independent film

The Beauty of Fibbing, Fiction, and ‘Fruitvale Station’

betcom_fruitvale_station_trailer__tmbRyan Coogler understands fiction.

He’s a master of atmosphere, and a composer of visual harmony. He does what only the most skilled of directors can: he simply takes reality and makes it art.

You can re-interpret, re-envision, and re-invent other media. What that does, however, is make you the authority. You must do what we’re told from a very young age is a cardinal social sin: you must become the fibber when taking on projects with real-world roots, as reality doesn’t nicely fall together with cinematic flow. You must embellish, and you must create.

Coogler understands the delicacy of his situation and takes charge of it with his Fruitvale Station, choosing to weave a cinematic retelling of the controversial events surrounding Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black male who was shot to death by police officers in 2009.

The film contains no preceding titles telling us if the film was “inspired by” or “based on” true events. We know it is, and Coogler knows we know it is. After all, as the circumstances that bolster the film still ring in our collective memory all too painfully.

Accusations of police brutality sparked riots across the country after Grant was killed. Some accused Bay Area Railway Transit police of extreme negligence; of racism; of lacking compassion for their fellow man. The face of law was tainted with seemingly innocent blood.

We can never fully understand the motivations of the officers involved, and events of Grant’s life will forever remain a mystery. We were not with him at the time of his death, nor were we at his side as his the final twenty four hours of his life unfolded.

Coogler crafts a daring interpretation of the final day Grant was able to pick his daughter up from school, have sex with his girlfriend, hug his mother, and plead with his ex-boss for a second chance at a job he’d been fired from. Grant’s life as a human ended in tragedy with real-life reverberations, but Coogler understands the power of fictional affect, and Grant as a character becomes a dynamic canvas for us to feel so much more.

We must never forget that Fruitvale Station is fiction, and that fiction sometimes can be just as powerful as the truth. You can feel the real-world implications of Grant’s death (oppression, anger, injustice) coursing through the film’s veins in its atmosphere, as Coogler takes on his role as the God of his own universe. We see Grant how Coogler wants us to see him–not as he was, but how the film requires us to: in beautifully-framed glimpses against the sunlight, in the quiet moments of his personal turmoil, scenes with surreal beauty we can’t experience in real life.

Fruitvale Station is best when it does what it needs to do as a narrative, as a work of art, and as an entity that’s complimentary to the truth, not substituting itself for the truth. The film does not make Oscar Grant out to be a hero. It does, however, mold a character from shreds of his actual existence.

The film feels impressionistic, but it is not aimless. Coogler weaves a tale of a man without direction, but with massive heart. It’s a mistake to take this as a testament of the real person. None of us knew Oscar Grant, but the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t place judgment upon him, nor does it elevate him to heroic status. He’s swamped by a million different things. He’s lazy, he’s lost his job by his own error, and boasts a lengthy criminal history, he does drugs, he cheats on his girlfriend, but he’s also a loving father, an indebted son basking in the light and love of his mother, and chugging along the rails of a life that seeks to reject him as a minority. There’s no evil in that. There’s fault in his actions, but only from the perspective of the rest of us in glass houses. We’re all surrounded by panes of glass; Grant’s just happened to be collecting societal grime, easier to see, and easier to shatter.

The film does become important as a testament to contemporary American culture, not merely as a recreation of “true” events. The circumstances surrounding the real Oscar Grant’s death are ambiguous. Was he resisting arrest? Was the officer rightfully fearful of Grant’s behavior? These are questions that seductive fiction–such as the story of Coogler’s Grant–can give us perspective on. Art forces us to question the world around us, not take it for what it is; there’s no reason a film based on true events should be taken as gospel, and there’s never an inkling that this is how Coogler wants us to see his film.

There’s a scene in Fruitvale Station which sees Oscar Grant step onto the BART train that would serve as his dinghy across the River Styx. From the platform, we see the doors open. Grant is pulled into a mass of people already on the train by his girlfriend, the doors shut, and the train whisks them away. We remain fixed, watching each car pass by, and the faces and bodies it contains blend together in a blur of human mass.

The real Oscar Grant was probably like those people on the subway, blending together as we pass them at breakneck speed on a train or casually on the sidewalk. He was probably the flawed character Coogler paints for us in Fruitvale Station. He was probably the adoring father his daughter most likely knew. We’ll never know, but Coogler insists on celebrating the mystery, making it beautiful, and prodding us to want in.

Fiction embellishes truth, creates image, stages scenes of  beauty, and gives us perspective on the burden of our reality waiting on the other side of the credits.

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Mining for Early Oscar Gold

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Is it smooth, yet? The air?

Just curious, because I’ve had a hell of a time adjusting to the dust cloud that’s been accumulating on Blu-Ray copies of Argo.

Last year’s recipient of the Best Picture Oscar faded from prominence even faster than the previous year’s The Artist, a gimmicky Academy-pleaser in itself, thanks to a sympathy-based vote to accredit director Ben Affleck with some semblance of relevance as his career transitions from notable star to almost-there-but-not-quite-yet filmmaker. Whereas Argo‘s meritless win leaves a sour taste in my mouth, I’m more than happy to shake the Oscar etch-a-sketch and begin afresh with 2013’s crop of awards season contenders.

This year we welcome new talents to compete with industry mainstays. We harken back to the eras of social icons of years past and adapt their lives for a contemporary audience. We relish in a year that Meryl Streep’s potential to win a fourth Oscar increases dramatically. We revisit previously-published material with a fresh cinematic perspective; but, most importantly, we face another year of submission to The Weinstein Company which, if all tentative release dates remain unchanged, will see six of their distributed films as likely contenders at the next Oscar ceremony.

Here’s a look at a few other industry figures bound for greatness during the 2013 awards season.

It’s going to be a good year for:

Anyone involved with Fruitvale Station

The freshman feature effort from USC graduate Ryan Coogler is one of the buzziest films coming out of 2013’s festival circuit.

Having claimed both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for a dramatic feature at Sundance as well as sashaying away from Cannes with Best First Film after screening in the Un Certain Regard section, Fruitvale Station is shaping up to be a major contender in at least three major categories.

Coogler’s film, about the real-life events surrounding the murder of Oscar Grant by an Oakland police officer, joins the ranks of other grim Sundance prizewinners like Winter’s Bone, Precious and Frozen River–which each went on to be recognized by the Academy with major nominations (and a few wins) in key categories.

The film hosts the breakout role for star Michael B. Jordan who, after having had minor roles in television (“Friday Night Lights”) and a few pictures (last year’s Chronicle), finally gets the chance to show his dramatic chops off for a wider audience.

Fruitvale Station seems poised to score nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor coupled with building momentum which could potentially push co-star (and Oscar-winner) Octavia Spencer into the Supporting Actress race, which could easily happen as the Weinsteins have acquired the film for distribution.

Besties Naomi Watts & Nicole Kidman…and dead cultural icons

It’s unfair to pit two actresses against each other for the sake of a gendered contest.

In the case of Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, however, the challenge will be how to endure the barrage of questions from reporters to the tune of “how does it feel to be nominated against one of your closest friends?” this awards season.

Both actresses are all but sealed into the Lead Actress category for their respective roles in Diana and Grace of Monaco (Watts in the former, Kidman in the latter).

Naomi Watts’ talents have catapulted her far past the point of simply “deserving” an Oscar; she’s one of the most talented and, on the other side of the coin, underrepresented actresses in the industry. Her work in films like Mulholland Drive, Ellie Parker, and The Assasination of Richard Nixon represent just a handful of performances overlooked by the Academy in relatively quiet seasons. She’s gaining status as an underdog, however, as she squeaked into the Lead Actress race last year for her brilliant turn as Maria Bennett in The Impossible, a race within which she was actually being predicted as a potential spoiler after Entertainment Weekly’s annual Oscar issue saw her name mentioned by a majority of anonymous Oscar voters who’d been interviewed a short time before the Oscars.

The Academy favors Lead female performances attached to roles based on real women in positions of political and/or social power; think winners like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and nominees like Cate Blanchett and her turn as the namesake royal in Elizabeth (and its poorly-received sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age).

Judging from Diana‘s trailer, the film will focus on the softer side of her notorious public identity which, I’m assuming, gives Watts a chance to show off her emotional depth instead of the usual controlled, stoic coldness that generally comes with these types of roles (as a side note, she’s also got a juicy role coming up in this year’s Adore, also starring Robin Wright).

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Kidman, on the other side of the coin, is far from a being a stranger to the Academy Awards. She’s an Oscar winner and a multiple-time nominee. While she had a buzzy-ish film floating around the perimeter of last year’s awards season (she made it into the Globes categories with The Paperboy), the Weinsteins will make sure that she has a spot amongst this year’s nominees for her turn as Grace Kelly.

The Weinsteins have a great track record for getting their actors nominated in major categories (Jacki Weaver’s spot in the Supporting Actress category was surely bought for her through “campaigning,” as she had no other right to be there), so Kidman’s pre-established Oscar identity is coupled nicely here with a Weinstein push.

It’s also interesting that these two roles are seeing the light of day in 2013 what with the incessant talk about social media, quick-fix fame, celebrity (and personal) accessibility, etc.

Both Princess Diana and Grace Kelly are posterchildren for the obsession with fame and its various aspects of decay. Diana of course died a highly-publicized death after the car she was riding in (manned by a drunk driver) crashed after a cat-and-mouse with paparazzi; Grace would die of a stroke/car crash combo after leaving a life of Hollywood luxury behind to marry a royal from Monaco (thereby becoming a princess). After only six years in the film industry (with one Academy Award under her belt), Kelly became one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema. In an age of post-internet accessibility, the public is growing increasingly bored with the flash-and-gimmick celebrities of the contemporary industry; Diana and Grace represent the mainstay of stardom and the impact of talent, presence, and prominence which takes on new meaning in an age of meaningless objectification, Facebook, selfies, and events that would later go on to inspire films like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.

Look for Watts and Kidman to both be nominated in the Lead Actress category.

Documentaries

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Not many people can go from playing dumbed-down roles in horror films like Splice to directing emotionally-charged documentaries quite like Sarah Polley.

She killed zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) and wrote/directed indie dramas like Take This Waltz, and now she’s taking a stab at a scripted-documentary hybrid with Stories We Tell, which chronicles her life as the product of an extramarital affair.

Polley weaves in staged footage recreating her early life with interviews with her family, piecing together her history funneled through a narrative perspective while maintaining the cinematic resonance of an objective documentary. The documentary is garnering the best reviews of Polley’s career, earning a spot on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian films list as well as making a few minor splashes at festivals around the world.

Other notable documentaries releasing in 2013 include the polarizing-yet-provocative We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and 20 Feet From Stardom.

The Coen Brothers

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On the heels of their True Grit remake, the Joel & Ethan Coen return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which took the Grand Prix Award at Cannes and continues to work the festival circuit until its release smack dab in the middle of Oscar season this December.

Earning rave reviews from critics, the Coens take a step back from some of their darker subject matter and instead draw on inspiration from the folk music scene in the 1960s. The film stars a slew of talented actors from John Goodman and Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.

The Academy generally loves the Coens, as many of their past films have been nominated for screenwriting. It takes a film like No Country For Old Men, however, for nominations and sentiment to lead to ultimate gold; it is, to date, their only picture to have won the top prize at the Oscars. Inside Llewyn Davis will be nominated in major categories ranging from Best Picture to Best Original Screenplay, not garnering enough momentum to match No Country‘s prestige yet scraping up a few more nominations than 2009’s A Serious Man or 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Art Films

Nebraska film still

Before Midnight is currently slaying critics and audiences alike. Nebraska and Only God Forgives are respectively setting festivals and trade papers abuzz with claims of epic quality of script and performance. No, this isn’t the early 90s, it’s 2013, and the art film scene is heating up the pre-awards season circuit already.

While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are busy predicting the “implosion” of the film industry thanks to big-budget studio productions not just cornering a niche market, but backing the entire market into a corner it can’t escape from (funny Spielberg would say this as a criticism and then proceed to executive produce Transformers 4 set for a 2014 release), a select few art films seem poised for Oscar greatness this year.

Before Midnight seems likely to receive a nomination in the Adapted Screenplay category (Before Sunset received one nine years ago amidst the growing cult status for the series, now three entries in), and Nebraska could sneak into the Lead Actor category (Bruce Dern was named Best Actor at Cannes for this role) while Only God Forgives might afford Kristin Scott Thomas a nomination in the Supporting Actress category if her buzz runs consistent through the end of awards season.

Also circling the Oscars in the art film department is Frances Ha, written by actress Greta Gerwig and filmmaker Noah Baumbach and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.

2013 will also be good to:

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Anyone associated with The Past (Berenice Bejo, Asgard Farhadi)
Horror films (The Conjuring is getting early rave reviews as it screens at festivals, The Purge is one of the sleeper hits of the summer)
Matthew McConaughey (snubbed for Magic Mike, he’ll be rewarded with recognition for either Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street)

…and, of course, the Weinstein’s wallets.

Viva “Riva” ‘s Refreshing Tread on Familiar Territory

(Note: Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Money. Sex. Violence. Three of the most common exploits any filmmaker has at their disposal.

To say writer-director Djo Munga paints the Congolese metropolis of Kinshasa red with those elements in “Viva Riva!” opening Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown, is an understatement. With each stroke of his lyrical craftsmanship, a candy-colored, blood-soaked neo-noir tale comes alive within the darkest corners of an urban Congo. Money, sex, and violence are a way of life for these people.

“Money always kills you in the end,” one character says. And on the brutally violent streets of Kinshasa, so can a night of steamy sex.

Riva (Patsha Bay) learns these truths the hard way. He’s a smuggler, but not in the typical sense. There’s a gasoline shortage, and he’s stolen a large amount from a gaggle of Angolan gangsters. They’re none too pleased, and use the money-hungry Congolese citizens to retrieve it.

There is no moral high ground hovering over any part of “Viva Riva!” Every character is deeply flawed, a criminal or demonized in one way or another. This makes for some interesting reversals on traditional values. But it also makes everything devilishly fun.

“Viva Riva!” ultimately covers familiar ground popularized by the films of Michael Mann or Ben Affleck (as director, that is).

It does, however, offer something new in its fantastical, mystical representation of familiar gangster narratives with an exotic twist.

But, like the click of a safety, “Viva Riva!” is over before you know it, thick gunsmoke lingering in its absence.

Sure, you’ll witness a fair share of dollars raining, steamy encounters and buckets of the bright red stuff along the way. But like a young Tarantino, Mr. Munga’s fresh perspective reminds us that distinctive stylistic cinema is all about how the dirty work is crafted, not simply hawking gruesome subjects and praying for a reaction.