Tag Archives: B+

FRUITVALE STATION

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B+

With its national release coinciding with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, Ryan Coogler’s semi-documentary dramatization of the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, a young African-American man, by a San Francisco transit cop in 2009 carries an especially powerful wallop. But “Fruitvale Station”—the name of the subway stop where the tragedy occurred in the early hours of New Year’s Day—would be a viscerally wrenching experience in any context. Filled with foreboding from the first frame but stylistically naturalistic, it recreates the incident from the dead man’s perspective in a way that makes it unbearably sad while raising questions about the state of our purportedly “post racial” society—and no little anger at how the judicial system handled the result.

Michael B. Jordan draws a charismatic figure as Grant, who’s portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive light despite indications of his troubled background. Over the course of the hours preceding the shooting—shown upfront in grainy camera-phone footage taken by onlookers that turned the incident into a cause célèbre—Coogler stacks the deck by depicting Grant leading a loving domestic life with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their little daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), preparing for his mother’s birthday celebration, making a decision to get out of drug-dealing, tending to a stray dog hit by a passing car, and helpfully putting a grocery shopper (Ahna O’Reilly)in touch with his grandmother (Marjorie Shears) about a cooking issue—all while struggling with his own financial problems and agreeing to help his sister with her rent. But while the portrait is undoubtedly an admiring one, the film does use flashbacks to show Grant in prison—presumably over his involvement in the drug trade—and having an argument with his mother Wanda (Olivia Spencer) over his incarceration, as well as arguing with his boss over the job he’s lost because of his failure to show up on time. So while the picture drawn of Grant shows some serious flaws, it basically shows a man trying to turn his life around.

Similarly, the recreation of the events of New Year’s Eve and its aftermath portrays Grant in a positive light—persuading a ship-owner to open his restroom not only for his girlfriend but for a pregnant woman as well—and trying to avoid trouble on the train ride back home, and whether it’s accurate or not, the presence on the train of not only a fellow Grant had irritated in jail but the woman he’s helped earlier in the day (who becomes one of the people who record what happens) strains credulity. There’s also more of a hint of the thug to the chief cop (Kevin Durand) who overreacts to the ruckus on the train. But overall the incident is portrayed in an emotionally effective way, and certainly the hospital scenes that follow are potent, with Spencer bringing all her dramatic heft to a mother’s torment while struggling to keep others from turning violent. The final printed report on how the case played out legally doesn’t have to italicize things in order to point out how imperfectly the justice system operates when it comes to such episodes—a lesson the nation has recently relearned.

There will, of course, be those who complain that “Fruitvale Station” is one-sided, and that’s a valid observation. Whether it’s a valid criticism is another matter. Coogler’s film undoubtedly presents the incident from the point of view of Grant and his family and friends, and in the process it may well go the extra mile in making their case. But it does so expertly from the perspective of activist filmmaking, with Coogler’s direction enhanced by Rachel Morrision’s camerawork, which uses the handheld technique without causing seasickness, and the crisp editing of Michael P. Shawyer and Claudia S. Castello, who bring the picture in at a brisk 85 minutes. Others can offer different takes on the circumstances of Grant’s death if they choose. But they’ll find it difficult to equal the compelling quality of this one, which is not only emotionally devastating but, at a time when yet another such incident has gripped the nation, should help encourage much-needed reflection about the realities of life for many in present-day America.

WORLD WAR Z

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B+

Pictures with “troubled” production histories usually turn out badly, but there are exceptions to the rule, and Marc Forster’s loose adaptation of Max Brooks’ best-seller is one of them. Despite release delays and reports of major rewrites, reshoots and post-production tinkering, “World War Z” turns out to be, despite a huge budget, a lean, mean zombie machine that builds enormous tension by speeding through a succession of nail-biting set pieces and shows signs of misguided tweaking only in a closing montage that ends the picture on a flat note.

A sort of big brother to “28 Days Later,” the film postulates the outbreak of a world-wide epidemic that turns those bitten by the already-infected into ravenous “undead” in a mere ten seconds or so. Forster and his screenwriters waste no time in setting the plot in motion, thrusting Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and their two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) into a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia that turns into a zombie-driven riot. Lane, who’s given up a job as a United Nations investigator to spend more time with his family, contacts his former boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena), who arranges for their extraction from the roof of a nearby high-rise—which requires their surviving a race up the stairwells with the undead in full pursuit.

Taken to an aircraft carrier that’s serving as the international command center for response to the contagion, Lane is persuaded to head to Korea and seek the origin of the plague. Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), the scientist he’s accompanying—the great hope of the expedition—proves less efficient than desired (only the first instance in which the film upends expectations), but Lane is given a hint by an imprisoned CIA agent (David Morse) and soon is off to Jerusalem, which is using its security walls to provide a sanctuary for the unaffected and where he confers with the Mossad agent (Ludi Boeken) in charge of the operation. From there he’s off on a harrowing flight to a W.H.O. facility in Wales, accompanied by a wounded Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz), where he persuades the staff to attempt a dangerous test that won’t end the epidemic, but could afford mankind a modicum of defense against the zombies. Unfortunately, putting his plan into effect requires a nerve-wracking incursion into a part of the complex filled with undead workers, all poised to attack at the drop of a pin since they’re attracted by sound.

Even if you find the story’s premise pretty preposterous, it’s undeniable that Forster, working closely with cinematographer Ben Seresin and editors Roger Barton and Matt Chesse, has fashioned a chain of action sequences remarkable for the suspense and sudden shocks they generate. Some are very large-scaled—the initial Philadelphia melee, the Jerusalem rampage. Others are more confined—the escape at a Korean airport, that frightening flight to Wales. And others are practically claustrophobic, like the last-act intrusion of the undead hive at the W.H.O. facility. Forster stages all of them with remarkable skill, drawing incredible payoff from the sudden ringing of a phone, the sound of glass crunching underfoot or the clatter of a soft drink can kicked across a floor. And when special effects are called for, the behind-the-scenes crew delivers convincingly, with zombies that are individually pretty gruesome and collectively swarm like insects in search of prey in sequences that are positively epic in scope.

Pitt anchors the film with a performance that cannily conjoins his matinee idol persona with a scraggy everyman look. No one else gets a great deal of screen time—Matthew Fox, for instance, is virtually unrecognizable—but each supporting player maintains the straightfaced, almost documentary tone that keeps things from descending into unintentional comedy. (In fact, the jokes are few and far between here, with those that are present having a distinctly grim underpinning, like a throwaway explanation for how North Korea suppressed the infection within its borders, even though the rationale doesn’t make much sense.)

The secret to the success of “World War Z” is twofold. On the one hand, it plays the story straight, eschewing the tongue-in-cheek approach that must have been a strong temptation in today’s movie marketplace. And on the other, it hurtles along at a headlong pace, keeping quiet interludes—even those involving the Lane family—to a minimum and getting them over with quickly. The breathlessness of the approach is key to the movie working—and in retrospect, no one should care that it took some delay, rethinking and even reshooting to achieve it. The end result might be too grim and downbeat to match the popularity of more gung-ho, triumphant apocalyptic thrillers, but in quality terms it puts most of them to shame.