FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

July 13, 2013

fruitvale1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not politically correct to criticize this movie, yet it seems only fair to treat it as I do every other movie on which I comment. If that sounds like a bashing is coming, you are mistaken. In fact, this is an emotionally-charged, well written and exceptionally well-acted movie that provides much anticipation for the future projects of its first time director Ryan Coogler. However, in my opinion, it is also flawed in its “Based on a True Story” placard that is then followed by much manipulation (3 Oprah references), some of which could even be considered misleading.

If you are unfamiliar with the tragic story, 22 year old Oscar Grant was inexplicably shot and killed (while subdued and face down) by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop after watching New Year’s Eve fireworks with his girlfriend and buddies. An altercation/fight occurred on the train and the officers pulled Grant aside to detain/arrest. Much of this was caught on cell phone video by train passengers, and the aftermath brought protests in the city. The officer was tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. He claimed he mistook his gun for his Taser.

fruitvale4 No one can argue that this was anything but a senseless tragedy. Director Coogler even begins his movie with actual cell phone footage of the incident. The ending is known and seared in the viewer’s mind before the story even begins. Whether the senseless shooting was racially driven is a topic for debate, but the current media focus on the George Zimmerman trial, and his killing of Trayvon Martin, makes the timing of this movie quite compelling.

Coogler certainly points out that Grant (adeptly played by Michael B Jordan) was no angel. We learn about his prison stints, his drug dealing, his unfaithfulness to his girlfriend (the mother of his daughter), his lack of responsibility (losing his job due to chronic absence), his string of lies, and most glaringly … his terrifyingly quick and violent temper. My issue with the film is the seemingly inordinate amount of time Coogler spends on the flip side — the focus on Oscar’s desire to get his life back on track. So fruitvale2much effort and so many scenes are written to exhibit how Oscar is a charming guy with a big heart. He helps out a white lady in the grocery store, he takes a big step towards leaving the drug dealing life, he plans his mother’s birthday party, heck … he even cradles a poor dog that was hit by a car. This inequity in storytelling apparently has only one purpose … to create another symbol of racial injustice. We are not left to ponder if the real Oscar is the one who inspires his daughter to brush her teeth or the one who bows up to a foul-mouthed convict, rather than ignore him. Instead, Coogler wants us to believe that Oscar was now a good guy who had put his past behind him … all in the 24 hours leading up to his death.

The fact is, there are two sides of Oscar, just like everyone has multiple facets to their personality. Most of us learn to control the sides that don’t mesh well with society … others really struggle to do so. Michael B Jordan delivers a powerful performance as Oscar, and he and Octavia Spencer (who plays his mom) will both garner awards attention. Other supporting work is provided by Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend, Ariana Neal as his precious daughter, Ahna O’Reilly as the shopper, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray as the BART cops.

fruitvale3 This film was the hit of both Sundance and Cannes, and was produced by Forest Whitaker. A major tip of the cap to BART for allowing the filmmakers to work on location at the actual Fruitvale station, for a level of authenticity. Coogler chooses one last bit of manipulation with his closing video of Oscar’s daughter Tatiana at a recent memorial outside of Fruitvale station … followed by on screen text of the officer’s two year sentence. We get no details on the trial, only the assumption that the sentence does not deliver justice, but rather another example of racial bias.

Lastly I’ll say that the decision to make a dramatization rather than a documentary was interesting. This allowed the director to focus on Oscar the good guy. A documentary would have required facts from the trial, a better perspective of the train disturbance and probably fewer Oprah references. The dramatization makes the movie more emotionally charged and more effective at inspiring outrage, rather than debate. Despite all of that, this is extraordinary filmmaking from a first time director, and I will certainly look forward to Ryan Coogler’s next project.

**NOTE: An interesting take on the real life events that led Oscar to this moment, could have been an analysis of the many decisions he made in his short life. Parents are always trying make their kids understand that every decision and every choice has a consequence. What if Oscar had never dealt drugs or gone to prison?  The altercation on the train would not have occurred and the tragedy would have been avoided.  I am by no means blaming Oscar for what happened that night, it’s just another example of how even the smallest decisions add up to impact our life.

***WARNING***

Rather than post the trailer to the film, I have elected instead to post a 1:42 YouTube video of the actual incident,  The video is short but contains very harsh language and you can hear the gun shot.  It is not easy to watch and certainly not appropriate for kids

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0P8TSP2YJU&oref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DS0P8TSP2YJU&has_verified=1

 

 

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COSMOPOLIS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Cronenberg is a brilliant filmmaker. Brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into popular or even accessible. He tends to make movies that force a level of discomfort while viewing, while also stretching our intellect as we attempt to follow. Even his films that come closest to mainstream (A History of Violence, The Fly) refuse to allow us to just sit and be entertained. His more esoteric films (Naked Lunch, Crash) will cause your thoughts to swim and your gut to churn.

This latest is based on the Don DeLillo novel and there is no known group of film lovers for whom this can be recommended, save Cronenberg fans. Even that doesn’t reduce its brilliance. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, the ultimate example of the 1% that is receiving such notice these days. Packer is a young, billionaire, who rides around in his mobile high tech ivory tower (you might call it a white stretch limo), taking meetings while on his mission to get a haircut. The meetings are vignettes designed to grow increasingly abstract and dialogue heavy as the film progresses.

The meetings feature Jay Baruchel as his Chief of Technology, Philip Nozuka as an Analyst, Emily Hampshire as his Chief of Finance, Samantha Morton as his Chief of Theory … oh, and a special meeting with his mistress Juliette Binoche. He also manages to continually run into his new wife played by Sarah Gadon, and work in his daily doctor’s exam which is extremely thorough. All of these occur while he is being protected by his security chief played by Kevin Durand.

 This film is not plot driven, but rather ideal and theory driven. From the discussions we can tell that the financial systems are collapsing and Packer is losing millions by the minute. His fortune is vanishing and there are threats on his life. The most interesting threat comes from his true polar opposite in life – Benno Levin played by Paul Giamatti. This sequence is the film’s longest and most dialogue heavy. Understanding every sentence is not necessary to realize it’s a comment on the faceless many vs the evil privileged. The paranoia has boiled over to the point where anarchy and violence somehow make sense.

Twilight fans will not be pleased with Pattinson’s performance, but he is absolutely perfect as Packer. His cold, arrogant nature and monotone voice are anything but emotionless. He apparently realizes his path is leading to the Village of the Damned, and he seems to have designed his own purgatory. One of the funniest, yet still odd, moments arrives in the form of Mathieu Amalric, who will generate recollections of a Rupert Murdoch incident.

Howard Shore provides an extremely subtle score that fits with the mood changes a the film progresses. Again, this is a bit like watching a philosophical laboratory experiment and certainly won’t appeal to a wide audience. If you are a Cronenberg fan, have at it. If not … the risk is yours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a big time Cronenberg fan (I can’t think of another reason)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Twilight fan expecting Robert Pattinson’s bedroom eyes to steal your heart

watch the trailer:


REAL STEEL

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Shawn Levy brought us the Night at the Museum Movies and I guess that’s about the same audience he is after with this one. Most will compare this to Rocky, and the similarities are obvioius, but the film this most reminds me of is Dreamer with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning – A spunky kid trying to prove everyone wrong in an against all odds competition. But while this one is entertaining enough, I would not put it at the level of either of those movies, which both had better performances and a much better script.

 Hugh Jackman is Charlie, a pompous, bombastic, self-centered hustler who tries to stay one step ahead of the collectors chasing him. He is always looking for a big score in the robot boxing game. What? You aren’t familiar with this sport? Well the film is set in not-too-distant-future, but the only thing I could tell had evolved was the technology of robots and cell phones. Jackman’s world gets jacked up when his 11 year old son (Dakota Goyo) is thrust into his life after the mother dies. Yes, he has been an absentee father and the kid is ridiculously smart and cute.

The two of them set off to make noise in the robot fight world with a dilapidated old model that they rescue from the junk yard in a driving rain storm. There are very few surprises along the way, but father and son develop a bond thanks to the success of their robot, and said robot is not the only one who gets “rescued”.

 Supporting work is provided by Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis and James Rebhorn. These are all competent actors who deliver fine work, but there is nothing special to the script. The one thing that makes this one a little different and will certainly appeal to 10-12 year old boys, is the fighting robots. The fights are action-packed and enjoyable/exciting to watch. They actually look like boxing matches … only with metal creatures, who for some reason are built to mimic human movement.

There have been countless other robot movies: Transformers, Bicentennial Man (Robin Williams), I Robot (Will Smith) and, of course, Lost in Space! Don’t expect much more from this than those offered, but it is a simple fun ride, especially for the pre-teen who enjoys any type of frenetic clash.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always looking for a movie that you and your 11 year old can see together

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to miss Hugh Jackman in hyper-over-acting mode.

watch the trailer (and get a feel for the robot fighting):