Movie reviews: 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' is fun, games and clever messages to boot
Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on six movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: "Ralph Breaks the Internet," "Creed II," and "Green Book."
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET: 3 ½ STARS
Given the movie's subtext "Ralph Breaks the Internet" could have been called "Ralph Wants You to Think About the Ramifications of Internet Usage." Not as catchy, I'll admit, but amid the fun and games the sequel to "Wreck-It Ralph" is a strong message about the dangers of Internet culture.
It's been six years since we met Wreck-It Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly), a disgruntled video game character who demanded respect. This time around, the action begins when the steering wheel controller on the Sugar Rush game console breaks.
"It might be time to sell Sugar Rush for parts," says Stan Litwak (Ed O'Neill), owner of Litwak's Family Fun Center & Arcade.
Before Litwak unplugs the machine, Ralph and the game's racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) rescue Sugar Rush's characters by moving them to other games.
To get the broken game back up and running Ralph and Vanellope hit the Internet, using the Arcade's wifi to explore the net in search of a replacement steering wheel. Although they find the wheel at eBay, they don't have any money.
"I left my wallet at home," Ralph tells the eBay cashier. "In the wallet room and the door is locked!"
When they befriend Shank (Gal Gadot), a racer in Slaughter Race, their problems seem to be over. The violent racing game overs a source of money but as Shank's influence on Vanellope grows Ralph worries that his friend is drifting away.
"Ralph Breaks the Internet" is at its best when it's subversive. The colourful animation, coupled with an imaginative take on what it would be like to be inside the internet — eBay is an actual auction house, and "likes" are sucked up by a vacuum cleaner — will make eyeballs dance but it's the messaging that is memorable. Woven into the story are clever lessons on toxic friendship, how insecurity can infect a relationship like a virus on the computer and the dangers of obsessing about getting likes on social media posts.
Even better is a scene where Vanellope, while visiting OhMyDisney.com, stumbles into the Disney Princess break room. Here the film makes fun of Disney's bread-and-butter, the stereotype of the princess.
"Do people assume all your problems get solved because a strong man came along?"
But fans of the first film know that Vanellope is a reluctant princess, preferring the title president.
Here, among her spiritual sisters, she helps them shed some of their stuffy ways and they help her along the way to figuring out her path in life.
READ MORE: 'Ralph' sequel packs a punch with strong female characters
"I stare at the important water and all of a sudden I start singing about my problems? I don't think so," Vanellope says, bursting one of Disney's most familiar princess tropes.
The princess scene is a highlight in a film that has laughs but isn't exactly a comedy. It's more a heartfelt examination of friendship — "It's not right to hold a friend back from her dreams." — with some wild cartoon action and satire.
"Ralph Breaks the Internet" is a very specific story about two animated characters that illuminates universal themes form the real world.
READ ANOTHER TAKE: Game not over in 'Ralph Breaks the Internet'
CREED II: 4 STARS
Whoever said history never repeats didn't work in Hollywood. Remakes and reboots have taken over theatres, recycling ideas and characters in what can sometimes feel like a continuous case of déjà vu. This week we have "Creed II" a sequel to a reboot, which is also a remake of sorts of a film made before star Michael B. Jordan was even born.
READ MORE: Hollywood heavyweight Michael B. Jordan punches up
When we last saw Adonis Creed (Jordan) he was a young man who never knew his dad, former world champion boxer Apollo Creed. He did, however, inherit the old man's love of boxing and much of his skill. Working with his dad's old friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to get into ring-ready shape he, like his father before him, wins the respect of the boxing world.
In the new film, he is confronted by his father's legacy in the form of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of the man who killed Apollo in the ring decades ago.
The year was 1985. Apollo Creed came out of a five-year retirement to give Soviet Olympic boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) a good old-fashioned American pummelling. Instead, with Rocky in his corner, Apollo is beaten senseless by the 6 foot 5 inch steroid-enhanced Russian. Just as Rocky drops the towel to end the fight Drago delivers the coup de grâce, a fatal blow that kills Apollo in centre ring. Determined to avenge Apollo's death, Rocky squares off with Drago in the Soviet Union in a Christmas season match. Journeyman Rocky shocks the world by winning, beating the statuesque Eastern Bloc fighter by knockout.
Flash forward to "Creed II." The sting of that Reagan-era loss still bothers Drago (Lundgren, who else?). Shaping his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) into a lean, mean fighting machine, Drago seeks to vicariously regain honour in the ring.
"In Russia," Drago says, "no one will touch the Drago name. Everything changed that night."
READ MORE: Dolph Lundgren is happy he has better lines
Father and son challenge Adonis, now the world heavyweight champion, to a match.
"My son will break your boy," Drago says, taunting Rocky.
Despite Rocky's warnings Adonis accepts the fight, looking for vengeance for a man he never knew. The showdown between the duelling sons brings into focus the shared legacy of the four men, Adonis, Viktor, Drago and Rocky.
"Creed II" isn't really a movie about boxing. There are two brutal fight scenes but narratively this is about finding a sense of purpose, inside and outside of the ring. It's about the why rather than the how. On that score it works. Director Steven Caple Jr. focuses on the characters allowing us to get to know them better, or in the case of Rocky and Drago, get reacquainted with them.
The film takes its time setting up the relationships before getting into the more traditional "Rocky" tropes, ie: unconventional but effective training methods and a rousing finale, complete with a riff on Bill Conti's rousing "Rocky" theme song "Gonna Fly Now."
This study of fathers and sons, of vengeance and reputation is really a look at brittle masculinity. These characters are all broken somehow, looking for something they are unlikely to find in the ring. "Why do you fight?" Rocky asks Adonis several times, sending him off on an introspective journey that leads him back to where his quest began, his father.
"Creed II" reverberates with the echoes of "Rocky" past but transcends being an exercise in déjà vu by amping up the emotional content to TKO levels. It is neither a rehash nor completely original work. It's simply another puzzle piece in the feel-good "Rocky" saga.
READ ANOTHER TAKE: 'Creed II' goes more than the distance. It's a KO
GREEN BOOK: 4 STARS
Based on the true story of an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx and a gifted African-American musician, "Green Book" is a buddy picture with a message of tolerance.
Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a.k.a Tony Lip, is an out-of-work bouncer looking to make a few extra dollars to pay bills and buy Christmas gifts for his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and kids. He lands a gig working for African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The musician hires Tony as his chauffeur for a concert tour that will take them from Manhattan to south of the Mason-Dixon line.
"You won't last a week with him," says Dolores. ""For the right money I will," he replies.
The deal is simple. If Shirley makes it to every concert on the two-month tour Tony will be paid in full. "You better be home for Christmas," says Delores, "or don't come home at all."
To help them navigate the trip they bring along the "Green Book: For Vacation without Aggravation," a motorist's travel guide to safe havens for African-American people travelling in the Jim Crow South. Together this odd couple — the plainspoken driver and the erudite concert pianist — journey into the south looking for, and finding, common ground. "Anyone can sound like Beethoven," says Tony, "but your music, what you do, only you can do that."
"Green Book" is a crowd pleaser of a movie. Playing it safe the film is content to skim the surface of the racism that lay at the core of the story. Instead, it relies on the characters and situations to illuminate the horror of Shirley's experience in relation to the colour of his skin. It takes its subjects seriously but places them in a formulaic story that plays out in a relatively predictable way.
That's not to say it isn't moving or enjoyable, it just hits all the beats you might expect.
At its heart are Mortensen and Ali. As Tony, Mortensen side-steps most Italian American caricatures. He plays Tony as a kind-hearted chatterbox, loyal and quick with his fists. He loves his wife and kids but what makes him interesting is his ability to learn. He learns from Shirley, how to write a proper love letter and (AND THIS IS NOT A SPOILER) how to put aside ingrained prejudices and judge people for who they are. The "Lord of the Rings" actor embodies the character, making him a likable conglomeration of cuss words, backwards attitudes and temperament.
Mortensen has the showier role but Ali provides the heart. Imperious — he first meets Tony while sitting on a throne of sorts — brilliant and deeply wounded, Shirley is a complex character. Whether he's rolling his eyes at Tony ignorance — "It's Orpheus and those aren't children, they are demons" — or smiling graciously at the racists in his audiences, Ali owns it. Shirley begins aloof, as though we're observing the character from the concert stage but Ali gradually adds layers of vulnerability, grit and grace.
"You never win with violence," he says after Tony has slugged a man in a racially motivated incident.
"Dignity always prevails."
"Green Book" probably could have hit a little harder but its message of unity, of creating bridges rather than walls, is a welcome one in these politically divisive times.
READ ANOTHER TAKE: 'Green Book' is sure to put a smile on your face
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
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