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Thanksgiving Movie Weekend – Now Gluten Free!

Hope Madden Hope Madden Thanksgiving Movie Weekend – Now Gluten Free!Photo still from "The Dark," via IMDb.
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Who’s ready to glut themselves on turkey, mashed potatoes, montages, action choreography, Oscar hopefuls and pumpkin pie? Bring on the holiday onslaught!

Creed II

by George Wolf

In the history of elephants and rooms, Creed II earns a special mention for its spit take-worthy moment when a boxing commentator finally deadpans,”It’s all a bit Shakespearean, isn’t it?”

Why yes, it is, in fact more than a bit.

It’s a daddy issues melodrama on steroids, one that hits every crowd pleasing note and works every manipulative angle it can pull from the long and storied history of this franchise. And true to the fighters at the heart of these films, the new Creed will not be denied.

Let’s be honest, the first Creed rebooted the Rocky warhorse so effectively, it was a surprising left hook to nearly everyone who hadn’t seen writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan’s stunning work in Fruitvale Station.

But that was pre-Black Panther, and though Coogler is missed for this sequel, promising indie director Steven Caple, Jr. displays similar instincts for slaying sentimentality with smaller moments of conviction.

And lots of great fighting.

Much of that needed conviction comes from Jordan, who returns with fervor as Adonis Creed, the newly-crowned heavyweight champ. He gets an instant challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of…who else but Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’ father Apollo, when Rocky wouldn’t throw the damn towel.

Drago the Younger is huge and strong (one trainer rightly dubs him “a balanced breakfast”), leading Rocky (Stallone), still haunted by Apollo’s death, to advise against the fight.

Adonis also has Bianca (Tessa Thompson, splendid as always and sharing great chemistry with Jordan) and their positive pregnancy test to consider, along with a truckload of pride and unfinished business.

Stallone, who of course started all this with the original Rocky screenplay, steps back in as co-writer, and in many ways Creed 2 becomes just as much Rocky’s story as Adonis’s. But it feels right, thanks to another award-worthy turn from Sly and a character arc that rings true enough to consider moving on without him next time.

Caple, Jr. delivers some of the same grit that made his The Land such a hardscrabble, underseen winner, while also bringing a fresh eye to the boxing choreography. Yes, each round is as unrealistically action-filled as most boxing films, but what do you want, a Pacquiao/Mayweather tap-dance?

No, you want to applaud the good guy knocking the evil Russian’s mouthpiece out while you cheer like it’s Cold War Reunion Night at TGI Fridays, and Caple, Jr. makes sure you will.

It doesn’t hurt when that original Rocky music kicks in, and it’s again weaved into a vital soundtrack subtly enough to not overstay any welcomes.

But beyond all the button pushing, sentiment and nostalgia are characters, and this all falls like a tomato can in the first round if we don’t have reason to care about them. We still do.

Gotta fly now.

Grade: B-

Ralph Breaks the Internet

by Christie Robb

Movies with an abundance of pop-culture references run the risk of dating themselves well before they are released. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) from 2012’s Wreck-It-Ralph stride directly into that potential minefield.

The film opens as playable racer Princess Vanellope von Schweetz has an existential crisis wondering if there is more to life than looping the same levels of her game, Sugar Rush, every day and drinking root beers with Ralph at Tappers every night. When her hero inadvertently breaks her game, the duo head off into the Internet in search of the part they need to fix Sugar Rush and secure Vanellope’s monotonous future at the Litwack Family Fun Center & Arcade.

And, it’s…fine, I guess.

Flocks of blue Twitter birds soar over Google’s skyscraper and Amazon’s distribution center. Folks with signs pop-up baiting others to click on their content. There’s a search bar, that’s kind of an actual bar. And there’s a whole Snapchat area off in the distance. But it’s got none of the bonkers creativity of Sausage Fest’s imagined grocery store and more or less comes off as designed by an inter-company team of Silicon Valley marketing executives.

A fundamental misunderstanding about how eBay works results in Ralph and Vanellope needing to come up with $27,001 for the part they need. Now it’s a question of how they get rich quick on the Internet.

This leads to Vanellope’s discovery of Slaughter Race, a gritty, open world driving game a la Grand Theft Auto. Slaughter Race becomes her happy place. And Ralph becomes needy, clingy, and self-destructive, refusing to let his best friend move on as he hustles for cash by making viral videos on a site called BuzzTube. This part drags as it trots out references to past time wasters like Chewbacca Mom, hot pepper challenges, and screaming goats.

Honestly, easily the best part of the movie is when Vanellope wanders over to the Disney website and hobnobs with the princesses while evading some Stormtroopers. It’s 10 minutes of Disney patting itself on the back for its ownership of a ludicrous amount of intellectual property. But it’s fun, and creative, and silly in a way the rest of Ralph Breaks the Internet is not. There’s a much better movie here that I hope is in the works.

What we get with Ralph is a pretty movie with some great voice acting that’s got enough detail in the background to make you smile. But it’s the kind of amusement you’ll probably forget about soon enough, like planking, Keyboard Cat, or Doge memes.

Grade: C+

Green Book

by Hope Madden

What have the Farrelly brothers been up to?

Well, one of them (Peter) just updated Driving Miss Daisy. Nope, it is not a provocative but good natured spoof. It is Oscar bait.

The director and co-writer penned Green Book, a road picture telling the true tale of 1960s musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), the New York City nightclub bouncer Shirley hired to drive him throughout his tour of the deep South.

It’s a nice story, buoyantly directed. It’s another odd couple, two people with nothing in common who learn a lot from each other. And it’s hard to pick apart a true story for being so achingly convenient.

The film, co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, owes what artistic success it offers to two strong central performances.

Ali and Mortensen are veteran actors who just do not ever give an inferior performance. They are both excellent, always, and Green Book is no different. Their rapport and chemistry are the stuff of movie magic, and it is a joy to ride along with them.

Credit Mortensen for making more of Tony than a working class cliché, and to Ali for finding so many layers in what could have been a one-dimensional character. In his hands, Don Shirley is not simply the high class genius Tony first sees. Ali finds more in the character even than the lonely outsider Tony comes to understand. In Ali’s hands, there is a level of otherness, isolation and loneliness that borders on masochism, and it makes for a far more fascinating and far less knowable character.

Little else onscreen suggests layers.

Green Book is a film that tries very hard and wants so badly not to offend. Yes, the unlikely duo faces some challenges on their journey, but honestly, their struggle — indeed, everything about the movie — feels easy. Neutered.

Equally problematic is the point of view, which is, of course, the white male lead’s. It’s his lessons we’re really interested in, right? And he learns to have deep sympathy for Dr. Shirley.

But that is the primary problem with Green Book. It sympathizes greatly, but has absolutely no idea how to empathize.

Grade: C+

The Front Runner

by George Wolf

The Front Runner closes with Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) dropping out of the 1988 Presidential race with a dire warning: Beware the day we elect leaders we deserve.

The film’s previous 110 minutes operate on the premise that day has come, pinpointing Hart’s very public fall from grace as the three watershed weeks that made it possible.

Hart, the Colorado senator who had been a surprise runner up to Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic nomination, emerged four years later as the assumed nominee and betting favorite to be the next President. But then, angered by questions about his marriage, Hart famously challenged the press to “put a tail on me, you’ll be bored.”

So they did, and they weren’t.

There was that yacht named Monkey Business (I swear, kids, look it up), the affair with Donna Rice, and damaging photos with another not Mrs. Hart. And before you could say “Dukakis” without laughing, we got President George H.W. Bush and a journalistic landscape that’s never been the same.

That’s more than enough meat for director Jason Reitman to chew on, and he gamely tries to balance all the ethical questions that remain startlingly vibrant today.

Should serious journalism embrace tabloid fodder? Are politicians entitled to private lives? Whose responsibility is it to hold powerful men accountable for their treatment of women?

Reitman, who also helped screenwriter Matt Bai adapt his own best seller All the Truth is Out, taps back into much of the groove that made his Thank You for Smoking such a mischievous treat.

The dialogue is fast and smart, often evoking a more easily digestible Aaron Sorkin. Salient points are made and then rebutted through the precise timing and intricate blocking of an outstanding ensemble (including greats such as J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga and Alfred Molina) that serves up indelible characters with relative ease.

Jackman is flat out terrific as the natural-born politician (“his hair alone is worth six points, four if it’s windy”) who could not, and would not, accept that the press were no longer giving men like him free passes.

Hart used his fame when it suited him and railed against its trappings when it didn’t. Jackman, in a thoroughly realized performance, is able to unveil this hypocrisy subtly enough to keep the authenticity of Hart’s political convictions uninjured.

The attention to narrative ebb and flow is detailed, becoming an absorbing dive into a historical clash of idealism, self-interest, and morality that seems almost quaint today. But strangely, it finds a depth that feels intentionally cautious, and the film never pounds a fist toward any viewpoint of its own.

Is that layup designed to encourage our own conclusions?

Maybe.

But Hart’s warning closes the film for a reason, and The Front Runner, much like the man himself, might have cut even deeper with more courage alongside those convictions.

Grade: B+

Robin Hood

by Hope Madden

Hey, do you guys remember Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur? I mean, of course you don’t. It made like $9. Had it been anything other than a global box office disaster, a likeminded retooling of the British legend of Robin Hood might have made sense. And yet, here we have it: a poor man’s Guy Ritchie (Otto Bathurst) trying to anachronism his way through the old bandit’s tale.

Taron Egerton stars as the Hood, billed by IMDb as “a war-hardened Crusader” but coming off more as a precocious 12-year-old. He’s joined by battlefield adversary and post-war comrade John (Jamie Foxx), who insists on calling him English regardless of the fact that they are in England and, you know, every single person is English. (Let’s not even talk about his accent.)

Eve Hewson and Tim Minchin round out the merry band as the politically liberal/inappropriately dressed Marian and the only actor who doesn’t embarrass himself, respectively.

Ben Mendelsohn shoulders the evil Sheriff of Nottingham duties this go-round. If you only know Mendelsohn’s from Ready Player One, Rogue One or Dark Knight Rises, please believe me when I say that he needs to stop playing scenery-chewing baddies. He is one of the most versatile and talented character actors in film today. Please go watch literally anything else he’s ever made. (Give yourself the gift of the Aussie film Animal Kingdom.)

Writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly blandly reimagine Robin of Loxley’s origin story, casting aside any historical authenticity in favor of hip fun. Tragically, the result is never hip and rarely fun.

The film details some ludicrously debauched ties with the church and a global plot to bilk a few hundred peasants of more money than the whole of England would possess. Where do all those golden bowls and goblets come from? How many peasants are dining so flamboyantly?

They also reach to give the sheriff some Trumpian moments, though that backfires as well. As fine an actor as Mendelsohn is, it is tough for him to come off as a dumb ass.

The score feels cribbed, the action is video-game superficial and the costuming came directly from Forever 21.

Why did they make this movie again?

Grade: D+

The Dark

by Hope Madden

There are a lot of ways to approach a zombie film, few of them fresh. Zombie flick as YA (young adult) melodrama isn’t even a new idea anymore — 2015 saw a surprisingly nuanced Arnold Schwarzenegger nurse his reanimated teen (Abigail Breslin) in Maggie, the best of the batch until now.

Still, writer/director Justin P. Lange has something on his mind with his debut feature The Dark, and he has found a compelling way to tell not-just-another zombie story.

We open on a twist to a familiar scene. A man in a rush, likely a fugitive of some kind, grabs some supplies at an out-of-the way gas station. He opens a map. The lone, wizened clerk points him toward an assumed destination: Devil’s Den.

As familiar as even the twist feels, the truth is that Lange gets more mileage from that old warhorse than you immediately realize. And he will continue to wield our assumptions and biases against us to better direct his story.

The blandly titled The Dark is, at its heart, a guide to overcoming trauma. Nadia Alexander is Mina, the creature that haunts Devil’s Den—a merciless, relentless, thoughtless killer. Until, that is, she comes across Alex, a blind young man (Toby Nichols) who reminds her of what she once was and what could have saved her.

Lange makes a series of clever narrative choices besides simply using our preconceived notions to surprise us. The Dark is, in part, a vengeance fable far less preoccupied by punishing those who do damage than those who should have been there for protection.

Alexander impresses as the beast unhappily and involuntarily rediscovering her humanity. Her silences, particularly in later scenes, are haunting.

As her mirror image and polar opposite, Nichols embodies vulnerability and resilience. There’s an optimism alongside a brokenness in his performance that is both necessary and heartbreaking.

The Dark occasionally skirts mawkishness, but what YA film doesn’t? In truth, Lange doesn’t run from the baggage associated with his chosen genres. He embraces it, forgives it, makes something powerful out of it.

Grade: B+

Also opening in Columbus:
1985 (NR)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to a weekly roundup of film reviews on the podcast SCREENING ROOM.

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