Friday, November 27, 2015

[Review] Creed

In Hollywood where remakes, reboots, and sequels run amok, the sound of "Rocky spin-off" probably wasn't a pleasant bell to most ears. But with Ryan Coogler at the helm (Director of Fruitvale Station), the rising Michael B. Jordan starring in the ring, and Sylvester Stallone himself reprising his role of Rocky, I think a lot of people are rooting for Creed to be good. And thankfully, it's better than good.

The film revolves Apollo Creed's out-of-wedlock son Adonis aka Donnie (Jordan). During his younger days, he navigated between foster homes and juvenile detention--always getting into fights. He's then adopted by Apollo Creed's widowed wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Flash-forward to the present, and Donnie isn't the hard luck down-and-out character that is usually expected. In fact, he has a steady company job, he lives in a giant luxurious mansion, and he participates in low-level amateur boxing matches, destroying the competition without breaking a sweat.

Everyone around Donnie attempts to push him away from the boxing life, because you know--his father died in the ring. But it's in Creed's blood, and pretty soon he quits his job in order to pursue a full-time professional boxing career. That's when he seeks out Rocky (Stallone). After Donnie and Rocky's almost mythological introduction to each other, Rocky reluctantly agrees to train the kid. Donnie also meets a love interest named Bianca, played by a sultry by Tessa Thompson.

Ryan Coogler directs this film with so much flair, grit, and passion, while prolific cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, ESPN's "30 for 30") renders everything with such beauty and charisma. Coogler incorporates the culture of Philly, and shoots it as is (much like he did with the Bay Area in Fruitvale Station). The film isn't just insanely watchable, but you also might want to give it a fist bump and a hug. It's no secret that so many boxing films have a familiar formula, but when that formula is done well, they can be really great, and Creed is up there with the best of company. There's just something about montages of someone training and throwing punches, backed by a musical score of triumphant horns that gets you pumped up.

The narrative is nicely paced and it's constructed with a number of excellent and memorable scenes. The boxing matches appear authentic, and there's a tremendous centerpiece match that occurs all in one take, and it looks fantastic. Donnie and Rocky's relationship isn't only charming, but it's also deeply rooted and heartfelt. There are plenty of solid exchanges between the two, but a couple of the most poignant ones are real standouts. I won't consider this aspect as a spoiler because it's shown in the trailers--but yes, Rocky gets sick with a life-threatening disease, and it's a major gut punch. In one of the most moving scenes of the year, Donnie shows up to Rocky's first chemotherapy appointment, and Rocky continues to guide Donnie while he shadowboxes--fighting metaphors abound.

Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone both give fantastic performances. Aside from being in stellar physical shape, Michael B. Jordan propels a wide range of emotion (which is no surprise given his impressive performance in Fruitvale Station), and he's just a compelling screen presence. Stallone is at his must vulnerable here, and it's a wonderfully warm performance--yet he still maintains the spunky spirit of Rocky, and the film itself does the same. Creed is nostalgic and ode-full, yet contemporary--carving out its own path. Some boxing experts might scoff at Donnie's quick rise to a title shot, but Rocky has always been an underdog story, and Creed is taking the torch.

* 10/10 *

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

[Review] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The final installment of The Hunger Games had a relatively huge weekend at the box office, but remarkably, it was the lowest opening of the series. You'd assume the grand finale should have the largest numbers, right? The diehards will show no matter what, but maybe other people are getting sick of having to wait an entire year to see the back half of a film that was split in two.

In fact, if you aren't a reader of the books (like me) or heavily invested into the film franchise (like me), you might've even forgotten exactly where and how the last one left off, especially because Part 2's cold opening scenes require you to refresh your memory. Anyway, here Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) continues to lead the rebellion against the corrupted President Snow. Battles are imminent and stakes are high. "I'm going to kill Snow," Katniss calmly and confidently states.

The front portion of Mockingjay Part 2 still can't help but feel padded, almost as if the film is going out of its way to strive for the two-hour plus mark. It's monotone, deliberate, and relentlessly somber--to the point of being flat. While it's clear that the characters are tired and diminished at this point in the story (as they should be)--the audience shouldn't feel the same fatigue. Fortunately, things pick up quite a bit later while Katniss and company are trudging through a sewer system, and nasty Alien-esque creatures attack them. The scene is so cool that you forgive the fact that it doesn't actually seem like it belongs in the cinematic world that The Hunger Games has (sort of) established.

Not only does it take too long the get there, but the climax only proves to be a moderate thrill, resulting in that loathsome anti-climactic zone--Which really is a shame, given all the built up melodrama, haphazard "moral complexities", and the endless amount of exposition from the characters--talking about their plans of attack as well as what's already happened (I know I said I needed a refresher, but not THAT much). The film also attempts to hit some emotional beats, but your mileage will depend on how close you've grown to these characters. In my case, I found them to be either detached or just not interesting enough, aside from Katniss.

The series has had its moments. But personally, I'm glad I won't have to watch another one again.


Monday, November 23, 2015

[Review] Spotlight

Tom McCarthy's filmography runs the gamut from the underrated and heartwarming dramedy Win Win, to the Adam Sandler dud The Cobbler. This year's Spotlight is a dead serious "Based on Actual Events" film with an excellent cast, and it's almost certainly due for some Oscar recognition.

The film focuses on a group of Boston Globe journalists (most notably played by Michel Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James) who are on the cusp of exposing the widespread and long-running problem concerning sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic church, and the shady cover-ups that follow. The journalists embark on institution investigations, legal quarrels, and gatherings of difficult-to-hear accounts from the disgustingly expansive list of victims--in order for the newspaper to present their church-shattering story to the public.

The ensemble cast here is about as good as it gets, and they're all on their 'A' game. Michael Keaton, coming off his great Birdman performance, continues his solid late career run. Rachel McAdams (who was stellar in #TrueDetectiveSeason2) seems to be deviating from the rom-coms and romances lately and it's worked out mightily well. Liev Schreiber and John Slattery ("Mad Men") also demonstrate some nice turns as editors. While Spotlight doesn't have a clear lead performer (which might cause splits amongst Academy voters), Mark Ruffalo emerges as the standout--partially because his character is given the most to do, and he comes off as the most passionate of the bunch. As I've mentioned in the past, it's so much more invigorating to see Mark Ruffalo in settings like this, rather than the blockbuster Avengers series.

None of the characters in Spotlight are characterized as self-indulgent, wannabe heroes that are capitalizing off of something nasty. They're essentially just doing their every day jobs, but they care about the matter and are hellbent on telling the story correctly and in a way where it won't just be swept under the rug. The narrative begins a bit slow and regularly procedural, and you might initially wonder why the film is garnering so much praise, but it eventually takes hold as more & more details are found. Like the reported story, the film profiles an ill of society, while also working as a rigorous task of important journalism. Spotlight focuses on a very specific time at the turn of the century, but it doesn't just place it into a capsule. The final scenes of constant phone-ringing remind us that this is an ongoing issue.

* 9/10 *

Thursday, November 19, 2015

[Review] The 33

"If we don't get them out fast, we're going to be digging up 33 corpses."

No one except for the miners involved in 2010's Chilean cave-in knows exactly what happened down there, but The 33 is here to dramatize the events on the big screen. Antonio Banderas stars as one of the trapped miners in this portrayal of an incredible tale of survive and rescue.

In a solid move, the film doesn't spend too much time stalling with preparation details (unlike this year's Everest). The miners enter the mine early on, the danger is made known just by the rugged setting and the looks on their faces, and the intense collapse sequence happens within the first few minutes of their arrival. When the crew realizes there's no possible way they can get out on their own, their forced to survive and wait in hopes that the outside world will come to their aid.

On the outside, there's conflict between the families of the miners and city officials, as the government halts any rescue missions, thinking it might create more danger while assuming the miners are already dead. As more time passes, of course tension mounts between the men in the mine, especially considering such a claustrophobic and unforgiving situation. Unsurprisingly, it's difficult for the film to distinguish so many different characters, so most of the focus is put on Banderas' character--the one that takes on the leadership role and instills hope in the crew.

Even though The 33 does cross a tad far into melodramatic territory at times, the setting feels pretty authentic and the actors actually appear to be completely miserable--skin caked in dirt and sweat as they struggle in a place where sunlight is non-existent and food & water rations are pessimistically low. The film gets exhausting over its 2-hour runtime, mostly because it splits 50/50 between the underground scenes and the above-ground scenes. The former are the most compelling and gritty, while the latter comes off as mundane (and forced) news report recreations.

The 33 is a 'based on a true story' film that could do better, but it could also do a lot worse. It does deliver on its emotional impact in the end, and its heart is in the right place.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

[Review] Spectre

If you've lost count, Spectre cruises in as the 24th Bond film and the fourth of the Daniel Craig as 007 era. It's an installment that has its moments, but it ultimately amounts to a big disappointment following its stellar predecessor Skyfall.

Spectre propels a pretty familiar plot--familiar not only within the Bond universe, but also with a lot of things that have graced the big screen lately. Agent 007 embarks on a mission to infiltrate a dark and powerful criminal organization (Spectre) with links to his past.

This is one of those films that begins with an engrossing action sequence (here, it's Bond chasing down a guy through a lively Dia de los Muertos festival in Ciudad de Mexico and winding up in a helicopter scuffle) only to consequently peak early, as the subsequent events don't quite match the thrill on either spectacle or narrative levels until toward the very end. It's not that the midsection is insufferable or anything, but it definitely lacks momentum and feels more deliberate than it needs to be. The story fails to take hold (which is kind of important), and there just isn't as much panache as you'd hope for in a Bond film from 2015. Along the way, I found myself wishing I were watching this year's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. again instead.

Frequent standout and Oscar occupier Christoph Waltz is the villain in Spectre, and unfortunately he's severely underutilized. It's a sort of bland role that only shows up for a sliver of the 150-minute runtime, and it doesn't hold a candle to the off-kilter scene-stealer Javier Bardem in Skyfall.

Spectre doesn't possess the standalone qualities of past Bond films, and there's a questionable twist revealed later on. Yes, Sam Mendes stages the scenes nicely, and the cinematography looks very good, but the film is just too hollow of an experience to fully embrace.


Monday, November 9, 2015

[Review] The Peanuts Movie

Considering the beloved reputation of the Peanuts comic strip and its annual classic holiday TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown there was understandable skepticism when word broke that a movie was heading to the big screen with a different animation style. Thankfully, The Peanuts Movie is undeniably sweet and very loyal to its source material, as Charles Schulz's own son and grandson helped write and produce it.

It begins with the gang (Linus, Lucy, Patty, Pigpen etc...) waking up to a fresh coat of snow and the prospect of a new neighbor moving in, who happens to be "the little red-haired girl". Meanwhile, the ever-so introspective, self-deprecating yet hopeful Charlie Brown is being Charlie Brown. The next day at school, the new girl is introduced and Charlie Brown immediately blushes the moment she walks into the classroom. What subsequently unfolds is an old-fashioned tale of a childhood crush in the Charlie Brown-iest way possible.

All of the characters are kept exactly the same here (even the voices sound pretty spot-on), and there's plenty of the phrases and sight gags we've come to know. People will be glad to learn that the film successfully and lovingly encompasses the spirit of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. The updated animation adds some texture and dimension, but it holds dear the lines, shapes, and details of the original character designs and settings. Sure, the film would've been just fine in its two-dimensional form, but the important part is that the animation doesn't distract from what's going on. The plot is incredibly light, but almost comfortingly so. In a climate where Hollywood films often end up convoluted and overlong, The Peanuts Movie is refreshingly simple and brisk but just as meaningful.

Charlie Brown's character is as endearing as ever. He's a dreamer and a ponderer, dedicated and determined, and he never gives up on attempting to rise to the occasion (no matter how major or minor it is in the grand scheme) even after all his frequent failures and inadequacies. Charlie Brown isn't just an inspiration to us all, but he might actually be within ourselves.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

[Review] Experimenter

Oh, humans...

Based on true events, Experimenter profiles a strange social experiment that psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted at Yale in 1961. I won't go too far into explaining the exact details (the exposition in the film will do that), but it's an obedience test involving two people in separate rooms, one of which sends a painful electric shock to the other person upon command.

Set within drab gray interior, it's all a study of empathy, obscured morals, and inhumanity. Milgram's project was provoked by the events of Nazi Germany and the implementation of genocide. The twist here--this isn't a spoiler because it's revealed at the beginning--is that the receiver actually isn't getting shocked (just pretending to be). So, Milgram wanted to get to the bottom of just why and how easily people can be manipulated into obeying orders that involve harming other people against will.

Peter Sarsgarrd is perfectly cast. John Leguizamo and Jim Gaffigan also show up, so some subtle humor sneaks in, exploiting the confounding nature of it all. It's certainly interesting stuff, and it's probably riveting for researchers of the human psyche, but Experimenter is most likely a little too dense and repetitive for average filmgoers. So if this sparks your intrigue, do check it out. If not, there is a strong triple threat of The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and Steve Jobs in theaters right now.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

[Review] Burnt

'Tis the season of biopics, and it's hard to believe that this film starring Bradley Cooper as a hard-living chef isn't actually based on Anthony Bourdain's life. In fact, this isn't a biopic at all. But the film is so bland that you'll likely get significantly more reward out of an episode of "No Reservations".

Chef Bradley Jones (Cooper) was a rising hot-shot chef living in Paris, but drug and alcohol addiction led him to lose his success. In an attempt to start again and earn an elusive *3rd* star, he heads a new restaurant in London, where he also meets love interest Helen (Sienna Miller).

Burnt just isn't that much of enjoyable or compelling experience. At best, we're shown some delectable shots of sizzling food, but we could also get those with a couple clicks via an Internet search if we wanted to. The less-than-intriguing plot never develops very smoothly, and the film loses any sense of identity in the process. The main character Jones is kind of an asshole, but he isn't an interesting asshole like this year's Steve Jobs portrayal. And whether you liked American Sniper or not, Bradley Cooper had much more room for an impressive lead performance in that.

You'd be better off checking out last year's cooking themed film Chef, which is so much more lively in multiple aspects. Ironically, Burnt is undercooked.