(In Theatres, March 2018) Believe the hype. This seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in some ways one of the most original and important of them all—now that Marvel Studio has spent a decade perfecting its house style and establishing itself as a dependable entertainer, they now feel free (or perhaps forced, given the ever-present spectre of superhero fatigue) to strike out in new directions and literally diversify their offerings. So that’s how we end up with Black Panther, the first big-budget science-fiction spectacular largely helmed by black filmmakers, starring black actors, tackling issues of black interest and squarely set in Africa. The result goes far beyond even the most enthusiastic expectations: The afro-futurism of the film is simply gorgeous. The vision presented on-screen, from set design to costumes to high technology, is refreshing to the point of distracting from the plot from time to time. (Wakanda Forever! I’d love to spend more time there.) The narrative supporting the film is decent as well, touching upon issues of interventionism, rebellion, succession and grief. (I got a lump in my throat at one particular line for reasons too personal to share.) Even the original activist meaning of Black Panther gets integrated in the film, alongside other knowing nods and acknowledgments. As with Wonder Woman a few months ago, it’s really interesting to watch Black Panther and notice how it’s conceived from within another culture—wakandian customs and costumes are presented colourfully but not exotically, marking a significant switch from the majority gaze that often stains other depictions of African culture. It’s easy to understand why Black Panther, in the month between its release and the writing of this review, has already become a cultural landmark—there’s never been anything like this in big-budget cinema yet, and the role models that the film offers are far more interesting than what so-called black cinema usually offers. It certainly helps that the film doesn’t hesitate a single moment in embracing its chosen wakandian culture: African accents are a wonderful change from the norm, and the actors in the film are nearly perfect for their roles. Chad Bosewick is restrained but good as the protagonist, but others arguably get more demonstrative roles: Forest Whittaker and Angela Bassett are esteemed veterans, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita N’yongo are already stars, but Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright make a serious play for stardom here. (Wright’s character is a delight whenever she appears on-screen, which is saying much given how good the rest of the cast is.) Artistically, there’s a clear progression here for writer/director Ryan Coogler from Fruitvale Station to Creed to Black Panther: not only does his script manage to touch upon an impressive density of political topics, but his direction is able to benefit from the big-budget means at his disposal—witness the handful of lengthy one shots. As the whitest guy possible, I’m impressed and thankful that the film is both so empowering and so inclusive—after a long series of white male superheroes, it’s a relief to get to play into a different kind of imagination and an honour to witness someone else’s fantastic speculation. If that’s how Marvel Studio plans to stay in business, then they deserve to get more of my money.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) As a look at the events leading to the infamous death of Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009, shot in the back by BART police while handcuffed and offering no resistance, Fruitvale Station goes for gritty mundanity. As it follows the doomed Grant through the last 24 hours of his life, even the dullest, most familiar actions carry a portentous weight. Ordinary decisions, such as helping out a grocery shopper, or taking public transportation rather than a car, all lead to the fatal events of that night. The racial component of Oscar Grant’s tragedy is unstated yet never away, especially considering the roles played by the white characters in the story. One feels the weight of fiction in the way Fruitvale Station neatly follows Oscar as he tries to change his life for the better, but even the boredom and domesticity in the film’s 80 minutes eventually mean something. Don’t expect heroics when police brutality is on the line, or sweeping cinematography when the point is to focus, hand-held camera-style, on a single man. The result may not be gripping throughout, but there is a steady rise in tension cascading into an affecting climax, followed by a terribly sad extended epilogue leading to a final scene that is nothing short of heartbreaking. Three years later, Fruitvale Station has already been influential: Writer/Director Ryan Coogler has gone on to deliver the well-received Creed, and is now helming a superhero film. Rising superstar Michael B. Jordan carries himself with a remarkable presence and holds his own against veteran Viola Davis. Fruitvale Station certainly isn’t fun or entertaining, but it does fill an essential and too-often ignored role in showing how movies can comment on recent history, reflect social realities and, in their own fashion, deliver an emotional punch on behalf of characters living in different ways from most film viewers.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) As a sequel in the Rocky series, Creed is far better than it could have been. Part of the appeal is to shift the perspective from Rocky Balboa to a new protagonist: Michael B. Jordan is very good as the new lead, but Sylvester Stallone turns in an even better performance that taps into the vulnerability of old age, wringing a lot of drama out of seeing a once-invincible protagonist facing down his own mortality. But Creed also works because it’s got a bit more on its mind than simply presenting an underdog boxing story: in its own way, it tackles racial inequality, class issues and romantic entanglements where the two lovers have their own agendas (the woman isn’t simply there as a complement to the male protagonist). It also helps that Ryan Coogler knows how to shoot a movie: The best sequence of the film is a two-round boxing match unbelievably shot as a single take from within the ring, giving a fresh and viscerally compelling look at boxing sequences that are usually stale and familiar. Creed adds up to a worthy generational passing-of-the-torch, an above-average boxing film and a film that dares go a bit beyond the expected to deliver something deeper and better.