Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015)

On paper, Creed seemed like another wave-riding dose of nostalgia meant to reboot the nearly forty-year-old Rocky franchise. It merely places the lovable underdog in the role of mentor to his rival-turned-friend Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the latter of whom is unaware of his biological link to this legacy. As he consciously pushes toward establishing himself as a credible fighter without the help of his surname, the touching codependency between Adonis and Rocky yields something more substantial than athletic superstardom alone.

As with Fruitvale Station, Coogler forgoes narrative contrivances in favor of human authenticity and corresponding themes. Creed uses its accessibility to its utmost advantage to epitomize its importance as a truly affecting piece of cinema, from Adonis’ troubled humble beginnings to his tackling his aspirations head-on. The familiarity of his desire to pave his own way notwithstanding, Jordan and Stallone’s chemistry pair wonderfully with the film’s organically evolving, moreover entirely involving trajectory along Adonis’ climb to the top.

You either will or won’t fall victim to the film’s more rudimentary charms as an entirely emotional experience, but Creed‘s merits extend beyond its wonderfully realized characters to a staggering uniqueness of presentation. The oft-discussed single-take fight sequence comes to mind, of which is brilliantly staged on account of this conceit and the physical commitment put forth by Jordan’s Adonis and his opponents. Rarely has boxing looked this good onscreen, not to mention how Coogler’s touch bolsters a climactic sequence characteristic of this sporting niche, elevating the bout above predecessors’ frequently rote finales.

Creed is above all an emotionally resonant revival of the canon Stallone attempted to close out with 2006’s agreeably entertaining Rocky Balboa. It coasts amiably along thanks to the superb chemistry on display that’s often the crutch on which a uncomplicated narrative rests. Adonis and Rocky’s joint journey upward, although nostalgic on account of the latter’s association, doesn’t lean too heavily on nods to the franchise’s past to instead establish a singularly functional branch of Stallone’s brainchild.

Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015)

While I’ve been able to successfully distance myself from superfluous behind-the-scenes nonsense, the production timeline for Fox’s latest attempt to reboot the Marvel staple was unfathomably spotty and downright laughable at times. With rumors running amok regarding writer/director Trank’s actual stamp on the film, sketchy last-minute re-shoots and an increasingly listless cast, this trainwreck seemed to epitomize everything unprofessional in the proverbial Hollywood machine that yielded the abortion of an end result we have before us. Yes, Fantastic Four is as bad as you’ve heard, and to be honest, its oppressive lack of quality does more than merely confirm suspicions.

I first aired my grievances about origins stories back when Man of Steel failed to reinvent the wheel that invariably kick-started the impending DC cinematic universe. The Fantastic Four – being just as long in the tooth as the Kryptonian himself – need not be subjected to the tragic re-imagining on display, no matter how earnest Trank was in his initial efforts to properly reboot the franchise. Everything laid out before us is mostly a lazy, subtly tweaked regurgitation of the team’s ill-acquired superpowers that exists in tandem with characterizations that run parallel to glaringly listless performances.

Even young Reed Richards, playing the typically misunderstood child prodigy, fails to sound interested in the pseudo-scientific nonsense he’s spouting off at regular intervals until VOILA! Comparably misunderstood teenage Reed (Miles Teller) and soft-spoken BFF Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) find salvation at a science fair of all places. Undying faith is bestowed upon Reed, drawn-out exposition ensues and inexcusable drunken dimension-hopping lands three-quarters (as in the gang’s NOT all here) of the team in hot water. Don’t worry, the Fantastic Fourth is still part of the picture, they’re just an unfortunate victim of stupidity-induced collateral damage.

For the squad’s inception a la booze-addled debauchery to even exist is insulting in its own right, however the proceedings exude an omnipresent dullness that irredeemably infects everything on display. Poor chemistry serves as an obvious detriment to the familial bond the four are famous for upholding, and the fact that all of the key players phone in their respective performances doesn’t help matters any. A discernible lack of clever or even marginally engaging dialogue and exchanges is even worse still, what with a palpable lack of general excitement failing to inject the slightest semblance of life into such a continuously floundering slog.

Words escape me as I consciously try to avoid malicious hyperbole, yet Fantastic Four deserves to be chided for how insultingly lackluster it is from start to finish. For Marvel to unceremoniously pull the comic from shelves adds the utmost insult to injury given the disaster we have before to us serving as the last rendition of the superheroes’ (now tarnished) legacy. Whether the planned sequel is or isn’t out of the question, the fact of the matter is – oppressive studio intervention aside – the powers-that-be need to do much more than merely reinvigorate this already spotty sect of the Fox-piloted Marvel canon. As a sloppy, unenthusiastic and entirely vapid trudge through the muck and mire that is all-encompassing cinematic lethargy, Fantastic Four is an especially poor excuse for a film of its type in an era of increasingly sink-or-swim uncertainty regarding the Marvel brand.

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

Earnestly recreating the final day in the life of one Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station is an immediately and relentlessly stirring portrait of said individual, offering us an unbiased glimpse behind the curtain as he bounces around attempting to get a jump-start on his New Year’s resolution. Having spent time in prison one year prior, Oscar’s vow to himself and his loved ones to turn over a new leaf rings authentic, the film remaining admirably unbiased as the tragic immediacy of life is simultaneously chronicled.

What with the obviousness of a civil rights scandal staring us dead in the face at frequent intervals, Coogler’s deft ability to sidestep favoritism helps paint Oscar as uniquely affected individual – a 22-year-old product of his environment, dealing drugs to make a quick buck if only to support his girlfriend and young daughter. Splicing the troubled aspects of his life together with the good, Fruitvale Station is an astonishingly well-rounded character drama that rings frighteningly bittersweet as images of impending tragedy linger perpetually in our minds.

While it’s easy to shrug the film off as ordinary given its topical if exceedingly emotional simplicity, Fruitvale Station is anything but as Michael B. Jordan’s passionate turn remains above and beyond the year’s absolute best. Alternately deprecating tragic violence and celebrating the memory of the all-too-young central subject, Ryan Coogler’s feature-length debut is fiercely atypical in its depiction of true events. Evoking a level of crushing distress within me I’ve rarely felt while watching anything, Fruitvale Station is an artfully constructed cinematic triumph that’s worthy of every inch of praise.