‘Creed II’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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When “Rocky Balboa” was released in 2006, many wondered how a sixth “Rocky” film would perform when the last one prior to that was released in 1990.  Sylvester Stallone himself was not all too pleased with how “Rocky V” ended, and he wanted to do right by Rocky Balboa.  Needless to say, he did so as he was the writer and the director behind it.  Because of the good will he had built up from the sixth installment, fans were excited for “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler was coming off the success of “Fruitvale Station,” and it was set to star Michael B. Jordan, also from the aforementioned film. It was in good hands, as they were wise to hand the franchise over to Jordan while still keeping Stallone around.  The film was organic, funny, entertaining, and powerful at the same time. When it was time for “Creed II,” they handed it over to Steven Caple Jr.  I’m happy to report he did a terrific job with “Creed II,” and the writers also had a fresh idea to bring to the table: bring back Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and introduce his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).  After all, everyone remembers how things ended up in “Rocky IV” between Drago and Apollo Creed.

When the film gets started, everything seems to be going well for Adonis Creed.  He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he also has a baby on the way.  His world, however, gets turned upside down when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, challenges him.  This is the same Ivan Drago who killed his father back in 1985.  Rocky tries to tell him to stay away from the fight and that he is fighting for the wrong reasons.

Adonis’ pride, however gets in the way and he ends up taking on the fight, regardless, and without Rocky his corner.  His life only becomes more complicated and painful from that point forward.  Now, he needs to figure out what to do in order to get his career, his health, and his life back on track.  It won’t be easy for Adonis, but everything in his life has always been a fight.  Rocky just wants him to figure out what he’s fighting for and also realize he has other people counting on him as well.

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There is a lot to like about “Creed II.”  I’m not going to say if it is better or worse than 2015’s “Creed.”  It is just as good.  It is just different, and it is dealing with different themes and different messages.   Jordan gives a knockout (I know, easy pun) performance here.  All of his emotions are in his face, and it’s a performance with a lot of nuance and complexity attached to it.  As an audience member, you understand what he’s doing and why, even if you don’t always agree with him.

His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca also brings a big heart to the film.  These two have tremendous chemistry together and it is a joy to watch them on screen.  Stallone has said he is walking away from the franchise after this movie, and it seems like the right move.  Make no mistake about it, Stallone’s the backbone of this franchise and he makes the most of every scene he’s in even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  He does a lot with a little.  I imagine this was intentionally done, as he was one of the writers on the project.

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The film deals with the complexity of a father/son relationship and how men are trying to carve out their own image and legacy.  There is a lot of meat in this script, as Adonis is becoming a father himself. Phylicia Rashad is back here once again, and she brings such fierce intensity and knowledge to her role as Mary Anne Creed.  There is not a bad performance in the film.  It’s heartwarming, intense, and very, very entertaining.

With that said, it is not a perfect film.  I would argue it is about twenty minutes too long.  As with most boxing movies, the boxing itself and the training montages are not all that interesting compared to the relationships in the film. What transpires throughout the film will not surprise anyone, but when it’s done with such warmth and commitment from the actors, it helps elevate the material into something really, really special.  While I don’t think we need a “Creed III,” I can’t say I would necessarily mind one if the right people are involved in the project.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Creed II” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack, which also includes a digital copy, from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.  It has a running time of 130 minutes. It is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The audio formats are Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, DTS MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1, and Español 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Fathers and Sons (07:16): This special feature talks about how “Creed II” touches on the father/son dynamic and what a big role it plays in the film and also in life.  Interviews with the cast and crew are featured as well as some famous boxers including Sugar Ray Leonard.  They even talk about the Shakespearean aspects of the story.

Casting Viktor Drago (05:43): This special feature is all about the casting of Florian Munteanu who comes from a boxing background.  Stallone wanted him in the film and saw something special in him.  Munteanu talks about how grateful he is to be in the film as he is familiar with all of the “Rocky” films.  He trained for seven months and really committed to the role, which impressed his fellow actors and the director as well.

The Women of “Creed II” (05:51): Sugar Ray Leonard appears once again, and he gives credit to the women that are alongside the boxers through all of the training and the punishment in the ring.  Director Steven Caple Jr. didn’t just want Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad to be in the background of the film.  He wanted them to get their due.  It’s a big reason why the film is as effective as it is because each and every character serves a significant purpose.

The “Rocky” Legacy (15:01): This is hosted by Dolph Lundgren, and it discusses the impact the “Rocky” franchise has had not only on boxing movies, but also on the sport itself.  They also tie it together with “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.”  The cast and crew of “Creed II” talk about the music, the boxing scenes, and why the franchise has lasted as long as it has going all the way back to 1976.

Deleted Scenes (09:46): One notable deleted scene worth mentioning is one where Rocky performs a eulogy for Spider Rico, the first fighter he ever fought in the “Rocky” films.  It’s a powerful scene and one which should have been in the film despite my issues with its length.  The other three deleted scenes include Rocky training young kids to box, Adonis and Bianca talking about his legacy, and the aftermath of the fight between Adonis and Viktor.

 

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First Trailer for ‘Creed II’ Enters the Ring

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“Creed” may not have reinvented the “Rocky” franchise, but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan succeeded in making it feel fresh and reinvigorated to where a sequel was not only inevitable, but more than welcome. Now we have the first trailer for “Creed II” which promises a powerful follow-up as Adonis Creed faces the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV,” Viktor Drago.

In some ways this trailer is a bit anti-climatic as we have known for a while already how the son of Ivan Drago was going to Adonis’ next big opponent, and the trailer keeps building up to a reveal we can see coming from miles away. Viktor is played by Florian Munteanu who previously appeared in “Bogat.” Now we never get a clear look at his face, but when he turns around we see “DRAGO” stenciled on the back of his robe. Personally, I was hoping for a little more than just this reveal, but then again, this is a teaser trailer.

I also kept waiting for Dolph Lundgren to reappear as Ivan Drago as he is slated to be co-starring in “Creed II,” but no such luck. One of the things I am really looking forward to is seeing him come face to face with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as I wonder how each character feels about the other following their bloody bout in Russia 30 years ago. I’m guessing Brigette Nielsen will not be back as Ivan’s wife and official spokesperson, so Lundgren will obviously have more dialogue to work with than he did back in 1985.

The trailer does have a lot of cool shots of Adonis training and throwing brutal punches, and the moment where we see him practicing punches underwater is especially cool to where I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene like this in the previous “Rocky” films. Using Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” to score the trailer was a great move as it has a powerful beat which will stay with you to where downloading the song off of iTunes is a must unless you own it or the album it is on already.

But what I really liked about this “Creed II” trailer is how it reflects the challenges Adonis and Rocky face outside of the ring as opposed to in it. Both characters are still stuck in a past which will not let them be. Whether it is the guilt Rocky feels over letting Apollo die in the ring or the feeling of inadequacy which gnaws constantly at Adonis, their struggles are never limited to a boxing match. Seeing this quickly reminded me of when Rocky and Adonis were looking at themselves in a mirror in “Creed” and of Rocky telling him how he will always be his own biggest opponent. And as Rocky talks about the “cheap shots” life is constantly giving him, I was taken back to his great speech in “Rocky Balboa” in which he said the following:

“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!”

Taking this into account, I believe “Creed II” looks to focus on the characters even over the intense fight sequences we can expect to see. Besides, what’s a fight like without the psychological depth? You can have great choreography, but it won’t mean as much if you are not fully invested in the characters’ plights and of what they stand to win or lose.

Directing “Creed II” is Steven Caple Jr., and the returning cast includes Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad who proves she is still a badass with her brief appearance here. The sequel is set to be released on November 21, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

 

‘Black Panther’ Gives Us One of the Best Superheroes Yet

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Complain all you want about the proliferation of superhero/comic book movies, the last year or so has given us some of the best. In 2017 we got “Logan” which saw Wolverine freed from his PG-13 shackles to where Hugh Jackman and James Mangold gave the “X-Men” character the sendoff he truly deserved. Then came “Wonder Woman” which not only filled our need for a female-led superhero movie, but also succeeded in putting the DC Extended Universe on the right track (of course, then “Justice League” arrived). And with “Thor: Ragnarok,” Marvel Studios allowed themselves to turn this particular franchise upside down and inside out, and what resulted was the most entertaining “Thor” movie yet.

Now it’s 2018 and we have “Black Panther.” You could say it provides audiences with the long overdue African-American-led superhero movie, but having watched it, this description is not entirely appropriate. T’Challa, the Black Panther of this movie, is a hero for everyone. Like Steve Rogers/Captain America, this is a character whose desire to do good in the world comes across with a powerful sincerity which no amount of cynicism can possibly take away. Along with confident direction, terrific performances and slam-bang action, “Black Panther” proves to be one of the best superhero/comic book movies ever made, a true high point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the best movies of 2018.

As I write this review, “Black Panther” has been in general release for several weeks and has held the number one spot at the box office for as many times as James Cameron’s “Avatar” did. Clearly you have all seen it at least two or three times by now, so let’s not even bother with a plot description. Let’s just talk about what makes this particular Marvel Studios release so awesome.

Kudos to Ryan Coogler who has now graduated from low and medium-budgeted movies to full on Hollywood blockbusters with tremendous confidence. With “Fruitvale Station” he made us look at the life and tragic death of Oscar Grant in such a powerful way to where he can never be dismissed as a mere statistic. With “Creed” he brought a freshness and energy to the long running “Rocky” franchise which I never could have expected. Now with “Black Panther,” he has given us a movie which supersedes others of its genre to an outstanding degree as he combines the typical spectacle that comes with $200 million budget, and he combines it with a strong story filled with complex characters to where you cannot walk out of this one and say this was just an average motion picture.

Kudos to Chadwick Boseman for inhabiting T’Challa/Black Panther in a way to where there is no doubt he has the world’s best interests at heart, not just Wakanda’s. Through ferocity and feeling, Boseman makes T’Challa into a true hero for everyone and anyone. While this character has doubts about whether or not he is truly ready to be Wakanda’s king, something I have truly come to loathe about origin movies, Boseman never imbues him with the kind of hesitation which would easily destroy another. When the time comes to defend his people, he is most definitely up front and center.

Kudos to Michael B. Jordan for his performance as N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. N’Jadaka serves as the chief antagonist in “Black Panther,” but the character is not so much a villain as he is a victim. Jordan makes you see how N’Jadaka was wronged and of why his need for revenge is understandable if not condonable. This character was wronged and abandoned, so his bitterness at what was denied to him ends up feeling justified even when it poisons his soul. We root for N’Jadaka to fail, but we cannot help but feel empathy for him, and Jordan ends up creating a complex villain who can never be mistaken for some one-dimensional schmuck.

Kudos to every single actress in “Black Panther” as they give us badass Wakandans who refuse to run away from impending danger. Whether it’s Angela Bassett as Ramonda or Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, they fill their characters with a strength and pride which can be wounded, but never easily broken. Special mention goes out to Danai Gurira who steals every scene she has as Okoye, a proud Wakandan who wears her pride on her face for all to see. If you threaten Okoye and she pulls a saber out on you, Gurira makes it clear you best start running in the other direction.

Kudos to Martin Freeman for making his character of CIA officer Everett K. Ross more than just mere comic relief. Even when we see him stumbling about in the midst of warriors who are prepared for conflict, Freeman allows Everett to evolve into a far more capable agent than he was at the movie’s beginning.

Kudos to Andy Serkis for his go for broke performance as gangster Ulysses Klaue. It’s a blast watching the “Planet of the Apes” actor smash through everything in his path. But even though he is not doing a motion capture performance here like he has done unforgettably in the past, he probably won’t snag an Oscar nomination for his work here anyway.

Kudos to Forest Whitaker for not just making Zuri a powerful religious and spiritual figure, but for also letting us see the cracks in the character’s façade when he reveals a burden he can never forgive himself for. Whether you see Zuri as “Black Panther’s” Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Whitaker lets us know right from the start no one could play Zuri better than he could.

Kudos to Daniel Kaluuya, currently riding high off of the tremendous success of “Get Out,” for making W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend, a vivid study of internal conflicts which are constantly pushed in different directions to where common sense can be thoughtlessly tossed aside.

Kudos to Winston Duke for making M’Baku into a ruthless warrior, but also one with a deep conscience. This character could have existed simply as a plot device for “Black Panther” to take advantage of when the going gets tough, but when T’Challa and his closest friends plead with M’Baku to join them in their battle of resistance, Duke makes the character’s eventual decision believable without ever seeming predictable or convoluted.

And kudos to all those filmmakers and artists behind the scenes who made Wakanda look so beautiful in “Black Panther.” Of all the places the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to, this is the one I would like to visit the most. Wakanda forever? Damn straight!

Seriously, I cannot say enough great things about “Black Panther” as Coogler and company have made a film which was so well-thought out and put together. All the characters are complex and interesting, and what could have been just another superhero/comic book movie was elevated into something far more thrilling than I ever could have expected. But more importantly, “Black Panther” gives us a true superhero who everyone, and I mean everyone, can and should look up to. This, among other reasons, should explain why this movie has been such a box office behemoth since its release.

Even better, we won’t have to wait long to see this superhero again as he will appear in “Avengers: Infinity War” whose release is just around the corner.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Fruitvale Station’ Puts a Human Face on a Tragic Shooting

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It’s a strange and cruel irony “Fruitvale Station” opened in theaters the same week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. Like Martin, Oscar Grant was a young African American male whose life was cut short under needlessly tragic circumstances. On the night of January 31, 2008, Oscar was traveling home with his girlfriend and their friends on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when a fight broke out on the train which he gets caught up in. When the train arrives at the station of the movie’s title, Oscar was pulled off it by BART police officers, and one of them, either accidentally or intentionally (depending on who you ask) shot him. He died the following day, and his death brought about protests and a call for justice.

The cases of Martin and Grant appear to illustrate that, despite strides we have made in race relations, it’s still not safe to be a young black man in America. Now “Fruitvale Station” is not a movie out to offer a solution to this continuing problem, but it does put a human face on it. After watching it, Grant will no longer seem like a mere statistic to anyone.

The movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life as he goes about his business while trying to survive in an unforgiving world. He still lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in a rundown part of the Bay Area, and this is despite the fact Sophina knows he cheated on her. But regardless his wayward ways, Oscar is clearly dedicated to taking care of them both and in doing what he can to give them a better life.

“Fruitvale Station” is the first feature film for director Ryan Coogler, and he made it because he wanted people to get to know Oscar as a human being instead of just another name in a newspaper. Having seen the film, I can honestly say he succeeded in doing so. Not once does Coogler try to sanctify Oscar or water him down for an easier movie going experience. Coogler presents Oscar warts and all, and while he is far from perfect, we come to respect him for what he’s trying to do with his life on this fateful day.

We see Oscar trying to get his supermarket job back even though his boss isn’t about to rehire him, and it’s the first time we see Oscar’s hair trigger temper come to life. His mission now and throughout this fateful day is to provide for his family. Of course, this may lead to him selling drugs to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the same thing which landed him in prison. While his desire to lead a good life is strong, the lure of the criminal life and the money it can generate for him keeps percolating below the surface.

Michael B. Jordan made a name for himself on television shows like “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” and he also appeared in the surprise hit movie “Chronicle.” His performance in “Fruitvale Station” is nothing short of sensational, and it made him one of the great breakout stars of 2013. It’s exhilarating to watch him as he takes Oscar from the joys of being a father to his frightening lows when he begs his mother not to leave him all alone. It’s a shame Jordan didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but then again 2013 was a year overflowing with great performances, many of which were bound to be left out.

Octavia Spencer gives another one of her great performances in this movie as well. As Wanda, she gives us a mother who tries to be strong for her wayward son, but who struggles with the reality she may need to keep her distance from him for his own good. This is not the typical clichéd mother character who goes through the usual motions of the parental ups and downs, but one who has stood up against the tides life has thrown at her and whose love for her son you never doubt for a second.

“Fruitvale Station” starts off with footage of the actual incident where Oscar was shot, but it cuts to black before we can see if the shooting was intentional or accidental. This gives the movie a certain tension as we know how things will end, but even as we get to that moment, there’s a still a part of us which wants this situation to have a different outcome. Even though the end of the movie is never in doubt, we desperately want him to survive the night and get home safe.

The other thing I really liked about this movie is how it showed us a part of the Bay Area many of us don’t get to see. I grew up in Northern California, and while much of it is not crime ridden, there are parts of it I dare not venture into. Like the brilliant documentary “Hoop Dreams,” it sheds a light on how African-Americans live and subsequently breaks a lot of the preconceptions many of us have about them.

There have been several other tragic incidents following what happened to Oscar Grant such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s always depressing to see how history keeps repeating itself despite our best attempts to learn from it. What makes “Fruitvale Station” so remarkable is it’s not out to give us glib answers on how to end the violence, but it instead puts a human face on a man who didn’t deserve to die. We hear about these stories in the news far too often, and they are usually shown to us with an unnecessary amount of bias. Both Coogler and Jordan have done a great service as they force us to see Oscar Grant as a person with strengths and flaws, and this makes “Fruitvale Station” one of the very best movies of 2013.

* * * * out of * * * *