On DVD & Blu-Ray: March 5, 2019

The "sins of the father" idea has been played out time and time again since first making its appearance in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, but never has it been so deliciously executed as it is in Creed II given the poetry or, as one commentator within the film calls it, "Shakespearean" nature of one Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of former heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed, coming face to face with the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) some thirty-three years after he killed his father in what was supposed to be an exhibition match. The weight of these circumstances would certainly be hailed as nothing short of mythic to any innocent bystander filled in on the details just prior to the projector heating up and then rolling the whole of Creed II, but for anyone who has seen or been a fan of the Rocky franchise for any amount of time and has specifically basked in the glory of all that is simultaneously great and terrible about Rocky IV then it's not as difficult to see how easily Creed II could have turned into an unmitigated dumpster fire that was unable to capitalize on the great mythology of these events because it couldn't re-configure the tone. The tone of Rocky IV, while featuring Rocky's most formidable opponent and the death of his former enemy turned best friend, is somehow largely light and alarmingly disengaged from the consequences of any of the actions any of the characters take, but what it has afforded this new generation of Rocky films that take the name Creed is the opportunity to see these events through an era where sequels aren't simply cash grabs, but rather that they are taken seriously and can be exceptionally executed pieces of cinema depending on the creative team and the amount of freedom afforded them. In taking advantage of the studio who wanted to take advantage of credible filmmakers who were interested in continuing the story of Rocky Balboa, the result so far has been two films that not only revel in the training montages set to motivational music or intensely choreographed boxing matches (though they still take full advantage of these staples), but films that are also genuinely interested in chronicling the present generation and how they operate based on the influence (and sins) of those that came before them. Whereas 2015's Creed showed us Jordan's Adonis figuring out who he wanted to be and overcoming the obstacles and shadow of his father to get there, Creed II continues this development by pushing our protagonist past the point in life where his father found himself; forcing the new heavyweight champ to determine how history will define him outside of being the son of Apollo Creed. Full review here. B-

It would seem that, to gauge a review of the latest Yorgos Lanthimos film, would be to know ones opinions on past Lanthimos films. Having only seen his two most recent works a la his Colin Farrell vehicles I was mixed, but very much intrigued by anything the guy decided to lend his voice to. In terms of The Favourite it is also of note that this is the first of Lanthimos’ projects where the filmmaker didn’t also write the screenplay with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou. And so, while it feels strange to say it about a film as unique and frankly, as weird as, The Favourite this is by far Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Doesn’t hurt its damn funny to boot either.

The Favourite is one of those movies where it feels as if the intention of the piece as a whole came together in exactly the way the creator imagined. Whether it be in the visual aspect, the tone, the music, or the comedy elicited from each of these elements, The Favourite captures the essence of Lanthimos’ personality in such a fun and often riotous way that it would seem impossible the film was meant to be conceived in any other fashion. It’s as delicious as it is vicious and much of this is due to the trio of wonderful performances at the front of the film. Of course, the arc of each character helps and it is how Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey) document these arcs in wide angle lenses, often times with a fish-eye perspective, to show-off the grandiosity of the architecture and indulgences of the period as contrasted by the select few who were actually allowed to enjoy such indulgences that really provides this throughline reason as to why two of the three main characters are so willing to do whatever it takes to maintain this lifestyle.

Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, a tragic figure, who had to substitute pet rabbits in place of the seventeen (seventeen!) children she lost-is a woman who feels no love yet has everyone falsely pining for her affection given the power her approval provides. Rachel Weisz’s Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, has been a life-long friend of the Queen’s and her counsel for seemingly everything including the present war between England and France. Sarah uses her intimacy with the queen to control matters of state, but Emma Stone’s Abigail-Sarah’s cousin who has fallen from her nobility and seeks to reclaim some semblance of respect-recognizes the players and begins playing a very different game than Sarah has mastered. Abigail is initially the subject of our sympathy though it becomes more and more evident how clever and manipulative she is and how well she knows how to use her wide-eyed look of innocence to deceive those around her or, at the very least, get them to play along with her instead of Sarah (most notably, Nicholas Hoult in what is a flat-out fantastic performance). And while the rivalry that emerges is the obvious component of the story what is more interesting is the reversal of perspective on how the viewer sees Sarah and Abigail and how this devolves into a conclusion that sees everyone who was trying to get ahead ultimately screwing themselves over and becoming trapped in roles that serve as the opposite of what was once ideal.

The Favourite offers prime examples of how cinema can be used to its full extent in nearly every aspect. The look of the film is rich in color and texture while the wide angles and large panning movements with multiple characters in frame lend a scope that matches the lengths these women are willing to go to in order to serve a master who might serve them right. Stone, Weisz, and Colman are each glorious in their own unique ticks and charms and the supporting cast-including all the bunnies and ducks-are only utilized to further illustrate this very specific tone Lanthimos is chasing. The fact it’s difficult to imagine the film in any other way, as the product of any other filmmaker, only serves to show how singular a work it is and therefore how good Lanthimos is at his job. B

This hit a certain personal spot for me & the wife having recently gone through the process of opening our house for adoption/fostering. Instant Family balances the reality and seriousness of the issues with the system and the numerous unseen ramifications being risked when taking on the task of fostering or adopting with the humor necessary to make it through everything without losing ones mind. Yeah, this is about as accessible and as broad a comedy a studio can make, but the film doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh realities of the foster care system and, more specifically, the circumstances of the scenario we’re presented with in the film. I kind of loved it.

Wahlberg and Byrne do their best versions of their most likable personas and the kids are even better. This may look and feel like a mainstream Hollywood family comedy, but it cuts to some pretty deep places, poses some rather gutting questions, and does it all with such a strong sense of purpose it’s impossible to ignore.

Also, the The Blind Side bit is too good and Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer need a buddy comedy in an active stage of production like yesterday. B+

Vox Lux director Brady Corbet, at the age of 30, has worked with the likes of directors such as Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Ruben Östlund, and Noah Baumbach, so it comes as no surprise that the actor, writer, and filmmaker's second directorial effort is a divisive meditation on pop culture, how news-worthy tragedies spawn faces of such that then carry the weight of the audience's projections, and how the masses expect these public figures to help us heal from such tragedies without having the privacy or benefit of the doubt to handle whatever they're going through in regards to whatever they're expected to help everyone else cope with. In other words, as simple as the presentation is in Vox Lux, this is an intensely dense picture that has so many ideas floating around in its head it can't even keep track of everything it starts a conversation about. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly allows for some disconnect and confusion walking away from the film. It seems the film's intent is not to be about a single thing or single aspect of one thing, but it's also not clear which of these many things it's discussing should be the loudest.

Never have I felt more bewildered by a movie after watching it. Part of me was fascinated by what I saw unfold as the life of this young woman played out in two halves and three complete acts while the other half of me wanted to completely reject-in a sense-what this woman became or rather, what the world turned her into. Two minutes in-as the opening credits rolled-I was already positive I was going to love this thing for all it stood for and was going to say and as it continued to develop through Raffey Cassidy's star-turning performance as both the young Celeste as well as the daughter of Natalie Portman's older Celeste, it only seemed more and more clear how groundbreaking this thing was; Corbet essentially melding the ideas of news and entertainment and begging (literally begging) his audience to remember there is a difference. As the film enters its second half though, taking place seventeen years after the first half, where we see Portman take over the main character and follow her through a day in the life it quickly became evident I kind of hated who this young, unassuming girl had become. She was now a woman, but acted more like a child than ever before. So coddled to the point her behavior was as tragic as it was laughable. Further, the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the film see Portman fully becoming this pop star and it's an odd mix of "what's the big deal?" and "look at the production she's apparently worthy of." Is Celeste especially good? No. Is she insanely famous because she was a product of a moment and has used that moment to her advantage ever since? Kind of. There is something of a twist in regards to these ideas that is a genuinely great idea, but needed to have more of a throughline or at least a fair amount more exploration to allow audiences to grasp this somewhat shocking perspective that comes to be the side of the prism Corbet sees his film through.

All of that said, it must say something for a film to be so internally divisive so as to not even be fully assured of where you ultimately land in overall opinion of the film days after seeing it. I still don't know if I liked Vox Lux or not, but I know I'm still thinking about it and I know "Wrapped Up" continues to give me chills every time I listen to it-which has been damn near constantly since I walked out of the theater. A-

There are a thousand different statistics out there about the opioid crisis, but within each of those numbers touted about in the "Americans are now more likely to die from opioid overdoses than car crashes" headlines there are also that many individual stories-some of which no doubt share many a similarities-while others exist wholly in their own unique bubble.

In Peter Hedges' Ben is Back the writer/director behind such dewy-eyed works of genuine affection like Dan in Real Life and The Odd Life of Timothy Green turns his attention to one such scenario that includes your average middle class, upstate New York family where Julia Roberts is the mom, Holly, with two kids from a previous marriage, the titular Ben played by Hedges' son, Lucas, and the over-achieving daughter, Ivy, as played by Blockers' Kathryn Newton, who has since re-married to Neal (Courtney B. Vance) with whom she has two younger children. The dynamic of the somewhat blended family would stand on solid foundation were it not for Holly's oldest son who became addicted to pain killers at a young age which served as a segue into other drugs and dangerous circles.

From the outside, Ben is Back admittedly looks like your run-of-the-mill addiction drama that might pave over the ugly stuff in favor of telling an inspiring story of redemption, but the film is keen on not glossing over certain realities, but instead reinforces the fact that this could ultimately become anyone's reality-even someone who lives in a nice suburban house and participates in the Christmas pageant every year. Surprisingly, this is a film that not only packs in the expected simultaneous beauty and heartbreak that comes with being a parent, but also poses to be something of an authentic thriller with real, raw tension.

It's an interestingly structured screenplay that approaches the audience with a simple premise and seemingly average family before unraveling the layers and the complications that come along with those layers-it's really quite impressively done in terms of character definition and development. It doesn't hurt that Roberts is in top dramatic form here as a woman who must constantly walk the line between being this happy mother who is thrilled just to have her son back to that of a mother who is panicked and concerned about what that son might do next; it's as equally harrowing as it is unrelenting. As the film is largely something of a two-hander though, and as someone who hasn't yet completely warmed up to the idea of Lucas Hedges, credible actor, the twenty-two year-old won me over with his ability to also go from having all the confidence and charisma in the world-enough to make his mother believe he's truly made massive improvements after a seventy-seven day stint in rehab, anyway-to that of being this fearful, apologetic little boy that regresses in front of his mother. These pendulum swings in personalities are representative of the journeys each of these characters take and thus are representative of the journey we take in the film.

Ben may be back, but more importantly-so is Roberts-and I don't think young Hedges is going anywhere, anytime soon. B

Chang-dong Lee's Burning follows Jong-su who bumps into a girl who used to live in the same neighborhood as him, who asks him to look after her cat while on a trip to Africa. When back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met there, who confesses his secret hobby. This foreign film was hailed as one of the best films of 2018, but it never opened theatrically in my neck of the woods and I'm excited to finally have the chance to see what all the fuss is about.

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