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Creed II

Since Ryan Coogler was busy making Black Panther, Sylvester Stallone took back the writing responsibilities (with Juel Taylor) for the eighth instalment of the Rocky franchise. As a result, Creed II is as much a continuation of 1985’s Rocky IV as a sequel to 2015’s stellar Creed and as much Rocky’s story as Adonis Creed’s.

In Creed II, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has won six bouts in a row and is about to fight Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler for the world title.  Creed wins the fight and then, shortly after, proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and she says yes!  At that point, Creed should be on top of the world but he’s about to learn that creed_iithe championship belt is heavier than it looks, because he’s now the target of a bunch of wanna-be champs, including a Russian whose father killed Creed’s dad in Rocky IV. Creed will need Rocky’s help to beat the younger Drago, who so far has brutally beaten every boxer he’s gone up against.

Rocky’s part in this story is an important one.  In fact, several pivotal events that happen to Creed are shown from Rocky’s point of view, suggesting this is Rocky’s franchise again. Which makes sense when Rocky himself is writing the story.

Is that a bad thing? Kind of, which is hard for me to say  as a fan of the Rocky franchise. There’s something magical about the super cheesy and entirely predictable Rocky lovefests from Rocky II through to Rocky Balboa (Rocky is excluded because being the original, it is only predictable in retrospect). And Creed II captures that same magic at all the right moments. It’s a solid addition to this four-decade-old franchise.

But it’s a step back from Creed and that regression is further proof of Ryan Coogler’s genius (as if we needed any). With the first Creed, Coogler took the Rocky franchise in a new direction and included a ton of callbacks that riffed on the original formula without feeling derivative.

Unfortunately, Creed II doesn’t ever get to that same level because it is content to recycle the tried and true Rocky formula: a win at the outset, followed by a setback at an opponent’s hands, and then after a super-sweet training montage, a well-earned victory over that same opponent. Creed II executes that formula as well as any of the Rocky-titled films, but it never separates itself from that pack.  Rocky fans will leave Creed II satisfied, but fans of Creed may be in for a bit of a letdown.

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Ralph Breaks the Internet

For the life of me I cannot get the title of this movie right.  I’m so used to Wreck-It Ralph wrecking stuff, not breaking it.  So I’m trying to adjust to this relatively small change, but it’s been tough, and that must mean I’m getting old.

In related news, my knee started hurting this week for no reason at all.  Granted, it worked out just fine because I used my knee pain as a convenient excuse to storalph-breaks-the-internet5p cleaning the kitchen and start playing Red Dead Redemption 2, but still.  Making me feel even older is that I just learned it has been six full years since Wreck-It Ralph was released and I never would have guessed it had been so long.

Just like in the real world, six years have passed for Ralph (John C. Reilly), Princess Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and the rest of the gaming gang, who have all settled into comfortable routines inside Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade.  Sure, the routine may be a little boring, but Ralph is happy with his predictable days and nights, wrecking (sorry, breaking) Fix-It Felix’s building by day, and hanging out with Vanellope at night.  Vanellope, on the other hand, feels trapped by her routine, having mastered the three available race tracks in her game.  When Ralph tries to alleviate Vanellope’s boredom by building a new track, things get both wrecked and broken, and Ralph and Vanellope are forced to explore the arcade’s newly-installed internet in search of a new steering wheel for Vanellope’s game.

Of all the things in the world besides my knee (which is feeling much better, thanks for asking, though if Jay asks tell her I need a few more days off to fully recover), there is probably nothing that makes me feel older than not knowing any of the memes that have come out in the last decade, except for the select few that Jay has taught me about after realizing I had no idea that (insert hilarious meme) was a thing.  And, as you may have guessed, there are a lot of memes referenced in Ralph Breaks the Internet.  The nice thing is, I felt like Ralph (with some minor help from the creative team) went out of his way to ensure I didn’t feel old for not knowing that (bee puns) were a thing.  Ralph simply made me laugh at his bee pun, and at all of his aprincesses4ttempts to help Vanellope get her new steering wheel.

Ralph’s antics would have made for a decent sequel just on their own, but Ralph wasn’t alone.  Every one of the supporting players in Ralph Breaks the Internet make their own contribution to the comedy.   I was particularly impressed at how the Disney princesses were incorporated, not (just) as a shameless product placement but as a way to teach Vanellope about her hidden princess talents.

The only criticism I might make is that the movie probably included a few too many characters and references, and ends up a bit long as a result.   But don’t ask me what I would have cut out, because everything that’s here is consistently good and often great.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is a very clever and accessible comedy that will provide plenty of laughs for everyone, regardless of age and regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of a screaming goat.  What a wonderfully comforting thing that is (the accessible comedy, not the goat’s screams).  It made me feel young again, a feeling that should last until my next random ache.  Meaning I may need to see this one again very soon.

 

The Top Ten Best Car Chases

There’s nothing better than a frantic, fast-paced, pulse-pounding car chase.

The kind that sticks you directly in the middle of the action at a hundred miles an hour, keeping you at the edge of your seat as the mayhem unfolds.

The kind that keeps you coming back to re-view (and in my case, “review”) time and again,  just to relive it.

The kind that brings something new to a very crowded genre.

The kind that I’m crazy for not including in my top ten list.  Well, did I miss any?

10. Bank Heist (Fast Five)

This would rank even higher if two Mustangs had been involved instead of two Dodge Chargers, but it’s still fantastic to see Vin Diesel and Paul Walker double-team the streets of Rio de Janeiro with a gazillion ton bank safe in tow.

Bonus points for the fact that when the safe opens, it’s to Danza Kuduro so I’m reminded of every Caribbean vacation I’ve taken since 2010.

9. Mall Escape (Terminator 2)

Normally, if you’re choosing between a dirt bike and a big rig tow truck for chase purposes, you’d take the terminator2truck, right?  But what if the dirt bike also comes with an assist from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800?

What makes this chase all the more awesome is that if you go in to this movie cold, you cannot be sure which killer robot is on little John Conner’s side – a masterstroke by James Cameron which the movie’s trailers spoiled for anyone who’d seen them.

8. Mall Break-In (The Blues Brothers)

You expect a crash or two as part of a chase.  Maybe a car even flips over once in a while.   The Blues Brothers took crashes to an entirely different level.

A total of 103 cars were wrecked during the film, many of them during Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi’s wild ride through a shopping mall.  That triple-digit destruction was a record until Blues Brothers 2000 deliberately smashed one more car during its production.  But it’s the original receiving the crown that matters, namely a spot on this prestigious list.

7. San Francisco Tour (Bullitt)

Steve McQueen takes a spin in maybe the most iconic Mustang ever and tames the bullittstreets of San Francisco and a rival driver in a Dodge Charger.

But it’s not only the car, it’s also that McQueen made sure to keep his head in view of the camers so you knew it was him doing the heavy lifting the whole time.

6. World’s Worst Valet (The Rock)

This is mostly about the car, as Nicolas Cage borrows a beautiful yellow Ferrari F355 Spider to chase down Sean Connery in a Hummer H1.  And fucks it up badly.

Michael Bay puts his own spin on a San Francisco chase, complete with a runaway trolley car, and reminds us that at Bay’s peak his set pieces were as good as anyone’s.

5. Catching the Train (The French Connection)

french connectionThe French Connection’s chase is iconic for good reason.  This claustrophobic subway/car chase was filmed without a permit in real Brooklyn traffic, causing real car crashes that were left in the film (the producers paid for the repairs, but still).

While the choice to film on uncleared streets is one that would never be allowed by a Hollywood studio today, the camera angles used by director William Friedkin and his crew are still being used today.

4. Bellbottoms (Baby Driver)

It’s rare to have a car chase open a movie, but when it’s done right,  why not?

Here, Edgar Wright gets the opening chase scene SO right, in part because he’d been dreaming of making this very car chase (complete with accompanying song) since the 90s.  It was worth the wait!

3. Chasing a Black…Tank (Batman Begins)

Christopher Nolan can do it all, can’t he?  You’d think the streets of Gotham City would be perfect car chase fodder but only Nolan got it right.batman

Nolan also got a Gotham chase right in The Dark Knight, but for my money the chase from Batman Begins is the best one since it shows us how bewildering it would be for the cops trying to keep track of a superhero’s black…tank as it defies the laws of physics.

2. Fourth Quarter Magic (Drive)

As good as Baby Driver’s opening is, the opening sequence in Drive wins out for Nicolas Winding Refn’s patience and subtlety.

This chase feels like it actually could have happened, and more importantly sets the tone for the rest of the film with its gritty realism, a hint of the pulsing synth soundtrack, and amazing attention to detail (only after seeing the chase play out do we understand why Ryan Gosling’s character is such a big basketball fan).

1. The Whole Enchilada (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Mad Max: Fury Road is FURY ROADessentially a two-hour long chase scene, so on that measure it has to be number one.

But what is most impressive is that I couldn’t pick just one short sequence of that chase to focus on because it’s all fantastic.  The madness and desperation in Max’s world lend an unmatched urgency to the chase, and George Miller never takes his foot off the accelerator even for a minute – fitting for the best car chase scene of all-time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

The title promises “bad times” and that’s exactly what this film delivers.  In saying that I am not criticizing Bad Times at the El Royale.  It’s a well-made variation on the multiple perspective crime genre (think Pulp Fiction) and it will keep you guessing until the end as each character is introduced and additional information is gained from each new perspective.  But while Quentin Tarantino mixed a fair bit of humour into Pulp Ficton’s dark brew, writer-director Drew Goddard’s El Royale is a long row of tequila shots without a chaser.  It starts slowly but even then, right from the start, the tense atmosphere tells you that a lot of bad shit is coming.

__5b18c1af51a71The main events in Bad Times at the El Royale unfold over the course of one rainy night on the Nevada-California border.  The El Royale is literally split in half by the state line, so the first challenge for each guest is to decide in which state they’d like to stay.  Unfortunately, things have gone downhill at the El Royale ever since it lost its Nevada gaming licence, so the hotel is essentially deserted.  Ringing the bell doesn’t summon the desk clerk; it takes several seconds of beating on the “staff only” door to wake him.  Once he’s up, the guests are able to check in – there are four at first, and two more will show up before the night is done.  Hardly any of the guests are what they seem, and only a couple of them will live long enough to check out in the morning.

While the movie doesn’t quite reach “classic” status, the solid premise and excellent cast still make this film worth watching.  It’s absolutely packed with talent, as demonstrated by the always-excellent Nick Offerman being relegated to a blink-and-you’ll-miss it role (though he does get to do some woodworking, of sorts, so that was probably reason enough for him to sign on).  Bad Times at the El Royale gave me a tense, suspenseful night chock full of hardboiled twists and turns, and that’s all I could have asked for before the sunrise.

When Lambs Become Lions

Northern Kenya is a very dangerous place for elephants.  Hell, maybe there’s no safe place on Earth for an animal whose front teeth are worth more on the black market than my whole body, but Northern Kenya is particularly deadly ground.  Every day, the elephants are stalked by poachers, who in turn are pursued by park rangers.  But it’s hardly a fair fight when the park rangers haven’t been paid by the government for months, while the poachers stand to make more from one elephant than the rangers have made in the past year.When+Lambs+Become+Lions

When Lambs Become Lions documents the ongoing battle between poachers and rangers from a very interesting perspective: it follows two family members on opposite sides of the fight and shoots the heart of the action, as poachers pursue elephants and as rangers pursue poachers.   Because of its dual focus, When Lambs Become Lions manages not to take sides or judge these relatives as they try to provide for their families.  That is a useful perspective because really, the poachers aren’t the true reason for elephants’ status as an endangered species.  The poachers are the tool of the ivory dealers, and both exist because many of the world’s rich people want to pay lots of money for tusks.  Those people are the villains here.  The poachers are simply trying to get ahead rather than living day-by-day doing whatever odd jobs can be found.

As a result of the film’s judgment-free, up-close approach, When Lambs Become Lions feels more like a narrative feature than you’d expect.  I was curious to see how the story would end and enjoyed the twists and turns along the way.  As it turns out, poachers and rangers are not like oil and water.   They mix, they intermingle, and they can at time seven switch from one side to the other.  Even though rangers are authorized (and expected) to shoot poachers on sight, there’s a respect for their opponents’ circumstances and humanity that feels so very foreign, quaint, and refreshing in contrast to the western ultra-partisan, hyper-adversarial approach to conflict.

What’s the cause of those differing attitudes to one’s ideological opponents? Is it that we’ve had it too good for too long to remember what it’s like to make hard choices to survive?  Are we afraid to engage with those who have different opinions than ours?  Why can’t we see past those differences that are so minor in comparison to the divide between than these two relatives, one of whom is expected to feed the other to crocodiles when both are on duty?  I’m not sure but it’s something for us to figure out because, like rangers say about poachers, that story is unlikely to have a happy ending.

 

Marks of Mana

According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead.  Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.marks of mana

This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children.  One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry.  Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men.  Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.

Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans.  The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.

The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five).  Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.

Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.