat - those DC superheroes have some of their best banter on boats).

The rest of Aquaman is a giddy and ridiculously entertaining, eye-popping spectacle as the movie shows us all of the Kingdoms of Atlantis lit up by florescent jellyfish, and they are all full of fish men, sea monsters, the aforementioned sharks with frickin' laser beams, giant crabs, giant seahorses, and an octopus playing the bongos underwater that's like a middle finger to Ant-Man and the Wasp's giant ant playing the drums. The Atlanteans also utilize marine life as labor the way The Flintstones made dinosaurs to do their dirty work. There's an effective horror sequence where Arthur and Mera race to escape the swarms of blind, toothy sea monsters of the Trench and a face-to-face confrontation between Arthur and a mythical leviathan named Karathen (voiced by Julie Andrews!), and that's before all of the motley creatures and warriors of the sea go to war with each other, which is settled by Aquaman, clad in his orange and green armor, triumphantly wielding the Trident of Atlan. "He commands the sea!" someone bellows when Aquaman shows up riding Karathen into battle and man, he sure does. 

As Aquaman, Momoa is a magnetic and likable presence who acts before he thinks but impresses Mera by knowing a lot about history. Drinking in a pub and talking about Marcus Agrippa and the history of Rome with King Arthur would be a lot of fun for me. Wilson doesn't have much on the page as Orm, but with a gleam in his eye that betrays he knows a lot more than he's saying, Wilson's charisma clocks Orm in as the best villain the DCEU has offered so far. As Mera, Heard's acting is as stiff as a trident, but we warm to her as she warms to Arthur, and her power to control and weaponize water is used effectively - especially her super cool red wine spike attack. Kidman, playing Janet Van Dyne in the third act, is a royal presence indeed as Queen Atlanna. My favorite scene in the movie not involving sea monsters is the very end when Tom Curry walks to the end of his pier as he has for 20 years and finally finds the ageless Atlanna waiting for him. "You're back! And you're still hot!" (Tom doesn't say that, but we were all thinking it).

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots



The trailers and advertisements for director Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots paint this period drama as a clash of wills between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), and this is accurate but only up to a point. The true enemy of Mary isn't Elizabeth but Scotland itself, specifically the vile Protestant men in court scheming against the Catholic queen. It's actually quite strange to see the Scots as the bad guys; after Braveheart, Outlaw King, and even Trainspotting, it's become cliche to see the Scottish as scrappy underdogs worth cheering for. But the men surrounding Mary Stuart are all heartless assholes who resented being ruled by a woman and they conspired to take her down.

Set between the years 1561 when Mary returned to Scotland after living most of her life in France, reigning briefly as Queen of France, to 1578 when she loses her head thanks to an executioner's axe, Mary Queen of Scots presents the titular monarch's life as one of regal poise and progressive ideas pitted against the constant, sneering disapproval of the men of her court. This includes her bastard half-brother James, Earl of Moray and Regent of Scotland (James McArdle) and the two men who would become Mary's husbands, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston). There's also John Knox (an unrecognizable David Tennant), a Protestant reformer who absolutely hates Mary Stuart's guts and constantly preached shit like "it is more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above Man.” (Knox just hated ladies in general, it seems.) 

Mary's inner circle of handmaidens protected her as best they could, but her secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) paid a high price for the crime of "being one of the girls", i.e. being gay. According to Mary Queen of Scots, the Queen's power hungry husband Lord Darnley was also gay (something Mary didn't realize when he seduced her by performing oral sex on her but then declined her reciprocating) and slept with Rizzio on her wedding night. Later, Darnley joins in a coup that saw a bunch of Scots storm into Mary's chambers and murder Rizzio Julius Caesar-style, effectively placing Mary under house arrest until she raised an army and regained control of the kingdom, granting pardons to the traitors. And this was after she had already defeated her English-supported half-brother James' attempt at a coup. After forgiving James and taking him back into her heart, even making James protector of her son, the future King James I of England and Scotland whom she named after him, her half-brother pulls off another coup attempt, sending Mary into exile in England.

While she was surrounded by a nest of vipers in Scotland, the film's juiciest conflict is between Mary and Elizabeth. The tall, youthful, and beautiful Mary is contrasted by an envious Elizabeth, the husband-less, child-less Virgin Queen who is scarred by smallpox (the film works overtime with makeup and prosthetic nose to try to disguise Robbie's movie star beauty, to moderate effect). Mary's royal bloodline gave her claim to England's throne - possibly a stronger claim than Elizabeth's - but the two Queens mostly communicated by exchanging civil and flattering letters and through envoys. The tension between them centered on the matter of succession; Mary wanted Elizabeth to declare her the presumptive heir to the English crown, while Elizabeth wished for Mary to wed her consort Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn). Neither queen acquiesed the other, but when Mary named Elizabeth James' godmother, the Queen of England agreed to name James her successor. 

Once Mary flees Scotland for sanctuary in England, Mary Queen of Scots delivers the scene it built the entire movie towards: a (fictional) face-to-face confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth where Mary pleaded for Elizabeth to help her regain her throne and then insulted the Queen of England when she refused. As the monarchs, Ronan is remarkable; she's a beautiful, proud, charming, and at times ferocious Mary Stuart (whom the movie doesn't see fit to age despite 17 years of time passing in the film). Despite her top billing, Robbie really only plays a supporting role as Elizabeth and she works hard to convey the multitude of passions Elizabeth hid beneath her Gloriana facade. 

The climactic confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth is like a historical costume drama version of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro's diner scene in Heat but, like Mary Queen of Scots overall, it doesn't quite deliver all of the goods, despite the electric and emotional performances by Ronan and Robbie. However, like in Heat, after the face-to-face, the movie ends with one of them dead and the other regretting it because they kind of liked the person they had to kill. But what can you do? That's the job of being a cop Queen.

Sunday, December 9, 2018




Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) loves her car and that's the beating heart of Travis Knight's Bumblebee, the best live-action Transformers movie and the first to contain depth, sincerity, and is a palpable joy to watch. Like its titular Autobot, Bumblebee is smaller in scale than the other Transformers movies but is also more detailed and heartfelt. And (this is important), unlike Michael Bay's five previous clanking, chaotic cacophonies, watching Bumblebee doesn't feel like you're being punished by being repeatedly smacked in the face with a bag of hammers while rusty nails poke at your eye sockets. It only took 11 years and 6 Transformers movies to get this franchise to roll out in a positive direction, but let's never, ever go back.

Bumblebee succeeds in part by going back; it's a retro-1980s film (the era which was the heyday of Transformers Generation-1) and it's a reboot of Michael Bay's films (sort of). Borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant - with reverential nods to and the pacing of a Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Joe Johnston film sprinkled with some John Hughes - Bumblebee is drenched in nostalgia for a simpler time. The film may be a bit too aggressively '80s, especially with its wall-to-wall soundtrack, but the songs are well-chosen ("You're listening to The Smiths!"), and there's a clever in-joke where it turns out we owe the Decepticons for the gift of the Internet.

This 6th Transformers movie also blows up the continuity of the previous 5 (though, to be fair, nearly every Michael Bay sequel rewrote the history of his previous films). The movie opens on Cybertron (looking just like a kid in the '80s dreamed it would look like and not like what Bay presented) where the Decepticons have conquered the planet (without Megatron, who is never mentioned). Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) orders an evacuation and sends his favorite soldier B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth, a sanctuary he must protect until the rest of the Autobot Resistance can join him. Naturally, the Decepticons follow B to Earth, where they meet Sector-7 Agent Burns (John Cena, who is simply great in this role), a true-blue soldier who doesn't trust robot aliens and has a score to settle with them. However, Sector-7 is seduced by the technology and weaponry the Decepticons offer. Believing the evil robots' lies, the humans decide to work with them to find the "criminal" B-127, despite Burns accurately pointing out the name "Decepticons" should raise a red flag.

Meanwhile, the real story of Bumblebee begins when the damaged Autobot (missing his vocal software) meets Charlie, an 18-year-old girl mourning her dead father and desperately seeking a friend she can confide in. Not unlike John Connor in Terminator 2 finding his father figure in a T-800, Charlie finds her friend in a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle that immediately transforms into a giant robot. Childlike and frightened thanks to his malfunctioning memory core, Bee is endearingly vulnerable and Charlie falls for her car right away. She names him "Bumblebee" and it's Charlie who inspires Bee to learn to use the radio to "talk", a trick he would use to communicate in all of Bay's films set 20+ years in the future (which may or may not happen now).

The bulk of Bumblebee is Charlie getting to know Bee, repairing him, and teaching him to assimilate on Earth while warning him that humans will try to dismantle and destroy him. There's a sequence where Bumblebee enters Charlie's house to explore it and accidentally wrecks everything and then a second where a failed attempt at toilet papering a mean girl's house sees Bee demolish her car that feels like a level up from when the Autobots were 'hiding' in the backyard of Sam Witwicky's house in Bay's 2007 Transformers. But the chemistry between Charlie and Bumblebee is palpable, made all the more remarkable by how immensely talented Hailee Steinfeld is; considering she's acting opposite CGI or a prop or nothing at all, Steinfeld makes you believe Bee is real. The movie adds a helpful third wheel in Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), the boy next door who would very much like to date Charlie, and the three have fun adventures driving around the Northern California coast, with Bumblebee playing Stan Bush's "The Touch" from Transformers: The Movie on the radio to really work the feels for the 80's kids in the audience.

Inevitably, the war between the Autobots and Decepticons comes to Earth and, like E.T., Bumblebee is captured and tortured before Charlie and Memo can save him. Once he's rebooted, Bumblebee remembers he's really, really good at killing Decepticons, and his battles against Triple-Changers Blitzwing (David Sobolov), Shatter (Angela Bassett), and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) are exciting because the Generation-1 designs allow you to see them as robots and not just a collection of shards and gears, therefore, you can tell what's going on when they move and fight. Together, Charlie and Bumblebee save the world, while Agent Burns comes to understand the yellow Volkswagen is on our side. 

In the end, Charlie chooses to part with Bumblebee in a climax as emotionally touching as it is baffling. The film establishes how Bumblebee changes shape into a Camaro (to Charlie's chagrin), which seems to set up how he'll meet Shia LaBeouf in Bernie Mac's used car lot 20 years later - yet the continuity has been completely altered because Optimus Prime and the Autobots immediately join Bumblebee on Earth in 1987 when Transformers establishes they don't arrive until 2007. Regardless, while it's clunky in sections and seems made up of spare parts from previous 1980s classics, Bumblebee is a win for everyone involved and for the entire Transformers franchise, which now has an open road to make better movies like this going forward (hopefully with Steinfeld returning). 

The best thing about Transformers 2007 was the heart of it was a story about a boy and his car, but Bumblebee tops it with its 1987 story of a girl and her car - the film truly understands and reaffirms the mystical bond between woman and machine. Bumblebee is really the first Transformers movie aimed at girls, and dads, bring your daughters to see it. They may come out of Bumblebee wanting a car, but they'll also learn to love their car.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse



"All right, let's do this again..." Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse says repeatedly as a clever in-joke as it introduces every version of Spider-Man in the film, and we're glad they did do it - again. The 7th Spider-Man movie, the first animated theatrical Spider-Man movie, and the first Spider-Man movie featuring Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Into the Spider-Verse is a vivid, electric, and loving examination of all of Spider-Man's tropes, reaffirming why the amazing wall-crawler (any version of him) is the best superhero of all. 

With Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures ImageWorks outdid themselves with absolutely stunning, immersive, and gorgeous animation that turns Spider-Verse into a living comic book (in a way Ang Lee only dreamed of and failed at when he tried something similar with his 2003 Hulk). Just as Pixar's animation was revolutionary and set a new standard for a generation in the 1990s, Sony ImageWorks' animation for Spider-Verse is a dizzingly high new bar that every other studio will be racing to climb up the walls to match. Spider-Verse makes the colorful, melodramatic, and hilarious world of Spider-Man explode onto the screen, presenting an experience unmatched even by the live-action films, while still delivering all the heartfelt emotion and pathos of a proper Spider-Man story.

In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is just an ordinary kid from Brooklyn who feels he doesn't measure up to his cop father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) or his cooler uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Aaron is secretly a supervillain called the Prowler who works for the Kingpin of Crime (Liev Schreiber), and the Kingpin has built a super-collider underneath the city. He plans to use it to breach other dimensions in order to bring back a version of his dead wife Vanessa and son Richard. Instead, Kingpin inadvertently transports a handful of alternate universe Spider-People into his world, who naturally team up with Miles to stop him.

Miles discovers all this as he watches the death of Peter Parker (Chris Pine), who has been Spider-Man in this universe for 10 years and was the most wildly successful version ever (until he died). This Peter Parker was happily married to Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz), has a badass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), a Spider-Cave with Spider-Gadgets and an entire wardrobe of Spider-Costumes. It's an ultra-confident, maximum swagger version of Spider-Man we've never quite seen before, which is why it's all the more crushing for Miles (and us) when this Peter, who wanted to be his mentor, heroically died. Instead, Miles gets a different mentor, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a 38-year-old down-on-his-luck Spider-Man who's out of shape, pining for his ex-wife Mary Jane, and is well past his Spider-Prime. But any port in a Spider-Storm and together, Peter and Miles investigate the Kingpin's company, running afoul of a new, female Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn). 

Of course, the Spider-Men get in trouble and are in over their heads. Luckily, the other Spider-People from the Spider-Verse come to the rescue; along with Spider-Gwen (who was posing as Miles classmate at Brooklyn Visions High School) and Spider-Ham, there's Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime version of Spider-Woman with a Spider-Robot, and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), the brooding, tormented 1930s version of Spider-Man who is perpetually in black and white and is baffled by the mysterious Rubik's Cube. Together, they take on the Kingpin and his arch villains - but, at first, without Miles, who lacks the self-confidence to become what he is meant to be: the Ultimate Spider-Man.

Eventually, Miles Spider-Mans up and adopts his super cool black and red costume, but not without hilarious spins on the training we've seen Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland go through, like Miles chickening out of his first time leaping across rooftops. Into the Spider-Verse is Miles' coming-of-age story, and by the end, when he heroically gets the other Spiders to their proper dimensions and stops Kingpin himself, we are won over when he has truly earned the mantle of Spider-Man. (Even if Officer Davis is confused when the new Spider-Man hugs him tightly and tells him he loves him). 

Thwipping with dynamite in-jokes, Easter eggs, and clever cameos (along with the late Stan Lee's apperarance, Spider-Man 2099's post-credits scene set in the 1967 cartoon is simply brilliant), Into The Spider-Verse reaffirms that with great power comes great responsibility, but what it does best is ignite the sheer power of inspiration the Amazing Spider-Man has over all of our imaginations. Stick around through the credits just to hear Chris Pine's Spider-Man sing the "Spider-Bells" Christmas carol.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Robin Hood (2018)



Robin Hood is an origin story, but that's not really unusual. After all, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Sir Ridley Scott's Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe were also origin stories. However, this Robin Hood origin story is the first to establish that the main reason Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton) became Robin Hood is because he happened to have two hands. Robin Hood is also the first Robin Hood story where a bunch of his allies takes turns pulling arrows out of Robin's body. (He's fine, though. He's always fine after being shot with arrows.)

Anyway, the hand thing: after he was drafted (no, really, he gets a draft notice in the mail) to fight in the Third Crusade, Robin encountered a Saracen warrior named Azeem Yahya (Jamie Foxx). Their fight cost Yahya his left hand, but later, Robin (for some reason) decided to save Yahya's son from being executed. He failed, got kicked out of Arabia and sent back to Nottingham, but this noble act earned him Yahya's respect. It turns out Yahya's full name, loosely translated, is John Little, and he's got a plan, see. He's gonna use this rich white boy to steal all of the money the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) has been collecting to fund his war effort. John would do it himself, but he's only got one hand now, thanks to Robin, but that white boy has two hands so he can still shoot a bow and arrow. Therefore, Robin has to be the one to become the Hood and steal from the Sheriff of Nottingham.

You see, in this weird ass universe, the Sheriff is in league with the Catholic Church to pay for the Third Crusade - but they're also secretly in league with Arabia for... why, exactly, isn't clear. To make Nottingham great again, maybe. The Sheriff of Nottingham is very much the Sheriff of Nationalism and he likes to give paranoid, racist speeches about Arabians coming to take over Nottingham (England is never mentioned in this movie; there is only Nottingham, a 12th-century city with paved streets). Also, in this weird ass universe, swords apparently don't exist - everyone, from Robin Hood to the Sheriff's soldiers to the Arabian warriors uses bows and arrows, even in close quarter combat. And they say things like "report to your unit", "I want information on troop deployment", and "Thank you for your service."

Anyway, John Little trains Robin to be the fastest and bestest archer and a super thief, while Robin adopts his secret identity as Robin of Loxley. As Robin of Loxley, Robin pretends to be a callow rich guy who gets in good with the Sheriff to learn his evil plot. He doesn't actually have to pretend to be callow (it comes naturally), but pretending to like the Sheriff not only gets him an audience with the Catholic Church's evil Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham!) but the ruse also has the unfortunate side effect of the Sheriff telling Robin his own origin story of how the priests who raised him sodomized him repeatedly with a broomstick. Hence, the stick up his ass isn't just metaphorical. 

Anyway, John and Robin go on a bunch of missions to steal from the Sheriff and no one knows who this mysterious, masked Hood is, despite the fact that John and Robin scream "JOHN!" and "ROBIN!" to each other every time they make a frantic getaway. As for why Robin is doing any of this at all, well, he's doing it for a girl - Marian (Eve Hewson) - who promised she'd wait for him to come home from the war but started dating Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan), a local rabble-rouser who worries a lot about his "political career", when false word came from the Holy Land that Robin of Loxley was dead. Marian eventually figures out Robin is the Hood and joins up with him on their last gambit to steal the Sheriff's money, but Will catches them snogging and decides to turn and join up with Cardinal F. Murray Abraham to become the new Sheriff. This sets up a sequel that will never happen.

Look, let's shoot straight: the movie is terrible. Taron Egerton plays the worst Robin Hood ever, a guy without a brain in his head who has no idea what he's doing or even why he's doing it. Jamie Foxx is the brains and the brawn of this whole operation, and it's nice to see Paul Anderson (Arthur from Peaky Blinders) as Guy of Gisborne, but the plot is a bewildering mess broken up by a bewildering chase scene every time Robin dons the hood, and they never even make it to Sherwood Forest. Now, I haven't seen every Robin Hood movie but I've seen enough of them, and this Robin Hood movie is the first time I've ever wanted Robin Hood to die in a Robin Hood movie.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Creed II



When Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in the new LA home of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) to train him in his rematch against the hulking Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the following exchange occurs:

Rocky: "Your natural style just won't work with a guy that big."
Adonis: "What, you saying your's is better?"
Rocky: "I won, didn't I?"

He sure did. Creed II is not only a sequel to the 2015 film that reinvigorated the Rocky franchise, but it's also an amalgam of Rocky II, III, and IV. Co-written by Stallone, Creed II melds the major beats of those Rocky sequels all in one film: Three years since being publicly revealed as the son of the late Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, whose ghost looms large in Adonis' life), Adonis becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, just like his old man and his mentor Rocky. This happens at the start of the film so that Creed II can segue into becoming a sequel to Rocky IV: halfway around the world, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, delivering a career-best performance) has been training his own son Viktor as a prizefighter. Drago is nursing 33 years of hurt after losing the pivotal fight to Rocky in 1985 - his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) left him and their young son, and his name has been scorned in his country for decades. The son of Apollo Creed vs the son of Ivan Drago is a marquee narrative, but Rocky has been through this already and wants no part of this sequel.

Without Rocky to train him, Adonis flies off the handle more than once and is utterly humiliated by Viktor. Only a technicality kept Drago from winning the title, but he hospitalizes Adonis and shatters his spirit, just when he and his pop star fiancee Bianca (Tessa Thompson) are about to have a baby (not unlike how Rocky and Adrian had their son in Rocky II). Without his self-confidence, Adonis flails around and lashes out in anger, not unlike how Rocky lost the "Eye of the Tiger" after Mickey (Burgess Meredith) died and he was humiliated by Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in Rocky III. But the Dragos won't go away and the rematch looms. Finally, Rocky returns to Adonis' life and trains him - in the California desert this time instead of Siberia - for Adonis' rematch with Viktor in Russia. The Rocky IV redux goes a little differently; though Adonis does prevail, a neat detail is how Rocky adhering to Apollo's wishes and not stopping the fight comes full-circle when Ivan is forced to make the same choice to save his son in the ring.

Creed II is filled with thrilling, insightful character work and moments of extraordinary power. Finally, Adonis emerges as his own man - not the charming gabber Apollo was but not a carbon copy of Rocky in the ring either - and the film thoroughly explores Adonis' psyche, a challenge Jordan rises to. The best characters, however, are the Dragos, and we wish there was just a bit more of them in the film, which does delve into how Ivan raised Viktor in the shadow of his greatest failure. For Rocky IV fans, the scene where Ivan appears in Rocky's restaurant is like the Rocky version of the DeNiro/Pacino diner scene in Heat. Creed II also wraps up all of the franchise's lingering plot threads; nearly every living character makes an appearance and Rocky not only beats the cancer he was diagnosed with in the first Creed, but he reunites with his estranged son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) and meets his young grandson Logan. 

The biggest hit against Creed II is its length and pacing. As remarkable as the moments are, the first half of the picture is glacially paced, and the final film (which has a strangely muted sound design) feels listless until the third act and the final fight with Viktor. It's also a shame that Adonis isn't the great communicator his father was, and that after two Creed films, he still doesn't have his own iconic theme music, relying instead on Rocky's familiar score to punch up the emotions. But again, there are aspects of Creed II that are jaw-droppingly good, such as Adonis' ring entrance during his rematch with Viktor where Bianca defiantly sings him into the ring in front of a partisan Russian crowd. 

When Adonis' baby is born, Rocky has a brief chat with Apollo's widow Mary Anne. Rocky tells her, "I'm gonna do what I can", to which she replies, "Your being here is enough." This exchange is like a meta-commentary for Stallone's continued involvement in the whole Rocky/Creed franchise. Now that nearly every sequel has been homaged, the question is where does Creed go from here? (Hopefully not copying Rocky V.) Rocky remains a pivotal part of the Creed films - he's still arguably the most important character - but by the end of Creed II we begin to see that maybe there can be one more round without Rocky Balboa in Adonis' corner. Hopefully, Rocky and Stallone go the distance with any further sequels, but should Adonis ultimately lose Rocky, Creed II gives the impression the franchise could withstand even that potential knockout blow and keep moving forward.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ronda Rousey's Survivor Series Performance Was One For The Ages


I've watched the fight between Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair at Survivor Series three times. The match is incredible. To me, it's the WWE Match of the Year, and more importantly, with Charlotte's help (it takes two to tango in wrestling), Survivor Series marked Ronda's true WWE baptism of fire. I believe it's the match that truly made the former UFC Bantamweight Champion a pro-wrestler, but not just any wrestler. Survivor Series proved Ronda Rousey is among the most elite performers in WWE. Not because she won the match, which she only did by disqualification, but because in the grand scheme of things, she failed - but in failure, her character evolved.

In front of a partisan crowd at Staples Center in LA, Rousey, the undefeated RAW Women's Champion, faced Smackdown Live's Charlotte Flair in a match for bragging rights. The crowd was against Ronda, but they weren't necessarily pro-Charlotte as much as they were united in support for the injured Becky Lynch. The Smackdown Women's Champion was supposed to be Ronda's opponent after weeks of incredible hype (much of it innovated by Ronda on social media) but Becky had to bow out of this Super Fight due to injury. They'll face each other down the road (maybe even headline WrestleMania) but Charlotte Flair - another dream match for Ronda - was the best possible substitute. Still, Becky's specter loomed over the match, thanks to the fans at Staples Center who treated Ronda as the villain and Becky's proxy Charlotte as if "The Queen" were "The Man" herself.

It also felt like the storyline at Survivor Series was meant for Becky but was given to Charlotte virtually unchanged. The match seemed designed to present the two Women's Champions as equals but Becky/Charlotte grows desperate in her inability to beat Ronda and resorts to weapons and violence, cementing her as the villain (albeit one the crowd will lustily cheer for). Essentially, this is exactly what happened: Ronda and Charlotte fought a relentless and brutal war of attrition. Ronda bled from the mouth early, seemingly from being driven face-first into the bottom turnbuckle. After promising on Instagram to make Charlotte bleed, it was Ronda who gushed blood for the entire duration. And despite Ronda destroying Alexa Bliss to win the RAW Women's Title at Summerslam, in Charlotte, she faced an opponent who was bigger, arguably stronger, but definitely possessed more big match experience and victories than anyone in the Women's locker room (including Becky). 

The match was mesmerizing, intense, nuanced, yet barbaric in a way nothing else at Survivor Series was, nor has there been anything quite as violent from the WWE Women's division before. Ronda wasn't a destroyer; she was in trouble and fighting from underneath for most of the match. Try as she might, Ronda couldn't overpower Charlotte or make her submit but alternately, Charlotte also couldn't put Ronda away. But still, it was clear Charlotte was punishing Ronda and pushing her to her absolute physical limits, forcing Ronda to dig deep and move beyond them. Finally, Charlotte 'snapped' and annihilated Rousey, breaking a kendo stick over her body with multiple strikes and then savaging Ronda with a steel chair. Even in her real-life losses in the octagon, Ronda has never looked so helpless and vulnerable. She won by DQ, but it was an unhinged Charlotte who stood over the vanquished "Baddest Woman on the Planet". Ronda walked out of the ring under her own power, but the scars, bruises, and welts all over her body, as well as the anguish on her face, told the real story of the night. 

Ronda wasn't carried off on her shield, but she was humiliated in a WWE ring for the first time. Her patina of invincibility was shattered by a beating unlike any she'd ever endured before. Worse, the pro-Becky crowd mocked her, booed her, and chanted "You deserved it!" (She didn't.) And now that she has survived this unique kind of WWE hell, Ronda Rousey really gets interesting.

For WWE, Ronda Rousey is a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition who, in less than a year, has paid off beyond their wildest dreams. Her peers Kurt Angle came from the Olympics, Ken Shamrock came from MMA, Brock Lesnar came from amateur wrestling (and jumped to UFC), and The Rock is a third generation star. All of them brilliantly picked up the professional wrestling business like Ronda has, but none of them (except maybe Angle) walked into WWE with the baggage of being one of the most famous athletes in the world like Ronda. Any doubts that Rousey could hang in WWE were dispelled by her wildly entertaining performance at WrestleMania against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. But in her singles career - one that would bring her the RAW Women's Title and the position of leadership of the women's division sooner than many fans would have liked - Ronda was good on her word: she promised she wouldn't just be a 'special attraction'. She promised she would be on RAW weekly and work the house show tours like everyone else - and she has. She's not cashing in on a multi-million-dollar contract and trading on her fame; she is a full-time member of the roster who is serious about her WWE career. Survivor Series proved once and for all how serious Ronda is.

Ronda is also a fascinating wrestler who is unlike anyone else in WWE. Her reputation as "The Baddest Woman on the Planet" always precedes her and her aura is that she's invincible, but she is still undeniably new at pro wrestling. However, she has taken to WWE like a duck to water. It's not merely that she can execute moves like spinning Samoan drops and hurricaranas; Ronda gets the little things, the in-between things that make a match captivating and fun to watch. Nobody 'sells' like her; it's always amazing to see when she's hurt and vulnerable during a match, and her talent for this made her Survivor Series match off-the-charts suspenseful. As proficient as Rousey is already (and remember - she's a rookie with only a few dozen matches and a handful of PPV matches performed at the highest level), the fact that she still feels raw and unpolished only makes her more compelling as a performer. Everything she does feels genuine, and she brings enrapturing emotion in spades. 

Which makes what happened at Survivor Series all the more remarkable: Ronda still hasn't been beaten and the way the story with Charlotte went, in a purely physical contest, maybe Ronda can't be beaten (yet?). But her newness to WWE and the impression that Ronda always expects a fair match lets heels like Charlotte use the WWE system of anything goes against her. It's still novel and mind-blowing to see Ronda Rousey get absolutely destroyed with pro-wrestling staples like steel chairs and kendo sticks. And please shut your traps about the whole 'pro-wrestling isn't real' garbage; the blood and bruises all over Ronda's body after Survivor Series tell the real story about how real WWE can get. Meanwhile, she may still be a rookie but Ronda is quickly making up for lost time - that thrashing she took at Survivor Series packed a ten-year career of pro-wrestling beatdowns into one match.

What happens next will be the real story for Ronda Rousey that demands watching. She's still the RAW Women's Champion but she's tasted failure and has been embarrassed on a global stage. She has a brand new arch enemy in Charlotte Flair, but she still needs to have her showdown with Becky Lynch (where the fans will again treat her as the villain), and she has the dangerous obstacle of Nia Jax (the first woman in WWE to physically manhandle her) coming for her RAW Women's Title. But her failure at Survivor Series is key - someone who can't be beaten isn't interesting. That's what makes WWE fascinating, everyone from The Undertaker to The Rock to Stone Cold Steve Austin to Ric Flair to Shawn Michaels to Brock Lesnar to Triple H to John Cena fails. All of them have suffered devastating losses in their careers that only made their rising up in triumph more meaningful. Ronda Rousey joins that elite list; she lost one war but there will inevitably another war to fight. What this means is, she's a pro-wrestler.

Most importantly, at Survivor Series, we saw Ronda's heart, her commitment to delivering above and beyond even the high level expected of her, and what kind of a performer she really is and is capable of being. It's evident Ronda Rousey isn't in WWE merely for money or for fame (she could continue acting in Hollywood blockbusters for more money and none of the danger); she is putting her body on the line in WWE because she must really love this business, just as the fans do. Her ordeal at Survivor Series only added new dimensions to Ronda Rousey's legend. The "Baddest Woman on the Planet" walked out of Survivor Series with a technical win and a moral defeat, but in the grand scheme of WWE, Ronda Rousey has absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt she's best for business.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Outlaw King



Outlaw King is a lot like Braveheart but is missing Braveheart's gross historical inaccuracies. It's also missing that thing Braveheart had that enraptures your emotions, that rousing, uplifting feeling it gives you while William Wallace is being drawn, quartered, and dismembered - but still urging "FREEEDOOOOMMM!!!" Speaking of William Wallace and his members, parts of him do make a cameo in Outlaw King. His severed arm makes an early and pivotal appearance in the first act, which incites the Scottish people to riot against England once again, and in turn makes Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) decide maybe he should press his claim to become King of Scots, after all, never mind the fealty he swore to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). William Wallace's severed head (but not Mel Gibson's) also appears; it's mounted on a pike at London Bridge. Good to see you, old friend!

Essentially, Outlaw King is about the end of Mel Gibson's narration that closed out Braveheart: "They fought like warrior-poets... and won their freedom." Except Outlaw King isn't quite as rosy; Robert the Bruce's rise to lead Scotland begins with cold-blooded mur-diddly-urder when he kills the guy who also has claim to the Scottish throne, John Comyn (Callan Mulvey). In the Bruce's defense, Comyn was totally gonna rat Robert out to Edward. From there, Robert becomes King of Scots and everything works out for him, except for the humiliating defeats he suffers in battle, how his army is ambushed in the middle of the night and again as they flee, and how his brothers are executed and his wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) and daughter Marjorie are imprisoned in England. But all of that just means Robert the Bruce can mount a brave, heroic comeback and emerge victorious in the end.

As King Edward, Dillane isn't as ostentatiously evil as Patrick McGoohan was when he played "King Longshanks" in Braveheart, but he sure does love Greek fire (almost as much as Stannis Baratheon liked wildfire). The ostentatious evil is delivered by his son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a scheming weakling who fancies himself a military strongman and ruthless conqueror. The Prince of Wales seems to only exist because he wants to duel Robert the Bruce; after their opening act 'friendly contest' is disrupted, Edward II finally gets his rematch at the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill. The Prince totally blows it and scuttles off in a pukey panic. Good times. 

As Robert, Pine is mournful and contemplative rather than dynamic. The real Bruce was said to be more of a politician and schemer, but Pine plays him as almost reluctant to do all the things he has to do to lead a united Scotland. As Elizabeth, Pugh is loyal, intelligent, and far more interesting, but she's relegated to a supporting role as she has no place on the battlefield. As James "The Black" Douglas, an almost-unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a powderkeg. The battle scenes are visceral and bloody but the film only sporadically feels epic. Returning to the unavoidable Braveheart comparison, thanks to Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning myth-making, William Wallace remains the grander movie presence. Outlaw King, while truer to history, still doesn't elevate Robert the Bruce to an equal stature.

For the history of what happened after Outlaw King's ending and how Scotland won their independence, I wrote about it at Screen Rant.

For that scene involving Chris Pine's pine cone, click here.