ryan coogler

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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NYFCC Announces Winners: ‘American Hustle’ Shifts the Race

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The New York Film Critics Circle announced its full list of winners for the 2013 calendar year, pushing the awards season floodgates wide open.  The NYFCC tends to influence major categories at the Oscars, including Best Picture, where its crowning of American Hustle as the year’s best film throws a speed bump onto the road we all thought had been laid out in front of 12 Years a Slave.

Influencing SAG voters seems likely as well for the NYFCC, as SAG ballots aren’t due until December 9th. With Redford’s win only complicating the Best Actor race (Bruce Dern has one major win at Cannes, Redford takes the crown here) even further, it primarily functions as blow to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s chances at the Oscars. Either a larger push from the SAG will happen as a result of Redford’s win, or Redford will steamroll through to the SAG Awards and conquer the field.

Ejiofor needs as much steam as he can get, as 12 Years a Slave‘s predicted domination of the Oscar precursors seems less likely now that the NYFCC has declared a clear affinity for American Hustle, giving the film wins for Best Picture, Jennifer Lawrence, and for Screenplay. That’s not a fluke win here or there; these are formidable wins in huge categories. This push means something more so than the Spirit, Gotham, and Satellite awards do.

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Underestimating David O. Russell’s ability to play the Oscar game was a dangerous thing for the pundits to do. Even without the Weinstein push, American Hustle has gone from questionable outsider to a solid third or fourth place in the race for Best Picture, possibly even nudging Gravity out of the way for second place.

Gravity needs to start winning at the precursors if its Best Picture chances are to remain alive. Not winning for Cinematography here (it lost to Inside Llewyn Davis, a formidable and worthy competitor in the category) could be huge, as the film’s best chances outside of the major categories were thought to have been in the techs. It’s a film people largely remember for three things: Bullock’s performance, the visual effects, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork. Its Best Picture chances merely resulted from its overwhelming success with critics and audiences. Perhaps the precursor awards are merely pulling us back to earth, as the film’s script is somewhat weaker than the rest of this year’s offerings. It’ll still rank among the year’s best films in the Best Picture race, and I fully expect the HFPA to eat it up.

It’s a shame that the tide from the Hustle wave seems to be turning so quickly away from Lupita Nyong’o and Oprah Winfrey for their terrific performances in 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, but–as with Sandra Bullock and her win for The Blind Side–Jennifer Lawrence’s bankability, likeability, and unstoppable star-power have catapulted her into a career position most actors don’t attain after a few decades let alone after only two years. I’m afraid that peaking this early could spell trouble for Lawrence’s later career, however, as two Oscars in a row might start to precede the quality of her work, leading to astronomical expectations for an actress whose appeal largely thrives on her unpredictable, unhinged nature both in interviews and within her films. It seems that the film’s other performances aren’t getting as much recognition as Lawrence, however, as Silver Linings Playbook‘s appeal was deeply rooted in its cast. Without the Weinsteins on board to push for Oscar nominations in each category, the film’s success could be determined by the SAG and if it recognizes the entire cast (or just Lawrence and Amy Adams). If that happens, it could mean lights out for 12 Years a Slave as a whole.

Cate Blanchett continues on the path to Best Actress glory, and Sarah Polley also collects a nice little push for Stories We Tell in the documentary category (the shortlist was revealed today, and the film is on it), as does Steve McQueen for his win for directing 12 Years a Slave. He becomes the first black filmmaker to win Best Director at the NYFCC Awards, and it seems unlikely that the Oscar story will be any different. The only question remains is whether or not American Hustle is simply finding a one-time home with the New York Film Critics Circle, or if this is a much broader portent of glory to come for David O. Russell.

UPDATE: Via Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/american-hustle-tops-ny-film-critics-awards.html):

‘According to our critic David Edelstein, who is one of the NYFCC’s members, the final vote for Best Picture resulted in a rare tie-breaker. NYFCC by-laws prevent the actual numbers from being released, but Edelstein said there was a strong American Hustle camp and a strong 12 Years a Slave camp (reflected in McQueen’s best director win), and that the vote was remarkably close, with some members expressing “visible dismay” when the final number was tallied.’

If this is true now–this early in the race–the push for American Hustle is only going to get stronger. I think this year is heading into Brokeback Mountain/Crash territory between American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. This just proves that there’s immediate passion and urgency behind Russell’s work, and that’s ever-powerful in today’s Oscar races. I just had a discussion with Sasha Stone on Twitter about it, and she seems to think AH exists “within a vacuum,” because there’s no reviews and such, which is an entirely valid point. People’s affections for Russell are clear, though, and he’sl has proven that people feel immediate affection that lasts in short, powerful bursts year after year. It pushed Silver Linings Playbook to Oscar glory, and it could do the same for American Hustle. 

The complete list of winners (UPDATED AS OF 3:26 PM):

Best Film: American Hustle

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor: Robert Redford, All is Lost

Best Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Screenplay: American Hustle

Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Foreign Language FilmBlue is the Warmest Color

Best Animated Film: The Wind Rises

Best Nonfiction Film (Documentary)Stories We Tell

Best First Film: Fruitvale Station

Special Award: Frederick Wiseman

’12 Years a Slave’ Leads Spirit Award Nominations

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The gates are open, and the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations are here. With only a few short weeks to go until we’re in the thick of Oscar season, who reaps the real benefits of a nomination here?

It comes as no surprise that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave finds its official footings on the Best Picture race here. It leads the pack of Spirit nominations with seven nominations in major categories, including Best Feature, Best Actor, and both Supporting categories. While I find it troubling that films which exceed the Spirit Awards’ “limit” of the $20 million range can still be considered contenders in this race (Silver Linings Playbook did this last year), McQueen’s film is an artistic challenge to traditional historical dramas. The firmness of this film’s grasp over what could be a monumental year for the AMPAS (first female black president, potentially the first black filmmaker to win Best Director) is tightening by the day, and we’re on the brink of having a potentially unstoppable film sweep the rest of the season.

The Coen brothers also find themselves sitting pretty with a multitude of nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis. They are visionaries in the field of independent filmmaking, and can continue to be such thanks to their tried and true ability to turn a profit on their films. There seems to be a slight lack of confidence backing Inside Llewyn Davis on the part of the Oscar pundits, however, though when I feel myself doubting the film’s ability to score with the Academy, I remind myself that both True Grit and A Serious Man (a film that had considerably less buzz behind it going into the Oscar race than Inside Llewyn Davis does) were able to rack up major nominations, and my confidence is restored.

A justifiable, respectable campaign can now be mounted by the team behind Short Term 12, a film that was on the tip of awards season’s tongue but wasn’t a part of a fully-formed sentence until now. The film’s most promising potential for Oscar glory lies within its star, Brie Larson, as her name appears on Oscar pundit shortlists as far back as August and September.

With SAG ballots in the mail and the Spirit Award nominations being the only major precursor to have announced nods so far, Larson’s crawl to the Best Actress category is pacing nicely. Michael B. Jordan’s forgotten path to the Oscars seems somewhat rekindled here, though the recognition for Fruitvale Station was altogether expected at the Spirits. It’s never a bad idea to have your name appear in every trade paper during an awards campaign.

There’s a part of me that believes the Spirit push for Frances Ha will help find a home for the film on Academy ballots, though I’m completely baffled by the lack of love for the film outside of the Best Feature category. Greta Gerwig—the film’s driving force—performs fantastically in front of the camera as well as on the page (she co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach). Her drive and charisma coursing through the film’s veins embodies the passionate workmanship we’ve come to associate with Independent cinema, and it’s a shame that her efforts weren’t recognized by an organization priding itself on the “spirit” of DIY moviemaking.

Both All Is Lost and Nebraska gain steam thanks to multiple Spirit nominations, though I believe both already have homes within several key Oscar categories. If anything, the push for Bruce Dern’s nomination in the Best Actor category remains on-track versus getting any significant push, and the same can be said for Redford. The only major Best Actor player yet to be seen by American audiences is Leonardo DiCaprio and his work in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The full list of nominees:

Best Feature:

Frances Ha
Nebraska
All Is Lost
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director:

Shane Carruth – Upstream Color
J.C. Chandor – All Is Lost
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Jeff Nichols – Mud
Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Best First Feature:

Concussion
Blue Caprice
Fruitvale Station
Una Noche
Wadja

Best Lead Male:

Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Best Lead Female:

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Gaby Hoffman – Crystal Fairy
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now

Best Supporting Female:

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Melonie Diaz – Fruitvale Station
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Yolanda Ross – Go For Sisters
June Squibb – Nebraska

Best Supporting Male:

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Keith Stanfield – Short Term 12
Will Forte – Nebraska
James Gandolfini – Enough Said

Best Screenplay:

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater – Before Midnight
Nicole Holofcener – Enough Said
Scott Neustadter Michael H. Weber  – The Spectacular Now
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best International Film:

Blue is the Warmest Color
A Touch of Sin
Gloria
The Great Beauty
The Hunt

Best First Screenplay:

Lake Bell – In a World
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Don Jon
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Jill Soloway – Afternoon Delight
Michael Starrbury – The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete