Ryan Coogler

Black Panther

24/02/18

For those viewers who, like me, are suffering from a bad case of spandex overload, help is at hand in the form of a Marvel superhero movie that doesn’t really feel like anything that’s gone before it. You thought Thor: Ragnarok pushed the envelope? Wait till you get a load of Black Panther!

In what is only his third film, director Ryan Coogler offers a powerful and confident take on the genre, an action film that gets so many things right it’s hard to resist its considerable charms. And I’m not just referring to the fact that the film is almost completely inhabited by black characters – that it’s a celebration of Africa and its culture – that there are so many strong, positive roles for women. This is an object lesson on how to reinvent and subvert a tired and over-familiar concept.

We first meet the hero of the film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), just after the death of his father, as he is about to become the King of Wakanda, a mythical African nation that, after a meteor strike back in its history, has blossomed into a technologically advanced wonderland, thanks to an abundance of vibranium, the precious metal that gives Wakanda’s leaders their superpowers and allows them to transform into the titular hero. But no sooner is T’Challa on the throne than he finds himself drawn into a dangerous mission. His old adversary, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, revelling in the chance to strut his stuff, for once, without having to wear a motion capture suit), has stolen an ancient artefact made from vibranium and is planning to sell it to the highest bidder. He is aided in the robbery by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who clearly has some personal axe to grind with T’Challa…

There’s some fabulous world-building going on here and I particularly love the performance of Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri, who plays a sort of Q figure, providing her big bother with a whole string of incredible hardware to enable him to complete his mission. A lengthy sequence in a Korean casino followed by a frenetic car chase could have wandered in from a Bond movie and, if the makers of that franchise are ever stuck for a director, Coogler would make an interesting choice  – but I digress.

The film soon ventures into more familiar superhero territory, but even the usual CGI-augmented punchup at the conclusion doesn’t go on interminably – a problem that mars the otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok – and better still, this one has rhinos! Best of all for me, Marvel finally has a more interesting and nuanced villain than the usual ‘bent-on-world-domination’ cliche that is habitually trotted out. Fans of the Marvel EU will want to stay in their seats through the (very long) end credits because there are two extra scenes on offer, one of which ties up a loose end from an earlier film.

Purists will inevitably complain that Black Panther doesn’t stick closely enough to the established conventions of the genre but, for me at least, this is a very welcome step in the right direction.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Creed

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07/01/15

if asked to create a list of franchises that didn’t really need another instalment, the Rocky series would surely figure high on a lot of people’s lists. It’s easy to forget, though, that back in 1977, the original film lifted the best movie Oscar, trouncing rivals of the calibre of Taxi Driver and Network. Sadly though, the film’s writer and star, Sylvester Stallone went on to produce a series of increasingly cartoonish sequels (he did the same thing with his other big franchise, Rambo) and its these inferior films that tend to linger in the public’s consciousness.

So how do you find a new angle on the story? Writer/director Ryan Coogler, creator of the much-admired Fruitvale Station,  has given it his best shot and it’s to his credit that the resulting film is as watchable as it is. Creed  focuses very much on an African-American perspective. Where earlier films had a powerful white man overcoming black champions, here the familiar story is pitched in reverse (and is therefore arguably a more realistic premise).

Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of the late former world champion, Apollo Creed. He’s grown up with not so much a chip on his shoulder as a five ton boulder. Raised by Creed’s wife in the lap of luxury, Adonis still has an overpowering urge to punch people for a living and has already been the victor in a string clandestine bouts in Mexico, but he longs to go legit. So he throws in his cushy job in L.A, moves to a tiny flat in Philadelphia and searches out a suitable trainer. Inevitably, his gaze falls upon Rocky Balboa, the only man ever to have beaten his old man in the ring.

These days, Rocky (Stallone) is running a restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian and is suffering from a few health issues. Initially reluctant to return to his former life, he sees something in Adonis and… well, you can pretty much work out the rest. Ultimately, it does come down to another gruelling string of training and fighting sequences and those viewers who are turned off by the sight of grown men brutally pummelling each other to unconsciousness are not going to like this at all. There are a few cleverly placed references to the original movie and interestingly, Adonis’s main opponent here is former heavyweight champion, Tony Bellew, playing a character called’Pretty’ Ricky Conlan. Ironically, he looks considerably less buff than most of the actors in the film, but having said that, I still wouldn’t want to trade punches with him.

Jordan is convincing as the ‘hungry’ kid on the block, Stallone still mumbles so much, you only recognise three words out of every five and the film is ultimately KO’d in the final round by some decidedly mawkish dialogue as Rocky points out that Adonis’s punch up with Conlan is just the same as his own battle with the big C. But the climactic fight is thrillingly staged and while it’s not a patch on the likes of Raging Bull or The Fighter, it’s nonetheless the best Rocky film in a very long time.

Not exactly a knockout, then, but it wins on points. Stallone is already threatening a rematch.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Fruitvale Station

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26/04/15

Fruitvale Station wasn’t in the cinemas for very long, so I missed it on the big screen, but this powerful drama works just as effectively on a more intimate scale. It tells the real life story of 22 year old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) a Bay Area resident who was shot and killed in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, by a police officer, responding to a minor disturbance on a tube train.

Ryan Coogler’s debut full-length feature occupies itself with the last day of Grant’s life, beginning with him waking up on New Year’s Eve and following events through to their tragic conclusion. It’s a stripped-down, high-powered production, just 85 minutes in duration, but one that it nonetheless compelling from start to finish. Jordan plays Grant as an affable charmer, with a tendency to get things wrong (on the day he died, he was coming to terms with the fact that he had lost his job at a grocery store because of persistent lateness.) A brief flashback to his time in prison is a little sketchy on detail, making you wonder is he really could have been quite as nice as he’s portrayed here, but as a searing plea for gun control the film works effectively and it would be a hard heart indeed that won’t be moved by its final, harrowing images.

Plaudits should also go to Octavia Spencer as Grant’s much-put upon mother (who heartbreakingly urged her son to take the subway into town in order to ‘avoid trouble’) and to Ariana Neal as his young daughter, Tatiana, who demonstrates acting ability beyond her tender years. Fruitvale Station may only be telling us something we know already – that the right to bear arms is a bad thing indeed – but the lesson is delivered in a confident, assured way, making Coogler a name to watch in  the near future.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney