Thursday, November 29, 2018

Green Book and Short Takes on Creed II

                 “We have all been here before”
(from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's song “Déjà Vu,” on their 1970 album of the same name)

                                                          Reviews by Ken Burke

                      Green Book (Peter Farrelly)  rated PG-13

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): “Inspired by a true story” is back in the saddle again for this engaging, intriguing film offering yet another specific history lesson I had no concept of, although I’m happy to have learned about it.  In 1962 we meet a well-educated, multi-lingual, extraordinary musician in NYC, Dr. Don Shirley, who decides to take his trio on a concert tour in the Deep South, attempting to expose White audiences there to the amazing talent of a Black man they might not even choose to speak to under other circumstances.  He’s realistic enough to know he might need some muscle if situations get rough, though, so he ends up hiring Copacabana-bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga to be his chauffeur on this 8-week journey, with equal doses of public acceptance and private distain for “Doc” on the trip.  While this is based in fact, molded into a script by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, along with director Farrely and Brian Hayes Currie, you don’t need to avoid spoilers to know the kinds of racist encounters Tony and Don meet on the road as well as the classist encounters directly between them while driving along those Southern roads; still, I’ll save the more important details for the spoiler-filed review below in case you want to delve into it (or avoid it until you’ve had a chance to see Green Book for yourself).  I definitely encourage your attendance as this film continues to roll out to a wide range of viewing opportunities not only for its important message but also for the superb acting with might bring some Oscar nominations, especially for Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of Tony but maybe also for Mahershala Ali as Dr. Shirley.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: 1962 Manhattan.  Tony “Lip” (because he says he can bullshit his way out of anything; not that he’s actually lying, he insists) Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a beefy bouncer at the famed Copacabana nightclub where he keeps the patrons in line, schmoozes with the mobsters who frequent the place, works little cons of his own such as bribing the coat-check-girl (Maggie Nixon) to give him the hat of a prominent hood, then later returns this “lost” item to its owner for a nice reward plus promises of help if ever needed.  As it turns out, Tony could use some financial assistance because the Copa’s going to be closed during renovations for a few months, so he does get an offer to be some mob muscle but turns it down (hard to believe for his Italian family and neighbors in the Bronx).  Soon, he finds another opportunity, to be a driver (and general assistant) for brilliant Doctor (as in Ph.D. in the fields of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts from the U. of Chicago, although I don’t think that was ever clarified in the film) Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a pianist famous (and wealthy) enough to live in an apartment above Carnegie Hall (where he sits on a throne, surrounded by exotic items), about to embark on a tour of the Midwest and (for the first time) the Deep South, who needs someone of Tony’s physique to help manage what’s likely to be various forms of trouble in the one of the more overtly racist areas of the U.S. at the time (accompanying them in a separate car are Shirley’s sidemen in the trio, Oleg [Dimeter Marinov] on cello, George [Mike Hatton] on base [fictionalized from actual trio members Juri That, Ken Fricker]).  The film’s title comes from a printed traveling companion for “Negro Travelers” of the day, noting relatively-safe-housing/vacation-options just for Blacks in this fiercely-biased-region of the country. 

 While Tony tends to his duties in a respectful-enough-manner (given the vast economic/cultural differences between these 2 men, with Shirley having shown the courtesy of first telephoning Tony’s devoted wife, Delores [Linda Cardellini], before accepting her husband for the job to verify she’ll be OK with him being gone for 8 weeks [hopefully returning by Christmas Eve], leaving her with their 2 young sons; however, it’s a job both spouses are willing to accept because they truly need the money after Tony pushes the price up to $125 per week [plus expenses], with limits on what duties he’s expected to do in addition to driving all day), the 2 men clash constantly while on the road with the educated, multi-lingual Shirley generally unsuccessful in getting Tony to just be quiet and stop smoking for awhile even as his driver constantly unloads his opinions on everything, including aspects of Shirley’s life he has no insights about, including alienation from his brother and ex-wife, apparently the only family he has. However, Tony’s more successful in getting him to try some KFC fried chicken—a dish Shirley never tasted before (possibly because of the racist connotations it often had when linked to African-Americans, although Dr. Don doesn’t specifically say this)—which he enjoys, even to the point of joining Tony in throwing the bones away into the roadside vegetation.

 Over their time together and at Shirley’s successful concerts Tony becomes annoyed as well at the “Doctor’s” attempt to improve his employee's limited language, elocution, aspirations (although Tony’s forcefulness is appreciated when necessary, as with the concert at an Indiana college where Tony stands strong with a local stagehand to acquire the Steinway piano Shirley insists be his instrument at every performance, after the guy initially had no interest in replacing the crappy piano he’d hauled onto the stage, assuming it made no difference even though this one had some minor trash on the strings); however, one personal improvement Tony does accept is help in writing letters home to Delores, replacing his original clumsy observations with some poetic language she swoons over, sharing it with her friends, generating some hostility from them toward their Tony-like, “meathead” husbands who never express such eloquent regard for their women.  Tony also comes to respect Shirley’s virtuoso abilities, even as this wizard of the keyboard privately complains his record company expects him to play/record more popular numbers or restrained jazz rather than the classical music he was trained for at Russia’s Leningrad Conservatory of Music (he also speaks several languages, as Tony finds out afterward when he’s visited in the South by some Italian mobsters, trying to secretly hire him away from his driver job [he refuses anyway]); as they get further south, though, their relationship takes on more of a mutual connection, especially one night at a lower-class-motel in Kentucky where Shirley’s forced to stay, not fitting in with the other Black tenants who come from a completely different background (Tony’s at another location close by), so he wanders into a local bar (every night he polishes off most of a quart of Scotch in response to the sadness he feels at not fitting in much of anywhere except when he’s on stage) to get away from the motel, there accosted by some local thugs until Tony shows up to rescue him, claiming he’s got a pistol which results in the bartender finally bringing out a shotgun to break the tension until these unwelcome outsiders can quickly leave.  Tony later claims he was just using his “Lip” skills (although we learn later he does have a gun), which does annoy Shirley that his companion would risk a gunfire melee but encourages him that Tony'd go to such lengths for their shared protection.

 Problems intensify, though, because in Macon, GA Shirley’s forced to stay at a YMCA but Tony’s called there by the local police who’ve found him naked in a darkened area with a White man, leading to a mutual arrest which Tony diffuses by offering the cops a “contribution” (not a bribe!) for their needs, allowing the arrests to be rescinded.  As their trip continues Shirley expresses his hurt frustration to Tony he’s not considered “Black enough, White enough, man enough” to be accepted by anyone, the source of his nightly imbibing.  Tony’s growing-protective-attitude provides the next difficulty, though, when they’re stopped by other police while driving on a rainy night, the officers insisting Shirley’s in violation of local law by being out after dark (as absurd as it sounds, in my grandmother’s little west Texas town of Clyde that was still the law until federal protections began to unravel some of those codes of legal intimidation).  Tony first takes offense, then punches one of the cops due to their belligerent attitudes, landing them both in jail.  This time it’s Dr. Don to the rescue calling his lawyer who happens to be U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, so a second call from D.C. to the Mississippi Governor leads to a quick release of our travelers; yet, tension grows between them as Shirley’s upset for Tony causing the fiasco, Tony says he’s actually Blacker than “Doc” due to his working-class-status while Shirley inhabits the lofty zone of White-elegance.  

 This is all resolved when they get to Birmingham, AL, for their last show, with their gracious host showing Shirley to his dressing room—a janitor’s closet—but Don refuses to play when they won’t let him eat dinner in the restaurant where the event’s to take place (reminding him of the insult in Raleigh, NC with the outhouse he’d have to use for a restroom; instead, the acclaimed pianist made them wait while Tony drove him back to his motel for the rest stop, then returned for his concert), so the 2 travelers go to a Black jazz joint where Don first impresses everyone with a solo piece, then joins with the other musicians for a hot jam session before he and Tony drive (taking turns as each one sleeps) through a snowstorm back to NYC (stopped by another cop, but only to alert them about a flat tire) so Tony can be with his family.  At first Don goes back to his lavish but lonely apartment, then decides to accept Tony's invitation to join his crowd for the holiday party where he’s well-received (Dolores quietly thanks him for his help with the letters, knowing they couldn’t have been Tony’s words), despite these same folks—including Tony—making disparaging remarks about Blacks at the film’s beginning.  Pre-credits-graphics tell us the real Tony and Don remained friends for the rest of their lives, Don dying in early 2013 followed by Tony a few months later (after an acting career playing mobsters in various movies as well as HBO's TV series, The Sopranos).⇐

So What? At times I complain about the deluge of “based on a true story” films/TV shows now finding their way to both the big and small screens, making me question what’s happened to the wealth of quality original scripts that were characteristic of “old Hollywood,” even up through the end of the 20th century, compared to now where “original” seems to go hand-in-hand with fantasy stories culled from comic books and video games or prequels/sequels to anything that’s previously made piles of cash.  Nevertheless, I'll make the counter-admission that most of the fact-based-ones I’ve seen recently are uniformly well-done, either (a) helping me fill in the gaps in my own awareness of times long past or eras I’ve lived through without knowing anything about the depicted events, as with Green Book (the racist South was no surprise, mind you, given I lived in various parts of much-more-intolerant-than-it-ever-needed-to-be-Texas for over 3 decades before finally escaping to the Left Coast [even my own beloved grandmother, the matriarch of that little town near Abilene I previously mentioned, told me well into the 1980s she’d never let a Black person into her house]) letting me know about a famous artist outside of my limited-musical-awareness who had the courage to challenge the racial-status-quo, even if just by trying to force bigots—especially the rich ones who invite Dr. Shirley into their homes to perform for their pleasure—to understand in their own minds how they could praise artists/entertainers/athletes in many fields when “on stage,” yet deny them their basic humanity in face-to-face-situations, or (b) allowing me to acquire depth from these stories, helping me get better insights into the motivations, procedures, personal goals of people involved in events I do know something about but can benefit from learning more (e.g. Showtime’s excellent current TV series about a 2015 prison break in upper NY state, Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller, so well acted by Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette).

 Green Book is a sobering exploration of a time and places many of us hoped were fading into history* until such dreams have been rudely shattered by the overt re-emergence of the mindless hatred of the “other” so much more prevalent in American society in recent years, either as a rejection of our first Black President (Barack Obama) or in support of our current "nationalist" White one (“Agent Orange,” as Spike Lee calls Donald Trump, refusing to dignify his presence with a proper name, as with Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies).  Hate crimes, mass murders, dirty politics are sadly becoming the active norm again as we retrench into tribe vs. tribe; Green Book shows us how absurd this all is, as Tony evolves from throwing away kitchen glasses simply touched by Black workmen to witnessing—then rejecting—the cruel hostility shown to Don Shirley, even by the same Whites who’d just welcomed him into their homes but only to display his talent, not acknowledge his humanity.  Admittedly, a lot of Black folks didn’t know what to make of him either, as shown in a scene where the car breaks down so he and Tony get out while a field full of African-American workers stop to look to look at Shirley, a well-dressed Black man riding in the back of a Cadillac driven by a White man.  That’s no longer the incongruous-mismatch it appeared to be in 1962, but the underlying class, race—even gender—divides taken for granted then (“That’s the way we do things here.”) still separate us us today when we allow the worst instinct of our culture to manifest itself without condemnation from our supposed leaders or dignified challenges from those like Dr. Don Shirley, desperately trying to rise up above such divisive interpersonal smog.

*At least that’s how I experienced it and still appreciate it as such; however, surviving members of Shirley’s family aren't impressed with the film, considering it to be focused too much on Tony’s presentation as a “White savior” of his Black companion, even to the point of being "full of lies" as they interpret its contents about Shirley’s supposed-lack-of-connections to his family and the Black community at large so please be aware of these bitter complaints.  You can also view the extended interview with many of the filmmakers in the 2nd entry under Related Links for this film much farther below, where admittedly the focus is often about Tony Vallelonga more so than Don Shirley.

Bottom Line Final Comments: How this film will do when major awards nominees are announced is hard to know (although Mortensen’s been frequently mentioned as an Oscar Best Actor contender, possibly for following in the Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980] Robert De Niro-as-Jack La Motta-mode of gaining plenty of pounds to authenticate his appearance for the role), but it’s won a good number of accolades already at many film festivals throughout the U.S. and in Toronto).  The critical consensus has also been solid: 82% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 70% average score at Metacritic (more details on both much farther below).  The only thing possibly holding it back is lack of exposure in its 2 weeks in release so it’s earned a measly $7.9 million in domestic (U.S.-Canada) receipts so far, attributable to playing in only 25 theaters in its opening week, but as it’s expanded to a hefty 1,063 venues hopefully it'll start attracting attention with supportive-word-of-mouth.  That’s a risk at this time of the cinematic year, though, as the bigger-budget, bigger-stars, bigger-concept releases start vying for our attention from now into the New Year’s holidays when a lot of worthy stories and performances get lost in the shuffle, especially as film-industry-columnists offer their speculations on what might get awards-attention, possibly leading to a domino-effect where the miniscule membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association might be influenced in their nominations by these speculations even as their contenders seem to have an outsized-influence on how Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters choose their Oscar finalists (speculation is most Academy members are too busy working to see all the viable-candidates so based on what occurs with the HFPA Golden Globes those are the films that get the most catch-up-DVD-action, along with the nominees from the major L.A. screen guilds of actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, etc. [who may also be influenced by those Golden Globe noms]).  Be all this as it may, Green Book has garnered some useful attention by just being named as the Best Film of 2018 by the National Board of Review, helping it in various categories, with the possibility of other critics’ groups-honors adding another factor in the all-important-Oscar-consideration-races.  No matter how well it does in gathering further prizes, though, I highly encourage you to see Green Book for its uniformly-superb-acting (Ali is nomination-worthy as well, but as with Sylvester Stallone in Creed II [reviewed below], he’s such a crucial, constant presence in this film it’s hard to call him a supporting actor yet if he were to be nominated along with Mortensen as a lead actor there’s far too much chance of them cancelling each other out, a difficult situation), excellent evocation of the time period, along with pertinent content for today's society, still struggling to erase this age-old-racism from our national character.

 With all the music there is in this film (none of which I could cite to you by title without an extensive credits-cheat-sheet; Doc complains his publically-performed-repertoire doesn’t extend to the kinds of classical music he was trained to play, but what he does dazzle us with on those Steinways is beyond my pop-music-playlist-knowledge as well), it’s only natural that I finish my comments with a concluding Musical Metaphor (as I always do in these reviews, even for all those other cinematic experiences I’ve explored that aren’t about music at all), so I find myself drawn to “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range (from their 1986 debut album, named the same as this song) at (this the official music video for the tune, with Hornsby also tickling the ivories on a Steinway [Shirley would surely approve]) where the lyrics note class, economic, race differences with those in power (just like those White men in the film who refused to budge on their racist, segregationist policies toward Dr. Don, even if they’d just greeted him warmly a few minutes earlier) dismissing the frustrations of those not in power with the tired bromide of “That’s just the way it is Some things will never change,” although Hornsby (as vocalist) offers the counter-opinion of “Ah, but don’t you believe them,” which is what maestro Shirely was standing up for in his known-to-be-difficult tour of the bigoted South I grew up in long ago (Texas, as previously noted, where there were also Hispanics to castigate; Asians would come later, as waves of immigrants poured in [legally] in the aftermath of the Vietnam War).  Shirley’s hope seemed to be in showing his all-White-audiences a “Negro” could be an educated, talented, erudite person worthy of respect by means of his virtuoso performances, courteous manner, innate sense of dignity that connoted in his silent challenge to the reality of “separate but (nowhere close to) equal" in these Southern states, implying to the racists he mingled with (up to a point) […] hey, old man, how can you stand to think that way? And did you really think about it before you made the rules?”

 However, as I got further into writing the text for this posting I found myself using 2 Musical Metaphors in the review below so it seemed only right this one should have 2 as well, leading me to Sam Cooke’s "A Change Is Gonna Come" (on his 1964 Ain’t That Good News album), inspired by the same sort of lodging rejection shown to Don Shirley, even though Cooke was likewise a major musical star back in that era yet he ran afoul of Louisiana’s racist exclusionary policies of the time, channeling his initial anger into a hopeful refrain of “It’s been a long time coming But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will [… because just like Don Shirley’s iron will in the face of grotesque insults, Cooke admits] There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long But now I think I’m able to carry on.”  This video of Cooke’s evolved-into-an-anthem-composition (tragically, he was fatally shot in an L.A. motel just 2 weeks prior to the song’s release, so he never knew how vital it became to America's still-evolving-legal/attitudinal-changes around racial injustice)which Dr. Shirley could live to value the song's message in context, as his death didn’t come until decades laterenhances Cooke’s lyrics with images of the cruelty and poverty suffered by Southern Blacks, then the hopeful changes during the Civil Rights movement (with a few added shots of Cooke also).
SHORT TAKES (OK, what you'll read below's not much shorter than the above review, but these franchise episodes manifest lives of their own trying to keep all of them in context) 
(please note that spoilers appear here too)

               Creed II (Steven Capel Jr.)   rated PG-13

As the 8th entry in the series inspired by Rocky (1976), we again find Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis, in the ring, first winning the WBC Heavyweight Championship, then deciding to defend it against Viktor Drago, burly son of the Russian brute who killed Adonis’ father in the ring in Rocky IV (1985), although no one associated with young Creed wants him to attempt this battle.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
 The main thing I found myself thinking about in consolidating my thoughts on this movie was why I was so receptive to it, despite its constant evocation of so many expected aspects of the Rocky (transitioning into Creed) tradition, when I’d been so blasé about the similar repetition of Harry Potter allusions in the current episode of the “Wizarding World” franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (David Yates; review in our November 22, 2018 posting), to the point of using the Four Tops’ “The Same Old Song” as the Musical Metaphor in that review.  What it comes down to for me is the difference between … Grindelwald’s structure crammed with enough characters and subplots continuing from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Yates, 2016; review in our November 24, 2016 posting) you practically need a CliffsNotes booklet to keep track of it all but with a story ultimately focused on slam-bang-action-scenes as good wizards try to prevent bad ones from taking over our world along with their own vs. Creed II’s streamlined narrative centered on just 3 boxing matches with only about half a dozen primary characters to follow.  This allows the latter movie to probe some sincere emotions within the various relationships as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan)—whose earlier name was Donnie Johnson until he changed it to honor his heritage as the illegitimate son of former champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers in flashback imagery, posters, murals)—decides he must defend his newly-won WBC World Heavyweight Championship belt* against hulking brute Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), to avenge the death in the ring of Apollo in an exhibition bout in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) by Viktor’s equally-brutal-hulk of a father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), which led to then-champ Rocky Balboa (Stallone) beating Ivan, followed by a symbolic plea for world peace, with that exhibition match taking place in the Soviet Union (yet Drago’s humiliated, his trophy wife [an athlete in her own right, though] Ludmilla [Brigitte Nielsen] leaves him, he and his son are consigned to manual labor along with a barely-noticed-boxing-career for Viktor in Ukraine, so Ivan’s hungry for his own revenge against Rocky’s protégé).  

*In addition to the World Boxing Council’s title there are also championships sanctioned by the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and the World Boxing Organization (WBO)—none of whom are mentioned here—with a unified title a rare occurrence so I assume the filmmakers made a deal only with the WBC for inclusion in this movie.  I’m not sure if a specific sanctioning body was noted in any of the earlier Rocky episodes of this evolving franchise.

 However, Viktor’s on the verge of pulverizing Adonis in the second round of their title bout when he’s disqualified for continuing to hit Adonis after he’s already down, so Creed “Jr”. retains his title, despite broken ribs, other injuries keeping him out of action for months (long enough for his daughter, Amara, to be born, even though new fiancée Bianca Taylor [Tessa Thompson]—a successful singer in her own right, whose new contract leads these youngsters to relocate to L.A.—just found out she was pregnant shortly before the battle with Drago).  From here, the tension comes from Adonis’ determination to respond to media and personal taunts by rematching with Viktor despite opposition from Bianca, stepmom Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), and former trainer Rocky, who declined to be part of the first fight (due to his guilt over Apollo’s death when he felt he should have been the one to initially face Ivan, then his decision to let that beating continue honoring Apollo’s insistence he not stop it for any reason).  All of this leads to Rocky’s estrangement from Adonis, who felt he could have better survived had his mentor continued as trainer.  So, we have in place crucial elements from the previous 7 Rocky/Creed movies—memory of the favored protagonist, Adonis, losing by a split-decision to then-current-champ, “Pretty” Rickie Conlan (Anthony Bellew) in the previous episode (as with Rocky to Apollo when this whole thing started); recently-crowned champ Adonis finds his title in jeopardy from a superior opponent (as in Rocky III [Stallone, 1982] when Balboa briefly lost his title to vicious Clubber Lang [Mr. T] before regaining it); a loved one argues against a rematch (in Rocky II [Stallone, 1979] Balboa’s wife, Adrian [Talia Shire], makes him promise to not fight Apollo again, until her last-minute-change of heart); death hangs over the proceedings (Rocky’s trainer, Mickey Goldmill [Burgess Meredith], dies in Rocky III, Apollo’s killed in Rocky IV, Adrian dies of cancer prior to Rocky Balboa [Stallone, 2006], her brother, Paulie Pennino [Burt Young], also died prior to the events of Creed [Ryan Coogler, 2015; review in our December 2, 2015]); immanent death seems possible at the hands of another sanctioned-assassin named Drago—with the outcome of this current movie building on all those established premises.*

*There's a very-detailed-tally of all the Rocky/Creed plot points here if you'd care to explore them.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV (1985)
 Adonis reconciles with Rocky, leading the younger boxer to the endurance test of a devastating program of preparation (in a Southwestern desert rather than the harsh Russian winter Rocky had to endure prior to his fight with Ivan Drago); the rematch again must take place in Moscow so Viktor Drago has solid crowd support (he and his father are welcomed back, even a bit by ex-wife Ludmila due to Viktor’s victories in the West); the younger Drago comes on like a steamroller at first in the rematch only to be amazed at Creed’s endurance, despite being pounded again on those injured ribs; Drago "Jr" then suffers cuts and hammering blows from Creed, forcing Viktor into longer rounds than he’s ever had to endure.  However, this ending’s different: in the 10th round both boxers have been knocked down, struggle to get up, but you can tell the tide’s turning when the “Rocky Theme (Gonna Fly Now)” eases into the soundtrack as Adonis begins to take command; Ivan can no longer tolerate the beating/sure-defeat/possible permanent injury Viktor’s suffering (father and son are also disheartened when they see Ludmila leave the arena) so (in what feels like the longest 2-minute-round in boxing history with all those knockdowns) he throws in the towel to stop Creed’s assault (resulting in their return to working-class-status in Ukraine as we see in a brief final scene).  So, Adonis keeps his title; after visiting Adrian’s grave (as he often does, further remembering her with the Italian restaurant he now owns, named in her memory), Rocky travels to his son Robert’s (Milo Ventimiglia) home in Vancouver to reconcile, finally meet his grandson; Adonis and Bianca’s daughter does share her mom’s diminished hearing as they feared but she’s outfitted with hearing aids as her parents take her to Apollo’s grave; we’ll now wait patiently to see who Creed’s next opponent will be, knowing that at some future time Rocky will likely finally exit this franchise as he declines to enter the Moscow ring to celebrate Adonis’ latest victory, telling him “It’s your time.”⇐ 

 You’d think with all these obvious reminiscences of past-franchise-aspects critics and audiences might be getting tired of revisiting the formula (yet, there’d already been movement in that direction with the original Rocky [John G. Avildsen, 1976] setting a high standard, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Film Editing [the only other later Oscar nomination given to the original series was for Best Original Song, “Eye of the Tiger,” from Rocky III], the first 4 Rockys bringing in anywhere from $200.2-$300.4 million in worldwide ticket sales with the next 2 falling notably below that, the series showing generally-diminishing-evaluative-returns as well, dropping from 93% positive RT reviews, 70% average MC score for Rocky in 1976 down to a respective 38%, 40% for Rocky IV [although it hit the high-water-mark at the box-office], then RT 27%, a surprisingly-higher MC 55% for Rocky V).  Conversely, Creed pushed the worldwide income up to about $173.6 million, supported by 95% positive reviews at RT, an 82% average score at MC, clearly reviving the franchise, although Creed II’s slipping a bit with 82% positive RT reactions, a more-expected 67% average MC score (still, it’s the 3rd highest from them for the entire series).  Audience response has been healthy as well with about $56 million domestically in the till after just the first week (not as impactful as the more family-friendly Ralph Breaks the Internet [Rich Moore, Phil Johnson], though, now up to about $87 million domestically [$129.3 million worldwide] for the same period, with Creed II having a long way to go to match the domestic hauls of still-playing Venom [Ruben Fleischer] at $211.7 million, A Star is Born [2018] [Bradley Cooper; review in our October 11, 2018 posting] at $191 million, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch [Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier] at $180.5 million, or Bohemian Rhapsody [Bryan Singer; review in our November 7, 2018 posting] at $152.2 million, all now in theaters anywhere from 3-8 weeks), so we’ll just have to see how solid this boxing-tale’s “legs” are as it battles the end-of-the-year-awards-awareness-onslaught of studio-prized-final-2018-releases.

 I wouldn’t expect much in the way of Oscar nominations for Creed II, although Jordan’s performance is quite solidly-engaging, especially as he endures the rigors of his training as well as the crashing blows from Munteanu, which may not have actually broken his ribs but couldn’t have had much less impact.  Stallone’s fine in his barely-supporting-role (he’s on screen almost as much as Jordan), with Rocky showing his age has brought forth a bit of wisdom about priorities while demonstrating how he’s never fully recovered from the beating handed out by the elder Drago; however, Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Creed for a similar performance (losing to Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies [Steven Spielberg, 2015; review in our October 15, 2015 posting], just as he lost Best Actor [to Peter Finch, Network {Sidney Lumet}—no chance there], Best Original Screenplay [to Paddy Chayefsky, Network—no chance there either] for the 1976 franchise-founding Rocky) so I doubt we’ll see a repeat this year.  Certainly, Creed II’s no film for the ages, but it does continue the heartwarming tradition of underdog-triumphs, truly-felt-romances, and inspirational characters this franchise this is well-known for, with the in-ring-action rough but tolerable (compared to the honest brutality of Raging Bull, with boxing scenes so intense they’re hard to watch, even in black & white), the ending an easy set-up for yet another sequel (although we’ve about run out of Rocky ghosts to be resurrected) so someone new could be on the horizon.*

*This short article explores director Caple Jr.’s (Hurrah! I finally get to legitimately use this suffix!) goals for advancing this franchise in the current installment without succumbing to mere nostalgia.  (Warning: this site’s ad-infested, so if you've considered blocker software this may be your reason.)

 When choosing a Musical Metaphor for Creed II, one title quickly emerging was Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (from their 1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water album), although it pushes the bounds of “metaphor” quite a bit when applied to the characters and situations of this film; however, if you see the singer as Rocky Balboa rather than Adonis Creed I think you can appreciate the early-life-struggles (prior to the triumph depicted in Rocky) of a nobody-guy “seeking out the poorer quarters, where the ragged people go […] I come lookin’ for a job But I get no offers,” so he survives as a loan-shark’s-enforcer until he miraculously gets his big break with the offer to fight Apollo Creed for the heavyweight title.  After many victories, some character-building defeats, the deaths of most everyone truly close to him, though, he’s trying—not all that successfully—to move on from his battered life in the ring (including brain damage from the horrid Drago fight)—again metaphorically, from the celebrity glamor of a place like Manhattan (where fame can easily become more vicious than uplifting, as other celebrities [boxing challengers] try to replace you, the public finds sport in seeing you humbled), leaving it behind “Where the New York City winters aren’t bleedin’ me, leadin’ me”yet as he goes he’s aware of “a [new] boxer [Adonis], and a fighter by his trade [… who] carries the reminders Of every grove that laid him down or cut him ‘Til he cried out in his anger and his shame [… so Rocky seems to be slowly] leaving, but the [rising] fighter still remains” (as this franchise is destined to continue with the rough career young Creed's chosen for himself, even if Rocky’s so-far-crucial-presence might fade as sequels continue to roll out over upcoming years).  If you’ve bought my argument, you can watch Paul and Artie in live performance at (from their celebrated 1982 Concert in Central Park—with a little stumble toward the start, just like a misstep by a boxer before taking command of the bout—including the “Now the years are rolling by me” extra verse from the time of Simon’s original composition but not part of the 1970 album’s recording).  Nevertheless, if you’d prefer a more straightforward Metaphor for the triumph "Donnie" earns in his brutal battle with Drago then a direct option is available with Queen’s "We Are the Champions" (from the 1977 News of the World album) to simply celebrate the ring-reigns of Apollo, Rocky, and Adonis (this performance from their famous Live Aid set at Wembley Stadium, London, 1985, as noted in our November 7, 2018 review of Bohemian Rhapsody  [Bryan Singer], recreated in that movie by the marvelous Rami Malek [but, to which I still say, save some time and money by watching actual Queen videos at YouTube, etc.]).
 As we’ve come to the end of the reviews in this posting I’ll offer you 2 more random items of possible cinematically-related-interest: (1) an interview with Joan Graves, a 77-year-old woman who served for 30 years on the film industry’s Ratings Review Board (18 as chairwoman), set to retire soon, in case you’d like to get somewhat into the mind of the sort of people who decide just how “adult” everything in our movie theaters is supposed to be, and (2) a tally of what constitutes the worst movies of 2018—so far at least—based on their Metacritic scores (which are usually low enough, even for the ones those reviewers like, so these are real dogs—sorry, canines, you don’t deserve such insults); I’m proud to say I haven’t seen any of them (unless their atrocity blissfully wiped away any memories of their existence).  All of this should keep you busy until next we meet.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Green Book: (40:36 interview beginning with introductions of director Peter Farrelly, executive producers Octavia Spencer, Jonathan King and Kwame Parker, producers Jim Burke and Charlie Wessler, Ted Virtue [involvement unknown to me], scriptwriters Nick Vallelonga and Brian Curry, music composer Kris Bowers, actors Sebastian Maniscalo, Mike Hatton, Lindsay Brice, Dimiter Marinov, Joe Cortese, Quinn Duffy, Linda Cardellini, Mahershala Ali, and Viggo Mortensen [all of which takes about 10½ min., but I thought you might be interested in seeing what some of these behind-the-scenes-people look like]; however, most of the Q&A talk focuses on Farrelly, Vallelonga, Curry, Ali, Mortensen, Cardellini, and Spencer)

Here’s more information about Creed II: (16:03 interview with actors Michael B. Jordan, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Tessa Thompson and director Steven Caple Jr.)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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