Monday, July 28, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Les Diaboliques (1955)

Les Diaboliques, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

There are moments in films that stick with you for a long time, if not forever. Flying down the trenches of the Death Star reminds us of the power of movies. We’re riding the bike with E.T., boarding the DeLorean with Marty, or jumping on a truck with Indiana Jones. A much different aspect is cinema’s ability to haunt our dreams. We’re taking showers and worrying about Norman Bates or swimming and looking for a great white shark. There’s a moment in this vein at the end of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. When a dead body rises to life out of a bathtub, our shock is right with the victim of this horror. How is this possible? The rules of this world seem the same as ours. If a normal man can survive murder, what else can happen? It takes great skill to surprise a veteran movie goer, but this moment ranks among those legendary examples. The build-up is just right and prepares us for a surprise, yet it’s impossible to expect something with that much power to overwhelm us.

Les Diaboliques – Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; Starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel

Despite its tremendous influence on thrillers like Psycho, this film remains fairly obscure to most audiences. It lacks the notoriety of some other choices in the Blind Spots Series, though there are plenty of fans. Clouzot employs a slow-burn approach that builds the tension deliberately and doesn’t overwhelm us with scares too early. The murder partially occurs off screen, which makes more sense when the major twists happen. It also raises the mystery and makes us question what we’ve observed. The confusion of what genre this really is remains up to the end. Are we in a horror film where the reality is malleable and allows dead men to torment their killers? Will new revelations question the reliability of the narrative we’ve followed for nearly two hours? These questions help Clouzot to maintain suspense when little is happening on screen. The events outside the frame hold the intrigue.

Simone Signoret in Les Diaboliques

Adapted from the novel Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, this story largely involves three characters. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the sadistic headmaster of a boarding school who torments everyone he meets. His victims include his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) and his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). It’s strange to notice how well this pair gets along, though it wasn’t always the case. Christina also suffers from a weak heart, and having a brutal husband doesn’t help. She owns the boarding school, which is struggling financially. The last thing a distressed institution needs is a guy who doesn’t care about anyone running it. This environment spawns a scheme from Nicole to kill Michel and escape his reign of terror. She needs Christina’s help to make it happen, and it seems like a safe plan. What could go wrong?

Clouzot reveals the many challenges in transporting a dead body to the right location to sell the plan. Nosy neighbors are constantly on the lookout, and even a harmless drunk nearly stumbles upon the body. This sequence feels extremely similar to watching a nervous Janet Leigh try to escape with stolen money in Psycho. Cops and random people seem drawn to the car like a magnet, and these interactions take an excruciating amount of time. Hitchcock almost certainly took inspiration from this film when creating that movie five years later. This approach makes us identify with the criminals and hope they aren’t caught. In this case, it’s easy to understand why Nicole and Christina would want to kill Michel. Paul Meurisse excels at drawing no sympathy for a guy whose sole purpose is to damage others.

Les Diaboliques, released in 1955 and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

The challenge for modern viewers with Les Diaboliques could be its slow pace, which saves the scares for the final act. I’ll admit to feeling antsy during the slow reveals after the women return to school. This story could probably be told in less time, though it does allow Clouzot room to let it breathe. A rushed pace would diminish the suspense when Michel returns (in some form). Instead, we’re so desperate to learn what’s happening that any less thrilling scenes are quickly forgotten. You can see the building blocks for so many thrillers within the construction of the big reveals. The brilliant use of lighting and sound creates just the right mood and makes you want to hide from what’s coming. This film should be must-see viewing for any student hoping to work on films. The technical mastery removes any doubt of whether checking out a 60-year-old movie is worth it. It’s a textbook example of how to manipulate the audience and leave them wanting more when the credits arrive.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #23

Walt Disney in the EPCOT film.

When I’m organizing my ideas on blog posts, I’m questioning how far to stray from reviewing movies. Covering dramatic television shows like Deadwood is one thing, but discussing theme parks may go too far in an alternate direction. I’ve enjoyed connecting with other Disney theme park fanatics recently, and one of them is Estelle from the This Happy Place blog. This week, I contributed my second guest post for her site about Disney attractions that I’ve yet to experience around the world. I’m not sure that I’ll be heading to Japan anytime soon, but a guy can dream, right? If you’re interested in Disney and its theme parks, you should definitely check out Estelle’s blog. I’ve discovered a fun community of bloggers that love the parks but recognize where they need improvements. I’m less interested in reading pieces that obsess over the “magic” and don't concede that everything Disney touches does not turn to gold. They're fans but also seem like normal people.

Here are some other interesting blogs that are definitely worth your time:

I’ll start this week with two oral histories of films with very different production experiences. The first is Jordan Hoffman’s extensive look at Galaxy Quest, which continues to surprise many viewers with its clever take on a show that has a lot of similarities with Star Trek. The insight on Tim Allen and his larger-than-life personality on the set doesn’t surprise me, and it’s clear that everyone has fond memories of working on a movie that did a lot better than expected. I’m a big fan of this type of oral history, and this MTV piece gets input from all the major figures in the talented cast.

Less happy but equally compelling is Amy Nicholson’s look at the very long production of Eyes Wide Shut for Vanity Fair. Stanley Kubrick is known for extreme behavior on the set, yet his efforts to create a certain mood are still astounding. I recognize the greatness of his films, but there is a point where the term “control freak” doesn’t do it justice. His efforts to separate Cruise and Kidman and dig into their actual relationship move towards sociopathic behavior. I’m impressed that both actors would put up with all the head games, especially since they were husband and wife at the time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The Dissolve is featuring Terminator 2 this week, and that film sticks in my mind as the first R-rated movie that I saw in the theaters (I was 15). Beyond that distinction, it also stands up well in the action department. I’d put it below the original Terminator film, but it’s a small drop-off between them. Tasha Robinson’s piece on T2 explores the way the marketing betrayed one of the most intriguing plot points. It telegraphed Arnold’s switch to the protector, which makes sense in selling the film. However, that move removed the impact of what could have been a huge revelation. It’s an intriguing post that covers the history while giving a unique perspective on the massive sequel.

I’m continually amazed that there isn’t a documentary about Walt Disney that provides a more balanced take on his history. That’s why it’s so exciting that PBS’ American Experience will be featuring him in a four-hour (!), two-night film in fall 2015. The running time is the key in showing more than the expected notes like Mickey Mouse, Disneyland, and the animated features. I’ve read Neil Gabler’s massive biography of Disney, but there’s so much information that it’s difficult to retain much of it. The visual medium is the right way to show his impact and give us an insight about this life. Here's a brief description from the PBS site:

"Directed and produced by Sarah Colt (“Henry Ford,” “RFK”) and written by Mark Zwonitzer (“JFK,” “Triangle Fire”), the film features rare archival footage from the Disney vaults, scenes from some of his greatest films, and includes interviews with animators and artists who worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Imagineers who helped design Disneyland."

This sounds awesome.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Snowpiercer: Bong Joon-Ho Wins the Summer

Chris Evans and Kang-ho Song in Snowpiercer

This summer has been dominated by the familiar band of super heroes, giant robots, and other franchise characters. It’s been rare to see an original story that packs a punch yet enters new territory. A talented South Korean filmmaker has arrived to shake up the formula and deliver one of the year’s most unpredictable gems. Bong Joon-ho is building quite a fan base around the world after the success of The Host and Mother, and his latest outing should continue that trend. Snowpiercer is an epic tale that provides the thrills and surprises of a summer movie without the bombast. The budget is just shy of $40 million, but it feels more expansive than films that cost four times as much. The trick is getting us engaged in a story that could go anywhere. It occurs in the confined space of a moving train, yet there’s a sense that anything may exist behind each gate. Despite Harvey Weinstein’s best efforts, it's catching on through word of mouth and deserves an even larger audience.

Snowpiercer – Directed by Bong Joon-Ho; Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris

Comparing movies to video games is an overused trope, but it actually fits in this case. The revolutionary forces led by Curtis (Chris Evans) are progressing through each level, fighting enemies, and solving problems to reach their ultimate goal. There are even boss fights that raise the stakes and offer new challenges with greater difficulty. Like the skyscrapers in The Raid or Dredd, the train offers the perfect setting for this type of incremental progress. Each gate moves them closer to the final stage, but the dangers increase and require added skills. Curtis is supported by a group of adventurers with their own abilities. Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) knows the electronics for opening the gates, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) can see what’s coming, and Grey (Luke Pasquilano) is a skilled hand-to-hand fighter. They’re a formidable team with a chance at escaping their awful situation, but it won’t be easy.

Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho

What makes Snowpiercer more than just another cool action film is the creativity in the set design and this entire universe. It could easily become a one-note story with a great concept but limited execution. The remarkable part is the way that the inventive environment sets the stage for a gripping film. Joon-ho supersedes the genre trappings and delivers thrills while digging into compelling sci-fi themes. In a frozen world of limited resources and space, how do you avoid pure chaos? Wilford (Ed Harris) has developed an extreme class structure to maintain the “balance”, and it feels like an immoral construction of a deranged man. But what’s the alternative? Would the rich folks of the first-class cabin give up their posh life and share their wealth with the lower classes? That’s a tricky question, especially when the system’s been in place for nearly decades. Usurping this structure will most likely deliver rampant destruction.

It’s easy to understand why Curtis is determined to lead the revolution. The tail section has miserable conditions with bodies living on top of each other. They’re fed with bars of a jello-like substance and have no freedom to move around. Kids are taken from their parents with no explanation, and it’s essentially a totalitarian state. What’s surprising is the way Curtis’ status as the hero slowly drifts away. We’re still on his side and want to reach the end, but there’s little sense he’ll save the universe. The upper-class folks view him as a non-person and barely acknowledge his existence. Limited resources only allow for so many to thrive while others suffer. It’s essentially a simplified look at a capitalist society. Wilford may claim benevolence and intent to preserve the balance, yet there’s a joy in being a savior. The privileged few like Tilda Swinton’s Mason revere him and look down upon anyone that says differently. Who wouldn’t love a guy that’s created such an isolated paradise?

Ah-sung Ko and Kang-Ho Song in Snowpiercer

The screenplay delves into complex themes, but it's also rousing entertainment. The hatchet battle scene is possibly the most thrilling sequence that I’ve witnessed this year. Although it’s bloody and action-packed, there are small touches that separate it from the typical fare. In the middle of the fight, everyone stops for a brief New Year’s celebration. That brilliant segment is matched by a comic sequence involving a classroom full of students, a history video, anthems praising Wilford, and machine guns. It’s ridiculous and represents a drastic shift in tone yet still feels right in this world. It takes major skills to get away with this move and keep the audience right with the story. I wasn’t budging for a second.

If there’s an emotional center to Snowpiercer, it’s Chris Evans’ steady presence. Curtis is struggling with past demons that will never disappear, and the revelations about his past are startling. Evans sells the tragedy without over playing the melodrama. He’s so committed to stopping Wilford that betrayal from an ally never crosses his mind. Swinton and Harris get more leeway to chew scenery and inject the right energy into their supporting roles. Wilford doesn’t even arrive until the finale, yet people talk about him for the entire film. It takes an actor with a huge presence to live up to those expectations. He’s hardly a standard movie villain, either. Despite the rampant collateral damage with Wilford’s approach, there’s a method to his madness. He’s become a clinical leader that pushes morality aside for the good of chosen few. It’s hardly a great scenario, but there are very limited alternatives. This unforgiving environment sets the stage for one of the year’s most thrilling films.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Deadwood Watch, Episode 1.6: "Plague"

Deadwood Season 1, Episode Six - "Plague"

When you begin an episode called “Plague”, you know this isn’t going to be a carefree picnic. On a show like Deadwood, there are no easy days. When several other bodies fall, the risk of a massive infection keeps growing. Joey’s attempt to get the antidote in Nebraska has failed, and now he’s ill. In the days before the widespread smallpox vaccine, the risks of an outbreak were high. When you consider the brothels and gambling establishments in Deadwood, there’s a huge cause for alarm. It’s interesting that Swearengen and Tolliver are working together again, and the intimidating guys have a begrudging respect for the other. Even so, there will be a reckoning between them at some point. We learn plenty about the way that Tolliver runs his business in this episode, and he’s no better than Swearengen. He may be worse, which says quite a lot given all the nastiness that’s happened thus far.

Season 1, Episode 6
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Written by Malcolm MacRury

When Tolliver and his Bella Union group arrived, they seemed like the more refined alternative to Swearengen’s rough-and-tumble business. This week, we learn why Tolliver is so intent on making craps a key part of his services. He cheats! Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) looks for marks to set up, and the dice are hardly on the level. They’re running small-time hustles within their own establishment, which is pretty brilliant when you add alcohol and men of limited intelligence to the mix. We also understand more about the relationship between Stubbs and Tolliver. When she blinks and lets Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) slide without losing even more money, Tolliver’s anger offers hints of menace behind his smooth veneer. I get the sense that she’s faced his wrath in the past, and there’s nothing pleasant about it. There’s also a question of how much Eddy Sawyer (Ricky Jay) knows about Tolliver’s bad side. He’s part of their chicanery yet seems more innocent about the tricks behind the scenes.

The episode begins with Bullock riding after McCall but not getting far. After his horse is shot down by a Native American warrior, he barely escapes with his life. So many emotions flowed through my mind while watching this scene. There’s concern for Bullock and some humor from the over-the-top enemy. When he gets the upper hand and smashes the guy’s head to pieces, the worry shifts to wondering if Bullock crossed the line. After Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) arrives and points out the markings of past kills, there’s a recognition that Bullock’s moves were justified (no pun intended). Despite the violent attack, their attempts to give him the proper ritual show the differences with Bullock. He doesn’t throw his fallen enemies to the pigs. This honor places him in a different world from Swearengen and many others in Deadwood. This moral conflict will certainly return in the future.

I’ve covered the limited portrayals of women in a previous post, and that’s remained a concern despite having a few great characters. This week, the trio of Trixie, Alma, and Calamity Jane give hope that they’ll play a more significant role going forward. The way they work together and deceive Farnum is clever and succeeds because they’re looked down upon as women. Paula Malcolmson is adding layers to Trixie each week, and her meek attitude towards Swearengen is quite a ruse. He’s able to see through men who try to fool him, but the powerful guy has no idea that the lies are happening. Trixie sticks her neck out to help Alma get over the drugs because she’s been there in the past. They have a bond on that front and connect with Jane over her interest in caring for the young girl. I hope we see more of these three very different women collaborating in the future.

Ray McKinnon’s over-the-top performance as the Reverend H.W. Smith is sometimes a bit much, but there’s a real intrigue with his character’s seizures. I was under the impression that epilepsy was a long-term condition for him, but Smith’s attack this week was only the second one. What is causing them in Deadwood? I hate to expect too much from this subplot, but it brings another layer to a character that could easily become a caricature in lesser hands. He’s so determined to connect with God and feel the spirit that he must be over compensating for past trauma during the war. His story is one of many that continue to expand as we head into the second half of the season. Great things are going to happen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Chef: Favreau Re-ignites His Heart

Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony in Chef

Jon Favreau burst onto the scene in 1996 as the writer and star of Swingers, and his ascension continued with major directing gigs like the two Iron Man films. When you’re shooting movies with astronomical budgets, it’s hard not to lose your originality. His most recent outing Cowboys & Aliens was a critical and financial disappointment, and it arrived three years ago. Favreau has been doing some soul-searching and was looking to work on a smaller scale. While it may sound like a step backwards, that’s hardly the case. Chef reveals the heart that attracted people to him in the first place. Its characters mean well and are just looking to carve out a spot in the world. There’s a clear similarity between the career paths of Carl Casper and Favreau. When large sums of money get involved, it’s hard to stake your claim as an individual. Playing to the middle rarely leads to exciting creative results.

Chef – Directed by Jon Favreau; Starring Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Sofia Vergara

Favreau plays Casper as a nice guy who’s self-involved but not in a malicious way. He’s been cooking the same meals for Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant for too many years. I’ve worked in mundane office jobs in the past, so I can sympathize with this feeling. You don’t even realize how much the lack of creative thinking is impacting the other aspects of your life. Casper spends time with his son, but he’s always focused on his job. He can’t even enjoy a roller coaster without checking his phone. Who has time to be a good dad when you’re running a restaurant? I expect that Favreau has faced a similar situation with his own kids. Casper is constantly on the move and pushes back the lingering questions in his mind about his predictable job. It’s only a matter of time before something cracks inside his soul.

Chef, directed by Jon Favreau

The instigator of this life change is a powerful food critic (who else?), and all it takes is a bad review to knock Casper into manic territory. His public outburst against the appropriately named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) certainly springs from Favreau’s opinions about unfair critics. There were harsh reviews written about Cowboys & Aliens that probably mirror the clever barbs from Michel. In one sense, Casper’s statements that critics aren’t creators make sense. In this particular case, the bad review goes viral and hurts his reputation. On the other hand, Michel ends up being more than a one-note villain. We aren’t in Shyamalan territory from Lady in the Water. He devastates Casper’s confidence, but his main points are correct. The generic cooking lacks creativity and doesn’t match his immense talents.

Chef advertises for the greatness of many things, including food trucks, New Orleans, and Twitter. Favreau presents the simplicity of working on a truck and making dishes that people love. These aren’t restaurant patrons that have been ordering the same food for 20 years. I’ve been a recent convert to food trucks, so he’s preaching to the choir. The use of Twitter feels mostly natural, though I expect they spent a pretty penny bankrolling this project. Making Casper’s 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) the social media expert works because he cast the right actor. Anthony looks much older and sells the boy's intelligence. The Casper/Percy relationship connects directly to the chef’s search for his creative identity. When he’s doing something that he loves, it’s easy to convey that joy to his son.

Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo in Chef

The main reason the story works is because of the excellent cast, and everyone is bringing out their genuine side. This feels like a case where they believed in the material and enjoyed supporting their friend. The scene where Casper welcomes Martin (John Leguizamo) to the food truck and tells him the pay is nothing matches how I picture Favreau’s meetings with the cast. Leguizamo is rarely this likable and perfectly depicts Casper’s loyal ally. He’d rather give up a lucrative job as a sous chef than not work with Casper. Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr. join the fun, while Hoffman gets the most thankless role as the less creative owner. That guy is hardly an evil villain, however. He takes a different perspective on the restaurant business and isn’t totally wrong.

If there’s an area that’s lacking, it’s the depth of the female characters. Johansson’s Molly is charming and gives Casper the push that he needs. However, she’s essentially on the screen to offer advice and love the guy. Favreau and Johansson sell their connection, but it’s a pretty thin character. That’s also true of Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife Inez. It’s clear why he’d want to be with her, and she’s a very likable character. Even so, she’s a reactive creation that’s just waiting around until Casper finds his way. Vergara also sells Inez as a real person, and it’s only with more consideration that we recognize the limited portrait. These issues are hardly fatal because there’s so much niceness on the screen. The conflicts are clear but are mostly in place to showcase the positive sides of Casper’s regeneration.

Family food truck day in Chef

Chef is one of those films with extended sequences that will send you scrambling for the kitchen (or a restaurant). The food looks gorgeous, and Favreau presents it majestically. The soundtrack is filled with jazz tunes, and that brings vitality to simple moments like driving down the highway. This is the type of movie that may turn off cynical viewers, and I can understand that reaction. Even so, it reveals a heart that’s been missing from Favreau’s recent work. There’s nothing wrong with directing a blockbuster about superheroes or aliens. The question is whether those projects match up with Favreau’s skills. He seems more at home with this smaller story about a guy who’s becoming engaged with life. Casper’s speech to his son about his love of cooking should resonate with anyone who loves a creative activity. When we’re immersed in our favorite pursuit, is anything better?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #22

Code 46

This past weekend, I ventured up I-55 to Chicago and met up with some fellow bloggers and podcasters affiliated with the Large Association of Movie Blogs (The LAMB). I just stayed for one night but had a fun time meeting people in person that I’d only known through the site. What was interesting is that we didn’t talk that much about movies. It was refreshing to not spend all the time digging into our favorites of the year or best of all time. Instead, people mostly chatted about what they did and had the usual small talk you’d expect from friends. I’ve spoken to many of the people that I met on podcasts for hours on end, but there’s no substitute for an actual meeting. With everyone spread all over the country and involved in their own busy lives, it was a rare treat to get the chance to arrive in the same town.

Here are some interesting podcasts that are definitely worth your time:

Speaking of Chicago, a large contingent of the group there was from the Baltimore podcast known as French Toast Sunday. It was great to meet several of the regular hosts in person, including Lindsay and Jess. They just released their 200th episode, which is a remarkable feat. This special show involved a trivia battle of the main crew with the other contributors to the site. The B Team had no issues keeping up with the leaders. The nearly two-hour podcast was great fun and helped to pass the time during my drive.

Kicking & Screaming, directed by Noah Baumbach

One of my favorite movies is Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming, which perfectly captures a time right after graduating from college where everything is possible. The problem is that no one has any idea what to do. Is leaving the nest really just a good thing? Wouldn’t it be easier to just hang out with friends at the same bars and not move forward? Nathan Rabin from The Dissolve is a fan and does an incredible job describing why this film works. He also delves into the challenges with Baumbach’s follow-up movies, particularly Mr. Jealousy. It took him a while to get back on the right track.

By pure chance, I have two posts by Nathan Rabin in this piece. Am I a fan boy? Regardless, his essay for Salon where he apologizes for coining the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” is worth mentioning. The title seems perfect for characters like Natalie Portman in Garden State, but Rabin aptly feels that it’s become too prevalent. It’s also been extended to characters where it doesn’t really fit like Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall. Rabin makes convincing points that it’s time to avoid using that phrase.

Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon in Tammy

I’m not very excited to see Tammy and won’t be rushing out to catch it in theaters. Even so, I think it’s great to see Melissa McCarthy taking charge of her career. I knew her originally from The Gilmore Girls, and it’s been amazing to watch her star rise. Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed correctly points out that the criticism of this new film as a “vanity project” isn’t fair to McCarthy. The fact that she’s a woman is playing a major role in the poor treatment from some writers, and that hypocrisy needs to stop.

I’ve been a fan of At the Movies in its various incarnations (with one notable exception), and I really enjoyed its regeneration with Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on PBS. He was only 24 and an intriguing guy because he came from the world of online criticism. Vishnevetsky has written a fascinating post for the A.V. Club that discusses the history of the show and his contribution at the end. He’s way too hard on himself, but that’s understandable given the ultimate outcome. It’s fascinating to read his discussions on the failure of the Bens era and how the TV show format is so challenging. I’ll close with an excerpt from a post that anyone who ever watched At the Movies should read:

Searching through my inbox for production emails from the show, I come across a long list of notes sent in by Thea Flaum, Siskel & Ebert’s original producer, about an early episode. She tears into me and Christy—well, mostly me—for peppering our crosstalks with too many specialized references, a 'serious viewer turnoff.' Among other things, she points out the fact that we reviewed a documentary about poetry slams without bothering to explain what a poetry slam was.

When I first read that email, it made me angry. (Frankly, I don’t think I could stomach being the dude who explained what a poetry slam was on broadcast TV in 2011.) By the middle of that year, I got it. She was right: Ebert Presents: At The Movies was the kind of show where you would explain what a poetry slam was, just in case some portion of the viewership didn’t know.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Young Filmmakers Marathon: Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler

Documenting a real-life event in a fictional film is a real challenge, especially when it’s such a recent moment. The 2008 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, California received national attention, so recreating the shooting isn’t enough. We need to see a unique perspective that gives more than the tragic side. Who was this guy? Does his story deserve attention when you go beyond his death? That’s the question that lingers around Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, which depicts the final day of Grant’s life. He goes about his day with no idea that his minutes are numbered. The audience has knowledge that Grant doesn’t possess, and that adds a portent to scenes that are fairly typical. When his mom tells him to take the train, she unknowingly sets the stage for the disaster. The question is whether moments like these really help with understanding Grant. There’s a risk in trying too hard to create a sense of foreboding when none should truly exist.

Fruitvale Station – Directed by Ryan Coogler; Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, and Ahna O'Reilly

Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, a rising star who made his name in shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights and films like Chronicle. His performance drives the story and keeps us engaged because he doesn’t overdo the drama. Grant is just going through another day where he tries to get his job back and keep his girls happy. Coogler seems intent on showing that he isn’t a saint and doesn’t take much responsibility for his life. His moves aren’t evil but can still do harm to his family if he isn’t careful. The conversation with his former boss tells us plenty about Grant’s outlook. Telling a guy that fired you that you’ll work hard rarely works, and threatening him is a terrible idea. Jordan brings humanity to Grant that isn’t on the page. A less charismatic actor would struggle to keep us on his side.

Melonie Diaz in Fruitvale Station

Despite Jordan’s success, there are scenes that veer into less subtle territory. At a gas station, Grant is a friendly with a dog. Moments later, the same dog is hit by a car. Watching him comfort the wounded animal is a blatant connection to his fate. It’s also a transparent way to connect us to Grant because he likes dogs. It’s a fairly brief scene, yet it leaves just the wrong impression in a movie designed to be natural. Coogler veers away from this approach several times, and those detours limit the effectiveness. They aren’t fatal issues, and the main reason is the work from Jordan and other actors. Octavia Spencer brings depth to Grant’s mom, and her presence adds more than what’s written.

Fruitvale Station is more interesting as a portrait of a young man than as a dissection of a tragic figure. The final act feels inevitable and is sad, yet it’s the least interesting part. The cops are one-dimensional guys high on adrenaline that overreact to a tricky situation. Kevin Durand (Lost) is the right man to play the tough officer. Is there any way for this guy not to look imposing? His face exudes menace towards anyone that stands up to his power. The joyous scenes on the train prior to the mess set it up well and convey the excitement of a night on the town. I’ve yet to mention Melonie Diaz as Sophina, who has the difficult task of being an obstacle for Grant. Even so, it’s clear that there’s love between the characters. We have to remember that they’re still really young and dealing with situations well beyond their years. They’re just hoping for a fun night out on the last day of the year.

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

I’ve spent a good amount of this piece harping on the issues with this film. Despite these concerns, it’s still an engaging debut from the 28-year-old writer/director. Coogler shows a lot of talent in conveying tricky material that could have easily drifted in more sentimental territory. There are scenes that connect too much to the ending, but the overall mood is right. We’re following around a guy who makes mistakes and isn’t perfect yet hardly deserves such a tragic end (who does?). Fruitvale Station is most notable for the arrival of Coogler and Jordan, who have very promising careers. I can’t wait to see where they go next, and their potential to shine is sky high after this interesting project.