Sinister 2 (**1/2): Too much of anything

Sinister-2-2015

Sinister 2 – 2015

Director Cirian Foy
Starring James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, Nicholas King
Screenplay C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson

The eternal question about sequels to horror movies that are moderate hits: How does one progress the story without taking any of the elements too far or, by contrast, repeating oneself? There are very few horror series that have actually improved the mythology with the direct sequel. In fact, only three come to mind: Bride of FrankensteinParanormal Activity 2 and The Devil’s Rejects. We don’t include The Silence of the Lambs because it was not intended as a sequel and Aliens, because it is really as much Sci-Fi as anything. Dawn of the Dead, you say? Sorry, it still doesn’t work for me. Zombies really didn’t kick off until 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s own version of the movie.

Sinister 2 is a good example of succeeding in one aspect and utterly failing at another. The thing it has going for it is Ransone’s Deputy So and So. As a relatively minor, yet still important character in the first film, Deputy has now quit from the police force and dedicated his life to understanding (and eradicating) the menace that has wreaked havoc in the events of the first film and beyond. He knows each family that has been dispatched has one child missing.The deaths always happen at the house the family moves to after this fiend (we have to call him Bughuul, but we don’t have to like it) has started his work. So, he goes from home to abandoned home, burning them down if they are uninhabited. Unlucky for he and the Collins family that he gets there after estranged mother (Sossamon) and her twin sons Zach and Dylan (Sloans Dartanian and Robert Daniel) have taken refuge. The person they are running from is abusive husband and father Clint (Coco). Since Bughuul needs victims, we can see this one very clearly from the onset. Question is, will Ransone’s wild card be able to prevent mother and children from being the others.

Deputy So and So was one of the best characters in the original film. That they brought him to the fore in the sequel still rates as a pleasant surprise. The expanded role does the film credit and it does change the pace from the original. Other aspects of the story don’t fare as well. The seduction of the child this time around feels like an after thought. After the big reveal in the original story, it is apparent the writers did not have anything left in the tank when it comes to the process. The trudging downstairs every night to watch family snuff films does not work in the slightest. It seems like they sensed this, however. So they, intentionally or not, lift the storyline from Bill Paxton’s Frailty and plop it right in the middle of the process. It seems that the makers believed they could get away with all of it if they just tried differently inventive death scenes. It doesn’t work that way.

So we go back to So and So. His chemistry with Sossamon works well enough to make us want to see them both succeed. The interplay between the brothers seems a tad forced for real siblings, but seeing how their personalities diverge works better. Robert Daniel’s performance is good for someone feeling the pull but resisting.

The real failure of the film this time is in the presentation of it’s primary force for bad, Bughuul. While the first film teases the viewer with sparing “did we or didn’t we” views of the boogeyman. It’s key to the story that the force stay in the periphery. This time around, Bughuul is closer to the character of Aunt Edna, from National Lampoon’s Vacation. We don’t want to see it, but cannot avoid doing so. Thereby, he loses is lustre and is now someone who just occupies space until we can dump him off somewhere down the road. Again, it feels like Derrickson and Cargill don’t know where to go with it, so they just push him out a little farther.

This movie will be forgotten, and it kind of deserves that fate. I wish, for Ransone’s sake, the story elements had been more carefully considered. They really had something here. Now they just have a guy in a mask that won’t go away, even though he’s easier to ignore.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Cool Papa E Reviews Rocky / Creed The Complete Saga

Rocky Complete Saga

Rocky The Complete Saga – 1976 – 2015

Rocky – 1976Rocky-Poster

Director John G. Avildsen Starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Joe Spinell, Tony Burton, Geraldine Hughes Screenplay Sylvester Stallone

Synopsis Down and out low ranking boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) gets the shot of a lifetime when he is randomly picked to take on the World Champion Apollo Creed (Weathers). As he struggles to get himself ready for the fight of his life, he takes on a new trainer with old ideas (Meredith) as well as a shy girlfriend (Shire) with an alcoholic brother.

Review 

There are plenty of standout moments in this first and most well-rounded (but not by much, surprisingly) story of the series. First of all, the dichotomy of a man who makes his living by his fists being one of the most tender characters in cinematic history. Rocky Balboa is a groove that Stallone found within himself that tells us something about the state of a man in the mid-1970’s. Always taking hits, still moving forward, inch by inch and ever so humble and with an estimable amount of tender mercy. The core of this character is found in Rocky. Only Rocky could see the beauty of the unwanted spinster that he approached with the deliberation, speed and certainty of an iceberg. The thing that is so unique about the character and the film is that despite the miserable circumstance and that he comes out a loser in the big bout, the truer victory is found in the arms of that cast off middle-aged girl no one else noticed. In this way the movie fits within and then transcends the recurring ’70’s theme that there could be no happy ending. This film, as much as anything in popular culture, gave a light to the American citizen in the light of Vietnam, Nixon and the hard economic times of the 1970’s. Like the theme song, Gonna Fly Now, Balboa takes the steps from the bottom to the top. Slowly at first, then after much grunt work, he eventually sprints.

The unique brand of kindness shown by everyone in Rocky’s world is deftly handled. You have tough people saying hard things to one another. There is no one holding back the hard truth of life. No one shows this better than Meredith’s Mick. He is an old gym rat who, like Balboa, never had his break. This is projected in how he treats Rocky before Creed gives him his shot. It’s not that he doesn’t like Rocky, he is disappointed in him and the choice he makes to be an enforcer for a loan shark, Tony Gazzo (Spinell). Even Gazzo the is not a real bad guy, though, as we see with his leniency and soft spot for Rock’s inability to come down hard on a guy behind on payments,. Later he gives a gift of cash for Rocky to prepare for the fight. There is nothing tied to that money. It’s love for a big-hearted guy.

The hardest one to see in the light of kindness in light of his uniquely complex character is Burt Young’s Paulie. He is selfish, crude and with little in the way of social skills. He speaks rudely of his sister and does some unspeakably mean things. It is not difficult to see that he loves her, though. He knows that living with him will only ruin her life, and if he lacks the ability to eloquently state this, he does everything in his meager power to shove her out the door.

Talia Shire’s meek portrayal provides a perfect counterpoint to Rocky’s more direct and loquacious ways. She is a perfect diamond in the rough that could never be seen were it not for Balboa’s tendency to scan every area and recognize every person. We know that while they both are far from perfect, their imperfections work well together. There is no more sensitive and utterly considerate romance I have ever seen on celluloid.

After years of sequels and accelerated levels of violence with each boxing match, the back and forth between champ and challenger seems almost quaint in Rocky. There are some wonderful, funny moments like when Rocky finally gets his nose broken and Mickey tells him it’s actually an improvement. In an excellent high-definition transfer, everything is crystal clear. To this point, it becomes more obvious which scenes take place in a full arena and which shots took place in a sparsely filled warehouse.

Stallone and Avildsen create such a wonderful living document of the time, the film never feels out-of-place. Any time one decides to enter the world they created, they are in it for the duration, and loving every beautiful and tender second.

(***** out of *****)

Quotes 

Paulie: [talking about Adrian] You like her? Rocky: Sure, I like her. Paulie: What’s the attraction? Rocky: I dunno… she fills gaps. Paulie: What’s ‘gaps’? Rocky: I dunno, she’s got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.

___

Adrian: Einstein flunked out of school, twice.

Paulie: Is that so? Adrian: Yeah. Beethoven was deaf. Helen Keller was blind. I think Rocky’s got a good chance. ___

Rocky: I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts – I’m dumb, you’re shy, whaddaya think, huh?

___

Rocky: What about my prime, Mick? At least you had a prime! I had no prime, I had nothin’!

___

Mickey: [to rocky, after round 1 with Apollo] Keep hittin’em in the ribs ya see? Don’t let that bastard breathe!

___

Apollo Creed: Stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make ya grunt and smell. See, be a thinker, not a stinker.

All quotes courtesy of IMDB.com

 Best moment 

After each viewing, I am drawn to the most tender moments. They can be strewn in between other, more crude passages. When Rocky is telling Paulie about how he and Adrian “fill gaps” my heart just melts. Then Paulie asks Rocky if she is “ballin’ her.” Poetry.

Weakest moment

This is such a strong movie, to find a bad spot is much harder than it will be in future segments, but for now, lets just say that before Rocky goes out for the last round. Mickey finishes talking to him, and then, inexplicably, another guy, who we’ve seen very little of in the rest of the film, catches Rocky and gives him advice that no one can here. Rocky nods a few times and then heads back towards his destiny. Bell’s already rung, pal. What are you doing in this scene at all?

Rocky II – 1979

rocky-2-movie-poster-1979-1020379662Written and Directed by Stallone Starring Stallone, Shire, Young, Weathers, Meredith, Burton

Synopsis After taking Creed to a virtual tie, but losing the bout, Rocky tries to make a living outside of boxing. Failing that, he gets a second chance. As he navigates new marriage with a kid on the way, he works with Mickey to expand his skills. The match once again goes to the wire, but this time Rocky is victorious.

Review

For all the glowing descriptions that Rocky merits from fans and critics alike, the second film in the saga is often forgotten. Even I only owned I, III and IV in two formats until Rocky Balboa came out. At that point, I got the complete set on Blu Ray and watched it for only the 2nd and 3rd time in the last couple of years.

My mind’s eye may have been a bit unfair. But only a bit. Rocky II is a good movie and goes a ways to continue the characters as we knew them from the original. The positives are many, and they do outweigh the general feeling of malaise that hangs over the story. Our hero and his wife, trainer, friend are all poor people. They had little before the big fight, and it doesn’t take long for them to not have much afterward.Stallone’s decision to push forward with the theme of destitute living matches the weather and the grey hue throughout. While one can credit the writer / director for trying to stay true to the gravity of life, the first two acts of the film are really not fun to watch.

First of all, you have Rocky spending beyond his means to give his newly pregnant wife the life he thinks she and the child deserve. This is derailed by his inability to read. Stallone bravely soldiers on with his icon. Giving him the role of humble servant, he willingly accepts menial work when he can get it. At one point he sells his beloved car to Paulie just to get rid of the payments. Adrian starts working at the pet shop again. Rocky works at Mickey’s gym. He learns to read. Balboa even stays away from his friend, Tony, the loan shark, who offers him perhaps the best advice on how to make his money work for him.

But humble living isn’t enough. More adversity crosses the path of our hero when Creed begins to chirp about Rocky refusing a rematch. This is due to his pending blindness in one eye. Even Mickey knows this to be true. Creed is tortured by the thought that he may actually have lost to Balboa. Despite Adrian’s protestations, Rocky and Mickey begin training again, even if Rocky cannot fully invest himself into the effort, due to his wife’s lack of support. This leads to Paulie (of course) doing the wrong thing and Adrian giving premature birth and heading into a coma.

The next 15-20 minutes are a shot at poignancy that falls a little short. Sure it’s great that Rocky reads to his wife by day and prays all night. It’s even sweeter that old Mick stays right there by his side. In what world, though, would any boxing organization not allow for a delay in a match due to illness of a boxer’s spouse and premature birth of his first child? That this is not even mentioned by Creed or any of the analysts in the film seems a glaring oversight.

The training sequence comes in two halves. This is a trend throughout the series. First part is always a demonstration of the Rocky lacking motivation. The second half is when Rocky gets it and starts giving it his all. I personally blame this cinematic trick for me never liking exercise growing up. I was always waiting for the part of me that finally understood.

The boxing match makes sense, in that Mick is really trying to protect Balboa’s eye. Seen from this perspective helps the viewer navigate the complete lack of believability in the severe pounding that the boxers administer upon each others. Even today in the era of UFC no one makes that much full impact contact with another person more than maybe three times in a match. Even so, this is nothing compared to what we will see in future matches.

Rocky II does most of the yeoman’s work in the series. What the film has provides grist for the rest of the series. If one goes into it looking for that dramatic Stallone speech that he mastered in other films of the series. For my friend WeMissE, it’s the Oregon between Washington and California. It’s something to get through from where you started to the bright lights and big city that you are heading towards.

(*** out of *****)

Quotes

Gazo: How’s about investing in condominiums? It’s safe.

Rocky Balboa: Condominiums?

Gazo: Yeah, condominiums.

Rocky Balboa: I never use ’em.

___

Interviewer: Do you have a criminal record?

Rocky Balboa: Nothin’ worth braggin’ about.

___

Reporter: Rock, you got anything derogatory to say about the champ?

Rocky Balboa: Derogatory? Yeah. He’s great.

___

Rocky is punching the heavy bag]

Rocky Balboa: Three, four…

Mickey: Now remember, I want 500 hard ones. Go!

Rocky Balboa: Where was I, seven or eight?

 All quotes courtesy of IMDB.com

Best moment 

All the one liners are the lifeblood of the early Rocky film. This one gets by on them in a big way.

Weakest moment 

Not sure I was able to buy that the pre-getting it workout Rocky couldn’t catch the chicken, but I am damn sure catching a chicken would help one keep up with Creed.

Rocky III – 1982rocky3

Written and Directed by Stallone Starring Stallone, Shire, Weathers, Young, Meredith, Mr. T., Burton, Hulk Hogan

Synopsis Rocky is living the life of a champion. He holds the title for several bouts until he comes across a younger and hungrier challenger, Clubber Lang (Mr. T.) who beats him soundly the same night that Mickey dies. Lost to himself, he finds an ally in Apollo, who takes him to his hometown of L.A. and teaches Balboa some new skills. He pretty much drops those midway through the rematch but wins anyway.

Review

The first Rocky film I saw in the theater and what an incredible ride. The movie was tailor-made for an 11-year-old boy, with the solving problems with the fists and the “I thought you said to be cool” and Creed saying “That WAS cool!” For many years this was my favorite film of the saga and it wasn’t until I saw the next film and realized that these middle 2 films have almost the least to do with the real character of Rocky Balboa. Instead, it’s like some rich, better looking and more muscular and toned guy took the place of the scrapper who appears in the other films. In another way, though, it fits the narrative that this is Rocky’s fairytale phase.

First, let me get to the things that don’t quite fit:

  1. Rocky is in tremendous shape from the start of the film. None of those guys look like tomato cans, but he also looks less like a heavyweight with all that weight off.
  2. Mick was in a pretty good place to get medical care if he needed it. At the very least, Rocky or anyone living with him should have known there was a problem there.
  3. How in the heck does the fight still go on after one fighter physically assaults the other’s aged manager? How is it that charges are not filed?
  4. Creed is still in magnificent shape, physically and mentally. There is no reason he couldn’t have stepped right in the ring the moment Rocky is carted off in the first match.
  5. I don’t buy that Creed didn’t have “the eye of the tiger” in the second match. Rocky is distracted as hell and he even arrived late to the match. Creed had trained like a mad man. I buy that he could lose. Let’s not overdo it with the superlatives.
  6. The training pattern is perhaps the least satisfying of the series, even if we do get a change of venue for the second round. Frank Stallone graduates from the street for the first two films to entertaining the convention in the first round. And what is it with Creed and Stallion hugging it out on the beach while frolicking in the waves?

These are quibbles, though, because when it comes to adrenalized entertainment, Rocky III still fills the bill. There are still some wonderful moments that fit the overall arc of characters, too. Paulie has a nice movie, in his inimitable way. First you have him literally going on a binge instead of asking for a job. Then he complains, essentially, that he is not real happy training in L.A. because blacks “aren’t my people,” and then he hugs Creed the moment Rocky’s arm is raised. My favorite moment in the film is between rounds, when Rocky gets a rinse of water for his mouth. As he finishes, he spits it out to the side of the ring, where a ring hand would normally hold a bucket. Paulie, there for the job and not for the work, is mystified as the water spray hits him full on in the chest. Gold.

The best fight scenes in the entire series happen here. Hulk Hogan is introduced to the world as Thunderlips in a fight similar to every match he’s had since. Mr. T. is a global phenomenon just about to happen. Even if he is not entirely believable as a boxer, he totally works as a menacing antagonist. Most of the best lines in the film are his, and they are instantly quotable to even casual fans of the series.

It really is fun to see Creed step in for a crucial role after he easily could have been written out of the series. He doesn’t last much longer, to be sure, but the memory of his character is mostly a good one. The best scenes for the training is watching how incredibly pissed he gets at Balboa’s lethargy.

One thing you can say is Stallone has an eye for unforgettable faces…and hairdos. Talia Shire breaks with the mold here too, as she gets to sink her teeth into a shouting match scene with Stallone which is really pretty good. Really though, the thing I best remember about Stallone in the Rocky saga is when his character is at his literal wit’s end. He always has his best scenes describing his thoughts about his situation. It’s good drama for an action film.

Let’s not forget the soundtrack, though. From that grand theme to Gonna Fly Now evolving into The Eye of the Tiger. The latter is an instant classic that brought the world to attention in 1982. These were the days when a good song could bring a movie to your attention, but a great song could make a movie necessary viewing. To this day, the song brings simultaneously the cheesiest and most sincere feelings to light.

So this is still a fun film, even if it doesn’t feel like a Rocky film through and through. The guy struggling on the beach in Malibu is definitely not the same person we saw cleaning off the floor of the rendering plant in the last film. It’s not that he is a sellout here. Not at all. It’s just that there is a bit of a gap in the person that Rocky was in the first to films compared to who he becomes here. This is okay, though. The movie is still entertaining as hell and its very easy to take off the shelf even these many years later.

(**** out of *****)

Quotes

Interviewer: Do you hate Rocky?

Clubber Lang: No, I don’t hate Balboa. I pity the fool, and I will destroy any man who tries to take what I got!

___

Clubber Lang: [Calling to Adrian; Smooth talks] Hey, Woman. Hey, Woman! Listen here. Since your old man ain’t got no heart, maybe you like to see a real man. I bet you stay up late every night dreamin’ you had a real man, don’t ya? I’ll tell you what. Bring your pretty little self over to my apartment tonight, and I’ll show you a real man.

Rocky Balboa: [loses his temper completely; Screaming] You want it, you got it! YOU GOT IT!

___

Clubber Lang: [before the rematch with Rocky] Hey, boy. Hey, boy. After I crucify him, you next.

Apollo Creed: Just stay outta my face, chump.

[turns his back on Clubber]

Clubber Lang: Don’t turn your back on me, sucka!

[he shoves Apollo and a melee breaks out]

Rocky Balboa: [after the scuffle is broken up] I thought you said be cool!

Apollo Creed: That WAS cool!

___

Apollo Creed: [during the rematch with Lang] He’s gettin’ killed out there!

Paulie: No, no, no! He ain’t gettin’ killed; he’s gettin’ mad!

___

Clubber Lang: I’m going to bust you up.

Rocky Balboa: Go for it.

All quotes courtesy of IMDB.com

Best moment

It really is a visceral thrill to see the tide turn in the match, so I have to go with the moment (above) that Paulie points out what is really happening to Balboa in the ring in the second match.

Weakest moment

The back and forth between Creed and Balboa about the “favor” pops up during strange times and doesn’t really lend itself to repeated viewings.

Rocky IV – 1985rocky_iv_

Written and Directed by Stallone Starring Stallone, Shire, Weathers, Young, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielson, Burton, Michael Pataki

Synopsis Creed takes on Russian Ivan Drago (Lundgren) in an exhibition match that goes horribly wrong. Rocky travels to Russia to take the fight to Drago in this Cold War fighting summit. Guess who wins.

Review

Cited by many casual fans as their favorite, this is definitely the low point of the series. The established formula of the series (open, loss, drama, training, win) is followed with almost no effort at making any of the aspects of the story seem believable. Rocky and Creed are now buddies, enjoying the fruits of their labor, when inexplicably, Creed gets a feeling he just as easily could have gotten one film earlier. Why does he have to take on Drago, when his only goal the last time was helping Rocky get back on his feet? Did Creed’s feeling of futility just take a hiatus? We all know the reason. It’s because Action Jackson did not write the damn script for either film. So instead of gathering Weathers’ obvious charisma that helped win the last film, Stallone makes him the sacrificial lamb. That makes 2 major characters lost in 2 films, with no one but Rocky, Jr. and a robot to take their place. Ugh.

One of the best things about this film is also its biggest drawback: the soundtrack. Highlighted in both the film and music is James Brown’s Living In America, which embodies the excess of the ’80’s in the best way possible. Follow that with Survivor’s Burning Heart, Robert Tepper’s No Easy Way Out and John Cafferty’s Hearts on Fire, and you have as many hits as any soundtrack that year. The problem is, with so much music at the ready, Stallone had no hesitancy but to let that rule the day. He literally lets the entire Robert Tepper song play through in the middle section of the film, breaking into an unexplainable and incoherent collection of imagery that does nothing for the plot and really only fills up screen time. As the film finishes the 2nd half of its training segments, it becomes clear that the movie is more a montage than it is a story.

Lundgren, who has charisma, if not necessarily acting talent, gets to show none of it here. His words are filled up with the blank slate of Brigitte Nielson and Pataki playing a Russian stooge, whose job it is to look indignant at the excesses of America and smug in the victories of Mother Russia.

Shire is wasted this time around. She is made to lose faith in her husband and then throw in with him when everything seems most desperate. Before this, it is hard not to notice that she does not sit next to Creed’s wife for his fight versus Drago. Why would she not sit next to the wife of a friend? Because a Stallone wrote this, and at this point in his career, what the women do in his films is not as important to him as it was earlier. It’s a shame, though, to waste her already exhibited talent on a few worthless scenes.

Young and Burton are the only ones left in the corner at this time, and although the heart wants to grow fonder of both, it is hard to do, when their roles are cut down to a nub. At least Young still knows how to make an ass of himself in a press conference and it’s fun seeing him trying to duck out of the flying wood debris that Rocky chops.

Stallone, who pretty clearly was doing chemicals to make his workouts count at this point (he gets nabbed for it later), looks ridiculous going “natural” in the Russian wild, while having Drago take to the needle. Creating an image, to be sure, but it could not be more exaggerated than if Stallone gave himself platform shoes to appear taller in the ring.

The ham-fisted approximation of Russia is funny in retrospect. Gorbachev is shown as a dude who is swayed by Rocky’s genial winning ways, when reality had him far ahead of the backwards perception of Russian life presented here. That happened in a lot of movies, of course. Here though, when Rocky notes the change of heart of the Russian audience while he gets his head pounded off, he speaks about how he’s been changed into understanding Russian people in the process. What change? What? Absolutely no words had been uttered by Balboa about Russia in the entirety of the series, much less the film. He hardly uttered a bad word about Drago. It is, of course, Stallone speaking to the movie going public about his own feelings. He is just too lazy to have it make sense – to have anything make sense – in this cashing in of American jingoism.

(*1/2 out of *****)

Quotes

There is very little to remember in this film, beyond Paulie, of course.

Duke: What’s happening out there?

Rocky: He’s winning… I see three of him out there!

Paulie: Hit the one in the middle.

Duke: Right! Hit the one in the middle.

___

Paulie: I know sometimes I act stupid and I say stupid things, but you kept me around and other people would have said “drop that bum”. You give me respect. You know it’s kinda hard for me to say these kinda things, cuz it ain’t my way, but if I could just unzip myself and step out and be someone else, I’d wanna be you. You’re all heart, Rock.

___

Nicoli Koloff: Who are you?

Paulie: Who am I? I’m the unsilent majority, bigmouth.

All quotes courtesy of IMDB.com

Best moment

Living In America. Right down to the robe being applied post-performance. Eddie Murphy, eat your heart out, indeed.

Weakest moment

They should have called this episode Montage: The Movie.

Rocky V – 1990ROCKYV

Directed by Avildsen Written by Stallone Starring Stallone, Shire, Young, Sage Stallone, Tommy Morrison, Meredith, Richard Gant, Burton

Synopsis Rocky is old, broke, brain-damaged and forced to retire. He works on the relationship with his son (Sage) and re-opens Mickey’s old Gym. While there he starts to train Tommy Gunn (Morrison) and finds some success, at the cost of his time spent with Rocky Jr. George Washington Duke hijacks Gunn before he wins the championship. When the crowd turns on Gunn, he challenges Rocky, who refuses until Gunn punches Paulie. Then they bare knuckle fight. Guess who wins.

Review

Trying to rekindle the magic of the first film, Stallone hires that film’s director and brings the script back to the dregs of Philadelphia. While it ultimately fails to connect with the feeling of the original, it isn’t close to being as bad as IV. The brain damage and the slur are back as is the kind-hearted nobody we last saw in the second film. This film is confused in the direction it ultimately wants to go. Part of it is a rich kid caught on the wrong side of the tracks, but once Jr. learns to fight for and by himself, he fades into the background with no complaints.

Shire has only one chance to shine here and, for the most part, adds value by showing all old things can be new again when you are broke. Burt Young is marginalized as well, if used inexplicably as a scapegoat for – go figure – signing over P.O.A. for both Rocky and Adrian to a shady accountant who gambles and loses it all.

As the new blood, Morrison looks less like an actor than a boxer. Richard Gant does a Don King that has absolutely no nuance. Yes, we already knew King was corrupt, and this tells us only what the most basic of our imaginings allow. And what is with the bimbo red-head? Why would a woman who looks like she’s just turned 40 with fake everything appeal to the “youngest champ” in the history of boxing?

Speaking of young, Sage Stallone, as Jr. reprises is own role, moving from age 9 to 15 in the film, even though the film takes place within a year of the earlier entry.

Rocky as a character seems half developed, as well. Meredith is brought back for some historical memory shots and to root him on, Obi-Wan Kenobi style during the climax. It feels like some of this film was left on the cutting room floor, and Rocky was rumored to have been killed off in this film. That did not happen. By the time we get to the end, we are ready for it to be over.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Quotes

Overweight Drinker: Yo Rock, you need some help?
Rocky: No, guys; ain’t no pie eating contest.

___

Rocky Balboa: Well, maybe I’ll take you upstairs and violate you like a parking meter.
Adrian: It’ll cost you a quarter.

___

George W. Duke: It’s like your Mark Twain once said – “Virtue has never been as respectable as money.”

Paulie: Who’s Twain?

Rocky Balboa: He was a painter.

All quotes courtesy of IMDB.com

Best moment 

When Rocky actually does a few street fight moves while street fighting Gunn. If he had actually finished the fight, it would have been more memorable.

Weakest moment

Rocky walks away TWICE before putting Gunn down. Oh, and the soundtrack is awful. Horrible corporate rap estimations and an Elton John song to top it off.

Rocky Balboa – 2006rocky-balboa

Written and Directed by Stallone Starring Stallone, Young, Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Hughes, Burton, James Francis Kelly III, Pedro Lovell

Synopsis 16 years after his fight with Tommy Gunn, Balboa enjoys a comfortable existence as a restaurant owner. Paulie is back at the meat plant. Adrian has died. His son (Milo) has grown distant. An ESPN computer simulation gets Rocky interested in boxing again. Don’t ask how. The boxer he faces Mason Dixon (Tarver) is pretty cool though. And when he fights, you might not guess who wins.

Review

It’s all back. The tenderness. The heart. And as Duke puts it, the pure horse power. This is undoubtedly the best film since the original, and it gets better with each viewing. So many things work well in this film, and really only one thing doesn’t work. Let’s get to the many highlights though.

The characters are human. Stallone and Young live and breathe humanity in this story. Both are so full and complex characters and the performances are as brave as they are touching. They embrace their age with a grace unseen in most movies. Each of them are brought to rage, and each is brought to tears. But each of them don’t ever stop. I can count the several times I have seen Stallone act this well on one hand. It is refreshing and depressing all at once when one considers how many films like Daylight and Demolition Man littered through is career.

Paulie and Rocky swap their lines like playful jabs. They speak plainly and do not spare one another. It’s a bittersweet pleasure to see these two going at it, years after someone younger and more vibrant than either of them has passed on. It’s a cruelty each of them wears like someone might wear plain clothes to church. They still believe. They just believe in plain clothes.

The best character, though, is Marie (Hughes). Her damaged soul provides a perfect counterpoint for Rocky’s. The way he handles their relationship is deft, delicate and with proper reverence. The sad part about Adrian is that she really had no flaws after the first film. She was perfect and was just there. I think that both Stallone and Shire must have realized this. She even made a statement supporting the editorial decision. We finally get to see Stallone flex his acting and writing chops in Rocky’s kindness for kindness’ sake. Hughes is not a straight up replica of Adrian either. That they are not a couple makes their relationship that much more resonant and gives her room to grow.

The relationship with Steps (Kelly III)would have been cheeseball in any other film. This time we have Steps as something other than an acolyte. He and Rocky come to like one another on their own terms, and not an adjunct to Balboa’s relationship with Marie.

Spider Rico (Lovell) is a brilliant addition to the script. His inclusion gives a 360 degree feeling to Rocky’s world. His simple character mirrors Balboa’s own, and to find his role in preparing Rocky for what lay ahead is touching and beautiful. It’s a character that should have been easy to forget. Indeed, Stallone spent 3 movies forgetting characters like these. Somewhere along the way, he found out that they were the heart of Rocky’s world.

The writing is sublime. Stallone is as inspired as he’s ever been putting the pen to paper. This story means something significant to him. The characters and story, taken for granted for so long, are brought off the shelf, dusted and put in the ring in all their ragged glory.There are so many good storylines in this one. Some of them don’t last the length of the story, but it all feels right.

The character aside from Marie that benefits most from this writing is that of Rocky, Jr. (Ventimiglia). His story is a believable one, well acted and provides an excellent touchstone into what makes Rocky such a great character. The speech that he gives his son as Jr. begs him to please reconsider fighting is easily the best soliloquy in any of the films outside the first. It provides a key that brings the entire series home for its fans. The capping line (quoted below) is genius in its simplicity and power.

The training sequence is my favorite of the series. It is wonderful seeing Rock and these old dogs working on the one thing that he still has to offer, straight up power. Burton makes the most of his few scenes as usual.

Tarver’s Mason Dixon is somewhere between Apollo Creed and Tommy Gunn. He’s not a complete jerk, but he’s not really allowed to be a nice guy. He is somewhat underdeveloped, to be sure, but then so was Creed until the 3rd film. Having him just be another brute would have been a mistake. Really, though, it’s not about who he is, so much as it is that Rocky has inside of himself.

The fight is definitely the best of the series. It looks and sounds real. You have a visceral intensity and more in this film than any but the first, a vested interest in Rocky’s success. The damage received by each is incredible, of course, but having Dixon break his hand early and keep going does much to add to his character and allows Rocky to have a chance.

The lone weak spot for me is the concept of computer simulated fights. I have never seen these before or since the film. Really, they are unneeded, given the other motivators outlined in the plot. They come across about as realistic and necessary as those Korean animated re-enactments.

That this is the second best Rocky film is easy to say. This is also the second best work Stallone has ever done. It’s the difference between him and his former Planet Hollywood partners. It’s the difference between him and most action stars except Eastwood. It is this movie I will think of most when watching Creed.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Quotes

Rocky Balboa: You ain’t gonna believe this, but you used to fit right here.

[taps on the inside of his hand]

I’d hold you up to say to your mother, “this kid’s gonna be the best kid in the world. This kid’s gonna be somebody better than anybody I ever knew.” And you grew up good and wonderful. It was great just watching you, every day was like a privilege. Then the time come for you to be your own man and take on the world, and you did. But somewhere along the line, you changed. You stopped being you. You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you’re no good. And when things got hard, you started looking for something to blame, like a big shadow. Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, ya ain’t gonna have a life. Don’t forget to visit your mother.

___

Duke: You know all there is to know about fighting, so there’s no sense us going down that same old road again. To beat this guy, you need speed – you don’t have it. And your knees can’t take the pounding, so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck, and you’ve got calcium deposits on most of your joints, so sparring is out.

Paulie: I had that problem.

Duke: So, what we’ll be calling on is good ol’ fashion blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, piledriving punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it’s gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs!

___

Rocky Balboa: Hey yo, champ. Aren’t you a little scared?

Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon: I don’t get scared.

[walks away]

Rocky Balboa: [turns and walks away with his son] You know, I think you try harder when you’re scared… That’s when it’s worked best for me.

___

Rocky Balboa: My son’s coming over tonight, so I’m going to have something special made for him.

Paulie: Italian food made by a bunch of Mexicans doesn’t sound so special to me, Rock.

___

Marie: It doesn’t matter how this looks to other people. If this is something you gotta do, then you do it. Fighters fight.

___

Rocky Balboa: Ya know they always say if you live in one place long enough, you are that place.

Paulie: I ain’t no talking building, Rock.

___

Rocky Balboa: You know your kid sorta resembles ya. He’s got that thick Irish hair, you know.

Marie: …Yeah it’s the other one.

[Rocky looks at the dark skinned one]

Rocky Balboa: …Yeah?

Marie: His father was from Jamaica.

Rocky Balboa: Jamaica… European… Was you on a cruise ship or somthin’ ?

Marie: [smiles] Not exactly.

___

Marie: The last thing to age on somebody is their heart

___

Paulie: Are you angry because Adrian left you?

Rocky Balboa: She didn’t leave, she died.

___

Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon: It’s already over.

Rocky Balboa: There aint nothin’ over till it’s over.

Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon: Where’s that from, the 80’s?

Rocky Balboa: That’s probably the 70’s.

All quotes courtesy of IMDB.com

Best moment 

Wow. Is this ever hard to choose. So many great moments, but the dialogue he shares with his son is a pivotal point in the series. This is Rocky to a T.

Weakest moment 

There is only one. The animated simulation fight. Adds nothing to the story. Just a little silly.

Creed – 2015Creed-Movie

Director Ryan Coogler Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish Screenplay Coogler and Aaron Covington

Synopsis Review Quotes Best moment Weakest moment

All coming in November.

Trainwreck (****) is long, well acted and kind of funny

Trainwreck-trailer

Trainwreck – 2015

Director Judd Apatow
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James
Screenplay Schumer

It may be for the best, but I had not seen much of Amy Schumer prior to watching Trainwreck. That tactic worked for Ted, because one of the things I heard a lot was it isn’t the same if you’ve watched Family Guy. The thing about comedians is the funny is almost always paralleled with a certain degree of sadness. The comedy is countered by tragedy. Yeah, I think the routine kind of stinks, unless the story has more than the plot going for it.

Damn if it doesn’t apply to Schumer’s semi-autobiographical film. The first version of the story had her as a car saleswoman, but Apatow encouraged her to cut closer to the bone. And so we get this. Looking over her bio, I don’t see where she’d done much writing for magazines in the past, but she’s done plenty of it for her performing career. Emmy nominated, even.

The story finds Schumer as Amy Townsend. She has taken her father’s inability to be monogamous and turned it into an art form. She is dating someone (Cena) with a conspicuous fascination with the male form, but that doesn’t stop her from dating other guys. Many other guys. And three women. A job assignment with S’nuff men’s magazine sets her up with sports doctor Aaron Conners (Hader).

Meanwhile her father Gordon (Quinn) has been sent to an assisted living home. Her sister Kim (Larson), who is happily married to a likeable guy (Birbiglia) with a son named Allister. Allister is not a typical boy, and he is not Kim’s, which sets both Amy and her father ill-at-ease. Nevertheless father and son are accepting of their in-laws, making it apparent the problem lies with the protagonist and her biggest influence.

Things are progressing with Aaron when Kim gets pregnant and then Gordon dies, setting in motion a series of events that force change in everyone’s comfortable existence.

My first impression of the film is how well Schumer’s script matches with Apatow’s directing style. That impression grows to a type of sadness when one realizes that Apatow’s films have skewed long and a little sad lately. After we see her powerful opening act and a nice, convincing move towards monogamy, we get stopped by tragedy and cataclysmic decisions that feel like a way to inject drama into the film that must be overcome.

Schumer herself is ready for prime time. She is completely at ease in front of the camera, willing to play the asshole, because she knows that the asshole meets more interesting people in the ditch than in the middle of the road. As a result, Schumer the writer surrounds herself with characters that don’t give her a free pass. They aren’t giving each other any breaks either. This is a net plus to the film.

The acting is good in the film, with Larson, Birbiglia, Hader and Quinn standing out. LeBron James does a humorous version of himself that is good, if a little too cloying. They could have dropped the references to Downton Abbey and made it a little more believable. Also, does LeBron just hang out in NYC between games? If he was playing in Miami or Cleveland, the commute would be a challenge. Cena is funnier in his limited role. The lovemaking scene is as uncomfortably comical as anything since Bruno. His vulnerability is uniquely portrayed for an actor that comes from the WWE.

The crux of the film and the difficulty with all romantic comedies is in transitioning from initial bliss to eternal bliss. In the absence of an outside force, one or the other has to be misunderstood in someway, and then that misunderstanding has to be blown out of proportion. It’s a tough sell to a person who’s seen enough romantic comedies. Trainwreck is no exception. Fortunately we have Schumer’s comic instincts to push through the discomfort of watching Schumer moving out of the shadier parts of her life.

Hader and Schumer work well because each of them look the part. Neither is gorgeous, but each is one that most people could picture themselves ending up with for a long-term (or shorter term) relationship.

Larson and Birbiglia get the happy supporting couple role in the story. It’s a good source of balance for the protagonists to find a couple that is approachable and somewhat normal compared to them. They provide an opportunity for the leads to act antagonistically while keeping them within the breadth of their character.

The key to comedy is balancing the laughs with moments that resonate without dragging one down too low. Apatow succeeds with Schumer here for the most part. If this film is not quite to the level of This is 40, it is definitely well above Funny People. I can see myself watching this years from now and still enjoying it. There is plenty to identify with, and enough that one doesn’t to stay interesting.

(**** out of *****)

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (***1/2) Needs desperate times…

mission

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – 2015

Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin

One of the funniest scenes in the entire M:I series takes place during the 3rd act. As the principal protagonists surround a person of interest, one of the good guys, Benji (Pegg) is kidnapped by some of the bad guys. Instantly, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) tells his right hand man, Luther Sticknell (Rhames) to stay with the suspect as Hunt and Brandt (Renner) chase after the people who have already placed Benji in the trunk and started driving off. It takes about five steps for a lumbering Sticknell to lose his target. Cruise and Brandt burst into the next scene running at full speed in the garage as the car pulls away. They give up the ghost about 15 steps in, and literally within the same distance, we see Sticknell – moving faster towards diabetes than his running takes him – huffing his way right into the scene. How in the world did Sticknell catch them? Well, McQuarrie did not want to wait for him, so he just had him there when he needed him. They don’t want to waste the celluloid to watch Rhames run in real time.

Ving Rhames has never been what one might call a small man, but it’s clear that in this film where the action is constant, the most appropriate place for his character is in front of a keyboard. Luckily for him, Benji and Brandt can do a few other things. Hunt…well, he does everything else. Full bore.

By now, everyone has caught up to speed with the M:I cast. What was a hit and largely miss first couple of films has, since Cruise met up with J.J. Abrams, taken a turn for the best. At that point, we got a more solid team to form around Cruise, with a movement towards solid, often physical comedy. The series peak of Ghost Protocol brought in Paula Patton and Renner, director Brad Bird placed each of the actors in a prime position to excel. If this left Rhames off the screen for the most part, it still hinted at things to come when he made an appearance at the end.

This time we have the same team except for Patton who is missed, even if the one major character opposite Cruise is Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust. She plays a Femme Fatale who is surprising for her abilities, her mysterious alliances and that she is over 30. Faust is always in step with Cruise, except when she is a step ahead. Their dance is one of the good things about Rogue Nation, as it gives Hunt a different type of counterpart. One that he trusts, but probably shouldn’t.

She is a double (or possibly triple) agent who is in deep with The Syndicate, which is the titular rogue nation of ex-agents that are going everywhere and doing everything bad. Sean Harris is their leader, Solomon Lane. He provides a creepy, if almost wimpy voice. He is mostly there to remind us that there is one guy that Hunt will face off in the end, after he passes all the other bad guys.

It’s going to be tough, though, because CIA director Alan Hunley (Baldwin) has just lobbied the Senate oversight committee that MIF should be disbanded. This leads to Brandt and Benji joining the CIA, Sticknell quitting and Hunt going off grid, as he works on the mystery of The Syndicate.

In spite of what you’ve heard, the mystery is not real hard to solve. Just following the rule that it’s probably because of a couple pompous Brits and a blowhard American, one will be able to surmise what is going on.

The fun of it all, though, is watching Cruise’s reckless enthusiasm and willingness to look clumsy and lucky as often as valiant and athletic. While there are no scenes in here that match the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, the airplane at the start of the film approaches it for comedic value and intensity. Still, the opening scene, the underwater scene and subsequent chase are as good as anything else in the series. If the film lets down in the last act, that’s okay. At some point soon, we have to feel a real sense of danger and, dare I say it, loss. If not, the films risk being too safe to be next level entertainment.crazy-underwater-stunt-in-the-new-mission-impossible

Pegg’s Benji is relied upon for much of the comic relief this time, and for the most part he delivers. The more he is used, the less effective he is overall. The film could have used a little more punch from Renner and Sticknell. The less I see of them, the more I wonder why have them in the film at all. If you can’t tell the kind of role Baldwin will play in an action film by now, just think of a Ving Rhames that doesn’t touch a computer. He is there mainly to provide an obstacle and occasional unwitting support. His role could have been played by anyone. Well, anyone but Andy Dick.

This is Cruise and Ferguson’s film, for worse and mostly better. In Faust, Hunt gets the female counterpart that was prominent in the first 2 films, but largely absent in the last 2. We can’t really count Monaghan, because she was not an agent, largely a target and she lasted more than one film. If the film is not as good as the two preceding it, it’s still one of the best films of the summer, and a worthy addition to the string. The effort Cruise puts into everything makes it remarkably breathtaking, even if there is never any thought that he’s ever not going to make it.

McQuarrie is not JJ Abrams, and he’s definitely not Brad Bird. His contributions behind the camera and the keyboard are incredibly solid, if equally safe. As a result, it’s not to the level we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Tom Cruise’s signature series.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Spy (****) is tailor made for McCarthy

spy-poster-2015

Spy – 2015

Written and Directed by Paul Feig
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz

Melissa McCarthy is unique in the world of comedy. If you don’t know why, then you haven’t viewed any sort of social media – or media even – since Bridesmaids. The challenge for her is avoiding the gross out humor that is beneath her skill level but right in the wheelhouse of every person who thinks that the 4th of July is a holiday to celebrate a country called ‘Murica. Word around the campfire is that Paul Feig, who directed her in the Bridesmaids and The Heat, had created the perfect vehicle for McCarthy.

McCarthy is Susan Jenkins, a CIA agent who works behind the scenes with a partner agent, Bradley Fine (Law) who takes the field. A botched mission leads Fine into a trap of Rayna Bayanov (Byrne). Since all the identity of the other field agents have been compromised Jenkins volunteers to step into the role of reporting on Bayanov from a distance.

Rick Ford (Statham) is a hot head field agent who refuses to accept the circumstances. Going “rogue” despite the odds. He provides a humorous wild card that wreaks havoc with his prototypical role, as well as Jenkins plans. Susan has her own challenges. After being granted a series of absurd identities, she ends up as Bayanov’s bodyguard. This sounds ridiculous, but McCarthy’s gifts make it all work on a hilarious scale.

That this is the most effective use of McCarthy’s talent, there is no doubt. Feig has honed his gifts for the absurd and scaled back his use of fat clichés that hampered his earlier efforts with McCarthy. It is a delight to see her progress from desk jockey with certain physical gifts into a surprisingly adept and skillful agent. Byrne is equally entertaining as the antagonist. It is a role she should have embraced a while back because she is a natural. Serafinowicz also deserves recognition as the films 2nd most delightful surprise performance.

There is nothing in the way of genius in the plot or its twists. The execution is excellent, however. Feig is as talented a comedy director as there is now. Even so, watching this film makes me question his and McCarthy’s decision to take on the hulking mess of the Ghostbusters franchise which registered almost no interest before Ramis died and left Akroyd holding the “Will work for food” sign. They should take their talent and find a new Harold Ramis; a female one, preferably.

(**** out of *****)

Ant-Man (*****): It’s about damn time

Ant-Man_(film)_poster_

Ant-Man – 2015

Director Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas, Abby Ryder Fortson, Martin Donovan
Screenplay Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay

Edgar Wright made, Shaun of the Dead, one of the 5 funniest films I have ever seen. When I heard that he was going to create Ant-Man for Marvel, I was pretty happy. When I discovered that Paul Rudd was going to play the lead, Scott Lang, I thought this can’t get better. It did get better, Lilly and Stoll were going to be great additions.

Then Wright got into a creative row with Feige over the direction and left. Okay. Peyton Reed, he of Down with Love fame, joined, only when Adam McKay could be convinced to do no more than re-write the script a little. Okay. At this point, my enthusiasm tempered a little. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it probably wasn’t going to be all that good even with Wright in charge. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had been the only film besides Shaun… that I really liked that much. The last 2 parts of the Cornetto Trilogy had failed to live up to the immense expectations of the classic first film. Even if Ant-Man was a passion project, if he left, it might have stunk all along.

Well, that was a mistaken impression. In fact, Ant-Man is anything but a stinker. It is the most fun I have had at the movies since Guardians of the Galaxy. It may even be better than that film. In its simple aspirations, it exceeds either one of the Avengers films, while building on the mythology more successfully than any film but Captain America: Winter Soldier. The story flows effortlessly within and without of the overall initiative. This story gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe the heft it needed after the evacuation of emotion that watchers experienced in the excellent but exhausting …Age of Ultron. This film gives life to the best series of films Hollywood has ever seen during the second of a seemingly endless possible number of phases.

The story starts with Hank Pym (Douglas), circa 1989, meeting with Howard Stark, Peggy Carter and the obviously sinister Mitchell Carson (Donovan) about the Pym Particle. Pym, fresh off the loss of his wife, Janet, is reeling and swears to retire the Particle, along with its benefits, for good. One of these, we find, is the original version of Ant-Man. Forward to present day, we find Scott Lang getting out of prison and moving in with his friend, Luis (Peña). After trying to go straight for his estranged daughter’s (Fortson) sake, he caves into pressure and takes the opportunity to break into Pym’s house and secure the contents of his safe.

Pym, meanwhile, is ahead of the game. He basically arranged for Lang to take the opportunity, so he could convince him to do a job for him and his daughter, Hope. The job: break into Pym Technologies and procure the secret project that Pym’s prodigal protegé, Darren Cross is on the verge of creating.

There is more to this, of course, but I will leave it for the viewer. What the Pym Particle and Cross’ corresponding project does should be obvious to those who can discern the title. There is so much more to this film, though. The world that is created just by going small and then big and then small again is remarkable and many-faceted. To the point which it’s almost a disappointment that they did not explore it more than they did.

They have a story to tell, though. And they nail it. The film works as a heist tale. It works as a coming of age story, a quest for redemption and especially as the journey of an Avenger. Every step of the way feels like the bounce in your feet just before the fastest mile in your life. And you don’t even feel tired when its done.

Every part of the cast works remarkably. Stoll’s Cross is the best villain Marvel has seen since Loki. Lilly is the most fully realized female character Marvel has had in a stable of good ones. Her performance is a delight and very strong in the best possible way. Hope authority is inherent in her character. Her strength couples with Lang’s humility to present a combination unique to superhero lore. Douglas’ performance as Pym is resonant and filled with historical context. Having him tied to late stage Howard Stark and Peggy Carter is a stroke of genius. Peña’s Luis steals almost every scene of which he is part.

This movie is Paul Rudd, through and through. It is the role he’s deserved after a career of being the best part of every film he’s made. He does not waste his moment in the spotlight, and the film is all the better for it. There is heft to the film, but with his performance, it doesn’t have to be an obnoxious weight. If he’s not as serious as Captain America, he is every bit as earnest. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe needs Rudd every bit as much as it needs Downey, Jr. or Pratt.

How much of the overall lightness of being in Ant-Man is attributable to the efforts of Reed, McKay and Wright, or even Feige has yet to be quantified. Even if it never is, I appreciate the difficulty involved in making such an exquisite product. If you don’t enjoy this movie, you really aren’t looking to be entertained.

(***** out of *****)

X-Men: Days of Future Passed / The Rogue Cut: We can go anywhere from here

XMENDOFP

X-Men: Days of Future Passed – 2014

Director Bryan Singer
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Screenplay Simon Kinberg based on Days of Future Passed by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

Theatrical Version:

The X-Men movie series has infuriated those who love the comics as  well as many who love the movies series itself. For those who love the comics its been an endless – some say haphazard – onslaught of characters ripped out of their own stories and thrown into the backdrop of “What’s Wolverine doing now?” episodes. These critics also insist that the key interplay between Magneto and Xavier has been downplayed, outside of X-Men: First Class. This ignores certain truths about Marvel itself, that has never had problems reinventing characters in multiple story lines – different universes even – whenever the creative impulse hits.

As for the movies, the biggest problem until now is how each of the visions and various stories intersect, diverge or are in some cases, prematurely ended. X-Men: The Last Stand and the first of the Wolverine movies are the biggest violators of the implied agreement between story-teller and audience. Each film has taken liberties, though, to be sure.

In the same way as Star Trek‘s reboot in 2009, the beauty of X-Men: Days of Future Passed gives everyone what they were looking for, and more.  We get:

  • Xavier and Magneto contemplating the weight of their friendship in the midst of crisis
  • A bone throw for Kitty Pride (who was the hero of the comic series) as the portal for time travel
  • Halle Berry’s continuous mis-fire as Storm is kept in her place
  • Jennifer Lawrence gets to kick ass in blue, if not much else.
  • Dinklage  delivering to us his version of Bolivar Trask with minimal screen time, which is certainly more advanced than the Bill Duke version we see in The Last Stand.
  • Nicholas Hoult and Kelsey Grammer as Beast.  Hoult’s performance always begs for more screen time, while Grammer seems the perfect result for Beast.
  • Evan Peters in a remarkably sly turn as Quicksilver, perhaps the best segment of the film.
  • And what would X-Men film be without Wolverine getting 2/3 of the screen time?

The conceit to time travel movies is, really, they can go back to any time to get it right. If they go back real close to the event, well you know it’s because they have to ratchet up the tension. Everyone knows that Bolivar Trask could be eliminated at birth, but that would make it a bit cruel. Singer’s skill is making all of this flow as if it were in real-time. His story lines gather and then diverge effortlessly. There is not an ounce of clunk to the early 70’s scenes, even if the “present time” seems as forced as it did in the comic. We all know there has to be a deadline. This time, plenty of people get dead on the way to that point. Some even pull it off twice.

The acting is good throughout, with special mention to Hoult, Fassbender and McAvoy. Hoult’s Beast is a character that begs for its own story line. It would be great to see how we get from his uneasy early years to his confident older ones.

Fassbender’s character has the clearest delineation to McKellen’s performance.  Both are very driven and quite consistent with their rationale.

As his counter, McAvoy is all over the place.  It was a brave place to take the character, but he does a great job showing us what was on his troubled mind and not just saying it.

It’s easy to take Jackman for granted, since he’s been in every one of these films. The miracle is that he has evolved from Eastwood with a growl to a multi-dimensional bad ass. This time is a clear extension of everything he’s gathered from The Wolverine.

The best part about the movie is the epilogue. Seeing the result of the work is heartening because we get to see mistakes corrected without worrying about the consequences.This result will no doubt not give everyone a good feeling. Some might even feel like it’s pulling the rug out. It’s alright for this reviewer. Like merry go rounds, the ride is fun, even if it just goes in a circle.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Rogue Cut

It is easy to understand why people become leery of the X-Men enterprise, especially when it comes to their home video releases. I bought 1.5 and wondered why the heck I did, and I followed through with purchases for every subsequent film, even following them to Blu-Ray. It is perhaps because I never read the comic and rarely followed any of the animated scenes that my patience has not frayed, even when the talk of Days of Future Past included news of a thread of scenes that would involve Rogue that were eventually excised from the theatrical cut. Most assumed that these few scenes would appear on the video release. By the time that arrived, the sequence had turned into a whole new cut of the film to be released at a future date.

If one decides that this is the place to draw the line…think again.

The Rogue Cut is like the bloom of a rose the day after you thought it had reached maturity. Instead of beginning to wilt, it flows even more thoroughly from its core, giving the bloom a depth and resonance it never had previously. The interesting thing about it though, is that it’s not only or even primarily because of the sequence of Anna Paquin scenes that this version of X-Men succeeds.

The best thing for viewers of the film is a fleshed out perspective of several characters, including Magneto, Mystique and Beast. The arc between past and present has more resonance and clearer connections. The weakest part of the film was that it never felt like it mattered what was happening in the present because even if it is riddled with challenges, the characters were able to continue manipulating time. This is changed for the better. Midway through the last act, they have a mission that takes them away from the stronghold. Accomplishing that mission is not without its cost. The consequence actually leads to a logical reason for a final battle, instead of just having the bad guys show up, because, well, it’s the last act.

The extra 17 minutes don’t feel extra at all. They are fully integrated within the story. Even when it changes the story slightly, this feels like the definitive version. There are some flashback scenes that go through every previous film, making their telling still relevant even if we know they will be ultimately stricken from the official record. It feels like this is the only way the story could have ever ended up. This is the new canon.

(***** out of *****)

Road Hard (***): Charisma is not my middle name

roadhard

Road Hard – 2015

Written and Directed by Adam Carolla and Kevin Hench
Starring Adam Carolla, Diane Farr, Larry Miller, Jay Mohr, David Alan Grier, Cynthy Wu, Illeana Douglas, David Koechner

I appreciate almost everything Adam Carolla represents, and most of the things for which he strives. His podcast drifts in and out of my life like an old friend that one feels comfortable with for a time, until the stories get too familiar. Then after a few months apart, the comfort is back. His work with Dr. Drew is classic. His books are good comic fodder. His building / reality shows are entertaining. His work with Jimmy Kimmel created a late night cottage industry for Kimmel and kept doors open for Carolla. What’s most important, neither he or Kimmel have ever forgotten their friends.

Road Hard is the second in Carolla’s ceaseless effort to expand in movie entertainment. The gist of the film covers a semi-autobiographical tour through Carolla’s post-Man Show career as a stand up musician. His character Bruce Madsen is divorced, lazy and desperately clinging onto the scraps of what he did not realize was going to be his main course at the time. He lives in the garage-turned guesthouse of the mansion his ex-wife now owns with their adopted daughter, along with the ex’s boyfriend and daughter. If that situation seems less than ideal, his work on the road is worse. He implores his manager, “Babydoll” to get him more work on television. Television just isn’t interested. Even when he tries his old (Kimmel-based) friend Jack Taylor (Mohr), he gets a job as a warm-up comic for the nightly show that lasts…not so long.

Along the bumpy road, Bruce meets Sarah (Farr) who gives him a different take on his self-monologue. Pointing out some of his foibles, she grows on him. She doesn’t make it clear that he is growing on her. After more time and disappointment goes by, they finally hook up and he takes a step off the road towards a totally different and more appealing life. This is not an easy choice to make, but it’s not too surprising what happens in the end.

Carolla the actor is a tough sell. His range depends on how well one digests his self-proclaimed “nasally drone” and his penchant for dried out humor. His one-liners require everyone to wait for him to deliver them. When he shares the screen with a fellow comic / friends, the process becomes a series of setting up and waiting for each other’s delivery. This mutual admiration society may secure the bond of the friendships represented, but it doesn’t feel like a story. It feels more like name dropping when one sees Mandel, Dana Gould, Larry Miller and DAG. They get screen credit, and he gets to have them in his movie at a friend rate. More genuine are the moments with actors like Farr, Wu and even Mohr. They have to work extra hard to make it feel right, but the effort puts does help Carolla come closer to acting.

The story Carolla and Hench want to tell feels weird when one takes into account what they know of the lead actor’s real life. By selecting parts of the story as autobiographical and ignoring other aspects of Carolla’s real life and character, it feels like an estimation on what they think a movie goer would buy, rather something of genuine experience. Carolla is well-known for his hard work and preparation in all aspects of his life. He is also a dedicated road comic by choice.

Bruce is supposed to be lazy and tired of his trade. When combining his lack of true presence as an actor with the “choose your own version of the truth” plot, it takes the focus away from the tale being told and just makes one realize that this is just another attempt for Carolla to make movies.

There is nothing wrong with that. It could be better, though. This feels like art that is approached like a math problem. It’s a shame that Carolla’s ambition and talent haven’t come together in something that was even half as good as his first film, The Hammer. Maybe with different collaborators there can be a more salient effort. When Carolla gets it together, I will want to see that movie. I don’t need to see this one again.

(** out of *****)

Creep (*): Can you believe we made a profit on this one?

creep

Creep – 2014

Directed Patrick Brice
Starring Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Screenplay Brice and Duplass

Okay, full disclosure. I am not a fan of Mark Duplass. To now, one of the few times he’s been effective is on The Mindy Project, where he plays an arrogant practitioner of alternative medicine. The reason this seems to work is the character is a thinly veiled version of himself. He is one of many who live in the fringe of Hollywood, trying to eke out a living on his own terms. This an admirable trait, to be sure. It’s not easy to make it in the movies, and it takes a lot to make it on your own terms. For me, a lot of the stuff I’ve seen him in is just not my cup of tea.

A couple of weeks ago, while on The Adam Carolla Show Podcast, Duplass and Brice were on talking about this film and The Overnight. The discussion was interesting enough. Special points were made in discussing the conceivability of the horror film’s plot, which is a play on the inherent threat of Craigslist ads. One never knows who they are going to meet and what the other person’s motives are. Much was made on how improvisational the film is, and how it showed that one can get a lot of traction from a relatively small amount of effort or finances involved. They even said that while they saved The Overnight for the big bidders at Sundance Film Festival, they were pleasantly surprised to have had Creep bought by Netflix for a tidy little profit. Once I found out it would only cost me my time, I decided to go for it.

I want my time back. Somehow, Brice and Duplass turned the exciting premise into a drawn out torture of poorly written, half-heartedly executed and sloppily filmed hack work that could have been better done by someone taking it seriously. What could have been an expertly drawn, one night film, is brought to a thudding halt when it’s broken up over a series of mailed and not so thinly veiled threats that are never seriously acted out.

Aaron (Brice) responds to an ad on Craigslist driving to a seemingly remote location to visit Josef (Duplass) for a “discreet” job. That job is a relatively innocuous filming of a video for the unborn son of he and his wife, Angela. The reason for the video is Josef says that he will never see his son born due to his late stage cancer. Aaron begins his series of reluctant agreements by taking the $1000 cash promised for the job. What follows is a one half-thought through weirdness after another. Each one would call for leaving right away, were they not so boring.

That night ends with Aaron running past Josef who is wearing a wolf mask, he calls Peachfuzz. The action picks up a few nights later with Aaron watching a video of Josef burying two black garbage bags filled with a puffy material that is supposed to look like dead body. It doesn’t. The next thing we see is another very large package that, when opened is another video. Then there are the dreams and wacky hijinks. Then there is the Last Video.

Brice is not an actor. His work here shouldn’t qualify him for a S.A.G. card any time soon. Duplass’ version of lunatic fringe comes across as more a bored loser on a rainy Friday night. Or a Saturday night. There is no sense of fear created by any of his actions. Instead, it’s more a practice of patiently waiting for the Godot of a pending thrill. Godot never arrives.

So Duplass and Brice made enough here to put a little more money into the next project. That project maybe makes enough to pay for the next project. Maybe someday they strike gold. Maybe someday they make something more scary. Maybe someday they make something more memorable. Not this day.

(* out of *****)

From the makers of Divergent: Insurgent (***)

Insurgent-Shailene-Woodley

Insurgent – 2015

Director Robert Schwentke
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet
Screenplay Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback based on the novel by Veronica Roth

It’s long, drawn out, with many useless angles. There are the expected twists. The world is supposed to expand yet strangely it feels smaller. They are breaking the last book into multiple movies. Again. Am I done with this series?

Not quite, but its close. For whatever reason, they give Tris (Woodley) that same trait given to so many heroines in the second movie of dystopian series: a crippling and overwrought conscience. She carries the burden of the people who have died before her as she struggles to formulate a plan with Four in the days following the events of Divergent. They bounce from faction to faction, run from some, face off with others, give up to even others and the cycle repeats. It all has a point, one can suppose, but it labors from scene to scene where the first one percolated with a simpler purpose.

This film even with its myriad flashbacks and dream sequences, feels disconnected for the first story. As Jeanine, Winslet has a few Empire Strikes Back moments with her quest to resolve a box discovered early in the film. If this. If this box is mentioned in the first film, I do not remember. That it plays a key role gives one the impression it should have been more memorably indicated in Divergent either way.

That the writing and directing team is different from the first film is very much noticed in the finished product. There is absolutely no development of any of the characters beyond Tris. Even her development is more of a regression and then a late film bounce back. If she does another Katniss / Bella depression in the next film, just write me off until the last film.

The regression of the property is not total surprise, but that it’s directed by Schwentke is disappointing, given his excellent work on R.E.D.. Of course he’s directed R.I.P.D. after that. This is way better than that pile.

How much one likes this film depends on how much one roots for Woodley as an actress and female heroines in general. It’s not a bad film, if it is a let down from the first episode. Take it from this uninspired review that I won’t be standing in line to see if it get’s better with the next film.

(*** out of *****)