Fruitvale Station: Oakland, California, New Year’s Eve and Morning 2009. The movie opens with a phone camera sequence of what occurred at the BART station that fateful New Year’s morning. The film shows us what happened in the life of Oscar Grant III during the approximate 20 hours leading up to the fatal interplay between BART security guards and Oscar Grant at approx. 2:00 a.m. on January 1, 2009. The film’s goal and that of Ryan Coogler, the writer and first time director of this excellent film, was to show that Oscar’s death was absolutely unnecessary, and this was accomplished by focusing on the individual and not the actual tragic event. Michael B. Jordon, playing 22 year old Oscar, gives an Oscar-worthy performance. We are shown his flaws and his temper; for instance, the flashback scene to Oscar’s time at San Quentin (drugs). We are also shown Oscar’s devotion to his five year old daughter, “T” for Tatiana, played delightfully by Ariana Neal. The power of the film lies in the honesty with which it presents its characters as well as the excellent acting. Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother. One of the film’s more powerful scenes is when she is visiting Oscar at San Quentin. All the scenes between Oscar and his mother have a real honesty to them. Melonie Diaz plays Sophina, the mother of T, and she shows the right amount of skepticism about whether Oscar will make good on turning his life around. Diaz and Jordon play well off each other although not quite to the extent as Jordon and Spencer. The events at BART comprise only a short part of this short film (just 85 minutes long), and occur more than an hour into the film. Oscar was an unarmed Black man who was restrained and shot in the back. The postscript tells us that a BART officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter (defense was he confused his gun for his laser) and served 11 months of a 2 year sentence. Unlike the Florida events involving Martin and Zimmerman, there were numerous camera shots from people heading home on BART so we know what happened, including the fact that Oscar and his friends didn’t need to be restrained by the BART police in the first place. This is a well done film that shows the randomness of a Black man being killed. To say more would go beyond reviewing a film. The movie is a Sundance Film Festival award winner and truly deserves the honors it has received. BART allowed the film to be shot at the Fruitvale Station – this film has realism that can bring tears. Forest Whittaker gave Coogler the backing to make this film.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Fill the Void: finding a husband orthodox Jewish family style. This Israeli film by Rama Burshtein, a female orthodox Jewish director, tells the touching story of an 18 year old girl whose older sister dies giving birth to her first child, a baby boy. The movie opens with Shira, our 18 year old, at a market with a marriage broker looking from a distance at a prospective husband. The movie moves on to a festive Purim ceremony at the home of Shira’s father, a orthodox rabbi. We meet Shira’s 28 year old sister who, by her size and the apparent position of the baby, is close to giving birth. We also meet the sister’s husband, Yochay. From this festive perspective, the atmosphere changes when the sister unexpectedly dies. Primary care for the baby falls to Esther, Shira’s mother. Esther watches how Shira cares for the baby and comes up with the idea that Yochay should marry Shira. For those of you not up to speed with Old Testament stories, there is precedent for such marital arrangements although the story in Deuteronomy involves a male being encouraged to marry his brother’s widow. Within a religious context, this film shows Shira wanting to be a dutiful daughter while having concern as to the age difference between herself and Yochay (not specified but he has to be in his 30’s) and wanting to have a husband not already experienced in marital affairs. Shira is a complex individual who clearly has her own desires. A lot happens within the 90 minutes of screen time. All of it is done with respectfulness to religious traditions while managing to tell a coming of age tale. This is Burshtein’s first film and it is a remarkable premiere. The marriage ritual tradition displayed in the film is totally outside my life experience. The roles of females and males are clearly segregated but with respect and not domination. The storyline addresses family loyalty verses individualism but within a structure that focuses on the importance of marriage. Beyond Shira, the film also addresses Yochay’s situation. He is a good man who has options - an offer to move to Belgium and marry a widow with two children. The widow character is discussed but never shown. I found the film entertaining, however, it challenged my western suburbia upbringing. For the first time ever, promptly upon leaving the film I felt compelled to call my sister. We had a discussion regarding the life style of an orthodox woman as opposed to one who adopts a conventionally modern life style. The movie is subtitled in Hebrew.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Twenty Feet From Stardom: a musical delight. If you enjoy the music of the 60’s and 70’s, you are going to love this movie documentary. Over the opening titles, Lou Reed is singing the stanza from “Walk on the Wild Side” of “and the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo, doo …”, which serves as the launching pad for this story of the backup singers on some of my favorite songs. Most of the backup singers are African-American woman. The movie intertwines the music with interviews of the singers and clips from early performance days. At various points in the film you see Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger talking about the importance of the backup singers. The smile that comes across Jagger’s face as “Gimme Shelter” plays in the background is joyful and later in the film, there is a brief live performance. Merry Clayton tells the story of how she became the female voice in “Gimme Shelter”. While I’m still not a David Bowie fan, I have new respect for his “Young Americans”. The movie is directed by Morgan Neville, who has carved out a documentary film career with stories about Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and Stax Records. I love Neville’s music selections. I gained new information while being entertained; for instance, I knew White singers had covered R/B songs but I didn’t realize that Black groups such as the Crystals were actually lip singing to records made by other Black singers. The 90 minute film keeps you entertained (how can you not be with segments that include Ray Charles’ Raelettes and the Ike and Tina Turner Review). My only criticism of the film is that for brief periods, I wasn’t sure which artist we were focusing on due to the shifting back and forth among the singers while weaving between the past and the present. The film provides new information as to the nastiness of Phil Spector but, fortunately, scenes involving Spector are kept to a minimum. The power of some of the voices to this day are magnificent. Apparently, Darlene Love is the only backup singer to have been inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”, however, artists like Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer are highlighted. There is a remarkable scene with Sting and Fischer. There are also the Wright Family members who, I learned, produced some of the bird sounds in Aviator. Clayton is the best storyteller of the group and, as noted above, her tale about the late hour call to join Jagger in the studio or to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” are particular highlights. The film is not entirely historic. There is a segment on Judith Hill and her current dilemma of having to decide whether to continue being employed as a backup singer or refusing backup gigs so she can focus on crossing the 20 feet to be a star. The movie is quite a delight. And if you haven’t seen any of Neville’s other works, you are missing out.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
What Maisie Knew: updated version of the Henry James 1897 novel. Maisie is a six year old living in NYC. The movie begins with a scene of her parents arguing. Soon they are divorced. The mother is a rock musician and the father is an Englishman earning his income as an art dealer. Neither knows what it means to be a parent. The movie tells the story of two people with no true desire to be parents but who are aware that they are supposed to care about their daughter. Onata Aprile plays the 6 year old and she is a delight. Her spirit saves the film from being a depressing story. The movie leaves you with the question of whether Maisie can be a whole person come adulthood. There is much political rhetoric as to the potential disadvantages of one-parent children but what happens if both parents, although present, have priorities other than the children? The script has both parents remarrying shortly after the divorce with a subplot as to the father marrying Maisie’s nanny, Margo, played by Joanna Vanderham. Susanna, the touring rock musician mother played excellently by Julianne Moore, also remarries. Maisie’s stepfather is played by Alexander Skarsgard, the lead male in the excellent film The East, which I reviewed last week. Skarsgard, in a very different role, is again excellent. Steve Coogan plays Maisie’s father. A lot happens in this 98 minute movie directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. I don’t remember reading this James novel so I can’t personally comment on differences between the book and movie. In this movie, Maisie is a very real person and you will care deeply about her while wondering how parents can be so insensitive to their own child. The contrast between Maisie’s biological parents and her step-parents is quite stark. The title is a little odd because contrary to its implication, this is not a retrospective by an adult Maisie. I understand the book has a moralistic governess named Mrs. Wix. Margo is a very contemporary character and she is not a modern version of Ms. Wix. This film takes places in 21st century Manhattan and reflects today's morality. Maisie is living in present times. Excellent film.
Lone Ranger: a film raising the question of whether Johnny Depp can salvage a sophomoric script. Sometimes you know from a movie’s opening scenes that you are in for a long viewing session. Most of the film occurs in Texas 1869. It opens in 1933 with a young boy ambling through a traveling Wild West fairground wearing a Lone Ranger costume. He stops before a glass-screened exhibit of an Indian teepee with an elderly Indian labeled “The Noble Savage in his Native Habitat”. Then the Indian starts talking. Soon we are fed a hokey bank robbery scene that is later replayed, unfortunately. The movie improves, thank you Johnny Depp, and there are some unintended funny scenes, however, this 149 minute movie falls short of what could have been a fun film. What were Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Pictures thinking? Disney was criticized last year for John Carter but Carter was a much better film. I remain a Johnny Depp fan and those of you who are in this category will find enough decent scenes to be pleased you saw the movie. But Depp’s Tonto is almost the only interesting character. Armie Hammer is a weak Lone Ranger who is not helped by a terrible script attributed to three individuals: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. Hammer’s character, John Reid, is just plain silly. He has a cute introductory scene that could have been written by Bill Mahr (anti-religious joke) but that’s it. The Lone Ranger grew up in Texas but is anti-gun? The bad guys, especially Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), are one dimensional stick figures. Tom Wilkinson, a very good actor, is wasted in a stereotypic role of an evil railroad honcho that is not even salvageable by having been a civil war veteran. Chief Big Bear (Saginaw Grant) and a feisty madam played by Helene Bonham Carter were among the only other interesting characters. The Chinese railroad workers and the Indians could have come straight from a pre-Vietnam Hollywood movie. Depp’s Tonto stands in striking contrast from the rest of the film. Gore Verbinski is the director and I hope he doesn’t attempt any other Westerns. There are, however, some beautiful non-Texas western scenery shots. The cinematographer is Bojan Bazelli and the pretty stuff is Monument Valley. I miss seeing Westerns; I grew up with them and some of my favorite films and old television shows are Westerns (“Lone Ranger” is not on my list). I was looking forward to seeing the Lone Ranger but unless you are a diehard Depp fan, which I am, there is no reason to see this movie.
Trivia information: original “Lone Ranger” radio series commenced broadcasting in 1933.
Saturday, July 6, 2013
I hope Brad Stevens is successful with the Celtics but I really think it was an odd choice. I’m trying to think of a successful college basketball coach other than Larry Brown who also had success as a head coach in the NBA. I can think of a number of unsuccessful coaches in the NBA who have had a stellar college career. The list would include the disastrous one year term of Tim Floyd with the Chicago Bulls. Jerry Tarkanian is one of my favorite college coaches but he didn’t even last a year in the NBA. Everyone knows about Rick Pitino and John Calipari but they are just the most famous of a long list. Mike Montgomery was quite successful at Stanford but not with the Warriors. I know Gregg Popovich, clearly the best current NBA coach, coached at Pomona-Pitzer but does that count? Probably more important to his NBA success is the year he spent with Larry Brown at Kansas. PJ Carlesimo had success at Seton Hall and has had a mixed career in the NBA: definitely second tier as to professional jobs. As I’m typing this two names have come to mind in addition to Larry Brown: Chuck Daly and Bill Fitch. Bottom line is that I think it is a very short list as to individuals who successfully made the transition from college to the NBA. Can you think of anyone else? I admire what Stevens did at Butler and hope he proves to be the exception.
Current headline story is Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers and joining the Houston Rockets. I think both the Lakers and the Warriors, especially the Warriors, will be pleased he elected to move to Houston. Andre Iguodala will fit with the type of ball Warriors are playing much better than Howard. Howard is talented but he definitely has a Shaq mentality, unlike James who is very much the team player. I know Howard was hurt part of this past year and unlike Rose, he chose to play when he may not have fully healed. But there are certain guys who just seem to have issues. The Lakers may have felt obligated to make the pitch but I think a Howard/Bryant combination will never have worked, partly because Howard is not as good a player as Shaq was in his prime. I’m more of a college hoops fan but next year there are some interesting NBA teams that should make for an interesting season and the Rockets are not one on my list. I’m wondering if the Spurs with Duncan have one more run in them and I think both the Warriors and the Clippers will be fun to watch. The Western Conference has some real excitement for the coming year along with clashes between the Bulls and Indiana.
The East: an excellent Ridley Scott thriller directed by Zal Batmanglij from a script he wrote with Brit Marling. The primary characters are anarchists (“eco-terrorists”) operating under the name “East”. The lead character, Jane, is played by co-writer Marling, works for a private security company. She is a former FBI agent whose boss at the private security company is played by Patricia Clarkson, a very chilly and mercenary persona. Although the head of East is a male, Benji, played by Alexander Sharsgard, the truly interesting East members are female, including a strong performance by Ellen Page as Izzy. Jane is sent into the field with the pseudonym, Sarah, to locate the East. She rides the rails along the Eastern seaboard to make her connection with East, and even though this is a contemporary film, the brief rail scene with the railway men could have been taken from a 1930’s film. Once Jane makes her connection with East, the movie becomes quite interesting. The group lives at a burned out house in a forest that I think is in Pennsylvania (movie does not provide a specific location). The transformation of Jane into Sarah and the subsequent integration of Sarah into the group is well done. Key question becomes whether Jane, as Sarah, will be a Stockholm syndrome victim. Part of the film’s fascination is trying to guess which person, Sarah or Jane, will dominate; the conclusion is not obvious. The actions of the anarchists, which they refer to as “jams”, include giving drug company executives champagne laced with their own FDA approved drug at a celebration party (the side effects are real) and having chemical company executives go swimming in water that contains their own contamination – the latter has a hokey element but well done because of Page’s excellence as an actress (one of the chemical executives is Page’s father). The East wants to hold the executives responsible and accomplishes this by turning their own activity against them. The film works because it dwells more on the individual characters than on their jams. In fact, only brief parts of the 116 minute film are devoted to the actual jams. All the East members appear to come from privileged homes but were spurred towards activism by their own underlying issues. The only character whose life choice is fully explained is Doc (Toby Kebbell), who took the drug while working in Kenya as a medical aid. While watching this film, I did not know how it would end and I was pleased with the ending. So far, this is my second best movie of 2014 with ”Mud” still holding first place.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
This is the End: rapture cometh with drugs. Six male friends are ensconced in a Hollywood house as the Book of Revelations is played out. The film is a series of comedic sketches, some of which are truly funny, with no pretense of reality. The movie opens with Jay Baruchel, playing himself, flying into LAX to visit his buddy, Seth Rogen, who is also playing himself. Rogen drags an unwilling Jay to a party at the house of James Franco, also playing himself (think we have a theme?) where drugs abound. Jay leaves the house to buy some smokes and, at the liquor store, watches as a blue light lifts some of the people towards the heavens. Initially, you don’t know whether this will be just another druggie film. Instead, this apocalyptic movie contains individual episodes focusing on whether any of the six friends will be lifted to Heaven – not all are. The movie is directed by Seth Rogen and co-written with Evan Goldberg. Other actors playing themselves include Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd and Rihanna. Channing Tatum appears late in the movie in a funny scene that is 180 degrees from his John Cale role in White House Down. To categorize the humor as sophomoric is an insult to sophomores, however, you will laugh while watching this 119 minute movie that has no redeeming quality other than just being funny. The movie makes fun of the actors: “ You always play the same guy in every movie. When are you going to do some acting?” says a heckler at LAX to Rogen. Franco is mocked with references to Pineapple Express. No one in this film had to do any emoting, with the possible exception of Tatum, as everyone seemed to be within a comfort zone of being themselves. The primary female in the film is Emma Watson. She appears in a sketch that begins with Jay in the next room saying she must be fearful about being raped with all the Rapture events occurring. When Watson hears the word rape and knowing there are six males outside her door she starts reacting by attempting to “defend” herself. I could describe the sketches, which range from food fights to sleeping arrangements, but the descriptions would only make you wonder why anyone is laughing. This film shows that pedestrian ideas can be successfully translated to humor on screen. This film is crass with barely a plot and presents a plethora of narcissistic and social disorders, however, unlike White House Down, this movie intends to be funny and it succeeds.