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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 30, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 48
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Delightfully imaginative Ralph Breaks the Internet a superior sequel
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
Now playing


After her game Sugar Rush is damaged and the part to fix it appears to be too prohibitively expensive to purchase, it looks like Vanellope's (voiced by Sarah Silverman) game is going to be turned off and taken out of the arcade at the end of the week. But Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) isn't going to let his best friend or her fellow Sugar Rush characters become homeless. With the arcade installing Wi-Fi for the first time, he convinces Vanellope to join him on a trip to the internet so they can get the component needed to fix her game to the store before the end of the week.

Both figure that this adventure will be a fun little lark and they'll easily find what they need and then return back home before anyone even knows they're gone. But Ralph and Vanellope underestimate both the intricacies as well as the wonders of the internet, neither prepared for the devil-may-care idiosyncratic craziness. One escapade leads to another, and soon the pair are wildly overbidding at eBay, posting crazy videos hoping for likes, scouring the dark web for help, hanging out with Disney princesses and taking part in insane street races battling the supposedly unbeatable Shank (Gal Gadot). Through it all, Ralph and Vanellope must learn just how strong their friendship is, the core understanding that they are there for one another no matter what the one thing that will allow them to succeed, not only in their quest, but in life as well.

I liked 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. It was charming and original, the Disney animated hit containing a heartwarming message at its core that audiences of all ages could relate to. But as good as that film was I can't say I thought it required a sequel. I just couldn't for the life of me figure out where Ralph and Vanellope could go next that wouldn't feel like a retread or a retelling of what the first film did so well. This was one of those Disney efforts that I felt should remain a standalone adventure, and considering the only official part twos in the studio's feature-length (non-Pixar) animated canon are The Rescuers Down Under and Fantasia 2000 I can't say I imagined we'd be seeing a Wreck-It Ralph follow-up anytime soon.

Not only was I wrong about that but I also happen to be extremely happy to have been so. Ralph Breaks the Internet is an improvement on the first film in just about every way. Its plot, animation, imagination and execution are all excellent, this sequel an exceedingly enjoyable and inventive lark that has far more on its mind than it initially appears. If Vanellope and Ralph's first adventure was like the transition between middle school and high school, then this newest escapade feels like the first couple days at college before classes start during which parents say goodbye before heading back home only to worry about their kid's welfare for some time to come. There is a melancholic grace and an emotive understanding to the ways in which friendships change and evolve over time, the continuous inventiveness of the film in that regard catching me by surprise.

What's great is that all of this could have been so lazy. There are so many obvious gags as far as the internet is concerned, so many easy places for Vanellope and Ralph to go to in order to make fun of the massive absurdity of this nebulous technological wonderland that has taken over the world with such ruthlessness. Throw in the fact the pair end up encountering a litany of Disney princesses while also visiting sites that in a lesser feature would have played like nothing more than a 112-minute commercial for all of the studio's properties (including Lucasfilm and Marvel), I'm quite frankly blown away by what directors Phil Johnston, who returns to write the script alongside Pamela Ribon (Moana), and Rich Moore (Zootopia) have accomplished. There is a freshness here that's consistently astounding, everything building to an emotional moment so honest, so pure, it couldn't help but bring me to tears.

What's most fascinating is the ways in which Johnston and Ribon's scenario moves from a variety of different subplots and side adventures before cannily unleashing its true narrative at the most delicately sincere moment possible. It's like they've crafted a scenario that's all side quests or alternate adventures that the players can take part in before the core story takes control. Ralph and Vanellope's journey to get a new part for Sugar Rush? That only appears to be the most important thing going on. But that's an illusion as the actual story revolves entirely around the nature of friendship and how people grow and evolve over time. It is about embracing change, learning from experience and letting go of that which is most dear to our hearts if and when the time comes to do so.

Not that the film skimps on the spectacular set pieces or isn't without a giant contingent of laughs. It has both items in spades. The initial street race between Vanellope and Shank is stunning, while a climactic bout between Ralph and nasty virus that uses his own insecurities against him is stupendous. As for the jaunt into Disney's online world, I'm a little shook as to just how terrific that ended up being. The sequel actually calls out the studio's monopolization of pop culture while at the same time utilizes their various properties (again, namely Marvel and Lucasfilm) in ways that actually serve the story and push the characters forward on their respective journeys. Finally, an entire segment devoted to Ralph's self-mocking takeover of a YouTube-style video sharing site is a hoot, the confident show woman Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) as memorable a new character as any I could have hoped for.

Then there are the sequences involving all of the Disney princesses. The wizardry behind these scenes is top-flight. The film isn't content to just introduce all of these women into the story. Instead, it actually has the audacity to make them clearly defined, uniquely individualistic heroines all with their own personalities and ideas. Seeing them all together (the majority voiced by their original actress where possible) working as friends and teammates is beyond joyous, and it's possible I might have let out a tiny squeal of happiness during their initial encounter with Vanellope as they all discover the bliss of pajamas, t-shirts and sweatpants.

In the end, though, all of these visual and character-centric wonders pale in the power of the central friendship of the two heroes. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is the heart and soul of this sequel, the way they relate to one another authentically profound in its various nuances and intimate complexities. Their dual willingness to lay everything they have on the line for the other, even after a mistake is made or trust is inadvertently broken, that rings true in so many dexterous ways the overall effect is undeniably uplifting. The only thing that Ralph Breaks the Internet wrecked was my assumption the first film didn't require a sequel, this animated jaunt into the online universe a complete and total delight.


Animating friendships - Head of animation Kira Lehtomaki helps bring Ralph Breaks the Internet to life
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
Now playing


From the time she was 5-years-old, Kira Lehtomaki knew she was going to be an animator. Sleeping Beauty was her favorite film at the time and she became obsessed with all of its various nuances and intricacies. Additionally, like any wide-eyed child, she also became fascinated and enthralled with many of the talented people associated with its creations, especially the vocal actors. 'I wrote Mary Costa, the original voice of Sleeping Beauty, I wrote her fan letters when I was little,' says Lehtomaki with a happy smile. 'She wrote me back. That meant so much to me. It was just&I don't know. It was just amazing.'

'Yeah,' she stops for a moment looking back with look of blissful euphoria, 'That movie is everything.' The two of us were sharing a moment at the Seattle Four Seasons to chat about Lehtomaki's elevation to the Head of Animation on Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney Animation's first official (non-Pixar) sequel since Fantasia 2000. This meant this once wide-eyed little girl was now, not just living her dream, but now in charge of supervising the creative vision fueling one of the studio's most ambitious animated endeavors.

The follow-up to 2012's hit Wreck-It Ralph, the sequel finds best friends Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) heading into the crazy, fast-paced world of the internet in order to find a rare component required to fix the latter's popular video game console. During their trip they discover a world unlike anything they ever could have imagined, venturing out to online locations as varied as eBay, a YouTube-style video-sharing site, an MMO street racing game, the dark web and even Online Disney. There Vanellope encounters every single one of the classic Disney Princesses ranging from Snow White all the way up to Moana, almost all of them voiced by their original vocal actors wherever possible.

It's a spectacular piece of family-friendly entertainment that improves upon the first film in almost every way. I had about 20 minutes or so to chat with Lehtomaki about the film. Here's what she had to say:

Sara Michelle Fetters: I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but how exactly do you explain your job at Disney Animation to people?

Kira Lehtomaki: Oh! I never get tired of that question. I love talking about my job. I feel like everybody tends to think everybody who works in our building [at Disney] is an animator. But we have so many people that work on these films. We have scientists and engineers. You can do anything and work on these films.

As animators, we kind of think of ourselves as the actors of the film. We have the voice actors that come in and they record their lines of dialogue, and then it's our job, if it's a hand-drawn film, to draw it on paper; or, in a CG film, like Ralph Breaks the Internet, we actually have a puppet inside of the computer. We move the puppet around so that you believe that that voice is coming out of those characters. So we really do the physical acting of the characters. I liken it to playing with dolls. [laughs]

Sara Michelle Fetters: What's it like for you, though? I mean, after working as an intern, as an animator, to basically be supervising everybody on this film? Especially on a movie as high profile as Ralph Breaks the Internet?

Kira Lehtomaki: Well, let's be clear: I'm not running everything. I do aspire to be CEO, though. I've told Bob Iger this. [laughs] Everybody is so talented. It all kinda runs itself. The great thing about being in animation is you get to be a part of the process so early on. I got to be a part of the pre-production. Like, when people are thinking about doing a movie set on the internet? We get to help envision that. It's a place we go every single day, but do we really know what it looks like? How do you visualize that in terms of characters and making it this kind of anthropomorphic thing?

That was really fun, just the experimentation of figuring it out. What is the logic of this world? What does it look like when somebody is going to a site like eBay? What is the real-world equivalent? It's kind of like an auction house. So it was just figuring out what the visualization of these sorts of things are.

Then, with the new characters, we get to figure out what their style of movement is. All the net users that are like the avatars of you and me, the everyday people, they have a very robotic quality. We thought of them as the tourists on the internet. So they don't really know exactly where they're going, but they're really being controlled by somebody on the other side of the computer screen so they do have their own initiative.

Then, we have the 'Netizens,' which are the natural-born citizens of the internet. They're a little bit in the service industry. They're there to work at the websites and help the net users get around. They have a lot more fluid animation style and they can zap into little beams of electricity and go along the circuitry in the floor.

So it was all about figuring out what makes these two groups distinct. How are they going to move and how is that different between the two of them?

Sara Michelle Fetters: What's this process like for you? When you're working with the directors, or you're working with the writers and fleshing all this out?

Kira Lehtomaki: It's really, really fun. We're doing this concurrently while the writers are figuring out the story. Animation is a big team sport and everything is happening concurrently. We're off experimenting and doing these fun little tests, and then we get together with the directors and the story team, the visual development artists, and we'd show them what we'd come up with. They'd be like, 'Oh, that's great!' They'll come back with what they're thinking about this for the story and how they can incorporate those ideas into the story as well as new avenues based on those ideas for us to explore. Likewise, they tell us what is happening on their end. It is just kind of this amazing collaboration.

The directors are brilliant. Rich Moore is a veteran of 'The Simpsons.' And he's an animator, too! We speak the same language. But his timing and comedy is so precise. Phil Johnston, the writer and co-director, he is one of the sweetest and most hilarious people I've ever met. He is so creative and he brought so many of his personal life experiences into the film in a really unique way. It was really fun brainstorming with these guys because they come up with amazing ideas.

Sara Michelle Fetters: You talk about how much fun it is creating these new characters, these new worlds. But this is a sequel. What's it like working on characters like Ralph and Vanellope? Characters that are already set?

Kira Lehtomaki: Well, with Ralph and Vanellope specifically, we always say that when we get to the end of the first movie [Wreck-It Ralph], it was like, 'Now we know how to animate them!' [laughs] But that's the time that we have to say goodbye. We're done with them. So, getting to do a sequel? I mean, Disney really hasn't done an official sequel since Rescuers Down Under and Fantasia 2000. Being able to revisit these characters was a real gift because we were all like, 'We know them! We know them!' We were so excited.

But Ralph and Vanellope have changed. It's been six years and they've grown. They're facing a new struggle. So, we really had to dig a little deeper and find new stuff in both of them to bring forth before we started working on the princesses.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And there we wander right into my follow-up question. [laughs] Those Disney princesses, bringing them all - every single one of them - to life? What was that like?

Kira Lehtomaki: This was probably the greatest joy of my life. That sequence. When I saw Sleeping Beauty when I was three years old and I knew I wanted to be an animator. The Little Mermaid, too. Those two princesses had a huge impact on my life. To work movie and get to animate the characters that inspired me to be an animator was so crazy! On top of that, we had the original voice actresses come back and voice their characters. Like, Jodi Benson being there was everything for me.

She doesn't know this, but she's my best friend. [laughs] Maybe she does know this. Who knows? But anyway, it was just a joy. I might have gone home and cried for a second or two that first day.

They [the actresses] came in and they recorded their lines. But they're all pros and they know their characters so well. They actually came and met with the animators. They bring so much of themselves to these characters. If you watch them, you're like; you're moving your hand like Ariel! They sound like them and they've lived with these characters for so much of their careers that they know them inside and out.

We've never seen them together interacting like this. I always use Jodi Benson and Paige O'Hara, the voice of Belle, as examples when I talk about this because they've been doing this for so long. Jodi's been doing this since '89 and Paige has been doing this since the early '90s, and they've done so many Disney things together that they're friends. Because these characters are so much of them we could ask how their characters relate to one another. They could bring insights into how they relate to each other.

Ariel, she wants to know what the people know. Belle is the book-smart princess. They're going be natural best friends. Ariel's going to asking all her questions to Belle. Belle's going to have all the answers and she's going to be a happy, patient teacher. Ariel is going to be excited learning all of these new and incredible things. You know?

Having the authenticity and the insight that those ladies could bring was indispensable. On top of that, and we're so spoiled, we had the amazing, legendary animator Mark Henn with us. If you don't know Mark by his name, you do know him by his work. He was the original supervising animator for five of the princesses: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Tiana.

Sara Michelle Fetters: That's amazing! I didn't notice that. That's pretty cool.

Kira Lehtomaki: I think one of the former Disney executives called him, 'the Julia Roberts of animation.' [laughs] He's done so many of the leading ladies. He also was our draw-over lead on Frozen for both Anna and Elsa. He's animated Pocahontas and he's said that Cinderella was the movie that inspired him to be an animator. He's incredible.

Sara Michelle Fetters: So, if you can't resurrect one of the 'Nine Old Men,' bringing in Mark Henn has to be the second best thing, right?

Kira Lehtomaki: Exactly! I love that you know who the Nine Old Me are. You really are a fan.

Sara Michelle Fetters: You can't be a true fan of classic Disney animation and not know the Nine Old Men. I think it's listed in the requirements somewhere. [laughs]

Kira Lehtomaki: Definitely. Might be part of the Disney questionnaire when you come in as an intern. [laughs]

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, I should probably admit Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney movie, too. Couple years ago the Cinerama had a 70mm print. I might have gone to both showings.

Kira Lehtomaki: You've got excellent taste.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But, back to Mark Henn. That had to be so great having them there while you were working on the sequences featuring the princesses.

Kira Lehtomaki: Totally. He would be there with us during dailies and each round of animation, and he would do some of the draw-overs. He did a test of Ariel, a hand-drawn piece of animation, for one of the sequences. The Little Mermaid celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, and here I was, standing next to Mark, watching him animate Ariel. It was incredible.

But he brought authenticity. He was like, 'Mulan. I would always do this for her character,' and then he would just start drawing. He just knows them all inside and out. So, to have the original filmmakers be a part of this process helped us so much and it was so fun. It was just a delight for the Disney fan inside of me.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I don't want to go into it too much as I want to minimize spoilers, but when you all got a look at the finished script, when you finally knew were the story was going, how hard was it to animate that last ten minutes or so?

Kira Lehtomaki: Well, it wasn't easy. [laughs] It was so emotional. We've lived with Ralph and Vanellope for so long.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I mean, this ultimately ends up being a story about being able to let go. About the ways friendships must change, deepen and evolve if they are going to continue to grow. That's inherently emotional, isn't it?

Kira Lehtomaki: It is. You're exactly right. That's the thing - the thing that I love about the movie. There's a core message that it is about something real. About something pure. The internet is glorious and fun, and it was great fun to imagine and visualize, but there's a reason you're watching this movie. It's these characters. It's Ralph and Vanellope. There's something that is relatable that we all go through, that we all can relate to, no matter where you're from or what your background is. Friendships and relationships, they evolve and they change. The question always is, how do you deal with that?

In animation, we often film references of ourselves or act it out ourselves. When we're doing these things, we're thinking of our own life experiences. There's so much of us in this movie. Hopefully you don't see us, but it resonates because it's real.

Sara Michelle Fetters: How does all this fit together? I mean, you go from being a wide-eyed three-year-old who wants to grow up to be an animator sending letters to Mary Costa to going to the University of Washington and getting a computer science degree.

Kira Lehtomaki: You did do your research! Wow. [laughs]

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, us Dawgs, we have to stick together.

Kira Lehtomaki: Exactly. It's a strange story, though. Everything in my life I did to work at Disney. But my dad is an electrical engineer and my mom is a chemist. They're very supportive of whatever I want to do. But the world of art was very foreign to them. When I was looking to go to college, CG animation had taken over the industry. My dad had a co-worker whose nephew worked at Disney. So, like many high schoolers do, I get that contact of a friend of a friend of a friend and email them. I emailed this guy and I said I wanted to work at Disney, what should I do?

Now, he wasn't an animator, but he worked at Disney. I was like, I wanna be where you're at. He gave me great advice. But one of the pieces of advice that he gave me was crystal clear: You should learn the computer. Which was so true. But you translate that into my family. It was like, you should learn the computer? Okay. Computer science.

So my dad subscribed to the IEEE journal, which is a technical journal, and on the cover of one of the issues was Edwin Catmull, who is the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar. He invented so much of CG animation. He's amazing. There was this whole write-up on him and how he's this computer scientist working on these animated movies, and it said that he wanted to be a Disney animator when he grew up. And that was me! I'm like maybe computer science was my way in? Maybe my parents are right? Who knew? [laughs]

I went to U-Dub and it was a great experience. I learned so much. I think computer science taught me how to problem solve. Even if I'm not coding every single day, the principles I learned are invaluable. Also, when I was at U-Dub I was writing algorithms. Now I'm animating them! How crazy is that?

It all came together. It all went full circle. Also? Truth is stranger than fiction? It turns out the guy that I emailed in high school; he's the head of layout and cinematography on Ralph Breaks the Internet. It's a small world after all.

Sara Michelle Fetters: You don't want us to start singing now, do you? Because now that song is going to be stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Kira Lehtomaki: Cue the music! [laughs] Seriously, work at Disney. Just imagine all the songs that keep getting stuck in my head every day.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I can only imagine. [laughs] Speaking of CG animation, seems like practically 99.9% of all the feature films released today by Disney are CG animated. Feels like we haven't seen a hand-drawn feature since The Princess and the Frog and&

Kira Lehtomaki: Winnie-the-Pooh.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Exactly. And, I mean, there's obviously going to be some hand-drawn sequences in Mary Poppins Returns.

Kira Lehtomaki: I'm so excited for that one. I haven't seen it yet but the buzz at Disney right now is that it's pretty great.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But are we going to get another hand-drawn animated feature anytime soon? That's such a huge part of the Disney legacy. You could even say the studio was founded all thanks to the power of hand drawn animation. Heck, the reason we're here is because of your love for Sleeping Beauty and the inspiration you drew from that film to become a Disney animator yourself.

Kira Lehtomaki: Well, let me just say in this movie there is hand-drawn animation. There's some really, really choice Easter Eggs. I don't know if you noticed them, but there's one specifically from my favorite Disney short, called In the Bag. Anyway. It's amazing.

But, yeah, I think right now, on this movie, it was such a collaboration. Knowsmore, our character Knowsmore, his eyes and the refraction in his glasses, those are all hand-drawn. That's not digital. He's a CG character, but that's hand-drawn. We have that kind of collaboration throughout.

We're a director-led studio. So if there is a story that the best medium to tell that story in is hand-drawn, we'll do it. I don't know what the future holds, but hand-drawn animation is what made me fall in love with animation. That's why I wanted to do what I'm doing. I'm very thankful for CG because it's allowed me to be at Disney. But there's nothing like watching a hand-drawn animated movie on the screen. So will we make another feature sometime soon? I hope so. I definitely hope so.

Sara Michelle Fetters: For you personally, what did the experience of working on Ralph Breaks the Internet mean to you?

Kira Lehtomaki: This movie was a very personal one for me. I think it is a culmination of so many dreams come true. I loved working on the first Wreck-It Ralph. It was really great. When I signed up for the movie, it was like, I get to work with Ralph and Vanellope again. Phil Johnston's great. The animators. The whole team who draw and shape these characters, they are all really fun. I love being around them.

But I had no idea the princesses were going be in the film. I had no idea. I'm also an avid eBay-er. I've been a member since 1998. And I'm a little bit of a Disney hoarder. The idea that I'm working on a movie that not only has eBay, but also the characters that inspired me to be an animator, all in one thing? And there's another sequence about finding your dream and doing everything it takes to achieve it? I was like, 'What are we doing here? Are we making this movie just for me?' [laughs]

I mean, I hope the rest of the world enjoys Ralph Breaks the Internet, but this movie might've been made just for me. I literally was sitting at the premiere just pinching myself. I'm kind of overwhelmed that this is my reality.

From a film standpoint, I'm really thankful the core message is about friendship and that there's a self-sacrificial element to what happens. You can't place all your hope and trust in another person, but you can continue to love and support them no matter what. Friendships change and evolve, and that's okay. I feel like there's just something really relatable and something that kids can understand about that. Something that adults can understand, too.

I hope audiences watch this movie and really are able to identify what true friendship is. What true friendship means. Who is your true friend? Where do you find your worth? How do you both see one another? Those are big, complicated questions but ones I think need to be asked. In the end it's important to know who the people who really care about you and know they are there for you, that they will always be there for you. No matter if you're close or far away, they'll be there.

So that's what I'll take away with me after working on Ralph Breaks the Internet. All of that and the fact I got to help animate Princess Aurora, Sleeping Beauty herself, too. My three-year-old self is going to be giddy about that for a very, very long time.


Pugnacious Creed II a crowd-pleasing punch to the gut
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CREED II
Now playing


Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has emerged out of his late father Apollo Creed's shadow. Thanks to the tutelage of his friend and mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and the love of his longtime singer girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), he is now the heavyweight champion of the world. He has done exactly what he set out to do, and for this one brief moment as far as Adonis is concerned all is right with the world.

But someone from out of both Rocky's and his father's past has come back to haunt the new champion. In the heart of the Ukraine, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has been patiently training his son Viktor (Florian 'Big Nasty' Munteanu) to be an even more unstoppable beast inside the ring than even he was. They have challenged Adonis to a bout, and it's a fight the new champion feels he cannot turn down. Ivan is the man that inadvertently killed his father during their fight. Rocky is the one who, in his grief, subsequently went to Moscow and shocked the world by knocking Ivan out in front of his own countrymen. Adonis feels like he has to accept this fight no matter what the consequences, worrying he'll disappear back behind his father's massive silhouette if he fails to take down the son of the man who beat him to death three decades prior.

Creed II is a direct sequel to 2015's surprise hit Creed and also 1985's Rocky IV. It brings back characters from both of those films as well as ones from other Rocky entries. It gives Phylicia Rashad a tiny bit more to do as Adonis' mother Mary Anne Creed. Screenwriters Stallone and Juel Taylor give just as much credence to the Ivan/Viktor storyline as they do the Rocky/Adonis one. New director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land) deftly follows in original filmmaker Ryan Coogler's (Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station) footsteps by insisting the drama remain focused on the characters and their respective journeys above any and everything else. It's an incredibly well-realized motion picture that continues on the enduring legacy of the previous films yet also manages to make its own individualistic mark as well. In short, it's a darn good sequel, and it's safe to say I kind of loved just about every single second of it.

At the same time, it's obvious we've ventured outside of Coogler's original vision displayed to such vibrant meticulousness in the last film and have instead strayed back into the one Stallone spent three decades perfecting while working on six different Rocky films beginning with the Academy Award-winning original in 1976 and culminating with his triumphant final chapter Rocky Balboa in 2006. Not only does he bring back the protagonist of Rocky IV, he also throws in a troubled pregnancy subplot culled from Rocky II and the initially reluctant trainer narrative beat from Rocky III. Additionally, as terrific as both Rashad and Thompson might be, and the latter is electrifying stealing scenes left and right from Jordan with magnetic forcefulness, the women are still relegated into the background, their wants, needs and desires secondary to that of the men sharing their lives.

In short, it's back to basics right down to returning composer Ludwig Göransson's (Venom) heavy utilization of Oscar-winner Bill Conti's original Rocky themes throughout the 130-minute drama. While he waits to unleash 'Gonna Fly Now' until the ideal moment, the rest of Conti's music can be heard so frequently it's easy to wonder whether he came out of retirement to compose the score and Göransson's name is there only as an alias. And, while I'm likely being disingenuous in regards to how intricate the music here is, there's still no denying this sequel sounds more like any one of the '80s entries in the series than it does Coogler's film from just three years ago.

I'm nitpicking. But that still doesn't mean I didn't want more complexity as it pertained to Adonis and Bianca's relationship; that I kept feeling like she needed to be her own woman and construct her own life and not just be a feminine device to help augment her husband's story at the expense of her own. Even so, it's refreshing to see a relationship like the one these two share in a major Hollywood sequel, the heat of their romantic passions genuinely palpable. More, Jordan and Thompson continue to showcase a fiery chemistry that burns through the screen, and I couldn't have loved the both of them more whenever they were together if I had wanted to try.

The rest of the movie follows the general Rocky template right down to the overblown training montage. The fact it all works as well as it does is a testament to how rich the performances are as well as the kinetically captivating efficiency of Caple's direction. I loved the way Stallone and Taylor's script balances its screen time between Rocky, Adonis, Ivan and Viktor. The latter two are given a lot to do, the fervent depth of their relationship subtly speaking volumes as father and son both look for redemption even when they don't always see eye-to-eye as why it is exactly they're both doing so. Their familial love is real, and I adored the fact so much of the story is reliant upon it being so, and unlike Rocky IV where Ivan was the clear villain this time around he and Viktor are almost as sympathetic and worth rooting for as Adonis and Rocky unsurprisingly continue to be.

But all anyone is truly going to care about is the final confrontation between Adonis and Viktor and whether or not watching it is worth the price of admission. It is. While cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau's (The Darkest Minds) camerawork isn't nearly as gorgeously fluid as what Maryse Alberti brought to the last film, that doesn't make his visual styling any less incredible. He brings a brutal urgency to the final fight that's bruising in its dynamic intensity, each left hook or right jab an eye-popping punch to the gut that had me sitting at the edge of my seat eager to discover what was going to happen next.

In the end, Stallone continues to be perfect as Rocky Balboa and Jordan was born to portray Adonis Creed. Their relationship grows in a number of charismatic ways, the purity of their bond one I'm not about to take for granted. If this sequel isn't quite the marvel its predecessor was that doesn't make it any less entertaining, and whether for die-hard fans of the series who have been there since the beginning or for newcomers who just come to it on the strength of Coogler's 2015 opus, Creed II is a pugnacious delight worth getting into the theatrical ring to see.


Well-intentioned Front Runner a few votes shy of victory
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE FRONT RUNNER
Now playing


Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is going to be the next President of the United States. It is 1988 and he's the clear front-runner to be the Democratic candidate to face-off against Republican George Herbert Walker Bush, and if the current polls are any consideration he's likely to defeat him come November. If he does, he'll be the first Democratic candidate from a western State to hold the Presidency, Hart's political savvy, ability to connect with people across all demographics and intelligently inventive moxie not to be trifled with.

We all know what happens next. Three weeks into his campaign to be the Democratic nominee he was out of the race, a small collection of reporters from the Miami Herald lucking into a story that would eventually force Hart to give up on his pursuit of the Presidency. Caught in an affair, struggling to find a way to spin the news to his advantage, everything fell apart with shocking rapidity, this political rising star relegated to the dustbin of history in a moment's notice and with a vindictive viciousness Republicans and Democrats would learn valuable lessons from, lessons both parties are still trying to shape and mold to their personal advantage even today.

Based on the best-selling book All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai, director Jason Reitman's (Tully, Juno) latest endeavor The Front Runner is a procedural examination of the events that lead to Hart's downfall. Featuring a towering central performance from Jackman and sturdy supporting turns from J.K. Simmons as his campaign director Bill Dixon, Vera Farmiga as his wife Lee Hart, Molly Ephraim as campaign aid Irene Kelly and an unrecognizable Sara Paxton as Donna Rice, there's plenty to get excited about. But the movie is so observational, so obsessed with staying above the fray and not putting forth any type of opinion it ends up being oddly emotionally aloof for a great deal of its otherwise briskly paced 113-minute running time. It's good, but not essential, and as this is the type of story that could put a terrific spotlight on the ugliness and hypocritical depravity of modern political discourse the fact this ends up being so strangely toothless is undeniably disappointing.

Not that I didn't mind sitting in the theatre watching it all play out. Jackman is incredible, The Greatest Showman and Logan heartthrob delivering one of the most multifaceted and emotionally complex performances of his career. He disappears into Gary Hart, and I loved the ways in which he balanced the politician's more magnanimous and selfless tendencies with his callous self-destructive inability to not give in to his baser needs even with all the world watching his every move. The scene where he is confronted by the tiny contingent of Miami Herald reporters in the back alley behind his Washington D.C. condo is magnificent, as is the moment where he tears apart the paper's editor Bob Martindale (a perfectly cast Kevin Pollack) in a room full newspaper publishers. Jackman dominates the film in much the same way Hart himself attempted to control political discourse at the time, and if anyone chose to head out to see the film just because they're fond of the actor I'd sure as heck never dissuade them from doing so.

But Reitman, Bai and Jay Carson ('House of Cards') have thrown together a script that is frustratingly content to just go through the journalistic motions of reporting this story without ever commenting on why things happened the way they did or to parallel these events to what's taking place today. It can all feel more like a history lesson than it does a dramatic narrative endeavor, the emotional complexities of how this was affecting Hart, his wife, their daughter Andrea (a wasted Kaitlyn Dever) and the rest of the Colorado politician's campaign staff never materializing as fully or as intimately as they needed to for this story to fully resonate with me. I just couldn't embrace it no matter how much I wanted to, and considering the pedigree of all involved as well as the richness of both the source material as well as the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction political saga that inspired it this came as a disheartening surprise.

It looks great. Eric Steelberg's (Baywatch) cinematography, Danny Glicker's (mother!) costumes and Steve Saklad's (How to Be Single) all outstanding, and I really liked the way that Reitman worked with his collaborators to give the film a lived-in period authenticity that never felt cartoonish or overblown. It's also marvelously edited by Stefan Grube (10 Cloverfield Lane), the story having a meticulous ticking-clock fluidity I found impressive.

I can't say I'm entirely sure who I can recommend the finished feature to. While I personally liked it, and while I found Jackman's performance as Hart to be outstanding, I'm not sure that is enough for me to urge people to pay hard-earned money to see it inside a theatre. The truth of the matter this one is going to play just fine at home by the time it hits DVD and Blu-ray or makes its way to daytime showings on cable channels like TBS or TNT. The Front Runner isn't the historical evisceration I feel like it potentially could have been, and no matter what Reitman or his fellow filmmakers' intentions this is one political reenactment that comes up a few votes short of being able to declare an Electoral College victory.




December 2018 theater openings
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An Evening with AUNTIE MAME returns! - Three Dollar Bill Cinema's annual holiday fundraiser Dec. 12
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Charmed, I'm sure with Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Delightfully imaginative Ralph Breaks the Internet a superior sequel
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Animating friendships - Head of animation Kira Lehtomaki helps bring Ralph Breaks the Internet to life
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Pugnacious Creed II a crowd-pleasing punch to the gut
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Well-intentioned Front Runner a few votes shy of victory
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