December Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

CREED II (PG-13)
**
About 75 percent of Creed II, the talkiest boxing movie ever, would be more at home on Lifetime than HBO Sports, which is heavily-promoted herein. An announcer for the latter sums up your reason for attending by saying after an opening bout, "I can hardly wait to see what's next for Adonis Creed." What's next is more recycling from the Rocky series. Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, Rocky's opponent-turned-friend who died in Rocky IV in a fight with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Well, Drago has a son too, Viktor, who's pushed by his dad to challenge Adonis for the world heavyweight title. Viktor's so much bigger he should be in a different weight class, but nothing's heavier than heavy. They meet once, then again in the exciting but unbelievable climactic match. In the meantime Adonis marries Bianca (Tessa Thompson), she has a baby, and everybody wrestles - er, boxes? - with all manner of personal issues which they discuss at length. That includes Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), who has an opinion about everything and isn't shy about expressing it. At least Brigitte Nielsen is content to be seen but hardly heard as Viktor's mother, wooed by Ivan over three decades ago. New-to-the-series director Steven Caple Jr. does a good job in the ring, but the movie doesn't spend nearly enough time there. Director Ryan Coogler gave the series new life with the first Creed, but this sequel should kill it.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD
(PG-13)
**1/2
The second part of a planned quintology (I thought it should be quintilogy but I looked it up) of Harry Potter prequels, this one has so many plots it's more like an extended trailer for the rest of the series than a real movie with a beginning, middle and end. You should rewatch the first one (unless you know it by heart) before seeing this because there's very little exposition until about 90 minutes in, when two characters recite lengthy backstories and it feels like a quiz to see if you're paying attention. It's 1927 and fascism is on the rise in the real Europe. In this fantasy Europe it's represented by Grindelwald, played by a blond and oh, so Aryan Johnny Depp. (No, Grindelwald's crimes don't include spousal abuse.) His goal is to unite the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds under him and his "purebloods." After an exciting but confusing beginning, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his Non-Maj pal Jacob (Dan Fogler) go from London to Paris in search of Credence (Ezra Miller). They encounter a number of characters from the first film and several new ones, including a younger version of the Potter series' Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who had a relationship with Grindelwald when they were young and is his sworn enemy now. You can ignore the plots and just enjoy the visuals, because every few minutes some imaginative creature (the beasts really are fantastic!) will pop out of Newt's suitcase and take you on an FX trip. The 3D is worth the surcharge if the theater cranks up the brightness. (Most don't.) If all the scripts are going to be this cluttered, I'd recommend waiting a few years and binging on the whole series at once. Either way, author (and now screenwriter) J.K. Rowling is earning enough that if she doesn't like the terms of the Brexit deal she can afford to start her own country.

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (PG)
***
A generation that's never not known the Internet may have trouble relating to a person - even a cartoon person who's a character in an 8-bit videogame - who's just discovering it. But they bought Wreck-It Ralph six years ago when he had no line to go on, so there's no reason for them to resist this sequel. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is still in the Fix-It Felix game at the arcade, where after hours he hangs with his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). He breaks her game, Sugar Rush, trying to make it more fun for her, and they travel through the arcade's newly-installed WiFi in search of a fix. Their friendship is tested and the resolution is syrupier than my Waffle House breakfast; but the angel is in the details, including Disney making fun of itself and its recent acquisitions. (Yes, the late Stan Lee has a cameo.) The meta aspects follow through throughout in what, considering the release date, must be Thanksgiving (not Easter) eggs, and a final gag that's worth sitting through the credits for. Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer are among the returning vocal talent, with Gal Gadot and Taraji P. Henson headlining the newcomers, who include some surprising cameos. There's probably more fun for the grownups than the kids here, so reluctant chaperones will emerge grateful.

ASHER (R)
***
Dirty old hitmen need love too. Not that Asher (Ron Perlman) is dirty. He's just a Jewish guy in a business that's not kosher. He happens to meet Sophie (Famke Janssen) while he's on a job and they both could use a little love in their lives, so things work out - gradually, and not without complications. When Asher's caught in a crossfire between rival gangsters, Sophie becomes a target too. There's enough of each aspect of Asher's life to disappoint viewers who aren't fans of both genres, but who doesn't enjoy romance and murder? Director Michael Caton-Jones and most of his cast (including Richard Dreyfuss, Jacqueline Bisset and Peter Facinelli) have been rather low-profile lately, which probably helped keep the budget down, even filming in Brooklyn. The film is sweet when it wants to be and suspenseful when it needs to be. I enjoyed it despite serious problems with the script. While as a fellow freelancer I could relate to Asher's constant efforts to find work and get paid more per job, he doesn't live a lavish lifestyle and seems to have plenty of gigs in a field I've heard pays pretty well. As for Sophie, she takes care of her mother (Bisset), who has dementia and wants to die. It seems highly unlikely she'd want to get involved with a considerably older man at this point. If you can overlook these flaws you should have a good time with this story of a man for whom life and liberty are not guaranteed, so he decides to pursue happiness.

MARIA BY CALLAS (PG)
***
When the great voices of the 20th century are talked about, one soprano's soars above all others. In Tom Volf's documentary, Maria Callas (1923-77) sings enough of her greatest hits to make this a must-see for opera buffs; but you can find those on YouTube, so there has to be something extra. And there is: the story of Callas' life as told by herself - in excerpts from a David Frost interview and letters to various friends read by Joyce DiDonato. "I was forced into it," Callas says of her career; "first by my mother, then by my husband" (controlling Giovanni Meneghini). Even at the peak of her fame the reluctant soprano was ambivalent about it. She reveled in the adoration of her fans when she was performing but wanted to be left alone otherwise. Born and raised in New York, she preferred living in Paris because the press and people let her live in peace there. The film lets Callas present her side of various tabloid scandals. There was the time bronchitis forced her to bow out of a 1958 gala performance at the Rome Opera House after one act; her seven-year sabbatical from the Metropolitan Opera after a falling-out with Rudolph Bing; and of course her nine-year love affair with "Aristo" - Aristotle Onassi - which ended abruptly when he married Jackie Kennedy. (There's a twist ending to that part of the story.) If anyone ever deserved a medal for child abuse, it's the mother who "decided I should be a great singer" and forced Maria to develop her natural gifts. If you want to know more about this beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, or just to see her on a big screen and revel in the sound, here's your chance.

MIRAI (PG)
**1/2
This must be one of those movies only a child can understand. Mirai (Japanese for "future") opens with the birth of a baby. Nothing too graphic: a pregnant woman, an ultrasound, and then four-year-old Kun welcoming his baby sister, whom they name Mirai. Mom goes off to work, leaving Dad as house-husband and manny, with Kun jealous about not getting enough attention. Between episodes of brattiness the imaginative Kun has fantasy - or are they real? - encounters with, and sometimes learns life lessons from: a) the family dog converted into a sort of hippie prince; b) Mirai as a teenager; c) his mother as a girl hardly older than himself, who shares his love for messiness to a greater extreme; and d) a man he calls "Daddy" but who's actually his great-grandpa, who takes him on his first rides on a horse and a motorcycle. Though well-made by esteemed Japanimation director Mamoru Hosoda, the story made little sense to me, even though I enjoyed some individual segments; and Kun's bratty behavior got on my nerves. I kept wishing he was real so I could slap him. Mirai is showing as a special engagement on select dates and times, with a choice of subtitles or dubbed English voices (including John Cho and Rebecca Hall). For specifics go to MiraiMovie.com.

EL ANGEL (NR)
***
I must say I feel guilty for enjoying El Angel as much as I did. The credit/blame goes to director/co-writer Luis Ortega for doing such a great job of bringing us into the mindset of his protagonist, Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro), who must be the year's most lovable psychotic. The year is 1971 and Carlitos, angelic-looking with his halo of blond hair, is a Buenos Aires teenager. He's not exactly a thief; he just doesn't believe in private property. So he walks into other people's homes, looks around and walks out with whatever strikes his fancy. He doesn't sell it, just gives it away when he tires of it. One day the thing that strikes his fancy is Ramon (Chino Darin), an older student at his vocational school. Ramón comes from a family of professional thieves. His father raises Carlitos' game, teaches him to use a gun and tries to curtail his reckless nature. As for Carlitos and Ramon, while they become an all-male Bonnie and Clyde, their personal lives are left to the imagination. At one point they date twin sisters but it's not clear whether Carlitos ever has sex with anyone, just that he wants to. He does show an aptitude for killing. It's not like he gets a thrill out of it - it's just part of the job. Based on a true story, the film ends without an update. It would be a spoiler for me to tell you, but after you see El Angel, Google Carlos Robledo Puch to see where Carlitos is today. It's one of the most interesting aspects of the story.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES (NR)
**1/2
Your place on the American political divide will determine whether (and when) you cheer or boo, but either way it's instructive to learn about Roger Ailes, the man who made Fox News the powerhouse it is. If you're just looking for the scandals that ended his career, you'll have to be patient. Director Alexis Bloom tosses you a bone after the first and second half-hours with two women detailing how Ailes ended their careers when they refused to have sex with him, but only the final half-hour is All scandal! All the time! Ailes was born a hemophiliac and was paranoid about it until it killed him last year at the age of 77. In the meantime he had gone from working as a production assistant on The Mike Douglas Show to guiding the presidential media campaigns for Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He left politics - but not the political - to start America's Talking, an all-talk network that proved to be beta-testing for Fox News, which Rupert Murdoch hired him to design and run. Ailes defended his star, Bill O'Reilly, against sexual harassment charges, but others eventually brought both men down. Once Gretchen Carlson told her Ailes story, other women came out of the woodwork with accusations going back as much as 50 years. Many millions were spent to keep accusers quiet but eventually there were too many to contain. Bloom's portrait is more fair and balanced than anything Ailes put on the air; but with the bar so high for documentary films this year, this one's not special or creative enough to stand out.

TYREL (NR)
**1/2
I’ll admit I don’t know what this movie is trying to say. Maybe it’s just trying to get us to talk...or squirm. We’ve all been at gatherings where we felt awkward because we hardly knew anyone - or is it just me because I’m shy by nature? Well, Tyler (Jason Mitchell) overdoes it during a weekend in the Catskills - which just happens to be the weekend of Trump’s inauguration. Tyler is black, you see, and the other guy - seven of them, eventually - are white; but one is rich, one is Latino, one is gay, two are a decade or two older than the others. But everybody’s cool. They probably didn’t vote for Trump. In fact one brings a Trumpinata to destroy. If someone says something that could be interpreted as racist if you’re really looking for something to misinterpret, it’s because they’re comfortable enough around Tyler they don’t feel the need to censor themselves. He was invited by his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) and eventually bonds with the last arrival, Alan (Michael Cera); but he feels ill at ease around everyone else most of the time and doesn’t want to join in group activities - silly games, a simple workout, singing along to REM songs - except smoking weed and drinking heavily. Maybe he’s seen Get Out - although it won’t be released for five more weeks. Maybe I don’t understand because I’ve never been black, although I’ve been odd man out in other ways, including being the only white among groups of blacks. Maybe Chilean director Sebastian Silva (I loved his The Maid almost a decade ago) is trying to say the “post-racial” period of the Obama years ended with the presidential transition. I wish his intent had been clearer so I could agree or disagree accordingly.

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