Creed

December 1, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Directed by: Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)
Written by: Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and Aaron Covington (debut)

Nearly 40 years after the character Rocky Balboa made Sylvester Stallone a star and simultaneously launched one of the 1980s’ greatest and most ludicrous film franchises – seriously, we go from a best picture Oscar winner in 1976 to robot servants and boxing to end the Cold War by 1984 – we’re treated to the seventh entry in the “Rocky” series, “Creed,” a late-arriving sequel focused on the never-before-seen son of Rocky’s late nemesis-turned-best friend Apollo Creed and his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps in the ring. On paper, the idea seems less than ideal; we cared about Rocky Balboa, for better or worse, and he already got his send off in the self-titled “Rocky Balboa” back in 2006. Why should we invest in the son of a character who died three movies and 30 years ago? At first glance, sure, it reeks of desperation, but in practice, “Creed” is a knock-out, crowd-pleasing success and one of the best movies of 2015.

As the film begins, Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) is an angry young man in the middle of a brawl in a juvenile detention center after bouncing around various group homes. There he meets Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of his father, who takes him in as her own son. 17 years later, a full-grown Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, ripped to shreds and going by “Donnie”) is boxing for cash in Tijuana in between shifts at his white collar job at an investment firm. When the desire to fight overcomes him, he leaves his mother’s Los Angeles mansion and heads to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, at his best). No one in LA will train Donnie, so he seeks out his father’s best friend, and the champ is initially reluctant to train him as well. But as these things go, Rocky sees both Apollo and himself in Donnie as he takes the kid under his wing, and it’s not long before Donnie falls in love with the girl downstairs (Tessa Thompson) and is offered a once-in-a-lifetime fight, but only if he reclaims his father’s name: Creed.

So how did what is basically “Rocky 7” vault itself into the discussion of the year’s greatest movies? The answer lies with Ryan Coogler, an Oakland-born director with only one other feature under his belt, “Fruitvale Station,” also starring Jordan. Coogler essentially reboots the longshot fighting the odds formula found in the original “Rocky” and turns it slightly on its ear, replacing Stallone’s underdog street tough with Jordan’s pampered-yet-angry quest for identity. Coogler gets a rock-solid performance from Jordan (who should vault to stardom after this role) and a fantastic turn from Stallone as an aged Balboa, alone in the world and battling the one foe he knows is undefeated: time. All through the film, Coogler teases out references to the franchise, and by the time Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” finally comes pumping through the speakers, you’ll be ready to stand up and cheer for Creed, the man and the movie.

 

A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 19, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
Directed by: Scott Frank (“The Lookout”)
Written by: Scott Frank (“Minority Report”)

Anyone else getting déjà vu? If you’ve seen the previews, trailers, or commercials for “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” it certainly appears as if Liam Neeson has returned to the well that has given him a rebirth as an action star. Even though his films might all appear similar, “Tombstones” isn’t quite “Taken 3” (or because of repetitive marketing, “Liam Neeson Aggressively Threatens Someone Over the Phone 3”) though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel familiar.

After quitting the NYPD years prior, Matt Scudder (Neeson) works as an unlicensed private investigator in New York. Although reluctant, Matt agrees to take a case from drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose wife was kidnapped and murdered after he paid a ransom. As Matt begins to dig deeper to find her killers, he sees the operation might be more complex than it seems.

As a hard-nosed former NYPD officer, Neeson sports a pretty bad New York accent that seems to fade in and out throughout the movie. Distracting dialect aside, Neeson doesn’t stray too far from the type of character audiences have seen him in since “Taken.” It’s a typecast that he’s certainly good at, but at this point the roles are beginning to blend together. Though it is of no fault to the cast, “Tombstones” suffers from completely unmemorable characters. Brian “Astro” Bradley gives a fine performance as TJ, a homeless kid who befriends Matt, but the character feels oddly out of place in the grand scheme of the film.

With an uneventful first two acts, “Tombstones” completely stumbles out of the gate. The first hour is dull and generic. Neeson’s character is searching for clues to put together pieces of a mystery, yet nothing of consequence or interest happen.s There are also a few puzzling decisions from screenwriter and director Scott Frank. For whatever reason, Frank felt the need to obscure the faces of the perpetrators and antagonists for the first portion of the film. It is an unnecessary mystery and decision with zero payoff other than literally seeing what the actors look like.

There is also the decision to take scenes during the climax of the film and relate it to a theme involving the 12-step program. It is a connection that is ill fitting and flimsy at best and actually annoyingly interrupts some of the most tense moments of the film. Where “Tombstones” is able to salvage itself is in its final act where the heat finally turns up and the story begins to take interesting turns. When Matt takes over another kidnapping situation, the film gains momentum as he inches closer and closer to a showdown with the bad guys. It is here that Neeson proves his worth and becomes fun to watch.

“Tombstones” is both visually and thematically a pretty dark affair. Unfortunately, it works in both directions and, at times, enhances certain scenes while leaving viewers cold and distant in others. It’s a shame Frank couldn’t have gotten to the point through a quicker and a more interesting route. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a slow burn that takes far too long to ignite.

Get on Up

August 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelson Ellis, Viola Davis
Directed by: Tate Taylor (“The Help”)
Written by: Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”)

When making a biopic about a musician, filmmakers have two major options. One is to hire an actor to both act as the artist and to do their own singing, a feat that got Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar nomination for his role as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” and won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in “Ray.” The other option is to hire an actor to just play the character parts and lip-synch to the original recordings of the artist. It’s a risky and potentially distracting move, and certainly one that needs to be backed up with a dynamite acting performance. Luckily for director Tate Taylor, Chadwick Boseman delivers exactly that in his portrayal of the hardest working man in show business, James Brown, in “Get on Up.”

If Boseman was seen as a relative unknown in taking on the role of Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42,” his performance in “Get on Up” will quickly erase his anonymity. Boseman is outstanding as the larger-than-life James Brown and completely embodies everything from his speaking voice to his swagger. Where Boseman really shines is during the performance scenes. Boseman is electric in scenes where Brown is performing; constantly moving, dancing, sweating, and putting everything he has into the performance. Though as previously mentioned, Boseman is lip-synching throughout the entire film, there are only a few moments where it is truly jarring. He’s also able to mine some comedic moments from the film, though those don’t quite land as much as they should.

Beyond Boseman’s performance, “Get on Up” is a pretty comprehensive (sometimes to a fault) look at Brown’s life and career. Brown’s music is present throughout the whole film, giving the picture its pulse and sounding as good as it ever has. The issue, however, comes with the direction. Taylor attempts to cram a ton of content into this biopic and ends up with mixed results. It’s a film that comes in at over two hours, and starts to feel redundant with some of the performances by the end. It’s also told in a non-linear fashion, with stories and moments from Brown’s life ping-ponging chronologically in a way that doesn’t serve any real narrative purpose.

As a look back a James Brown’s life, storied career, and his well-earned place in music lore “Get On Up” is a successful endeavor. Still, somehow, it all feels somewhat surface. Taylor flirts with the idea of racism during the rise of Brown, but never really goes anywhere with it other than a show that happened shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Despite the occasional narrative shortcomings, “Get on Up” is a worthy journey into music history, and one that features a fantastic performance from a quickly rising actor poised for a massive breakout.

Third Person

July 11, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Paul Haggis (“Crash”)
Written by: Paul Haggis (“Crash”)

Writer and director Paul Haggis is no stranger to the narrative device of balancing multiple storylines and character threads and attempting to bring them together physically or thematically. It did, after all, win him a Best Picture Oscar with “Crash,” an award that remains possibly the biggest Oscar stunner of the modern era. With “Third Person,” Haggis, who has only directed two films since 2004, returns to juggling parallel narratives only to clumsily drop them all at once.

“Third Person” tells the tale of three relationships in different stages and circumstances. In Paris, a writer (Liam Neeson) has a complicated relationship with a mistress (Olivia Wilde); in Italy, a businessman (Adrien Brody) has a run-in with a woman (Moran Atias) who is trying to get her daughter back; and in New York, a woman (Mila Kunis) is trying to regain custody of her child from her husband (James Franco) after a serious incident.

Though the screenplay constantly weighs them down, some of the actors of the impressive ensemble are able to turn in good performances in spots. The most consistent of the bunch is Neeson, who finally gets a role where he isn’t kicking ass on air, land or sea. It isn’t exactly nuanced, but it’s one of the least annoying characters in the film. Brody for his part is also fine, particularly where he gets to rattle off a couple of one-liners in the film’s opening. Wilde and Kunis, for their parts, get to show off some chops, though their characters are written tremendously weak. They both get to tap into emotional breakdowns and while their reasons might be absurd (especially in the case of Wilde) they are able to show dramatic range.

The aforementioned characters, however, are just a fraction of the giant roster of people who take up screen time. It becomes a serious issue as Haggis so overstuffs the film that there are often gaps where the audience doesn’t see a certain character for 15-20 minutes – not that the audience would miss any of them. Frankly, the design of the characters and their relationships with one another seems to elicit emotions ranging from indifference to strong indifference.

As the film trudges on, the screenplay and story wither into dust as plot points grow in banality and Haggis runs through the cliché handbook to carry the film forward. The big “twist” and conceit of the film is painfully obvious early on and, for whatever reason, Haggis feels the need to take over two hours to get there. When it finally happens and Haggis pulls the rug from under his audience, it is almost insulting in its execution. If there was anything character or story-wise worth becoming invested in, the last 15 minutes of “Third Person,” including a completely nonsensical, lazy ending, would have been an offense worthy of heaving objects at the screen.

“Third Person” doesn’t really turn into a disaster until its final act. The rest is bad, but generally watchable and mostly inoffensive. In what is becoming a troublesome trend, screenwriters and directors are squandering A-list ensemble casts at an alarming rate. For Haggis, “Third Person” takes a talented cast but a tired idea and runs it straight into the ground. If there is any lesson to be learned from “Third Person,” it is that sometimes less is more.

My Dog the Champion

October 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

Sweet, touching, and funny, this family film about a young city girl training a cattle dog for an agility competition would easily rival anything ABC Family currently broadcasts. It’s a real charmer with an irresistibly cute and peppy performance by actress Dora Madison Burge (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”). Directors Kevin and Robin Nations have a lot to be proud of.

“My Dog the Champion” screens Saturday, Oct. 26 at 1 p.m. (Alamo Drafthouse Village)

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