Films I Neglected To Review: "Yoicks And Awa-aaaaay!"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/18 05:03:21
Please enjoy short reviews of "Creed II," "The Front Runner," "Green Book" and "Robin Hood."
Picking up virtually right where its predecessor ended, ''Creed II,'' the follow-up to the hit spin-off of the shockingly resilient ''Rocky'' franchise, opens as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) wins the heavyweight boxing title and is finally able to step out of the shadow of his famous father, the late, great Apollo Creed. Alas, just as he is beginning to chart his own path with newly pregnant girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his past rears its ugly head again in the form of a fight challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteau), a Russian brute who just happens to be the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the fighter who killed his father in the ring three decades earlier before being trounced by the one and only Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). While Ivan, who now trains his son relentlessly, pushes for the fight to happen as a way of returning to the glory and status he had in his homeland before losing everything after that fight, Rocky sees it as nothing more than a gross publicity stunt designed to play on Adonis's still-raw emotions about his father and advises him not to take the bait. Naturally, Adonis ignores this sage advice--with Rocky quitting as his trainer as a result--and things go just sideways enough to leave him alone and struggling to figure out who he really is, what kind of man that he wants to be to himself and those who care about him and, perhaps most importantly, how to avoid getting turned into hamburger during the inevitable rematch with Viktor.
There were plenty of things to love about the first ''Creed'' when it came out in 2015 but perhaps its greatest achievement was how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler took what sounded like an exceptionally shameless attempt at rebooting a once-proud franchise for a new generation (one that seemed especially unnecessary considering how the previous installment, ''Rocky Balboa,'' managed to wrap things up in such a surprisingly delicate manner) and transformed it into arguably the best film in the ''Rocky'' saga outside of the original classic with a smart and engrossing screenplay that favored character and emotion over the plot machinations resulting in the inevitable climactic big fight and wonderful performances from the likes of Jordan, Thompson and Stallone, whose performance was easily the best of his long career. The problem with ''Creed II,'' on which Coogler has only a producing credit (it was directed by Steven Capele Jr. and co-written by Stallone and Juel Taylor), is that it turns out to pretty much be the film that many of us thought that ''Creed'' was going to be--a rehashing of any number of overly familiar key themes and plot developments whose deployment is half-heartedly justified by constant on-screen reminders that we are seeing history repeat itself. (Put it this way--the film is a lot more invested in the fight scenes this time around, which are long and brutal but never show the cinematic flair that Coogler demonstrated the last time around.) That said, you and I have both seen worse ''Rocky'' movies over the years (including the very one that this film is centered around) and while it never comes close to the achievements of ''Creed,'' it is at least watchable for the most part, due mostly to the performances--Jordan and Thompson are so good in their scenes together that you’ll wish that there were more of them, Stallone is undeniably engaging and even Dolph Lundgren gets a couple of moments to shine as well. ''Creed II'' is okay--the kind of movie you could easily watch on cable without feeling as if you had totally wasted your time--but it is by no means a knockout.
On the surface, ''The Front Runner,'' a film chronicling how the once-promising 1988 presidential campaign of presumed Democratic front-runner Gary Hart cratered upon relentless media reports of his alleged marital infidelities--a vast change from previous eras in which the press declined to delve into the personal lives of politicians in any significant manner--seemed to be an incredibly promising project to my eyes. It deals with the intersection of two of my favorite non-cinematic subjects, politics and journalism, it features a strong cast toplined by Hugh Jackman as Hart, Vera Farmiga as his long-suffering wife Lee, J. K. Simmons as increasingly desperate campaign manager Bill Dixon and Alfred Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and it was made by Jason Reitman, a filmmaker whose best projects to date (including ''Thank You for Smoking,'' ''Juno,'' ''Young Adult,'' ''Up in the Air'' and this year's ''Tully'') have shown a good facility for blending together comedy, drama and incisive social commentary. And yet, even with all of that going for it, all I could do after watching it was wonder how it was possible that I could see a movie containing those items and come away feeling as little about what I had just watched as I did here. It starts off with an enormously promising sequence chronicling the night that Hart conceded the 1984 race for the Democratic presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, an extended take that introduces us to the various levels of participants ranging from lowly campaign workers to the working press to Hart and his inner circle and lets us get a feel for being in the middle of such a maelstrom in a smart, funny and knowing manner that will no doubt put many in the mind of the works of Robert Altman. As it turns out, that is the only element of the entire film that actually works in any significant way. The rest of the film proves to be little more than a muddle that never seems certain of either what it is trying to say or how it wants to say it. It seems to want to present an evenhanded depiction of the events but it becomes apparently early on that the film is almost entirely on Hart's side and more or less absolves him entirely for his actions in order to excoriate the press by blaming them almost entirely for the destruction of the campaign of a promising politician and, by extension, the entire political process. (Needless to say, this particular approach to the material, which might have been dubious at best under ordinary circumstances, rings especially hollow at this particular time.) By refusing to hold Hart himself up to any critical scrutiny for his actions, Reitman essentially reduces the material into the kind of alternately hectoring and toothless form of media bashing that could only be truly embraced by Donald Trump and his ilk. Likewise, none of the actors are able to break through the cliches that they have been issued in lieu of characters--the normally charismatic Jackman is unable to even suggest that rare combination of intelligence, insight and personality that helped launch Hart into the forefront in the first place. There is a good movie out there to be made about the ways in which the coverage of politics in the media has changed and (d)evolved over the years--hopefully, the failure of ''The Front Runner'' to convey any of this will not prevent it from being made one day.
Each award season usually brings about at least one movie that takes a presumably powerful social situation and reduces it into a shameless and obnoxiously pandering bit of Oscar bait destined to be embraced by viewers who enjoy watching films about people coming to terms with difficult subjects in a manner superficial enough to convince them that the problem has been solved and everything is now hunky dory. A prime example of this generally dubious style of filmmaking is ''Green Book,'' a movie that takes our nation's shameful and not entirely resolved issues with racism and transforms them into a glib road movie/buddy picture hybrid that is so slick, stupid and obnoxious that it would not surprise me in the slightest if it did go on to become one of the front-runners in this year's Oscar derby. Inspired by true events, the film, set in late 1962, stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a genial Italian-American bar bouncer looking for a temporary job for a couple of months while the club he works at is being renovated. He ends up being hired to serve as a combination chauffeur, road manager and bodyguard for Jamaican jazz prodigy Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) during a concert tour that will take him into the Deep South at a time when segregation was still very much a thing. Although Tony himself is a bit on the racist side himself (which the film manages to conveniently forget just as soon as it brings it up), he agrees and the two set off on a two-month trek that will eventually see the two break down each other's innate prejudices and learn to be better people in the process as they face the dark side of human nature together.
There are so many terrible things about ''Green Book'' (which takes its name from a real-life guidebook aimed at black travelers advising them where they could find lodgings that would accommodate them without hassle) that one hardly knows where to start. There is the screenplay by Peter Farrelly (yes, that one), Brian Currie and Tony's son, Nick, that reduces what could have been a powerful and moving story into an awkwardly constructed collection of hackneyed cliches that go after viewers with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull. There is the shockingly awful performance by the usually reliable Mortensen as Tony, who invests his part with the kind of over-the-top goombah schtick that might have seemed a little overdone if it had been deployed in a junior high production of ''Guys & Dolls''--if he had ever given a worse and hammier performance than he does here, I have somehow managed to miss it. There are the bits of cheekily outrageous humor that director Farrelly has thrown into the mix that just come off as weird and tacky without being even slightly amusing--what can one say about a film where a white man gets a cultured and refined black man to loosen up and act like a regular guy by hectoring him into eating some fried chicken? This is also one of those movies that seems hellbent on treating the subject of racism as something from our distant past that we were happily able to overcome (thanks in no small part to that fried chicken) and which has no real bearing on the world today, an approach that seems ill-informed at best and deeply insulting at worst. And yet, the pandering on display in ''Green Book'' is so shameless and plays so broadly that there are already many critics calling it this generation's ''Driving Miss Daisy''--I would agree with that sentiment but I suspect that others may consider such a designation more of a compliment than I would. Actually, it reminded me more of ''The Help,'' another equally contrived and insulting film that attempted to deal with racism in a feel-good manner that wouldn’t actually make anyone feel uncomfortable--the difference, however, is that with ''Green Book,'' viewers are the ones being asked to swallow a lot of shit along the way.
Sure, the trailers for the new take on ''Robin Hood'' make it look undeniably terrible but you may be wondering how bad it could really be. Put it this way--thanks to its release, ''Fifty Shades Freed'' has been reduced in rank to being only the second-worst Jamie Dornan joint to hit theaters this year. Although an opening narration goes out of its way to insist that we forget everything we think we know about the legendary Robin of Locksley and prepare ourselves for a fresh new take on the story, the results feel less like an inspired new perspective and more like the stammerings of a kid trying to deliver an oral report on a book he never actually read by bullshitting his way through it. The story itself is largely the same--the heroic Robin (Taron Egerton) stands up for the people of Nottingham against the depravations of the greedy tax-hungry Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn) with the help of the loyal Little John (Jamie Foxx), the fair Marian (Eva Hewson, who doesn’t stay a maid for very long in this iteration) and the gregarious Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin)--but the film itself seems to be going out of its way at times to screw things up. The attempts by the screenplay and director Otto Bathurst to introduce parallels between Robin leading the people in revolt against the powers that be and what is happening in the world today, ranging from Robin sporting a hoodie to disguise his face during his missions to inspiring his followers with talk about ''redistribution of wealth,'' are incredibly clunky. The action scenes are sloppy messes of poor fight choreography and worse CGI that has all been amped up to such a degree that you can barely figure out what is going on at any given point. The acting is just terrible--Egerton and Hewson strike zero sparks together, Mendelsohn only manages to make viewers appreciate even more the ferociously entertaining turn that Alan Rickman gave in the same part in the otherwise dire ''Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves'' and Foxx and F. Murray Abraham (who turns up as a nefarious cardinal) seem to be competing to see which Oscar-winning actor can give the more embarrassingly bad performance here. (The winner is Abraham, but it is a match that goes down to the wire.) And to top it all off, the ending of the film reveals that what we have essentially been watching is a prequel to a future film that will theoretically be more in line with the familiar trappings of the story (even though we have just seen pretty much all of them play out here)—this revelation is made in such an clumsy manner that the press screening that I attended erupted into derisive laughter when it unspooled. Put it this way. According to Wikipedia, there have been more than 70 (and even that number seems really low) film and television projects that have dealt in some way with the story of Robin Hood, ranging from classics like the 1938 ''The Adventures of Robin Hood'' and the delightful Sean Connery-Audrey Hepburn romance ''Robin & Marian'' to something entitled ''Boobs in the Wood'' and while I cannot say that I have seen them all (no, not even ''Boobs in the Wood''), I cannot imagine that any of them could be dumber and more dispiriting that this one, a film that seems to have been made by and for those people who thought that the Guy Ritchie version of '''King Arthur'' was a masterpiece.