Creed II

Creed_II_posterDirector: Steven Caple Jr.

Screenwriters: Che Hodari Coker, Sylvester Stallone, and Juel Taylor

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteau, and Brigitte Nielsen

I’ve said before that great sports movies are more about life, passion, talent, and determination, and less about “the game.” This statement applies to the 2015 film Creed and even more so with its sequel, Creed II. However, that does not necessarily make it better.

Creed II opens with Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) “riding high now” achieving the level of World Heavyweight Champion, beating Danny “The Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward) for the title, and propelling him to the highest echelon of the sport. This accomplishment coupled with Creed’s mentor and trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in his corner, attracts the attention of disgraced former World Heavyweight contender Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Drago, whose loss to Balboa 33 years earlier resulted in a life of ignominy back in Russia and abandonment by his wife has been training his son Viktor (Florian Munteau) and sees an opportunity to regain his glory by pitting Viktor against Adonis for the title. Viktor, it goes without saying, is a threat in every sense. He’s enormous, fast, and has been conditioned for years by his father to crush any opponent. Ivan, of course, notoriously murdered Adonis’s father Apollo in the ring, and so any fight billed as Creed v. Drago sells itself in its sensationalism. The problem is, Rocky senses that this fight is happening for all the wrong reasons and if Adonis wants to go through with it, he’ll have to do it without him.

creed_iiDrago

So there it is, the setup for the film is Rocky IV, revisited. And the similarities do not end there. Creed II is very aware of itself, and this works both to the film’s advantage and disadvantage. Director Steven Caple Jr. makes subtle and overt references to just about every other film in the franchise in this film, which is at times rather endearing and at other times a bit too familiar. An example of the latter comes in the form of the conditioning montage. Rocky IV’s cross-cutting training sequence is pretty iconic, depicting Ivan Drago training conventionally (and juicing up with some roids) while Rocky trains in the Siberian wilderness, carrying logs in the snow and pulling sleds. An identical scene is present in Creed II, which is a tad too “on the nose.” On the other hand, some call-backs are crafted with just the right amount of nuance, like the way Caple Jr. takes the conflict of excess versus grit, flamboyantly displayed in Rocky IV, and tones it down to something more palatable for Creed II.

Of course it is easy to get caught up in the familiarity of Creed II, but there is plenty of unique material here as well. Michael B. Jordan continues to put out great and memorable performances, and man is this guy jacked! Creed II is also one of the more dramatic films in the eight Rocky-franchise films. While Creed was very character driven, it was still mostly a redemption story for its pair of protagonists. With Creed II, we get a chance to explore some generational themes that open the story up a bit, especially in regard to Adonis and Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) relationship.

drago

Still the obvious focal point of this film is the return of Drago, and while there’s plenty here to enjoy and experience, Creed II is missing that signature moment that we want, and perhaps we have to fault Caple Jr. for that. The fight sequences and the drama overall is missing the sting, choreography and ambition that Ryan Coogler was able to achieve in the previous film. The technical brilliance of Creed no doubt is what caught the eye of Disney executives, leading them to hand him Black Panther, which as we all know became the biggest comic book superhero movie ever and highest grossing movie from a Black director ever. In that regard, congrats to Caple Jr. for stepping up in the first place! Still, Creed II does “throw in the towel” so to speak when it comes to giving us any surprises or something lastingly memorable. Overall, this is a decent entry into the franchise that while not a standout, will keep things fresh enough to make us want to see more. B

Creed II is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes.  

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Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List

Walken2Christopher Walken is one of the most interesting actors working today.  His career, like his reputation, is strange and unusual.  The 1978 Best Supporting Actor winner is also in the 2003 Worst Picture Winner (according to me) Kangaroo Jack.  The thing is, Walken’s scene in that “film” is easily the best part, and that same thing can be said for every film in which he appears.  Regardless of the film’s success, having Walken in your movie makes it better every time.  Take Poolhall Junkies for example.  I imagine you have not seen Poolhall Junkies, but watch this scene where Christopher Walken approaches Johnny (Mars Callahan)in a men’s room.  Tell me that you don’t want to see more of this movie!  In fact, tell me that you don’t want to memorize that speech and recite it to a random stranger in a men’s room some day!  The thing is, this is the best part of Poolhall Junkies, but it makes me like the entire movie so much more knowing that this scene exists!  Those who know me, know I have been a die-hard Christopher Walken fan my entire life.  His dead-eye stare as Diane Keaton’s brother Dwayne in Annie Hall explaining his “dark secret” to Woody Allen was probably the scene that started my fandom and I’ve been a loyal Walken-lover ever since.  Therefore, as the actor begins his 73rd year of life on this planet and releases his 128throle in television and film as the voice of King Louie in Disney’s the Jungle Book, I decided to put a little list of the top 10 Walken performances of all time.  While most of the films on this list, bill Walken as the star or costar, a few are of the Poolhall Junkies variety where his appearance is brief but brilliant.

  1. 10Annie HallAs I mentioned in my introduction, Walken’s role in Annie Hall is probably the one that started my interest in the actor. Woody Allen is one of my cinematic heroes and it’s fitting to have one hero sort of discover another one. I actually have a copy of the original script for this scene.  It was given to me by a relative who worked on the film and has official hand written notes in the margin.  Obviously, the list of reasons Annie Hall is a successful film is long, and Walken’s scene is probably on the bottom of that list.  Still, this is a great example of Walken’s ability to put a big stamp on a movie with minimal screen time.

 

  1. 9A View to a Kill – In the 80s, Walken got somewhat typecast as a villainous and scary character. One of the best things you can do as an actor when this happens is score a role as a Bond villain, and that’s exactly what happened in 1985 when Walken was cast as mad industrialist Max Zorin in the 14th film in the franchise, A View to a Kill. Walken was actually the first Oscar winner to play a Bond villain, and basically paved the way for the latest Bond villain portrayal by an Oscar winner – typecast, villainous and scary guy, Cristoph Waltz from 2015’s Spectre.  Walken chews the scenery with the best of them as Zorin.  Again the hair and the stare are key elements of a good Walken role.  Watch him “negotiate” aboard his Skyship and you’ll see what I mean.
  1. 8Dead Zone – Speaking of creepy characters from the 80s, Walken’s portrayal of Johnny Smith in the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone fits that description too! Walken is perfect for the role as the ominous clairvoyant who through just a momentary touch receives a vision of how others will perish. This film was also the impetus for one of his first classic Saturday Night Live bits, “Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic.”

 

 

  1. 7Seven Psychopaths Seven Psychopaths is a dark comedy from Martin McDonagh who like Tarantino or Hitchcock likes to explore similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens in order to analyze humanity. Walken’s character Hans is one of the more relaxed psychopaths of this film about an alcoholic screenwriter who is trying to write a long overdue screenplay. Walken basically does a Walken impression here, which is what people have come to want from him in this later phase of his career.  The good news is that like the title suggests, no character is quite what he seems on the surface and Walken is no exception.

    66. King of New York –
    Perhaps Walken’s darkest and most sinister character to date comes in the form of Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. You’ll notice a bevy of familiar faces in this 1990 crime thriller including Laurence “Larry” Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve Buscemi. This is a brutal gangster movie that delivers no warm, fuzzy feelings whatsoever.  Walken is menacing as the crime-lord Cross who after doing his stint in prison is determined to rebuild his criminal empire at all costs but still save time to cut a rug.
  1. 5Suicide KingsWithout King of New York, there would probably be no Suicide Kings, so that movie deserves an extra plug before moving on to number 4. Here, Walken plays a top mafia figure, Carlo Bartolucci who could easily be an older, wiser, (and yes gentler) Frank Cross. Walken spends most of the film duct taped to an office chair by a group of fledgling kidnappers who are looking for a quick ransom payday.  Like King of New York, you’ll recognize nearly all of this film’s young stars including Sean Patrick Flanery, Denis Leary, Jay Mohr, Johnny Galecki, and Jeremy Sisto.  Walken shines as the mobster who slowly realizes his kidnappers have gotten themselves into something far deeper than they had ever planned.
  1. 4Pulp Fiction – I do wish my list had some surprises in store for the top picks, but Walken’s finest performances are far from unexpected. Walken has only one scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but it’s top notch. In a segment titled, “The Gold Watch,” Walken plays Vietnam War veteran Captain Koons, who delivers a phenomenal monologue to a young Butch (later played by Bruce Willis).  The watch in question is critical to Butch’s story and thanks to Walken’s performance, we understand its significance, importance, and value.  If this scene didn’t work, the movie would flounder in the final act.  Instead, Pulp Fiction became a masterpiece.
  1. 3Catch Me if You Can – Now if you look at the previous seven selections on this list, it is unlikely that you would look at Christopher Walken for the role of a sentimental father. Well thank goodness you’re not Steven Spielberg because his casting of Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr. was a touch of brilliance. Walken gives one of his most celebrated performances here as a proud father whose blurred line of ethics compromises his family but also inspires his son to become a con artist.

 

 

  1. 2Deer Hunter – I am not trying to be cliché by selecting Walken’s Oscar winning role as a Vietnam prisoner of war in 1978’s The Deer Hunter so high on the list. This is a remarkable film with perhaps one of the most electric and horrifying climaxes in all of cinema. Walken’s performance is outstanding and certainly award worthy.  And what really grounds this performance is not the chaos towards the end, but the delicate humanity that Walken gives to Nick early in the film.  Walken’s performance anchors this film like no other in his filmography.

 

  1. 1True Romance – So I’m sure you read that last line for my Deer Hunter description and thought, “Then why is it not number 1?” The simple fact is that in 1993, Christopher Walken gave a perfect performance hidden in a little film called True Romance. His performance in this film encouraged screenwriter Quentin Tarantino to cast him as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction and made him a favorite of director Tony Scott leading him to cast Walken in two more films.  When viewed out of context, this scene from True Romance between Walken and Dennis Hopper lacks the punch that it has when viewed within the film, but it is still masterful.

These 10 selections are but a drop in the bucket of the greatness that is Christopher Walken.  To make this list I had to weed out spectacular roles like his wildly over the top performance in Batman Returns, his hysterical turn as Secretary Cleary in Wedding Crashers (his approach to the “Tummysticks” scene is outstanding), his artful song and dance number in Pennies from Heaven, and his voiceover work in Antz ( teamed up once again with Woody Allen).  The point is, if Christopher Walken is in the cast, you really can’t go wrong.  Here’s to 128 more interesting and odd performances to come!

The People’s Critic Mourns the Loss of Roger Ebert

ImageRoger Ebert died today, April 4th at the age of 70. He announced on April 2nd that his Thyroid Cancer had returned, and within two days it finally claimed the life of one of the most successful and renowned names in the world of modern entertainment.

When it comes to film criticism, there is no one whose impact was greater than Roger Ebert’s. Personally, one of the greatest sources of inspiration for my love for the movies started with Ebert’s weekly film reviews and nationally syndicated TV program. Much of his fame and notoriety came from his relationship with the late Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel. Siskel and Ebert became household names and their trademarked “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating system became the most coveted recommendation a film could receive. It has been said, that the popularity of Siskel and Ebert’s unique but simple recommendation actually decimated the relevance of an entire generation of film critics. With the passing of Siskel, Ebert continued the show, using it to introduce and launch other worthy names in the world of film criticism as well as to continue to maintain the standard of the profession.

Roger Ebert was more than just a traditional film critic, however. His sense of humor and his intellect made him a favorite guest on talk shows from The Tonight Show to The Howard Stern Show. He was a very gifted writer whose often poetic way of capturing ideas into words began with screenplays and later evolved into what writing about movies could be. His reviews often enjoyed a sense of anecdotal quality. He interacted with a film and expressed it expertly so that each review felt personal and honest. His vast knowledge of the history and nostalgia of film aided him in his ability to provide excellent insight. Additionally, he always had his finger on the pulse of what mattered in the industry. He championed and attended film festivals, he criticized studios when they refused to release films early for critics, he attacked the MPAA when its ratings seemed to conflict with the essence of a film’s audience, he stayed on top of trends in film, and he provided memorable and fascinating commentaries on a wide range of films from critical favorites like Citizen Kane to some of his personal favorites like Dark City.

In 2006 a diagnosis of Thyroid Cancer coupled with complications from surgery left Ebert unable to speak, but this did not stop him from continuing to be a major presence in the world of film. Ebert kept up his column at the Chicago Sun Times and embraced the social networks, regularly posting “tweets” on Twitter about the movies. While his “voice” has been gone for several years, his true voice was never gone, and even in his passing, a his legacy will continue not unlike the immortality of the cinema he loved so much. Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert, and for the last time – “the balcony is closed.”