Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: "Fruitvale Station" is an Amazing Look at a Simple Life

Michael B. Jordan
As I have stated before, July was an abysmal month for quality movies. While films Blue Jasmine sneaked into the mix with amazing success, this was a limited release that seemed more predicated on an established director. Still, when Sundance's Grand Jury Prize winner Fruitvale Station finally came out, it almost seemed inevitable that it would get Oscar buzz. Partially because of current events, but also simply because it was a compelling character study. Is this story successful in bringing a flawed individual's life to the big screen, or is it overly sentimental for pointless reasons?

One of the most striking things about director Ryan Coogler's debut is that there are no frills to it. It doesn't strive for high artistic design. It is a simple story with realism akin to last year's spectacular Smashed.  In fact, despite having a troubled life, Oscar's day in the life story plays out almost as a man wanting a shot at redemption. He may occasionally be too rude, but his heart is in the right place no matter what his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) or mother (Octavia Spencer) suggests. The story doesn't create a sympathetic hero, but just humanize someone by removing the tropes. Oscar may have had a history of dealing drugs, but he isn't a lowlife. He is the type of person who helps wounded animals and promises a better future for his daughter (Ariana Neal).

In fact, Michael B. Jordan is almost too charismatic and makes Oscar one of the most fleshed out performances of the early Oscar season. Acting as a chameleon, he shifts his persona to fit the atmosphere, giving a diverse look at a single moment when everything feels hopeful. By the unfortunate end, we feel like we know Oscar well enough to have known his life story. This mostly comes with impressive physical ticks and word choices that subtly differentiate each interaction in the film. Nonetheless, in almost every case, Oscar defies the stereotype and almost makes it tragic to see him profiled in the third act.

The story itself is also one that elevates the film. The story of a tragic event that happened early on New Year's Day begins almost as an optimistic tale with a universal theme. Oscar wants to be a better man in the year to come. He wants to quit dealing drugs and get his grocery store job back. His optimism almost fits the atmosphere of the partying crowds and only makes it more jarring when the fun is taken away, revealing an act that gives the story deep significance as to why Oscar's life is worth telling. It is the loss of innocence, passion, and potential for a better life. While also covering numerous social-political race relations, it is mostly a tale of how important it is to be a good person.

This is only problematic in the sense that by the time that the third act begins, the tone shifts almost too rapidly. While not overstating the drama, it does manage to fall into a more familiar pattern of families mourning and uniting a community. This isn't so much the problem as how it was handled. This simple character study quickly tried to throw on heavier themes and resulted in making some elements of foreshadow feel a little heavy handed. It doesn't derail the film, but it doesn't add much to his post-death story worth sharing. However, it is something that needed to be said and at a brisk 85 minutes, it never grew wearisome. 

Coogler's debut is something that feels personal yet tangible. It takes current events and helps to humanize the victim in a way that manages to exploit action and not emotions. Thanks largely to Jordan's great performance, this film manages to soar just on the actors' charisma and presents a world that feels voyeuristic and interesting. It may not have a complex narrative nor may it look all that flashy, but Fruitvale Station is a slice of life that may already be well known, but somehow manages to be worthy of a fictional adaptation. 

Melonie Diaz
Let's get the obvious out of the way: yes, this film WILL get a Best Picture nomination. I long for the day when contemporary cinema is not looked down upon at the Oscars for nostalgic looks at history. Even if the film doesn't even clock 90 minutes, the story is very tight and to the point. It manages to create empathy perfectly and tells the unfortunate conclusion in a way that will probably speak to the Academy. Having pictures like Crash win Best Picture proves that the Academy isn't above films about race relations. Also, as Beasts of the Southern Wild proved, more urban cinema is starting to get respect. You can complain about length, but last year's nominee was only six minutes longer than Fruitvale Station.

It is also refreshing to see a shorter film getting acclaim. In the past month, majority of films have exceeded two hours and have made me question if films are too long. Even the idea that most of last year's nominees were really long (the worst offenders were close-to-three hour epics Django Unchained and Les Miserables). It is nice to see quality films told in shorter formats, and it almost felt like this ended abruptly in comparison. The heart and soul is some of the strongest that I have seen this year and it is definitely worth seeing for Michael B. Jordan alone. 

As of right now, Jordan should be the lead for Best Actor race based on films released so far. It isn't uncommon for black performers to get nominations for playing urban roles. Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day. It could be argued that Washington's track record is what gave him the advantage, but it is also the first of a pattern. Provided that the rest of the year doesn't overshadow the brilliant performance, Jordan is the first lock of the year. His charisma calls for it. Also, it helps that he is playing a real person, a personal bias for the Academy, as proven by last year's Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.

I am not sure that Fruitvale Station will be as accepted as Beasts of the Southern Wild despite, in my opinion, being superior. It isn't flashy enough nor does it feature Quvenzhane Wallis' scene stealing performance that set the record for youngest Best Actress nominee in history. I also feel that despite Coogler's achievement in making the story do the stylistic lifting, it wasn't flashy enough to get a Best Director nomination like Benh Zietlin. Despite being sold by the Weinstein Company in almost similar fashion, I feel like the film won't land as many nominations because of how little it looks like hard work.

At most, it may unfortunately get a bonus lift from recent events regarding Trayvon Martin. While it is still skeptical that it could win on this merit alone, I feel like the film's success is going to be how ironic its release was to the Zimmerman trial. At very least, it will help make this already fairly recent story more important. Provided that no film deals on social issues quite as strong, there is a good chance that this will pull through.

I also would like to believe that it is a lock for Best Original Screenplay for Coogler. Very few films have had that natural of a cadence this year, and the ones that have (StokerThe Place Beyond the Pines) are long shots. I am unsure what it will be nominated for otherwise, but Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay are the three that it definitely deserves. Few films so far are that close to impressive on any front.

On a few funny side notes: in a hypothetical situation where this film does deliver all of the major wins, it will have some historic marks. For starters, the 85 minute run time would make Fruitvale Station the shortest Best Picture winner in history, barely beating out 1955's Marty, which clocked in at 90 minutes. It would be a nice change of pace from the epics, but also would do wonders for shorter films that may get looked over because they aren't bloated to look bigger. The other fact is that if Michael B. Jordan wins Best Actor, it would be one of the first times in history that a winner in that category would have won an Oscar for playing someone named Oscar. I find both of these theories fascinating, and hope that this film stays strong as the rest of the nominees come out.

Do you think that Fruitvale Station will survive based on relevance to current events? Is anyone capable of topping Michael B. Jordan? Is any of the supporting cast worthy of a nomination?

1 comment:

  1. I have never seen an actor portray so many subtly different characters so effortlessly. After I saw fruitvale for the first time I caught probably just under half of the incredibly nuanced facial twitches that really make this performance authentic. After the fourth time I saw it, most recently, I realized that my prior description of JOrdan's performance completely fits the description of the movie on the whole. There are so many tiny ordinary-day-life type of divets in the plot that actually come full circle by the end that one cant deny the miraculous carefully formatting this retelling of a true story took on. And for this, Ryan Coogler is to be thanked. Yes, JOrdan's performance is undeniable and breathtaking, but I also believe that Coogler shines just as bright, if not very close. On the surface, this movie is pretty one dimensional and the story, on the surface, could be viewed as obvious. However, Coogler saw a lot of himself in Oscar Grant and dedicated himself not only to giving back Grant's humanity, but to also shed some very necessary light on the realities of racism in todays american society. But what truly marvels me about this movie is how real coogler and jordan were able to portray a perfect contrast of grant's potentials and flaws. It is this very contrast that makes this character study so thought provoking. On the surface this movie could come off as cliche, but the movie is deeper than that. The way coogler and jordan come together to make Grants seemingly ordinary story extraordinary is not cliche, in fact, I see it as innovation. So to end my little fruitvale ramble I can only say what is undeniable to me: Fruitvale Station is the most important movie I have seen in recent years, as far as real life problems and struggles go. Also, what is says about our society is hard to argue. Unless a movie can make me as emotional or thought provoked about what it means to be a good person and the unfairness of the reality of some aspects of our lives I dont think any movie should beat Fruitvale Station for the oscar in the categories of best actor, best picture, best director, and best OG screenplay. I highly recommend this movie to any and everyone. Its hella good, breh