“Creed II” Full Film Review

A truly heavyweight champion of cinema! Adonis Creed will hit you right in the feels. This brilliant installment in the Rocky/Creed franchise is an exemplary example of the power of cinematic storytelling. Creed II is a knockout! Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan’s respective performances are outstanding and Steven Caple’s direction is superb. Like with the original Rocky, this is not a film about boxing, it’s not about winning, it’s about going the distance supported by the inner drive to settle old scores, redemption, grief, loneliness, and the relationship between fathers and sons. Furthermore, it calls into question the reasons why we do what we do–the real reasons. So often we try to convince ourselves that we are determined to execute a plan for reasons other than the real ones, because the real reasons are too painful. The Rocky movies could so easily be about the sport of boxing, training, and winning; but they consistently include impactful, relatable, gritty themes that resonate with the audience. Whether you are familiar with boxing or not, this film will hit you with its powerful subtext and messages of redemption that we can all identify with. Whereas the original Creed did not feel highly connected to the Rocky cinematic universe, Creed II reminds us of the connection at every punch, block, and jab. The film also offers social commentary on the fickleness of glory and just how temporary and fleeting it can be. Sylvester Stallone and Cheo Hordari Coker’s screenplay follows the Rocky Way of doing things, much in the same way that Marvel has the well-known manner that Marvel stories are told. Even if you have not seen the Rocky movies or Creed, you will be moved and entertained by this film. Suspenseful, tense, and even comedic at times, Creed II is one to look for when Best Picture nominees are announced.

Recently crowned the heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) does the thing that makes him more nervous than the most intense fights–proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Encouraged by his coach, the former world champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis takes the leap and asks the love of his live to marry him. And upon a visit to his mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis and Bianca find out that they are pregnant. The family time and celebration are short-lived when the son of Ivan Drago challenges Adonis’ title to the fight of the century–the Creed/Drago rematch fight that the world is waiting for. Saddled with a new engagement and the pregnancy of his fiancee, Adonis must decide if he’s willing to risk his life to settle an old score because he knows what it’s like to grow up without a dad. Soon, this date with destiny becomes an obsession that invades Adonis’ every thought and action. Against the wishes of his mom, fiancee, and Rocky, Adonis accepts the challenge from Drago’s son who Rocky describes as a monster because he has nothing to lose, whereas Adonis has everything to lose.

For fans of the Rocky franchise, this is the sequel that you have been waiting for in the Rocky cinematic universe. I liken this sequel to the recent Halloween because it feels connected in every way to the original but provides us a new story within a familiar world told through gripping characters and conflict. Beneath the surface of this high-concept plot, beats the heart of a low-concept family drama that hooks you with its relatability and intense moments that consistently keeps you drawn into the story. Creed II has many heavy moments, and could have felt overwhelming if it wasn’t for the comedic relief provided by Sylvester Stallone’s legendary character of Rocky. There are certainly plenty of somber, heartwarming, and emotionally poignant moments, but Rocky injects a little lightheartedness when it is needed to keep the emotional roller coaster going. The themes of this film are dramatized and paralleled by the training and boxing matches. Heavyweight characters paralleling heavyweight themes. Adonis’ external goal is not to win; it’s to go the distance with Viktor Drago to prove that he is a champion in and outside of the rink and therefore worthy to be a father. But what drives Adonis and Ivan Drago’s son is their need to uphold a legacy–legacies of sons haunted by their fathers. Further subtext of the film suggests that both of fighters are seeking redemption in order to fill a hole in the heart left by varying degrees of loneliness and grief over loss of relationships. In addition to the goals of Adonis, Rocky is also on a journey that is driven by his involvement in the life and training of Adonis. Rocky’s goal is to reunite with his son whom he estranged. Lots of father and son relationship internal needs in this story.

The performances are incredibly authentic. All the way around. Michael B. Jordan is well-known to be a charismatic actor who has a wide range that makes him someone whom is fun to watch on screen. He can communicate so many emotions through his face. Talk about commitment to character. I was completely sold on his character of Adonis both in and out of the rink. Displaying genuine emotion, I cared deeply about his successes and failures. In many ways, I think of him as a superhero in the vein of Captain America. Perhaps he does not have “superpowers,” but he is a hero to his family and to his community. I cared about what happened to him. Interestingly, even Viktor Drago will tug at your heartstrings because of the circumstances from which he comes. He truly is the definition of underdog. While we are rooting for Adonis to win, we cannot help but empathize with Viktor due to his somewhat warped relationship with his father and being abandoned by his mother and the community after his father lost to Rocky. Despite his evil outward appearance and behavior, Viktor is ultimately trying to prove himself to his father, estranged mother, and the Russian people that he is a champion and worthy of their adoration and love. Rocky represents the loneliness and solitude of boxing. Beyond that, he is also the compelling moral compass of Adonis and the “wise old man” teaching our central character how to truly be a winner in both is professional and personal life. In one of the lighter, yet equally heartwarming scenes of the film, Rocky is sitting by Adrian’s grave, talking to her about how he feels like a “chunk of yesterday” who cannot reconnect with their son (and later we learn, grandson). Rocky, Adonis, and Viktor all have ghosts of their pasts that they are battling much like the fights in the rink.

The film is not without its strong female characters as well. In fact, we have two amazing women who provide so much substance to the story. Humanizing Adonis is his fiancee Bianca. Moreover, her role in this film can be likened to the one once filled by Rock’s Adrian. Her performance is excellent, and she steels a few of the scenes. Thompson delivers the same grit, gumption, and emotionally powerful performance that she gave in the original Creed. Thompson’s Bianca acts as the complement to Rocky’s moral compass. She and Rocky represent two different sides of Adonis that need coaching. Adding to the emotional baggage in Adonis and Bianca’s home, Bianca continues to lose her ability to hear and wonders if their new baby will suffer from the same physiological condition. She is a phenomenally strong character who refuses to let her encroaching hearing loss to affect her quality of life. The audience was extremely delighted–audibly so–when Phylicia Rashad appeared on the screen for the first time as Adonis’ mother. Her character never backs down to her son and the deathwish he has. Deathwish in that Ivan killed his father before he was born, leaving Mary Anne a widow and mother. So, death is a real possibility in this fight of the century. She is strong in principle and convictions, and stands up to what she feels is a poor decision. However, when Adonis makes the decision to fight Viktor, his mother is supportive as a mother is even when she disagrees or fears for her son’s life and now a negative outcome from the fight will effect his fiancee and newborn daughter. Her performance is exemplary; there are times that she steels the scene from Adonis. Mary Anne and Bianca deliver moments to the audience that remind us that this film is full of heart and there are moments worth audibly cheering for. Cheering is something that you will likely hear in the auditorium. The energy level was as high as it is likely at a real boxing match.

It’s not about a fight, the film is about what the fight represents in the lives of those affected by it. Beneath the fighting platform and behind the gloves are relatable conflicts and emotional burdens that serve as a foundation upon which the drama is build and plot is driven forward. On the surface, the plot may seem like something that has been done before, and to some extent, there is a lot of Rocky and Rocky IV in this film; but, this plot contains so much depth of character that truly allows the heroes journey to shine. Not all superheroes wear capes. If it was up to Edna Mode, none of them would. Triumphs, failures, and personal and interpersonal growth are experienced by Adonis and Rocky. While so many sequels fall victim to sequelitis, Creed II meets and exceeds expectations! It’s a compelling story that till have you hooked from bell to bell.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Annihilation” film review

Outstanding craftsmanship that provides a trippy, surrealist experience! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror science-fiction film like this one–one that harkens back to the manner in which Stanley Kubrick terrified audiences with his cinematic masterpieces. The brilliance of this film is the visually disturbing storytelling that’s built upon metaphysical and philosophical queries as well as Freud’s uncanny. Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and based upon the Southern Reach book series by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation boasts an all-female lead cast that takes the audience on a gripping, nail-biting adventure into the unknown that is frocked with wonder and tragedy. Falling in line with extraterrestrial films, this one exists somewhere between Alien and Arrival with influences from Kubrick and even Salvador Dali. Don’t wait for it to be released on Netflix internationally to avoid watching it at your local cinema; this IS a film best viewed, experienced, and enjoyed on the BIG screen–and not the 65in in your living room. For those who look for and appreciate science-fiction and/or horror films that explore psycho-social and institutional themes, then this is truly a film for you. Cognitively engaging and physiologically disturbing, Annihilation is a turbulent, horrific adventure.

After a mysterious meteor-like object strikes a lighthouse in Area X (most likely the swamplands of northwestern Florida), an increasingly growing membrane-like phenomenon is slowly swallowing up the land around it. When several paramilitary and scientific expeditions do not return from exploring the anomaly, biology professor Lena Kane (Natalie Portman) is aggressively recruited to work on the next team of scientists to track, report, analyze and potentially rescue former teams from what’s being called “the shimmer.” Professor Kane and her team have no idea that they will be facing their worst nightmares inside the shimmer as they explore this unknown world filled with dangerous opposition from the creatures that live within and the psychosis-like tension between the team members themselves.

Definitely not a film for the general masses. And you know what??? That is perfectly fine. In fact, that’s why this film works so incredibly well as an avant-garde-like science-fiction horror film. Had it directed for the masses, the film would not be nearly as stimulating psychologically and physiologically. Much like Garland did with the Oscar-winning Ex Machina, he crafts a world based on the best-selling series that takes the audience on a disturbing journey into the macabre, which juxtaposes the physical and metaphysical dimensions. Garland’s Annihilation is a masterful cinematic work that combines excellent writing with exceptional imagery and stunning practical effects. If Dali were alive today, this is the kind of film that he would have wanted to work on because there is such a heavy surrealist approach to the production design and visual effects. But this film is so much more than just the cinematic beauty of the motion picture. There are philosophical questions that one may ask oneself that create an added dimension of engagement that further immerses the audience into the world of the film.

Much like with Ex Machina, Garland shows an obsession with the need to see and see through when observing an unknown entity that may or may not be sentient. Paralleling how he set up the glass wall between Caleb and Ava (the AI) in the compound/lab designed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who is also in Annihilation), Garland sets up the interrogation room in which we are first introduced to Lena while she is being interviewed by the team in hazmat suits. I love the play on perspectives, vantage points if you will in both movies. That fluctuation between a filtered and unfiltered view of the phenomenon under observation offers much depth to the storytelling. In Annihilation, we are initially introduced to the shimmer, and world within, through sensors, readouts, and other “filters” but then we are thrust into the horrifying flora, fauna, and animal life without any type of protective boundary. Freud refers to the revealing of that which should remain hidden or the return of the repressed (which we literally get to witness in this film) as that which is uncanny (click for article). Just as our characters are constantly searching for clarity, you will find yourself paying close attention to the unknown to gain an unhindered understanding of what you are witnessing.

Not your average science-fiction horror film, this one will truly get under your skin–much like The Shimmer invades the bodies of those who choose to enter the dark twisted, refracted world of that which lies beyond our senses. Truly terrifying, this film is one for those who love a sci-fi horror that will prompt you to contemplate the themes and subtext of the movie. One of the quandaries that face the characters, and by extension, the audience is the idea of self-destruction versus suicide–the physiological versus the psychological components. For those who may worry that the film is “too intellectual,” the story is told in such a way that it not only appeals to film critics, academics, or horror aficionados but can be enjoyed by those who like a good, disturbing scare. The fact that there is the “intellectual” dimension to the film adds to the experience for those who appreciate that element in visual storytelling.