Friday, July 26, 2013

Fruitvale Station

FRUITVALE STATION: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, directed by Ryan Coogler (85 min.)

It's nearly impossible to overstate the number of times I have left a film physically, emotionally, and literally shaken.  Films can be powerful, great, exciting, thrilling, so on and so forth.  They can leave a lasting impact, they can win all the awards, they can be forever remembered as a classic.  But I can count on one hand the number of films that affected me in the way Fruitvale Station did.  The breakout Sundance hit from earlier in the year deserves every ounce of praise it receives.  This true story of a true tragedy will shake viewers to the absolute core.  If you are like me, and you are growing weary of the bloated Hollywood blockbuster system, of the 800-pound gorilla whose odor is beginning to seep out of the summer multiplexes, Fruitvale Station is a film that will restore your faith in the power of independent films and filmmakers.

The story is the tragic tale of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young black man caught up in the system of inner-city New York.  Oscar is scuffling against the grain, fighting to keep his head above water and support his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).  He has spent some time in prison, but Oscar is not a bad kid.  He is a genuinely good person who has made a number of bad decisions and is fighting against immaturity and the fact that he had to grow up long before most of us.  Oscar sells weed, mostly because he lost his steady job at the grocery store, but he isn't necessarily the criminal type.  He doesn't carry a weapon or go seeking trouble, he simply does what he has to do rather than what he should do, which is show up on time to work.

Oscar loves his young daughter and his girlfriend, and he wears the desperation of wanting a good life on his face.  His support system also includes his mother, Wanda, played in another powerful performance by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.  Wanda knows his son means well, but she also knows the troubles in his life have mostly been brought on by his own mistakes.  All of these central performances fit together lock in step, stripped clean of vanity or glamour and unequivocally real.  The dynamic of this family is earned and authentic, making the events that unfold resonate even more.

The film takes place on New Years Eve of 2008.  Oscar and Sophina, after a family dinner celebrating Wanda's birthday, plan on going out to the city with their friends to enjoy the New Year's festivities.  They take the train into the city with five or six of their friends, then back to their homes, where an unfortunate stroke of luck brings out Oscar's past in a fight on the subway train.  The train is stopped immediately, at Fruitvale, and Oscar and his friends are jerked out onto the platform by transit police, abused and threatened.  And then the tragedy takes place, and the lives of these people are forever changed.  These last moments on the platform are as tense as anything in recent memory, even though the outcome is shown in real camera phone footage at the beginning.  That is only the foundation of the plot.  What is just as important is the day we spend with Oscar, where he struggles to make the right decisions and - in a quiet, touching moment on the street with a passer by - maybe even finds a sliver of hope for his future.

Fruitvale Station is a film reliant more on performances than technique, but the camera work from director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison is effective and immediate.  The urgency of the story itself is amplified by the humanity of the lens.  It is important to understand Oscar as a whole, to see his flaws that have put him behind the 8 ball, but to also understand that he is a good person at heart.  I found myself caring deeply for Oscar and for his family, for his mother who loves him, and even for his friends who aren't bad apples either.

Even the credits weren't enough to get me out of my seat.  As Fruitvale Station ended I sat, stunned by this film, and more importantly collecting myself and my thoughts before trying to get back into the world.  Here is a powerful bit of filmmaking from great new talents in director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, who is compelling as Oscar.  Films like Fruitvale Station are rare things, important films that are just as entertaining as they are emotionally devastating, tense, and unforgettable.  I will not soon forget the story of Oscar Grant, and as the final scene of the picture shows us, the people affected by this tragedy in New York will not soon forget him either.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Seeing the trailers for Woody Allen's latest drama, Blue Jasmine, reminded me of his most complete dramatic film, the 1989 morality play Crimes and Misdemeanors.  Who knows if his latest has anything in common with Crimes, one of the best films of his storied career, but the tone of these new previews directed straight to the stories of Judah Rosenthal and Cliff Stern.  Here is a film about the unfairness of the world, about how the rich and powerful can take advantage of the ease of their lives and get away with murder - literally - all set in opposition to the romantic struggles of a generally good person who can't catch a break.  It sounds rather serious, and one half of it is, but leave it to Allen to balance the seriousness of one story with plenty of snark and wit in the parallel narrative.

Martin Landau plays Judah, one of the masters of the universe, an ophthalmologist who, as the film opens, is being honored at a ceremony.  Judah has a comfortable life as a wealthy eye doctor, four acres of land in Connecticut, and a family who adores him, including his doting wife.  He is also in the middle of a love affair with Dolores (Angelica Huston), which has been going on for years now.  Dolores and Judah have shared nights and vacations and beds with each other for so long now that Dolores can no longer stand the secrecy. She cites the promises Judah made to her, and of course Judah waves them off as nonsense.  "Embellishments" he says dismissively.  Dolores disagrees, and plans on telling Judah's wife about them so she might clear the air.  Is it to try and have Judah for her own?  Perhaps.  Judah opposes this idea, of course, because his roots are so deep with his wife of twenty-plus years.  Dolores inches closer and closer to bursting Judah's bubble, so much so that in a conversation with his brother, Jack (Sam Waterston), the discussion of murder is brought about.  What an absurd idea to Judah initially, but as the vice tightens around his life, his desperation takes over.

Meanwhile, we meet Cliff Stern, a documentary filmmaker who is unhappily married toWendy (Joanna Gleason) and slowly becoming infatuated Halley, played by Allen's former wife Mia Farrow. Cliff wants to films a documentary about a philosophy professor, but the payday lies with his brother-in-law, Lester, who commissions Cliff to film a documentary on his life. Played by Alan Alda, Lester is an egotistical TV producer who isn't really an interesting person aside from his total lack of self awareness which is played for some solid laughs.  In one conversation with Lester, Cliff rips Lester apart but follows it up by saying it's okay, "he's my friend."  This narrative has a much lighter tone, with Allen delivering his great one liners and quips along the way.  There is something forgiving about Cliff's situation, especially when held up next to the seedy darkness of Judah's plight.

It's no big spoiler to say that Dolores is, in fact, murdered.  The event happens while Judah is entertaining guests at his home, and his reaction to the news is one of the more powerful moments in the picture.  Judah must contain composure, but the gravity of the situation collapses upon him, exemplified by a soul-crushing gaze while his dinner guests converse around him.  Landau hits all the right notes of tragedy in this scene.  It would also be no surprise to anyone to say Cliff does not end up with Halley.  Instead, he sees her at the end of the film alongside the doofus Lester, whose success was obviously too much to pass up on her part.  This final scene is where the two stories intersect in a poignant conversation between Judah and Cliff.

As much as I enjoy a great number of Woody Allen's comedy efforts, I find all of his semi-serious pictures much more compelling.  Match Point was perhaps his most serious, no comedy whatsoever, a dark noir thriller that was a masterful bit of storytelling.  While Crimes and Misdemeanors has comedic elements, the bulk of the story is very serious and quite unsettling.  Landau's performance is wonderful and his character truly despicable.  But here he is getting away with everything in the end.  I get the same sort of vibe from Blue Jasmine which seems both serious and amusing, much like life itself.  These are the moments when Allen is his strongest in my opinion.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives

ONLY GOD FORGIVES: Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Winding Refn, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (90 min.)

In 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up for a masterpiece.  Drive is an exercise in tension, a minimalist crime thriller with bursts of action and violence framed by compelling human drama, all with very little dialogue from the story's hero, played by Gosling.  This success is what made Only God Forgives so enticing.  Refn and Gosling back together again, in another minimalist thriller, with more stoicism from its lead.  The table was set for what could possibly turn into some sort of loose trilogy, call it "The Quiet Man Trilogy" if you will.  That was my hope anyway.  Unfortunately, this second pairing of the auteur and actor proves to be, quite frankly, a disastrous miscalculation.  Only God Forgives is stunning, for sure;  it is stunningly inept and stunningly dull, especially considering the talent involved.  Sure it looks great, and sure it sounds wonderful, but what a hollow and idiotic film at the core.

I sat in awe of this film, but in all the wrong ways.  Here is an "arthouse" feature that is all surface material.  All the art lies within the cinematography, lighting, and score.  But any of those primary tropes of what make a film memorable, like characters and plot and detail and dialogue and point, are absent from every moment.  On top of these glaring issues, people act out of character, the violent outbursts are gratuitous and shock for shock's sake, and for some reason every person in the picture moves as if they are operating inside a cocoon of mud or molasses.  I have never seen so many slow turns in all my life.

The film is a simple tale of revenge.  Well, simple to an extent.  Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a mute who runs an underground boxing circuit in Thailand and also deals drugs, although we never see him doing either of these things.  The opening scene has him sitting in the crowd during a boxing match, but not as if he's running anything.  And as for the drug dealing career?  We're just told that.  Julian's brother is Billy, a scumbag who gets his rocks off raping and murdering teenage girls.  At least his motivations can be explained away later in the film, but early on we meet him and see his actions and are just disgusted.  Billy hires a young prostitute and murders her in a hotel room.  This draws the attention of the local police, and a gangster or police detective or someone - it is never fully explained - named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).  Chang sets the daughter's father loose on Billy, and he caves in Billy's head. 

This murder brings Crystal into the film.  Crystal is the mother of Billy and Julian, played by an out of character Kristin Scott Thomas who is really the only bright spot in the film.  Crystal is clearly psychotic, arriving in Thailand to find Julian and basically force him to kill the men responsible for his brother's death.  She is berating to Julian, questioning his manhood and, in a dinner scene in the middle of the film with Julian and his girlfriend (who pops up out of nowhere.  I guess she's a stripper?), comparing the size of his penis with Billy's.  Needless to say Crystal molested Billy and Julian in their younger days, made evident in some not-so-subtle moments.  For some reason - perhaps the control his mother has over him - Julian exacts revenge on those responsible for his worthless brother's death and the plot is off and running.  Or should I say, off and stalling.

Characters spend a great deal of time staring at each other in the film.  They turn, ever so slowly, and gaze, and are met by a gaze themselves.  If I had the patience to watch the film again - and I don't - I would have to say Ryan Gosling's character speaks less than thirty words.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  In Drive, Gosling barely spoke, but there was a deep-seeded passion in his character's gaze.  There was anger, love, determination, and fury boiling beneath the surface of the driver.  Here, he is a blank slate, a robotic, emotionless mute who stares into the darkness and has dull visions and nightmares and is just entirely uninteresting.  And in Drive (I hate to compare these films over and over but it's inevitable) the people surrounding Gosling's character manipulated his silence and pushed his reactions.  Here, none of the supporting players are either fleshed out or interesting.  Sure, Scott Thomas is a lightning bolt as Crystal, but even she can't save things.

Only God Forigves is a disaster, plain and simple.  Some may praise it as a sort of cerebral masterwork of understatement and violence.  They are wrong, that film is Drive.  This film is violent for the sake of shock.  There is a torture scene in the middle of the picture that has no substance, it simply exists just to make the viewer squeamish.  And beyond making me squeamish, it came off as a little too amusing.  I had high hopes for Refn and Gosling re-teaming for Only God Forgives, so perhaps that amplifies my disappointment.  I'm just glad Drive came out before this film, because had it been the other way around I might not have wasted my time seeing Drive.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Conjuring

THE CONJURING: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, directed by James Wan (112 min.)

Always trust the dog.

Sooner or later, when the characters in these haunted house films move into their demonically-possessed antique mansion and the dog is too spooked to come in, or is barking at seemingly nothing in the corner, they might figure out it's time to just turn right back around and leave.  The dog always knows, as is the case early on in The Conjuring, a strong entry into the haunted house pantheon from director James Wan.  This is another one of those "based on a true story" horror films, and judging by the end credits it appears this may be closer to true than any of the other so-called true stories.  All of the central figures are real people at least, but does it really matter in the end?  The objective of a film like The Conjuring is to carefully navigate through the cliches of the haunted house spook fests, using what has been used before a little differently, and hopefully a little better.

The Perron family is a large one, with father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and five daughters all under fifteen or so.  As the film gets going the Perron family is moving into a large country home on some land with a pond out back and an appropriately macabre tree.  It is 1971 in Rhode Island, and all seems well.  But you know with a house like this something is up.  Strange things start happening, though it takes some time for them to ramp up to a suspicious level.  The dog dies, bruises start popping up on Carolyn's body, the youngest daughter has an imaginary friend, etc.  The Perrons discover a boarded-up basement full of antiques and cobwebs, never a good thing.  Then the occurrences grow more threatening. Ghosts appear and attack the children and Carolyn.  Things go bump in the night, then they bump a little louder and a little more violent until the Perrons seek some outside help.

This outside help comes in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by thriller vets Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  The Warrens are renowned paranormal investigators, he an un-ordained man of faith, she a clairvoyant.  In between lecturing at college campuses they look into strange hauntings and possessions and determine either their validity or their severity.  Carolyn pleads with them for help and they oblige, and it doesn't take long for them to feel the evil spirits occupying the hallways and crawl spaces of the house.  They call in reinforcements in some scenes reminiscent of Poltergeist, rig the house with camera and sound equipment, and try and find the best approach.  That, of course, just seems to make things worse.

James Wan is a director getting stronger with each passing film.  The first Saw film was wildly inventive - despite the sequel monster it created - and Insidious was a sleeper hit in the same vein as The Conjuring. Here, Wan shows maturity, and a real ability to put his camera in the perfect places to maximize the jumps and screams.  Often times with haunted house films, what is behind the actor on the screen is ten times more important than the actor themselves, and Wan knows how to focus on the surroundings without exploiting the background or the reflection too much.  He also allows silence to work on the nerves.

Another thing that keeps The Conjuring from getting tiresome or eye rolling with cliches and "been there, done that" moments is the cast.  Wilson and Famirga fit so well into their parts because they have backgrounds in some solid horror films, and Lili Taylor is wonderfully magnetic as Carolyn.  The final act, where things really spiral into nerve-racking madness, relies on some great physical acting from Taylor, who is up for the challenge.  And Livingston as the hapless, desperate father in the background somehow works as well.  My advice: Don't go in expecting a revelation of new ideas and new horror.  Go in expecting a haunted house film, and you will be greatly entertained by the product on the screen.  And if you ever find yourself in the situation of the Perrons, play close attention to the way your dog reacts to the new digs.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

PACIFIC RIM: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (131 min.)

It’s hard to believe that Pacific Rim isn’t based on some previous medium. These days, the only big budget summer action blockbuster extravaganza to come around has to be adapted from a comic book, or a video game, or some previous avenue of pop culture. When I first looked into Guillermo Del Toro’s new actioner, my first questions were “how is the video game this came from?” Or “where is the graphic novel?” I was surprised, pleasantly, to find out there was no prior history to Pacific Rim; this was all original in a way. What a daring move by Warner Brothers, and what a sad state of affairs that this is a daring move at all. And while Pacific Rim is technically “original,” the bones of the picture are undoubtedly cobbled together through familiar stories. That doesn’t change the fact that it is a whole lot of fun, and a fresh new story to enjoy.

Kaijus are gigantic monsters who, as the story opens, arrive on the surface of the earth not from above, but below. They make their way through a sort of portal in the Pacific Ocean where they march inland and destroy cities and kill people relentlessly. Each Kaiju is unique, and each is just as threatening and wickedly creative as the next. After exhausting our military resources on these massive creatures, the world bands together to create some monsters of their own; they are Jaegers, large robots controlled by twoor three humans inside the brain cavity area. Seeing these robots, as tall as skyscrapers, stirred my inner child. The Jaegers take on Kaijus in epic battles in the Ocean or along the coastlines of the US and Asia. Del Toro does a marvelous job of keeping the scale of these creations and their battles appropriately large. Everything feels massive on the screen, and inspires awe.

The story around this very basic premise is a little obvious from top to bottom. It is the basic military hero plot. There is a hot shot Jaeger pilot (Charlie Hunnam), who abandons the pilot life after tragedy, the old and wise general (the great Idris Elba), the rookie phenom (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi), and the hardnosed fellow pilots who want to put this hot shot outsider in his place. And, of course, there is the comic relief, a wiry scientist (Charlie Day, perfect in this role) obsessed with understanding the Kaijus more. At least, with these conventional tropes of storytelling in place, Del Toro makes the characters interesting enough to hold our interest. Unlike the Transformers films, the gaps between the action aren’t full of racist jokes and one liners ad nauseum. Even Day’s comic relief gets an interesting side job, to go and get a Kaiju brain off the black market from a colorful character named Hannibal Chou, played by the Del Toro staple, Ron Perlman.

But we are here for the action, and the action is stunning. The story takes us off the coast of Hong Kong, where the Kaijus are predicted to attack next. The Jaeger program has been suspended, but General Pentecost (Elba) has assembled a collection of pilots as a last ditch effort to close their underwater portal. As the Kaijus are all unique, so are the Jaegers. One has three arms, one is built like a tank, and the central fighter, Crimson Typhoon, has a whirring jet engine in its chest. All of this is exciting to, as I said before, my inner child. I was reminded of my Transformers toys, and of course Voltron. It is so much fun to study the mechanical beasts and, when they jump into action, the fighting is jaw dropping.

Guillermo Del Toro is just the breath of fresh air we needed this summer to break the monotony of Lin and Verbinski and Bay, and sequels and franchises and on and on and on. Pacific Rim is original, but it’s not. The story is cobbled together, but that’s okay. At least these characters aren’t annoying, and even when these battles take place at night – they all do as a matter of fact – there is no disorientation because these massive fights are shot well. There are stakes at play, not just noise quotas to be met. All I can ask for from a film like Pacific Rim is to have some fun, and fun is undoubtedly the currency here.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

BLURAY REVIEW: Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers was the first of a trio of films revolving around the shattered American dream, followed by Michael Bay's Pain & Gain and Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring.  The two latter films had truths as guidelines, but Spring Breakers had no such constraints.  The result is a fluorescent fever dream of debauchery, a hyper-color journey down a rabbit hole of aimless, hedonistic youth.  I say it had no true story to follow, but believe me when I tell you the events which transpire are not too far from the sad facts of today's American youth.  And while impossible to look away from, the film itself is a little manic, disjointed, and pretty proud of itself at times.  Parts sag, repeat, and the thin story line meanders for a good spell.  That is, until James Franco arrives on the scene and flips the entire film on its ear.

Early on we look in on the lives of four college-aged girls, bored to tears in their life on campus (must be a boring school?  That part confused me) and too preoccupied with sex, drugs, and booze to be concerned with learning anything in class.  Three of the girls, Candy, Brit, and Cotty (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, respectively) are especially corrupted.  The fourth, Faith (Selena Gomez) is trying to live her life right in the beginning.  We meet her in a church revival group first, but the problem is she is still friends with the other three girls.  They have no interest in finding God.  Regardless of their motivations, the quartet desperately needs to get to the beach for Spring Break so they can forget about pretty much anything that happens in real life.  They want nothing more than to disappear behind bong smoke and beer cans for a week.  The only problem is, they don't have enough cash to even get a hotel room for one night.  So they do what any lost American loser twentysomething would do: they rob a diner.

The robbery scene is shot masterfully, rotating around the outside of the diner in a getaway car peeking in on the two girls roughing up the customers.  We revisit the scene from the inside later, which is unnecessary.  Somehow the girls get enough cash from a late night diner to fund their vacation to the beach and they set sail.  There is no way they could swipe the kind of money they needed from a place like the one depicted, but perhaps that's nitpicking.  Once they arrive on the beach the scenes are as expected, with copious amounts of booze, weed, sex and partying, all to an appropriately irritating Dubstep soundtrack.  This is where we first meet Alien (Franco) a, well, shall we say, an entrepreneur of sorts.  In long cornrows, tattoos, and silver teeth, Franco is showing off here.  He's magnificent, and he elevates the film as soon as he struts on the scene.

The girls get busted at a party and don't have enough money for bail.  Of course, Alien has plenty and posts their bail, but then they have to spend the rest of their vacation with him.  In a sort of hypnotic way, the girls drift into line behind Alien, who seduces a couple of them with his dangerous lifestyle of drug dealing and guns.  Faith doesn't want to stay, so the four become three early on.  From here we fall into the web of Alien's world, where a turf war is brewing between he and a former friend, Archie (played sparingly by rapper Gucci Mane).  The plot is secondary to the technicolor glow of the scenery, of the dreamlike state which slides slowly into a nightmare, and of the performance of Franco.  When he is sincerely engaged on the screen, there is nary a handful of more compelling and interesting performers.

And then there is the end, a final climactic scene that sputters and then undercuts the reality of the film.  I know there is a specific purpose for Korine to pull such a stunt, and I get it for the most part.  I just don't like it.  Spring Breakers isn't a great film, nothing new necessarily, but it is dogged in its pursuit of exposing this new generation of careless young people whose attention spans have been fried beyond belief.  It's possibly bleaker - no, check that, it is definitely bleaker - than Coppola's film.  There are moments and themes and aspects of the whole film I really enjoyed - the color palette especially.  But the careening from one scene to the next, then back and forth, foreshadowing events at times, all seems like a distraction to a fascinating film and a fascinating performance from James Franco.

EXTRAS: Unfortunately, the DVD is lacking any extras.  I would love to hear from director Harmony Korine.  But if there is any medium to see the beautifully-saturated scenery, the bluray transfer most certainly does the film justice.