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Creed II (2018)

Technically the eighth movie in a franchise spanning five different decades, I think every ticket buyer knows exactly what they are getting with Creed II. It’s more of the same formula that’s been packing in audiences because it works. Once again Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of the legendary Apollo Creed, climbs high, only to be brought low by a challenger, the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. Once more he finds himself with something to prove, a personal score to settle that blinds him as a fighter. I was able to predict every major plot beat from early on, and that’s beside the point. Creed II is at its peak performance when it offers small, well-developed character moments to go along with the training montages and boxing beat downs. Spending more time with the characters is where this movie elevates itself from the formula. There’s a potently dramatic subplot where Adonis’s wife, played by Tessa Thompson, worries that she may have past down her degenerative hearing loss their newborn child. There’s a wordless scene of looks that explains everything over the course of an auditory test, and it’s gut wrenching. I wasn’t expecting the film to humanize the villains as well. Ivan has been living in shame since his loss to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), cast out by the elites of his society, and his own wife walked out on him and his son. They both see this opportunity as a way to prove something to the woman who abandoned them and the country that turned its back. It’s not just a scene either; the Russians (Ukrainians?) get the second biggest storyline of the movie. It made it so that I was genuinely having mixed emotions during the climactic bout, not wanting either side to really lose. That’s solid writing, movie. The performances are uniformly strong (even Lundgren!) and the emotions build and build until it crescendos. Creed II likely won’t be the last in the franchise, and even though I can predict the sequel already, as long as the filmmakers find room to meaningfully flesh out these enjoyable and winning characters, I’m game.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Fist of the Reich (2012)

936full-fist-of-the-reich-artworkIt’s been too long since I’ve last had the pleasure of viewing a Uwe Boll movie. The man is downright prolific when it comes to spitting out multitudes of projects every year sometimes three or four. And yet there’s no guarantee I’ll have a speedy and easily accessible avenue to watch the man’s finished products. Take for instance his biopic on Max Schmeling, finished almost three years ago, and undergone a title change for American audiences to Fist of the Reich. Americans might not know who Max Schmeling was but by God do we know ourselves some Nazis. I can understand why this one was put on the shelf for as long as it was. There’s the fact that it’s entirely in German, Boll’s first completely foreign-language film since 1997. There’s also the fact that it’s still a pretty dull and uninvolving movie, and given the figure and subject matter, that may be enough to make Fist of the Reich the most disappointing film of Boll’s career.

600full-fist-of-the-reich-screenshotFrom 1930-1948, Max Schmeling (Henry Maske) was Germany’s most prolific athlete. He boxed overseas in America quite often, earning the world title in a controversial bout where his opponent was disqualified after a below the belt punch. Schmeling romances a movie star, Anny Ondra (Susanne Wuest), and proposes to her the day their courtship hits the gossip pages. Schmeling also has to fight the growing nationalistic influence of Hitler’s Nazi party, which looks at him as a powerful propaganda opportunity. After a high-profile loss to Joe Louis, in a rematch no less, Schmeling loses value to the Nazi machine and he’s drafted into the oncoming war.

When I say “most disappointing” I know that’s going to strike a chord given Boll’s oeuvre of craptacularcinema, but I really mean it. The biggest failing of the two-plus hours of Fist of the Reich is that it does not provide adequate evidence why Schmeling is a compelling figure of history. It’s a biopic that doesn’t have enough juice to justify why its central hero should even earn a biopic. I don’t think I’ve seen too many movies based upon real people where I left thinking, “Well that person didn’t deserve a movie.” And the ridiculous thing is that Schmeling of course deserves his own movie. The man was an international superstar, the pride of a nation during a tumultuous time, one of only three men to beat Joe Louis in his career, and then became a propaganda pawn for the Nazis. The man was even forced into service in the war and was one of only two survivors during a hellish battle. His manager was Jewish, his wife a Czech movie star, and they had to flee their country home to escape from the advancing Russians. That is some compelling stuff even before you get into the psychological depth at play with a man being pushed as a tool of Nazi propaganda and how that constrictive, humiliating, and infuriating chapter would have taken its toll on Schmeling’s soul. There is a wealth of material there to stage a rousing and engrossing biopic, and the fact that Boll and screenwriter Timo Berndt cannot is just inexcusable.

There’s very little depth given to Schmeling as a character; all the edges are sanded off and we’re left with a rather bland do-gooder that really just wants to box. He’s sort of this nondescript, milquetoast nice guy who trudges from scene to scene, doing bland but nice things. You won’t dislike the lug but you’ll find it hard to explain why he’s interesting. This shallowness just compounds as the movie continues, going further into the war as well as the downturns in Schmeling’s boxing career. His relationship with Anny is also pretty bland. They’re nice together and loving in appearance but also mundane. It’s like the movie is progressing scene-by-scene establishing facts and plot points rather than exploring the relationships of characters. Max gets married. Max gets a big bout. Max wants to give Joe Louis a rematch. The film seems so devoid of passion, bled dry by going through the checklist of what audiences desire in their biopics. The movie even attaches a weak framing device where Schmeling and a war prisoner are walking to a border and Schmeling recounts his life. Except this framing device ends with thirty minutes left to go. Can it be termed a framing device if it doesn’t frame a quarter of the movie? It’s not even necessary except to throw in a bit of war violence at the opening to hook an audience. It feels like nobody knows what to do with Schmeling so they’ll just breeze through his life’s big events, make him seem like a charitable fella, and then pray the audience understands the man’s historical significance.

Another reason for the stilted drama is quite possibly the noticeable acting limitations of our lead, Maske. The man is a former champion boxer in Germany who reportedly underwent eight months of acting training to prepare for this movie. Well, apparently eight was not enough (did I just backend into a pun?). He may be a great boxer but he is a very poor actor. His monotone, caveman-like warble reminds me of the speaking tones of early Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t think the guy has more than two sentences at a time. Again, I’d rather have my actors learn how to do something rather than teach a non-actor how to act. Actors can fake singing or boxing, plus there’s editing. Was it really substantial to have an actual boxer in the role? I know Schmeling himself actually wanted Maske to play him in a would-be movie, so there’s some passing approval, but there’s a reason that Maske hasn’t acted in a movie since this one. Maske’s pained acting, limited emotional range, and overall stiffness, combined with the thin characterization, makes for a void at the center of the movie.

MS-ImageI also assumed given Boll’s own background in boxing (he famously boxed a group of critics several years ago in a publicity stunt) that the onscreen bouts would be thrilling to watch. The excitable German ringside announcer seems to be watching different fights than I am. The fighters just don’t have any fight in them, carefully going through the motions, but when they hit they do so like they’re timid, afraid to put any force behind it. The camerawork and editing also fail to mask this feeling. Boxing is such a ferocious sport and we need to feel the danger and ferocity within the ring, but all too often it just feels like another ho-hum occasion for Schmeling, one where he’s rarely put to the test. Even the boxing matches that go to 15 rounds show us two fighters without any blood on them or bruises or any sign, beyond a glistening coat of faux sweat, that these two men have spent over an hour beating the crap out of each other. This limited sense of realism handicaps the movie as well as drawing out the accomplishments of Schmeling.

Boll’s direction also seems rather remote on this movie, curiously so. He relies almost entirely on bobbling handheld camerawork that can get a bit tiresome when it feels like the camera rarely settles. The movie is almost entirely comprised of a series of medium shots, which further adds to the overall blandness of the movie. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Mathias Neumann is entirely lackluster and downright incompetent. The visual compositions are supremely lacking; I don’t think Boll and Neumann even stumble into one engaging visual shot. And we’re talking about a boxer’s career here. The colors of the movie feel so drab and restrained but not in any sort of elegant artistic manner. It just looks like a drab movie, which suits a drab script with a drab lead actor.  I’m also fairly certain that Boll’s longtime musical collaborator Jessica de Rooij borrows liberally, if not outright lifts, the musical themes of John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan. Has anyone else caught this?

It may seem foolish of me to admit, especially after twenty movies reviewed, but I actually had some semblance of hope that Fist of the Reich was going to be Boll’s first actual good movie. As it stands, Tunnel Rats is still the best Boll film, relatively speaking. I really thought that Boll’s background and boxing experience would carry over and we’d get a handsomely made, reverent, and absorbing look into the life of Max Schmeling, but time after time, the movie settles for bland. There’s a lot of meat to this guy but it feels about as in depth as a child’s book report, skimming over the drama to cover the significant signposts of the man’s life. As a result, we get an overview of the guy’s life but lack the evidence why we even took the journey. Saying a guy’s a great boxer, or a great humanitarian is one thing, but we need to see this, we need to feel it, and that’s the saddest failure of Fist of the Reich, that it takes an important historical figure and squeezes out all the lingering resonance.

Nate’s Grade: C

Real Steel (2011)

In the future world of Real Steel, set in 2020, robot boxing has become a huge sensation. It seems that audience bloodlust was not being satisfied with flesh and blood hitting the canvas, so robot brutality will do. Whatever happened to mixed martial arts, a sport arguably more popular than boxing in this day and age, popular enough it even got its own uplifting sports drama earlier this year (the overlooked Warrior). I strongly doubt that in only nine years we’d have giant fighting robots and that this “sport” would be nationally recognized. Did anyone see Comedy Central’s mechanical Coliseum showdown, Battlebots? There’s your answer, America.

In this future world where trucks have glass panels to show the world your feet (why? Because it’s “futuristic” you fool), Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a has been. He enjoyed a fleeting career as a professional boxer before the mechanical men came into popularity. Now he goes from town to town trying to scrounge up some petty money with small-market robot boxing rings. His only pal is Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his former flame and the owner of the boxing ring/chop shop that Charlie calls home. Charlie owes plenty of money to plenty of not nice people. His solution arrives in the form of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie ran out on Max and his mother when Max was a baby, but now mom’s dead and custody is being discussed. Mom’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich hubby want Charlie to sign away his parental rights, which he agrees to do for the right price. Max spends one last/first summer with his estranged father before going off to live with his auntie. The two bond when Max discovers a beat-up old sparring robot when father and son are skimming parts illegally at a junkyard. The old bot, which Max names Atom, becomes a champion fighter. Father and son ride the success all the way to a championship bout with Zeus, a legendary robot that destroys all challengers. Can they stun the world? Can father and son bury the hatchet? If these answers are in doubt, I advise you to see any sports movie ever released.

Just in case you stood clueless and slack jawed at the film’s storytelling prowess, you’re in luck because every character will take great pains to explain the significance of plot points, key metaphors and symbols, and personal motivations. Usually this stuff is tucked away as subtext, but Reel Steal decided that it would rather rub the audience’s nose in the architecture of its screenplay. Characters will just go around speaking blurting out their feelings in the most transparent way possible: “I can’t be with you again, I’m afraid of being hurt again, and seeing you in that ring is like seeing my father again in that ring, and fighting this fight is your attempt to regain redemption and prove yourself wrong, and the robot is old and busted but still has some fight in it left, just like you Charlie…” It gets tiresome. Max squeals, “All I’ve ever wanted was for you to fight for me!” Your dad’s kind of a lout, kid. You’d be better off being adopted by your preposterously rich aunt, which is really the moral we learned from Annie. Who talks like these people? It’s astounding how blatant the film is about explaining its sotry mechanics so that the dumbest common denominator in the audience can walk away feeling like Roger Ebert (“Did you notice how the robot was a metaphor for Charlie? I did.”).

Never in my life would I have anticipated that someone would watch Over the Top and say, “What if we added robots?” This movie essentially is a souped-up version of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 flick where a dad fights for the custody of his kids through the weirdly court-approved process of the gentleman’s game of arm wrestling. First off, who in their right mind would make a movie about professional arm wrestling? There’s a reason this specific sports genre still stands with one entry. Charlie finds redemption over one summer spent with the kid he abandoned and then sold. The strange thing is that Max knows from the start that he’s more a commodity than a valued son. Yet he still bonds with dear old dad though he’s still going off to live with his rich aunt by the end. The father/son relationship becomes the heart of the movie, but what good can come from two annoying characters learning to get along? They’re still too annoying for me.

Charlie’s fight to become a better father is hampered by the fact that I wanted to strangle his kid. There was rarely a moment that passed where I didn’t want to punt this little brat. From the moment he first steps on screen, Max is surly and aggravating. Given that he’s meeting the father who abandoned him, I’d expect some confrontation but this little twerp cops a bratty attitude throughout. He hops on the boxing ring mic and walks around with a phony swagger and challenges the biggest baddest robot. The kid seems like a chip off the ole block, falling victim to hubris just like dead. When Goyo (Thor) screams it becomes a high-pitched caterwaul that caused me to writhe in physical pain. The subplot of Max teaching the robot how to dance is just embarrassing. You better believe the kid teaches his metal friend how to do the robot. The young actor deserves a fair share of the blame. Goyo flounders, overselling every emotion and hovering at a persistant petulant level of acting. I do not advocate the endangerment of children, obviously but I’d be lying if I failed to admit that I would have slept soundly had Max tumbled to his death in the robot junkyard. Goyo is so powerfully awful that he may well be the tarred as the Jake Lloyd of this decade (Lloyd infamously played the twerpy kiddie Darth Vader in the first of the regrettable Star Wars prequels). It’s hard for me to root for the reunion of father and son when I’d rather see father bury son in the ground.

Real Steel is littered with nonsensical or dropped subplots, the worst offense being Atom’s secret. It’s revealed midway into the film that Atom is not just a sparring robot but a sentient being. It’s faking that it can only shadow human movement. When Charlie “teaches” Atom how to box he really is teaching the robot, though conveniently Atom seems to keep this knowledge to itself. Even when it’s being battered mercilessly, Atom doesn’t employ the skills it’s been taught. Maintaining his cover is more important than self-preservation, so suck on that Asimov. The fact that Atom is sentient is the filmmaker’s desperate attempt to add empathy to the robot. Without sentience, the robot is just a junky avatar that can be scrapped. It’s a piece of equipment but if sentient it becomes a character we can feel for. You don’t share empathy with a coffee maker. I kept waiting for this secret to somehow get out because it’s kind of a monumental deal. But it never does get out. The story never once revisits this gigantically important revelation. What does this mean about other robot boxers? Are they too sentient? What do they think about destroying each other for sport? There are important questions here that are ignored. What’s the point of making Atom sentient if you never do anything with it? It’s only a ploy to drum up empathy, but at no point does Atom feel like a character, only a collection of parts. It’s a coffee maker on steroids.

The movie borrows liberally from other sports movies, taking the emotional beats from Rocky and the family drama from a film like The Champ, though loses the downer ending. Everything is too recognizable, too formulaic, as if it was assembled on a factory floor. The only points of surprise are when Real Steel just carelessly drops plotlines, as mentioned above. What’s the point of introducing a plot point like the robots can malfunction if hit correctly in Act One and not have it resurface in Act Three? Jackman (X-Men) acts with all the power his neck veins can afford. He seems to be constantly growling or on the precipice of said growling. The romantic subplot with Bailey is an undeveloped thread only meant to tie back together into a pretty bow at the plot’s earliest convenience. Lily (TV’s Lost) plays the “girl,” which means all she’s given to do is remind the hero of his potential and be the warm body waiting in bed. But this is a family film, so we stop at late-night cuddling. Then Max ends up being a savant at mechanical engineering and electronics because… he plays video games? Give me a break. And it just so happens that every character we’ve been introduced to will be in attendance for the big fight, even the Texas bookie (the great and underutilized Anthony Mackie). Wouldn’t Detroit bookies take umbrage to this?

Do you like reaction shots? Real Steel is chock full of them: people wincing, people yelling and clapping at TVs, people muttering under their breath the optimistic instructions, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” You accept some reaction shots as part pf the terrain of the sports movie, but when they’re presented in excess then it becomes a crutch, the director reminding the audience what to feel with the subtlety of a sharp stick to the eye. Then again subtlety was never the forte of director Shawn Levy, he of Date Night and Night at the Museum fame. The special effects are strong and the boxing sequences even have some livened suspense to them, though why would anyone build a robot boxer with two heads? What advantage does that offer other than two things to hit? Levy gets lost in the special effects and treats the actors with the same indifferent level of care that the humans show the robots.

Real Steel wants to be a rousing, family-friendly crowd pleaser; it just won’t ever let you forget that this is its primary function. This outlandish sports flick is much like its robotic pugilists: big, dumb, loud, and prone to malfunction. The film has no faith in its audience’s intelligence so every feeling and symbol is plainly explained with unwanted diligence. The characters are unlikable or underwritten, the story is shackled by lockstep devotion to formula, and Goyo’s wretched performance makes it damn near impossible to sympathize with the father/son reunion. Filled with unresolved plot setups and a mystifying similarity to Over the Top, Real Steel is just like every other boxing movie on record except this one has robots. I’m fairly certain the screenwriters were robots too. Why else would they make a robot becoming sentient seem like no big deal? Obviously this is propaganda to lull us into complacency before the impending robot war. Real Steel is a classic example of a movie done by committee; it feels like it was crudely assembled from the spare parts of other, better movies.

Nate’s Grade: C

 

The Fighter (2010)

Somewhere along the line, the boxing film became the perfect metaphor for the underdog story. Two men at battle with only their fists and iron wills. Somehow this match up has come to symbolize man’s eternal struggle against himself and society. From Body and Soul to Rocky and Raging Bull, it’s hard to imagine the filmic landscape without the tropes of boxing. It’s also a pretty staid and tired genre, where filmmakers often rely on those tropes to fill in the gaps for lazy storytelling. The Fighter is a true story that star Mark Wahlberg has been nursing for years trying to get it off the ground. It’s the knockout acting and attention to character that separates The Fighter from the competition. Rarely has such a sedate formula felt so freshly presented.

In the mid 1990s, Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) is a man trying to come to grips with his life. His welterweight boxing career has stalled thanks primarily to his trainer, his unreliable half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Big brother used to be the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, once fighting Sugar Ray Leonard and boasting about knocking the giant down (this claim is in dispute as replays show that Leonard may have simply tripped). Dicky’s boxing career went away about the same time that Dicky became addicted to crack cocaine, spending long hours inside Lowell’s many crack houses. An HBO documentary crew is following around Dicky, which he mistakenly believes is a ticket to his comeback. Mickey’s mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), also serves as manager to both her boys. Dicky is clearly the apple of her eye and Alice enables his destructive behavior. Mickey is pushed into fights to feed his extended family (eight siblings), and the thrill is gone. Then one day he’s approached by a promoter who will give Mickey one more chance. The only catch is that Mickey has to cut his family loose.

Truth be told, The Fighter isn’t really much of a boxing movie. Sure that’s the selling point and it allows for a rousing, crowd-pleasing finish, but Mickey could just as easily be striving to open a deli or striving to go back to school. The real story is the family. The boxing is only a backdrop, and if it weren’t for the true-story basis I would say it serves as little more than a metaphor for the punishment Mickey has taken in life. The Fighter is about a man working up the courage not to step into the boxing ring but to break away from his self-destructive family weighing him down in misery. This is a dysfunctional family drama disguised as a Rocky-style boxing redemption picture. The boxing aspects are small, mostly contained to the final act as Mickey’s career finally begins to gain some traction. For some, this will be disappointing news. But for me, I loved the family drama stuff. This is a fractured family with deep lines of division, nursing grudges, resentment waiting to boil over, all the marks of meaty drama. The focus is on Mickey trying to break away from the pull of his harmful older half-brother and his boorish mother. His mother enables Dicky, her favorite child, to the detriment of the rest of her brood. Her relationship with Dicky is fascinating and complicated, like a mother sacrificing the rest of her clan to help her most damaged child. You can catch some of the invisible ripples from these decisions, like the seven sisters all forming one unified hive-mind to survive. They’re like a block of cheerleaders for mother, only able to get attention and some form of affection by doing so. The extensive family unit revolves around Leo’s matriarch, fiercely protective and fiercely myopic. She refuses to remove herself from Mickey’s management team, and thus Mickey and his career suffer. It’s downright Oedipal. If only he can escape the clutches of his family, perhaps Mickey can taste success that has eluded him so long. The family drama makes up a good majority of The Fighter, and that’s just fine with me when I get characters this damaged and complicated.

And all of this is blissfully entertaining. Director David O. Russell is miles away from his other films like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. This is different kind of redemption story where the main guy winning a title is nice, and we can all celebrate, but it’s really his separation from a harsh family dragging him down. The film also produces an engaging romance for Mickey, which gives him a renewed sense of purpose to finally break free of his family. Amy Adams (Enchanted, Doubt) is a bartender at a local hangout with some college under her belt, a point that irritates Mickey’s family. The Eklund sisters lash out at Mickey’s squeeze in childish ways. Adams, playing Charlene, shies away from the daffy or genteel roles of her past. She gets to spit profanities with glee. Her relationship with Mickey serves as a foil to his family, showing what strength a positive, healthy relationship can achieve. But while the family is presented in an antagonistic sense, they are not blithely demonized. Russell and his team of writers and actors use humor to find surprising pockets of warmth amidst all the darkness and shattered dreams. This isn’t an addiction story that plumbs the depths of human weakness. The production feels bathed in authenticity and the city of Lowell, Massachusetts and its lived-in, blue-collar culture feels like another vital character. When the HBO documentary finally airs, you feel the cloud of hurt that covers the entire town in shame. Nobody wants to be known as a town famous for crack addiction (you can watch the 1995 doc online for free).

The acting is also some of the best you’ll see all year. Wahlberg is a sturdy center, used to the abuse and underplaying his character’s transformation from punching bag to assertive human being. This is Wahlberg’s home turf, and he’s been shopping the story for years in Hollywood, so it’s no surprise that everything comes so natural for the Beantown kid. But his understated work is going to get obscured with the flamboyant performances from both Bale and Leo. Bale (The Dark Knight, Rescue Dawn) has long been considered one of the finest actors of his generation, his Method devotion and versatility a godsend. In The Fighter, he’s a live wire, a bundle of energy in a haunting skeletal frame. He’s a figure of lost promise, of tragedy and bruised ego, trying to live vicariously through his younger brother. He’s deluded himself into thinking that this HBO documentary will launch a comeback at 40. Bale excels with the bombastic bits, practically bouncing off the walls, but then he nails the quieter, smaller moments of his character, where Dicky realizes that he’s wasted his gifts. Leo (Frozen River) could easily fall into an outsized monster of large hair and nicotine-stained fingers, but the Oscar-nominated actress finds exciting ways to tap into her character’s humanity. She fully knows that her beloved child is a crack addict, but watching her rationalize and justify her actions is exciting.

The Fighter is a meaty family drama, stirring tale of redemption, and a showcase of superior acting. In an awards season where it feels like many films are missing some secret ingredient, The Fighter has it all together. It’s an underdog story of a different flavor that manages to be authentic, entertaining, charitable, and engrossing even while staying within the boundaries of a predictable framework. We all know that Mickey will triumph in the ring; otherwise his tale would never have caught the notice of Hollywood producers. This is a fresh take on old material. The focus is on the fractured family dynamic and the many characters, not on a simplistic rising through the rankings of sport. It’s because of the tremendous acting and character work that the first half of the film easily outshines the second. Once the family is sidelined, and Mickey’s boxing career takes off, The Fighter turns into a more conventional genre picture, though still engaging. The movie ends on a satisfying note of uplift that feels fully earned without a twinge of naiveté. This Oscar season, expect audiences and voters alike to find something to cheer about in this return to the ring.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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