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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.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story



The Girl in the Spider's Web would like to know: Have you seen David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? You have? Great. How well do you remember it? Not that well? Even better. A few more questions, if you wouldn't mind: Do you remember Skyfall? Yes, the James Bond one. You liked Skyfall? Good. What about Jason Bourne? Of course, you do. Excellent. Okay, before you go and watch the new movie, how much do you like bleak, colorless, snowy shots of Stockholm that invoke foreboding and dread? You're good with that. Well, terrific, that about wraps it up. You should have a pretty good time at Girl in the Spider's Web, then. Wait, one last question: You're not one of those 'critical' types who like to think too much about the movie you're watching, are you? Hmm, well, just try to enjoy it anyway. Okay, off you go. Roll the picture.

In Spider's Web, Claire Foy steps into the iconic (Sony hopes) role of Lisbeth Salander, taking over for Rooney Mara, who took over for Noomi Rapace in the Swedish-made Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Three Lisbeth Salanders in five movies in under ten years - even James Bond or Batman can't touch that recasting feat. Speaking of the Batman, that's essentially who this soft rebooted Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is when she's reintroduced in Spider's Web - she's Stockholm's silent guardian and watchful protector, specifically "the woman who hurts men who hurt women" (and in the late Steig Larsson's universe of books and films, Lisbeth is perpetually busy and business is always booming because Swedes are a nasty, abusive, misogynistic piece of work). 

'Implausible' is the word that comes to mind when watching The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story. Lisbeth was always a gifted hacker, driven, relentless, and not one for idle chitchat or human interaction (besides needing regular sex), but Spider's Web refashions her as a little Swedish Terminator. Now a full-fledged action hero who can ride her motorcycle across a frozen lake, Lisbeth takes multiple beatings and keeps on ticking. She's also apparently clairvoyant: her ability to, say, walk into a crowded airport, know where to leave luggage, and know the exact time airport security will pick it up and bring it to the back, which happens to be the same room as an imprisoned NSA hacker (LaKeith Stanfield) whose help she needs is waiting so that the cell phone she planted in the bag can cybernetically take over the security system and free Stanfield so that he'll walk by the exact garbage bin at the exact moment she calls him so he can be at her location two minutes later to punch out the cop who has her cornered holds up not at all to any logical dissection. But Lisbeth can do all of that. She knows how to control a bridge to raise it and thus escape from the bad guys pursuing her. She knows everything all the time. And if she's momentarily surprised, she's then instantly and suddenly five steps ahead of the people who just surprised her. 

To her credit, Foy is all-in as Salander and while this mostly involves her looking deer-in-headlights alarmed, she digs into Lisbeth's internal life to try to convey the complexity of this character - but it really helps if you've seen the other Dragon Tattoo film(s) to fill in the blanks as to why Lisbeth does anything she does - or  why she even cares. Instead of a dense, character piece like Fincher's film, the new movie is interested in propulsive, violent action above all else; it doles out backstory and subtext in a perfunctory manner, and this especially holds true for the villain of the story: Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks), the sister Lisbeth left behind to be raped and abused "for 16 years!" (so nice, she says it twice) by their crime lord father when she ran away from home. Hoeks was so charismatic and frightening as Luv, the evilest Replicant in Blade Runner 2049 - here, she provides what menace she can with what little she's given. 

This is where all the Skyfall comes into play. You remember Skyfall, right? Girl in the Spider's Web sure does! Skyfall made Sony a billion dollars - let's do it again! Like Bond and Silva (Javier Bardem), Lisbeth meets a twisted, evil version of herself who now runs a shadowy criminal organization bent on cyber terrorism - Camilla wants "Sky -" sorry, "Firefall", a program that allows an individual to control the world's nuclear arsenal. This whole sordid plot is deeply rooted in Lisbeth's origin and the violent, guns-blazing climax of Spider's Web even takes place at Skyfall - or rather, the dilapidated Salander family mansion - in the middle of winter, which Lisbeth makes sure is blown up by the end. If that doesn't hammer it home enough, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), Lisbeth's journalist ex-lover, even goes to meet with a guy to get info, and the guy peels off his nose to reveal he's missing parts of his face - just like Silva showed Bond when MI-6 captured him. It's enough to make you wonder why Adele isn't crooning Lisbeth Salander's theme.

Finally, let's talk about Mikael Blomkvist- why is he even in the movie? Dragon Tattoo was about Blomkvist and Lisbeth learning to work together and trust each other to uncover the sordid truth behind Harriet Vanger's disappearance. That film was an equal partnership. In Spider's Web, Blomkvist is wholly unnecessary - even the tiny thing Lisbeth asks him to investigate she could have easily done herself along with the dozen other implausible things she was handling solo. It's not even like this is the character Dragon Tattoo fans might remember - he isn't! He's Mikael Blomkvist in name only; he's now inexplicably younger than Daniel Craig's version, Gudnason barely has any scenes and no chemistry with Foy, and Blomkvist doesn't even publish the story about "The Girl in the Spider's Web" in his magazine Millennium. This is probably because there's no Mikhail Blomkvist in Skyfall, so the filmmakers really had nothing for him to copy in Spider's Web but they still felt they had to include him. One thing's for sure: the guy who will eventually replace Daniel Craig as James Bond won't be Sverrir Gudnason. (Or Lisbeth Salander for that matter - but they sure are trying.)