Creed II


The obligatory staredown.

(2018) Sports Drama (MGM/Warner BrothersMichael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris, Milo Ventimiglia, Robbie Johns, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nelson, Patrice Harris, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Ana Gerena, Christopher Mann, Robert Douglas, Zack Beyer, Chrisdine King. Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

The Rocky franchise may be the ultimate American movie franchise; it has tackled everything from the triumph of the underdog to Cold War politics to father-son alienation over the years. With the 70-something Stallone more than long in the tooth to get back in the ring, it was decided (after a misfire featuring Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son, who also cameos here in the same role) to pass the torch to Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, son of Apollo Creed and in the 2015 movie Creed director Ryan Coogler managed to put together a movie that garnered a lot of awards season attention.

With a new director, the writers (including Stallone) looked back at the storied history of the franchise, remembering that Daddy Creed died in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago (Lundgren). Now, with Viktor Drago (Munteanu) having turned into an unstoppable behemoth like his old man, Adonis wants payback and despite the concerns of Rocky (Stallone), Adonis’ wife Bianca (Thompson) who is losing her hearing, and mom Mary Anne (Rashad), Adonis looks to show Drago and Son who really is The Man. Of course, things don’t go as planned, a rematch is set and nobody thinks Adonis can win.

The plot takes almost all of its cues from Rocky IV nearly note for note; if you haven’t seen that film (some say the best in the franchise), you’re basically watching it here. The newer Creed misses the sure hand of Coogler at the helm but Caple does a pretty capable job in the relief role. While this film doesn’t measure up well to Creed (or Rocky IV for that matter) it has enough going for it to make it worth your while looking it up; it’s pretty much available everywhere at the moment so it’s not that hard to find. Just like Stallone.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the best actors working today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Formulaic throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of boxing violence, some profanity and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two turtles, Cuff and Link, are appearing for the fifth time in the franchise. They are also Stallone’s real-life pets and they have been with him for more than 50 years at the time of filming.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews, Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky IV
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

The Other Lamb


It’s all there in black and white.

(2019) Drama (IFC Midnight) Raffey Cassidy, Michael Huisman, Denise Gough, Eve Connolly, Kelly Campbell, Isabelle Connolly, Aibhe Cowley, Irene Kelleher, Jane Herbert, Charlotte Moore, Mallory Adams, David Khalid Fawaz, Zara Devlin, Eva Mullen, Juliette Crosbie. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

 

It is, for better or worse (mostly the latter), a man’s world. Men take women for granted, objectify them, abuse them and for generations, women have borne their cross with quiet grace. The thing is, you can only push someone to the wall for so long before they push back.

Selah (Cassidy) has been raised in one of those cults which time has forgotten. Run by the charismatic Shepherd (Huisman) – the only male member – he sets the women to working hard, tending sheep, cooking, cleaning and raising the children. He has divided his flock into two groups; sisters and wives. When one of his wives has a baby, it always seems to be female. He makes sure the women wear plain, homespun dresses. They lead a life the Amish would find rustic.

But Selah isn’t like the other cult members. She’s intelligent, headstrong and doesn’t accept everything at face value. She is warned by outcast wife Sarah (Gough) that Shepherd isn’t necessarily the loving and caring creature he makes himself out to be. And as the outside world begins to encroach on their wooded paradise, Shepherd decides to move his flock to an even more remote, pastoral location where he can continue to live life as he sees fit but Selah, on the cusp of her first period, soon realizes that Shepherd is keeping some mighty dark secrets from his flock.

This largely allegorical tale incorporates elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Apostle into a beautiful pastoral setting. Cinematographer Michal Englert is the unsung hero here, filming the misty Irish countryside with a kind of grey sheen that is both oppressive and beautiful at the same time. This is as beautiful a film as it is disturbing.

Huisman, looking every inch the WASP Jesus, has the charisma to pull off the role. Handsome and soft-spoken, it’s not hard to figure ot why the women fall for him as they do. Shepherd is a master manipulator, as many sexual predators are. There’s a scene in which the flock grows almost hysterical in their devotion, whipped into a frenzy by their love for Shepherd. But, as Chrissie Hynde once sang, there’s a thin line between love and hate.

Cassidy is absolutely revelatory here. Already haven distinguished herself with performances in Vox Lux and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, she knocks it out of the park here. It’s always telling when you realize that she really doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to utter; much of her performance is done facially and through body language. There is a scene with Huisman when she is initiated into wife-hood that is heartbreaking and makes you want to reach through the screen and rescue her.

It is one of several scenes of disturbing content, such as one where Selah encounters a lamb prematurely born, hairless and in terrible pain. This isn’t a horror film per se, but one can’t discount the elements in it as being horrific. In that sense, the film will chill you to the bone.

It’s not perfect, though. The film drags a little bit and there is a lack of context that makes it hard to follow the action, occasionally. Szumowska has stated that the film is “a dark cry against the patriarchy” and if ever something deserved a cacophony of banshee-like shrieks, it’s the patriarchy but in some ways it fees a bit manufactured; certainly we’ve seen enough films about cults and this doesn’t really add a lot to the overall “cults are bad” dialogue.

This is the kind of movie that demands your full attention. When you watch it, make sure your smart phone is put away, the shades are drawn and any distractions are set aside. You can’t watch this passively, or as background noise. Give it the benefit of your commitment. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO SEE: Cassidy delivers a powerful performance. Creepy and foreboding throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does the world need another “cults are bad” movie?
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some sudden and unexpected violence and much sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three cast members (Kelly Campbell, Eve Connolly, Isabelle Connolly) have also appeared in the History Channel series Vikings.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Creed II

Robin Hood (2018)


(2018) Adventure (SummitTaron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Eve Hewson, Jamie Dornan, Tim Minchin, Paul Anderson, F. Murray Abraham, Ian Peck, Cornelius Booth, Kane Headley-Cummings, Scott Greenan, Lara Rossi, Kevin Griffiths, Catriona Temple, Bjorn Bengtsson, Nicholas Whitman, Nick Wittman, Yasen Atour, Josh Herdman, Amélina Limousin. Directed by Otto Bathurst

 

One of the things that I absolutely hate in a movie are anachronisms; you know, like having cheering throngs of medieval peasants singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” at a joust, or a Victorian character shrugging “It is what it is” when painfully it certainly isn’t. So along comes this monstrosity and you know that I’m going to give it a wide berth, which is why it isn’t getting reviewed until two years after the fact.

Robin of Loxley (Egerton) is sent home from the Crusades in disgrace after refusing to murder a young Moorish boy in cold blood. The boy is executed anyway and his father Yahya (Foxx) stows away on the boat in gratitude, meaning to protect Robin who tried to protect his son. Robin finds the England he comes home not the same one he left. For one thing, the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham (Mendelsohn) has seized his home, explaining to his long-time girlfriend Marian (Hewson) that Robin had been killed in action two years prior. Now she has taken up with Will (Dornan), an Irish labor leader.

It becomes clear that the Sheriff is in bed with the greedy and rapacious Cardinal (Abraham) who conspires with the Sheriff to keep the peasants down and taxed into starvation. Robin, seeing the injustice in this, is determined to liberate the downtrodden by a little redistribution of wealth. No doubt the Republican party thinks him an evil socialist.

The production design is fairly complex and a mish mash of styles, but I found it intriguing. Bathurst, a veteran of such streaming binge-worthy shows as Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror knows his way around an action sequence. And that, ladies and germs, is about the extent of what the movie has going for it. Oh, and Jamie Foxx has the decency to look embarrassed that an actor of his caliber is involved in this mess.

Egerton has had at best a checkered career. He does okay in the Kingsmen films but then he pulls out groaners like this one. He’s flailing around like a drowning man and to his credit he at least tries; the script does him no favors and Bathurst’s curious directorial choices sink the ship for good. This was clearly meant to be a franchise for Lionsgate/Summit, but fortunately it doesn’t appear that it’s going to happen. The critical scores here are no accident folks; this is one to avoid.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice production design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Egerton’s performance is less than scintillating. 15 yards for unnecessary anachronisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of action and violence as well as some sexually suggestive situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film to feature the character of Robin Hood was a silent film called Robin Hood and His Merry Men filmed in 1908, 110 years before this one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews, Metacritic: 32/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
The Other Lamb

Lone Star Deception


Smoke gets in my eyes.

(2019) Suspense (Tri-Coast WorldwideEric Roberts, Anthony Ray Parker, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Merlisa Determined, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Eliza Roberts, Johnny Ray Gibbs, John Maciag, Sunday Flint, Karina Pal-Montaño, Brian Thornton, Chris Mayo, Melissa Wilson, Archie Ashcroft, Jeff Brody, Enrique Davila, Binette Dialio, Charles Emmott, Joe Grisaffi, Taylor Nieland, Brandi Barbee. Directed by Robert Peters and Don Okolo

 

There’s the United States and then there’s Texas. Texas is on its own planet and they’re very proud of that down in the Lone Star state. It isn’t like anywhere else and that can be a double edged sword.

Tim Bayh (Parker) is an executive at a big Texas oil firm. His boss, Bill Sagle (Eric Roberts), is masterminding the Republican gubernatorial campaign of his nephew Stuart (Mahmoud). When that is derailed by the presence of a sex tape, Bill decides to run Tim as the first African-American candidate in state GOP history.

That turns out to be not such a good idea for Tim, as he is beset on every side, by racists, members of his own community who think he’s selling out, greedy oilmen who want to keep the status quo and then there are the criminals who took down Stuart who have an idea to get another payday out of Tim. He will have to have eyes in the back of his head (and on both sides) if he’s going to make it to the finish line.

The concept is an intriguing one. Texas politics are an entirely different animal and there is definitely room for a great movie here. Sadly, this isn’t it. The script is botched, coming off as a relatively tame movie-of-the-week quality with the tension – which should have been ratcheted up into the red zone – barely discernible, and a feeling that the directors were in a rush to get from one set piece to the next without giving much thought to character development or plot development, for that matter.

Eric Roberts is an Oscar-nominated actor who has had a long and satisfying career. He’s a consummate pro who gives at the very least an entertaining performance and despite some overacting, does so here. You get the feeling that he’s giving his best, but is hamstrung by script problems and frankly, some issues with direction. While both directors are fairly experienced, they seem to have a love for camera movement and there’s a ton of panning and dolly shots which gets to be noticeable at times. You should never notice what the camera is doing; when the camera is in constant motion it takes focus away from what is going on onscreen. Trust your actors and let them be the center of attention.

Chalk this up as a good idea poorly executed. Texas Republicans tend to be the rock-ribbed sort – after all, they are the state that gave us George W. Bush – and to see what having a black front-runner for governor would do to the party would be extremely interesting, but I don’t think the writers did much in the way of research and if they did, it sure doesn’t show in the final product. It’s a shame but I can’t recommend this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Eric Roberts is always entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: An interesting concept lacks execution. Stiff acting and a tired plot doom the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Not for the kids; there’s violence, drug use, sexuality, profanity…everything but the kitchen sink.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eliza Roberts, who plays Bill Sagle’s wife, is married in real life to Eric Roberts, the actor who plays him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Sloane
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Robin Hood (2018)

Johnny English Strikes Again


Johnny English is virtually real.

(2018) Spy Comedy (Focus)  Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy, Adam James, David Mumeni, Miranda Hennessy, Samantha Russell, Michael Gambon, Edward Fox, Charles Dance, Roger Barclay, Amit Shah, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Matthew Beard, Jack Fox, Noah Spiers, Alfie Kennedy, Jasmine Brightmore, Adam Greaves-Neal, Kendra Mei.  Directed by David Kerr

I don’t have a problem with silly movies. I’m all for silliness, and few actors do silly as well as Rowan Atkinson. But did anybody think this character, created for a series of British bank adverts, would last three films?

The suave superspy Johnny English (Atkinson) is happily retired as an instructor at a snooty boarding school, teaching his charges spycraft and military techniques when he is summoned back into service. It seems that a hacker has “outed” all of Britain’s spies, and is playing havoc with the traffic signals and banking system. The testy Prime Minister (Thompson) is getting ready to host the G-12 summit and she doesn’t want Great Britain humiliated. English, an analogue man in a digital world, seems to be the perfect choice to crack the case.

With the aid of a beautiful Russian spy (former Bond girl Kurylenko) and a trusty sidekick (Miller), English chases after Silicon Valley tycoon Jason Volta (Lacy) in a vintage Aston-Martin but does he still have the stuff to save England once again?

If you liked Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn you will probably like this as well – it’s more in the same vein, although the fart jokes of the latter have given way to Atkinson dropping his drawers with dreary repetition. I suppose that’s a step up.

Atkinson remains a gifted physical comedian but the character doesn’t differ much from faux spies we’ve seen in other spoofs. He has Clouseau-like misplaced arrogance, Maxwell Smart-like dignity and Austin Powers-like indominable resilience. There are tons of Bond references here but let’s face it, Bond did his own self-parody years ago and much better than this franchise.

Fans of Rowan Atkinson will dig this but probably not many else and even they may grouse that he was much better in Blackadder which he was. Then again, the writing in that series was so much better than the lowbrow tripe we get here. Perhaps this would have been better titled Johnny English Wears Out His Welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: Rowan Atkinson is unconsciously funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too been-there done-that for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence and rude humor, brief nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thompson’s husband Greg Wise has a small role as Agent One.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Lone Star Deception

Celebration


The grace and elegance of French fashion.

 (2007) Documentary (Kimstim/1091Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint-Laurent, Loulou De La Falaise, Catherine Deneuve, Laetitia Casta. Directed by Olivier Meyrou

 

The great Yves Saint-Laurent was a fashion icon, one of the last of the great haute couture fashion houses and certainly, as he expresses mournfully in an interview sequence during the film, the last with a living couturier (his fashion house would be sold to Gucci the following year).

Despite the title, this documentary is not so much a celebration as it is an elegy, a look at a great lion in the winter of his life. Shockingly, Saint-Laurent appears almost drugged in much of the film, sometimes appearing to be nodding off, other times being remonstrated with by his business partner and life partner Pierre Bergé not to lean over the podium before giving a speech so as not to appear as a doddering old man.

Most of the film revolves around a show the old master is putting together, what would turn out to be his last (although nobody knew it at the time). We see the apparatus of a major fashion hose humming at the top of its game; the seamstresses, chafing at near-impossible deadlines and an endless series of revisions, the models preening and cooing in the presence of the great man, the publicists trying to make order amidst the chaos and Bergé.

He also doesn’t come off particularly well, often boorish and condescending in his behavior, throwing a temper tantrum due to the presence of a photographer, often making snide and passive-aggressive comments about his partner “He is a sleepwalker, one who should not be awakened.” There is one unbelievable sequence late the film where Saint-Laurent has just won a prestigious award, only to have it nearly ripped out of his arms by Bergé, who says “I probably had a hand in it.” And yes, he probably did but it comes off seeming mean.

The film was screened only once, at the 2007 Berlinale, the year before Saint-Laurent passed away from brain cancer, only to have Bergé sue to have the film suppressed. It wasn’t until after Bergé himself passed on two years ago that the rights became available. After a brief New York theatrical release last October, the film is finally making its way to home video.

Is this an essential documentary? If you are a fashion junkie, no doubt. I don’t know if this is the most flattering portrait of Saint-Laurent possible and it certainly says nothing about his contributions to the industry, which among other things included the introduction of the pantsuit, for which Hilary Clinton should be grateful if nobody else. There is very little context of any sort given here; it is cinema verité in its purest form. That is both good and bad; if you don’t have much knowledge of fashion, you will undoubtedly feel lost and even bored while watching.

Meyrou alternates between using color and black and white in his footage; color for the reality of the work, black and white for contemplation. The music score is a problem; it is often jarring and intrusive, meant, I suppose, to symbolize the frail mental state of Saint-Laurent but coming off largely as inappropriate for the film. You’re better off turning the sound off and reading the subtitles.

One of the more delightful sequences is showing a couple of the seamstresses who return to the fashion house after it had been shuttered, remembering where their desks were, where the time clocks were, remembering a fellow seamstress who had a bad temper nearly clocking one of the two of them with a window.

It is on the one hand a fascinating portrait of Bergé but as for a legacy film for Saint-Laurent, it doesn’t work all that well. In a sense it is a look at the way fashion houses worked in times gone by but it may seem quaint to modern fashionistas. Nonetheless, if you have any sort of interest in the subject at all, it is well worth your time to rent this. If you’re like me and don’t have the interest in women’s clothes, you still might find some fulfillment in watching the interpersonal relationship between Bergé and Saint-Laurent.

REASONS TO SEE: Essential for fashionistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical score is unsettling and at times inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was filmed back in 1998 for what would turn out to be St. Laurent’s last show before his house was sold to Gucci. It was kept on the shelf by Berge who felt that it revealed too much about the reclusive fashion icon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gospel According to Andre
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Johnny English Strikes Again

Hunter Killer


Looks like Gerard Butler just read the script.

(2018) Action (SummitGerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Michael Nyqvist, Linda Cardellini, Corey Johnson, Toby Stephens, Ryan McPartlin, Ethan Baird, Jacob Scipio, Dempsey Bovell, Henry Goodman, Adam James, Colin Stinton, Carter McIntyre, Shane Taylor, Kola Bokinni, Mikey Collins, David Gyasi, Will Attenborough, Kieron Bimpson, Sarah Middleton. Directed by Donovan Marsh

 

Sebastian the Crab famously sung “Under the sea/Darling, it’s better/Down where it’s wetter/Take it from me” in The Little Mermaid but clearly he hadn’t seen this submarine thriller. Gerard Butler has carved out a niche protecting Presidents for Lionsgate/Summit films (here it happens to be the Russian President) but in this case he’s doing so on board a submarine.

When a rogue Russian general takes the Russian prez hostage and prepares to initiate World War III (which hawkish Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Oldman) just might oblige him. It is up to Captain Joe Glass (Butler) and the crew of the USS Arkansas, along with an elite rescue team headed by one Bill Beaman (Stephens) and an NSA operative (Cardellini) to mount a rescue operation before all hell breaks loose.

Sub movies can be deliciously tension-filled and full of geopolitical fun but this one is more of a standard action film. Try not to think about the preposterous plot points or the phoned-in acting performances – this is most definitely a paycheck movie, as evidenced by the nearly two years it sat on the shelf (in the interim Nyqvist, who played a Russian sub commander, passed away).

Perhaps the most grievous failure of the film is in its CGI which is utterly unconvincing. I get that not everyone can have a massive budget for their film but if you’re going to show submarines playing cat and mouse with each other, it should look at least vaguely realistic. The movie isn’t completely without merit, as there are moments where you’re likely to find yourself sucked in to the show, but for the most part you’ll be better served renting any of a couple of dozen sub movies that are much better.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: The CGI is weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Donovan Marsh and Butler sailed for four days aboard the USS Houston in order to familiarize themselves with submarine life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On-Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunt for Red October
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Celebration