Sunday, July 21, 2013


Without the verdict of the Zimmerman trial now etched into our nation's history, 26-year-old Ryan Coogler's debut "Fruitvale Station" would be no less powerful and resonant. But, with this film opening in the wake of that decision, there's no denying the added level of immediate relevance. An extremely well-made and well-acted film that already is timeless in its story of a young man's life cut short now becomes more timely than ever. This is essential viewing.

On New Year's Day in 2009 at 2:15 a.m. 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a Fruitvale station platform in Oakland, Calif. Writer/director Coogler's brisk 84-minute film traces back Oscar's final day in roughly a 24-hour period. We follow him in the course of a typical day. Waking up with his girlfriend, Sophia (Melonie Diaz), and young daughter, driving them to day care and work respectively and then preparing for a birthday party for his mother (Octavia Spencer). Along the way, we get a glimpse into his troubled past. Prior to his untimely death, Oscar is not painted as a saint; he's a multi-faceted man bridging the gap between his old ways and the new life he wants for his family.

Sophia has just caught Oscar cheating, he got fired from his job and a year ago was in jail for getting involved with drugs. A flashback takes us to Oscar's mom visiting him in the penitentiary. He's warm but rough-edged and temperamental, and their emotionally-charged exchange reveals a strained relationship. Flash forward to this day where Oscar is trying to get back on track. He's surrounded by love, and the film's naturalism in its shooting style -- knowing exactly how long to linger and when to cut away -- shows such human warmth, especially his undying love toward his daughter. On this day it looks like everything might work out, but we of course already know it doesn't.

Enter the tension-fueled scene on the Fruitvale station platform between Oscar, his group of friends and a testy police officer (Kevin Durand) -- a singular moment that seals Oscar's fate. Coogler opens his film with real footage taken from a witness' phone as the incident was circled with bystanders capturing footage. Juxtaposed to this, the scene becomes effectively jarring taking a moment of voyeurism and turning it into a pointed feeling of urgency and panic.

"Fruitvale Station" presents two major emerging talents. As a debut, Coogler's film is a powerhouse while at the same time modest and personal. And Jordan plays Oscar with an assured steady hand, balancing sincerity and ferocity. His performance should go on to awards consideration later this year next to Octavia Spencer, the movie's heart and soul. In the hospital waiting room, she calms the men's cries of injustice telling them they need to put all their energy toward Oscar's well-being. "Fruitvale" won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance, and no wonder. There's not a dry eye in the audience when the credits roll.


Co-writer/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon have delivered a simple summer pleasure and perfect alternative fare for the season with their "The Way, Way Back," a less major work than their co-written Oscar-winning "The Descendants" under the direction of Alexander Payne. The movie is like a mix of the coming-of-age turmoil found in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and the eclectic environment of "Adventureland" and is pegged as a comedy hailing from the team behind "Little Miss Sunshine." The lighthearted comedy, which is more pleasant and delightful than laugh-out-loud funny, is kept from being too frivolous by actually daring to break your heart bringing up honest truths about teenage angst and adolescence caught adrift in a family torn apart. It's drama that fittingly plays out like the beating, rushing currents of a wave pool.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) goes with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and new stepdad, Trent (Steve Carell), to a breezy beach house to spend the summer. While it may seem like a calming getaway, that's not the case for Duncan who's at battle with Trent whose oppressing attempt to remold a new family comes off as condescending and downright mean-spirited. Upon first arriving to the summer getaway, we're introduced to Allison Janney's boozy Betty, a whirlwind of a woman who's playful, sexual energy lights up the screen. She also comes with her daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who looks as miserable to be there as Duncan.

While Duncan's parents laze around wining and dining with fellow vacationing couple, Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), Duncan takes refuge at the nearby waterpark, Water Wizz, where he meets an eclectic cast of characters (Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Maya Rudolph are among them) lead by the ringleader of the bunch, Owen, played effortlessly by Sam Rockwell. The actor has always been a commanding talent, wrapping his characters in personalities full of wonderful, endearing oddities. His Owen, a stand-in father figure and role model for Duncan, is no different. He shines and brings newcomer Liam James' character right out of his shell.

Also notable here is Carell playing perhaps for the first time a realistically unlikable character. He's unbeknownst to himself completely selfish and controlling. His relationship with new girlfriend Pam is like high school love and this summer vacation like a spring break for adults. After coasting along amiably, there's a moment in the film's third act that strikes a chord and might even put a lump in your throat as tensions come to a head and the reality of a newly forced family situation emerges. It raises the film's screenplay above some otherwise trite and non-organic moments sprinkled throughout.

Monday, July 1, 2013


The first thing to notice about Paul Feig's "The Heat" is that it's the first female buddy cop since, well, ever. The one disappointing part might be these two, Secret Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), can't just exist in a world where women in this line of work can be the norm. It's definitely brought up that they're in a man's world. But if any of the guys on the force have anything mysogonistic to say about it -- wise cracks about estrogen and vaginas -- they're always shot down. And sometimes, in the case of one guy, literally shot right in the head. These two over-40 actresses work it and make Paul Feig's follow-up to "Bridesmaids" something to see. The fact that it's easily topping Channing Tatum in a wifebeater ("White House Down") this weekend is a great thing indeed.

A raucuous scene with "Veep"'s Tony Hale soliciting a prostitute introduces us to the crude and relentlessly angry nature of McCarthy's Mullins. She still reigns as this generation's comedic queen, and here she plays a better, hard-edged, more insane version of her identity-stealing Diane from earlier this year's "Identity Thief." She cusses like a sailor and throws punches and insults in equal measure. Here's a woman who stocks her fridge with high-powered weaponry.

Opposite the buttoned-up, uptight professionalism of Ashburn, Mullins is even more of a loose cannon. As expected, the two polar opposite personalities clash immediately -- almost too harshly so for the audience at first. But once the script from Katie Dippold smooths out its rough edges, Bullock and McCarthy emerge with an inspired chemistry making it no wonder a sequel is already in the works.

And while there's hardly comparison to McCarthy's comic energy and timing, Bullock has never been funnier. She reprises a version of her ugly duckling from "Miss Congeniality" eventually learning to loosen up, especially during the obligatory getting drunk together, getting to know each other scene between the two female law enforcers. The actual police procedural (headed by a stern-looking Demian Bichir), gets clunky in its logistics, but that's not what's important here. While there are some comic misfires sprinkled throughout, they mostly deliver the laughs with a fun cast of characters along the way, and Mullins' outrageous Bostonian family that feels like something ripped out of "The Fighter." And as almost an homage to "Bridesmaids" gross-out food poisoning scene, there are moments of shockingly gruesome violence, which actually make for the movie's very funniest parts.