Creed II review

CREED II

Director : Steven Caple Jr.
Cast : Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby
Genre : Sports/Drama
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

           As Killmonger in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan may have lost the throne to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, but in this sequel to Creed, he’s trying to hold on to that championship belt.

It is three years after the events of the first film, and Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has enjoyed a string of victories, becoming the newly-crowned WBC World Heavyweight Champion. However, Adonis’ reign is threatened by the formidable Viktor Dragon (Florian Munteanu). There is a personal reason Adonis accepts Viktor’s challenge: Viktor’s father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) killed Adonis’ father Apollo some 33 years ago.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis’ coach, warns against taking on Viktor, fearful of history repeating itself. In the meantime, Adonis’ girlfriend-turned-fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has given birth to their daughter Amara. Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris), whose father trained Apollo Creed, helps Rocky prepare Adonis to face off against Viktor. Adonis’ mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) must brace herself for the possibility that just as she lost her husband to Ivan, she will lose her son to another Drago. The stage is set for an epic confrontation with everything on the line.

2015’s Creed established both star Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler as bona fide stars; both went on to further earn this status with this year’s Black Panther. Director Steven Caple Jr., also a young, promising filmmaker, has big shoes to fill. He directs Creed II with an eye for drama, focusing on the relationships between the characters more than the spectacle. While this means that the story has room to breathe and the performers have space to make an impact, it also means that the film is not as propulsive or exciting as some might have hoped.

Creed II emerges as a less personal work than its predecessor, but there’s quite a bit here for long-time Rocky fans to sink their teeth into. A bout between Adonis Creed and the progeny of the icily unyielding Ivan Drago is almost too obvious a sequel plot, but it works. If Creed was built upon formula, then Creed II follows established sports drama tropes even closer, meaning that while there is some satisfaction to be had in the way the story turns out, there are few surprises.

Both Jordan and Stallone anchor this film as they did the previous one, and there is conflict in the relationship between Adonis and Rocky, but there is also great warmth. Adonis has let success get to his head, and rejects the wisdom Rocky has to offer, but cannot go too long without Rocky in his corner. Jordan’s physique continues to be impressive and swoon-worthy, living up to his character’s namesake Greek god. Jordan tempers the intensity he brings to the fight scenes with a playful boyishness, keeping Adonis likeable even when he’s too headstrong for his own good.

Stallone co-wrote the film with Juel Taylor, with Sascha Penn and Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker getting a ‘story by’ credit. Stallone had to be convinced by Coogler to sign off on the first Creed, so now that Stallone has a greater involvement in crafting the sequel, it’s good that the film doesn’t seem like a vanity project, with the movie dedicating just the right amount of screen time to Rocky.

Tessa Thompson’s Bianca did feel a little too much like the designated love interest the first time around, and while the character is mostly there to give Adonis that much more to fight for, she does have agency in the proceedings. Bianca becomes a mother but is also moving forward in her music career. In showing the warmth and support that surrounds Adonis in the form of Rocky, Bianca and Adonis’ mother Mary Anne, the film contrasts this with the stark coldness that Viktor grows up in.

Creed II outshines the first movie when it comes to the villains. Real-life Romanian-born, German-raised boxer Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu looks every inch the giant bruiser that has us afraid for Adonis’ safety. The harshness that characterises Ivan’s relationship with his son is not overly cartoony and engenders sympathy for both characters even as they threaten our heroes.

Lundgren has some of the film’s best moments, showcasing genuine acting chops and conveying the personal ruin that was the aftermath of Ivan’s humiliating defeat at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV. The confrontation between Ivan and Rocky in Rocky’s restaurant is one of the film’s standout moments, and Lundgren gets the chance to shade Ivan with the depth he didn’t quite have as the villain of Rocky IV.

Creed II is a solidly built film, sticking closely with the characters rather than getting carried away with overblown spectacle. While it delivers in terms of giving weight to its links to the earlier Rocky films instead of those connections feeling like mere fanservice, the movie demands its audience’s patience, and because it is so predictable, doesn’t quite pay that off. It’s not bad by any means, but we don’t quite see the need for a Creed III after this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Robin Hood (2018) review

ROBIN HOOD

Director : Otto Bathurst
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Eve Hewson, Ben Mendelsohn, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Anderson
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

Robin Hood may steal from the rich to give to the poor, but he’s given Hollywood quite a lot since movies first existed. From Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn, from Kevin Costner to Russell Crowe and from Cary Elwes to an anthropomorphic fox, this new trip through Sherwood Forest has Taron Egerton of Kingsman fame wielding the bow and arrow.

Lord Robin of Loxley (Taraon Egerton) is in love with Marian (Eve Hewson), a woman of a much lower social status. Their romance is rudely interrupted when Robin is drafted to fight in Arabia in the Third Crusades. While at war, Robin meets the Moor Yahya/John (Jamie Foxx), who is on the opposing side but who admires Robin’s principles and sees potential in the young nobleman-turned-soldier.

Robin returns to England to find the people being taxed to the breaking point by the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Under John’s guidance, Robin forges himself into a vigilante called the Hood, who steals from the Sheriff’s coffers and who eventually inspires a revolution. Alongside Marian, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) and Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), Robin leads the townspeople of Nottinghamshire in an uprising against the Sheriff and the Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham).

Because Robin Hood has been a mainstay of western popular culture for centuries, every time a new movie or TV version is announced, the first reaction is wont to be “do we really need this?” In a bid to prove its relevance, this new Robin Hood movie must set itself apart, aesthetically and otherwise, from its forbears. As a result, we get plenty of anachronistic costumes and an overtly political story – this version casts Robin as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who leads proletariat protesters in a clash on the streets against what are essentially medieval riot police. There is quite a lot here to inspire an eye roll or two, but surprisingly, this Robin Hood is not altogether charmless and is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a voiceover that might as well go “this isn’t your grandfather’s Robin Hood”. Visual cues appear to be taken from the Arrow TV show (which is a little funny since the DC Comics character Green Arrow was directly inspired by Robin Hood), Assassins Creed and Game of Thrones. The action sequences are sufficiently propulsive and engaging, and the brutality does push the PG-13 rating a little. Despite the historically inaccurate costumes, the film doesn’t look cheap thanks to location filming in Croatia, Hungary, France and Morocco.

Taron Egerton pushes his Robin just an inch away from the stock boring hero type. The back-story given to Robin is familiar but mildly affecting, and this version plays up Robin’s status as an elite himself. Robin breaks bread with the upper crust by day and fights for the little guy by night, a little like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro or Batman. Egerton brings the right amount of endearing boyishness and hunky physicality to the part.

Jamie Foxx’s Little John is one of the story’s big departures from traditional tellings of the Robin Hood myth. It’s a serious turn for the actor and the character suffers some real losses within minutes of his introduction. There’s something vaguely inspiring in seeing Robin and John put aside their obvious differences to fight the oppressors, even if the seeing the beginnings of the merry men isn’t as thrilling as the filmmakers imagine it to be.

Maid Marian is often side-lined in Robin Hood stories, and while there is an attempt to give the character some agency, she still doesn’t get a whole lot to do. As played by Eve Hewson, Marian is kind of a community organiser who feeds the poor and rallies the people, and she winds up being instrumental in the revolution. The love triangle between Robin, Marian and Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlet adds minimal dramatic tension and is one of the cheesier parts of the film.

Ben Mendelsohn has carved out a niche in Hollywood as the go-to guy for middle management supervillain roles, and the Sheriff of Nottingham falls right into that niche. It’s nothing we haven’t seen him done before, but it’s still some of the best bits of the movie. Mendelsohn alternates between sneering and screaming in a way that’s reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s many memorable villain roles, and it is a joy to hear the Sheriff of Nottingham go “they’re taking my money! KILL THEM!”

Tim Minchin adds a dash of Python-esque comic relief as Friar Tuck. This is clearly not the best use of Minchin’s myriad talents (the man composed the Matilda musical), but his presence in the movie does help keep things from being too self-serious.

2018’s Robin Hood deserves some – maybe most –  but not all, of the cynicism it has been expectedly greeted with. We’ve seen studios try and fail at turning public domain characters into a comic book movie-esque franchise and Robin Hood’s sequel-begging is a little embarrassing, but in all its attempts to be ‘hip’ and relevant, this movie isn’t as entirely annoying as it could’ve been.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ralph Breaks the Internet movie review

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Director : Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Cast : John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Flula Borg
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Family
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 22 November 2018
Rating : PG

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-posterWreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) may come from different arcade games, but after the events of the first Wreck-It Ralph film, they’ve become inseparable. In this sequel, the good-hearted oaf and the hyperactive princess get a lot more than they bargained for as they venture into the wild wild web.

It has been six years since Ralph and Vanellope became friends, and while Ralph finds comfort in the predictability of his daily routine as the designated villain  in the Fix-It Felix game, Vanellope has grown restless, the tracks of Sugar Rush no longer providing any excitement. When the steering wheel component of the Sugar Rush console breaks, Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly-installed connection to the internet to seek a replacement.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Ralph-overlooking-internet

In the cyber realm, our heroes meet all manner of colourful characters, including the badass driver Shank (Gal Gadot) from Slaughter Race, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), head algorithm of video sharing site BuzzTube, search engine KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk) and all the Disney princesses. While the internet contains endless wonderment and awe, there is also a dark side that Ralph and Vanellope are exposed to. When a calamity that could possibly break the internet is accidentally unleashed, Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship (and the computing power of servers around the world) will be put to the ultimate test.

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2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is one of this reviewer’s favourite Disney animated films in recent memory. It’s an energetic, effervescent film that cannily plays with video game tropes while delivering a heartfelt story populated by loveable characters. The sequel turbo-charges this, taking place on a larger scale and crammed with pop culture references, wordplay jokes and visual gags. Amidst everything swirling about in the teeming metropolis that is the internet, Ralph Breaks the Internet holds together because of its focus on the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Oh-My-Disney

It’s easy to be cynical about a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet, given that much of the story and humour is fuelled by online culture. Co-director Rich Moore cut his teeth on such series as The Critic, The Simpsons and Futurama, bringing much of that self-aware reference-heavy comedy to bear. A Grand Theft Auto-like game is crucial to the plot, Vanellope hangs out with Disney princesses, and Ralph attempts makeup tutorial, hot pepper eating challenge and unboxing videos, among others, in the hopes of becoming a viral sensation. The jokes could’ve very easily been too obvious or cringe-worthy, but in the hands of directors Moore and Phil Johnston, this film never feels like it’s made by clueless adults pandering to kids they don’t understand.

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As is expected from Disney Animation, the visuals brim with detail and the character animation is just the right amount of cartoony, the degree to which their features and expressions are heightened varying from character to character. There is a high-octane car chase straight out of the Fast and Furious films, and the visual interpretations of sites like eBay, Instagram and Pinterest are well thought-out and amusing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-slumber-party

The film’s signature sequence is the meeting between Vanellope and every official Disney Princess, including Snow White (Pamela Ribon), Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodie Benson), Belle (Paige O’Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Merida (Kelly McDonald), Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). Ribon, a screenwriter who also worked on Moana, conceptualised the scene. The House of Mouse gamely and entertainingly takes the Mickey out of its own core sub-brand, commenting on common tropes seen in the Princess movies while providing the fantasy imagery of all one’s favourite characters just hanging out together. Vanellope also runs into Marvel and Star Wars characters, and there is a cameo that is wont to tug on the heartstrings given recent events.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-eBay

Both Reilly and Silverman continue to provide great humanity and heart to their characters. Ralph has never had a real friend before Vanellope, and is understandably distraught at the prospect that he might be replaced as her best friend. Meanwhile, Vanellope struggles with issues of identity and belonging, feeling like she is meant for something greater and perhaps a little less safe than Sugar Rush. While the misunderstandings that occur between Ralph and Vanellope feel a little like a re-tread of the conflicts in the first film, both characters continue to develop and continue to be endearing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Shank

Gal Gadot plays a character who is pretty much exactly Gisele from the Fast and Furious series, which is a neat little nod. Taraji P. Henson voices the Yesss with effortless cool, with real-life YouTube personality Flula Borg as Yesss’ right-hand man Maybe. Alan Tudyk, Disney’s current lucky charm, voices KnowsMore; he voiced King Candy in the first film.

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While Ralph Breaks the Internet’s pop culture reference jokes might lose some of the younger kids, its eye-catching design and heart-warming character interactions will hold their interest. The film doesn’t reach the surprising emotional heights of the first film, nor is it as creative and fresh, but it’s still plenty of fun and utterly hilarious. Stick around for a scene after the main-on-end titles and another at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Brontis Jodorowsky
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy/Drama
Run Time : 134 mins
Opens : 15 November 2018
Rating : PG

The Wizarding World gains a new wrinkle as writer J.K. Rowling takes us deeper into the happenings that far preceded young Harry Potter’s enrolment at Hogwarts. It is 1927 and leaving off the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is still being reprimanded by the Ministry of Magic for his involvement in the chaos in New York the previous year. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt’s former Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, entrusts him with a special mission: find and defeat the treacherous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), with whom Dumbledore has a shared past.

Grindelwald’s agenda of Pureblood wizard supremacy and complete control over the non-magical population requires one special ingredient: Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is off in search of his identity. Newt, reuniting with MACUSA Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), must get to Credence before Grindelwald does, as Grindelwald amasses more support for his dangerous ideology.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the flaws of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and amplifies them. While the first Fantastic Beasts movie was ostensibly a whimsical monster movie about a tweedy textbook author who is flung into a larger-than-life adventure, The Crimes of Grindelwald is on its way to almost entirely dropping that pretence, pushing this line of films further into the tangled back-story of the original Harry Potter series. Director David Yates and screenwriter JK Rowling return, and The Crimes of Grindelwald does feel like a part of the larger Wizarding World, but it also seems designed to frustrate and annoy the Potterhead faithful and casual viewers alike.

While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far enough removed from the main line of Potter lore for neophytes to hop on to, The Crimes of Grindelwald dives head-first into reams of back-story, such that characters are trying to catch their breath while delivering exposition. Many issues with the storytelling can be traced to how this is movie #2 in a planned series of five films, meaning the usual frustration that comes with watching the second movie in a trilogy is multiplied. There aren’t just a few loose ends left untied, this is a two-for-one loose end sale.

The film’s glaring faults aside, fans of the Wizarding World will find plenty that’s charming about this movie, and it will be hard to not be moved by the film’s brief sojourn back to the Hogwarts grounds, a stop by the Great Hall included. Production designer Stuart Craig’s sets are beautiful creations, the French Ministry of Magic a particularly elegant locale. Colleen Atwood’s costumes for the earlier film nabbed the designer her fourth Oscar win, and Tina gets to sport a particularly sleek leather coat this time around. James Newton Howard’s sumptuous score conjures up memories of John Williams’ work on the series, while stopping short of feeling like a copycat. Alas, much of the visual effects work, especially on the creatures, continues to feel synthetic, making us pine for that animatronic Basilisk from the end of Chamber of Secrets.

While the first film planted the seeds of Grindelwald’s looming presence in the magical world, the sequel places him front and centre. No longer a shadowy threat, Johnny Depp is all over this movie, his casting having led to much uproar. Even leaving aside the domestic abuse allegations that make Depp’s presence in this film cast a dark pall on the rest of it, his Grindelwald just isn’t magnetic or menacing enough. The character is meant to be a seductive populist who cleverly veils his hateful creed in shrewd warnings of Muggle arrogance and self-destructiveness. Depp may have residual star power, but he falls dramatically short when he’s supposed to carry this film.

It is comforting to see Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie again, but the returning characters must make a little room for new ones. Zoë Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange, a former flame of Newt’s and now involved with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), is an enigmatic character who has lots of dramatic potential but gets short shrift. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s conflicted Credence, who proved one of the most interesting parts of the first film, shows glimmers of power, but his story is purposefully incomplete.

Jude Law’s appearance as a dashing young Dumbledore is one of the film’s big selling points, but his screen time is necessarily brief. The crucial relationship and later falling out between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is hinted at but not expounded upon. Callum Turner is bound to become Tumblr’s new boyfriend and the sibling rivalry between Newt and Theseus is fun, but borders on feeling extraneous.

One of the other controversial aspects of the film, casting South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the human form of the snake Nagini, proves to be more fuss than it’s worth. The problematic implications are there, but the inclusion of Nagini contributes practically nothing to the story.

There is another review with the headline “with The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling has hit peak George Lucas”. While that is a bit hyperbolic, the comparison isn’t without merit. There is obviously plenty of care taken in further crafting the look and feel of the Wizarding World, but as the film piles on the reveals and gets lost in doling out fan-service, the movie clearly buckles under its own weight. Now to wait for three more of these and it all might make sense then.

 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong