The Films of Ryan Coogler
Fruitvale Station (July 23/13)
Inspired by true events, Fruitvale Station follows Michael B. Jordan's Oscar Grant as he goes about his day-to-day routine in the buildup to New Year's Eve. It's a palpably low-key premise that's employed to continuously engrossing effect by first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler, with the movie's slice-of-life atmosphere perpetuated by its subdued visuals and uniformly impressive performances. In terms of the latter, Jordan's captivating and downright electrifying turn as the flawed central character remains a consistent highlight in the proceedings - as the actor's stirring work ensures that Oscar quickly morphs from a fairly off-putting figure into a wholeheartedly sympathetic protagonist. Coogler, for the most part, does a superb job of infusing the narrative with a palpably (and irresistibly) authentic feel, and there's certainly never any doubt that Fruitvale Station represents an accurate portrayal of life within Oakland's less-than-savory neighborhoods. The compelling vibe ultimately compensates for the inclusion of far-from-subtle elements within Coogler's screenplay, as the filmmaker's efforts at humanizing the central character are, at times, almost eye-rollingly clunky (eg Oscar helps a fellow customer with her shopping, Oscar elicits advice from a stranger about proposing to his girlfriend, etc). This is an extremely minor complaint for a movie that is otherwise consistently engaging, with the emotional punch of the film's final stretch confirming Fruitvale Station's place as a superior piece of work.
Creed stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, an up-and-coming fighter (and the son of Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed) who enlists no less than Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to help him train to become a legitimate boxer. Though it suffers from an overlong running time and repetitive narrative, Creed generally comes off as a stirring effort that benefits greatly from Jordan's consistently enthralling turn as the title character - with the actor more than holding his own opposite Stallone and ultimately transforming Adonis into a sympathetic, Rocky-esque underdog. The film's thoroughly engrossing opening stretch gives way to a flabby and disappointingly half-baked midsection, however, as scripters Coogler and Aaron Covington offer up a second act that adheres much, much too closely to the formula established by the Rocky series (ie there are just so many training sequences) - which wouldn't necessarily be quite so problematic had Coogler employed a brisker pace and shorter runtime. There is, having said that, no denying the effectiveness of certain sequences peppered throughout, with the highlight coming in the form of an enthralling mid-movie fight that unfolds in one long, unbroken take. Jordan's seriously impressive performance is matched by Stallone's unexpectedly riveting work as his most famous character, while Tessa Thompson does a nice job of transforming her love-interest figure into more than just a supporting girlfriend (although the decision to place her character in hearing aids feels completely arbitrary). By the time the effective (and affecting) final fight rolls around, Creed has established itself as a decent Rocky followup that could (and should) have been so much better (ie the movie is longer than any of the six preceding installments).
Black Panther (April 16/18)
Ryan Coogler's first misfire, Black Panther follows Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa as he assumes power of the prosperous nation of Wakanda in the wake of his father's death - with the picture primarily detailing T'Challa's ongoing struggles with a would-be usurper named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Filmmaker Coogler, working from a screenplay cowritten with Joe Robert Cole, delivers a sluggish narrative that mostly seems designed to set up future installments (ie the movie feels, even by the standards of comic-book origin stories, like a prologue to other, more interesting tales), with the decidedly tedious atmosphere compounded by Coogler's continuing emphasis on slickly conceived yet wholly unexciting action sequences. It's clear, too, that Boseman's stiff, far-from-charismatic turn as the one-note protagonist perpetuates the prosaic vibe, which, in turn, ensures that many of his familiar costars are unable to make much of a positive impact - with the one obvious exception to the otherwise bland landscape Jordan's often exhilaratingly electrifying work as the vicious Killmonger (to the extent that one can't help but wish that he were playing the title character). And although Coogler has peppered the proceedings with a few admittedly compelling sequences (eg Killmonger makes his aggressive claim for the throne), Black Panther generally comes off as an erratic and momentum-free actioner that climaxes with an almost prototypically overblown third act - which ultimately does cement the film's place as a predictably underwhelming Marvel release.