INDIEWATCH: ‘Fruitvale Station’ (mostly) worth the hype

“Fruitvale Station” was one of the most anticipated indie films of the year for me.
It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Best First Film at Cannes. That mixed with the hoopla around the film’s star, Michael B. Jordan, and I was ready for an experience.
And I got one.

“Fruitvale” is a look at the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was shot in 2009 while handcuffed, lying face down in the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway station in Oakland, Calif. That said, knowing the events of the shooting won’t diminish this trip into one man’s humanity.

Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz in "Fruitvale Station."

Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz in “Fruitvale Station.”

It opens with Oscar (Jordan) and Sophina (Melonie Diaz) sharing their New Year’s resolutions, and his is to stop selling “trees.” As “Fruitvale” unfolds, he’s fallen on hard times: he’s lost his job and the rent is due, and we watch Oscar contemplate the right choices. Watching him engage with his girlfriend, daughter and mother, feel-goody love flows from the screen. But writer/director Ryan Coogler was mindful not to overdo it — he establishes Oscar as a good man through tiny and realistic exchanges.

Oscar calls his grandmother for a grocery store customer who needs help with a fish fry. He has mercy on a stray dog. He sneaks his daughter an extra pack of fruit snacks. Watching this character so closely, I was a huge fan of this guy’s heart.

Octavia Spencer in “Fruitvale.”

That had a lot to do with Jordan’s portrayal, and the cast is full of heavy-hitters: Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Diaz. In one pivotal scene, Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Spencer) visits him in prison. Jordan emits tender and loving engagement before flipping the switch to rage when confronted by another inmate. I was shocked he’d thrown down in front of his mom, but it felt realistic and believable.

Jordan delivered in every scene with the same emotional depth and candor. Spencer worked as the heart of this film, bringing crushed, nuanced emotion with a slight crack of the voice, and Diaz can bounce between sassy indignation and forgiveness at the drop of a hat.

This film was well-written, as Coogler guides audiences through Oscar’s history through some key flashbacks. The cinematography felt gritty and the dialogue genuine. It’s obvious Coogler knows effective storytelling, though one criticism I have is there’s too much foreshadowing to Oscar’s shooting.

“The fireworks sound like guns”: Oscar (Jordan) talks to his daughter one last time.

Oscar’s daughter is scared because the fireworks sound like gunshots. He asks his girlfriend to stay home that fateful night, but she declines. He has a chance meeting with a business owner who could change his career path for the better. It felt a bit overdone, forced and possibly manipulative in an effort to ramp up the tragedy of an already heartbreaking ending.

That said, this is Coogler’s first film. The shooting touched his home community, and he lived through the riots that exploded afterward, so it makes sense that this story bears a lot of weight for him. This film haunted me for days, so I’ll watch anything Coogler makes from now on.

“Fruitvale Station” lifts you to an emotional high of love and redemption then slams you down to face the realities of injustice. One commenter on the DVD extra features said “Once we see everyone as human beings, we’ll all be better off.” I think raising awareness to that may be “Fruitvale’s” greatest achievement.

It’s definitely worth a watch, though have a sunny movie on deck as a palate cleanser.

Grade: B-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix rental.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: Duhamel goes splendidly psycho in ‘Scenic Route’

Josh Duhamel stars as the better half of an old-friend duo whose car breaks down in the middle of the California desert. Dan Fogler plays Carter, the aloof author friend, who is holding onto the college glory days. Looking at these two characters, even their wardrobe screams they have different priorities. Mitchell (Duhamel) touts a baby blue polo and khakis, and Carter wears a nondescript T-shirt and unkempt curly hair.

When their truck breaks down, Mitchell, in a casted foot, limps to find cellphone reception, as Carter scampers behind. Panic sets in when they can’t find a signal, and they realize they have no food or water.

Dreamy Josh Duhamel in “Scenic Route.”

I didn’t realize how much this scenario freaked me out until I watched this film, and “Scenic Route” plays off of that fear that when man is pitted against nature — nature and primitive instincts win.

Carter reveals he staged the breakdown, so they could have more time to reconnect, but his version of reconnecting is personally attacking Mitchell’s switch to domesticity. As temperatures rise, the film devolves into violence and a barbaric face-off at a realistic pace.

I’d only ever seen Duhamel in romantic movies (“Safe Haven”) or popcorn blockbusters (“Transformers”). “Scenic Route” unravels like a David Mamet play: heavy dialogue, visceral emotion and no exploding cars or machinery to deter from the actors. Duhamel brings the rage and the intricate despair as their abandonment from civilization stretches across days. Fogler and Duhamel play off of each other so well, it’s believable they were besties at some point — necessary for this mostly two-person film.

THE DESERT CHANGES PEOPLE: Duhamel and Dan Fogler are at odds with nature — and each other.

Relatively green directors Michael Goetz and Kevin Goetz know how to use and — most importantly — avoid overusing music to set the tone. When conditions put each character’s sanity into question, directors Goetz ham up siren-like background music so well, it was reminiscent an Alfred Hitchcock film (in only that regard).

Screenwriter Kyle Killen plays up the desert as another character in “Scenic Route”: the heat and isolation acting as the biggest facilitators of madness. You feel the mercury and tension rising, and I was increasingly uncomfortable and engaged. I doubt I’d rewatch this — which means everyone involved executed their jobs to a tee.

No spoilers, but some would say the ending was a bit predictable. I say that even if I saw it coming, I was still on the edge of my seat and anxious at the prospect.

If you want to see Duhamel exercise his acting chops and rock a mohawk, “Scenic Route” is worth a watch.

Grade: B-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: ‘Blackfish’ questions who’s in charge when man mixes with the wild

If you watch one documentary this year, let it be “Blackfish.”

It traces the capture and confinement of Tilikum, a killer whale, who dismembered Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau during a live show in 2010.

This wasn’t Tilikum’s first murder, which poses the question: Why was he working with other trainers? “Blackfish” digs for answers to this and why highly intelligent and emotional mammals would kill.

Dawn Brancheau (right) with Tilikum, the killer whale who would later take her life during a Seaworld show on Feb. 24, 2010.

Former trainers who worked with Tilikum, whale researchers and a neuroscientist offer insight into orca behaviors in the wild and in captivity. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite shows Tilikum’s capture by whale hunters, his abuse by other whales and the conditions of his confinement, which rocked me to the core. As a huge animal lover, I ugly-cried.

Brancheau’s death wasn’t an isolated incident, as “Blackfish” exposes attacks on trainers at different Seaworld sites.

In one horrific scene, a whale repeatedly pulls her trainer under water for 60 to 80 seconds at a time. She lets him go, grabs him again and repeats for several minutes. An extremely calculated game of cat and mouse, and the cat weighs 11,000 pounds. In another scene, a whale pile-drives a trainer as he’s riding another orca, crushing his body during a live show.

They’re adorable, charismatic and dangerous.

“Blackfish” questions why, with these attacks, Seaworld trainers were still allowed to work with whales. Former trainers offer an answer in the reputation of killer whales as friendly, cuddly animals is important to the industry.

Footage of Dawn Brancheau swimming with orcas is mixed with court reports of the Seaworld v. OSHA case, which argues that trainers cannot be in the water with whales.

OSHA won. Seaworld appealed, and after all of these whale attacks, why would this organization fight to get trainers back in the water with dangerous animals?

There are so many angles to this complicated look at this industry, but director Cowperthwaite gives audiences a well-researched and perfectly executed film.

“Blackfish” broke my heart, devastated and disgusted me.

It’s worth streaming and discussing.

Immediately.

Grade: A++

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant

 IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: ‘What Maisie Knew’ a complex story through the gaze of an uncomplicated storyteller

“What Maisie Knew” chronicles the disintegration of a family in present-day New York City as seen through the eyes of the 7-year-old title character (Onata Aprile).
The film opens as Maisie’s mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), carries her to bed.

Susanna asks “What do you want me to sing to you?” and Maisie says “What did you sing to me when I was little?” Susanna eventually grabs a guitar and sings a smoky, stylized rendition of “Rockabye Baby,” and in this small interaction, it’s clear that lullabies are rare and mother and daughter have an unconventional relationship.

The following scenes are loaded with character tells.

During Maisie’s first interaction with her father, Beale (Steve Coogan in the first dramatic role I’ve seen him play), it’s not clear if he’s speaking to his daughter to flirt with her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham).

Susanna and Beale’s arguments preoccupy them to the point where Maisie fixes her own dinner of sandwich and chips.

Susanna escorts Maisie away from her father Beale. (This kid’s a rockstar.)

As her parents separate, she’s used as fodder in their vicious battle for custody, and both manipulate her for information that could be used against the other. As a viewer, it’s painful to watch this story unfold, but what makes this different from other dysfunctional family dramas is the perspective of its main character.

Maisie views each parental misstep without judgment. (And as a viewer, you’re really judging them.)

Beale tells Maisie he’s moving to London and will see her when he returns for business. Maisie hops on his lap, hugs and kisses him. She waves goodbye simply, unexpectedly and lovingly — without spite or hatred.

This genuine action invokes Beale’s first sign of humanity in this film. Acts like this in “What Maisie Knew” are made more affecting as they’re juxtaposed against adult cruelties. Though not all adults in this film are bitter.

Maisie finds comfort and companionship in her nanny and her new stepfather, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), who is himself also childlike.

Maisie

Maisie and Lincoln are bros.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In their first one-on-one encounter, he jaywalks onto a Manhattan street as she awaits the crosswalk signal.

“I guess we should wait,” he says. When the light changes, Maisie lifts her hand to his, and in a beautifully nuanced moment, it’s unclear who’s looking after whom. Though, what’s made wildly evident is their protectiveness of each other has begun.

What’s amazing about this film is storytelling through a child’s perspective allows viewers to see flawed humanity as she does — without disdain. Maisie is more forgiving, more respectful and more mature than many of the adults in her life. And what’s so inspiring is her capability of handling life’s curveballs with grace.

Onata Aprile plays Maisie with remarkable candor. Coogan delivers drama with subtle depth (I’d love to see more of this), and I kind of despised Moore, which means she’s executed her role perfectly. The cinematography in wide-reaching shots, vivid and simplistic composition — along with peppered camera placement below and then level with adults — reinforced the heart of this film.

So, what did Maisie know?

Life is complicated, but to her, love is straightforward. And that’s a lesson of which many adult viewers could use a reminder.

Grade: A

Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile, Alexander Skarsgard.

Screenplay: Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright.

Novel: Henry James.

Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel.

Time: 1:39.

Rated: R for some language.

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

REVIEW: The pros and cons of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

Ben Stiller is so charismatic and comedic, it was a wonder to see him play flat and boring as the title character in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Walter is a daydreamer to his own detriment, imagining over-the-top retorts to his new “boss” (Adam Scott) and romantic entanglements with his  co-worker (Kristen Wiig). Before the film sets off, I was worried his daydreaming would get old fast, as you want a main character who is present, but this set-up made the transition from inaction to action that much more wondrous.

Here are the pros and cons of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Walter, man, PAY ATTENTION

 

  • PRO: The players. Ben Stiller delivers an intricate performance of a bump on a log, and watching him shed his hard exterior is what makes this movie. I LOVED seeing Kristen Wiig play subtle and encouraging. She’s so talented and multifaceted, I’m jazzed to see what she brings us next. Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn (all lead actors) played supporting characters to a tee.
  • CON: Patton Oswalt has a cameo as a strange eHarmony customer service rep who intermittently calls Walter after fulfilling his duties. It was distracting (stalker?) and a bit forced all for one chance meeting later. I imagine this character was a way to further represent Walter’s metamorphosis, but it was blatantly unrealistic, unnecessary and kind of a waste of Oswalt.
  • PRO: OMG, the landscapes. This is THE PERFECT film to watch while most of us are cast into wintry darkness in the Midwest. So lush and beautiful are Walter’s travels that even though I didn’t want to be hiking the Himalayas or in a freezing ocean in Greenland, I loved being transported there while sitting safely in the movie theater.
  • CON: There’s no real concept of time. When Walter returns to the U.S., he’s tan and his wardrobe has changed. You think he’s been backpacking foreign countries for a month, but it’s only been about a week. That makes his physical transformation seem less valid, though that’s a minor criticism for what this film represents: taking chances and living life.

    STEPPING OUTSIDE THE BOX: Possibly the first time we see Walter’s pearly whites


    OTHER NOTABLES: 

  • Sean Penn’s character, the elusive photographer who takes an unlikely interest in the photo tech at LIFE Magazine, seemed extremely unlikely. The payoff, in one devastatingly beautiful moment, makes this minor critique a bit moot.
  • SUBLIME use of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and director Ben Stiller(!) was sure to immerse audiences in the various countries on screen, including locals and glancing at the core of different cultures and the magic that follows when we escape the confines of ourselves.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is worth 8 bucks at the theater as it makes for a more affecting journey. Watch it.

Grade: B+ 

INDIEWATCH: ‘Drinking Buddies’ a sober story about romantic relationships — and beer

It’s hard for me to picture Olivia Wilde as anyone other than “Thirteen” from the TV show “House.” Even watching her in “TRON: Legacy,” I thought “Thirteen can really rock a short haircut,” but she breaks the mold in “Drinking Buddies.”

Wilde plays Kate, who’s extremely chummy with her brewery co-worker Luke, (Jake Johnson). They flirt like middle-schoolers, making lunch dates and playing with each other’s food.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg sets the stage, so you’re sure they’re a couple until Luke’s girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), joins them at a bar. Later, Kate meets her beau, Chris, played by Ron Livingston (and it’s a wonder to see him in such an uptight role).

Luke (Jake Johnson) and Jill (Anna Kendrick) in “Drinking Buddies.”

The couples meet during an anniversary party for the brewery. Luke and Kate joke and tease while Chris and Jill discuss literature and do-gooding. Emotional ambivalence runs rampant when the four double-date to a cottage for the weekend. Luke and Kate play drinking games while Chris and Jill hike the trails. It’s kind of grossly evident that they should do a permanent couple swap, but seeing the story unfold and the players deliver is what makes this worth watching.

Wilde knocks it out of the park. She executes nuanced emotion with skill and sass, and I look forward to seeing her in more leading roles. It was nice to see Johnson (“New Girl”) wax dramatic. He definitely has the acting chops for mixing comedy with drama. Even under a grizzly man beard, he brings charm and a comfortable swagger to this character, who, off the cuff, you may wonder why two chicks are into him. He and Wilde’s chemistry was so spot-on, I thought they could work as a couple in real life.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Chris (Ron Livingston) in “Drinking Buddies.”

“Drinking Buddies” is set in Chicago, and many scenes were filmed in a brewery or a hole-in-the-wall bar, all of which reinforce the film’s humble, down-to-earth tone. Director Swanberg had the actors drink real beer in this movie that’s mostly improvised. Nice choice, as the dialogue felt natural and spontaneous. Swanberg masterfully omits and includes storytelling elements to the film’s advantage. I was consistently surprised and engaged. (No spoilers.)

Though the plot may sound familiar to anyone who’s had unconsummated feelings for a friend, “Drinking Buddies” is delightfully unpredictable in its storytelling. I’d definitely buy it if it weren’t available on streaming. It’s so worth a watch.

Grade: A-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: Michael Cera steps outta the mold in ‘Crystal Fairy’

Two things drew me to “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus”: the title and Michael Cera.

As with many indie movies, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was certain of two things: Cera (of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Superbad”) would have me laughing and admiring him, as usual.

But that’s where I was wrong.

The film opens in Chile as Jamie (Cera) is on the hunt for a hallucinogenic cactus. At a party, he meets Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), a philosophical free spirit, and they quickly click in a drugged-out exchange. Jamie invites Crystal to join him and his friends on a road trip to the ocean, where they intend to “do cactus.”

As their journey begins, Jamie is increasingly hostile to Crystal through adolescent passive-aggression and an attempted mutiny. To his friends, he offers to leave her at a gas station, and the root of his animosity is unclear. I’ve never disliked Michael Cera so much in any movie, which means he played the part wonderfully.

Michael Cera is a lover of cacti in “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus.”

As the perfect counterpart to Jamie’s negativity, Hoffmann is magnetic in her portrayal of Crystal. She’s scraggly, earthy and seemingly unaware of societal convention. On the first night of their trip, she walks through their shared hostel room naked, offering rocks to help the group “open their chakras.” Her personal freedom seems to increasingly threaten Jamie, as he further lashes out. (I think this is the scene that gave “Crystal Fairy” its NR rating.)

Their road trip takes them across far-reaching landscapes in Chile, and the cinematography plays up the atmosphere as another character in this character study. I was really impressed with writer/director Sebastian Silva’s use of scenery to illustrate Jamie and Crystal’s individual high-on-cactus experiences.

The storytelling is a bit amiss, notably for an awkward character twist in the last act — and it ends a bit abruptly. Though, as a whole, “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus” is worth streaming — if for anything, to see Michael Cera exercise his acting ability.

Grade: C+

“Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” (2013)

Starring: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann.

Writer/Director: Sebastian Silva.

Time: 1:38

Rating: NR

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: ‘Frances Ha’ a refreshing twist on a classic breakup story

Greta Gerwig stars in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest film, “Frances Ha,” about a 27-year-old dancer whose No. 1 talent is being a best friend.

The film opens with a montage of Frances (Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) scampering through New York City, tap dancing in Central Park, holding hands and snuggling in bed. When Sophie opts to move out of their Brooklyn apartment, Frances floats through roommates and apartments in the boroughs of New York. She struggles with money and motivation, and as a viewer, it’d be easy to get frustrated with her if it weren’t for Gerwig’s performance.

She’s an absolute joy to watch, and she makes awkward and aloof incredibly charming and comical.

In one scene, Frances is on a date with Lev (Adam Driver) and her credit card is declined. She says “I’m so embarrassed, I’m not a real person yet,” so genuinely and innocently that you can’t be embarrassed for her.

Mickey Sumner (left) and Greta Gerwig star in “Frances Ha.”

Later, Lev tries to make a move on Frances and she shuts him down in the most startling, awkward and hilarious way. In another scene, Frances jets to Paris with a credit card she recently “got in the mail” and wastes two days sleeping  and walking the streets alone.

As a viewer, you don’t feel sorry for her thanks to Baumbach’s (director of “The Squid and the Whale” and “About Schmidt”) masterful talent at mixing drama with comedy.

Gerwig shares writing credits with Baumbach on this screenplay that screams Woody Allen (another reason to love it, as far as I’m concerned). It’s filmed in black and white, its main character is quirky and neurotic and its dialogue is subtle and hilarious (I laughed out loud and replayed parts to laugh again).

“Frances Ha” is a hilarious look at recovering from the hangover of a breakup — of any relationship — and finding yourself along the way. If it weren’t on streaming, I’d buy it. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Grade: B+

 “Frances Ha”

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner.

Director: Noah Baumbach.

Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig.

Time: 1:26

Rated: R for sexual references and language.

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

INDIEWATCH: ‘The Other F Word’ a compelling insight into punk rocker fatherhood

I know little about punk rock as a genre or social movement, but that made documentary “The Other F Word” that much more compelling.

It follows some of punk rock’s front-men — Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jim Lindberg of Pennywise and much more — and documents the growing pains from very public nihilism to fatherhood.

“Punk rock was supposed to be about no responsibility, no rules,” says Lindberg. “How did we go from rebelling against our own parents to becoming parents ourselves?” And that’s the heart of this documentary.
Filmmaker Andrea Blaugrund Nevins presents the origin of punk, and rockers Art Alexakis (Everclear) and Jack Grisham (T.S.O.L) say what drew them in was their own disjointed relationships with their fathers.

Nevins juxtaposes footage of rockers in mosh pits with them as adults, pushing their children on swing sets. She even touches on the question, how do other parents react to punk rocker dads.

My favorite answer was from Lars Frederiksen of Rancid. After questioning whether he should’ve had his forehead tattooed, he says “Hopefully, I can instill in my son that you respect people on merit, not on the way they look.”

Lars Frederiksen of Rancid pushes his son on a playground swing set.

I loved seeing aging rockers Lindberg and Tony Adolescent of The Adolescents get into character for their fans. One’s sucking on an inhaler, the other’s dyeing his hair and covering a receding hairline with a baseball hat. Fat Mike, from NOFX, says he drinks everyday while on tour to help him play the part.

“The Other F Word” also looks at the philosophical crises these punk revolutionaries face with the changes in the music industry, maintaining an artistic integrity and providing for their kids. While this film doesn’t offer an answer, it does shed light on the choices they’ve made, which is family comes first.

Michael Burkett, aka Fat Mike, of punk band NOFX, smiles with his daughter, Darla.

It was funny and intriguing throughout, save for a couple of minor hang-ups.

The big reveal is way obvious — even if you don’t follow music news. (No spoilers.) And viewers are introduced to former Black Flag frontman Ron Reyes and his kids while they’re buying his album at a record store (eesh).

Those criticisms aside, “The Other F Word” shows such inspiring and insightful perspectives from punk fathers that I teared up more than once. It’s a hopeful look at how men from rough backgrounds aren’t exempt from the changes that come with parenthood — and also how those backgrounds can provide more motivation to be a good father.

It’s worth a watch.

Grade: B

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

“The Other F Word” (2011)

Starring: Tony Adolescent, Jim Lindberg, Flea, Tony Hawk.

Writer/Director: Andrea Blaugrund Nevins.

Time: 1:38

Rating: NR

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.