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I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater with a bunch of friends.

Walking out of the theater, my friends were all hyped after American Rocky Balboa vanquished the evil Russian Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with nothing but his beard and a dream. My sour attitude rendered me unpopular at the after-movie get-together at the diner. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years later, the franchise says hello again to Drago (a weathered Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son, Viktor, with Creed II, the follow up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed.

Coogler has not returned; he’s replaced by Steven Caple Jr. in the director’s chair. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are back, doing pretty much what they did in the first chapter, which is not a bad thing. Creed II doesn’t break any new ground and represents a step backward from the astonishingly good Creed, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This success actually surprises me, because the film dared to take the ridiculous story of Ivan Drago and expand upon it. While the first three Rocky movies were true sports-underdog movies with credibility, Rocky IV was a moronic play on 1980s patriotism and Cold War fears. Drago was a cartoon character, and by then, Rocky had become one, too. That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth. Creed II tries to make Drago a real person, a defeated man living in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. His loss to Rocky came after killing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Drago comes looking for a fight using his young, up-and-comer son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), Adonis (Jordan) can’t help but take notice. He’s got a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Does this sound stupid? It is a little bit, but Caple manages to continue the authentic vibe of Creed, even with the Dragos back in the ring. Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances; a sense of humiliation oozes from his pores as he tries to regain former glory and the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielsen). Caple and his screenwriters (including Stallone) manage to make Drago a real character rather than a stereotype.

The movie wisely jettisons the U.S.-vs.-Russia angle and just focuses on the characters. When Adonis and Viktor square off, it’s all about the two men and the sport, with no mention of democracy and communism. An actor playing Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t stand and applaud Adonis after their final fight. That actually happened in Rocky IV: Rocky got a standing ovation from the Russian leader! Nuclear war was averted! God that movie sucked!

Jordan is as convincing of a cinematic son to Carl Weathers as there will ever be, and he makes a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the Rocky franchise, and it looks like some real blows are landed. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it really hurts.

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’ songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at anything she does, but she is saddled with the film’s worst moment, a musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia. I have a hard time believing some Russian promoter sat down with Bianca to work out her light show and sound. Meanwhile, Stallone continues to be awesome as Rocky; he was robbed of an Oscar for his work in Creed.

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that somebody found a way to keep the franchise going, even if it involves revisiting the lesser parts of the Rocky mythology. Creed II isn’t good enough to be an improvement on Creed, but it is good enough to make you almost appreciate the awful Rocky IV 33 years later. That’s a notable accomplishment.

Creed II is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Selecting Ryan Coogler to helm Black Panther is a major triumph: His entry into the Marvel universe is a majestic, full-bodied, exhilarating treatment of the African-king title character (Chadwick Boseman) with the crazy-cool suit. Marvel has yet another big success with a grand future.

Coogler has three feature films to his credit now—one masterpiece (Fruitvale Station) and two very good movies (Black Panther and Creed). He’s officially one of the best directors currently calling the shots. This is also his third collaboration with actor Michael B. Jordan, who brings a fleshed-out, complicated villain to the screen in Erik Killmonger. Man, you need to be bad with that last name.

The pre-opening-credit scenes involves Black Panther’s dad and predecessor having a confrontation in 1992, in Oakland, Calif. A major event takes place as some kids playing basketball look on. It turns out to be one of the more brilliant and heart-wrenching setups for a Marvel-movie character yet.

The action cuts to present day, where Black Panther/T’Challa is dealing with the death of his father due to an event that took place in Captain America: Civil War. (The producers and screenwriters linked these films together very well.) He’s set to become king, but must pass through a ritual with some risk involved. He overcomes the obstacles, gets his throne and prepares for his rule. However, his kingdom doesn’t get a moment to breathe before trouble ensues.

Elsewhere, Killmonger has come across an ancient weapon forged in Wakanda (the Black Panther’s homeland), made from vibranium, a precious resource that fuels much of Wakanda’s advanced technology, including the Black Panther suits. With the help of Wakanda enemy Klaue (Andy Serkis, acting with his real face as opposed to a motion capture suit), Killmonger obtains the weapon, threatening world stability.

The story is told with a stunning level of social relevance for a superhero film, especially when it comes to Killmonger’s motives. He’s not just some guy looking to enrich himself for selfish purposes; he’s got some big reasons for having gone bad, and they make him a far more sympathetic character than, say, Loki from Thor.

As good as Boseman is, and he’s really good, Black Panther is a big success thanks very much to the cast around him. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the possible love interest in Nakia, getting her finest post-Oscar role yet. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira makes a confident graduation to big-screen action hero, while Letitia Wright gets a lot of laughs as T’Challa’s mischievous and extremely smart sister, Shuri.

There are so many great performers in this movie that there isn’t enough room here to give them all praise, but here are a few more: Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all play formidable roles. It’s early in the year, but this will surely stand as one of 2018’s best ensemble casts.

Coogler proves he can handle a big-action blockbuster. His action scenes mostly snap with precise energy and efficiency, but some of them are a bit jumbled and hard to follow due to low light or ill-advised camera angles. I saw the film in IMAX 2-D, so perhaps some of what I was seeing played better in 3-D. There was nothing too sloppy, but some moments were not as tight as the rest of the film.

Black Panther is a superhero saga rich with culture and gravitas, and yet it does not skimp on the good humor and action thrills we’ve come to expect from Marvel. DC’s recent offerings (Justice League, Suicide Squad) make everyone involved with them look like goofballs in comparison (with Wonder Woman being the lone recent exception). Black Panther and Marvel show us that big-screen superhero entertainment can be about much more than suits and explosions.

Black Panther is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Nine years ago, Sylvester Stallone seemingly closed the book on the Italian Stallion with Rocky Balboa, which featured a 60-year-old Rocky actually getting in the ring to fight somebody half his age.

This film made up for the lunacy of him getting into an illegal street fight with Tommy Gunn the last time we saw him (the abysmal Rocky V) and gave fans a more sophisticated, “officiated” type of violence to close out the Balboa saga. It was a little unrealistic, yes, but Rocky Balboa wound up being a cool and fitting conclusion to the franchise. Or so it seemed.

A few years ago, word leaked that Ryan Coogler, the promising director of Fruitvale Station, was going to fire up the Rocky machine again, focusing on Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis. There was also speculation that a certain lovable oaf with grey sweatpants and a droopy lip would be Adonis’ coach. The whole thing seemed a bit farfetched.

However, Coogler came through—and now we have Creed, with Michael B. Jordan of Fruitvale Station as Adonis, and the one and only Stallone as Rocky yet again. Coogler’s film manages to be an original work while paying homage to the classic series—and it’s the best Rocky movie since the 1976 original. There’s plenty of life in the old Stallion after all.

The film opens in the late 1990s as an angry teenager gets into a fight at a juvenile-detention center. A kind woman unexpectedly shows up to visit young Adonis. That woman is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), widow of Apollo Creed. Apollo was a bit randy in his heyday—and had a son out of wedlock. Adonis is that son, and the charitable Mary Anne wants him to come home and live with her. 

The film then moves to the present day. Adonis has grown up to be a responsible man with a job in finance—but it doesn’t suit him. He moonlights in Mexico with boxing matches, and eventually decides he wants to be a professional fighter. He winds up in Philadelphia, seeking the help of his father’s friend, the former heavyweight champion of the world.

At first, Rocky just isn’t into it. He’d rather visit the grave of his wife, Adrian, which is now next to the grave of Paulie, who died in between Rocky Balboa and Creed. Of course, Rocky eventually can’t resist the temptation to show off his punching knowledge and his chicken-chasing trick—so a new boxing combo is off and running.

Jordan may be the most-convincing make-believe boxer in the series, and that includes Stallone. He has a physical resemblance to Carl Weathers (who played Apollo) and looks like he could strike up a pro career in the ring. His performance is across-the-boards excellent. Tessa Thompson proves invaluable as Bianca, Adonis’ neighbor and love interest, an aspiring musician who is dealing with progressive hearing loss. The love story is quite sweet.

Stallone could find himself in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination given his work in Creed. He makes the character the warm, lovable lug he was in the original, a sweetheart of a guy who could kill you with one punch. The movie has a dramatic twist that gives Stallone a chance to show the vulnerability of this character, and he’s impressive. It is, far and away, the performance of his career.

Coogler makes some of the best movie fight sequences since Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the first fight plays like one take. The final bout, between Adonis and Irish villain “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), is sports cinema at its very best. Coogler also finds a way to weave that iconic Bill Conti music into the score at perfect moments.

When Rocky IV came out in 1985, I complained about how stupid it was. I genuinely hated it. However, without Rocky IV, which killed off Apollo at the hands of cartoon character Ivan Drago, we wouldn’t have Creed. I guess I’m retroactively grateful for the existence of Rocky IV.

Creed is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s bold feature-directing debut, Fruitvale Station, is one of the year’s best films. It tells the true story of Oscar Grant, the man shot to death by a cop early on New Year’s Day 2009 at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, Calif., while he was with the mother of his child.

If you’ve seen the cell-phone videos taken of Grant pleading with officers as he and his friends were being brutalized, you’ve seen a man who looked more than reasonable as events transpired. As one cop turned him onto his stomach and put his knee onto Grant’s neck, another inexplicably took out his gun and shot Grant once, fatally, through the back.

The officer claimed he was just trying to use a Taser on Grant. Mistake or not, it doesn’t matter: That officer, without reason, took Grant’s life while a throng of BART riders watched in horror.

Coogler could’ve made a angry film, screaming in the face of a justice system that cost this young man his life, and that young man's daughter a father. However, he has made something far more important, effective and nuanced: He has made a movie that fleshes out Grant so he’s more than those few minutes captured on frantic people’s phones. It’s a movie that concentrates on the life taken, the people he loved, and the lives that were to be lived together. It’s a heartbreaking viewing experience, anchored by a brilliant performance from Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Grant.

The film starts with the infamous phone footage of Grant’s murder, and then flashes back to Grant and his girlfriend, Sophina (the excellent Melonie Diaz), having a fight about Oscar’s alleged infidelity. He’s a man stumbling while tyring to recover from a prison stay: He’s attempting to keep his job, raise his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and make his mother Wanda (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) proud.

It is Wanda who suggests that Oscar and Melonie take BART on New Year’s Eve to celebrate safely—and it is Wanda who realizes that she made the suggestion as she says goodbye to her son’s corpse. Spencer makes this a scene you will not soon forget.

Coogler and Jordan re-create the tragedy at the end of the movie. They portray Grant just as he appeared in those cellular-phone videos: He’s just a guy caught up in an unfortunate situation who is trying to be reasonable with the police in order to get himself and his friends home.

Of course, we already know what happened, making every second of the sequence as unbearable as it should be. The cop who shot Grant is already walking free after serving about a year for involuntary manslaughter. Coogler pulls no punches in depicting the abhorrent behavior of those cops.

Jordan delivers a graceful, star-making performance—the type of work that will put him on a lot of directors’ radars. As portrayed by Jordan, Grant has his problems, including a temper that sometimes gets him into trouble. A jail scene in which Wanda comes to visit him is one of the film’s most memorable.

Coogler and Jordan reportedly plan to work together again on Creed, a Rocky spin-off that follows the grandson of Rocky Balboa’s former opponent as he looks to Balboa for guidance in his boxing career. Stallone has shown interest, and it looks to be a go. It sounds like fun.

As for Fruitvale Station, this movie will get some notice come awards season. It’s an important film about something that should’ve never happened—and a movie everyone should see.

Fruitvale Station is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage, 760-770-1615); the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, 760-323-4466); and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert, 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews