Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fruitvale Station (2013)


Oscar Grant was a real man.  The horrible, needless, and devastating events that happened to him in the very early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at Fruitvale Station in Oakland were captured clearly on video.  Everyone knows what happened; however, the knowledge of the aftermath diminishes none of the suspense, foreboding, and overall emotional weight Fruitvale Station heaves on the audience.

Ryan Coogler’s debut film chronicles the last 24 hours of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) short 22 year-old life.  I have no idea how much of the events and conversations portrayed in the film are true, yet they produce a deep understanding and sympathy for the most well rounded character showcased on screen this year.  Fruitvale does not surround Oscar with a halo either; it exposes him warts and all.

Even though he was only 22, Oscar had already been to prison.  He had a short fuse and noticeable anger management issues.  On the other hand, Oscar is shown as a loving father to his daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), a boyfriend trying to do the right thing by his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and a loyal son to his hard-working and anxious mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer).  He has plenty of faults to go around, but Oscar earnestly wants to get his life together. 

The first time we see Oscar, he feuds with Sophina about a vague infidelity but he shrugs it off saying it doesn’t matter because it’s in the past and only Sophina and Tatiana are in his future.  Oscar goes to his former employer at a grocery store begging for his job back pleading that he has his head straight now and is ready to work only to turn threatening when the conversation does not turn out how he imagined it.  Oscar appears so used to getting fourth and fifth chances it throws him off-balance when he finally runs out of do-overs. 

For all the times Oscar flashes his temper, there is compassion in him as well.  A scene with a lost dog, helping a struggling customer at the store, Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), and shopping for his mom’s birthday dinner shows there were many facets to Oscar.  He had his problems, but he also had so much promise.  All of these scenes of happiness (playing with his daughter, celebrating his mom’s birthday) and sadness (the lost job, flashbacks to prison) are laced with suspense and dread because we know what is coming.

The film’s first shot is the actual cell phone video of the police brutality homicide.  There is no surprise; we know it’s coming.  Yet there is so much shock, incredulousness, and anger associated with this reenactment that Fruitvale Station will stay in your head long after you leave the theater.  In these times of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station coincides with an eerily similar incident and provides a cinematic study to help audiences reflect on our society’s issues.    

Fruitvale Station won the top prize at Sundance and an Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes.  Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer is a welcome screen presence and firmly holds the film in the palm of her hand for the final 10 minutes.  Michael B. Jordan is very effective as Oscar and if you remember him as Wallace from Season 1 of The Wire, it is a shock to seem him all grown up. 

Coogler is not on the warpath here.  He could easily have made Fruitvale Station with an underlying agenda or as a bloody rant against racist cops or about racism in America at large.  Stepping back a bit, just as Wanda does, to focus on Oscar instead of immediate vengeance, Fruitvale is a story about a young man whose life was tragically cut short.  Justice and retribution come in time, but this movie is about Oscar, the good and the bad; and Fruitvale is much stronger for it.

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O'Reilly, Ariana Neal


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Girl Most Likely (2013)


I enjoy a good New Jersey joke as much as the next guy but Girl Most Likely seems to have it in for that state.  Naturally, all the Manhattanites roll their eyes at their lesser, southern neighbor, but they also mention it off-hand as the main character’s real home, as if she if someone different from them, not only in social standing, but in her actual stature as a human being.  Also, the vast majority of the Jersey characters are caricatures and cartoons of what people think of when they imagine the Jersey Shore.  Girl Most Likely uses New Jersey’s stereotypes for comedic purposes and keeps on swinging away at it until it brushes up against the line separating funny from mean.

Imogene (Kristen Wiig) is our Jersey girl and her life's goal is to see New Jersey in the rearview mirror.  In an early scene playing Dorothy in a Wizard of Oz school play, she asks to rewrite the ending because there is no way Dorothy would go back to Kansas after seeing everything Oz has to offer.  The allure of high society New York City is Imogene’s Oz.  Unfortunately, Imogene was born without a trust fund and Upper East Side connections; she must work to gain acceptance the hard way.

Branded an up-and-coming playwright, Imogene was on the fast track to break through the complicated social strata layers; however, she partied away all her chances to succeed professionally, developed a mooch reputation with the true blue blood Manhattan heirs, lost her suave boyfriend, lost her menial hack-writer’s job, and lost her spacious apartment.  Forced to crawl back to Jersey (Kansas) with her tail between her legs and move back into her childhood home is the absolute worst punishment for Imogene’s reckless ways.  Imogene imagines herself as a confident, Sex and the City type, independent woman.  Cynthia Nixon even shows up in an early cameo.  To her downward-spiraling and psyche-shattering dismay, Imogene learns she is actually more of a Snooki than a Samantha. 

Imogene’s mom, Zelda (Annette Bening), is a gambling-addicted, self-absorbed ‘free spirit’ and Imogene’s brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), is an introverted somewhat developmentally-disabled homebody obsessed with mollusks and self-protection.  The two interlopers Imogene discovers at home are mom’s new boyfriend, George Boosh aka The Boosh (Matt Dillon), who tells way too many people he is a covert CIA spy to actually be a spy, and a boarder renting out Imogene’s old room, Lee (Darren Criss), who is set up as a possible romantic match even though they are separated noticeably in age and attitude.  Dillon plays The Bosche almost the same as he did his There’s Something About Mary (1998) character and Fitzgerald channels a less-obnoxious Hangover-series Zach Galifianakis to portray Ralph.    

Eccentric and oddball supporting characters so saturate Girl Most Likely they just cancel each other out after a while.  The New Jersey natives say or do something so often considered outrageous by stuck-up Imogene that instead of laugh-out-loud comedy, we get groan-inducing cliché.  Co-directors and real-life married couple Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, 2003, The Nanny Diaries, 2007) crowd the Atlantic City boardwalk and casinos with brief but numerous shots of denim-clad, obese, Bon Jovi-listening rubes.  Writer Michelle Morgan (Middle of Nowhere, 2008) tried to write a funny, city girl comes back to the farm story, but produced a script as uncomfortable as when Charlize Theron came back home in Young Adult (2011), but not nearly as effective as that.

This film was shot immediately after Bridesmaids (2011) was released which catapulted Wiig to stardom.  Girl Most Likely does not overtly attempt to ride that movie’s coattails, but it tries to use a similar awkward comedy style.  Imogene is also much more unlikeable than Wiig’s Annie character from Bridesmaids.  Here is a girl who threw away a $30,000 grant on parties and vacations instead of pursuing her gift as a writer.  The audience is supposed to feel sympathy for her as she loses her feet from under her, yet I just felt these are the inevitable consequences of free-riding. 

The moral of the story is either 1) You can take the girl out of New Jersey but you can’t take New Jersey out of the girl or 2) New Jersey and its wacky inhabitants are really the salt of the Earth compared the haute couture Manhattan phonies – take your pick. Either way, we are still waiting for the follow-up Bridesmaids role for Kristen Wiig that will show us leaving Saturday Night Live was a good idea.               

Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Written by: Michelle Morgan
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss, Christopher Fitzgerald, June Diane Raphael, Natasha Lyonne, Bob Balaban, Mickey Sumner, Brian Petsos

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Byzantium (2013)


What is it with some aging vampires where they act like teenage girls with Facebook and Twitter accounts; they want to tell anyone willing to listen their entire life story.  Remember Louis from Interview with the Vampire (1994)?  Byzantium brings audiences the same premise with one of the undead yearning to tell her long story yet hanging her head in frustration because she knows nobody can understand. 

Director Neil Jordan must have a deep interest in vampire autobiographies; he directed by Byzantium and Interview with the Vampire.  These films have quite a few similarities: forbidden transformations from human to vampire, a somber/grey atmosphere, and a thirst for blood.  There are numerous differences as well including rules involving sunlight and lack of coffins, but the most glaring difference of them all is Interview with the Vampire had a top-notch script and Byzantium does not.

Vampires are ripe characters for an effective story.  You can jump back in time to any point in history, use any setting to put them in, and make them as introspective or bloodthirsty as you like.  Writer Moira Buffini, who wrote the most recent Jane Eyre (2011) adaptation, chose to place our leading lady vampire duo in the most depressing place imaginable, the southeastern English coastline in the offseason.  If you have ever been to Brighton or nearby Hastings, then you know there are a thousand other beach communities you would rather be at. 

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), jump from town to town running from The Brotherhood, an ancient vampire order.  Clara broke some sacred vampire laws so they are on the run.  For a 220 year old, Clara really is not all that smart.  In her first life, she was cruelly shoved into prostitution and seems to only know how to make a few pounds by working the streets; did she really not pick up a skill in the past couple hundred years?  Eleanor, on the other hand, expertly plays piano, persistently scribbles her life story onto paper which she immediately crumples up and throws to the wind, and is an all-around very sullen 200 year old. 

Eleanor is in the Louis role and Clara enjoys the more liberated Lestat life perspective.  Eleanor is tired of being on the run and bursts at the seams to tell anyone about her vampire ways, which is a big no-no if you would like to remain immortal instead of having your head cut off.  She meets a local boy, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who appears as unsteady physically as Eleanor is emotionally.  There is a juicy backstory Jordan cuts to now and then which is a very welcome respite to escape from the present day drudgery.  Early 19th century Britain was no picnic for the poor and especially for single, poor women.  So much potential is sitting right there to be plucked up and molded into an interesting vampire drama/thriller, yet Byzantium remains in the here and now in a moldy hotel on a gray/cold, lifeless rock beach.

Jonny Lee Miller pops up as an extremely unlikeable fellow and about as far as you can get from his enjoyable Sherlock character in Elementary.  Sam Riley, who starred in his own awful movie based in Brighton (Brighton Rock, 2010), is the film’s most interesting character as an intelligent vampire looking to set things right, but he is saddled with very limited screen time.  Arterton is a pleasure to watch as the world’s most lusty vampire but her role is so confining and poorly written you can only watch her struggle in what should have been a spectacular role.  Ronan is about as likeable as you remember her from Atonement (2007), which means you would not be particularly inclined to invite her to your next dinner party. 

Byzantium is a case study to mourn the ‘what could have been’.  There is so much delicious opportunity just lying by the side of the road and bypassed to focus on some more dreary prostitution subplots, stutter steps to tell a halting life story, and an awful conclusion at the world’s worst amusement fair.  Please Neil Jordan, come back to us with another vampire tale to make up for this mess; we will forgive. 

Directed by: Neil Jordan
Written by: Moira Buffini
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Riley, Daniel Mays, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)


The idea of gargantuan dinosaur monsters emerging from deep within the Pacific Ocean only to be met by enormous, agile, metal robots built by humans to counter them at first listen sounds awful.  A Godzilla retread perhaps?  A Transformers rip-off you say?  No sir, Pacific Rim, to this reviewer’s surprise, is quite good.

These clunky machines are no transformers.  They move slowly, they do not change shape, and humans stationed in the machine’s head pilot them.  Unlike Jaws, Pacific Rim does not hide its monster.  The audience knows what these things look like during the film’s first minute.  They resemble the Cloverfield monster but move much faster.

It takes two people to move these giant machine saviors and their minds must connect with one another for the contraption to move in sync.  Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) was one of the best pilots ever to climb into the cerebral cockpit.  After a traumatic experience fighting one of the monsters, called kaiju (Japanese for strange beast), Raleigh becomes a drifter getting by with menial construction gigs. 

The kaiju keep on coming and they are getting stronger.  The major cities bordering the Pacific, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc… are either obliterated or under persistent attack.  The major powers of the world came together to build the giant machines, but these machines are getting old and ever weaker to the monsters evolving abilities.

Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the man in charge of the new machine force tracks down Raleigh to bring him back and pair him with a new co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).  It helps that Mako is quite good looking and forms an immediate sexual tension with Raleigh.  There are also run-ins with other pilots, both old and new, bad memories from better days, and even maddening bureaucratic interference from the United Nations about the future of the machine program. 

A major reason Pacific Rim works so well is due to its very strong supporting cast.  Idris Elba has been a welcome screen presence since he showed up as Stringer Bell on The Wire.  Rinko Kukuchi was nominated for her role in Babel, and Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins, Jr., and Charlie Day also lend considerable weight to roles that would otherwise be cast by much lesser known actors to save some money.  Day is quite similar to his manic and screechy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia role playing the chief researcher in charge of studying the monsters.  The research team comes off almost cartoonish, bordering on ridiculous, but having Day serve as a sort of comic foil to take a break from the relentless machine on monster fights works well.

As for the action scenes, Pacific Rim is by far and away the loudest movie I have ever heard.  The IMAX 3D theatre is worth the extra bucks and your eardrums will react as if you were just at a concert.  I pity the film showing next door; I have no doubt the sound bleeds through.  There is also extensive urban destruction as the machines and monsters fighting almost always downtown are the size of skyscrapers.  Building after building is obliterated, yet it still seems like less arbitrary damage than Man of Steel inflicted last month. 

Set aside your immediate impressions of the plot description when someone tells you it is about giant robots battling giant dinosaur monsters.  Yes, it is about that, but there is a lot more going on and it is saturated in style because it is a Guillermo del Toro film (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy).  I’m not saying you should force your girlfriend/wife to sit through Pacific Rim, but it has so much more going for it than machine vs. monster.

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman, Robert Kazinsky

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013)


You must either be in or seriously pushing retirement age to remember the original Lone Ranger episodes, the radio serials.  Subsequent generations are not very familiar with the gentleman, his sidekick Tonto, or his horse Silver; they only know the names and the tagline, “Hi-ho Silver, Away!”  Oh, kemo sabe remains in the vernacular and will probably illuminate a few folks as to where that phrase comes from.

This version of The Lone Ranger is actually a ranger in training most of the time.  Fresh out of Harvard Law School and coming home to help tame the lawless Wild West, John Reid (Armie Hammer) believes in books and words far more than any vulgar pistol.  John Locke is his weapon of choice.  Brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is the local hotshot Ranger who really knows how Texas justice works and it involves a posse and length of rope, not a fancy education.  Dan also found time to marry John’s girl, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), while he was away.

Director Gore Verbinski, responsible for three out of four Pirates of the Caribbean films, incorporates a similar version of that franchise’s level of humor here, but it does not come close to matching the levity of those movies.  The Lone Ranger is way too violent, too long, and too all encompassing to be in any way as enjoyable as The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) was.  Johnny Depp is also back, this time as an overly painted Tonto, a local Comanche Indian on a vendetta against the same man John Reid must now track down.   

Tonto is a distant cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow.  They both dress in odd fashions, Tonto wears a dead crow on his head, they both crack jokes in situations where nobody else is laughing, and they are both not quite right in the head.  In any other circumstances, Tonto would start to wear on your nerves; however, Armie Hammer’s character is so relentlessly annoying and poorly written, he leaves no room for the audience to notice the faults everywhere else – and there are plenty of them to go around.  I recognize this is the Lone Ranger’s origin story and he is not yet a swashbuckling hero, but must he whine and complain in every scene?  That gets old after the first minute or two.  Unfortunately, there are about 148 more minutes to endure this guy.

The Lone Ranger is a tediously long film.  I have nothing against a good, long movie if there is something to watch, but Verbinski squeezed in every recognizable theme from the Old West.  There are railroad barons, ruthless outlaws, Indian villages, an Indian massacre, the old U.S. Army as beholden to cunning industrialists instead of protecting the common good, a love story, some other world magic, and an odd situation where Tom Wilkinson’s character tries to insert himself as a new father in a family not looking for one. 

What this boils down to is that there is way too much going on here; less would have been a lot more.  The Lone Ranger must be the most violent Disney film every made.  Villain Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) cuts out a guy’s heart for crying out loud.  Oh, and that Indian massacre?  It happens and then never comes up again – it is an afterthought that does not need to be included here.  If you are going to show the Army Gatling gun down an entire tribe, perhaps you would want to discuss its consequences and aftershocks, but then the movie would probably be three hours long. 

The urge to include multiple western themes is not the problem here; it is the awful execution.  Verbinski included so many subplots and asides that every one of them suffers because of it.  Also, parents be warned before taking your kids to see this masked outlaw seeking true Texas justice, it is uncomfortably violent for the little ones.  The final 15-20 minutes is what the entire film should have been, homage to the daring-do of the Lone Ranger and his plucky sidekick.  The final action scene is fantastic with the soaring William Tell overture to carry us along with it.  Yet even one of the best action finales in recent memory in no way makes up for the drudging slog it took to get us there.  

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Written by: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Starring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helen Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Barry Pepper, Mason Elston Cook, Saginaw Grant