For a generation of millennials, those of us who came of age in the 1990s, Space Jam has miraculously accrued a nostalgic fixation. Michael Jordan starred alongside cartoon favorites and we all learned valuable lessons about teamwork. The soundtrack also, as the kids say, slapped, with that titular banger welcoming us to the jam and the R. Kelly eponymous ballad, “I Believe I Can Fly.” Flash forward 25 years, and a new basketball superstar is looking to relaunch the franchise and reinvigorate the Looney Tunes pals for a new generation. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself struggling to connect with one of his sons. He wants the boy to take basketball seriously but worries about his commitment and thinks video games, the child’s true passion, are a distraction for him. He and his son get sucked into the “server-verse” of Warner Bros. studios thanks to an angry A.I. (Don Cheadle) who just wants respect. The scornful A.I. challenges Lebron to a basketball game while tempting Lebron’s son to the dark side. Lebron teams up with Bugs Bunny to reunite the classic Tunes to put together a winning team.
This movie is clearly not intended for adults but at the same time it feels engineered from their references. Are children going to understand William Shatner impressions? Parodies of The Matrix, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Casablanca? To that end, I question if we’ve come to a point in popular entertainment where the Looney Tunes characters have been eclipsed. When I grew up, cable television, let alone channels devoted to entertaining children, were just beginning in the 1980s, so I did grow up with classic cartoons from decades prior. I knew about Bugs and Daffy and Tom and Jerry and Hannah Barbara and the old guard. Modern American children have grown up with a generation of original cartoons and programming and I would argue they have more nostalgic reverence for shows like The Fairly Odd Parents, Gumball, and other popular Cartoon Network originals. I strongly doubt that the majority of the movie’s stated target audience, children, have any emotional investment or recognition for the old Looney Tunes characters. Perhaps the entire Space Jam sequel is designed to reignite interest in a certain younger demographic, and this wouldn’t surprise me as its real source for existence. To be fair, the original 1996 Space Jam was created to sell sneakers, so it’s not like this is out of step for the franchise’s integrity.
The conception of this movie is less about Lebron James interacting with the classic Looney Tunes characters than Lebron James being the spokesman for a catalogue of Warner Bros. intellectual property (IP). What children are sitting around saying, “I can’t wait to interact with all my favorite Warner properties?” Children do not think like this, they don’t segregate into tribes for different corporate masters. They like what they like and don’t think about whether its corporate parentage is with Disney or Viacom or whatever. Space Jam: A New Legacy feels less like a story or even a movie and more like a catalogue launch for the Warner Bros. gift shop (get your Grandma Matrix sweaters just in time for the fourth movie coming out these holidays!).
The intermingling of different worlds and properties can be done, see The Lego Movie, but more needs to be done other than transporting characters into a world they do not belong. Watching Granny perform moves from The Matrix isn’t funny because what is even being set up for comedy? It’s not a tweaking or commentary on the original, nor is there any recognizable comedy angle; it’s what Family Guy typically does – repeating the scenarios but with different faces. There is a key difference between reference and parody (a point I have discussed at EXTENSIVE LENGTH in my reviews of the very bad Friedberg and Seltzer spoofs). Nobody cares that much about these characters that just seeing them in a different environment is enough. Watching Wile E. Cayote as one of the War Boys in Fury Road is not enough, and I absolutely adore that movie and consider it an instant classic, but if I wanted to just watch Fury Road, I would gladly just watch Fury Road (they do not even call it “Furry Road,” come on!).
By far, the most confounding part of this new Space Jam is the decision-making process over what IP should be included and what should be excluded. I would be fascinated to watch a documentary series just on the creative clashes with studio execs. There are some bizarre choices selected to attend the culminating basketball game as rowdy spectators. I can understand memorable figures like King Kong, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, the Iron Giant, and the Scooby Doo van. Those are immediately recognizable for modern-day children. However, why is Jim Carey’s Mask character there? Why is the grotesque Danny DeVito version of the Penguin there? Why is the Night King from Game of Thrones there? Why is Pennywise the Clown, a vicious and frightening character, there? Why are the droogs from A Clockwork Orange there? Who is that supposed to appeal to? Why would anyone in their right mind include a gang best known for wanton violence and rape to be faces in the crowd to cheer on a basketball game? It would be akin to taking the hillbillies who rape Ned Beatty in Deliverance and placing them side-by-side with cartoons for a movie intended for children. If the droogs and Pennywise made the cut, what inappropriate characters from the vaults of Warner Bros. were denied? This fascinates me.
I also have problems when Bugs and the other Tunes step into the third dimension. Characters that were intended for two-dimensions always look awkward when transported into a three-dimensional realm. It was a smart move keeping the cartoons as their standard hand-drawn selves in the original Space Jam. When the big basketball game commences, the Tunes and James are pulled into three dimensions and the characters do not look good. The circumference of their heads and how it relates to their mouths moving looks all wrong. Bugs looks like a Mylar birthday balloon that has somehow gained sentience. This extra step is likely meant to appeal to modern-day audiences who have turned their noses on more traditional hand-drawn animation in feature films (Tangled and Frozen began as 2-D animated films before going to 3-D). It’s another curious case meant to modernize the Looney Tunes and appeal to a younger demo, and yet it runs counter to so much more of the programming choices and contradictory decision-making.
Is Space Jam: A New Legacy a good movie? Quite simply, no, but then by objective standards neither was the original Space Jam. Lebron James may still be trailing his Airness in a few more NBA records but King James has more natural charisma and acting ability than Jordan who settled as straight man/pitch man. There is an occasional joke that earned a laugh from me, the best being the bait-and-switch reveal of Michael Jordan returning to the Tune Squad, which also seems to imply that Sylvester the cat is kind of racist. I liked Lil’ Rel. Congrats also to the filmmakers for bringing back Lola Bunny, having her voiced by Zendaya, and realizing she can just be a lady bunny good at playing basketball. The original Lola Bunny was hyper sexualized and I’ve already read too many comments from dregs on the Internet upset this new rabbit doesn’t make them feel funny in their pants (“IF I CANNOT OBJECTIFY THIS CARTOON RABBIT, THEN WHY AM I EVEN WATCHING A MOVIE INTENDED FOR CHILDREN?”). The moral or message is pretty simple about accepting others for who they are and not how you demand, which is weirdly exemplified in a cross-generational conflict where Lebron will not allow his son to play video games because his coach growing up thought they were a waste of time. As if he’s only allowed to play basketball with every waking and sleeping second of his existence. Lebron grew up in the late 90s when video games were mainstream and great. His son is an obvious game design prodigy, but it will take him the whole movie to see.
Feeling like the unholy IP orgies that were Ready Player One and The Emoji Movie, the Space Jam sequel (or reboot) feels more like a catalogue launch or a streaming channel opening its vast archives for ready-made consumer consumption. There are several moments where I just shrugged and said to myself, “Well, that happened,” like Granny doing her fancy Matrix moves or Porky Pig battle rapping. I think the idea of Lebron helping the classic Looney Tunes characters in another wacky edition of basketball would have made for a suitable children’s movie. The original only focuses on the Looney Tunes and gets by. For whatever reason, the studio execs insisted to the six credited screenwriters (pity them all, and the sixty un-credited) that this serve not as a franchise relaunch but as a corporate portfolio branding showcase. The movie gets lost in the shuffle from all the haphazard and contradictory impulses to see this through, turning from the game of basketball into decades-past-their-prime Austin Powers jokes. Regardless, Space Jam: A New Legacy is less new and more everything Warner Bros. owns the rights to in the past that they would like to remind you about. Watch it all now on HBO MAX, folks!
Nate’s Grade: C-
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is Tom Clancy without Tom Clancy. It bears no resemblance to the famous author’s 1993 novel even though the entire production feels remorseless about being generic military thriller genre grist. There’s nothing to spark the imagination here, no signature action sequence or well developed turn of events, no colorful personalities or hissable villains. It’s all predictable from the opening credits onward, from the opening mission that cannot go according to plan, to the assumption of the short shelf-life for the pregnant wife in Act One, to the Obvious Red Herring Antagonist and the Obvious Real Antagonist played by the big name actor, to the presumptuous preparations for building a franchise in post-credit sequences. The best thing about Without Remorse is Michael B. Jordan as our lead Navy Seal seeking vengeance and climbing the ladder of international conspiracy. Jordan gives a far better performance than this material and movie deserves, always demanding your attention. He’s charismatic even in generic thrillers like this one, and it is the definition of a generic military thriller lost in the dull minutia of a thousand other similar movies. There’s really nothing separating this movie from the glut of direct-to-DVD action thrillers starring the likes of Bruce Willis (who filmed his part over a weekend). The motivation for the villain’s plot to kick-start another global war with Russia is laughable when there’s a ideological motivation within reach that would have worked and been interesting, namely declaring Russia already an enemy of the country and forcing those in power to fight the war they are ignoring. Instead, the stated rationale is so much dumber. If you’re a fan of these kinds of action thrillers, or the sub-genre that Clancy carved out for himself for decades, then you’ll likely find enough to pass the time with Without Remorse. It had glimmers where it could have stepped outside the mighty shadow of its influences. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was starring Dolph Lundgren rather than Michael B. Jordan.
Nate’s Grade: C
Technically the eighth movie in a franchise spanning five different decades, I think every ticket buyer knows exactly what they are getting with Creed II. It’s more of the same formula that’s been packing in audiences because it works. Once again Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of the legendary Apollo Creed, climbs high, only to be brought low by a challenger, the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. Once more he finds himself with something to prove, a personal score to settle that blinds him as a fighter. I was able to predict every major plot beat from early on, and that’s beside the point. Creed II is at its peak performance when it offers small, well-developed character moments to go along with the training montages and boxing beat downs. Spending more time with the characters is where this movie elevates itself from the formula. There’s a potently dramatic subplot where Adonis’s wife, played by Tessa Thompson, worries that she may have past down her degenerative hearing loss their newborn child. There’s a wordless scene of looks that explains everything over the course of an auditory test, and it’s gut wrenching. I wasn’t expecting the film to humanize the villains as well. Ivan has been living in shame since his loss to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), cast out by the elites of his society, and his own wife walked out on him and his son. They both see this opportunity as a way to prove something to the woman who abandoned them and the country that turned its back. It’s not just a scene either; the Russians (Ukrainians?) get the second biggest storyline of the movie. It made it so that I was genuinely having mixed emotions during the climactic bout, not wanting either side to really lose. That’s solid writing, movie. The performances are uniformly strong (even Lundgren!) and the emotions build and build until it crescendos. Creed II likely won’t be the last in the franchise, and even though I can predict the sequel already, as long as the filmmakers find room to meaningfully flesh out these enjoyable and winning characters, I’m game.
Nate’s Grade: B
Black Panther is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior. It’s unlike any other super hero film prior. Yes, there have been African-American leading men in comic-based movies, notably Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire-all-badass Blade. However, this is the first movie I can think of with this kind of budget, this kind of backing, and with this kind of ownership over its cultural heritage and the heavy burdens it carries.
We last saw T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War mourning the loss of his father, the king of the African nation of Wakanda. The outside world does not know that Wakanda sits on a vast supply of virbanium, the strongest and more durable metal in the world and the key to Wakanda’s impressive technology. Under a holographic cover, Wakanda is a thriving metropolis with flying cars, skyscrapers, and next gen weapons. T’Challa goes home and must earn the right to the throne. However, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former top-level black ops solider, is looking for his own path into Wakanda and onto the throne. Killmonger teams up with arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to force Wakanda to deal with being cut off from the world.
This is a movie populated almost entirely by black faces, notably black women (more on that later), and they are given a mainstream platform that celebrates its multitudinous African roots and traditions thanks to co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed). This movie is proudly black, which will rankle some on the fringes of society, as if celebrating one’s own identity is somehow denigrating those who do not apply to that status. Black Panther is not an exclusionary movie because of its content and execution; this is a very accessible movie to a mass audience, even those who haven’t been paying attention to every nitty-gritty detail in the previous seventeen MCU entries. There are only two characters from other MCU films that appear, one as a post-credits cameo and the other an officious representative (Martin Freeman) of the outside’s clandestine organizations. This is a unique world isolated from the long shadow of colonialism. Wakanda has never known, to our knowledge, the depravity of the European and American slave trade. They have continued to develop uninterrupted by conquerors, slave traders, and the crippling aftereffects of racism. The Wakanda people could very easily be the conquerors themselves. They’re the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and hide as a “third-world nation,” utilizing the ignorance of the Western world to its security. The world of Wakanda is a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and defiantly independent nation.
The larger theme is over the responsibilities inherent to those with privilege. The nation of Wakanda is vastly successful by all conventional metrics. T’Challa must wrestle with whether to continue their exclusionary stance, ignore the plight of the larger world and say it’s none of their business or engage with the world, potentially putting his own kingdom’s peace and prosperity at risk. It’s a simple enough theme and yet it has tremendous weight to it especially when you account for those on the other end of the Wakanda borders. The character of Killmonger is a direct reflection of this. His experiences in Oakland are not the ideal pairing with the luxury of Wakanda. Killmonger sees Wakanda’s great influence as a way to protect beleaguered black citizens of the world and especially in the United States. It’s a way to prevent more senseless deaths from black citizens who were slain as a result of the fear of just being black (a powerful example was Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station). It’s a pointed political statement that doesn’t get too heavy-handed (even though I would have preferred that). It questions the value of isolationism especially when suffering can be prevented. Killmonger works as a villain because you can understand his point of view. He goes beyond the need for vengeance. The wrongs he wants to right are larger and historical. Even Killmonger’s last line really attaches itself to this theme. T’Challa offers him a way out but with imprisonment. “No,” Killmonger declines, “My people were the ones who leaped over the sides of the slave ships. They knew death was better than bondage.” The emphasis is “his people,” not T’Challa’s, not Wakanda. His people were the ones who suffered from slavery. Could Wakanda have possibly prevented it?
Another wonderful surprise of Black Panther is its incredible all-female ensemble that provides expert support to their king. T’Challa has the good fortune of four strong women, each of them having a different and vital relationship to him. The standout will be Danai Gurira (TV’s Walking Dead) as the fierce chief of security, Okoye. She has a swagger that vacillates between being intimidating and being brashly enjoyable. Okoye has many of the best lines and she throws herself into every fight. There’s also a sense of duty that transcends a single man that challenges her loyalty. Letitia Wright (TV’s Humans) plays Shuri, the Q of this world, the top scientist and creator of many a gadget. She’s T’Challa’s little sister and their interplay is very competitive and teasing. She’s looking to be more involved in the action and a highlight is when she teams up with her big bro. Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book) is Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who comes in and out of his life as an undercover spy. All three of these women have a powerful sense of agency and are integrated in important and essential ways. Even though Nakia may slide into that romantic interest role, she still has a vibrant life outside whatever feelings she may or may not have for the hero. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who radiates strength and fortitude. These women gave me some of the biggest moments of entertainment in the entire 135 minutes of movie.
Now some careful readers might note that I haven’t done much to emphasize the actual action of the super hero action movie, and that’s for a good reason. Black Panther stands stronger on theme and character than it does its actual action sequences. Coogler had a wonderful sense of scale and verisimilitude with 2015’s Creed, relying on long takes to put the audience in the heightened drama of the boxing ring. With Black Panther, the action sequences can lose a sense of immediacy. Many happen at night or are filmed and edited in ways that diminish some of their impact, like hand-to-hand combat in splashing water where the splashes obscure the activity. Other scenes felt like a video game CGI cut-scene. Speaking of video games, Black Panther’s suit has a crazy ability to absorb the kinetic energy of weapons, which means the stakes take a dip when our hero can merely just stand and allow himself to get shot repeatedly. The payoff for this absorption is a giant energy shockwave but it plays out like a fighting game’s special feature. It’s an aspect that’s not really utilized in a satisfying or unique way. The final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger feels too weightless in execution. It’s meant to even the playing field by nullifying their extra abilities, but if they both have the same “Panther powers” isn’t the field already even? The third act, the usual punching bag for MCU critics, is the best part of the movie from an action standpoint. It utilizes the characters in significant ways and allows for organic complications while still maintaining its wider sense of spectacle. Plus it’s one of the few action sequences that allow all the pyrotechnics to be enjoyed during the visibility of day.
Boseman (Marshall) was an excellent choice for a stoic and too-cool-for-school character that can glide right on by. The ageless Boseman is at his best when he’s working off the other actors, especially his female posse. He has a couple of very effective emotional confrontations as he learns of his family’s secrets. As steady and soothing a presence as Boseman can be, this is Jordan’s movie. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) has been Coogler’s cinematic good luck charm and we’re still benefiting from that divine kinship. His character is at the heart of the central thematic question. While T’Challa is ultimately the one who has to decide, it is Killmonger who embodies that need for change and the desire to rectify the past. There’s a flashback with Jordan that got me to tear up, and this guy was the villain! It’s one of the film’s biggest mistakes sidelining Jordan for far too long. After his introduction, Killmonger is strangely absent for the next hour or so of the movie, ceding the spotlight to Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), a more antic and goofy scenery-chewing baddie who has a few regrettably “faux hip” lines of dialogue that land awkwardly. Serkis is having a blast but can feel like a holdover from a different film.
Much like last summer’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It has a personal significance that I will not be able to fully tap into, no matter the expansive powers of empathy. Black Panther, as a long-awaited cultural moment, will have many ripples of inspiration. After my early screening, I sat back and watched an African-American boy, no older than seven or eight, walk out of the theater in a daze. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he said in astonishment, “That was the best movie ever.” That kid has a hero he can call his own. That matters. Black Panther, as a work of art, is rich in topical themes and has a wide supporting net of exciting, robust, and capable women. I enjoyed how personal and relevant and political the movie could become, folding new and challenging ideas onto the MCU formula. Coogler is a marvelous director and storyteller showing rare acumen for being able to handle the rigors of a Hollywood blockbuster and deliver something hearty. The action has some issues and there are some structural hiccups that hold it from the MCU’s upper echelon (I enjoyed all of the 2017 MCU movies better). Black Panther is a winning movie when it features its sterling cast celebrating their virtues and solidarity and a still respectable enough action spectacle when called upon for big screen duty.
Nate’s Grade: B
Creed is a crowd-pleaser, an effective character drama, and a rewarding continuation into the Rocky franchise that brings greater relevancy to Sylvester Stallone’s acting muscles. Thanks to the talents of co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and star Michael B. Jordan, the franchise is given new life by mostly following the same tried-and-true underdog formula that Stallone helped cement long ago. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son to the deceased boxing legend, and he wants to make his way on his own merits. Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and convinces him to be his trainer, and the two build a father-son relationship supplying the half the other was sorely missing. From there the plot is fairly predictable as the media discovers Adonis’ identity and he’s fast-tracked for a high-profile bout with the outgoing champ but the movie still hits the right notes to earn its emotional triumph. I was surprised at the careful attention Coogler gave his supporting characters, providing details to round them out and make them feel like legitimate people rather than stock roles. I enjoyed Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) being an actual character rather than an underdeveloped love interest. Coogler’s fluidity with the camera is also striking, and many of the boxing matches are filmed in long tracking shots that amp up the sports verisimilitude. Jordan gives a strongly felt performance that further confirms his star status. The real surprise is Stallone, whose legendary fighter is starting to break down physically. Rocky’s inability to fight an invisible enemy makes for great drama, and Stallone sinks into the meaty dialogue. He has a few genuinely affecting moments, and I didn’t even know Stallone was still capable of that. Easily the best Rocky sequel, Creed is an uplifting underdog tale that doesn’t reinvent the formula but brings added attention, reverence, and sincerity to a whole lot of punching people in the face.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Few movies have had such a prominent stink of negativity attached to them as Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, a movie that is already being considered amongst the worst superhero movies of all time. Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was given the freedom to go darker, emphasize more science fiction, and select a cast of respected actors rather than bankable names. Then came rumors of aloof and secluded behavior on set from Trank. Then came rumors that Fox and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) effectively shuttered Trank from his own movie, reshooting 40-minutes of a 90-minute film to salvage the wayward production (get ready for plenty of stuff in trailers not to be in the finished film). Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is easily more interesting than anything that happens in this movie.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a science genius recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Reed invented a makeshift teleporting device as a young child with the help of his friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). At Dr. Storm’s lab, Reed works with Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a morose computer programmer, Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell). The group transports to another dimension but is attacked by a strange green energy cloud. Victor is left behind. The surviving foursome exhibits unique abilities. Reed can stretch his body. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can fly and set his body on fire. Poor Ben is a hulking rock monster. Reed promises to find a way to reverse what happened to them, but the re-emergence of Dr. Doom puts the fate of the entire world at risk.
It should be of little surprise that Fantastic Four feels like two different movies awkwardly and inarticulately smashed together. For the first hour, the movie follows the path of our heroes and their contraction of their powers. Rather than the gee-whiz fun of getting superpowers, the characters view themselves as freaks, their bodies turned against them, and their colleagues deeply afraid of them. It’s a far moodier antidote to the vicarious thrills of gaining special abilities. There are some effective sequences that channel David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scanners, and it’s these brief moments where you feel Trank’s vision connect the most. Doom walking down a hallway and making heads explode, in a PG-13 way, is horrifying and cool. The problem for Trank, and the movie as a whole, is that this first hour still isn’t a very good movie. It takes far too long for these characters to get blasted by green space goo and become supers. The setup is so protracted and needless. Did we need to see how these characters came together? Did we need to see their childhoods? It’s not essential to see the team come together when we can already start from that point. In a sense, it reminded me of how needless I felt Pixar’s Monsters University was; did we need to see how these colleagues became friends? Despite this action-free opening half, the screenplay could have fleshed out the four main characters to justify the added time, but it’s hard for the movie to justify much.
These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. Reed is smart. Sue is smart too but also standoffish (and adopted). Johnny likes fast cars. Ben is tough and loyal. Victor is a pessimist who called dibs on flirting with Sue. That is really about it, folks. Ben disappears for most of the film, called in to make the trans-dimensional jump because Reed feels like Ben deserves to be there since he helped create an early prototype with Reed. Actually, let’s talk about that scene. It’s a high school science fair yet the only other displays we see are clearly for much younger children, and yet Dr. Storm is visiting an all-ages school science fair to groom talent? That seems weird. Why does Dr. Storm not make the same offer to Ben, who helped Reed design and build his early teleporting machine? Regardless, Reed leaves his childhood pal behind with Ben’s abusive family. That’s because he’s a good friend. Then, once the horrible transformations occur and Ben gets the worst of it, Reed runs out on him again. Sure it’s in the pursuit of finding a cure, but who’s to say he couldn’t do that in the already constructed government super science lab? Sue doesn’t even go on the first trans-dimensional voyage; it’s just a boy’s club. Sue spends more time in this movie staring at computer screens and looking intently than any action. It’s probably for the best, though, because the scenes of her flying around in a bubble made me think of Glinda the Good Witch. I’m not a Kate Mara fan. I’ve found the majority of her performances to be stilted, but even I can admit she’s given nothing to do here but move her eyes from the left to the right and inform Miles Teller about Portishead, a band that’s only 20-plus years old. It’s sad but the most interesting part of Johnny is that a black actor, a point that caused certain more irritable fans to foam at the mouth at the adaptation, is playing him. If these super heroes aren’t going to be super until halfway through the movie, they better be interesting characters. They are not even close.
It’s with the return of Dr. Doom that the Fantastic Four makes its inept transition into the second movie, the one reshot by the producers and the studio. In an implausibly fast amount of time we’re given our villain of the movie and he sets off to open a black hole to destroy Earth because… we’re self-destructive? So humanity is self-destructive so Doom is going to destroy humanity? I would also like to know exactly how Doom survived for over a year in the alternate dimension when it clearly looks like there is nothing of substance for miles, unless green goop is edible. Did he just lose the need to go to the bathroom? Doom’s powers are rather nebulous, which makes it even less interesting when the Fantastic Four decides to, get this, work together to beat the bad guy. For a movie that hasn’t had one action sequence until its final act, now our characters must band together to stop Doom and his giant flashing blue light black hole thingy. The special effects are pretty undistinguished and hard to read at times. I’d also like to remark how hideously this other dimension looks. It’s all rocky crags and dark clouds; it’s like a less successful timeshare for the residents of Mordor. It doesn’t quite look like the paradise that Doom describes it as (the brochure lied to us!). This jumbled conclusion feels so ham-fisted and rushed, a villain and a typical world-destroying fate that must be thwarted at the last minute. Things just sort of happen rather than storylines finding payoffs, and then it’s all sort of over and the resolution echoes the very end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with the credits cutting off the vocal iteration of the title heroes. It’s so transparently different in tone, sloppy in development and execution, and so quickly introduced and resolved, that the whole conclusion comes across as forcibly laughable.
At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop, especially now that Trank and executives are engaging in a P.R. blame game. Fox was hoping for a rekindled franchise. Now they may be hoping to work out a deal for Marvel to buy back the rights to the characters. I would have been interested to see the full vision of what Trank was going for, especially since the one scene that feels most adamant is the best sequence in an admittedly mediocre superhero film. At least the movie would feel cohesive. It probably wouldn’t be good but at least it would be committed to trying something different. Instead, the movie tries to be different from the superhero blockbusters populating the landscape and then, at the last minute, tries to follow their lead and become one of them, becoming its own misshapen and poorly developed blob. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.
Nate’s Grade: C-
In the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was forcefully escorted off the Oakland transit system by armed officers. He was believed to be involved in some sort of gang-related scuffle on the train. Over the din of confusion, shouting, and anger, Oscar was shot and killed by a transit cop. His death sparked waves of outrage in his hometown and grabbed national headlines. Ryan Coogler was so passionate about Oscar’s death that he decided to write and direct a movie detailing the last hours of Grant’s life. He snagged Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer (The Help) to star, attached Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as a producer, and the ensuing film, Fruitvale Station, debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the top honors. Thanks to Coogler, many more people will have a chance to get to know Oscar Grant as a person rather than an unfortunate statistic.
Coogler creates a remarkable debut film for himself, one where the details of life feel richly realized and observed. Sure there are obvious symbolic metaphors introduced like boiling lobsters and a lost dog that dies in Oscar’s arms (yes, foreshadowing), but as a whole Fruitvale Station feels like real life transposed onto celluloid. Coogler also works hard to humanize all the participants in his film, save for the transit cops at the end. There is a refreshing lack of judgment throughout the film as people are allowed to be the ambiguous creatures we are. No more so than Oscar. He has moments that make you wince, but mostly we watch a man struggling to get his life in order. He’s terrific with his daughter, loving and naturally attentive; he puts his family’s needs ahead of his own when it comes to money; he even helps a stranger learn how flash fry a fish, though there’s a hint of flirtation guiding his actions. But he also can’t hold onto a job, has trouble being more actionable in his life’s decisions, and temptation is always banging on his door to lead him back to prison. He’s a complicated man and Jordan (Chronicle) masterfully brings the man and his complexities to life. This is a star-making performance by Jordan (as was his turn on The Wire) and I was stunned at how easily Jordan dissolves completely into his role. There isn’t a physical nuance or line delivery that feels false. It’s a sympathetic humanization and Jordan’s performance is a gift. Combined with Coogler’s deft handling, Fruitvale Station is engrossing.
For much of the film I felt like I was attending a funeral. It’s hard to watch at times, especially watching Oscar’s family wait at the hospital for the news we already know is coming. It reminded me of 2006’s United 93, where the overwhelming sense of dread held over every scene, every innocuous moment held the extra weight that it would be the last time this person was doing this or talking to this person; the dread of waiting for the end we all know is coming. Coogler opens his film with real phone video recordings of the death of Oscar Grant, so from the first moment on we’re awaiting the horrible inevitability. I suppose it gives every moment an extra dimension of pathos, and to some this may be cheap and easy, but it all comes down to perspective. Surely if you knew the final day of your life, you’d likely find extra meaning in the simplest things, bidding goodbye in a thousand different subtle ways. This message isn’t exactly new; it was already old when Thornton Wilder hammered it home in his 1937 play Our Town. Carpe Diem, seize the day, live every moment like it’s your last, stop and smell the roses; you get the idea. And so, the entire running time of Fruitvale Station is a mournful examination on the contradictions, complexities, and connections of a single human life.
Oscar Grant is not lionized as a saint nor is he vilified as some mindless thug without redemption. Carefully, Coogler constructs a complicated man struggling to right his life. Through flashbacks we see he’s spent time in prison, and he’s got a quick flash of a temper that can lead him into impulsive and violent confrontations. It’s significant that we see this prison flashback to summarize completely the life Oscar is trying not to return to. The temptation is always present to fall back on old patterns of comfort, namely cheating on his girlfriend (he has a lot of girls’ numbers in his phone) and going back to selling drugs to make ends meet. Oscar’s ongoing struggle with personal responsibility has cost him his supermarket job (he was late far too often), and he’s kept this news to himself, choosing not to worry those close to him. But his options are limited as an ex-con, let alone a guy fighting his own demons, but he keeps fighting because the Oscar we see, the glimpses of what he could become, are one who wants to be better. He dumps his supply of drugs rather than go through with a sale. The gesture is noble but also partially self-destructive from a pragmatically financial way of thinking. He’s in a deeper hole, money-wise, but he seems committed to making the change. A late encounter with a kind stranger also provides the possibility of a new job, a new chance, one that seems all the more tragic because we know it is a promise that will never be captured. Oscar Grant was likely never going to be a man who changed the world. He was an ordinary man. But we still mourn the death of ordinary men, even those who have made mistakes and are fallible.
It’s impossible to view Fruitvale Station without its relevant connections to the Trayvon Martin case of 2012. Both of these men were black youths deemed to be “up to no good” with quick judgment skewed by prevailing racial bias. Both men were killed for being viewed as threats due to their race and gender. However, unlike Trayvon, we have a litany of witnesses and video evidence documenting the senseless execution of Oscar Grant. That transit officer argued he mistook his tazer for his gun because, surely, a suspect who is already handcuffed, face down on the ground, and having his head pressed down with the boot of an officer, surely that man needs to be tazed just for good measure. That officer, by the way, served 11 months of a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter (justice served?). It’s senseless tragedy built upon miscalculated racial alarm, and the reason we have a movie, the reason there were riots in Oakland, is because this specific case had witnesses. How many other innocent young men die every year because someone wrongly and hastily deemed them to be “up to no good”?
Coogler isn’t trying to stir the pot of racial animus or deify Oscar Grant into some martyr for the cause. Fruitvale Station only follows the last day of Oscar Grant’s life but in doing so it becomes an illumination of a human life. Oscar was an ordinary man before he met so unfortunate an end, but Coogler wants us to remember him not simply as a newspaper headline, but as a person. It’s a worthy endeavor that succeeds heartily but may prove to be dull to many, including several of my own friends and critical colleagues. I can’t argue that the life of Oscar Grant is notable to follow beyond the sad final twenty minutes. But that doesn’t bother me, because with the talents of Coogler and Jordan and their indomitable sense of purpose, the film becomes a fitting portrait of Oscar Grant as a human being and a life lived, not just a life prematurely extinguished. It’s powerful, upsetting, brimming with emotion and fury, and it’s also eerily relevant to today and will, I fear, only continue to be more relevant as the next Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin captures the national spotlight. Coogler’s excellently realized film is a eulogy to an ordinary man, flaws and all, but also a call to do better.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I’ve learned a valuable lesson when it comes to genre movies – do not trust the marketing department of 20th Century Fox. Every promotional clip, trailer, TV spot, even the notion that people were flying around in cities as an attempt at viral marketing, it all coalesced into making me turn up my nose at Chronicle. It just looked like a bad movie. Then the critical reception was rather glowing and I took a chance, pleasantly surprised by the skill and execution of the flick. What made this thought-process notable was that it was almost an exact repeat of what I went through with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Every piece of promotion stoked my disinterest into outright loathing, and then after the positive press I saw the movie, begrudgingly, and was floored. I guess when it comes to future 20th Century Fox genre releases, I’ll try and figure out my reaction and then turn that upside down. If a movie looks like utter crap, then under this new value system it must be good. I’m sure my new cinematic equation will prove me wrong as soon as the latest Eddie Murphy family vehicle terrorizes theaters (“This fall, Eddie Murphy is… The Governor. And his political opponent? His wife! Also played by Eddie Murphy”). In short, the marketing department at 20th Century Fox sucks but Chronicle does not.
Chronicle is the chronicle (heh) of three high-school friends who contract telekinetic powers. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a social outcast, determined to videotape his life as a means of escape from his ailing mother, his violent, alcoholic father (Michael Kelly), and the torment of school bullies. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), is trying to read up on philosophy to impress Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a blogger/amateur documentary filmmaker. He’s more than some dumb jock. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the popular athlete planning to run for political office one day. The three guys discover what looks to be an alien craft underground. After coming into physical contact, the guys discover they suddenly have the ability to control objects with their minds. They test out their new powers in small ways at first, stopping speeding balls, assembling Legos. Matt insists they establish some system of rules to ensure they use their new powers for good. Andrew chafes at the idea of holding back, especially since he is by far the most powerful member of the group and eager to settle a few scores.
Just as the found footage motif is starting to get old along comes a movie that makes creative and clever use of the narrative structure. Documenting one’s life, including the endless trivialities, has become normal habit for a younger generation accustomed to Twitter-style instantaneous information dissemination. Given that Andrew is abused and harassed, it makes sense for his character to use his camera as a means of security physical and emotional: the promise of being recorded should at least keep some of the bullying and physical abuse at bay, and it also provides a barrier for him and the real world, letting him stand outside himself. As John Malkovich said in Shadow of the Vampire, “If it isn’t in the frame, then it doesn’t exist.” This is one of the few found footage films where I didn’t feel constrained by the limitations of its concept. I suppose it helps when your main characters have super powers and can fly into the sky for a game of pigskin. The climactic battle is plenty thrilling but also subtly ingenuitous, as we cut back from various camera footage to piece together our super smackdown; we jump from security cameras, police dashboard cams, helicopter cameras, to even personal video cameras of people doing what people do… document the strange and unusual (I’m just curious who assembled the footage, though I have my theories).
The key to Chronicle’s success is that it’s a well-written, character-based piece that just so happens to morph into a superhero cautionary tale. Andrew has a pretty hard life and it’s easy to see why this insecure, neurotic, and angry young man takes his new-found gifts as a cosmic opportunity for retribution. In a way, Chronicle is like an all-male version of Carrie for the digital age; incidentally, Andrew was set to perform in a school talent show and I was cringing, saying to myself, “Oh no, here comes the Carrie moment.” He’s a tragic figure and you feel for the kid, which gives him a little more leeway when he starts to veer to the dark side. Until the very end, you can follow Andrew’s motivation for every action, so when he dresses up in his father’s firefighter outfit to shake down the neighborhood bullies, you can justify it to yourself, saying, “Well, he’s desperate and needs to pay for him mother’s super expensive medication. Oh, and those guys had it coming. Jerk.” The power of empathy is a mighty one, and writer Max Landis (son of director John Landis) takes a measured amount of time to connect everything back to the character. The best compliment I can give Landis is that nothing feels out of place. The characters behave in a relatively believable manner, the action intensifies at a natural incline, and the characters manage to have some brainy, existential debates about power and responsibility in between typical teenage pranks/antics (it’s only natural that teen boys would somehow use telekinesis to improve their sex life). Sure these characters aren’t terribly deep and the multitude of Andrew’s misery heaped upon misery almost seems ridiculous. In another universe, perhaps Andrew uses his powers to lash out at his tormentors at school, though that approach would questionably glamorize school shootings. However, by the time the big action hits, we’re emotionally invested in the characters and have watched Andrew’s long fuse finally blow.
The special effects are even more impressive given the low budget and the found footage gimmick. The camera makes some nifty telekinetic moves, floating around and giving the film a bigger space to play within. The flying effects are pretty convincing, especially when one of our guys ends up tumbling back to Earth in one tense sequence. Whether it’s floating Pringles or cars crushed inside out, the effects are smooth and well integrated, and any noticeable lack of polish just fits in with the fuzzy nature of our video recording as lone record of the events. There’s a notable solution for sub-par special effects in movies: blame the nature of the movie (Uwe Boll, that suggestion is free of charge).
But the best special effect is young actor DeHaan (HBO’s first-rate show, In Treatment). Looking eerily like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the guy manages to channel pent-up rage, frustration, and helplessness in a way that doesn’t feel histrionic or twerpy. His character is the point of view for our tale given that it is Andrew’s camera after all; we’re mostly locked into his perspective. Good thing that the character is interesting enough and so well played by DeHaan that I didn’t feel stuck with a loser. He reacts like most teenagers would react when bullied and harassed, trying to be aloof and ambivalent but only able to hide the pain and resentment for so long. When Andrew does start to give in to the allure of his powers, DeHaan seems practically seduced by his sense of superiority. There’s a dangerous look in his eyes that turns on that cues the audience for trouble to come. Russell is an amiable actor even if his character is bland and somewhat inconsistent as a foil to Andrew. Jordan (TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a charming guy who finds the right balance of exuberance and sarcasm with his character. Together, the threesome of guys has a winning chemistry and character dynamic. When they’re getting along and the good times are rolling, you feel part of the gang.
Being a super hero has become a dominant male fantasy as of late in the movies, so it’s invigorating to see a movie that puts a fresh spin on what seems ad infinitum. Chronicle is something of a small wonder, bringing new life to the found footage concept, making smart use of its narrative confines rather than chained by its limitations. The story is just as involving from a character standpoint as much as its sci-fi genre elements and superhero wish fulfillment. Landis and debut director Josh Trank are talents that I have no doubt Hollywood will snatch up. They’ve given the super hero genre a necessary human element, too often lost in the splashes of action and merchandising. Along with its engaging character-work, Chronicle also happens to be a clever action movie with some soaring thrills. Ignore the shoddy marketing and take a chance on Chronicle.
Nate’s Grade: B+