Category Archives: Sports

“Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” Movie Review

If I had to make a choice, I would definitely want to live the rest of my life as a Bulbasaur. They’re cute, plump, can survive for days without eating, and absorb energy from the Sun. Of all the Pokémon, (At least the ones that I’m most familiar with) they seem the most docile and carefree, which make them ideal. This urban fantasy mystery film was released in theaters around the world on May 10th, 2019, a full week after it’s premiere in Japan. Made for the budget of $150 million, it made just over $20 million on its opening day alone, the highest ever for a live-action video game adaptation. Over the course of its theatrical run it has thus far grossed over $429.4 million at the box office, snatching the top spot in its opening weekend. It also managed to get pretty good reviews and is the highest rated video game adaptation ever according to numerous sources- which is already a pretty low bar to clear. Directed by Rob Letterman, the film began development immediately after the release of the 2016 game of the same name. The filmmakers primarily desired to tell a Pokémon story that wasn’t focused on franchise star Ash Ketchum, and spent nearly a year designing all the creatures to be as accurate as possible. While Toho was always in charge of distribution in Japan, Universal Pictures initially held the worldwide rights before eventually giving reigns over to Warner Bros., making it their first theatrical involvement with the series since 2000. It’s also the first film the franchise to receive an MPAA rating higher than G. Justice Smith star as Tim Goodman, an insurance salesman and former trainer. When his veteran detective father Harry apparently dies, he goes to Ryme City to collect his things, a metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side-by-side and bans underground fights. One night, he comes across an amnesiac deerstalker-wearing Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who speaks. Tim is the only one who can understand him and since this Pikachu was with Harry as his partner, they decide to reopen the case and find out what really happened. No lie, when I first heard that Ryan Reynolds would be headlining this film, I legitimately thought they were joking. The Merc With a Mouth voicing one of the most iconic characters in pop culture for a family-friendly video game movie? Truth be told, I really only have a casual knowledge and history with Pokémon, so my expectations were never really high. But lo and behold, the marketing for this movie seemed absolutely tonally and stylistically perfect. It seemed like such a far cry from so many other self-serious video game movies from the past that it was so refreshing to see what this one could do. Make no mistake, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of many family-friendly blockbusters today. Unlike most adaptations in the medium, it seems clear that the creators here have at least put forth some effort to honor the world of Pokémon. There’s a whole lot of clever worldbuilding in the film as we see how the various creatures fit into our society, such as Squirtles working as firefighters. Some of the best bits of humor come from little inspired moments like this or references to the franchise as a whole, such as a dejected Pikachu singing the iconic theme song. What’s holding Detective Pikachu back from actually being really good is its overreliance on a cliché mystery plot- which, if I understand, is the fault of the titular game itself. The twists and turns feel so convoluted, and certain creatures only feel like they were put in the movie as plot devices. Oh well, maybe the inevitable sequel will really get all of this down next time around. Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu was a casting choice that I never knew I needed in this day and age. His voice is absolutely perfect for the role of a confused, self-made detective who constantly is torn between two worlds. Justice Smith has been deserving of better roles lately and his turn as Tim Goodman here is… just fine. Not bad at all and you can clearly see he’s having fun with the material but he’s not quite great either. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable and highly watchable and is undoubtedly the bedrock of the whole movie. Kathryn Newton puts in a supporting role as Lucy Stevens, an aspiring and plucky reporter with a psyduck partner. She puts in some decent effort, but the character feels two-dimensional and we never really know her real motives beyond simply wanting the next scoop. Bill Nighy, Rita Ora, Suki Waterhouse, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Karan Soni and Omar Chapparo round out the rest of the supporting cast in various roles. Some of them definitely fell more fleshed out than others, but for the most part are able to provide different aspects of  this unique world. And from a technical perspective, Detective Pikachu is pretty impressive and distinctive from other summer blockbusters. Cinematographer John Mathieson makes the bod decision to shoot this on traditional 35mm film as opposed to digital photography. This is surprising considering all of the CGI, but it does make the Pokémon look more believable. It also makes a lot of primary colors pop out more, such as blue and yellow, which helps develop the personality for the film. Also, Mark Sanger and James Thomas’ editing work manages to move from scene to scene in a consistent way. It manages to cut between shots in action scenes fairly often but manages to keep things clear with the conflict. And during scenes where the main duo is investigating the mystery, it melds scenes with the present with scenes from the past to create more mystery. The most impressive part is, although the mystery itself is kind of predictable, it stays committed to not giving it away. Henry Jackman, one of the industry’s most prolific yet underrated composers, is in charge of the instrumental film score. It’s a surprisingly memorable score, using multiple different instruments for appropriate tracks. This includes the use of synths and chimes to introduce us to Ryme City or even during the final showdown scene. Other times, it uses lowkey brass and strings to help undercut the mystery at the center of it all. There are even little motifs where songs from the old cartoons are worked into the score, which is probably a delight for longtime fans. In addition to appearing in the film, Rita Ora also wrote and performs an original song called “Carry On,” which plays during the end credits. The lyrics are appropriate as they speak to the main duo learning to work together as the film goes along. It has a nice upbeat pop sound to it and Ora’s voice is a beauty, but I can’t say I would pick it up on Apple Music. I know this review sounds like I’ve been too nice to this film, but the truth is I really didn’t hate it. Granted, not everyone is going to respond to it as well, and I can’t speak for longtime fans of the Pokémon franchise. There are definitely a lot of problems to be found with pacing and the story and is by no means a great movie at all. Even so, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a solidly enjoyable diversion with fun visuals and a disappointing plot. I don’t know how, but Rob Letterman took what should be a terrible concept for a movie and somehow made it watchable. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the film’s overall quality, I need more Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu in my life. Case closed.

Image result for detective pikachu poster

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

“High Flying Bird” Movie Review

As someone who grew up in a household with sports junkies family members, I understood more of this movie than I thought I would. I’m not even sure if that’s something I’m entirely proud of, but hey it sure added to the experience. This business-centric sports drama initially premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. Although its distributor offered to give it a limited theatrical run, the director declined as he thought it wasn’t ultimately worth it. The $2 million production was instead released worldwide on the streaming service Netflix on February 8th, 2019. It garnered some of the best reviews for the filmmaker in quite a while, some even calling it a return to form. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film was originally written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning playwright behind Moonlight. The screenplay was based on an actual lockout that occurred in 2011, and immense research was undertaken in the ensuing years. According to the director, principal photography went so fast that he assembled the first cut of the film on his laptop within a few hours after production wrapped. André Holland stars as Ray Burke, an extremely intelligent and resourceful sports agent who primarily handles basketball players. During an ongoing NBA lockout, neither he nor his clients, including top draft prospect Erick Scott, played by Melvin Gregg, are getting paid while the owners and Players’ Association union refuse to compromise. However, Burke comes up with a daring and risky plan to try and upend the system within a tight timeframe of 72 hours. And every now and then, we see actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, and Karl-Anthony Towns giving interviews, breaking down exactly how the league works for rookies. To be perfectly honest with you, Steven Soderbergh’s work as a director can be hit-or-miss for me most of the time. I absolutely love Ocean’s Eleven and some of his earlier stuff, but I’ve been iffy on his newer releases, such as Unsane. But regardless, I can definitely appreciate how he tries to approach each of his films in a brand new way, even if it isn’t entirely successful. Seeing him collaborate with the same writer behind Moonlight, a film I wholly adored back in 2016, automatically made me ecstatic with the possibilities. I was interested to see the two of them tackle the behind-the-scenes world of sports, especially since Soderbergh came so close to directing Moneyball 8 years prior. And while it feels a little too lean for its own good, High Flying Bird is still incredibly well-written and sharply acted. The best thing that I can say about this film is that it made me even more interested in the business behind sports, something I don’t usually think about that much. It’s clear that McCraney did his homework here, creating environments and scenarios with such a level of detail that it feels like he’s spent a lot of time on the court. The ideas High Flying Bird wrestles with are interesting, especially in relation to how young black athletes are frequently at the mercy of their older, white owners. Why should we put so much pressure on the public image players put out while owners like Robert Kraft get away with millions and unsettling activities? The problem is that, at just 90 minutes, it feels like some of these themes and ideas get short-shifted in favor of the protagonist’s wild plan. This being a Soderbergh film, it has the verve and personality of an Ocean’s movie that was never made, which is totally fine. But when the scenes where the central issues start kicking, it makes me wish that it was at least a half hour longer, or even a miniseries. André Holland has slowly been building an impressive resume the last few years as an actor, and he continues that here as Ray Burke. From the minute he comes on-screen, he commands your attention with his razor-edge intelligence and charisma. Meanwhile, Zazie Beetz and Bill Duke are equally good as Ray’s snappy assistant and wise mentor, respectively. Much like Ray, they’re both fully aware of the racial implications of a system like the NBA; whenever the issue of slavery is brought up, Duke’s character repeats “I love the Lord, and all His black people.” Kyle McLachlan and Glenn Fleshler are also impressive as two owners who feign concern for their players, while Sonja John is witty and shrewd as a fellow sports agent. Melvin Gregg is definitely worth mentioning as Erick Scott, one of the nation’s top draft prospects. While he may not be privy to everything that’s going on, it’s clear that he loves the game of basketball and wants nothing more than to get back on. This being a Steven Soderbergh film, the technical side of things is pretty clean and interesting. As always Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer and editor, credited for both categories as Pete Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively. Like many of his films, each scene has a static camera placed in a specific spot in the room, only moving around when needed for the characters. It also cuts between each scene and shot with purpose, replicating the high energy of the screenplay. That being said, I’m really not that convinced that this film needed to be shot on an iPhone, like his previous film Unsane. While it worked for that particular film’s psychological aspects, here, it feels too limited and narrow for the scope of the story, only allowing two characters on-screen at a time. And while some movements are quite impressive, the lack of field depth and extremely static movements can take audiences out of the experience. Still, with enough meat on the bone to generate discussion afterward, High Flying Bird‘s kinetic screenplay and performances outshine some questionable technology choices. Although I wouldn’t consider this a return to form for the director, Steven Soderbergh still shows that he’s got it and is willing to risk failure by trying new things. Not to mention the fact that he’s supported by an incredibly dense script by Tarell Alvin McCraney and an outstandingly committed cast who fully give themselves to a surprisingly topical story. Yes, it does feel like it could be a lot more, but for what it is, it’s still a riveting game to watch.

“Alita: Battle Angel” Movie Review

I’ve imagined for many years what I might want to do if I was suddenly bestowed with cybernetically enhanced body parts. Being a badass fighter-type has been near the top of that list for the longest time, and this movie realizes it pretty well. This dystopian cyberpunk actioner was released in theaters by 20th Century Fox on February 15th, 2019. Previously, the film had been pegged for a late summer 2018 release and then another one for that year’s holiday season. Thus far, it has grossed around $163.7 million against an estimated overall budget of $170 million. Much of that money comes from overseas markets, where it has far outpaced some of the studio’s previous films in profits. Among all of this, it’s received a mixed critical reception from critics and audiences alike, with some proclaiming either to be terrible or amazing. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, the film- based on the manga series Gunnm or Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kashiro -had been gestating in development hell since at least 2003. James Cameron was originally signed on to produce and direct the film with partner Jon Landau, as well as co-write the script with Altered Carbon scribe Laeta Kalogridis. However, Cameron ultimately stepped down from the position to focus on his Avatar sequels and gave the gig to Rodriguez, although he retains producing and co-writing credits on the final product. And apparently, the final script was shot with over 600 pages worth of notes while filming occurred. Set in the year 2563, the story takes place in the junk-filled metropolis of Iron City, one of the last specs of civilization after a devastating war called “The Fall.” In this junkyard, a scientists named Dr. Ido Dyson, played by Christoph Waltz, discovers a surviving part of a cyborg in a pile dumped from the lofty sky-city of Zalem, just above Iron City. He rebuilds the parts into a female cyborg named Alita, played by Rosa Salazar, who has incredible strength and agility despite having lost all of her memory. As she gradually regains pieces from her past, she becomes the target of both low-level bounty hunter cyborgs and residents of Zalem that are concerned she’ll mess with their dominance. I remember watching the first teaser trailer over a year ago and being might intrigued by what was being promised. Although I’m completely unfamiliar with the (Apparently influential) manga series it’s based on, the prospect of seeing James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez collaborate on a film together was very enticing. I loved Sin City and From Dusk Til Dawn, and his ultra low-budget debut El Mariachi is a literal inspiration for me as an aspiring filmmaker, so seeing him team up with the brains behind Terminator and Aliens is obviously gonna get my blood pumping. Then its release date got delayed twice, which is rarely a good sign in modern studio blockbusters. Not to mention, the titular character’s unusually large eyes became something of a meme when the first footage was initially revealed. Now it’s finally been put out to the public, with the big hopes of launching a brand new franchise. Alita: Battle Angel is certainly better than your average manga adaptation, yet it still leaves something to be desired. This really does feel like a movie that James Cameron was going to direct, but handed off the reigns to someone else at the last minute. Make no mistake, Robert Rodriguez’s distinct touch is still there and all, and the idea of him and the guy who made Aliens making a dystopian movie together sounds like an honest-to-God dream collaboration. And at points throughout the film, it definitely feels like that potential comes through. But while it is mostly its own movie, Alita: Battle Angel more often than not feels far too preoccupied trying to set up plot points or character arcs for sequels. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo near the very end that nearly made me jump out of my seat in surprise. The tough pill to swallow, though, is that it may be unlikely that a sequel will really happen. And that’s a damn shame, because it deserves a chance. I’ve seen Rosa Salazar in a handful of roles the last couple of years, and hopefully this becomes her big break. Through the motion-capture work, she shines as Alita, a cyborg woman with a childlike innocence and the fighting skills of a trained killer. Christoph Waltz also gets a break from his villainous roles as Dr. Ido Dyson, Alita’s creator and father figure. While he’s forced to do unsavory things to sustain his clinic in Iron City, it’s clear that he has a great amount of compassion and humility that is sorely lacking in this world. The weakest link though, is newcomer Keean Johnson as Hugo, Alita’s main love interest. His character never really seemed that interesting, and the chemistry he should have had with Salazar was practically nonexistent. The rest of the cast is filled out by the likes of Ed Skrein, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jennifer Connolly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earl Haley, and Idara Victor. While they all try their best, (It’s cool to see Ali play a straight-up villain for once) only a handful are able to elevate behind simple archetypes. However, when it comes to the technical side of things, Alita: Battle Angel is unquestionably a sight to behold. Bill Pope’s cinematography feels just as eye-boggling and fluid as it was in The Matrix trilogy nearly 20 years ago. The dystopian landscape is caught in a slightly dingy and neon-plastered frame that oozes style and beauty, despite the griminess of its setting. It also matches up with the editing by Stephen E. Rivkin, which feels smooth and calculated. None of the action scenes feel choppy or hard to follow, which is especially impressive considering over half of the characters have some sort of metal prosthetic. But the meat of this film is undoubtedly the motion-capture work and visual effects done by the always reliable Weta Digital. This is easily some of their most impressive work yet, which is really saying something considering these guys also made the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a host of Marvel movies. Although it occasionally looked a tad cartoony in some shots, it did such an amazing job at blending real actors with their CG costumes, including and especially Alita herself. As one of the most prolific and inventive composers in recent memory, Tom Holkenborg A.K.A. Junkie XL provides the instrumental film score. And like much of his other work, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s very exciting and befitting to the setting. The score infuses rapid strings with bellowing horns quite frequently, matching the intensity and fast-paced action happening on-screen. It also uses a number of dynamic percussion instruments as well as synthesized sounds to create a unique sound. Much like its protagonist, it can be whimsical, futuristic, and badass all at once. We also get treated to an original song called “Swan Song” by the singer Dua Lipa, which plays during the end credits sequence. It was much more infectious and catchy song than I was expecting, using a great beat and gorgeous vocals to provide a neat coda to the adventure. Its lyrics and style feel appropriate to give the titular character a fighting anthem all her own. Alita: Battle Angel is a well-meaning and visually stunning but narratively messy sci-fi action romp. Although it fell short of my expectations, what Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron accomplished here is nothing short of nonstop fun. I legitimately want to see this film succeed so that we can see more of this world in the future. The story, I mean, not the actual Iron City itself.

“Creed II” Movie Review

I’m not even lying when I tell you guys that this franchise consistently remains the only instance when I even get remotely interested in boxing. Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor’s humongous publicized showdown from last year’s got absolutely nothing on these guys. This boxing-focused sports drama marks the eighth overall installment in the long-running Rocky franchise. It was jointly released in theaters by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. around the world on November 21st, 2018, and managed to score the largest Thanksgiving opening for a live-action film in history. It has thus far grossed about three times its $50 million budget at the worldwide box office and has enjoyed positive responses from critics and audiences, albeit a little less so than its predecessor. Following the huge success of Ryan Coogler’s Creed in 2015, Sylvester Stallone initially signed on to both write and direct the sequel, in addition to reprising his iconic role. However, in an unexpected move, he stepped down from the helm and gave it to Steven Caple Jr., fresh off of his acclaimed Sundance debut The Lands. The film’s production was pushed back considerably to give extra time for its star’s schedule and promotion of Black Panther. It’s also rumored to be the final film featuring Stallone as the Italian Stallion. Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, illegitimate son of the deceased boxer Apollo and current World Heavyweight Champion. His reign is disrupted when he and his mentor Rocky Balboa are confronted by Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren, a disgraced Russian boxer who killed Donnie’s father in the ring 33 years prior. He comes to the United States and publicly challenges Creed’s championship title in a fight against his son Viktor, in hopes of gaining favor with his home country once more. Realizing how tough of an egg Viktor is to crack, Donnie begins rigorously training with Rocky, all while anticipating the possibility of a new life with his girlfriend. I really, really loved the first Creed movie when it was released a couple years ago. Considering that the original Rocky from 1976 remains maybe my all-time favorite sports movie, I was so impressed with what Ryan Coogler was able to accomplish. His incredibly personal, character-heavy approach to the material was both in spirit of what made the first one amazing and still make it appeal to a new generation. And although he was still involved as an executive producer, I was still skeptical of what it would be like without his touch. Plus, let’s be honest, Rocky IV does not hold up well at all, so what would be the point of revisiting this Cold War story? Especially with current U.S. tensions with Russia at the moment? I was quite surprised because, while Creed II definitely follows the well-worn path of its predecessors, it still manages to be very entertaining and engaging. One thing to keep in mind is that most sports movies, especially those centered on boxing, are fundamentally built the same way. What makes this series so successful is that it puts character drama at the forefront, while still traveling familiar beats. Creed II still does this well, and I’m really impressed with how much trust over these characters Stallone is giving to young filmmakers. Caple Jr. may lack the chops of Ryan Coogler, but he still has a clear understanding of this story of where the characters in it are placed. Better yet, all of the characters are given human flaws, making their contributions all the more believable. Michael B. Jordan continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors of his generation in the titular role. His boundless charisma and incredible physique are only matched by his touching vulnerability. By his side is Tessa Thompson returning as his headstrong girlfriend Bianca Taylor, a singer with a degrading hearing problem. While she is definitely supportive of her husband’s career, we can honestly feel her concern that he might not come out of the ring alive. And if this is truly Stallone’s last bout as the Italian Stallion, then he gives a whole lot of dramatic energy. This is a man nearly broken by a long history of pain, loss, and some superficial victories. But I was most surprised by Dolph Lundgren’s return as Ivan Drago, as well as Romanian amateur kickboxer Florian Monteau as his son Viktor. While Rocky IV was an extremely silly movie, this one grounds the same villain in a very believable and realistic environment. In fact, I really empathized with the two of them because the situation they’ve found themselves in is quite sad, fighting not only for titles but to regain favor with their country. And while Steven Caple Jr. may lack the chops of Ryan Coogler, he sure knows how to keep Creed II engaging through the technical aspects. Kramer Morgantheau’s cinematography is very steady and focused, but never quite showy. During preparations and also during the fight sequences themselves, the camera likes to rove around its subjects, capturing a lot of things in detail. Combined with the gorgeous lighting and wonderful production design, the whole picture feels extremely lived-in. The editing was a triple-job done by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Halder, and Paul Harb. They do a pretty good job at cutting the matches together in a kinetic and exciting way, making sure that the impact of every punch is felt. And of course, what the Rocky franchise be without a little training montage thrown in? While “Eye of the Tiger” is not played at all, the segment still feels  little out of place, even if it is admittedly intense. Ludwig Göransson, who’s just having one hell of a year, returns to provide the musical score for the sequel. It’s definitely an interesting soundtrack, once again fusing hip-hip beats with orchestral music for various scenes. He also utilizes vocals to great advantage, such as the aforementioned montage training sequence, mixing singing and rapping with a huge sweeping background song. There’s one rousing moment when the classic Rocky theme by Bill Conti comes up, rearranged into a brilliant symphonic sound. It’s a near-knockout that almost made me want to get up from my seat and cheer for the main hero. Creed II may be predictable and formulaic, but it continues on a powerful saga of legacy. While it doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of the first one, it’s still tough and heartfelt enough to rank among the better entries in the long-running series. Michael B. Jordan has been long overdue for his own leading franchise role, and this is a magnificent way to start that path. If only more sports films could be like this.

“Crazy Rich Asians” Movie Review

In which a demographic that spent years being desexualized by the media get two attractive leads to show how stories, no matter how old-fashioned, can be applied to anyone anywhere. Take that as you will, that’s a reality. This landmark romantic-comedy was released in theaters worldwide on August 15th, 2018. It has thus far grossed over $207 million at the worldwide box office, staying atop the #1 spot for three weeks straight and becoming the highest-grossing romantic comedy in nearly a decade. It also attracted the largest Asia-descended audience in North America in quite a few years, plus the immense support of other Asian artists in the industry. And now, there’s a sequel en route with most of the same cast and crew to return. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the adaptation of the titular novel by Kevin Kwan was in development hell for about 3 years, primarily because producers wanted to cast a Caucasian actress in the lead. Following an intense bidding war between numerous studios, Warner Bros. scooped it up for theatrical distribution, beating Netflix’s extremely high offer. This is the first major Hollywood film in 25 years to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast, the last one being The Joy Luck Club. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, a first-generation Chinese-American economics professor at NYU. Her longtime boyfriend Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, asks her to accompany him to his best friend’s wedding in his home country of Singapore. When they arrive, she is surprised to learn that he hails from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in all of Southeast Asia. Now Rachel must contend with the very rich and famous elite of Singapore, including Nick’s domineering mother Eleanor. Earlier this year, Netflix released two delightful rom-coms, Set it Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Despite their lack of theatrical release, they proved that the classic formula still works in the modern era without any of the regressive gender stereotypes. Not going to lie, I initially had little interest in seeking out and watching this film in theaters. It’s not that I don’t like romantic comedies, just that the story being advertised for Crazy Rich Asians seemed so tired and overly glamorous. But after seeing all of the positive, confident buzz building up, I gave it a try, and I’m glad I did. This movie deserves a chance to be seen by as many people as possible while it’s still in theaters. Yes, the central story of a character meeting their love interest’s eccentric family is one of the most well-worn synopsizes in storytelling. But what makes this version of that story so unique is how deeply it understands numerous aspects of Asian culture. The cold opening, taking place just 20 years prior to now, reveals the struggle for families, particularly matriarchs, to gain respect in the Western world. Moreover, it details the cultural divide between someone like Rachel, who was born in the U.S. with some privilege, and Eleanor, who worked hard to build her family’s huge fortune. While their skin tone and mother tongues are ultimately the same, they come from radically different backgrounds, which essentially forms the emotional bedrock for both the film and it’s central conflict. Although I haven’t watched any of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu’s performance in this movie now really makes me want to. She really is charming as Rachel, in command of her own agency and tries never to let any of Nick’s family put her down. In his first film role, newcomer Henry Golding, meanwhile, is equally excellent as Nick and promises a great acting career. Charismatic and attractive, his insane family wealth is contrasted beautifully by his personal humility. The two of them share great chemistry, despite their differences in backgrounds, and play up the typical rom-com moments with ease and grace. Nearly all of the supporting cast members help to break cultural stereotypes in their quirky roles, but the best two were Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Awkwafina continues her mean-streak from Ocean’s 8 as Goh Piek Lin, Rachel’s eccentric Singaporean friend from college. She delivers some of the most hilarious lines in the movie. Yeoh, meanwhile, gives perhaps her best predominantly English-speaking role as the mother Eleanor. Despite her tough, seemingly cold exterior, she brings an honest concern and care for both her spoiled children and her connection to them. She constantly feels that they’re in danger of forgetting their heritage or how they got there, which is completely understandable. As for the technical aspects, director Jon M. Chu helps to craft one of the most polished and handsomely produced rom-coms in years. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul uses many styles of camerawork, each of which works perfectly. Whether it’s used in intimate face-to-face shots or sweeping looks at the lush island of Singapore, it always makes it look interesting. Not to mention the gorgeous locales for filming and use of color. Different shades of gold, white, yellow, or green are frequently brought out either in the outstanding costumes or production designs. Speaking of costumes, they are truly eye candy for how expensive and glamorous they are, reflecting the near-materialistic wealth of these characters. Brian Tyler wrote the original score for this movie, but I promise I can’t remember anything he wrote. Instead, the soundtrack has a wide range of different songs, mostly ones about money or classic Chinese tunes. The most memorable song in the entire film is a Mandarin cover of “Yellow” by Coldplay, performed by The Voice competitor Katherine Ho. Chu apparently wrote a long, impassioned letter to the band members after the initially refused to license it out, explaining how it showed him how his skin color was truly beautiful. Thank God they gave in, because I dare say that it’s better than the original version. With her amazing voice and the dynamic instrumentation, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it since watching it in theaters. While its overall plot may be extremely familiar and at times cliched, Crazy Rich Asians is a fun, old-fashioned step forward for on-screen representation. A charming cast, wonderful scenes and settings, and a great balance between humor and heart make this easily the best rom-com of the year and one the best in recent memory. I recognize that I may personally not be the most qualified person to discuss this film’s potential cultural impact on Hollywood, but if there’s an audience member or two who’s able to see themselves onscreen for the first time, then it should undoubtedly be a success.

“Tag” Movie Review

If playing a simple game of tag was all I had to do to stay in touch with my friends for the next few decades, I would have started playing that long ago. Probably not nearly as intensely as these guys, but still, it’d be a lot of fun. Produced on a budget of $28 million, this high-concept comedy was released on June 15th, 2018. Despite facing some tough competition from Incredibles 2, it has done surprisingly well so far by raking in over $48 million worldwide. Directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic, previously helming episodes for the Comedy Central show Broad City, the wacky story takes its inspiration from an unbelievable article in The Wall Street Journal. The film was originally written with Jack Black and Will Ferrell in mind to star before scheduling conflicts got in the way. Having reduced the number of players from around 10 to just 5, one of the stars ended up breaking both his arms during filming; they had to be recreated with CGI. Based on an absurd true story, (No, I’m not kidding) the movie follows 5 life-long friends from the state of Washington. For the past 30 years, they have all played the same game of tag in the month of May, going to ridiculous lengths and spending enormous amounts of money to not be “it.” One of their friends Jerry, who has never been tagged, is about to retire from the game and marry at the end of the month. The remaining 4 team up to do everything in their power to try and tag him before it’s too late. I love myself a fun, broad comedy every now and again. While studio comedies in recent years have floundered, special gems like The Big Sick or, more recently, Game Night have succeeded in making me laugh my ass off while still giving an engaging story to bite down on. For this reason, I was pretty excited to see Tag in theaters. Hearing the premise of the movie, alone, was crazy enough, but the added fact of it being based on a real-life story (For the most part) gave me even more incentive to watch it. And while Tag isn’t quite on the level of other aforementioned comedies, and certainly isn’t a genre masterpiece, it can still be a pretty fun time watching. It seems weird to say, but I think that the comedic aspects of the movie might be the thing ultimately holding it back. At its core, this is a genuinely heartwarming story about a group of buddies who play tag as a way of sticking together throughout multiple decades. It’s something very special to these men, repeatedly quoting Benjamin Franklin by saying, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” There are certainly moments that perpetuate that sentimentality throughout the movie, especially in the back half. But it feels as though more effort was put into watching these men humiliate themselves trying to tag each other. Granted, the source material does lend itself well to comedy and there were definitely more instances of me laughing pretty hard than not laughing at all. But still, it felt like that extra bit of cynicism wasn’t really needed to begin with. For what it’s worth, the 5 lead actors do a solid job and share believable chemistry enough to carry the movie through. Played by Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnston, Ed Helms, and Jeremy Renner, the men all bring unique quirks to the group. Renner is the one playing Jerry, and seeing his charm and wide smile seep through his pride is really fun, relying more on physical comedy than expected. Helms, whom I’m not typically a fan of, is definitely the heart of the group, bringing them all back together and suffering multiple injuries in a deadpan manner. The other 3, while really funny, are pretty exactly what you’d expect from the actors. Other supporting players like Isla Fisher as the hyper-competitive wife to Helms’ character, Rashida Jones as a long-lost love to Hamm and Johnston, Anabelle Wallis as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal following these friends, and Verizon’s Thomas Middleditch as the unsuspecting owner of a fitness center all provide their own funny moments that help propel the ridiculous plot. Meanwhile, similar to this year’s Game Night, the technical aspects do a nice effort to distinguish Tag from other studio comedies. Larry Blanford’s widescreen cinematography is smooth, steady, and slick, moving from one attempt at tagging Jerry to another with ease. The balanced lighting and shadows make for an intriguing suspense, as the friends could sprout up from nearly anywhere and take each other by surprise. This pairs rather well with the editing job by Josh Crockett, which is smart enough to show everything that happens just enough to keep us in stitches. The coolest aspect of the film by far is when it takes inspiration from the hyper-stylized fights in Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes. By this, I mean that certain scenes where the crew is trying to tag Jerry are undercut by Renner’s narration of what’s going to happen, followed by slow-fast-slow moves of the attempts. Normally, something like this would be distracting to me, but I found it rather engaging and different. With a capable cast, unique filmmaking techniques, and just enough substance to overcome its style, Tag is a funny, undemanding diversion of comedy. It’s nothing special or groundbreaking at all, but if you just want something sweet and funny to watch, you could certainly do worse. It’s quick, harmless, but also unambitious. And frankly, with this absurd story driving forward, it doesn’t really need to be.

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