Tag: tessa thompson

Creed II


Creed II (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Steven Caple Jr.’s “Creed II” succeeds in delivering big entertainment because it has a knack for forcing the audience to taste the bad blood between Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu)—which stems from the former’s father having died in a boxing ring in the hands of the latter’s father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). And just like strong “Rocky” pictures that came before, the director proves to have an eye for placing us in the middle of action as punches are delivered with lightning speed and droplets of blood are pummeled out of the pugilists. It cannot be denied that the project is made with skill.

The material brings up the question of what happens after a fighter becomes a heavyweight champion. And yet it is not about defending the belt or the title. The screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone (who returns as Rocky Balboa, Adonis’ trainer and mentor) is smart to root the drama in something more grounded, a core with a higher dramatic pull. It is about people coming to terms with the hand they are given and playing it as astutely as they are able. Sometimes you lose and hands turn into fists; sometimes you win and it is cause for celebration. And sometimes, still, you win without being aware of having won and so, in your eyes, an external element that stirs your own insecurities must be correct. And so, too, the picture is about having to face one’s demons.

Central and supporting performances are all on point. Jordan and Stallone share such wonderful chemistry, their characters need not say even a word for us believe that the men respect one another not solely as fighters but also as men who’ve survived and lived. There are small but moving moments—in the boxing ring nonetheless—when Adonis regards Rocky as a father—not as a trainer—and the latter knows precisely what to say or do in order to give his son just a little bit more confidence in order to move forward. The boxer-mentor, father-son relationship is not explained but expanded upon from the previous “Creed” film—smart because the sequel manages to avoid the usual expository scenes and dialogue most of the time.

Although the romantic partnership between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) may play like a Lifetime movie at times, I found sweetness in it. Like Adonis’ relationship with Rocky, there is mutual respect between the boxer and the singer-songwriter; they consider one another to be equals and so when one falters, the other picks up the pace. The pacing might have been improved if some of their interactions were written more elegantly, leaving something for the audience to consider rather than showing every significant moment between their engagement and raising an infant. The passage of time is questionable on occasion. Here, it seems that serious, nearly grave injuries, including physical therapy, can be overcome in less than a year. This might come across as nitpicking, but minute details matter in strong dramas.

But I had an absolute blast with the boxing matches between Creed and Drago. Munteanu creates a formidable villain due to his sheer size, strength, and agility. It is acknowledged that his character has been brought up in hate. This is thoroughly convincing in the way the character pummels his opponents right when the bell rings, often knocking them out in a single round. He is like a tank wearing human skin and one cannot help but feel anxious simply by looking at his frame. You look at the young Drago and wonder how in the world Creed, who is also well-built, would—or could—manage to overcome such a hungry, rabid dog.

Sorry to Bother You


Sorry to Bother You (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

One can tell that “Sorry to Bother You” is made by a first-time writer-director because it is willing to utilize a variety of techniques, from claymation and voiceovers to hallucinatory imagery and coming into contact with an entirely different genre, to get a range of laughs—big laughs—from the audience. Even though these tools do not always work, sometimes the courage to employ them is what counts because they shake the boredom out of some of the more familiar avenues of the plot, particularly in portraying the rift between our protagonist and his friends as he begins to climb the corporate ladder of telemarketing.

The picture is written and directed by Boots Riley who possess an exciting eye for detail. Shot on location in Oakland, California, he is willing to show the more unsightly areas of the city, how colors and life dominate even the poorest of neighborhoods. Graffitis on walls often have a political message, signs on the streets are clever, and even jewelries worn offer their own personalities. Notice how the extras who must utter a line or two of taunts while off-camera sound exactly like residents of Oakland. So, you see, although certain images are initially unattractive, like unmowed laws and unpicked garbage on sidewalks, there is beauty in its honesty and simplicity. The film is a comedy in which the setting is vibrant and real.

This is important because the material is a satire, often embracing extremes in order to deliver a punchline. The setting, more than the story or the performances, anchor the film in something that is true and relatable. And so when the plot and tone undergo wild fluctuations, viewers are less likely to feel lost, confused, or frustrated. Unlike Hollywood mainstream comedies without flavor or ambition, those designed solely to pass the time, perhaps a chuckle here and there, Riley’s work is able to take big risks while retaining the viewers’ interest.

It is a challenge to describe the plot without revealing its wonderful, bizarre surprises. It is best to dive into it blind. Just know that it starts off with a black man named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) who lands a job as a telemarketer. He discovers that by employing a “white voice,” callers are more likely to stay on the line and make a purchase. His recent successes capture the interests of upper-management. From there, the screenplay commands intoxicating energy as it satirizes corporate culture, the media, and politics.

What I admired most about it, however, is its willingness to show how it is like for a person of color in a country that values whiteness. The “white voice,” for example, is played as a joke, but it is sharp commentary, too. After all, when there is implication that “white voice” is valued over brown or black voices, what does that say about how brown or black skins are actually seen? Still, despite what it has to say about a range of topics, the film is entertaining first and foremost.

Annihilation


Annihilation (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” based upon the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, offers a handful of images so bizarre, so intriguing, so horrifying that they stun the viewers into silence with mouth agape. This is the picture at its most powerful because it dares the viewer to look at the images closely; to examine their layers, colors, and textures; to imagine how they work on cellular and molecular levels; and to be terrorized by them. It is rare when sci-fi and horror collide to form a near-perfect fit. However, it falls just short of its maximum potential.

Debris from outer space hits a lighthouse. A strange translucent veil forms around the beacon and proceeds to expand its borders. There is fear that soon it will envelop nearby towns and cities. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as The Shimmer and it is their goal to understand its cause and nature. Military personnel sent inside its growing borders to gather information have never returned… with the exception of Kane (Oscar Isaac), the partner of Johns Hopkins cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Hoping to find answers regarding her partner’s disappearance for over a year, Lena, a former soldier, volunteers to go inside The Shimmer with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a physicist (Tessa Thompson). They are not prepared for what they are about to discover.

Garland has a way of commanding the story in such a way that we are immediately placed in the middle of it. It is admirable how he is confident enough as writer-director to allow the audience to orient themselves and ask many questions. For some reason, many filmmakers within as well as outside the sci-fi genre are afraid to make the viewers feel uncomfortable or frustrated early on and so exposition—a whole lot of it to the point where at times the story never gets a chance to take off—is often utilized as bridge between introduction and action. Here, however, it is assumed that the people watching are intelligent, patient, and curious. The film is efficient with its time.

I admired the material most when the journey through The Shimmer screeches to a halt in order for us to have a chance to take a closer look at an organism. An alligator is not just an alligator, nor a bear just a bear. We note of the plants and flowers, where they are growing, and how, what is strange about them. We even get to appreciate molds growing on surfaces nearby carcasses. Human body parts are also fair game. And abandoned cameras almost always contain a horrifying recording. You learn to prepare yourself eventually. You take a deep breath and look. But then just as quickly you realize one cannot be prepared for these kind of nightmarish images. I was tickled by how disturbed I felt.

Although the film is not about characters but about generating visceral reactions, I felt as though a camaraderie amongst the explorers is nearly nonexistent. The characters do not need to be friends, but the performers do need to share strong chemistry. Note how the actors come across somewhat detached from one another and so the dialogue shared among them, especially when they are supposed to be connecting when personal histories are broached, lack a special punch. However, an argument can be made that the volunteers are so terrified that perhaps the sense of detachment is purposeful, that it is required they focus on their own selves and their own survival.

But without excuse is a weak final five minutes. Especially problematic for me is the would-be daring final shot that is supposed to incite questions. I could not and did not buy into it because such an approach is generic, so common in pedestrian sci-fi films. While it is not required that we get precise answers, and I prefer that we don’t, it is essential that we walk out of the story not feeling cheated. I felt cheated because the final image, despite the wealth of images the material has presented up to this point, is entirely unoriginal.

Dear White People


Dear White People (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

The goal of satire is, as it should be, to get a reaction from the audience. The subject of race continues to define America and so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that a movie like this is not made very often, especially from the perspective of young adults. While writer-director Justin Simien is able to invoke a reaction, both good and bad, “Dear White People” is not too sharp a satire that bites deeply into the flesh of what makes its subject such a hot issue. Its focus and momentum is too consistently distilled by possible romantic connections and it comes across like an expected dance.

We learn from the prologue that Winchester University, an Ivy League school, has come under the scrutiny of national media because of an “African-American”-themed Halloween party hosted by white students—blackface and all. Jumping back six months, we meet a sophomore student, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who hosts a radio program that aims to pinpoint white people’s ignorance of black identity and culture via one-liners; a first-year named Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who is having trouble sorting out his housing situation; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the ambitious son of the university’s dean; and Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the leader of the house that will eventually host the controversial Halloween party.

At times the film comes across like a two-part pilot of a television show that has the potential to survive early cancellation. It introduces colorful characters with verve, wit, humor, and intelligence. Further, the script allows each performer to make an impact since each character harbors a specific perspective. The problem is that there are too many people worth knowing and the material sometimes attempts to make each one well-rounded and complex.

This is a miscalculation because satire is about extreme characters and there is no need to humanize them as one would, say, in a drama. One might argue the material is less about the characters and more about the audience. After all, the movie itself is serving as as a mirror when it comes to way we treat ourselves, especially as minorities in America, and others who may be “different” to us. What the picture should have done is to consistently expose what is wrong in our current society when the subject of race is brought up without having to create a typical dramatic arc. It would have felt more alive if it had the courage to adopt a more creative template.

I enjoyed Teyonah Parris’ performance as a black person who feels a desperate need to distance herself from her culture. Her character feels ashamed that she comes from the “ghetto” and so she covers it up by embracing all that is typically “white”—rather, what she considers to be white attributes. Her character, Colandrea Conners, preferring to go by “Coco” because she claims it sounds less “ghetto,” is probably the easiest person to dislike, but I wanted to get to know her most. Parris has small but great moments like passing by a black guy in a crowded room but her body language communicates he is not worthy of being around her even for a split-second. It is in those minute moments that I found truth in the film. I wanted to see more of that—no explanation is required because we are all guilty of some form of stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.

So why am I giving “Dear White People” a recommendation? I enjoyed about half of what is shown and, more importantly, because it made an effort to be about something. Although it has its missteps and limitations, it is better than most movies that target undergraduates and similar age group, many of which never bother to be about something as long as the audiences laugh a lot and are not forced to think too hard. On that level, I found it refreshing.