Reviews of Creed II, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Widows, Green Book, Boy Erased, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Director: Steven Caple Jr. (The Land)
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, and Phylicia Rashad
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%
Back in the 70s, Rocky created the modern framework of the sports movie, and has essentially inspired constant comparisons for any attempt at a boxing film since its release and winning of Best Picture. Sure, there are some silly sequels, but the franchise was completely reinvigorated by Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan with 2015’s Creed. A movie about legacy and family, the first Creed introduced so many great new characters and found Rocky Balboa at a different time in his life than the other movies have showcased. Stallone not winning the Supporting Actor Oscar was highway robbery, and the film has slowly become one of the most under-appreciated films of the 2010s because it isn’t just a sports movie. It’s one of the defining films of the further attempt at making Hollywood multi-cultural and more progressive, and it was presented in an extremely accessible format. No surprise that Coogler would go on to direct Black Panther.
So this film takes place as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) wins the title belt and strings together a series of victories with Rocky (Stallone) by his side. His relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is going really well, but her hearing loss has progressed more and more over the ensuing year or two. Adonis is ready for a marriage and family, but this life of comfort is changed when Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of former Russian champion Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) begins rising through the woodworks. After the Drago family was disgraced following Rocky’s win in Russia back in Rocky IV, they have been waiting for a chance for revenge. Adonis, obviously, cannot say no to a fight that involves that family that killed his father, so he must face his best opponent yet.
Now, the movie is entirely predictable. It follows all of the beats of the previous Rocky films, and it’s clear that Coogler’s fresh eye for direction is missed. Stallone was more responsible for the script this time, and new director Steven Caple Jr. does a nice job capturing a majority of the feel of the first Creed film while still clearly deferring to the ingrained system of the Rocky films. Whether it’s events in Adonis’ s personal life or even the sports-story beats, these are all things that you’ve seen before. It’s presented really well, however, and is well-acted and directed all around.
It may not carry the same weight or cultural influence as the first film, but the movie does such a good job of capturing the essence of all of the characters again and gives us something enjoyable to digest. There’s not a ton of fault with this film at all, it executes what it sets out to execute. There’re good fight scenes, good acting, perhaps occasionally inconsistent character motivations or timelines, but by the end, it all shapes into a decent whole.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Director: David Yates (Harry Potter 5 through 7 pt. II, Fantastic Beasts 1, The Legend of Tarzan)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, and Alison Sudol
with: Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 39%
The first Fantastic Beasts film was pretty well-received overall, but I had massive problems with the new characters and overall storyline, mainly because some of the character motivations and plot points felt contrived and uninteresting. I didn’t find that the movie was particularly well-acted either, except for Dan Fogler as the no-maj Kowalski and Colin Farrell as Percival Graves.
This movie sees the performances settle in a bit more, and the return to some of the Potter mysticism and fun that made the original movies so enjoyable. The plotting still struggles to hold up, but at least we now have an identified villain with an identified motive and a group of heroes working undercover or behind the scenes for a young Dumbledore, as opposed to the motivations being a bit sketchy in the first film. The first film wanted the connection to Harry Potter to be tenuous so that it could stand on its own legs, with the reveals really occurring more toward the end of the film. This one embraces going full Potter, moving from Newt Scamander’s story to more of a Dumbledore origin. While it brings about more nostalgic moments and makes the stakes a little higher, J.K. Rowling’s screenplay begins feeling more like fan fiction than an actual new film.
The comparisons between Rowling and George Lucas are beginning to make sense, with Rowling’s post-HP work being the crazy-bad screenplay for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as these Fantastic Beasts films. Being in the environment with the magic and backdrop is still cool, but for every moment of being visually interesting, these movies just really don’t work in terms of characters and writing.
The movie concerns Newt (Eddie Redmayne), on orders from Dumbledore (Jude Law), trying to get to Credence (Ezra Miller), the dangerous obscurial thought dead after the previous film. Like last movie, Grindelwald (Depp) is trying to get to him first, harnessing his power against Dumbledore, two former friends turned rivals that cannot move against one another at this point in time. As the race for information continues, Grindelwald’s message begins to spread.
The movie is more visually interesting than the previous film, mainly because it’s just a bit more colorful and playful than the bleak and rainy New York depicted by the first film. Thus, to a certain extent, this movie is actually more enjoyable to watch, and Jude Law steals every scene he’s in. However, there remains a true lack of interesting character motivation, and the film remains as muddled and confusing as the first one. Now, though, the confusion comes from within our Harry Potter characters and universe we’re familiar with, so when certain revelations are made (specifically one at the end), all we can do is shrug and hope the series ends prematurely. This felt like fan-fiction, and it’s disappointing.
Director: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame, Hunger)
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Colin Farrell
with: Liam Neeson, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, and Carrie Coon
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Despite its flaws, the one dominant thought I had when watching Widows was extreme positivity about being able to appreciate a fast-talking original screenplay. We’re now dominated by the mumblecore subgenre to drama, where a lot of screenplays are largely loose and improvised. This movie, directed by Steve McQueen and written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn works really hard to be something thrilling and expressive. Although some plot contrivances and holes may be discovered along the way, the way the film moves and is acted and written really makes it one of the surprises of this year.
After Harry Rawlings’ (Liam Neeson) job fails, resulting in the death of his crew, his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) contacts the other widows of the job (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, and Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter) to do a final heist that Harry had laid out in his notebook. The reason is that their district is being besieged by a nasty battle for Alderman between Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan (the son of a politician played by Robert Duvall) and Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning (backed by his ruthless criminal brother Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya). When there’s missing money from one side of the election, they want their funds back, and they turn to Veronica after Harry lost them in the botched job. Our film picks up largely with Veronica and her new crew trying to pull off the job to satisfy the circling sharks, backed by their corrupt political leanings.
The film nails the cinematography of a city, showing scenes with affluent neighborhoods quickly merging into poor in uncut shots down the road. Local government and its potential corruption plays quite a role, and the atmosphere of the film really works. Our lead in Viola Davis is living with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but her companions do not, questioning her and her wealth at every turn. The race and power dynamics are clear here, but as our characters progress more into the plot, other elements and layered performances are revealed.
The film is shot beautifully, and it’s written really well. The problem is that some of the twists come off kitschy or slow. Parts of the plot, especially involving the occasional delving into the motivations of a certain character, will be maddening. But, by the end of it, you’ll feel like the mess was worth the trouble, that you saw a modern thriller with a freshly written screenplay that was immersive, at the very least.
Director: Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber, Me Myself & Irene, Shallow Hal, The Heartbreak Kid, Fever Pitch, Kingpin, Hall Pass)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Mike Hatton, and Dimeter Marinov
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
What I will not really address in this review is some of the backlash that has taken over the narrative for this film for being framed in an old-fashioned way. I recognize that this is a movie about a complex subject matter, which is paired down into the slow cultural realization and change of heart of one, formerly racist, white man. Several outlets have criticized this approach as making a movie about race also with a white man as the central character, and I understand this complaint. I also understand that many of the changes throughout history that accomplish results come from legislation and not from “change of heart.” However, this is one isolated story in one circumstance that is produced and is starring African American actors. If I want to just judge the movie on its merits alone, I think it’s one of the best of the year.
The plot concerns a mildly famous jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who hires bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to transport him through the Jim Crow South on a tour designed to open minds and eyes. Their personas initially conflict, with Tony playing R&B music and eating unhealthy food, being ready to fight anyone at any offense, and pressing Shirley on his personal life, while Shirley helps him write letters to his life and stop breaking the law with things like petty theft. The friendship that begins is, frankly, wonderful.
Movies that put great actors together and content at the end of the year for awards are so often stuffy and uninspired, almost the flip side of the corporate conveyor-belt film-making that dominates the modern blockbuster. You take a historic figure, you cast a reputable actor, and you allow him to method himself into a few nominations. This movie is different, because it relies entirely on the chemistry and rhythm of its two leads. Scenes as simple as them riding in the car together dominate the film, with the actual showdown moments showing both Tony and Shirley’s growth coming secondary. For Tony, it’s a world of more possibilities and more relationships, separate of his prejudice. For Shirley, it’s the ability to connect and be a real friend to someone. As these characters bond, we go on a two hour journey through powerhouse acting, a myriad of laughs, and true chemistry between the leads that has not been replicated this year.
Director: Joel Edgerton (The Gift)
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, and Joe Alwyn
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
In a fall and winter season dominated by biopics and memoirs, we get this rather intriguing tale of conversion therapy told from the perspective of the person who had to suffer through it. Directed by Joel Edgerton, fresh off his debut in directing The Gift, Boy Erased tells the story of Jared (Lucas Hedges), a teenage boy who discovers he’s gay.
In his rural community, this is unacceptable, specifically to his deacon father (Russell Crowe). His mother (Nicole Kidman) may be a little loathe to the idea, but they enroll him in a new beginnings program designed to eliminate homosexual urges through faith. The program is run by Joel Edgerton, who doubles as a supporting actor and director.
There are some character arcs in this film, notably Nicole Kidman’s, designed around at least a few characters learning to accept our lead in spite of his sexuality. For Kidman, this is designed as a movie which showcases her acting talent, fresh off the awards circuit sweep of her ‘Big Little Lies’ performance. The problem with this role is that the changes to her opinions and personality come seemingly out of nowhere. That ends up being this movie’s biggest flaw. The pacing is maddeningly inconsistent, with events and character changes happening on a whim, while we’re trying to learn more about them through these unassuming and largely ineffective flashbacks. The present scenes lack dramatic heft because we don’t know the characters, and the flashbacks disrupt the flow. When Kidman’s character as Jared’s mom comes around to being reasonable, it feels like it was just seconds ago that she was persuading him to stay in the program. Perhaps in real life, things change on a whim. However, in a movie, we need the character arcs to be slightly more telegraphed so that the actor can really grow in the role. The pacing and jumps in time hurt Kidman and also Crowe’s overall performance.
As for Lucas Hedges, I understand why he’s so sought after following Manchester by the Sea, but his performance here is fairly flat. Overall, with average performances, I would have recommended the movie based on attempting to be progressive and new in its subject matter, but it also feels like it shies away from that as well. What we’re left with is one of the more disappointing attempts at prestige so far this year.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Director: J. Coen, E. Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading…)
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan
with: Harry Melling, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Brendan Gleeson, and Tyne Daly
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
The Coens tend to direct films layered with subtext about specific classic literary works or themes. Some, like The Man Who Wasn’t There capture an idea or previous work, while others are more about the story-telling, like a No Country for Old Men. For such a successful pairing of directors, we all have been waiting for the next great project that takes over the awards conversation for that year. Although Inside Llewyn Davis deserved more attention, the Coens haven’t really been active in the “best movie of the year” conversation since True Grit in 2010.
This anthology idea, possibly tied to what was originally pitched as a miniseries, is a lengthy series of short stories in the West combined into one product. None of them have any interaction, but they all have a tonal and thematic similarity, in that they all represent various parts of the aging process. One part may be about heading out of your physical prime, one may be about observation, one may be about experience and ingenuity, and one may actually be about the passage between life and death. While the through-line and style of this film is fantastic (and it’s also extremely stylish), there’s just something missing which keeps it short of being a great film.
The vignettes range from a country-caroling sharp-shooter to a prospector who thinks (wrongly) that he found a spot no one else had thought about. Every section is well-acted, well-shot, and continues with the thematic build-up that was sought. But, there’s a part of me who feels like I watched the fantastic first section (actually featuring the titular Buster Scruggs) and then the stories declined from there. There were just occasionally times in this movie where I was checking my clock and waiting for it to end. Other times, the stories roped me in.
I just wonder if that’s the risk where you change characters so frequently. The viewer may be left wishing for a specific style or grouping of characters that hasn’t been on screen for several minutes, and it negatively impacts the overall feel of the film. I definitely felt that way a little bit, with parts of this not really living up to my expectations. It was always beautiful and well-presented, keeping with the theme, but I just had moments where I wasn’t sure I really cared about what I was watching.