Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head and Sylvie

Summer Movie Diary: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station
Date: July 30, 2013
Time: 5:40 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick
Food:  mixed red and blue Icee
Runtime:  1 hour, 25 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Ryan Coogler 

Quick Impressions:
For a feature film directorial debut, Fruitvale Station is pretty impressive.  I’ve been extremely excited to see it since reading an interview with star Michael B. Jordan much earlier in the year.  I really liked Jordan’s performance in Chronicle, and I’m all for him becoming an A-list star.  He’s certainly taken a step in the right direction with this powerful turn as Oscar Grant, the real-life victim of a bizarre police shooting at Fruitvale Station in 2009.   (I call it “bizarre” because of the seemingly endless witnesses with recording devices.  Typically even the most sociopathic predator will think twice about shooting an unarmed man in the back around hundreds of witnesses armed with cameras.)

Very vaguely, I remember something about Grant’s shooting.  Definitely I remember the aftershocks that came in the form of endless debate about whether videotaping the police should be legal.  Of course, at the time of the media furor surrounding the case, I was a bit preoccupied.  Like the girlfriend of the officer who shot Oscar Grant, I gave birth on January 2, 2009.  My daughter was born very unexpectedly at 25 weeks and spent three months in the NICU which kept me perpetually stressed out and distracted during that period.  I don’t know from any personal experience, but I’m guessing that Officer Mehserle’s girlfriend was probably pretty stressed out at that time, too.

At any rate, you don’t have to know any of the facts about the shooting before seeing the movie.  The film is completely self-contained, and it’s not asking any questions about what happened.  There’s little mystery in Grant’s death—he was shot by police while unarmed on a train platform.  It’s all right there captured on video.  What else do you need to know?  Well, obviously writer/director Ryan Coogler also wants you to know that Oscar Grant is just an average guy, just like any of us.  And as Coogler presents us with the relatively uneventful events of Grant’s last day on earth—a casual, unpretentious slice-of-life—I think he humanizes his protagonist very successfully, drawing us nearer and nearer until finally there is nothing more to see.

It’s a sad story—tragic from his mother’s point of view.  It also really makes you wonder what used to go on unnoticed before we all had phone cameras.  (Well, if you’ve taken a good history class recently, you probably have some idea.)  It definitely emphasizes the need for a phone with a working camera, kind of like a feature length commercial for a good cell phone—written by Aeschylus.

Though I can’t deny that at times it’s a bit heavy-handed, Fruitvale Station is a good film that will probably make you cry. (In fact, there was one scene in the middle where I thought I would throw up because I was so disturbed.  I’m not talking about anything shocking on screen.  But as a mother, I just felt so stricken, like, “Good grief!  Who wrote this?  Sophocles???”  (I also don’t mean that he makes out with his mother or anything like that.  And possibly, if you’re not a mother yourself, you won’t be quite as upset by the scene as I was.) )

The movie is definitely trying to make the audience cry, and we should cry because my God, if we don’t cry when we see another human being murdered for no reason, then what is wrong with us?  Clearly, that’s the point of the movie.  It shouldn’t be such a revelatory idea—that we’re all human, all alike, all mortal, all fragile, all inside our own heads in our own worlds caught up in our own lives.  Yet despite its intense tragedy, Fruitvale Station is in some ways a celebration of life and community.  The reactions of the astonished crowd are so reassuring.  Something horrific is happening, and everyone responds by being horrified.  So even though the movie is tragic, sad, and at moments heart-breaking, it’s not cynical or bitter or even divisive.  I really liked it, and it’s the first non-animated film I’ve seen this year that seems guaranteed a place in the Oscar race.  Both Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer have a decent shot at being nominated (at least they’ll be in the discussion).  By the end, I was pretty impressed with Melonie Diaz, as well.  She gives a very emotionally raw and unaffected performance as Jordan’s girlfriend Sophina.

The Good:
Here’s what’s best about the film.  It begins with video footage of the shooting of Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale Station platform in Oakland, California.  The scene is chaotic and handheld and we feel such a distance from it.  It’s hard to understand and doesn’t make any sense.  Then we step back and take a close look at a day in Oscar Grant’s life.  Then the film ends with a long dramatization of the shooting of Oscar Grant and its aftermath.  And guess what?  Now that we’ve gotten a better look at Oscar and his family and his life and his identity and his struggles and his dreams and his successes and his failures—the shooting still doesn’t make any sense.  It’s still hard to understand.  That’s brilliantly done. 

This movie doesn’t want to explain why Oscar Grant was shot.  It doesn’t want to transform Oscar Grant into a saint.  It just wants to show us a day in the life of Oscar Grant.  The fact that he is shot at the end of that day is both significant and yet unrelated to anything that has come before.  That’s the way life works.  One day, your life turns into a death.  And usually it doesn’t make sense. 

Even though there are a couple of moments that feel a bit too carefully crafted to be as real as the rest (like the scene with the dog), most of the film feels very natural, like we really are watching a day in someone’s life. 

Michael B. Jordan gives an Academy Award caliber performance.  (It’s much too early to predict a win or even a nomination, but he’s definitely going to be a part of the discussion.)  He makes Oscar amazingly sympathetic.  Often I could really relate to him.  He reminded me of me when I was in college (not his particular circumstances, but the more universal feelings he experienced in response to them).  The transition between late adolescence and early adulthood is a rough time for most people, I suspect.  Jordan’s performance really brought back memories of longing to succeed as an adult but not knowing quite how to sort out all the baggage that seemed to be holding me back.  The prison scene with his mother is fantastic.  Surely I’m not the only one who has felt frustrated and angry with my parents for seeming to withhold approval that I was desperate to attain.  I think that’s a common paradox when you’re in your late teens, transitioning into your early twenties, that weird desire for parental support and approval that coexists with an equally strong desire to yell, “I don’t care what you say because you did x, y, and z wrong anyway, and you’re ruining my life!”  In like three seconds, he goes from behaving like the ideal adult son (or at least imagining that he’s projecting that image) to being a frustrated kid screaming the equivalent of, “Well, it’s all your fault anyway because you suck!” 

As played by Jordan, Oscar’s character also reminded me of my husband.  Oscar wants to do all the things he believes a man must do.  Clearly (as his interactions with his relatives reveal) Oscar is trying to be an-up-and-coming patriarch, a safety net for his sister, a hero for his daughter, a son who will make his mother proud, the kind of faithful, stable provider his girlfriend needs him to become.  He knows who he wants to be.  He knows what he wants everyone to think of him.  He knows what he needs to accomplish—he just doesn’t know quite how he’s going to do it.  A father who cares about his kids often finds himself in the predicament of being a buffer, shielding them from true reality, trying to create instead a partially insulated world where they can feel safe and happy.  Oscar clearly wants to provide a happy, stable life for his daughter.  He’s able to create the illusion, but he hasn’t quite figured out a way yet to back it up with reality.  And surely he’s not the only father who was struggling to pay his rent at the end of 2008.

The movie really isn’t very political.  (Its release date is the most confrontational thing about it, and that hardly seems surprising now that it’s in the hands of the Weinstein Company and on the hunt for Oscars.)  Fruitvale Station doesn’t go out of its way to talk about racism or race relations or anything of the kind.  Of course, when you leave the theater, you may well find yourself talking about racism, and I think that shows that the movie is pretty effective.  Really, the great thing about this film is that the obvious profiling and gross incompetence of the particular police officers involved does not need to be commented on by the characters in the film.  Simply by showing us what actually happened (what was recorded by multiple uninvolved witnesses), it gets the point across beautifully.  What happened is so awful, so weird, so glaring, so clearly wrong that there’s no need for anybody to tell us so.  We can just see for ourselves.  As the family waits at the hospital, Oscar’s mother even tells angry friends who have gathered that it’s not the time or place for bad language or threats.  There’s no need for any of that, is there?  (Her point is that Oscar needs prayer and positive thoughts to recover, but the movie seems to be making a similar point.)  The police officers caught on camera have already dug their own graves, and the entire crowd at the train station is against them!  (And in fact, the movie crew was allowed to film the scene on the actual train platform.  The officer was charged with murder because shooting an unarmed man in the back in public is obviously murder, and everybody thinks so.)

The movie pretty much takes the high road, and I think that strategy will pay off.  This is a well made film about a day in the life of an average young man.  I think it’s going to reach a lot of people because instead of beating us over the head with, “I would like to make this point,” it just makes its point, and fairly artfully, too.

Significantly, Fruitvale Station also refrains from covering up the unsavory parts of Oscar’s past.  We learn all about how he has cheated on his girlfriend, and sold drugs, and gone to prison.  We see that he has a temper.  We even see him yell insults at the cop who yells insults back at him (and that part really could have been glossed over or denied quite easily).  The point seems to be that there’s no reason to deny these flaws in Oscar’s character or to conceal his past misdeeds.  Would any of us want someone (say the media) to describe us entirely based on the worst mistakes we ever made when we were nineteen or twenty years old?  Maybe Oscar did do time.  But to his little girl, he’s still the daddy who makes faces in the mirror with her when she brushes her teeth.

Best Scene Visually:
The most striking scene in the entire film is that final image of Tatiana in the shower, but I won’t say anything more about it because discussing it seems like a spoiler.

Best Scene:
The scene when Oscar and his mother are talking about not driving drunk in the kitchen just kills me.  A similar scene early on relating to the cell phone just made me feel kind of amused and sad simultaneously, but this moment in the kitchen absolutely gutted me.  I also thought, How strange!  I identify both with the son and with the mother!  One day, I’ll actually be able to identify with the grandmother, too.  That will be amazing—except then pretty soon I’ll be dead—probably without ever managing to publish another novel.  (But that self-focused tangent was not what upset me.  Honestly, I had to let my mind wander a bit because the thrust of the scene upset me so much.  I think it’s because I’m both a mother and a worrier.  Also, Octavia Spencer is a very good actress, and I just felt so bad for Oscar’s mother.)

That moved me more than anything else in the movie.  It ties in beautifully to the moment in the end when she says that he does not like to be alone.  It stirred up all sorts of feelings in me of terror I have felt when contemplating something so awful that I just deleted it instead of finishing typing it out.

Best Action Sequence:
Of course, the sequence on the train platform is absolutely riveting.  Kevin Durand is very good as a ridiculously hateful cop.  (When I saw him, I first thought, “Of course, Kevin Durand plays such a jerk in everything,” followed a few seconds later by, “How do I know that’s Kevin Durand, and why do I think he plays a huge jerk in everything if I can’t remember one thing he’s been in?”  On reflection, he does play a similarly abusive jerk in Real Steel, but I seem to recall having a similar thought about him while watching that movie.  Don’t ask me to explain how my brain works.)

The other action in the film is all far more innocent.  Usually when Oscar is particularly active, his four-year-old daughter is involved.  The tooth brushing scene is inspired as is the race to the car, both of which reminded me so much of numerous young dads and older brothers and cousins I’ve known over the years.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment Michael B. Jordan/Octavia Spencer:
The scene in prison is very powerful and lets both Jordan and Spencer do their best work and show a lot of range. 

Most Oscar Worthy Moment Melonie Diaz:
Diaz’s performance as Oscar’s girlfriend really surprised me.  She becomes increasingly powerful, raw, and convincing as the film goes on.  Her performance is one that builds (and almost never loses energy), so that her best moment comes at the end of the film when she looks up at the doctor, hanging on his every word, trying to make sense of what he’s telling her.

Most Convenient Scene if You’re Being Forced to Write an Essay About This Movie:
Surely somebody out there is being forced to write an essay about this movie.  Maybe there aren’t too many people in that fix right now, but once its available on bluray, trust me, this is the kind of film that is bound to turn into an assignment for some college student.  If I were still teaching, I’m sure I could find a million uses for it.

If you’re the one in this fix, and you feel overwhelmed by the thought of crafting a cogent argument that addresses any of the myriad sociological/ political/ historical/ anthropological/ whateverical issues touched on by this film, never you fear. 

Writer/director Ryan Coogler has done you the tremendous favor of inserting a very pointed scene about a dog into the story, so you can focus on that and talk about symbolism, foreshadowing, visual metaphor, heavy-handedness, whatever.  You don’t have to worry about anything that will require loads of historical research or honed appreciation of nuance.  Trust me.  That is one loaded dog.  If you find anything more over-the-top in its non-literal value in a movie released this summer, then I promise you, you’re watching The Great Gatsby.

The Negatives:
As I’ve probably made clear, I think the bit with the dog is a tad heavy-handed.  It doesn’t ring as true as the rest of the movie.  It’s not horrible or anything.  It sort of fits in with the soul crushing thrill of tragedy we experience when Oscar’s mother gives him some advice in the kitchen.  It works as a nightmarish omen.  The problem is, everything else we see during Oscar’s day feels so real, so authentic.  Nothing else notably odd or dramatic happens to him.  I mean, he makes some important decisions.  He does one thing that serves as an incredibly symbolic act, but it’s what the act means to him that makes it momentous.

I guess for me the real issue is that many things that happen throughout the day seem so verifiable.  Even if they’re not all true (and I don’t know enough facts to confirm or deny), they could be true.  They feel true.  The texts are easily verifiable.  The phone calls also seem pretty easy to fact check.  Some elements seem harder to confirm, but we’re still given hints that they are real.  The “she’s pregnant” guy gives him a business card (that may have been on him when he died).  The woman throwing the party (The Help’s Ahna O’Reilly) sees him again later (and this influences her behavior).

There’s really nobody else to confirm the business about the dog.  His shirt, granted, is a silent witness, but nobody can really be completely sure about to what. 

Everything else in the movie feels either (a) effortlessly real (b) pleasantly uncanny but not impossible to believe.  But the dog thing feels ripped from a work of literature—a literary novel, a well-crafted tragedy, a certain kind of poem.

From a literary standpoint, the value of the dog to the story is obvious (a little too obvious).  The dog can work on so many levels, but clearly it’s a (distorted, imperfect) echo of something we’ve already seen that’s yet to come.  Even Oscar recognizes it as something that doesn’t fit in with the rest of his story.  It gets his attention.  And so from a literary standpoint, it has additional value as something that impresses and perhaps motivates (even changes) the protagonist.  But it kind of takes us out of the reality of the moment.  I think it hurts the unassuming, authentic tone of the rest of the film. It’s resonant but perhaps too distracting.

Then again, this is the director’s first feature.  I wish my first novel had been as well crafted!  Nothing is perfect, and maybe he prefers to jar us.  Perhaps he thinks jarring us out of complacency is important enough to justify throwing off the movie’s tone for a few minutes.  Maybe when I see the film again, I’ll feel differently about the dog scene.  You never know.

A larger problem is that so much of the movie seems realistic and verifiable, but I’m not sure how much of the story is true.  Obviously the dramatization of what happens on the platform is pretty close to one of the actual videos taken at the scene.  But what about the rest of the movie?  I really just want everything to be true.  Does it matter to the film if it actually is?  No.  Does it matter to me?  Yes.   You see, I want to believe that people reached out to Oscar because Oscar reached out to people.  I want to believe that because Oscar approached the world with kindness and a willingness to help others, the world (in general, apart from the crazy cops) responded with kindness and a willingness to help him.  Of course, I think life in general would be a lot more comfortable and fulfilling if it were completely scripted, so there you go.  I’m just crazy.  I care about how accurate this film is, but perhaps I really shouldn’t after all.

This movie mostly works because it’s trying to do something very simple and (with one or two minor hiccups) completely nails it thanks to incredibly compelling performances by Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, and Melonie Diaz (who should be getting more attention in my opinion).  Now is it the most exciting movie in the entire world with a new madcap thing happening every second?  No.  And will it seriously change your worldview if you already agree with pretty much everything it’s trying to say to you?  No.  But you’ll still probably like it.

Of course, plenty of people won’t like Fruitvale Station.  If I had to guess, I’d say fifty percent of those who dislike the film will be agitated in some way by the content, and the other 50 percent will just be bored because they’re more about popcorn flicks.  But the people who give out awards are going to love it, and I think most of the general movie going public will have a positive reaction as well (if they actually give the movie a chance and buy a ticket).

I’ve been quite excited about Fruitvale Station partially because of my enthusiasm for Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer and partially because by this time in the summer, it’s nice to be reminded that winter is coming (and with it, the Oscars).  As far as I’m concerned, the movie delivers.  But know what you’re getting.  It’s a serious film about a real life event.  It begins with actual footage of Bay Area police shooting an unarmed man on a train platform in Oakland in 2009.  If The Wolverine is too full of dark, gritty, realism for you, then you’re going to want to steer clear of Fruitvale Station.  Still, the film honestly says just as much about what it means to be alive as it does about Oscar Grant’s appalling murder.  It’s definitely one of the best executed and most moving films I’ve seen this year, and I think we’ll be hearing more about it as the Oscar race heats up in the fall.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1. Pupcake climbed up a ladder up into space, far away, up up up.  Far away, up into space, he put on his mask, so he wouldn't choke and die.

2.  Pupcake saw somebody familiar.  So he floated into space where he heard a meow for help.  It was Dinah you know.  [I know Neptune has no ground, but just for my own self, I'm giving it one.]  She was trapped in quicksand and needed Pupcake to rescue her.  [So that's the end because I'm cliffhanging you know, like TV but at the end of every sentence.  That way they will read the next one.]

3.  In quicksand, Dinah was wearing a bonnet.  Pupcake told Dinah, "Bonnets should not be in space."  But he saved her, anyway.

4.  While Dinah was wearing a bonnet, Pupcake found another ladder.  He saw somebody familiar, Cookie.  So he climbed up the ladder with Dinah on his back.  Then they went to Cookie's house, and they rested there.