Fruitvale Station

This is a film that should be seen by everyone. It is powerful with a message that rings on multiple levels. It is dramatic, chilling, and above all else, human. There are standout performances and first time feature director Ryan Coogler has crafted an intimate day-in-the-life picture that is haunted by the audiences knowledge of the true life tragedy that awaits.

In 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed on the Fruitvale train station platform by a police officer while he was face down and handcuffed. There was a media frenzy afterwards helped in no small way by the footage of the event captured by bystanders on their cell phones. The officer responsible claimed that he thought he had reached for his stun gun and instead pulled his actual gun. He was convicted of manslaughter and served 11 months. Cries of injustice were heard around the world and much was made of the black youth killed by a white police officer factor. There is no way to know what the officer “intended” during that moment on the train platform. Meaning can not be given where there is none and there is no chance of knowing what was in someone else’s head. This film doesn’t dwell on the race angle, nor does it dwell on any reasons at all. It is more subtle, choosing instead to let you feel your own emotions and let any outrage fall where it may.

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Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar Grant in a performance that is mesmerizing. He is organic in the role and feels authentic in every scene. Oscar has had a troubled past and seems ready to be the boyfriend, son, and father he needs to be. Jordan portrays this all while alternating between a street tough persona and the introspective youth. I vaguely recall him from the film Chronicle, but I will remember him now. This is a star making turn that reminded me of the way I felt watching Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. He will be a force to reckon with.

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Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz are the supporting players and bring genuine warmth to their roles. Melonie Diaz is Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of their child. She is convincing in her indecisiveness. She toggles back and forth between outrage at Oscar’s behavior and falling for his charm in a way that seems all too real. Anchoring the film is Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother. She is earnest and makes the audience believe that she has been waiting for that phone call for years. She tries to hold everyone up as her world is crashing down and it is heart wrenching to watch the grief take hold. All three main actors should be remembered come award season time. All would be deserving.

Ryan Coogler directs using a hand held style reminiscent of Narc and this gives the film an immediacy that benefits the documentary-like feel. He is trying to evoke a perception that only facts are being conveyed which is a debate that can not be addressed by the audience. What we are given is a 22 year old who has to face his past decisions and either live up to his responsibilities or slip into past behaviors. This is the character we have and Coogler wastes no time building our affection for him. Fruitvale Station would be an excellent addition to anyone’s resume and is all the more startling for it to be a debut.

I watched this movie with dread. At the beginning of the film we are shown the actual footage from Oscar Grant’s shooting. It haunts the rest of the picture and allows tragedy to seep into every scene. Oscar’s interactions with his daughter are tear inducing because we know what’s coming. The longer the mundane day goes on and we watch Oscar creep towards his demise we are reminded that we have no such warnings in real life. Tragedy strikes all too suddenly and without reason. We are left to examine our own lives and wonder what a film about our last day would look like. Therein lies the beauty of this film.

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A Late Quartet

A Late Quartet is a riveting film about the lives of four musicians who are faced with uncertainty over their fates and how that uncertainty can influence their decisions. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, and Christopher Walken as the members of a longstanding quartet. Christopher Walken is given the news that he has the beginning stages of Parkinson’s disease. He has decided to leave the quartet at the beginning of the next season which sends the remaining group into a tailspin. Emotions run high and loyalties are tested as each of the members is forced to deal with their place in each others’ lives as well as in the quartet.

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives another master class in acting as Robert Gelbart. He is the second violinist who has become frustrated with what he feels is a second chair position in life. He is married to Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) and his insecurities lead him to risk his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, and his musical career. The performance is astounding and Hoffman lets the consequences of every decision weigh in his mannerisms. He perfectly captures the restlessness of a man on the brink of a mundane existence.

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Christopher Walken plays Peter Mitchell. He is the elder statesman of the group and has provided the backbone for many years. The news of Parkinson’s has thrust the lives of everyone else into turmoil and yet he accepts the news with grace and dignity. He has come to the time in his life where he must step back and let the world pass him by. Peter has an avid respect for the music and feels that trying to overstay his welcome would be betraying it. The quartet is his family and his legacy. Walken inhabits his character and breathes life into what could have been a melodramatic romp into scenery chewing territory. He downplays the tighter moments and acts with his eyes. In his performance you see a man who no longer is fighting for the spotlight and instead is content to tell stories and try to let his influence live on in those around him. Much like his character, Walken seems ready to deal with the uncertainty of his future with grace and imbue every role with as much as he can give it. He is brilliant here.

Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir round out the quartet and are wonderful complimentary pieces. Keener shines in her scenes where she is forced to reflect and must come to terms with not only how her situation affects herself but those around her as well. Ivanir plays the stoic and unemotional center of the quartet. He is obsessed with his playing and has long held emotional attachment at arms reach for fear of letting it interfere with his music. Ivanir does an incredible job of letting that emotion creep into the sides of his psyche and burst out when he least expects it.

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A Late Quartet flew under the radar for me and I’m glad I got to catch up with it. It was suspenseful in all the right ways and showed how engaging a film can be when the script and acting are top notch. Seymour Hoffman again proves there is nothing he can’t do. From big budget action pieces like Mission Impossible to little indie darlings like this one, Hoffman brings a genuineness that few others could even attempt. The script is concise and allows the actors to bring a natural feel to the roles. They seem as if the’ve been playing music their whole lives. It was a joy to watch this film and let that music fill the air.

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The Wolverine

The Wolverine is awful. There. I said it. Now it’s out of the way. There’s no need to sugarcoat anything. I’m not happy to be saying these things, because I really really wanted this to be good. After seeing it I would’ve settled for mediocre. I didn’t even get that. What I got was about 20 minutes of a fairly decent Wolverine picture and then an hour and half of utter garbage that was so nonsensical as to make my brain hurt.

The first twenty minutes are the lead in to a fantastic film. Hugh Jackman’s Logan is living in the wilderness emotionally torturing himself over what he did to Jean Grey in a previous X-Men movie. He has made a vow of nonviolence and feels that the best way to accomplish this is to remove himself from society. He is an immortal with suicidal ideations. Disrupting his self-loathing is Yukio (Rila Fukashima) who would like him to return with her to Tokyo so that a dying man that Logan saved during World War 2 can properly say goodbye. He reluctantly agrees because without which there would be no plot. Upon his meeting the old man asks Logan if he would be interested in a way for him to get rid of his mutant powers. A team of scientists have developed a way to transfer mutant powers somehow. The process is never explained which is good because the answer would probably be mind-bogglingly stupid. Logan says no in a knee jerk reaction and then heads to solitude to brood over the thought of death and what it means to him. He is awakened in the night to find out that the old man, has died. For some reason Logan attends the very ceremonial funeral and is allowed to interact as if he was family. During the funeral the granddaughter of his old acquaintance is kidnapped by the Yakuza. There is a chase scene involving a bullet train that is pretty enjoyable to watch and Logan’s new friend Yukio shows that she can be fairly handy with a sword as well. From here on Logan is faced with the consequences of choices he’s made and must face his own inner demons to find of what is worth living for when you’re immortal. Just kidding. After the chase scene Logan has a really odd (and kind of creepy) romantic fling and then he gets to beat up lots of people.

I suppose the character Viper would be considered the villain of the film even though as a villain she is surprisingly devoid of a plan or motivations. She is played by Svetlana Khodchenkova and has absolutely no reason to be in this movie. Although I did find her to look incredibly like Joan Cusack. Every line she says sounds like it was written by a non-actor who was told to ad-lib some evil movie villain dialogue.

This film sets up lots of possible paths in the first act. Wolverine has always been his own worst enemy and it would be really enjoyable to see a movie about him struggling with his own psyche. Even though it looks like that’s where they’re taking us when the first act ends there is an abrupt tonal shift and the film never comes anywhere near good again. In fact, the latter part of the movie is so bad it pretty much negates anything positive about the beginning. Characters act in incomprehensible ways for reasons that are never explained. Plot points are offered up and then dropped without resolutions. There is a sect of ninjas in this movie that are so ridiculously cliched and over-the-top that they more closely resemble the Foot Clan from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than anything I’ve ever heard about actual Japanese culture.

This is a bad film. I don’t think there is much else that can be said for it. I was relieved when the credits started rolling. As usual with almost any movie these days there is a teaser add on at the end. Mercifully it came mid credits instead of at the very end so I could get out of the theater faster. The teaser was probably the most sensational thing that had been on the screen since the first act ended and some audience members at my screening started cheering and clapping during it as if they had forgotten that they just saw almost two hours of garbage. Maybe this film was so disposable that the audience forgot how bad it was mid credits. I wish I could forget it.

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The Conjuring

The Conjuring is an especially effective entry into the horror genre. It is done with a homage to the horror movies of the 1970’s and evokes the spirit of those movies throughout the film. James Wan directs with a sure hand and lets the mood and atmosphere permeate the story. Tension is built naturally and the actors react more or less as we would expect real people to react. (Including, GASP, turning on the lights before entering a room?!) The best part of the film, in my opinion, is the use of practical effects. The best horror films convince the audience that the horror is real and could happen to anyone. Lately, the genre has gone the way of computer graphics which cheapens the experience. The Conjuring lets old school effects send the chills to the audience.

The story, which is based on a true story, follows two families. The Warrens, who are noted demonologists and supernatural hunters, and the Perrons, a family who has unwittingly moved into an old house that is home to more than themselves. Vera Farminga and Patrick Wilson play the Warrens. Lorraine Warren is described as a clairvoyant and has opened herself up to the spirits around her which has taken its toll on both mental health and her family life. Ed Warren is constantly trying to protect her to which she rebukes him. She believes that she has been given this gift from God so that they can fight in His name together.

The Perrons are an All-American family trying to make the best of the situation. He is a cross-country trucker and she is a stay at home mom for their five daughters. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play the Perrons so convincingly you would swear they were married in real life. All five girls are allowed to have their own personalities and the young actresses portraying them do a solid job of keeping the characters separate. Lili Taylor is especially good in this film and has to run the gamut with her character.

The Perrons have issues in their new farmhouse almost immediately. Clocks stop at the same time, doors open and close, strange noises, typical haunted house stuff. As the film progresses the situation becomes more malevolent and the danger is ramped up exponentially. What I found interesting was the use of modern ghost hunting tropes filtered through 1970’s technology. Cameras and microphones are used effectively and help to keep the story hurtling forward. At about the halfway point there is no stopping to take a breath. The action moves at a frantic pace, yet, each elevation feels like a natural consequence to the Warrens involvement.

Vera Farminga and Lili Taylor are the lynchpins to this movie. They ground the supernatural with natural performances and allow the tension to feel both earned and anxiety ridden. They are the stars and give incredible performances. Taylor gives equal weight to her motherly role and the more extreme sides she is required to portray. Farminga plays Lorraine Warren with a sense of steeled fragility that can be felt in every scene. She is wildly successful in letting the audience know exactly how much she gives of herself to help others. These are great performances for the genre and I hope the tradition continues.

James Wan is responsible for some of the best horror movies of the last decade and he continues his streak here. The Conjuring will proudly sit amongst his filmography along the likes of Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious. His direction for each movie feels different and plot based. Saw may be his biggest hit and he wisely left the series before it devolved into self-parody. Each subsequent effort sees him sharpening his horror skills. Here he revels in 1970’s feel both in terms of actual plot line and his directorial style. Wan is quickly becoming a name that we can trust in the horror genre much like Craven and Carpenter. He has years to go to catch up to those names, but the films so far show immense potential.

The Conjuring is a legitimate horror hit. It strikes the right tone and lets mood, atmosphere, and performances guide the film to its scares. These coupled with the practical effects make this a horror film worth checking out. It certainly gives it distinction from the scores of awful horror films released year after year. I, for one, hope the genre will continue in this path and James Wan has my sincere best wishes for the future.

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Turbo

Turbo is the kind of kids movie they need to make more often. It was witty, original, funny, engrossing, and well made. It delivered a solid and well-intentioned message for children and managed to create tension and conflict without resorting to an over the top villain that would be too scary and out of place for the target audience. This is a welcome addition to the children’s film market and I much preferred it over the likes of Despicable Me 2. While that film felt like a cute cash grab without a ton of substance, this film manages to feel mostly fresh and benefits from being funny throughout.

Turbo is the story of a snail that wants to be fast. After a freak accident reminiscent of Spider-Man’s origins our lead character (Theo voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is given superpowers that allow him to move at speeds of upwards of 200 miles per hour. Theo has always dreamed of competing in the Indy 500 and now he just may have his chance. Theo has a brother named Chet (Paul Giamatti) who represents safety and is typical of the snail community at large. Chet wants Theo to settle down and stop dreaming of something that he can’t have. Through a series of dangerous encounters Chet and Theo find themselves in the hands of a taco shop owner (Tito voiced by Michael Pena) with dreams of something bigger. After hours at the strip mall where the taco stand is located Tito and his strip mall shop owner friends race snails for amusement. This group of racing snails is led by Whiplash who is voiced to perfection by Samuel L. Jackson. In typical kids movie fashion, Theo learns from this ragtag group of individuals about achieving your dreams and striving for the things you want out of life. After a raucous 20 minutes or so of fundraising to get the entry fee Tito, Theo, and the rest are off to the Indy 500.

There are life lessons throughout the film as there always are in movies of this sort, but I found them to be endearing and honest. Go for your dreams. Don’t live in fear. Don’t let someone else determine your life for you. All of these are good messages for kids to hear and I felt that they were delivered in a way that will allow them to be understood. I’m always grateful when a kids movie has convictions to stand behind that are a little more substantial than toy sales. I recommend this as a good family fare choice and probably one of the better animated movies to come out in the last few years.

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Silver Linings Playbook

A romantic comedy doesn’t need to be fluff. There is the possibility of telling a story that is both romantic and funny all the while being grounded in realism and letting any tension come as a natural result of the characters’ actions. There doesn’t need to be a forced third act. There doesn’t need to be stilted dialogue and character contrivances. One only needs to look at any Katherine Heigl movie to see everything that can go wrong with a romantic comedy. On the other end of the spectrum we have Silver Linings Playbook. This is a film so good that it may be my favorite movie of 2012.

David O. Russell directs this film about making connections among flawed individuals. Every character feels authentic under his direction. Russell has directed some stellar films in the past with perhaps his best known being Three Kings and The Fighter. He was also responsible for I Heart Hukabees which I believe to be underrated. Russell has famously clashed with at least one actor on nearly all of his sets, but the results always tend towards the fabulous.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star as Pat and Tiffany. Pat has just been released from a mental hospital after having a breakdown when he caught his wife cheating on him. He is diagnosed as Bi-polar and Bradley Cooper plays this amazingly well. He is always on the verge of losing control and it is taking everything he has to keep it together. While visiting with his old friends he is introduced to Tiffany who is a recent widow and has been fired for her sexual escapades around the office. Tiffany is also desperately trying to hold herself together and find her place in the world. They clash and disagree in a way that feels natural in two people that aren’t sure how to trust. Bradley Cooper is perfect in this film. Jennifer Lawrence is every bit as good. Coming off of Winter’s Bone Lawrence is showing that she has the capability to carry a movie solely on the strength of her performances. She is a force and her future is bright indeed, although, Cooper’s performance was more surprising to me. Bradley Cooper has made his name by playing pretty boys with frat boy mentalities. Limitless showed a glimpse of some depth, but was ultimately wasted on the film. Here he shines through. His performance doesn’t appear forced or contrived. His character has deep flaws that influence his actions and Cooper doesn’t shy away from them. He lets Pat be a real person and in doing so lets him be the man the audience wants him to be.

Silver Linings Playbook also has the distinction of being the film that reminds us that Robert De Niro can actually act. De Niro has phoned in most of his performances for the last decade or so, but here he plays Pat Sr. and gives a touching performance as a dad who struggles not only with trying to understand a son with a mental disability, but with his own as well. Pat Sr. has OCD (and likely Bi-polar as well) and he tries to filter all of his interactions through his experiences with Philadelphia Eagles games. Someone that doesn’t fit into his ideas of what life should be about baffle him and De Niro lets the puzzlement influence his performance. He is wonderful in this supporting role.

The supporting cast all around is very solid with especially good performances being turned in by Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker. For the record, this is Tucker’s first role that wasn’t in a Rush Hour movie since Jackie Brown in 1997.

Silver Linings Playbook may have been the best film of 2012. It certainly at least deserves to be in the conversation. This is a film about trying to find yourself all over again after everything has gone wrong even while the deck is stacked against you. It’s about building trust and learning how to navigate a world that doesn’t care about you. It’s also about defying the traditions of a genre. Love doesn’t happen the way Hollywood normally depicts it. David O. Russell has helmed a fantastic film that takes the tropes of romantic comedies and turns them on their heads merely by introducing realistic characters that act in a realistic ways. This film shows that love exists in the real world. It may be difficult and maddening, but it’s there. Love may not “overcome” mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that those afflicted can’t find hope. There’s always a silver lining, you just need to look for it.

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Pacific Rim

The mark of a great movie is the desire to see it again right after it’s over. I want to see Pacific Rim again and again and again. Everything that Transformers did wrong Pacific Rim does right. It is a new age monster movie as only Guillermo del Toro can bring us and it is a visual treat that is so splendidly done that it more than makes up for a lackluster plot or flat dialogue. The film is straightforward with its narrative and can be summed up by saying robots versus sea monsters.

The greatest accomplishment of del Toro is his ability to bring his visions to the screen fully formed. The robots (Jaegers) look and feel real world functional. The sea monsters (Kaiju) seem like a distinct race. Even if they are an homage to the old rubber monster suit movies these monsters give the distinct impression that they have a society of their own. There are hints of their intelligence throughout the film and the glimpses we get of their interaction make the audience aware that there is more than wanton destruction as an endgame.

Del Toro is able to slide pure sci-fi elements into the movie and make them feel completely natural. I have always felt that the best sci-fi films are the ones that treat their world as if the characters actually live there. People in the real world don’t usually explain things to each other that are commonplace. Such is as it should be when an idea that is fantastical to us wouldn’t be to the characters. Pacific Rim exemplifies this by things like a “neural handshake” that allows the minds of two people to be linked. While the effects of this process may be discussed there is no focus on the process itself. Such exposition bogs down the story and it is usually a hindrance. This film wonderfully treats its world as natural and gives the audience credit for following along.

The basic plot is that the Kaiju have slowly made their presence known to the world by way of a rift under the ocean. This portal allows them to travel into the world and wreak havoc. As would likely be the case, a gigantic sea monster the size of a city does incredible amounts of damage and takes massive amounts of firepower and ingenuity to defeat. Humans develop a robot that is several skyscrapers tall and is controlled from within by two pilots. The Jaegers work beautifully for awhile until the Kaiju adapt. The war has begun. We then follow the pilots of the last remaining Jaegers in their attempt to save humanity once and for all.

The cast is filled with relative unknowns for the summer blockbuster crowd. Idris Elba leads as the military man in charge. The hotshot pilot is played by Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and the lead scientist is played by Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). There is also a small role for del Toro favorite Ron Perlman. That is about all the cast that I recognized. That is not at all to say that the rest of the cast is ineffective in any way. Quite the opposite in fact.

Giant battle scenes encompass a large majority of this film. Unlike Transformers however, Pacific Rim gives these battles weight and a sense of realism. Wisely, del Toro sets most of the action just off the coast. The ocean backdrop gives the space needed for the action to breathe and lets the Jaegers and Kaiju experience a full range of motion. This also allows for the extra benefit of making the landfall scenes more gigantic in scope. It is only when we are given buildings and other such objects from our world that we truly come to understand the size of these creatures. There is such an epic sense of grandiosity to this film and del Toro and his effects crew do a masterful job of making every shot of wonder exist in a way that feels real. Filmmakers responsible for things such as Oz the Great and Powerful should look no further than this film for an example of how to integrate cgi. The Kaiju look like they actually take up space in the world that they exist in. They are not merely graphics laid on top of a backdrop of our world. These are computer graphics done as well as I’ve ever seen them done.

Guillermo del Toro makes movies I love. I have a fanboy crush on his films. Pacific Rim is now at the top of that list. This is the kind of summer blockbuster spectacle I want to see. I loved every frame of this film and I can’t wait to see it again.

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