by Philip Price
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone & Tessa Thompson
Runtime: 2 hours & 10 minutes
The "sins of the father" idea has been played out time and time again since first making its appearance in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, but never has it been so deliciously executed as it is in “Creed II” given the poetry or, as one commentator within the film calls it, "Shakespearean" nature of one Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of former heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed, coming face to face with the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) some 33 years after he killed his father in what was supposed to be an exhibition match. The weight of these circumstances would certainly be hailed as nothing short of mythic to any innocent bystander filled in on the details just prior to the projector heating up and then rolling the whole of “Creed II,” but for anyone who has seen or been a fan of the ‘Rocky’ franchise for any amount of time and has specifically basked in the glory of all that is simultaneously great and terrible about “Rocky IV” then it's not as difficult to see how easily Creed II could have turned into an unmitigated dumpster fire that was unable to capitalize on the great mythology of these events because it couldn't re-configure the tone. The tone of “Rocky IV,” while featuring Rocky's most formidable opponent and the death of his former enemy turned best friend, is somehow largely light and alarmingly disengaged from the consequences of any of the actions any of the characters take, but what it has afforded this new generation of ‘Rocky’ films that take the name Creed is the opportunity to see these events through an era where sequels aren't simply cash grabs, but rather that they are taken seriously and can be exceptionally executed pieces of cinema depending on the creative team and the amount of freedom afforded them. In taking advantage of the studio who wanted to take advantage of credible filmmakers who were interested in continuing the story of Rocky Balboa, the result so far has been two films that not only revel in the training montages set to motivational music or intensely choreographed boxing matches (though they still take full advantage of these staples), but films that are also genuinely interested in chronicling the present generation and how they operate based on the influence (and sins) of those that came before them. Whereas 2015's “Creed” showed us Jordan's Adonis figuring out who he wanted to be and overcoming the obstacles and shadow of his father to get there, “Creed II” continues this development by pushing our protagonist past the point in life where his father found himself; forcing the new heavyweight champ to determine how history will define him outside of being the son of Apollo Creed.
There was always something of a cautious optimism that loomed over “Creed II” as there was both much to be excited and much to be pessimistic about. As a sequel to the 2015 Ryan Coogler-directed film that told the story of Adonis Johnson but put an equal emphasis on continuing the story of Rocky Balboa, “Creed II” is much more in the realm of being a movie solely about Creed and his journey than it is a movie about the passing of a certain torch. And despite the fact MGM and Warner Bros. wanted to move forward with the sequel despite Coogler's obligation to Marvel and “Black Panther,” the writer/director of the first film was brought in to assist with character work and story development. It is the absence of Coogler's full investment to the project that signaled the first point of concern as Coogler, who had made only one feature prior to “Creed” (the cutting “Fruitvale Station”), offered a voice with a distinct touch that made “Creed” a vital part of the Balboa mythology rather than the film simply feeling like an excuse to capitalize on a known brand. For the sequel, Coogler helped select Steven Caple Jr. who, like Coogler prior to “Creed,” had only a single feature credit to his name, but who has a fair amount of TV work on his résumé as well. With “Creed II,” Caple has proven he has a pair of capable hands as the film retains the cold, gray palette of its predecessor that captures the chilling Philly winters while saving the explosions of light and warmth for when Adonis enters the ring where the colors can explode. And despite Adonis and Tessa Thompson's Bianca being in more comfortable positions here than they were in the first film, Caple keeps things at street level, paying homage to Coogler's film as well as the origins of the franchise itself, but never allowing his film to become little more than a mimic of what Coogler did. “Creed II” is very much its own beast if not necessarily in terms of story-we all knew where this was going-but in terms of how it would push the character arcs forward and how it would treat these key characters within the story it was telling. This was another obstacle the film had to overcome as Stallone himself was penning the screenplay along with Juel Taylor who had no previous writing credits to their name. While it's a nice thought the writer/director/star of the original “Rocky” would have such a heavy hand in continuing the arc of characters born out of his original franchise there was reasonable fear given the plot synopsis that this might end up being little more than a re-hash of what has come before rather than Jordan's Adonis Creed making the franchise his own.
Fortunately, it seems that not only story supervisor Cheo Hodari Coker (“Luke Cage”) and Taylor knew what they needed to do in order to make what is essentially the eighth movie in a franchise work, but so did Stallone who knew he'd have to both allow his Rocky to begin to fade more into the background as well as allow for the plot to not simply repeat the beats of “Rocky IV,” but repeat them with a certain amount of style and substance that would make the emotions priority and the plot more or less irrelevant. In going about accomplishing this, “Creed II” begins by hitting us with the fact Bianca-an aspiring musician-has only continued to experience the loss of her hearing and, as a result, deepening the layers to which she and Adonis are connected. The film again opens with a fight, this Adonis is no longer underground and is instead battling to assume to heavyweight title belt. Within the intricacies of capturing an invigorating boxing match on film we see that Adonis' and Rocky's relationship has also grown to that of a genuine bond-one where the young boxer confides in his trainer and mentor before he decides to propose to Bianca. This relaxed and rather comfortable point in everyone's lives is further cemented upon Creed's proposal, but this wouldn't be a movie if such feelings weren't quickly upended and in the case of “Creed II” we all knew this was going to be due to the arrival of Drago's son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu). Upon Creed's winning of the title belt promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) informs Lundgren's Ivan that the right time has arrived for Viktor to challenge the son of the man his father killed in the ring 33 years prior.
In what is maybe the most surprising aspect of “Creed II” is the approach it takes to depicting the character of Ivan Drago given that in “Rocky IV” the character embodied little more than a physical specimen; someone who personified the Soviet Union at the time and the whole of Russia in many regards. Drago was a monster, for lack of a better word, a fighter who was more a monster than a man and personified by Lundgren as the apex of physical perfection. In “Creed II” though, Drago Sr. has seen time take a toll on him as have the after-effects of his loss to Balboa. Lundgren still looks like a picture of health for a man of 61 years, don't get me wrong, but the set-up in the film is that the boxer became a national disgrace after losing to the American and though he and wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) would go on to have a child a decade or so later the shame apparently became too much for Ludmilla to "bear" leading to a decision to leave her husband and son thus forcing her husband to focus their son's life entirely on finding redemption for the family name. For much of the film, Munteanu plays Viktor much the way Lundgren played Ivan: strong and silent. By the climactic final fight though, Stallone and Taylor’s script has given both Drago's more depth by scratching the surface of questions and realizations both seem to be coming to: who and what are both men fighting for? Neither seemed to be boxing for their own sense of satisfaction, but rather more playing thankless roles as puppets for other people or country's trying to prove something. There is a sympathy developed for these characters who are assumed to be little more than archetypes of necessary adversaries, but who are made more than one dimensional being through added layers and a resolution that speaks to they've become versus who the audience is made to assume they are at the beginning of the narrative.
This goes well enough along with the thesis statement for “Creed II” even if it comes from the mouth of and pertains more to our actual heroes in the film. In a scene where Adonis and Bianca have just welcomed their first child into the world and Bianca has returned from finding a short escape from this new role of mother in her studio Adonis has come to the realization that he must once again battle Drago in the ring, if not for the pressure from the outside world, but for himself. “You’re not worth anything to anyone if you’re not doing what you love” Adonis says to Bianca and if he doesn't take this fight, he won't be able to function day to day knowing that the right decision for him, what he should have done has been left undone. Overall, the film then becomes an examination on growing up; on making the transition from young-adult to full-fledged adult with responsibilities that lie outside the security of one's self. Packing a surprisingly weighty punch that deals in themes of adapting to change and having to strike that balance between what is important to you because it’s greater than you while maintaining what is important to you because it feels like it makes you, you. Both Adonis and Bianca are coping with this balancing act as Adonis is compelling himself to believe he’s worthy and capable of fighting Drago-meaning he will more or less be eclipsing his own father’s life in becoming a father himself as well as potentially defeating Drago-while Bianca does much the same with unexpectedly having to learn to balance motherhood while on the precipice of accomplishing her lifelong dreams of becoming a professional recording artist. While “Creed II” doesn’t always follow through on these ideas to their full extent the film does offer a kind of understanding about the lives of its subjects in a way that doesn’t allow the significance of those lives to boil down to whether our hero wins or loses a fight, but more about who they are when they come out of these experiences-whatever side that might come out on. And though the family dynamics between Adonis and Bianca become more appropriately complex through the chronicling of these crucial years of their existence, the pacing feels somewhat off overall as the film comes to certain halts when it feels time for a more standard story beats to occur with the film then figuring out what it's going to do to try and improve upon what we know is coming; almost as if we're waiting in real time on the writers to come up with what they need in order to avoid cliché and/or lend weight to them, but while some of the aspects of Thompson’s performance as the pop star are a little cringe-worthy and the trademark training montages don't always find a natural stride even if the use of music is as great as ever, “Creed II” generally manages to appease if not consistently surpass expectation and this is largely due to the fact that no matter what it's doing it's doing it with a real, authentic spirit.
by Philip Price
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp & Jude Law
Runtime: 2 hours & 14 minutes
At this point in our cultural landscape the reaction one has to the latest film set in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is largely dependent upon your history and affiliation with said wizarding world. It’s difficult to even comprehend the amount of lives Rowling’s work has impacted and become a major component of since the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise became a worldwide phenomenon nearly two decades ago. The plan for the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ franchise, outside of continuing to make money off the brand, was to hopefully introduce a new, younger generation to this world through new stories while naturally entrancing those who came to the world of muggles and magical folk in real time. Harry Potter has now been a part of my life longer than it hasn’t-twice as long nearly-and so, it is always with great anticipation and interest that I approach anything Rowling does even if the cultural temperature is a bit cooler than it used to be. Though initially pessimistic towards the idea of expanding the Potterverse via New York City in the twenties and based around the guy who wrote one of Harry and his friend’s textbooks, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” turned out to be a rather charming introduction to a new facet of this world we only thought we knew; casting a strong enough spell to leave audiences wanting more adventures in the life of Mr. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). With “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Rowling and franchise director David Yates (the last four HP films as well as the first ‘Fantastic Beasts’ movie) pick up the story they started two years ago some three months later in a sequel that ultimately serves as a series of revelations for the series’ main players while potentially changing everything we know about one of the Potterverse’s most important characters. The fact the franchise has moved and is moving in the direction of utilizing more primary Potter characters is a double-edged sword given it's hard not to want to see familiar aspects of this familiar world, but there is something of a greater desire to see an aspect completely independent of the events and characters in the ‘Harry Potter’ stories so as to not potentially spoil what we already love. In other words, while I’m all in for further exploration of the magical world mythology and continuous world-building Rowling is so good at the fact of the matter is ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ might have been more consistently engaging if it’d found a more entertaining story through which to convey these new developments.
In this sequel, Redmayne's Newt is back in the U.K. having been banned from international travel following his exploits in the previous film. Viewers are rather awkwardly introduced to Scamander's brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), who is an Auror at the British Ministry of Magic (which you have to remind yourself you haven't seen in this time period, yet) as well as becoming privy to the fact he is engaged to Newt's former love, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz). Newt will continue to be banned from traveling and fulfilling his desired work abroad unless he adheres to certain stipulations that it seems Theseus has bargained with the council to agree to. Theseus' hopes are that Newt's desire to be able to leave the U.K. are strong enough that he might agree to the conditions of joining the Ministry as an Auror in order to track down Credence (Ezra Miller), but Newt isn't open to the idea of choosing sides as the finale of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ taught the magizoologist that there was more to this Credence than your average archetypal villain. And though Newt isn't open to helping his brother given the conditions of the Ministry, his alignment to Credence and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is not over yet. Following Newt's meeting with the counsel at the Ministry he is quickly approached by a young(er) Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) who asks Newt to track down Credence in his stead before Grindelwald can get to him. If you thought you remembered Colin Farrell's Graves turning into Johnny Depp at the end of the previous film and being arrested by the Magical Congress of the United States then you would be correct, but if you don't remember that Depp is supposed to be the franchise's big antagonist and that the reveal that Graves was in fact actually Grindelwald you would be forgiven. The point being, Depp is indeed Grindelwald and he is a bad, bad dude (Grindelwald, not Depp-at least in this case) that, in the opening sequence of the film, escapes the clutches of the MACUSA and takes up residence in Paris (in a scene that makes it pretty clear Grindelwald is more of a ruthless villain than Michael Myers) where he begins summoning his followers in order to entice Credence to join him in his desire to create a global order that would dominate Muggles. And so, while the Ministry is on Credence's trail, so is Newt via Dumbledore, as is Grindelwald which only means this thing is heading towards a third act where the main players collide.
What takes me most out of these movies and by these movies I mean the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ films, is wondering how they might be received had they too been based on a beloved series of novels rather than Rowling only sketching out the series in a five film arc and delivering them through the cinema. Would ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ then be criticized for lacking as much in character growth or plot development? Sure, it's fair to argue that many of the characters and even Depp's villain are largely in the same place at the conclusion of this film as they were at the beginning with a few notable exceptions, but as Harry, Ron and Hermione obviously grew in certain, different ways each time they returned to Hogwarts for a school year Rowling has shrunk the time in which this new series is taking place and so, while the characters may not necessarily evolve in such notable ways they are certainly learning new things and, at the very least, having to adapt more frequently and arguably-to greater degrees. That isn't to say ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is as calculated a piece of work as any one of the individual Harry Potter novels, but it is to say that it seems these films are maybe too hastily judged and might possibly be looked upon with much more fondness and a greater respect not only in time, but once the entire picture comes into view. With the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise, there was this relief the movies felt in not having to deliver revelations as the books beat them to it every time thus meaning while audiences were anxious to see the film adaptations of each new novel, they weren't dependent upon the film franchise for each new revelation whereas Fantastic Beasts is, well...a completely different beast. To this extent, it can't help but seem that ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ will ultimately come to feel misunderstood with future generations who devour the whole of the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ films in one sitting (hopefully) regarding them as something if not comparable to leaving them with the same feeling the ‘Harry Potter’ films did at least being another immensely entertaining chapter in the wizarding world saga as opposed to those of us witnessing the evolution and release of the films in real time who are simply clamoring for little more than the revelations that come to pass and not appreciating the depth or texture these films contain. All of this is to say that, while ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ undoubtedly has its shortcomings I rather appreciated the deliberate pace and consistent need for Yates to allow each shot to feel like it has the biggest scope possible-even if it only features little more than one of Newt's littlest creatures. Oh, and if you think James Newton Howard is simply riding the coattails of John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, and the others who composed music for the ‘Harry Potter’ films then you might take a listen to the score apart from the unbelievably imaginative visual element.
So, yes, ‘Crimes of Grindelwald’ is a piece of a much larger puzzle, we're all willing to accept that, but that doesn't mean the film should function different from any other film in that it needs a well-defined beginning, middle, and end rather than feeling as if it only serves to connect one film to another. In some ways, there is this sense-especially in the case of the titular Grindelwald. This very vague wizard for whom we still don't know any motivation has existed thus far as little more than to fill the role of a "big bad" in the vein of Voldemort, but at least Voldemort had a very clear and critical connection to our main character. With Grindelwald, the intriguing backstory and connection comes not through Newt (which is an understandable choice so as to not mirror HP too much), but instead through the life of Dumbledore where there is very clearly a complicated past between the two (and it should be noted how good Law is in his limited contribution here). While shades of this relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald begin to come into focus in this second chapter there is still much left to be desired about the tangible connection between these two legendary wizards and how they diverted into two very different paths. While the sequels will no doubt outline this further (only pushing Scamander further to the side, I presume) it is certainly one of the major faults of the franchise so far that we're five hours in and still have no real sense of who this villain is. The development of the antagonist has more been devoted to that of Miller's Credence (over both of the first two films), which would be fine if Credence were more of an interesting character. Miller has more than proven he can be a captivating and quite disturbing screen presence (see “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) when the script gives him something to chew on, but while his character seems poised to play a major part in the overarching narrative his portrayal thus far has inspired little more than slight sympathy.
As the character of Credence gets more air time here along with new friend, Nagini (Claudia Kim), the prominence of leading characters from the first film such as Newt's potential love interest, Tina (Katherine Waterston), Tina's sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the still star struck Jacob (Dan Fogler) have been given noticeably less screen time. It is through the ever-expanding roster of characters that it's becoming more and more clear Rowling may be juggling a little too much this time around-wanting to break away from characters who may have roots in her original works, but unable to avoid them forever given the influence many of her past characters likely had in the wizarding world in their prime. The reduction of the core quartet's time together really is a shame though, as the dynamic between this group was one of the strongest elements in the first film; this being particularly true of Fogler's Jacob as Rowling doesn't seem to know what to do with the character here at all. Alas, it seems Jacob's ultimate path may not be the light in a time of darkness it seemed to be at the conclusion of the first film given a surprising if not completely justified twist on one of the other central characters. Furthermore, the inclusion of new character Arnold Guzman (Cornell John) who exists as the US Emissary to the International Confederation of Wizards along with Kravitz's Lestrange seem to exist only to further complicate the plot rather than enhance it. ‘Grindelwald’ does become unnecessarily convoluted in its third act with large dumps of exposition, but it's not the revelations that are upsetting, rather it is more how Rowling has chosen to have them unspool in her narrative. While constantly comparing this series of films to Harry Potter is good for no one it is also an inevitability and while it is nice to see ‘Fantastic Beasts’ taking on a completely different time period and (mostly) new characters it is with great hope that ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is the last in this series that feels the need to deliver news at a lightning quick pace leaving the planned next three films to really be able to bask in the expansion Rowling clearly has planned.
by Philip Price
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes
There is no more of a movie this year than “Widows.” “Widows” is a damn movie in every fiber of its being and I mean that not in the way that it could only exist as a feature-length film, but more in that it utilizes every aspect of the art form to do what the art form was designed to do: entertain and be thought-provoking. “Widows” is a damn movie. It's a damn good movie too. In fact, it knows it's toeing this line of being a genre film and something more thoughtful, more credible in the eyes of Academy voters, if you will and kind of flaunts it unabashedly. “Widows” is essentially director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) asking why he can't have the best of both worlds and then showing us with what feels like effortless finesse that he can. In a scene that occurs early in the film the current alderman of a south side precinct in Chicago, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), is arguing with his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), who is running to replace his father as a sixth generation alderman in the district. The discussion between father and son doesn't begin as an argument, but rather with Jack bragging to his father about how he acquired a piece of art from an up-and-coming painter for the price of a mere $50,000. The thing is, we already know from Jack's opponent in this political race, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), that aldermen in Chicago make around $106,000 a year and so there is this precedent for the lifestyle of an alderman that Jack and his father are clearly surpassing by supplanting what of their tastes cannot be supported by their public facade. Furthermore, as Tom and his son's discussion escalates Tom quickly resorts to insulting Jack's purchase by calling it "wallpaper". What is the difference between art and wallpaper? The film doesn't explicitly ask this question, but it certainly poses it to the audience further suggesting that-if you can't tell the difference-does it matter and if you can what makes one more valuable than the other? They both serve a purpose, but which is more functional? Later in the film we are introduced to Reverend Wheeler (Jon Michael Hill), the man with the biggest congregation in the district where Jack and Jamal are running for alderman. In the sermon we're treated to the pastor posing the question, "when did normal start to pass for excellence?" McQueen is once again reminding the viewer of this difference in either acceptably conforming to a standard or standing poised in such a way there is no doubt of intention. “Widows” undoubtedly conforms to certain archetypes of the crime genre, but it is also one of the most poised and confident examples of the genre in some time; an aggressively compact narrative with the style of a slick, tailored suit that expertly unpacks all it wants to address through a vibrant and straight-up electric piece that is chic enough to be purely decorative, but just abrasive enough to glimpse the art underneath.
Want to know how dense “Widows” actually is? Throughout that entire introductory paragraph where major plot elements were detailed, we didn't even touch on the main throughline of the narrative. Yeah, the inner-city politics is fairly interesting and both Jack and Tom along with Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) make for two very intense duos with drastically different approaches to their intimidation techniques; McQueen emphasizing time and time again that both are ruthless without ever making his film feel gratuitous. This alderman election serves only as a backdrop to everything else going on. In some form, it is a blood on the leaves and blood at the roots approach as Liam Neeson's Harry Rawlings and his wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), are the ones at that forefront. Harry is a professional thief with 30-plus years of experience pulling off jobs he's planned down to the piss breaks. McQueen opens the film by intercutting a job gone wrong with that of the morning routine of Harry and Veronica or "Ronny" as Harry so affectionately refers to her. There is a level of intimacy between the two that almost suggests they're reassuring themselves of their intimacy-it's somewhat uneasy-and while it seems apparent Ronny is aware of her husband's line of work it is also apparent, she often chooses not to acknowledge it. So, when this latest job Harry has orchestrated ends up going really sideways and he along with his three partners-Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy Nunn (Coburn Goss) - go up in flames after a SWAT team rains bullets down upon their getaway van - Ronnie is left wrecked and with nowhere to turn. As things turn out, Harry and his crew had just lifted a cool $2 million from the Manning brothers. That $2 million went up in smoke with Harry and his crew and so Henry's Jamal, who may or may not carry the weight of a crime boss, makes a visit to Ronnie to tell her she has one month to replace the funds her late husband stole from him; the money that was going to afford him a new life and fund the remainder of his campaign. Ronnie, a former teacher, has been left with little more than Harry's notebook that carries the outlines for each of his jobs as well as her trusty Westie that she carries everywhere. Of course, the Westie isn't going to get her the $2 million, but the outlines of a job left unfinished in Harry's notebook might. In order to pull this off Ronnie recruits the other willing wives who were widowed along with herself with the threat that if they don't, she will be forced to turn their names over to the Manning brothers as well. This leaves Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) little choice, though Ronnie leaves slight room for compassion when it comes to Amanda (Carrie Coon) who is now raising a nine-month-old baby on her own. Throw Cynthia Erivo into the mix as a hard-working, loyal, but discouraged member of this small community and you have a film that not only expertly packs in all the tropes of a crime thriller that is exciting and fun, but one that also touches on politics, gender, race, and the state of countless other topics and ideas in this day and age.
There's another line spoken in the film by Jack Mulligan's assistant, Siobhan (Molly Kunz), as the two of them ride in the back of a limo from the poor side of the district in which Jack is hoping to follow his father as the new alderman to the edge of the district, a more upscale area, where Jack resides. This transition is captured in a single take where the camera seemingly rests upon the hood of the vehicle so as to point out how quickly the backdrop can change in the suburbs of Chicago. This piece of dialogue as spoken by Siobhan goes, "Everyone has a sob story; most of them better than yours." She is of course saying this to Jack who is complaining about his lack of choice in the life he's led and the fact he shouldn't have to justify his persuasions to his father who allowed him no choice from the get-go, but while this scene in particular is emblematic of how well and how much Widows layers into each and every scene it also speaks to the mentality of the film as a whole. Of all the people who have the most present, most valid of sob stories to use as an excuse it is this set of women who've just lost their husbands, but maybe more prevalent are the financial and emotional states their husbands have left them in which is to say, they are drained on both accounts. This doesn't leave one in a state of mourning, but rather with a sense of perspective. These women have fallen such a long distance in such a short time; going from choosing to know as little as possible about the affairs of their husbands and having benefited to varying degrees to having this choice of ignorance ultimately result in the only thing it was ever going to: pain. The moment Ronnie realizes she will pay the ultimate price for her husband's transgressions no matter how much she knew or didn't know that part of her psyche where she feels sorry for herself immediately disappears. The thing is, Ronnie knows that deep down in her soul, she knew. She knew this day was coming even if she didn't know what form it might take and by owning up to the role she's been playing for so many years she doesn't allow herself to feel sorry for anyone despite the fact that from the outside looking in she might have every right to retaliate back against Siobhan's statement were it her sitting in the back of that limo instead of Jack. This is yet another idea the film toys with a la the persona you create for yourself versus the one others project on you. “Widows” could have been little more than an entertaining thriller, but while this pretense is alluring to mainstream audiences the film itself doesn't allow such archetypes to define it. Moreover, this is to say that McQueen and Gillian Flynn's screenplay not only has the intent of telling an action-packed story with several twists and turns, but also telling a very human story about dealing with the awful things life throws at you and not making excuses when it comes to dealing with them or allowing such things to define you. The diverse cast only further demonstrates the array of awful things that might happen to someone dependent upon circumstances such as race, gender, and social class, as well as the need to come together in order to deal with the awful things, together.
In effectively communicating each of the aforementioned strands and bringing them together in an intricate, but still precise fashion what comes to the forefront is the fleshing out of the characters and inherently memorable performances. This is absolutely Davis' film and she owns every moment of it just as her body of work would lead you to believe she would, but Davis is very clearly a generous collaborator for, while her Ronnie is the ringleader and she the star, the remainder of the cast is able to feed off this energy and fulfill this objective despite each having reservations about taking on the roles of their late husbands and doing something none of them were either prepared to do or feel confident in pulling off successfully. None of these women are career criminals. None of these women know what their approach should be. These women-specifically Ronnie, Linda, and Alice-are simply looking to knock the job out so they might be able to move on with their lives, but it is in outlining the balance of work and motherhood and camaraderie that Rodriguez's Linda must find the confidence to go through with what she knows will have imperfections despite being accustomed to being in control and running the show. In acknowledging her imperfections, she invests in Erivo's Belle, a babysitter she finds through an app who initially is there to watch her children while she joins Ronnie and Alice to map out their plan but becomes more. Belle works multiple jobs and is losing sight of the here and now with a daughter of her own who she barely sees even though everything she's doing is to earn money to give her daughter a better life. Belle and Linda provide balance for one another to a certain extent which inspires this innate bond and trust between the two prompting Linda to bring Belle in as the getaway driver and foregoing the formality of running it by Ronnie. On the other side of things is Alice who has been forced by her own mother (Jacki Weaver) to feel as if what she's worth is dependent on who she's with. In many ways, Debicki's Alice looks at this job as more of an opportunity than an obstacle. Though she is reserved and timid in the beginning it is Alice who has the greatest arc, growing into a confident and self-assured woman who isn't afraid to put someone else in their place. Rodriguez is rather good here if not necessarily adding much range to what we've seen her do in other films and Erivo, though limited in her screen time and character development, can't help but to leave an impression. It is Debicki who comes away with the most to gain though, for all the stories that are going on within “Widows” and all the wider stories that are implied through each and every one of the many characters involved, it is her story that we kind of lean towards and want to know more about. That said, Kaluuya also turns in a scene-stealing performance that will quite literally either push you to the edge of or all the way down in your seat every time he shows up on screen. Maybe best of all though, is the fact that despite certain stand-outs and exceptions this truly feels like an ensemble cast that compliments one another as much as their performances do the greater story being told. “Widows” is a film that one can only imagine will get better and better with each visit and better even, feels like a film that will be re-visited a lot. Strange, but delicious fruit indeed.
by Philip Price
Director: Yarrow Cheney & Scott Mosier
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Seely & Rashida Jones
Runtime: 1 hour & 26 minutes
The obvious, conflicting idea here is that 2018's “The Grinch” has been crafted purely as a cash grab for Illumination, but preaches a message of the holiday season being more about selflessness and giving than receiving and indulging.
I was 13 in 2000 when the Jim Carrey-fronted and Ron Howard-directed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” barreled its way into theaters. I vividly remember being excited to finally be able to see the movie on the big screen and to experience this thing that had been so discussed and so built-up that it truly felt like an event. Remember, these are the days when you had to see movies to be able to see movie trailers and there was always a hope I'd get to catch a glimpse of Carrey as the titular Grinch every time I went to the cinema (which was far less back then). Needless to say, Howard's “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” swept me up and delivered a sense of wonder I could only dream of, but that they had fully realized. And though I only return to the film once every three or so years around the holiday season it still holds something of special place in my heart despite the growing number of detractors over the years.
And so, walking into what felt like a somewhat unnecessary, but completely logical (from a financial perspective) re-telling of the story via the studio that brought us the minions and “The Secret Life of Pets” there was no reason to expect 2018's “The Grinch” to be anything other than what it so obviously was intended to be: that aforementioned cash grab. Alas, that's mostly what this 90-minute exercise in "cinematic candy floss" is, but dammit if, by the end of the film, I wasn't wrapped up in the emotional beats of the story that has the viewer feeling sympathy for the grouchy Grinch. I rather liked Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on the guy - appropriately irritated, but not evil or scary. The film also overcomes the biggest obstacle Howard's feature-length version had trouble with and that was stretching the narrative to such a length without feeling like much of it was padded. While this newest version is a cool 15 minutes shorter than the live-action version, the pacing (sans a short section in the middle) is consistently even and always manages to be entertaining in more intriguing ways than I might want to give the studio credit for.
Each of the characters are immensely likable - Max, new reindeer friend, Fred, along with the crew of town's children led by Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely) each offer something that counters the Grinch's dismissive attitude so as to make him more mindful, if not necessarily more tender towards the many Christmas-themed circumstances he encounters. This is all to try and say without spoiling too much that the two main story strands resolve themselves perfectly and in a heartwarming enough way that it would seem impossible to stay mad at the movie for being one thing and teaching another; at the very least, it offers the value of keeping your children hooked for 90-minutes while conveying an earnest sense of gratitude to the parents willing to spend money on something they've seen before. Who knows, some of the older generations may even be as surprised by 2018's “The Grinch” as the Grinch was by the true meaning of Christmas.
by Philip Price
Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe & Nicole Kidman
Runtime: 1 hour & 55 minutes
As someone who constantly wrestles with their faith if not necessarily the belief in a higher power, one of the lessons I've personally come to learn in life thus far is that, despite many a country songs telling you to "stand for something or you'll fall for anything," the truth of the matter is that to so deeply steep yourself in one set of beliefs is to ultimately guarantee that you'll eventually (in all likelihood) become a hypocrite. Human beings naturally evolve, we continuously experience new things, and gain greater perspectives on any number of situations all of which inform an ever-developing outlook on the world and the people that populate it. To be so stubborn as to try and categorize these present experiences and interpretations of life through the prism of a single piece of literature written over two thousand years ago only seems counter-intuitive to the abilities and intelligence God has blessed us with, not to mention a rather stressful way to frame ones existence; having to make sure what is inherently felt as right or wrong is supported by doctrine whose composers couldn't have imagined the world or society as it presently stands. There is so much clout given to these rules that outline what our behavior should be that people seem to often lose sight of that inherent voice-your conscious, God himself, whatever you want to label it-that really lets you know when something is right and when something is wrong regardless of what anyone or anything else's stance on the subject might be. That is not to say the Bible isn't helpful, of course it can be and is to millions upon billions of people across the globe, and this is not to imply there aren't certain absolutes of decency that can or should be swayed, but what is being suggested is that to commit so strongly to a single set of ideals is to also make one fear change. To fear change is to stop growing. And to stop growing is to willfully succumb to a limited or narrow view of the world. It is this conflict that Russell Crowe's Marshall Eamons, a Southern Baptist preacher living in Arkansas, faces in director Joel Edgerton's second feature, “Boy Erased,” when his teenage son is forcibly outed as gay.
Based on Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir of the same name, the film follows Jared (Lucas Hedges) who is the son of Crowe's Baptist pastor and Nicole Kidman's Nancy who is fully dedicated to her husband and his congregation. Needless to say, the family is deeply embedded in church life in their small town, but it's also evident that Jared via flashbacks that function more as short vignettes is both a young man terrified and conflicted about his sexuality. In what is the most extensive flashback in the film, Jared has just broken up with his girlfriend, Chloe (Madelyn Cline), as he enters his first year of college. Living on campus in the dorms, Jared quickly becomes friends with the athletic Henry (Joe Alwyn) who he goes on morning runs and plays video games with to pass the time outside of class and extracurricular activities. Jared still immensely confused about his feelings towards men, what they mean, and how he should respond to them is blindsided by Henry's sudden advances that quickly devolve into something much darker and viler. When Jared doesn't respond the way Henry wants, Henry takes it upon himself to out Jared to his parents; ultimately forcing Jared to make the life-changing decision of either agreeing to attend a church-supported conversion therapy program that promises to “cure” him of his homosexuality or risk losing his family, friends, and the God he'd prayed to every day of his life.
It is in the structure of the film that we encounter issues that counteract the obviously powerful story. The story itself elicits as much sympathy as it does rage, but Edgerton's adapted screenplay along with the editing from Jay Rabinowitz (“Requiem for a Dream”) favors the present narrative of Jared experiencing the conversion camp over spending more time in these flashbacks that not only explore Jared's past experiences in more detail and flesh out his character to an extent it makes the present on-goings all the more heartbreaking and frankly-outrageous, but these flashbacks might have also served to do the same for Jared's parents and how the dynamic shifted between them as their perspectives changed or didn't. This is especially true of Kidman's character as Nancy makes the biggest turn in the whole film and yet, when her moment comes in the film's third act to really shine and show off her chops, it doesn't feel as if the character arc is as justified as it could have been. Sure, there is a scene or two of Nancy and Jared discussing the shortcomings of the program and the multiple spelling errors in the binder each participant is given ("Almighty Dog" is pretty great), but never do we see Nancy bear witness to or realize something that is the turning point in her attitude toward her son being gay. That isn't to say this moment was necessary, but more that the screenplay utilizes Nancy as the example for what the movie intends to do for viewers who might view homosexuality as something that needs curing rather than treating her as an actual human being and mother. The film acts as if Nancy has seen everything that went on behind the walls of the institutionalized twelve-step program just as the viewer has and who finally decided enough is enough when, in reality, all she's seen is the increasing anger and frustration the program is causing Jared to harbor. Even if the film only offered a few more silent scenes of Jared and his mother looking knowingly at one another after he returns from a day at the program the film would have felt more authentic in its finale whereas how it sits now simply feels like the logical conclusion rather than the natural one. Luckily, the film doesn't end in this curtailed fashion, but instead it lays it all on the line pitting Jared against his father (who is obviously more hesitant and resistant to embrace his son's lifestyle) and Hedges going toe to toe with Crowe. Hedges, who if you've seen a Best Picture nominee in the last few years you've likely seen in something, not only holds his own with the veteran actor, but the character confrontation along with the content of the exchange is undoubtedly one of the best moments in the film.
In regards to Crowe's character - if the movie was going to place such an emphasis on not only the relationship between Jared and his father, but the program's belief that it is the anger towards their fathers in many of these young men that have caused them to rebel in homosexual ways then it might have been more effective had a better sense of Jared and his father's relationship been conveyed. As it is presented in the film, Marshall owns a Ford dealership in town where Jared works and is happy to attend his father's church service every Sunday just as Marshall is happy to attend Jared's basketball games and watch him take these small, but necessary steps towards becoming the man Marshall always envisioned his son to be. There's nothing wrong with this outlook as a father, of course, and Marshall even offers sound parenting advice early in the film when stating that, "...small steps are a good way to approach adulthood; that way you don't get all panicky when it suddenly shows up." Marshall is a stand-up citizen, raised a certain way, and taught to live out his days the same way. And so, while he believes his son can't be loved by his God if he "chooses" to be gay, he is also wise enough to know he is ill-prepared to handle something like this. Granted, in his ignorance he chooses to send his son to a conversion therapy program that he seemingly doesn't research before handing over thousands of dollars and vehemently believes his love for his son is conditional based on what his Bible says is right and wrong, but this is the man his world made him into and the film never vilifies him for this. Moreover, Edgerton is more interested in illustrating Marshall's own complications with the situation and how he too will deal with these unexpected changes in his life more so than it is in simply pegging him as the antagonist.
“Boy Erased” certainly has its shortcomings in the character department and those are only made more prominent given the fact Edgerton has rounded up such an impressive cast. This is especially true of the characters surrounding Jared at the conversion camp as figures such as Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan, two very popular and very outspoken gay men, feel like little more than post-it notes of characters; present to deliver an idea on the different types of reactions these participants have to the program without really getting to know who either of them is. The closest we come to getting to know any of the peripheral characters is in the case of Cameron (Britton Sear) who it's apparent from the beginning is something of an inevitable tragedy. Without going into too many details about the events that occur within the walls of this conversion program there is one scene in particular in which certain extremes are taken and one can't help but to think that, if this God these people so fear is the God that actually exists, that he would be ashamed of the things they've done in his name. Conley, and by association, Edgerton's main objective in telling this story was undoubtedly to outline and inform people of how damaging such treatments can be on young, impressionable minds who might barely understand what they're feeling, much less understand why they're being blamed for these feelings. In this sequence that places Cameron at the center we are forced to watch as this young man's family have so convinced themselves that possible eternal damnation is greater than the expense of their son knowing they loves him; that this instructed belief is worth more than something that is undeniably real and tangible, undeniably theirs-someone they created.
It is in the film's ability to depict the relationships between people and the relationships between people and their faith that the film finds its stride. Of course, Jared is a perfectly normal, healthy, teenage boy, but through the church-this institution that has shaped and defined who he is and who he believes he is supposed to be-Jared has been told repeatedly that he should feel bad for who he feels he truly is. Whether Christianity is largely a religion that operates on guilt more so than it does to inspire people to be kind to and love one another is debatable with answers obviously going to vary depending on whom you ask, but in Edgerton's “Boy Erased” he is quick to acknowledge the complicated nature of his subject; that everything that occurs in this film-believe it or not-is motivated by love. The film is quick to acknowledge that these motivations come from different kinds of people with different information and a different take on the truth, but that it comes from this want to help all the same. It is in Edgerton's zeroing in on this rather forgiving perspective that he is able to not only craft a well-rounded and powerful piece of work, but a necessary one for those who don't believe how easily love can cross over into hate. It's hard to tell if “Boy Erased” will necessarily instigate change, but it makes a case for how detrimental these conversion camps truly are and, as stated, that seems to be the key objective for translating this story once more for film.
by Philip Price
Director: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell & Mathilde Ollivier
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
Here’s the thing about “Overlord” … I saw the trailer so many times I felt like I knew the movie back to front before I even walked in. It was one of those things where I’d notice something different or pick up on something new every time I saw the trailer to the point that when I realized the actual feature was opening this weekend it wasn’t that I didn’t necessarily care to see it, but I definitely felt indifferent about buying a ticket to a movie I didn’t expect to gain anything more from that I hadn’t already been conditioned to expect from the trailer. I tell this aspect of the story to lend a little perspective on why “Overlord” then ultimately came to be something of a pleasant surprise. In expecting a certain level of craft, care, and creativity I low-balled my expectations and was more than happy to find out I was wrong when the film kicked off and immediately kicked into high gear with a level of energy that was infectious. Stranger even, the opening of the film is the same scene that opens the trailer, but while there is the expectation of this being a full feature rather than a short preview there is also something to the altered pacing, musical accompaniment, and/or character dynamics that immediately plays into the level of investment one is willing to give no matter how much they think they know. This is a long way of getting around to saying that, despite the initial indifference through which it had to battle, Overlord is a movie that does very well at what it's built to do. It’s not an exceptional film that says something new or even anything terribly interesting about life or the psychology each of us project on its meaning, but as a movie that sets out to combine the terror of war with the terror of a zombie apocalypse and roll those into a somewhat hackneyed, but fully aware camp fest – “Overlord” accomplishes everything it could hope to and then some.
If unaware of what exactly “Overlord” details it is something of an action/horror mash-up that takes place on the eve of D-Day in the summer of 1944 when a U.S. paratrooper squad is sent to destroy a German radio tower located in an old church. Naturally, things don't go as planned and in an exhilarating opening sequence with a notable title card their plane is shot down before they can reach the target. Through this hellfire we follow Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a soldier who has seemingly been plucked from his routine day to day and tasked with being on the front lines of America's defenses with little to no training outside of basic. It quickly becomes apparent that Boyce is one of only a handful of survivors to make it to the ground in one piece. The mysterious Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) has also survived along with the loud-mouthed Tibbet (John Magaro), the alternatively quiet Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and the ambitious Dawson (Jacob Anderson). The squad quickly regroups and concocts a plan to navigate their way to the radio tower, but not before coming across a local, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who happens to live in the village where the church that houses the radio tower is located. Chloe is willing to shelter the soldiers with in her nearby home where she lives with her younger brother, Paul (Gianny Taufer), and aunt who is sick due to undisclosed Nazi experimenting that definitely doesn't seem to jive with anything legally or morally appropriate. Besides the whole Nazi experiment thing though, Chloe is willing to help the Americans given a Nazi patrol performs routine inspections very routinely as their leader, SS Hauptsturmführer Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, who looks quite similar to Michael Shannon and even acts a little bit like him in this role), forces Chloe to have sex with him or otherwise threatens the safety of her younger brother and aunt. There is an immediate connection between Boyce and Chloe that plays into these circumstances not working for anyone except the evil Wafner, but things only escalate further when Boyce infiltrates the church to find out what other horrors await him and his men behind enemy lines.
These mash-ups of bold genres tend to be pretty cheap-feeling and campy, but without really capitalizing on the camp or fully realizing the potential of the two genres they're bringing together. We've seen examples of this before where cool ideas have come out of placing two opposing genres together and trying to find a story that might work for both of them, but what makes “Overlord” so interesting is the facade that something like “Dawn of the Dead” couldn't be more different than “Saving Private Ryan” when in fact the scenarios presented in each of those films are terrifying in their own right. So, in combining the terror of each screenwriters Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) layer in the horrors of war and the danger and fear that come along with that and then, on top of it, drip this glaze across the top of having to deal with something that no one in history has ever dealt with before. There had been wars, even if the soldiers we're along for this journey with had never fought in one; there were expectations to what could happen and conditions that were able to be operated within, but when you throw in something that has no precedent for how to deal with it or effectively fight back against it there is inherently this presence of a different kind of fear. It is on these levels that “Overlord” succeeds in being able to pull off successfully what so many others have failed to do before it. There is something to these layers of similarities that is both unnerving and yet-just fantastical enough to allow the experience of watching the film to be fun instead of being completely dour and/or leaving the viewer in a conscience-stricken state that can't help but to define the dominant tone of the film. And so, while neither the idea nor the movie itself felt very fresh by the time I sat down for the screening, the film surprisingly (and immediately) turned out to deliver on a level, especially in regards to innovation within genre-smashing (there has to be a better term for that), that could not have been glimpsed no matter how many times one sat through the trailer.
Maybe even more surprising than the fact the film somehow manages to pull off a credible, but fun tone despite featuring zombies in World War II is the fact its character work is commendable as well. Adepo, who played Denzel Washington's son in “Fences,” gets tasked with the difficult role of playing bright-eyed and bushy-tailed without it coming off as obvious or obnoxious. Boyce is simply a well-meaning guy with good intentions who got caught up in something he had no control over or choice in. There is a balance to find, a tightrope to walk with this kind of role where there is danger of the earnestness outweighing the realness of the person and while Boyce is certainly someone who is going to do what is right no matter what it never feels like he's going to make choices out of a sense of pride to the extent it would ultimately be a stupid choice. In other words, he's both honorable and sensible-two strong attributes worthy of keeping a balance between. These attributes are also why Boyce is the hero of our story and why we find ourselves rooting for the guy who seems to inherently be the best man in the room even if he may not be as ruthless or as cold as his comrades when it comes to punishing the enemy. Speaking of his comrades, Russell is building quite the fascinating body of work and only continues to demonstrate his diversity in choice of roles with his Corporal Ford. Magaro's Tibbet is the only other soldier we get to know on something of a personal level and while Magaro plays up the trademarks of the time period through the character the script also gives Tibbet a great arc with Chloe's younger brother who, in and of himself, is pretty great. As for Chloe, Ollivier is as much the breakout star here as Adepo if not for the fact she gets the opportunity to tote a flamethrower and incinerate zombies, but more because she makes some of the movies most tense, zombie-free scenes work as well as they do. Each of these personalities lending the film an authenticity that one wouldn't expect to come from an otherwise outlandish scenario. The film finds a center to its madness by melding the 1940's machismo and the (zombie) brains of its protagonists to find this engaging blend of personalities that are both fully fleshed-out and well performed that are able to keep things charming even when things get gnarly.
And sure, there are a few plot holes that may become more glaring on re-watch (surely Wafner doesn’t fall asleep and spend the night with Chloe on the reg), but at the moment these feel more like minor quibbles than they do gaping leaps in logic that ruined the whole of the experience. What was more worth noting was that, at just 10 minutes short of two hours, “Overlord” never lulls and instead builds both expertly and with great investment until it hits the third act at that point allowing the final 25 or so minutes to take the stakes that have been raised and just blow them out of the water with the level of action the film has been suppressing in order to create this moment as it's almost palpable-the action bursting at the film's digital seams, I mean. Director Julius Avery couples his well-constructed plotting and execution with a look that is both minimal and while feeling of great scope when necessary. There are more daytime shots than was expected with the greens of the surrounding landscapes adding to this larger aesthetic. The zombie design is also critical and, more importantly, cool as hell as it is seemingly all practical so as to not have digital effects potentially take the audience out of the time period. Along these same lines, the action also feels grounded and tangible which is important, especially in a war film, but also in a period piece as the presence of CGI can really hinder the sense of realism being portrayed. It's almost as if every element of the film looked at the worst possible scenario for what the movie could have been and actively decided to do the opposite-creating a film that should so obviously be stylish, entertaining and fun into a movie that is actually all of those things and then some.
by Preston Tolliver
Stan Lee died Monday at the age of 95. The father of Marvel comics (and arguably, all of comics), he gave us the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men and countless unforgettable others (and a few forgettable ones, like Mangog or Gorgilla), but what’s more important than the characters he drew onto the page is the character he exhibited through his work and personality.
Lee’s work didn’t just give children (and teenagers, and adults) superheroes to read about, whose powers some of us spent hours of each day daydreaming about (guilty as charged), but also gave us a blueprint for how to act toward others. What matters aren’t the color-coded, costumed characters that he brought to life panel-by-panel, but the messages he sent to young, impressionable minds through his works. X-Men wasn’t just about a ragtag, hormone-crazed group of gifted youngsters doing super-cool things to super-bad dudes, but was about racism and tolerance. Read “God Loves, Man Kills” and tell me that Rev. WIlliam Stryker isn’t a Marvel Universe version of David Duke, and his Purifiers a fantastical version of the Ku Klux Klan. Sure, there are the fun stories and arcs – the graphic novels we pen through to check out the art, the very-red panels of Deadpool cutting the heads off whoever while making fart and dick jokes – but when it came to Lee, there were often lines to read between. He had a habit of being simultaneously subtle and in-your-face. Lee’s comics featured villains in red capes and metal masks, but he also showed us what real evil looks like and how to fight against it.
Lee – and Marvel, through his leadership and example – has also been a standard-bearer for progress during times where it was dangerous to do so. In July 1966, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, he and Jack Kirby introduced the world to the Black Panther, regarded as the world’s first black superhero. Such acts reverberate in today’s Marvel – we’ve seen female versions of popular heroes Thor and Iron Man; we’ve seen an increase in LGBT characters; we’ve seen African-American versions of Spider-Man and Captain America; and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther got his first full-length film, featuring an almost all-black cast, and led by black directors, writers and producers (Vox described the movie as a “groundbreaking celebration of black culture”), and next spring will see the release of Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson in the titular role and featuring mostly-female writers. Marvel has long been at the front of the line in terms of social and cultural progress, and a lot of that can be attributed to Lee.
For decades, Lee concluded his comics with a column titled “Stan’s Soapbox,” in which he would speak on current issues. It was here that he did some of his best work, showing through his words how to combat the world’s evils, without superpowers, but with grace and tenacity. One of his most insightful (and still relevant, unfortunately) was published in December 1968, almost 50 years to the date:
“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater – one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen – people he’s never known – with equal intensity – with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race – to despise an entire nation – to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God – a God who calls us ALL – His children.”
The conversation of what creators deserve credit for which characters, or whether Jack Kirby gets his due or if his spotlight was stolen by Lee is irrelevant today. Right now, we must judge Lee by his own merits, what he stood for and the values he aimed to instill in generations of young and impressionable readers. He gave voice and inspiration to would-be heroes of all ages, and though he introduced us to muscular characters who shot lasers out of their eyes or could lift and throw cars and trains or move buildings with their mind, he was always the unaccepting hero of his own story.
by Philip Price
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee
Runtime: 2 hours & 14 minutes
It's not what you say, it's how you say it. It is this common expression that the rather simple and safe interpretation of the story of Queen that “Bohemian Rhapsody” tells might have benefited from remembering. In a nutshell, Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher's biopic covers the early years of Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor's (Ben Hardy) band just before it recruits lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and becomes known as Queen up through their 1985 performance at Live Aid that is considered one of the greatest performances in rock history. This is all well and good and makes sense for the arc of the band during its peak time of popularity, but within this arc Anthony McCarten's (“The Theory of Everything”) screenplay never digs deep enough for audiences to really catch a glimpse of what actually defined Queen as a group or what made them, as a unit, so willing and trusting in one another to the extent they'd each be willing to bet everything on the titular song being a hit despite the fact a senior A&R exec with more experience than all of the members of Queen combined doesn't believe it to be. Of course, this is where one would retaliate with the, "fortune favors the bold," phrase that is also used in the movie and I'm not saying the members of Queen were wrong or stupid for doing this-obviously they weren't-or that the A&R exec was right-obviously he wasn't-but what I am saying is that “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the film, never gives the audience reason to trust in the word of Mercury, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) over this more experienced character outside of the fact it presumes the audience knows the story and music of Queen well enough to just go with it. And that's exactly what “Bohemian Rhapsody” does the majority of the time: it simply asks the audience to "go with it" as it rotates through the band's greatest hits and gives the expected beats of their meteoric rise, the inner tensions and turmoil that come with fame and notoriety, the distance that naturally grows between Mercury and the rest of his band mates, and their eventual reconciliation that leads to a triumphant return. It's all here, but the real disappointment with the story of Queen in particular is that it has so many unique variables and perspectives that this predictable pattern of the music biopic could have been used purely as a template while the actual style and substance of what was being communicated could have been fulfilled in more creative and effective ways. Instead, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is unapologetically "fine" and will largely be remembered for finding an excuse to play so many great songs on theater quality sound systems.
Of course, what was always going to be the biggest hurdle for a biopic about Queen and more specifically, about Mercury, was that of finding an actor who might portray the iconic rock deity without the performance feeling like a pale imitation of the idea each of us have of Freddie Mercury in our minds. The stories of Mercury's debauchery are as legendary as his vocal range and while I would have loved to have seen not only the type of performance Sacha Baron Cohen might have delivered in the role, but the undoubtedly R-rated film within which he would have delivered it what Rami Malek, star of television's “Mr. Robot,” has done with this opportunity is as good as can be expected even if, in certain instances, his wholly invested and deeply researched performance does in fact come off as something of a pale comparison. This is especially true when it comes to moments that Malek is supposed to spontaneously burst into song putting Mercury's pipes front and center and it becoming all the more evident how much Malek is not only lip-synching, but that no one else on the planet could imitate Mercury's voice in a way that would come off as even the least bit convincing. Jamie Foxx had strong enough chops and an abundance of swagger to the point he could pull off Ray Charles with real conviction and Joaquin Phoenix carried the right amount of mystery and pain behind his eyes to portray the Man in Black while learning to play guitar and sing just well enough to properly persuade the audience they were watching what could have very easily been a young Johnny Cash. With Mercury, things are different not only because no one else-even in the music business-could sing like Mercury, but because he carried such a distinct look that has become so singularly exclusive to the legend that continues to be built and grow around him.
All things considered then, it is a wonder any actor might be able to pull off convincing an audience they are actually watching Freddie Mercury for any sustained amount of time, but there are moments throughout “Bohemian Rhapsody” where Malek is able provide glimpses of what the performer might have been like in the "in-between" moments when Mercury was neither performing, writing music, or consorting with any number of random house guests that wanted to party as much as he reportedly did. Of course, it is in these instances that the film also chooses to paint Mercury as an unsuspecting player in his own life that stumbles into his homosexuality and is preyed upon by a manager that is either out to take advantage of the singer by any means necessary or is the most relentless of romantic pursuers despite being shot down any number of times. This is in reference to Allen Leech's Paul Prenter who, in real life, served as Mercury's manager for over a decade and coincidentally died the same year as Mercury (1991) from complications from AIDS. While there seems to have undoubtedly been some tension between Mercury and Prenter from time to time as well as between Prenter and the rest of the members of Queen the relationship the film largely focuses on in regards to Mercury is one that might surprise most given it would seem Mercury's sexuality was a foregone conclusion given his public persona, but Mercury was in fact engaged to and-as the movie tells it-genuinely in love with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). It is in the portrayal of Mercury and Austin's relationship as well as the eventual handling of Mercury's gay relationships that things not only feel rather sanitized in order to paint the singer in the most flattering of lights, but that the restrained approach is also taken in order to avoid garnering more personal interactions within these aforementioned "in-between moments". Yes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about the whole of Queen, but even the movie doesn't try to kid itself into believing Mercury wasn't the real draw and while getting deeper than surface-level about Mercury's private life would have immediately elevated this to a different level so as to better understand his choices as a performer in digging a little deeper not just on a singular level, but in regards to the band as a group of talented musicians who've crafted some of the biggest anthems in rock history wouldn't have been too shabby either.
Malek has a line in the film when discussing what it's like to be able to feel like the exact version of the person he always imagined himself to be when he's either on stage controlling an arena of thousands or in the company of Austin, but even something as insightful as this is so fleeting so as to get to the next plot point in the series of necessary story beats that must be hit in order to qualify as a feature that this kernel of an idea or feeling that is offered is abandoned almost as quickly as it was brought up-never to be explored further. Austin was something of a safe haven for Mercury when he had no one else to turn to and when the drinks and the drugs began to taste stale and both Boynton and Malek find a lovely sort of balance between the two characters so as to effectively convey a love for one another that has to withstand a harsh truth and thus transcend traditional relationships in a time when exploration was denounced and conformity was expected. It is in this aspect that ‘Bohemian’ finds its one true surprise in terms of narrative direction, but while the narrative plays it rather safe that isn't to say what the film does cover in terms of the band coming together and making music isn't at least entertaining as the sequence in which the band defiantly proposes the kind of record they'll produce as a follow-up to their self-titled album that featured their first commercial hit through to the composition of the title track isn't fairly exhilarating. It is in this instance that “Bohemian Rhapsody” almost too perfectly realizes how much of a double-edged sword it is. There is enough runtime to divulge the different elements of this six-minute opus and the lengths Mercury went to in the recording sessions to get the song as close to what he had in his head as possible, but we get none of the inspiration for the lyrics or the guitar solos. Hell, we don't even get that clichéd and hackneyed moment of one of the members of the band realizing what the name of the song should be through obvious inspiration. Naturally, one understands it's difficult to cram 15 or so years' worth of events into a two-hour movie and make it a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there is a specificity lacking in “Bohemian Rhapsody” that might have otherwise offered both a more sincere and thus a more moving portrait of this man and this band.
Furthermore, if the film was going to try and veer more towards a biopic of Queen as a band rather than emphasize the life of Mercury it might have done more to highlight the fact Queen wasn't made up of individuals who were inclined to fall into the trappings of the rock and roll lifestyle. Brian May earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics while Roger Taylor studied dentistry before the whole music gig took off for each of them. Even the last member to join the original line-up, John Deacon, was studying engineering when he was recruited by May, Taylor, and Mercury to be a part of Queen. In all honesty, Deacon might be the most unheralded of the group who in all actuality offered the most given six of the many songs he wrote for the band were released as singles including "You're My Best Friend," "I Want to Break Free" and "Another One Bites the Dust." The film also highlights the fact May penned the biggest stadium anthem of all time and makes a point to poke good fun at Taylor for being the weakest songwriter among the group. That this group of guys, outside of Mercury, were more or less average Joe's with wives and children who just so happened to possesses some exceptional creative talent and be a part of one of the biggest rock bands of all time is a unique approach all its own, but while the majority of McCarten's narrative understandably focuses on the life and times of Mercury it would have been nice had the film at least staged the lead singers moments with his band in a more credible fashion than what is delivered. Outside of the admittedly chill-inducing Live Aid re-creation each of the performance sequences look as if they were shot in the same venue with different costumes and clarifying text sent across the screen to state where in the world Queen was touring. Ultimately, while largely serviceable, “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes the undefinable nature of Freddie Mercury himself and conveys it through this box of convenience, of expectation, and of a certain categorization that would have undoubtedly made the real Mercury scoff for he was anything but definable. It only seems appropriate “Bohemian Rhapsody” might have transcended the genre of musical biopics in the same way its subject transcended every aspect of life, but hey-"Radio Gaga" is super legit, right?
by Philip Price
Director: George Tillman
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Algee Smith & Regina Hall
Runtime: 2 hours & 13 minutes
“The Hate U Give” might come off as a perfectly-timed opportunity given the "Black Lives Matter" movement and the unfortunate, consistent headlines that tell us a young, unarmed black individual was gunned down by a white police officer, but fortunately, director George Tillman's adaptation of the Angie Thomas novel is not an opportunistic publicity stunt aimed at an audience who are already well-aware of the points the film is making. Rather, “The Hate U Give” is a well-rounded and appropriately angry piece of filmmaking that tells of both these types of crimes and the reasons for the feeling of need for movements such as "Black Lives Matter" in our country at the moment.
Tillman luckily has a strong grasp on the multiple themes and rather epic scope of his film as Audrey Wells' adapted screenplay weaves in a multitude of challenges that face the black community outside of discrimination. Whether it be police brutality or white privilege or more universal issues that have become more associated with being black than is fair such as drug abuse, drug-dealing, and a lack of the traditional familial structure, Tillman is able to take each of these strands and weave them into a coherent narrative that, while maybe tying things up a bit too neatly at the end, is most admirable for admitting it doesn't have all the answers, but instead making plenty of suggestions on how to spark change.
In the most evocative scene in the film Amandla Stenberg's (“The Hunger Games”) Starr, a young black girl who lives in a suburban ghetto, but attends a mostly white private school, confronts her uncle (Common), a black police officer who worked alongside the cop that shot and killed Starr's friend Khalil (Algee Smith) while she was in the passenger seat, to clarify just how disparate the lines of race have become in the worst of ways. It is in this scene that the film offers the point of view of the police officer as much as it does the suspect who was pulled over for what, at first, was seemingly nothing more than a routine traffic stop. The scene offers not only an explanation, but something of a justification for the white officer's actions from the mouth of a black officer said in earnest and with fairness. Starr's counterpoint is the underlying theme of every strand Tillman and the writers throw into the discussion though; that racism isn't wholly based in the belief of superiority but is more pointedly exemplified in the assumption that all members of a race possess characteristics specific to that race. If Khalil had not been a young black man in a predominantly black suburb, he would likely have never been pulled over in the first place.
The material is strong if not slightly overwrought in certain instances, but the cast elevates both the potent and the melodramatic. Stenberg is particularly great here and carries the weight of this heavy narrative on her shoulders with an effortless cool that might make even the richest of entitled yuppies jealous. The true revelation though, is Russell Hornsby as Starr's reformed father Maverick 'Mav' Carter. Hornsby is in this completely from the opening scene in which a young father sits down with his three children (and I mean children) to have "the talk," but-if you're like me (meaning Caucasian)-this probably isn't "the talk" you're thinking of, as Mav instructs his children on the proper precautions to take when pulled over or questioned by the police. This sad state of reality should strike a chord with any audience member not already sympathetic to the perspective represented in the film while the film goes the extra mile to show that it understands why these pre-conceived notions of black people exist, but ultimately stands to say that if police officers are allowed to make such assumptions based on prejudice then they should, at the very least, be held accountable for their actions under such presumptions.
It's sticky territory to get into and there are layers of factors to unpack and defend on both sides of the argument in any given set of circumstances. One would like to believe cops aren't actively targeting black communities, but it's also clear black communities are monopolized by illegal activity and preyed upon by drug dealers and gang members whose origins lie in this group of people having been repressed and treated unfairly for so many years that in the five generations since slavery was abolished the descendants of those slaves have only been capable of coming so far. “The Hate U Give” eloquently, but honestly portrays this struggle, attesting to the need to respond to hate with love in order for love to exist rather than for hate to spread.