Creed II

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Adonis Creed, after winning the World Bodyweight Championship, is challenged to a boxing match by Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, who killed Adonis’ father Apollo Creed in the ring three decades earlier.

Creed was the Rocky spin-off that blew the world away like nobody expected, and this franchise continues its winning streak with an emotional and exciting sequel. Michael B. Jordan can deliver one hell of a punch, both in the sport but also with the emotion he brings to Adonis, trying to isolate himself from his father’s legacy but getting lost in the fight to preserve his own. This is Jordan’s defining character in his career at the moment, as he adds so much humanity to the role from his love for his fiancee to his relationship with his mentor Rocky. Jordan delivers the determination but also the love and pain of the character with energy and you’ll always be rooting for him. As for the rest of the cast, Rocky has been played with such iconic force by Sylvester Stallone for so many years that it’s hard to imagine these movies without him. He’s a great father figure to Creed but it’s hard to forget the times when he was the leading man of the saga because he still carries the films like he is. Tessa Thompson has been everywhere this past year — from Marvel to films like Annihilation and Sorry to Bother You — and deservedly so. Her character Bianca is not just there to support Creed but also helps guide his emotional journey through the film and pursues dreams of her own by singing, though her character deals with a hearing impairment. Bianca is a memorable character because she’s got a strong voice as well and often helps Creed pick himself up.

What I loved in this sequel is that everyone has a potent and believable emotional arc throughout the film. Even the “villains”, Ivan and Viktor Drago, are fighting rough because Ivan is determined to escape the shame he brought to his family when he lost to Rocky, by pushing his son very far to defeat Creed. The main character Adonis is also dealing with a lot, like starting a family while deciding whether or not he wants to be seen as “Apollo’s son” and if the fight to “rewrite history” is worth losing it all. Rocky also has his own journey, and not just when he’s guiding Adonis. He’s also mourning the loss of his wife Adrian and trying to reconnect with his estranged son and grandson, and become a family man again like the one Adonis is becoming throughout the film. The fight scenes are very engaging and the direction isn’t as memorable as Ryan Coogler’s who delivered sequences like the long-take fight in the first Creed movie, but he’ll still make you keep your eyes on the screen and embark on this journey with Michael B. Jordan’s titular character. There’s also an awesome training montage keeping the spirit of classic training sequences like from the older Rocky films. Even though the runtime flies by quite quick and it’s still got that boxing movie formula you know from the other films, Creed II is a passionate installment that stays true to the characters the first Creed movie made us love and will make audiences have a blast, sports fan or not.

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Widows

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After four thieves are killed during a heist gone wrong, their widows step up to finish the job.

Widows is a heist film that chooses to focus more on the serious aspect of the genre, similar to films like Michael Mann’s Heat. Instead of quick montages of prepping for the heist or focusing solely on the main heist, Widows is a film about grief, corruption, and injustices that relate to country-wide issues. Steve McQueen creates a frightening look at the corrupt and dangerous crime in modern Chicago, led by a stellar cast. It’s no surprise Viola Davis can bring an audience to feel invested in the film with her strong emotion and passion in every one of her characters. Veronica Rawlins, a woman willing to go far lengths to protect herself after suffering from a loss, is no exception. Also great are Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as two other widows who join Davis to pull off the heist their husbands failed to. Another standout is Daniel Kaluuya as a menacing henchman for a gangster who will not think twice to use brutality in order to get what he wants. Other popular names headlining the film include Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, and Robert Duvall, who are pleasing to watch even though some of the British actors’ American accents are questionable. Widows does not hold back on strong violence that not only feels brutal but scarily real, and excellent direction and cinematography that shines in many scenes. The script also has a strong focus on many different issues that could make you fear the world today even more — though it’s a heist film, there isn’t much action, rather violence because the intention of it isn’t to entertain but to provoke themes and often suspense. Even though it sometimes won’t subvert any expectations until the second half, some scenes will have your heart racing and the final act feels very unsafe for every character. I was never sure who would survive and who would die because Steve McQueen crafts a space where anything can happen. Unfortunately, there should have been more closure in the final few minutes for some important characters, but in the end, Widows is a mature crime drama that does not disappoint.

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Boy Erased

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Based on the true story of Garrard Conley (named Jared Eamons in the film), who was forced to join a gay conversion therapy program after being outed to his parents. While there, Jared comes into conflict with its leader and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self.

Boy Erased is the second directorial effort of Joel Edgerton, who also writes and stars in the film, and I’ve been a fan of his acting even before he took a seat behind the camera. He’s proven himself to not only have a grip on a script and cast but also convey a theme strongly through filmmaking. Lucas Hedges has impressed me very much these last few years, especially in Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but in the leading role he is once again able to shine as a young man who wants to be himself but his parents and peer’s beliefs come into conflict with who he is. Edgerton also stands out as the leader of the gay conversion program who also believes homosexuality is a sin and a choice, even though it is part of who somebody is. This head therapist acts as a source of passionate hate and demoralization for those who are at the therapy, even though back then some people thought this kind of therapy would “cure” people and make them heterosexual without considering what mental and emotional harm this would cause.  Also remarkable are Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Jared’s parents, who seemingly must choose between what they believe and their unconditional love for their son. The movie is tough to watch in some parts because of how unfortunate the situation was — members of the LGBT community were forced to believe something was wrong with them and that they had to be “fixed”, and that this kind of therapy is even still allowed in 36 states. I’m glad we live in a time where more people accept others for who they are and more LGBT men and women can live life as they please and feel comfortable with their identity, even though the world still isn’t perfect. This powerful execution is resonant yet imperfect — a more linear storytelling and some more on-screen emphasis on the protagonists’ emotional state would have made his arc hit home even more, but the final 20 minutes are especially fantastic and deliver every performance to its fullest, and its theme wonderfully.

Boy Erased has powerful themes and outstanding performances that will resonate, as well as an important message that is as relevant today as it was then.

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The Grinch

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Christmas is arriving in Whoville, and everyone can’t wait — except for The Grinch, who despises the holiday. Together with his trusty dog Max, he sets out to steal everyone’s Christmas gifts and end the beloved holiday once and for all.

The Grinch is an adaptation of a classic Dr. Seuss story many grew up reading and knowing, which was previously adapted by Ron Howard in 2000 — so was there really a point in this movie being made? We all know how the story goes and this movie offers nothing knew that the story benefits from with another adaptation. The plot is very by-the-books and the humor is aimed for children and children only. This film is marketed as a “reimagining” but no imagination is put into the script or themes that will make audiences discover something new. Kids will have a blast with the ridiculous humor, but as one who has seen tons of animated movies, every joke was predictable and felt recycled to me. Some scenes made only to extend a short children’s story to a 90-minute feature film are so laughable it’s hard to imagine film executives sitting in a pitch room planning those scenes out for a movie. The computer animation is dull and not very exciting compared to Disney’s animated films which bring so much energy into their animation. The ultimate theme of kindness will likely appeal to young ones and teach them a lesson — one that adults have seen many times already and don’t need repeated to them. Benedict Cumberbatch was a solid choice to play the Grinch, but it feels like a missed opportunity that they chose to use his American accent instead of letting him use his natural English accent that has worked as menacing and villanous in many films before. There’s also one other entertaining voice role, played by SNL cast member Kenan Thompson, but lots of the film also focuses on a young girl named Cindy Lou, and this subplot feels like the most bloated and tough-to-sit-through part of the film until the message of it only makes sense at the very end. The book this movie is based on is called How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but the actual stealing of Christmas which is the objective of the whole film is mostly skimmed past in a montage. There are also some very weird soundtrack choices like an awful rap version of the classic hit “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the original adaptation, and other oddly placed music like a song from The Sound of Music. I enjoyed the first two Despicable Me movies, but after that it looks like Illumination has lost their originality when it comes to animated films with films like Minions, Despicable Me 3 and Sing which all felt like wastes of time and effort, retreading the same ground and offering less of a family invitation and more of a “kids drag their parents to it” kind of films to make money. It seems like Disney and Pixar are the only animation studios that still deliver new and unique family films in my eyes, and the rest have given up.

The Grinch offers no originality or justification to be watched or even made, compromising itself to please young children more than families, and covers the same kind of humor and themes that too many animated films have already taken on. You may want to your kids if they’re interested when it comes out next week, and you may even enjoy it like my sneak preview audience mostly did, but don’t expect anything insightful or fresh. We may just have to wait until Ralph Breaks the Internet for the deserving family film of the season.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody brings the story of legendary music group Queen and their center star Freddie Mercury to the big screen. I’ve been a hug fan of Queen and their music for a while, and they have been my favorite music group with their classics such as the titular song being among the best songs of all time. My love for the band explains why I was so excited to watch this film, and I was not let down. Bohemian Rhapsody lives on the promise of a great depiction of the behind-the-scenes of the making of some of your favorite Queen songs, as well as digging into its lead singer who still remains a legend to this day. Rami Malek hasn’t been in many major film roles before but was the perfect choice to play Freddie — he disappears into the role in every moment in an unbelievable transformation which required Malek’s full effort. It feels as if every movement he makes and every word or scene he’s in was perfected to feel like the real Mercury. Also great are Gwylim Lee and Ben Hardy as the other founding members of Queen — whose real life counterparts were musical consultants on the film. Knowing and loving the songs and group that the film is about, audiences will be sure to want to catch this one and be enthralled by how the band came to be or what inspired their greatest hits. Though some that don’t enjoy their music as much will be more keen to notice the formula that a lot of biopics use (“anyone can achieve their dreams” “character pursues their dreams/argues with those close to him/makes amends with them and redeems themselves”) — the film won’t offer much new plot-wise especially if you know more about the real story, but that’s alright. There’s also a few aspects that would have been more entertaining to see in extended sequences rather than being shortened to montages, but the movie already clocks in at 135 minutes anyway. The vivid cinematography and editing kindly boast uproarious musical concert sequences, which are also so enjoyable because of the fact that the songs you love so much are being played to you on the big screen and you can’t help but want to sing along.

You may read many different things from critics, but mark my words — any fan of Queen and Mercury will have a blast watching Bohemian Rhapsody on the big screen. Others may notice the familiar plot structure or formula but one thing is for sure — Rami Malek will get serious buzz for his portrayal of Mercury, and watching your favorite songs being created and performed on screen is nothing but a wonderful time on the big screen.

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Halloween (2018)

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Forty years after she was attacked by a masked killer, Laurie Strode prepares for the return of Michael Myers so she can end his murderous carnage once and for all.

After several sequels that were poorly received by critics and audiences alike, the most recent film in this slasher franchise retcons all the sequels’s continuities, disregarding them and acting as a direct sequel to the 1978 classic. The movie delivers on the promise of intense sequences elevated by the frightening presence of Myers, and effective tension throughout these horror scenes. The blood and gore is also fittingly strong to amplify the fright of a masked murderer coming after these characters, with some nice cinematography and tracking shots as well. However, even though it’s quite entertaining to watch, most of the jump scares are pretty predictable and a lot of these scenes fall into familiar tropes. Jamie Lee Curtis reprises her role and does a terrific job as Laurie, bringing a layered character to the screen in every scene she’s in. The aspect that hasn’t been seen before is the PTSD Laurie faces and how she’s willing to go to far lengths to prepare herself and her family for the inevitable return of her greatest fear. The way Curtis portrays a woman affected by an incident even decades later and how she’s always looking over her shoulder, ready to bravely face the villain of the story is done very strongly. If only the movie focused more on her, as lots of the film cuts to uninteresting side characters that don’t serve a purpose to the main story and aren’t portrayed very well. Sometimes the movie doesn’t stick true to the promise of being the story of Laurie facing Michael one last time and instead focuses more on developing character who do nothing other than fall victim to Michael’s killing spree.  The plot also basically follows the structure of the original and we can tell what the final showdown will be like even before the movie begins. Halloween has plenty of fun scares and effective violence that will entertain horror fans but it borrows too much from the structure of the first film and doesn’t try much that’s new from the overall horror movie formula, and could’ve used more focus on its compelling protagonist.

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First Man

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First Man tells the incredible true story of Neil Armstrong who took a giant leap for mankind by leading the Apollo 11 mission and becoming the first man to step onto the moon.

I’ve been following the filmography of Damien Chazelle ever since he made a name for himself with the unforgettable indie Whiplash, and I again was there in the theater for when he rocked the world with the marvelous, award-winning, record-breaking La La Land. So of course I could not miss his newest big-screen hit, this time an adapted screenplay from a book on the true story of the mission that changed the world. Chazelle takes a well-known story and though we all know how it ends, he makes it feel exhilarating and gripping. Every shot is breathtaking and the cinematography is an achievement for modern cinema. The camera angles are perfectly selected, making these scenes riveting, and the shots of space, Earth, and the moon are incredible. It’s hard to tell how much was practical and how much wasn’t because it looks so realistic. The sound and editing also make for intensity and strong effectiveness in the action. The moon landing scene will glue your eyes onto the screen, and even if you know how it will end, it’s so beautifully done, with the music, tension, and even emotion by the end make it the most unforgettable scene of the entire year. Ryan Gosling brings out another moving performance as Neil Armstrong, with subtle moments from beginning to end that will bring emotion to you like almost no other actor this year, and Claire Foy brings lots of strength to Janet, Neil’s wife, in sequences that will guarantee her an Oscar nomination, as well as very impressive chemistry with Gosling.

Chazelle directs this mission delivering strong themes like how the hard work of many can achieve the most impossible dreams, and we see how much training was required but also the hardships that occurred during the preparation for the launch. There’s also some very powerfully written parts, showing a tragedy that happened in Armstrong’s life and how his family felt about him embarking on such a journey. The cinematography always stands out with the rare 70mm format making it look even more like a period piece, and like I said, every scene set in space will blow you away and make you need to catch your breath at the end. Every shot is so brilliantly composed and the handheld cam even works for the effect of intensity — at times it feels like Chazelle wants you to be on that spaceship with the characters. The music by Justin Hurwitz is also fantastic and deserves him another Oscar win, and I doubt any score this year will top the amazing music in this film and the effect it has on many great scenes in the film. However, there is one major flaw I have in the writing of the film — I felt like we didn’t feel much of Armstrong’s personality, and didn’t really learn much about who he was other than what we did. The movie makes some attempt at a personal arc for him which works very well, but if we had seen more about his relationship with his wife and kids and how the events of his life shaped who he was as a person, perhaps his character would be more compelling as well as the performance. It felt like the movie focused greatly on the Apollo 11 mission and the space journey Armstrong embarked on, but if only he had embarked on a bit more of an emotional journey as well. I personally felt more attached to Gosling’s other characters like Sebtastian in La La Land, the Driver in Drive, and K in Blade Runner 2049 because those films dug deeper into those character’s emotions and personalities while this film only scratched the surface of that. Thankfully the technical aspects and overall story redeems the film, with a marvelous second half that deserves a second directing Oscar for Damien Chazelle.

First Man is a technical masterpiece with wonderfully directed and shot sequences that will floor audiences, and even though I don’t think this will become one of my favorite movies like Whiplash and La La Land have, the performances and especially the out-of-this-world journey, one you know so well but is brought to screen with top notch execution, makes it a film that must be watched on the big screen.

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