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Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Coogler’

Slightly further down this very page I will be sharing my opinion of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. You may agree with me about this film, partly or fully. You may well not. Now, I would normally say that there was nothing very exceptional about this fact: people have different opinions all the time, after all, it’s a fact of life.

But it isn’t, apparently: advance publicity on Black Panther went off on a bit of a tangent last week, with the exposure of an organised campaign to trash this film’s ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, courtesy of a bunch of people who hadn’t even seen it yet (some of them associated with extremist right-wing groups). The reason for this rather eccentric behaviour? They claim to be sick of movies based on DC Comics getting lousy reviews from professional critics, while ones from Marvel Studios are generally much better received. They make accusations of systematic bias and corruption amongst the critics.

Putting entirely to one side the issue of Wonder Woman, a DC movie which received some of the most glowing notices of last year, one wonders if it has occurred to these people that the reason DC’s movie output generally gets lukewarm reviews is because DC movies, of late, have usually been somewhat lousy. Apparently not: the concept of an honest difference of opinion does not seem to have occurred to them. The only reason someone could not share their point of view must be because they are part of a conspiracy to hide the truth – whether that’s because they’re in the pockets of Marvel, or because they’re pushing a particular politically-correct agenda. Levelling this particular accusation in the vicinity of Black Panther is especially provocative, given the film is largely distinguished by the fact it is very much a non-Caucasian take on the superhero genre of which Marvel are currently the masters.

It seems to me to be particularly symptomatic of our current times, anyway: recent months seem to have witnessed a terminal breakdown in the very concept of consensus, the idea that there are things that everyone can broadly agree on. Either the news media is a principled establishment telling the truth about a troubled and chaotic administration, or it’s a fake instrument of a liberal conspiracy trying to topple an elected leader – there’s not much in the way of middle ground here, and the UK has its own gaping divisions about the main political issues of the day.

Just to be clear, I am not in the pockets of Marvel (though if Kevin Feige is reading this, I would be willing to open negotiations) – or, if I am, it is only because of the consistently high standard of their film-making. Feel free to disagree with me about this or anything else.

Normally I would say it was slightly absurd to be making such a fuss about what is, after all, a comic-book superhero movie, but, you know, Unique Cultural Moment, and the supposedly radical nature of Black Panther has been front and centre in its publicity. Some mildly silly things have already been said of this movie – apparently it is the first ever superhero movie with a black lead character (no it’s not, there was Meteor Man (1993), not mention Spawn and Steel (both 1997), and Marvel’s own Blade (1998), to name only a few), while the BBC claimed it has an ‘all-black cast’, which probably came as a surprise to Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, both of whom feature prominently in it. Can the movie itself possibly stand up to all this hype?

Well, this is the seemingly-unstoppable Marvel mega-franchise project, so you never can tell. Following on fairly closely from the events of Civil War, the movie opens with Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his remote African homeland of Wakanda so he can be crowned the new king, and take up the mantle of Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. The wider world thinks Wakanda is a quiet little third-world country full of trees and shepherds, but this is an elaborate ruse to conceal the fact that it really possesses the most advanced technology on the planet, courtesy of being struck by a meteorite full of magic alien metal in ancient times.

The new king’s first duty is keep this secret, but he also feels bound to avenge an old wrong – namely, a raid on Wakanda many years earlier by the South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Serkis, reprising the role from Age of Ultron). Given the CIA also has an interest in Klaue’s activities, can he do so without exposing Wakanda to the world? There is also the problem that one of Klaue’s associates is a mercenary known as Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), an embittered and angry scion of the Wakandan royal house, who is intent on seizing the throne…

It will come as no real surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with developments in cinema over the last few years that Marvel show no sign of dropping the ball with their latest project: Black Panther is a finely-machined piece of entertainment, lavishly mounted, with a solid script and a carefully-judged tone. There are fantastically thrilling action sequences, very good jokes, charismatic performances, and plenty of little references to reward people who’ve been following along with the ongoing meta-plot for the last ten years or so. Boseman radiates nobility and cool as the Black Panther, Jordan matches him as Killmonger, and Andy Serkis is having a whale of a time as the absurdly evil Klaue (who’s not in the movie nearly enough).

Anticipation is high for every new Marvel movie, but especially so in this case: even before the current Unique Moment came about, there had been murmurings about the perceived lack of diversity and Euro-centricity of the Marvel films, and Black Panther has deliberately been pitched as restitution for this: it’s not quite an all-black movie, but the majority of the roles are filled by non-white performers.

There’s a sense in which Black Panther is essentially a piece of diversity wish-fulfilment, for at the heart of the film is its depiction of an Afrofuturistic utopia where, unravaged by the attentions of colonial European powers, African culture has developed technology decades ahead of the rest of the world. It’s probably best not to think about this too much, to be perfectly honest, nor about the way that this supposedly progressive new presentation of African characters still concludes with people riding around on rhinos waving spears. This is at heart still a piece of entertainment, after all.

Having said that, the film also contains some very interesting and genuinely subversive ideas about culture and colonialism. Coogler draws a very clear distinction between T’Challa, his purely African hero, and Killmonger, a villain who has been corrupted – it is implied – by growing up African-American, with all the injustice and prejudice one associates with this. There is a restrained but palpable sense of anger about this film at times, and one can’t help but recall that in the comics T’Challa briefly operated under the codename Black Leopard in order to distance the character from the Black Panther Party, a radical socialist group.

However, just as the first Captain America film couldn’t show a superhero ending the Second World War in 1942, so Black Panther can’t depict the magical solution of all the racial problems in the world today. It’s when the film butts up against real-world issues that it seems most in danger of losing its way – it has to walk a tricky tonal tightrope, for instance, when confronting the fact that Wakanda’s fierce isolationism makes it to some extent complicit in the woes inflicted on Africa by Europeans and Americans.

Is this to take a Marvel superhero film too seriously? Normally I would agree, but this movie is sincerely being hailed as a watershed moment in the way African culture is portrayed in Hollywood movies, and a great leap forward for blockbusters with predominantly non-white casts. Well, maybe: this is a Marvel movie, after all, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that different rules seem to apply here. Black Panther‘s place in cultural history will become apparent with the passing of time; what we can be sure of now is that this another superbly entertaining fantasy from the studio.

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‘You’re the first person who’s called it Rocky VII,’ said the guy at the sweetshop, looking amused. (The larger city centre Odeon has undergone yet another refurb to abolish its actual ticket desk entirely, which only confirms the subliminal message the place gives off: namely, that it’s a place which is mainly in the business of selling drinks and snacks of various kinds, with the showing of the odd film an occasional sideline.) Well, look, it’s about characters from the Rocky series, it has ‘The Rocky Legacy‘ prominently on the poster, and – fercryinoutloud – it even features a very prominent appearance from Sylvester Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa. Calling the damn thing Rocky VII strikes me as entirely reasonable.

creed

However, the name on the title card is Creed. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, and you might initially be a bit wary of the whole enterprise, given the current tendency for every once-profitable franchise to be disinterred and returned to theatres via some kind of cinematic necromancy. Frankly, I thought they were pushing it with the release of Rocky Balboa (aka, you guessed it, Rocky VI), nearly ten years ago. At the time a friend asked me what I thought that movie was going to be like, quality-wise. ‘Depends on whether or not he gets beaten to death,’ I said, because you can only suspend disbelief so far, and a movie about a pushing-60 restauranteur taking on the world heavyweight boxing champion and lasting more than 30 seconds is already making unreasonable demands of the audience, I would say.

But back to Creed, which concerns the illegitimate posthumous progeny of Rocky’s opponent/rival/friend Apollo Creed from the first four movies, played by Carl Weathers (not appearing here, for obvious reasons). Said child’s name is Adonis, or Donnie, and the lad has something of a rough childhood – having your father beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren in a crude piece of Reaganite propaganda can have that effect on you, I suppose.

Anyway, having been adopted by Mrs Huxtable from The Cosby Show, Donnie grows up to be Michael B Jordan, who must be terribly relieved he already had this movie in the pipeline following his participation in the catastrophic Fantastic Four adaptation last year. Donnie decides to pack in his job and have a go at being a boxer like his dad was, but no-one in his native Los Angeles will train him. What else has an aspiring pugilist to do but head off to Philadelphia and persuade his father’s great rival to be his trainer…?

Twist my arm and I will admit that I have perhaps been a bit glib and flippant about this movie so far, perhaps even more than usual, and that this is largely because of its connection with the six (extremely variable) previous Rocky films. But to suggest that Creed should be treated as a standalone film, solely on its own merits, strikes me as being a mite disingenuous: the film trades heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original characters and their stories, and it’s the contrast between the day-to-day naturalism of Donnie’s life and the almost mythic backstory of the film that gives it much of its traction.

On a more technical level, you could certainly argue that the early section of the film is very contrived – just why does Donnie decide to pack in a very good job in favour of getting beaten half to death on a regular basis? Just why is it that no-one will train someone with his obvious talent? The film doesn’t quite work hard enough to explain these things, preferring to just get on with it. You could, I suppose, also have a go at some parts of the film for their excessive sentimentality, but then if you’re going to criticise a Rocky film for being sentimental you clearly haven’t quite worked out the rules of engagement here.

The fact is that, once you accept it’s going to be sentimental in places and the story is going to be an archetypal journey featuring no real surprises, Creed is actually an extremely effective film. The sillier excesses of past films in the series are discreetly passed over (the exact circumstances of Apollo Creed’s death are passed over, we just hear that he died in the ring), and this is a sensible, serious drama about a young man following his dream, pursuing a largely convincing romance (Tessa Thompson plays his love interest), and forging a quasi-paternal relationship. That this prompts Rocky himself to reconnect with the world is handled pleasingly, and Stallone’s performance is extremely creditable, although the script does seem tailored to his strengths.

Of course, every Rocky film has to conclude with a bruising encounter in the ring, and Creed is no exception, as Donnie, Rocky, and their team jet off to Liverpool to take on the world champion. (I suppose you could write a thesis on how the different Rocky movies reflect changes in real-world boxing – Apollo Creed in the first film was a charismatic showman, clearly based on Ali, while the main opponent here is an unpleasant, heavily-tattooed thug.) The film does just enough to make it plausible that a tyro fighter like Donnie would be taking on such a prominent figure.

And the actual fight sequences in this film are excellent – Coogler opts to depict an early fight via what appears to be a single unbroken take, but the climactic battle is a bit more traditional in every sense, and would be very much at home in any of the other films (for a long time I was convinced we weren’t going to get to hear the famous Rocky fanfare at all, but it shows up at a key moment here, with the kind of impact you’d expect). I must confess by this point the film had completely won me over and I was really caught up in the story, which, if nothing else, shows that this is a very good film that does everything it sets out to.

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it. This film has less of a valedictory feel to it than Rocky Balboa, but even so I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be the final round for this particular franchise (an extraordinarily unwise prediction, given the state of modern cinema, I know). If so, it is finishing on a definite high.

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