Film Review: Creed II (2018)

Release Date: November 14th, 2018 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.
Written by: Juel Taylor, Sylvester Stallone, Sascha Penn, Cheo Hodari Coker
Based on: characters by Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Ludwig Goransson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Russell Hornsby, Carl Weathers (archive footage)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema, 130 Minutes

Review:

“Because of you… I lose everything. My country. Respect. You ever see stray dogs in the Ukraine? They go for days without food. People spit on them, they are nothing. No home. Only will to survive… to fight. I have son. All he knows… [raises his fists] …is this.” – Ivan Drago

I really anticipated and then liked the first Creed movie but I was even more excited for where a second one could go.

The reason being, is even back in 2015, I kind of knew they were going to revisit the Ivan Drago storyline that was Rocky IV. Naturally, it felt unavoidable, as Apollo Creed’s son becomes his own man in the boxing realm but the death of his father is still a very big chip on his shoulder. It’s the one thing that eats away at his soul and has to be conquered for the man to become great. Plus, Dolph Lundgren is still tight with Stallone and it made sense on every level.

So even though I liked the previous one, this chapter in the Rocky franchise is a bit better. The Drago story here was great and it had so much depth that it almost improves Rocky IV, which was severely lacking in narrative and character development. Ivan Drago isn’t just a Russian machine raising another Russian machine, here he is a man, a real character, broken, tired, angry and ready to get what he feels is justice for his honor.

Dolph Lundgren was absolutely superb in this. He has more lines and screen time than he did in Rocky IV and you get to see him vulnerable. Also, his relationship with his son is really good and by film’s end, you see this intimidating Russian monster become a real father. But that also gets into a bit of a problem I have with the film, which I’ll get into towards the end of this when I start talking about the few negatives this movie had.

As can be expected with Rocky films, especially after Rocky Balboa and Creed, the movie was solid in its writing, its direction, its score and its acting. From a technical and performance standpoint, there isn’t really anything bad you can say about how this looks and feels on screen.

One person that really captured my attention was Phylicia Rashad. I loved her in the first one but she had more time to shine here and she really takes over the scenes she’s in. She doesn’t overshadow the other actors but her presence and her spirit lifts up their already good performances. Every scene she’s in is meaningful and frankly, why hasn’t Rashad been in more films and television over the years? Maybe she doesn’t want to work as much after her long stint on The Cosby Show and Cosby but this role made her feel like a well aged Clair Huxtable, as I just felt like she was America’s mom once again. She is probably the strongest character in this franchise apart from Adrian, considering what she’s lost and how she still supports Adonis and Rocky, despite what she could lose in doing so.

I was surprised to see Brigitte Nielsen in this. It was absolutely great that she appears in two key scenes. The reason I was surprised by it, is I hadn’t heard anything about her participating and assumed she just wouldn’t be in it due to her divorce from Stallone a few years after Rocky IV. While she doesn’t really share scenes or dialogue with Stallone, I hope the two of them found peace with their divorce from three decades ago. Seeing her in this though, made me wish she had a real verbal exchange with Lundgren and Stallone on screen.

As far as the negatives go, there are only three and they’re minor.

First off, the speech scenes where a character is down and they need to be lifted up by someone else weren’t as strong in this film as they have been in Rocky-related movies of the past. They were okay but they lacked emotional impact and real oomph. None of them were really memorable, except for the scene where Ivan Drago has to get through to his son Viktor. In that moment, Drago has to swallow his pride, stop blaming Rocky and admits that he simply lost a fight, all those years ago.

That brings me to my second negative, as it also involves Ivan Drago.

The scene where Ivan and Rocky come face to face, Ivan unloads on Rocky about what Rocky cost him. Rocky kind of just sits there and takes it, not saying too much. Part of me was waiting for Rocky to tell Drago that he lost more: his best friend, his mind, his body, etc. Because if comparing notes, Drago took more from Rocky. But that didn’t happen and I felt like it needed to, to make Drago think and reflect on his loss and how he’s not just a victim.

The third negative is that you are obviously pulling for Adonis but as the final fight starts to come to its end, there are events that hit you emotionally for Viktor Drago. His mother abandons him, as she leaves her seat when the fight takes a turn. It’s a scene that is done so effectively that in that moment, you want Viktor to win. While I think empathizing more with the Dragos can definitely be explored, the way it’s done in that moment, sort of took the momentum away from the fight and the ending. It felt as if the film was going for a twist but then didn’t commit to it.

Now those negatives don’t ruin the film but they do prevent it from being a great motion picture. Still, I certainly want a Creed III and I want to see the Dragos find peace and to regain their family honor. I think the next natural step is for the two sons of the franchise’s biggest tragedy to both overcome the effects of it and find a bond with one another. And for Rocky and Ivan to embrace… but that’s probably asking a lot.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: the first Creed, as well as all the Rocky films before it.

Film Review: The Hunted (1948)

Release Date: April 7th, 1948
Directed by: Jack Bernhard
Written by: Steve Fisher
Music by: Edward J. Kay
Cast: Preston Foster, Belita, Pierre Watkin, Edna Holland

Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“You know something, Johnny? It’s been four years since I’ve been kissed.” – Laura Mead

The Hunted was not a major studio film-noir picture but it was still a pretty engaging story where even if the acting wasn’t the greatest, the characters still lured you in.

While Preston Foster gets top billing here, the most interesting cast member is Belita. For those unaware, she was a talented figure skater from the United Kingdom. She dabbled in acting for a bit and actually was cast in three film-noir pictures during her film career. While she didn’t have the typical Hollywood femme fatale look, she was still stunning in her own way and had more of an athletic build, which worked for her character here, as ice skating was a part of this story.

The film flows pretty quickly and it’s relatively short when compared to bigger budget noir pictures. Most of the B-movie noirs had scant running times, which is actually something I like about them. It allows them to move swiftly, cut out the frills and gives them a bit more grit and realism. This film is exactly what I just described. While the best noirs are like a fine wine, films like this are more like a shot of whiskey.

The Hunted feels dirty and organic when seen next to a film like Laura. With that, Belita feels more real, as well.

The plot follows a cop that discovers that his girlfriend may be involved in a jewelry robbery. He arrests her, even though she claims she was framed. She gets out years later but then gets mixed up in a murder. The detective believes that she may have been involved in the murder but as noir pictures go, he struggles between his own moral code and his dame.

Now the story isn’t all that complex or original but it doesn’t need to be. Noir films were a dime a dozen in the late 1940s and the cream of the crop often times rose to their heights because of atmosphere. This isn’t the cream of the crop but the atmosphere is still effective and elicits emotional investment into the film and its characters. This is no Laura or Double Indemnity but it is a much better movie than most of the Poverty Row studios’ attempts at high octane crime pictures. Plus, this even makes time for a Belita figure skating performance. Although, that does feel a bit out of place.

The Hunted is a nice way to kill 84 minutes. It isn’t a great example of film-noir but for fans of the style, it’s certainly worth a look.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: the other two film-noir pictures starring figure skater Belita: Suspense and The Gangster.

Talking Pulp: How WWE Finally Broke Me as a Lifelong Fan

I have been a fan of professional wrestling my entire life. I grew up with a lot of my family members watching it and I got to go to a ton of shows throughout Florida, as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, I would often times get to go backstage at events, as some people in my family had old relationships with certain people within that industry. I grew up with this thing in my life at a very early age and I even aspired to be a wrestler after seeing the matches of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage, the more technical guys in ECW and all the great Japanese and Mexican classics that I acquired on VHS in the ’90s.

To say that I was a hardcore fan in my teen years and early twenties is an understatement. I grew up with the ’80s cheese, the early ’90s weirdness and the Attitude Era began as I was in my late teens. I remember vividly the first time I saw Scott Hall on Nitro, an ECW show on the Sunshine Network and the Montreal Screwjob. All of it instilled a passion in me that I never thought would die.

However, I’ve now gotten to the point where I can’t stomach WWE. It’s been something that has actually been slowly growing in me for decades since the start of the PG Era and the loss of real competition for Vince McMahon’s monster company. But despite holding on, because I love great matches and great in-ring psychology, I have finally broke down and can’t support WWE anymore.

To start, Raw has had some record low ratings this year and Smackdown is pulling in worse numbers. You can’t really look at pay-per-view buyrates anymore because WWE found a way to skirt around that statistic by putting their marquee shows on their own streaming service. Being that the WWE Network is $9.99 per month, paying that is a no brainer when compared to the $50+ per event that they were charging on the standard cable pay-per-view format. But this also gives WWE an inflated number when compared to pay-per-views of old, as more people can pay $9.99 over $50+. Regardless, you can’t compare pre-WWE Network buyrates to WWE Network subscriptions. It’s apples and oranges but WWE doesn’t want you to see the ruse. But they have seen their audience as dumb for many years, despite their insistence that they care about what the fans want and that WWE fans are “smart”.

You still get a damn good match in WWE quite often but usually they are watered down by the shit show around them. And in cases where you should definitely have awesome matches, you don’t. Look at this year’s AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura feud. Those matches could have been classics and we could have had an incredible feud but WWE stands in the way of its performers and don’t tend to trust outsiders that come into the company that made a big name for themselves outside of WWE. Instead, we got lackluster matches written around low blows and non-finishes.

And that brings me to the writing. It doesn’t take a genius to see that WWE can’t produce a good story anymore and for the most part, every single episode of Raw is made up of the same matches over and over again, week in, week out, where the winner loses the next week and the loser wins the next week. This prevents characters from growth, momentum or any sort of real development.

WWE is absolutely predictable. Even when it isn’t, it’s only because they didn’t see the actual writing on the wall and had their hands over their eyes and ears. It’s very rare that you are surprised by it anymore. Going back to last week’s Raw, everyone was “shocked” by the heel turn of Dean Ambrose but it’s been teased for a year and they only sped up the storyline, as he was probably going to turn heel at Survivor Series in three weeks.

Whenever WWE finds a hot young talent, they tend to build them up strongly, at first, or they become superstars in NXT and then get called up. But once they get even a sliver of the spotlight, Vince McMahon loses confidence and the company doesn’t let a star become a supernova. Most recently, we’ve seen it with Finn Bálor, Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka and even Samoa Joe, who just came off of a high profile feud looking irrelevant. Point being, you invest your own time and emotion in these great performers that could carry this company into a bright future but ultimately, Vince McMahon doesn’t understand his audience and books his shows to promote his own biases to his own detriment.

Fans really want Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks to come to WWE. I don’t because I know what will happen, they’ll come in strong and within a year or two, they’ll flounder on the mid-card wondering what went wrong and wishing they’d stayed in New Japan and Ring of Honor. And based off of WWE’s track record, why would anyone think differently? I mean, what did they do with Cody last time? He was Stardust, a comedy act and a rehash of his older brother’s gimmick.

But the thing is, I have put up with all this bullshit for years and I have still tuned in. But that’s really shifted, specifically in the last few weeks during the build up towards two pay-per-views: Evolution and Crown Jewel.

Evolution, for those who don’t know, is, as they promote it, “…the first ever all-women’s pay-per-view event!” I was pretty excited about this when it was announced but it has become abundantly clear that WWE doesn’t give a shit about this show. In fact, it has actually come out that it was put on as more of a way to get Stephanie McMahon good PR, as she has been taking over as WWE’s public face.

The WWE doesn’t really give a shit about the “women’s revolution” and it’s pretty clear, at this point. All of it is PR and an attempt at virtue signaling and getting imaginary social justice brownie points, which absolutely sucks because the female half of the roster has never been stronger than it is right now. This could be a tremendously stacked pay-per-view with loads of talent, high quality matches and a place to showcase some of the female legends with the superstars of today.

Instead, we get one good match up with Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, a Ronda Rousey match, a tag match where the premiere star has to sit out injured and then a few NXT level matches and a battle royal. So yes, 80 percent of the women’s roster is wedged into a battle royal. The last time this happened was at Wrestlemania, which no one remembers or cares about, and the trophy looked like a golden uterus… that’s not an exaggeration – Google it.

WWE Evolution has been promoted and booked like an afterthought because that’s exactly what it is. But hey, Stephanie McMahon… what a gal? Am I right? Out there putting women first and making things happen for the sisters? Maybe she spent a little extra and got a platinum uterus trophy this time.

But even with Evolution being a blight on WWE, nothing is as embarrassing and as heinous as what has gone down in regards to Crown Jewel, WWE’s second event in Saudi Arabia this year.

Why is this heinous? Well, there’s that whole thing about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, less than a month ago. For those that don’t know, he was a Saudi born journalist that was outspoken against his home country and was murdered for it in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. This is a terrible event that has put a microscope on Saudi Arabia and everything coming out about it is very, very bad.

Since this happened, there was been strong speculation that WWE would cancel the show our move it to another country but WWE is in bed with the Saudis and getting paid a ridiculous sum. This is actually the first year of a ten year contract that Vince McMahon made with the country. WWE wrestlers have expressed their fear in going there, fans have made their anger over it well-known and Vince hasn’t said a damn thing, other than WWE officially revealing that they are still going.

WWE has spent the last year promoting Saudi Arabia as a “progressive” country, even though women aren’t allowed on the show. So much for that “women’s revolution” business, right? In fact, Evolution was probably given to the women to keep them complacent while WWE continues to do business with one of the most non-socially progressive countries in the world.

WWE’s biggest star, John Cena, announced that he will not go to Saudi Arabia. Daniel Bryan expressed the same sentiment but we’ll have to wait and see if he’s forced to do the show against his will. And while other stars also don’t want to go there, it’s pretty clear that Vince McMahon prefers money to morals or if I’m being completely honest, fattening his own pockets while his employees are forced into performing like circus animals for a country that literally murders its own, simply for expressing other viewpoints. Saudi Arabia sounds so “progressive”.

In regards to Crown Jewel, social media has shown that most fans are upset with the event. In fact, polls on just about every wrestling news site have shown that fans oppose this in a landslide. But again, Vince is getting rich and the show must go on. Because some people can’t be satisfied by already being rich and heck, who cares who they murder over there, it’s none of our business and the show must go on! Glad to see that WWE truly cares what their fans think.

I just can’t give this company my money anymore and there are much better alternatives out there like New Japan and Ring of Honor. I just can’t stomach what WWE has become, as they can’t see the line between reality and the circus they’ve created. The McMahons live on another planet, high on their own rich gases where the fantasy is their reality. I don’t think their brains have broke kayfabe in quite some time and they don’t realize that most fans know the difference between the show and the real world.

Vince McMahon, we’re not stupid. And frankly, I have financially supported your product since the ’80s when my mum was yelling at me about the phone bill after calling your hotline too much. I have watched every “big four” pay-per-view since Wrestlemania I but I’m not doing it anymore. So enjoy the Saudi blood money and placating to the virtue signalers. I know I’m not alone in this, so I hope you can right the ship before it’s too late… but it’s probably too late.

But hey, “It’s all about the monaaay!”… am I right?

Film Review: Arena (1989)

Release Date: March 29th, 1989 (Germany)
Directed by: Peter Manoogian
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo
Music by: Richard Band
Cast: Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Camp, Claudia Christian, Marc Alaimo, Shari Shattuck

Empire Pictures, 97 Minutes

Review:

“Oh, I could stay all night, folks, but I gotta go. A hand for the boys in the band, and remember, I hate your guts!” – Space Comic

Arena is such a bizarre and odd movie that I find it impossible not to love on some level.

A doofus Earthling living in space ends up being a fighter in an intergalactic arena that pits him against alien fighters like some sort of bad ’90s fighting game. But I guess this movie was ahead of its time, as it came out in 1989. It didn’t get an American release until 1991, however, and that release saw it go straight to video.

Produced by Irwin Yablans, who made some pretty shitty movies before this, Arena may be the best motion picture that he produced. It’s one of the few that I walked away from that I saw as a positive experience. Because Laserblast and Parasite were absolutely terrible. Fade to Black was decent though, if I’m being honest.

The vibe of the film feels like it is ten years out of date. The sets and the fashion style feel more like an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century than something from 1989. The special effects are also really outdated but this is a film with a scant budget and a lot of that money went into the actual creatures in this film.

While the alien warriors don’t look exceptional, they are still pretty decent. Their movement sucks and it makes the action look goofy as hell but I thought that the detail was good and this movie did a lot with what little it had. On that same token, this isn’t up to par for the era but I can’t wholly knock it. The filmmakers tried to make this work and they achieved more than what most people would have with limited resources.

For some, this will be a hard film to look at. For all, you can’t watch this and remotely take it seriously. But the film seems pretty self-aware and the actors ham it up quite well and seemed to really enjoy the project. Marc Alaimo, best known as the villainous Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, really steals the show in his scenes. Alaimo was a solid talent that was always fun as a villain. His performance her is no different.

I rented Arena a lot as a kid but I haven’t seen this since I was working at a video store in the ’90s. It was cool to revisit and it still puts a smile on my face.

Rating: 5.75/10
Pairs well with: Robot Jox, Eliminators, Crash and Burn, America 3000 and Hardware.

Film Review: Over the Top (1987)

Also known as: Meet Me Half Way (alternate title)
Release Date: February 12th, 1987 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Menahem Golan
Written by: Stirling Silliphant, Sylvester Stallone, Gary Conway, David Engelbach
Music by: Giorgio Moroder
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Robert Loggia, Susan Blakely, David Mendenhall, Rick Zumwalt, Terry Funk

Warner Bros., The Cannon Group Inc., 93 Minutes

Review:

“The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.” – Lincoln Hawk

Over the Top is one of Stallone’s worst films of the ’80s. Still, it’s amusing, enjoyable and has its heart in the right place.

So 11 years after he was a boxer in Rocky and 9 years after he was a wrestling manager in Paradise Alley, Sly moved into the next realm of badass masculine sports: arm wrestling.

Here, Stallone is a trucker/arm wrestler named Lincoln Hawk. The film starts with him going to a military school to pick up his son. His son doesn’t know him but Hawk was asked by the boy’s dying mother to pick him up and drive him home to be by her side before she passes on. Even though Hawk’s ex-wife hasn’t given his letters to his son, on her deathbed she realizes that it’s important for her son to connect with his estranged father. The relationship is rocky at first but eventually the two bond over driving big rigs and arm wrestling.

Robert Loggia is also in this as a sort of foil for Stallone but he really just cares about the well being of the child, his grandson.

This was a Cannon Film and was directed by Menahem Golan of the famous Golan-Globus duo. Stallone was given a hefty paycheck by Cannon to star in this film. He also got to rework the script and story to fit his style and personality.

Unlike Sly’s other manly sports movies, this one is pretty uneventful and slow. It’s like a poorer version of Rocky IV, where the story is very skeletal, the film is short and rushed from a narrative standpoint and then the last third is just the big final sporting event drawn out for a half hour.

The final act is full of insane overacting, bulging muscles, gallons of man sweat and a blaring soundtrack. But it’s ’80s action cheese perfection. Arm wrestling has never been as intense as it is in this motion picture. Hell, Stallone could’ve made a chess movie in the mid-’80s and it would’ve been a testosterone festival full of dudes dripping and screaming.

Despite it’s flaws, this is still a movie that I have to fire up once in awhile. Stallone is always watchable, especially during the decade that was the peak of his career. Plus, all Cannon Films have something great about them. Golan and Globus just knew how to make movies that men (and boys in the ’80s) wanted to see.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Cannon Films action movies and mid-’80s Stallone pictures

Film Review: Master Ninja II (1984)

Also known as: The Master (as a TV series), The Ninja Master (original VHS movie release)
Release Date: 1984 (the original run of the TV series)
Directed by: various
Written by: Tom Sawyer, Michael Sloan, Susan Woollen
Music by: Bill Conti
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Timothy Van Patten, Sho Kosugi, George Lazenby, Crystal Bernard

Michael Sloan Productions, Viacom, CBS, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Sorry, I’m not allowed to serve you.” – nervous waitress

Well, Mystery Science Theater 3000 couldn’t just give us one Master Ninja, they had to give us two. They were actually going to do a third one in a later season but it got cut from the production schedule.

Like the previous “film” in this series, this is just two television episodes of the short-lived show The Master, edited together into feature length and sold as a movie.

As these things go, it is horribly paced and doesn’t work all that well. In fact, this has poorer execution than the first chapter in the series.

I think the first film worked better because it was the start of the series and it helped setup everything. It was a jumbled mess of a thing but it seemed more coherent than this one and it also had Demi Moore in it, just before she reached superstardom.

This one has Crystal Bernard and even adds George Lazenby, a former James Bond, to the mix but it’s pretty uninteresting and very mundane.

The high point of the film is the big action climax at the end but that’s still pretty damn mediocre. This show did pull off some solid stunts though, so there’s that. But when your big action sequence is punctuated by a van smashing through a dainty gate in slow motion, you might need to go back to the drawing board and up the octane.

The Master isn’t a great show but it plays better as single episodes, as opposed to trying to convince audiences with short attention spans that these are actual movies.

But hey, There’s some motocross in this one!

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: Master Ninja I and The Master TV series.

Documentary Review: This Magic Moment (2016)

Release Date: April 14th, 2016
Directed by: Gentry Kirby, Erin Leyden
Music by: Joel Beckerman, Phil Hernandez, Chris Maxwel

ESPN Films, 101 Minutes

Review:

This Magic Moment was one of my most anticipated installments of ESPN’s 30 For 30 film series. It was a special story for me because I was there, in the Orlando area, when all of this stuff was going on. I was in the thick of it.

In fact, a friend of mine’s father had season tickets and I used to go to a lot of Magic games during the season that saw them go to the NBA Finals. It was certainly a magical time for that team and for Central Florida. Plus I was in the middle of my teenage years and basketball was one of the sports I played with a fury at that age.

Yeah, I have always been a Chicago Bulls fan but it was hard not getting swept up in the magic of the Magic when it was all happening in my neighborhood.

This is one of the best, if not the best, 30 For 30 documentaries focusing on the National Basketball Association. It is a hefty and deserving two hours. It covers everything from the formation of the Orlando Magic franchise, through the drafting of Shaq and Penny, their journey to the NBA Finals, their struggles and personal issues and closes out with Shaq leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers and Penny being traded to the Phoenix Suns – ending the dynasty that could have been.

The film benefits from the fact that everyone involved in this story was interviewed. From Shaq to Penny to their agents, coaches, team owners and other significant Magic players from that team, every interviewee was great and helped paint the picture of what happened and why. Looking back to that time, the media and egos created a lot of the issues that took the team down and it is now clear how it all fell apart. Before this film, it was all just a mystery wrapped in a lot of speculation.

It was also great to see how Shaq and Penny feel now and how they share a sense of regret in that they never toughed it out and made it work. They both admit that they would have won several championships had the team stayed together. In the end, Shaq was a huge success regardless and Penny had a very promising career ruined by injury.

This Magic Moment is a phenomenal sports documentary of a fantastic time in the NBA, historically. The Magic of the mid-’90s were special but that may be hard to understand unless you were there. This documentary does a good job of recreating that magic time, however.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: Other 30 For 30 documentaries on the NBA and ’90s basketball: Winning Time, No CrossoverThe Fab Five, Requiem for the Big East, Bad Boys and I Hate Christian Laettner.