Fruitvale Station (R)
The New Year's Day 2009 shooting by Bay Area Rapid Transit police of 22-year-old Oscar Grant is still such a lightning rod for outrage and charged emotions in general, and while the film based on the incident does indeed, as it should, incite a powerful emotional response, what makes its impact all the greater is the deceptively staid-seeming manner in which first-time feature writer-director Ryan Coogler tells Grant's tragic story. Real world violence, especially when law enforcement and racial politics are involved, is all too easily sensationalized when adapted into a feature film, but Coogler defies that expectation, first of all in how he treats the incident as just that, an incident in the greater context of a day in the even greater context of the life of Oscar (Michael B. Jordan). Following him matter-of-factly on a day that anyone would recognize as much like any of their own--finding a few laughs during the routine of dealing with mundane issues such as holiday plans and job struggles; reflecting on the decisions, right or wrong, in the past and making the first thought steps to make changes for the possibility of a better future--may sound on paper as being dramatically inert, but in Coogler's execution, between his relaxed but urgently measured pacing and the authentic performances he coaxes from his actors, most especially the effortlessly magnetic Jordan, it is an ingenious and rather sly way to build remarkably direct connection and empathy. So when fate takes a turn (and that itself plays as a secondary but important concern--how quickly, dramatically the course of a day and numerous lives can shift through a butterfly effect of actions and chance), having gotten to know Oscar and his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), mother (Octavia Spencer), and young daughter (Ariana Neal) by witnessing them in action and interaction, the climactic spiral of events are that much more tragic and shocking--the latter all the more noteworthy considering Coogler makes no secret of how Oscar's day ends from the film's opening moments. But even when those moments happen, Coogler shows the storytelling maturity and restraint to keep the focus squarely on the characters, not so much on the actual act of bloodshed itself but the wounds exacted upon the direct victims, witnesses, and families alike. With the film's now-multiple festival award-pedigree, there is a danger of a creating an aura of overhype, to say nothing of one of medicinal "messaging," when released to the moviegoing masses, especially given its straightforward, no-frills technique, but that the work of Coogler, cast, and crew leave such a similarly direct and unadorned lingering emotional fallout to more than counteract any such initial misgivings.
Another LA Film Fest, another mostly single-location, familiar-face-studded ensemble indie with an apocalypse theme. Such a dismissive statement would be somewhat understandable upon first perusal of the synopsis of director/co-writer (with Sarah Adina Smith) Denis Henry Hennelly's film, in which a group of old college friends convene at the now-married two of the six's remote mountaintop home as a viral SMS text message sets off global paranoia and panic. From that, it does bear a passing resemblance to last year's fest premiere, It's a Disaster, which also then used such as a scenario as a springboard to explore the dynamics of the various interpersonal relationships between the players. But while that film mined the set-up for broad and biting black comedy, Hennelly and Smith go after something more serious and sincere about the nature of friendship, relationships and humanity, and the ever-so-rapid transience of time.
That description makes the film sound rather touchy-feely pretentious, but the script's explorations of higher aims come organically from its well-drawn characters and relationships, from which a number of laughs are generated--and how could they not be, given types such as a self-righteous survivalist, an ex-con social activist, a DC politico, and a secretly suicidal computer hacker played by an equally eclectic and very engaging and talented cast (Adrian Grenier, Ben McKenzie, Gaby Hoffmann, Kerry Bishé, Mark Webber, Remy Nozik, and Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, the latter in a rather startling and effective against-hip-hop-type turn) bantering and butting heads over alcohol- and marijuana-fueled dinner table discussions. To have such a varied group be friends may sound Hollywood-contrived, but even in their dramatic contrasts and conflicts of ideology and personality the cast's chemistry makes plainly evident the genuine base of warmth and respect they have for those differences. That said, given the years passed since their group heyday, for all the natural ease of their familial familiarity there does lie a certain distance and therefore caution around one other--a not-insignificant nuance that is smartly, richly played by Hennelly and the cast as their bubble-like retreat from the chaos of the outside world provides little refuge from the inter- and intra-personal drama of facing hard truths about themselves. Inevitably, the group must also eventually face the harder reality of that outside world as the global anarchy slowly but surely encroaches upon their not-so-safe haven--embodied by a power-mad National Guardsman played with a memorably maniacal ferocity by Linc Hand--but such seemingly pro forma plot-driven elements instead mostly further serve those firmly established characters, relationships, and themes. It is somewhat disappointing that Hennelly and Smith felt the need to explain the exact nature of the mysterious titular text message, for that comes off as the one glaringly false note in a work that in its foremost concerns of personality and ideas ring true.
Only God Forgives (R)
The first collaboration between writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, Drive, may not have been a huge commercial success during its theatrical run, but its following and esteem has only grown in the two years since, thus making their reunion, Only God Forgives, the summer event movie in select cinephile circles. As the pair did in that first film, their latest delivers quite the shock to the system--though, I'm sure, not quite in the way most are expecting. This isn't to say that Refn doesn't deliver some of what viewers anticipate, namely as far as bloody, brutal violence goes--which comes with the territory of the basic plot, in which Gosling plays a figure in the Bangkok criminal underworld who is pressured by domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to exact swift, merciless revenge on those responsible for his brother's recent death. But if Refn's storyline sounds straightforward if not downright basic, Refn's storytelling most certainly is not. While Drive, with its ultraviolence, odd characters, and stylistic quirks and kinks, was far from the über-mainstream actioner its distributor sold it as being (infamously leading to that rather hilariously ludicrous lawsuit filed by an especially disgruntled moviegoer), it is a veritable (to glibly callback to that lawsuit) Fast and the Furious installment compared to Only God Forgives, which is undoubtedly fascinating but ultimately frustrating in its self-consciously impressionistic approach. It's no exaggeration to say that Gosling maybe has a page's worth of spoken dialogue, and vibrant and expressive actor though he is, he seemingly has been directed by Refn to stoically play the part like stone, thus making the film difficult to connect with from the start--not accounting for Refn's languid patchwork of long, slow, silent takes and visual ellipses, punctuated with charges of graphic violence as well as earnest karaoke numbers by Vithaya Pansringarm as the ruthless Thai cop responsible for the killing. Refn has stated that the effect he was going for was an acid trip, and he's succeeded maybe a bit too well, as the initial surface trance wears off to reveal not much else going on, and even at only 89 minutes the film feels stretched beyond reasonable comfort. As incredibly divisive as the film already is, and undoubtedly Refn's aggressively artsy-fartsy aesthetic will have its ardent admirers, there are three unquestionable virtues in the film's favor: Larry Smith's beautifully rich cinematography, with works hand in hand with composer Cliff Martinez's entrancing soundscape; and Scott Thomas's deliciously deranged performance, fierce in every conceivable way from her acid-tongued bloodlust to how fabulously fashionable she looks doing it. It is truly an awards-consideration-worthy turn, but if Albert Brooks couldn't get any love from the comparatively (yes) "safer" Drive, then God indeed will not be as forgiving though the character is bound to go down in cult favorite history along with James Franco's in Spring Breakers earlier this year.
You're Next (R) The Conjuring (PG-13)
The state of the modern "horror" film is such that remotely qualifying as "scary" is a bonus if not an outright rarity--and so the measure of one's effectiveness becomes through a more generalized criteria. Adam Wingard's You're Next is no exception; I wouldn't exactly call it "scary" in that more conventional (and now-overly idealistic?) horror movie sense--but he and writer Simon Barrett do come up with a thriller that indeed does thrill through suspense and wit, particularly in its rather inspired spins on all-too-familiar genre tropes. That isn't so easily apparent from the get-go, as an incredibly dysfunctional family and various significant others assemble in a remote estate in the woods for a predictably disastrous retreat--one that becomes even more so when animal-masked home invaders lay bloody siege onto the home. From here, Winegard and Barrett do tick off all the necessary boxes as people are picked off one by one in brutal fashion, but they infuse the required beats with just enough bemused self-awareness and more uncommonly ample cleverness and inspiration. The kills are indeed often gruesome, but in twistedly creative fashion (blenders will never be regarded in quite the same way again), and they create a horror heroine for the ages in gives-even-worse-than-she-gets Erin, played with just the right balance of likable sweetness and believable toughness by Sharni Vinson, who between this, Step Up 3D, and last year's too-little-seen Aussie sharks-in-a-supermarket epic Bait (rent it!), has proven to be the winning face of highly enjoyable and highly unpretentious genre fare. Frights may be in short supply, but simple, simply twisted fun most certainly isn't.
Both fun and frights have long eluded me in the work of director James Wan, whose hit horror yarns such as Insidious and the original Saw have apparently delivered the goods for just about everyone but myself--that is, until the astonishment that is The Conjuring. The difference here is not in the material, which for all the little added wrinkles--1970s time period, a story purportedly based on a true incident--is essentially a haunted house tale not terribly unlike Insidious, as married paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) look into the curious goings-on in the Perron family's newly acquired farm home. As the inexplicable phenomena becomes increasingly shocking, so is Wan's most unexpected display of control. Gone are gratuitous gore and abrupt, cheap gotcha gags; in their place is a proficient and affectionate throwback to the horror style of the '70s era: a carefully, masterfully crafted and ever-so-crescendoing exercise in atmospheric dread (helped by a sturdy script by Chad and Carey Hayes) that flares up at key junctures while building a steady, forceful momentum to a chilling climax that earns every one of its jumps and screams. Aiding immeasurably is the terrifically chosen cast, with the standouts being Farmiga, whose intelligence and poise lends the fantastic scenario immediate credibility; and Lili Taylor as the Perron matriarch, whose raw emotional authenticity makes her and her family's ordeal that much more genuinely frightening. It remains to be seen if Wan can keep up the quality in his future films (an Insidious sequel is due in short order from him), but for once I am actually looking forward to what he has up his sleeve next.