Friday, July 26, 2013

Fruitvale Station

A Life Unlived                               
by Mark Dispenza

Fruitvale Station is not your typical social justice film. Its message is not steeped in populist outrage, but is all the more effective in its subtle focus on promise unfulfilled.

Ryan Coogler could not have picked a better time to release his first feature, a story about a preventable tragedy that resulted from the escalation of violence.

Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz

Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) is stellar in his depiction of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old man who was shot dead on New Year's Day 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.  He and his friends were detained following a scuffle on one of the train cars.  Grant was unarmed and face-down on the ground when one of the officers inexplicably drew his pistol and fired a shot into the young man's back.  Doctors were unable to save him, and he died later that morning.

Witnesses on the packed commuter route recorded the scene on their cell phones, so there was never any question of what happened.  The officer later claimed that he intended to grab his Taser, but drew his gun by accident in the heat of the moment.  He was charged with first degree murder but convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months of a two-year sentence.

The public was outraged and the incident became a cause celebre for black activists and others who work in the cause of social justice.  It continues to resonate today.  Coogler's film concludes with footage from a vigil held this past year on the anniversary of the incident at the Fruitvale BART Station.

Octavia Spencer

Although the shooting incident is the climax of the film, the story shows little of its aftermath, especially the politics of it.  Instead it largely follows Grant for the 24 hours immediately preceding his death, treating the audience as voyeurs, witnesses who observe the action but are not led in any obvious direction.  I say "obvious" because this is not a documentary.  Coogler, who also wrote the script, has taken the liberties of a storyteller to frame Grant's life.  In using that approach he allows the audience to get to know Grant as a man, and not as anybody's political symbol.

The camera follows Grant as he alternately argues with and demonstrates his love for his girlfriend, his mother, his sister, his young daughter, and even his closest friends.  Octavia Spencer plays Grant's mother in a way that leaves no doubt she loves her son, even if she has to be tough on him at times. The audience is introduced to Grant as a man - imperfect, impetuous, temperamental, loyal, loving and struggling to make his way in a world that often stymies him.

Many of the best films have a scene in which the audience sees the hero in a  moment alone, safe from the intrusion and the judgement of others.  In that moment the hero's true character emerges.  There is such a moment in Fruitvale Station, when Grant encounters a stray dog.  The dog provides the opportunity to see Grant as he truly is, and it also serves as a metaphor for the tragedy to come.

Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal

Even though I watched the video of the incident at the Fruitvale BART Station, as did many others, I can't tell you what went on in the mind of the officer who shot Grant.  It's plausible that he did draw his pistol by mistake.  It's also plausible that in that moment, he reacted in the heat of his anger and fear, and whether consciously or not, he intended to fire that fatal shot.  Witnesses to the actual incident recalled his horror and emotional distress at the results of his action, as his rational mind caught up with his emotion.

And that brings us to the real cause of the tragedy.  Cool heads did not prevail on either side, and the incident was allowed to escalate until the unthinkable occurred.  The debate about the root cause of the tragedy will continue, with all sides claiming the exalted status of victim, and minds will become hardened and entrenched deeper in their opinions.

Each side will escalate and perpetuate the cycle of conflict, just as they do everywhere in the world today - nation against nation, race against race, religious sect against religious sect. We don't talk about the tragedy of what is being lost . Instead we selfishly seek status as the most aggrieved and then profess outrage when the others don't see it that way.

But when all is said and done, there is a hole in the world that Oscar Grant once occupied.  There is a daughter who will never again laugh and play and share secrets with her father.  There is a mother who lost her son, and there aren't many losses in this world equal to that.  Only a mother can cherish a child so deeply, despite all of the trials and tribulations he puts her trough.

There is a sister who will never again be able to depend on her brother to cover her own shortcomings, and a girlfriend who lost a cherished lover and will never know what happiness the future might have brought or what pain.

There are friends who will never again be able to count on him to have their back when times get rough, and there are strangers who will miss his everyday acts of kindness in days yet to come.

And that's the kind of conversation we should be having.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Europa Report

Into the Abyss                                  
by Mark Dispenza

With space exploration at low ebb in the USA, fans can reinvigorate the excitement of venturing into the unknown with Europa Report.

One of the few hard science fiction films to come along in recent years, Europa Report is a unique blend of science fiction with documentary-style filmmaking by Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero, a master of the contained psychological thriller.  The film was made by unabashed true believers in humankind's destiny to explore the universe and designed to appeal to fans of the films that inspired it, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010 and The Abyss.

Cordero and his director of photography, Enrique Chediak (127 Hours), positioned eight cameras inside a spacecraft mock-up to create the illusion of witnessing the live feed from an actual space mission.  The effect brought me back in time to my childhood, watching Walter Cronkite's coverage of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

Daniel Wu and Anamaria Rinca

The story revolves around a private enterprise space mission by Europa Ventures to send humans to explore the vast liquid ocean below the thick ice of Jupiter's large moon, Europa.  They hypothesize that there is some type of rudimentary life to be discovered there and assemble a crack team of the best astronauts from around the world to pull it off.

The mission is a long shot and fraught with peril, as once the crew covers the vast distance to Europa and achieve orbit, they will be called upon to land on top of the ice and drill beneath it to detect what is hidden below.

The dangers are obvious and the story doesn't miss any of them, borrowing a little too heavily from the films it pays tribute to, namely 2001, 2010 and even The Abyss, the latter of which doubtless inspired the edge-of-the-seat tension through much of the film.  

The lack of originality was my biggest problem with the story, but it was not enough to preclude my enjoyment of it or appreciation of its cinema verite approach to narrative.  I'm one of those space exploration fans who grew up with Star Trek, and with Hollywood going off the deep end of pushing the action and special effects envelope, I enjoyed the illusion that I was witnessing something that could truly happen at some point in the future.

Writer Phil Gelatt did a lot of research to inject reality into the storyline, including interviews with NASA scientists and engineers.  "One of my favorite moments in pre-production came out of a conversation with Steve Vance at JPL," he said.  "I asked him if a manned mission to Europa was possible today, and he said, 'Yeah, just give me a couple billion dollars.'  It was a reminder that many of our limitations are simply about a lack of will."

One of the other things I loved about this film was its embrace of a positive future for humanity.  The media loves to go for the ratings these days by concentrating on stories about hatred and killing among different ethnic groups and nationalities. I don't think there was a single member of the crew on this spaceship from the same country, and yet there was no tension at all based on their differences.  In fact, I cannot recall a single line of dialogue addressing which country a character hailed from or tension arising from the crew's diversity.  This is a crack team, and they have each other's back.

It also didn't hurt that the cast was assembled from some of the best actors from around the world, including Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Embeth Davidtz (The Amazing Spider-man) of South Africa, Michael Nyqvist of Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Karolina Wydra of Poland (Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Romanian Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Chinese-American Daniel Wu among others.

Europa Report is currently available in pre-release download from iTunes, and will be distributed theatrically beginning August 2. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Stuck in the Back Seat of Life               
by Zac Ryan

The Way, Way Back makes coming-of-age less traumatic and a whole lot more fun. 

Adults over a certain age may remember those old station wagons with the two front bucket seats and a row in the middle, and another row of seats in the back - the way back.  It's a spot typically relegated to the youngest member of the family, who is forced to sit facing the road behind him, seeing what has already passed, not what is yet to come.

When we first meet Duncan (Liam James), he's been relegated to the way back while his mother's (Toni Collette) new beau drives. Trent (Steve Carell) keeps a keen eye on Duncan, who doesn't make eye-contact with the man he loathes, the man who has stolen his mother's heart with his slimy used-car sales tactics. Trent thinks he's doing well, but when he asks Duncan how he would rate himself, "I don't know, a six", Trent quickly pipes back, "a three." It is crushing to be with a man who thinks so lowly of him. 

Steve Carell and Toni Collette

When the family arrives, they're quickly greeted by neighbor (and constantly tipsy), Betty (Allison Janney). She's got a mouth like a sailor and a sharp tongue that constantly berates her son and his lazy eye. She's an embarrassment to all who meet her, but she doesn't see it that way. This is her time away, and more importantly, she must host the best fourth of July party in town. While Betty tries pawning her visually-challenged son off on Duncan, he's more captivated by her blossoming daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Yet he keeps his eyes to the ground and doesn't make a move.

Soon Duncan finds his escape at the local water park. After sneaking in through the employee entrance, Duncan is befriended by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager and man-child of the establishment. He spins yarns about legends on the slides, flirts with Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), and never seems to do any work. But this is his home, a place for Owen and his friends to continue being children and never take responsibility in life  They return year-after-year and just can't move on to greener pastures. 

Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb

Owen takes a liking to Duncan and offers him his first job.  During his short tenure he quickly grows into his own personality. Duncan takes on his short-comings and his insecurities about girls, and finally makes moves, including standing up for himself and his mother.

The Way, Way Back isn't inventive and it feels familiar, sort of like the old station wagon, but it's the performances and connections that make this film a must-see.  Written by Oscar winners, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendents) in their directorial debut, the film delivers a potent mixture of comedy and drama, never feeling heavy-handed or too light. Liam James delivers a wonderful lead performance, propped up by a wonderful ensemble cast. In the end, Duncan and company are not a six, but closer to a 9.