Saturday, July 27, 2013

Movie Reviews-42, Fruitvale Station, Evil Dead, Vehicle 19

directed by Brian Helgeland
I'm not a huge baseball fan. Although I do happen to be currently kicking behind in my fantasy baseball league. Go figure. Snicker. Nevertheless obviously I knew about Jackie Robinson and the mythic figure he became to several black Americans in the post-war era. So watching this film I attained a better understanding of why my maternal grandfather, like Robinson a WW2 veteran, was such an enthusiastic Dodgers fan (Robinson's team). Though this is a sports movie and as such is mostly concerned with struggles between and among groups of men, it has a surprisingly strong secondary story line concerning the love between Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel. She is key to providing Jackie support and love to keep going. She even has some relevant baseball advice. They protect and nurture each other. It's rare to see this in a black couple in a big budget Hollywood movie. This is really odd when you think about it. 42 is a traditional feel good movie. It's also big on sports cliches but it has the advantage in that a great many of these cliches in the story actually occurred.
This film takes place shortly after WW2. Last season the Brooklyn Dodgers were almost but not quite good enough to win the pennant. Changes in American society were afoot. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager/president/part owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is determined to be part of what he thinks are required changes in American society, most specifically baseball. Rickey intends to find a black player who is skilled enough to play in the previously all white major leagues and who is smart and strong enough to deal with the eruptions of hatred that will surely follow from fans, rival players and even his own teammates. Rickey thinks that man is Jackie Robinson.

Robinson is one of the most skilled players on The Negro Leagues Kansas City Monarchs, a flashy shortstop with a quick temper. But what gets Rickey's interest is thinking that Robinson, a former Army officer with a history of standing up for his rights can put that on the backburner and instead more or less turn the other cheek for the greater good (advancement of rights for all black players) . This is something that was probably required at the time and which is still echoed today. It is most definitely not something that was healthy. Robinson would die at only 53 from heart problems and diabetes which were no doubt related to the stress he endured.
Nevertheless Robinson (excellently portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) reluctantly agrees to Rickey's demand. Then as now a white man and a black man taking the same action were often viewed quite differently by white media and fans. Rickey frames this as the guts not to fight back. Don't know that I'd quite see it that way but then again those were different times. Even today black people in white environments often code switch and hide their true feelings. So there you are.
So Robinson, accompanied and supported by his beautiful wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), embarks on a journey through the minor leagues in Montreal and Panama which will ultimately end up with him starting in the big leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers. To say that this came at a cost is something of an understatement. Often sometimes black people can joke about how the open racism of years past could be preferable to the "Who me, I'm no racist" passive-aggressive incidents that are more common today. And often times white conservatives claim with a straight face that black civil rights leaders actually yearn for the legal racism of the good (bad) old days. Well I don't think that's actually true. Nobody black or in their right mind would really want those days back. Some things in America haven't changed of course or are just hidden but many things have changed. The movie shows more than it tells but whether it's something as simple as trying to get a bite to eat or flying on a plane that an airline employee doesn't think black people should be using or having mobs threaten your life with impunity or de jure public segregation in the South and de facto public segregation in the North, being black in 1947 America was full of legal and routine insults to your dignity, safety and life.
Robinson tries to deal with this by attempting to ignore it and rise above it but it's not that easy. The forceful Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Chris Meloni), who claimed indifference to Robinson's race, profanely and almost violently shut down a Dodgers' petition drive to drop Robinson, and who may have coined the phrase "Nice guys finish last", was suspended from baseball in part because of gambling allegations but also for sleeping with a Hollywood actress not his wife. So he's not around to run interference for Robinson. He's replaced by aged and seemingly ineffectual manager Burt Shotton (Max Gail). Robinson must negotiate the initial hostility or disregard of his teammates and more importantly the hatred of white players on other teams who do things like hit him in the head with baseballs, spike him and try to break his ankles. The worst of the worst is Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) who can not help himself from unleashing the ugliest racial and sexual vitriol whenever Robinson appears at the plate. As Robinson himself later tells his wife (paraphrasing) "I will never be broken by these people. But they came close today".

This is ultimately a hip hip hooray movie and so it ends on a positive note, one that happened (slightly differently) in real life . If you're looking for a heroic story this could be a movie you'd want to see. There's no cynicism or antihero stuff here. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. Some bad guys later become good guys. You don't have to be a baseball or sports fan or even mildly knowledgeable about sports to enjoy this film. Robinson and my grandfathers were of the same generation so it was interesting to me to look back and see the sorts of things that people of that age had to deal with. And everyone is dressed sharp! If you have any 40s style clothing readily available, hold on to it. I tell you that style is coming back. Lucas Black, John C. McGinley, and Andre Holland also star.

Fruitvale Station
written and directed by Ryan Coogler
Just see this film. Okay that's really all I need to say. It's by far the best of the movies mentioned here today. From a purely technical point you would have thought this film was directed by a middle aged or old master of film, someone who had been making movies for decades. Nope. Ryan Coogler is only 27 years old and Fruitvale Station is his first feature length film. I don't know how he got so good so young and so quickly but I'm betting this won't be his last good work. The level of quality of display here in terms of the camera work, the lighting, the writing and the way the entire film fits together is truly freaking astounding. There's a reason the Weinstein Company distributed this. There's a reason it won Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. There's a reason Forest Whitaker helped produce it. There's a reason it won at Cannes. Coogler really is that good. This is literally a rookie coming out of nowhere and tutoring grizzled veterans in his field on how to succeed. This has Oscar written all over it but it never feels like it's TRYING to be Oscar bait material, if that makes any sense. This is a rare film that could be critically and commercially successful AND make social commentary. It's rare that one film can do any of those things superbly let alone all three. 

Regardless of what you think of the Zimmerman verdict and we may yet have some final thoughts on that later, one of the most despicable things that the defense attorneys and conservative writers and personalities did and are still doing was to put Trayvon Martin on trial. In their telling a seventeen child was transformed into a MANDINGO SUPER THUG who was looking for trouble and got what he deserved. Well of course he wasn't that. On the other side of the spectrum exactly because the racist mindset has trouble dealing with complexity or recognizing humanity, the Civil Rights movement spent a lot of time trying to find and/or groom perfect victims, precisely because it knew that racists will seize on any imperfection and seek to blow it out of proportion. So if you're an unwed mother or have a fast reputation, sorry lady but you can't be the face of a bus boycott. Trying to integrate baseball, nope you can't fight back against a white racist who hits you in the head with a 90 mph fastball. And so on. 

Well as most people know black people are neither saints from heaven nor demons from hell. Black people are just people. And that is the approach in depicting Oscar Grant that Coogler takes in Fruitvale Station. Of course if you're reading this blog you already know this but again it is quite unusual to see it in a Hollywood movie. Strictly speaking this is an independent film.
Fruitvale Station depicts the last day of Oscar Grant's (Michael B. Jordan-Wallace from The Wire) life. Grant is neither saint not sinner. He's somewhere in between trying to make it. He cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), though he may have stopped. He occasionally sells weed to get by. Oscar has been to prison and suffered through the experiences there. He's a gallant man but he may be somewhat of a lazy one as he's been fired from his grocery store job for being consistently late to work. All the same he loves Sophina. He loves his sister Chantay (Destiny Ekwueme) though he's not crazy about paying her rent. He loves his mother (Octavia Spencer). And he is insanely devoted to his and Sophina's daughter together, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). There is nothing he won't do for her. He's an engaged father. He could be good husband material. Sophina's not sure about that. But when a stranger sees the affection that Oscar has for Sophina he not so jokingly asks Oscar why hasn't he married her. Oscar looks like he's deciding to do that. He's on the verge of turning his life around. He wants to provide for Tatiana and ensure that he has the respect of Sophina and his mother.
Of course we all know how this story ends. It's the little things that make this such a powerful movie. Coogler blatantly foreshadows things at least three times. If the film had a weakness that would be the only thing I could point to. But those moments almost create a majestic and biblical flow to the story. We know what those seemingly innocuous incidents indicate but we can't stop them. Michael B. Jordan hit this out of the proverbial park but everyone involved in this film gave very strong performances. Neal and Diaz deserve special mention.

There's a certain unfair arbitrary nature to life. Why does one person happen to get cancer and die young while another works in an asbestos and lead rich environment and lives a long and healthy life. We don't know. Similarly Coogler shows all the tiny little decisions in Oscar's life that lead him to be on the train and have the fatal encounter with Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand), fictionalized version of real life Officer Johannes Mehserle.
This movie will make you angry but really the defining emotion is sadness. Death is final. There's no coming back. All you can do is hope/believe you will see that person on the other side or remember the good times you had while they were here. This is a tremendously powerful film.

Evil Dead (2013)
directed by Fede Alvarez
I guess you could say this is the anti-Cabin in the Woods. This is of course a remake of the classic 1981 film Evil Dead. I wasn't going to see this but obviously changed my mind. The beauty of the original film lay in just how much dread, horror and unease the actors, producer and director were able to squeeze out of a very low budget movie. And let's not forget the swooping masterful camera work. This remake would have been okay on its own but doesn't hold a candle to the original though it cost multiples of the original budget.  But I think this was aimed at people who hadn't seen the original film. 32 years was a long time ago. There are plenty of people walking around who seemingly don't pay much attention to anything that happened before they arrived on the scene.
So if you saw and enjoyed the original this film might be just ehhh to you. If you didn't see the original, although I would certainly want to know why, if you're a horror movie fan then you will probably enjoy this film. It lacks the visceral nature of the original but tries to make up for it with even more grand guignol. And judging by the massive box office returns it succeeded. This film had limited or non-existent use of CGI. Sometimes classic tropes work for a reason and don't need to be mocked, reworked, parodied or deconstructed. Young people inadvertently calling up forces they neither understand nor control is an old chestnut but it works. Mix it with some Lovecraftian overtones and it works even better. This is not a shot for shot remake. It does some things the same, turns other things around and tries to make its own story. One big change is that one woman takes a much more active role. Actually you see that in a lot of movies these days.
Anyway for those of you who aren't familiar with the story Mia (Jane Levy) has been taken out to an old cabin in the woods by her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Olivia's boyfriend Eric (Lou Pucci). They are waiting for the arrival of Olivia's brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Liz Blackmore). Evidently Mia is a junkie. She's tried and failed to get clean before. Olivia, a registered nurse has decided to lead this intervention in a last ditch attempt to help Mia to get and stay clean. The last time Mia overdosed she was clinically dead for a while. Olivia is a take charge sort of woman and wants David's buy-in to not give in to any of Mia's sure to arrive whining, pleading and guilt tripping. David's not sure he can do this because as with all families his sister knows just the buttons to push to trigger his guilty feelings. In this case they have to do with David not being around for their mother's decline and death.  Later the young people venture into the basement and discover what the viewer via flashback already knows is some serious bad mojo. For some insane reason Eric finds a book (basically The Necronomicon) that should not be read - it even has warnings saying do not read this book- and decides to read from it. Mia ends up getting possessed though neither she nor her friends or brother are aware of this at first. The craziness and bloodlust starts to spread. And there are only a few ways to stop a demon possessed human. And two of them involve total bodily dismemberment or burning. I'm sure you can figure out the rest. Eric is so stupid you want to leap through the screen and slap him around but his poor judgment is a genre norm.

Vehicle 19

directed by Mukunda Michael Dewil
This wasn't a very good movie. Let's just get that out of the way upfront. Unless you happen to be a hardcore Paul Walker fan this movie is not for you. And even if you are such a fan I still wouldn't waste time on this flick. The story started out kind of promising but fell off a cliff. It was hard to care about any of the characters in the story. Because almost the entire story takes place in the confines of a minivan, claustrophobic doesn't even begin to describe the film. People have used this trope with phone booths, car trunks, coffins and elevators and for my money it rarely works unless the director switches back and forth between the confined location and something going on in the outside world. That raises tension. But in this story, the minivan is it. And not only is the location stripped down but along with that almost by definition this is a movie where Walker has almost all of the dialogue. The only good thing about this film was they it helped me to more easily distinguish between a white South African accent and an Australian or New Zealand one.

Michael Woods (Walker) is an American felon who's breaking parole to meet his ex-wife Angie, who works in the US embassy in Johannesburg. Woods obviously wants to meet Angie and make a case for why they should get back together. Angie is just as obviously on the verge of telling Mike to get lost for good. Her voice (we never really see her face) is full of annoyance, regret and almost devoid of affection. But Mike feels that a million to one chance of getting back together is better than no chance. He's not too proud to beg. When he arrives in South Africa he finds that the rental car agency has given him a minivan instead of the sedan he requested. But since he's already late and doesn't quite know how to get to his ex's place (either the embassy or her home) he decides not to make a stink about it.
As it turns out there's a phone in the van that rings. He answers and someone with a very thick Afrikaans accent tells him to make it quick and that everything he needs is in the car. Mike is like who is this and hangs up. He talks to Angie and tries to explain he's running late but she thinks he's either scoring drugs or getting drunk. He then finds a gun under the seat. And shortly afterwards a bound and gagged woman spills out of the space behind the backseat. It turns out that she's a missing prosecutor Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean) who has information about police financed and directed sex crimes. Someone calls back. This someone has identified Mike as an American who is breaking parole by being in the country. They say no harm no foul about the rental mixup but very strongly suggest that Mike drive the minivan to an abandoned warehouse where they can sort everything out. And Angie is calling Mike every 10 minutes wanting to know where he is now. Rachel doesn't want Mike to go to the warehouse. And this kicks off a lot of relatively boring car chases, shootouts, attempted carjackings and so on. Yawn. Mike is an incredibly stupid and selfish man. Rachel is a cardboard cut out. They could live or die but I could not have cared less.
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