Monday, March 31, 2014

The Spectacular Now, Fruitvale Station

The Spectactular Now  
Director: James Ponsoldt 
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

High school coming-of-age movies have fallen a considerable height from the glory days of John Hughes, where teens were treated as three-dimensional people viewers of any age could root for and care about. A brief description of The Spectacular Now would easily fool anyone into thinking it's joining the recent scrap pile. Bad boy meets good girl and she has to redeem him. But director James Ponsoldt and (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber flip that premise on its head, delivering a smart, sensitive drama that doesn't pander to its audience, while insightfully observing real life problems without a hint of manipulation or contrivance. Each decision feels carefully considered, with so much resting on the standout performances of the two leads, who are given the opportunity to play flawed, likable characters we want to see happy, independent of whether they end up together or not.

Miles Teller plays popular, but unambitious high school senior Sutter Keely, whose daily life consists of an endless stream of drinking and partying, with little thought given to his future. In a rare touch for the genre, Sutter's vices don't look fun in the least, depicted instead as a serious addiction that's taking over. He's basically a teenage alcoholic. His equally popular girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him and it's gotten to the point that even his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) can't put up with it anymore.

After a late-night partying binge he wakes up on the lawn of classmate Aimee Finnicky (Shailene Woodley), a pretty but socially invisible "girl next door" who reads manga and has a paper route. They start seeing each other. Sort of. That their relationship can't easily be classified because of how different they are is one of the film's biggest strengths and what follows is complicated, but in an authentic, messy kind of way.

Upon Sutter realizing he's actually falling hard for this girl, his thoughts shift to him not being deserving of her and there's this intriguing mystery that develops involving Sutter's long-absent dad (a brilliant Kyle Chandler). It's a supporting performance perfectly calibrated to subvert and challenge expectations of not only the character and story, but the actor playing him. Even seemingly minor players like Sutter's boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk) are so richly drawn in their brief appearances you'd imagine a film focusing on them would be just as rewarding. As Sutter's older sister Holly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead conveys that there's even more to her than originally thought, the character's snobby demeanor merely a defense mechanism masking the emotional pain of their upbringing.    

Ponsoldt knows not to try too hard and at a turning point where everything could have flown off the rails, he resists the temptation, choosing even more honesty. That this takes place in unnamed "Smalltown, U.S.A" in an unidentifiable era brings a universality to the story, allowing it to exist in a timeless vaccum. No one will be laughing at the music and clothes years down the line, as is usually the case with most other high school movies. What will be remembered is how Teller and Woodley take familiar character types and make them feel completely fresh, him with offbeat goofy charm and her with a realness and authenticity that never come off as "acting." And just watch what she does in that killer final scene. She's too good to be toiling away in YA franchises, even if this was ironically adapted from a young adult novel. Let's just pretend the giant check she's cashing for Divergent is really for this.

Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 85 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Despite certain misgivings I have about about the film itself, none of them affect my feelings about Michael B. Jordan's performance as Oscar Grant, the young man shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police at Oakland's Fruitvale Station on New Year's 2009. If anything, I wish that first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler's effort had the subtly and nuance of Jordan's performance, which sets a high bar the picture can't quite reach. There's little doubt that Oscar Grant was far from perfect. He was only human. And there's also little doubt what happened on that train platform was an avoidable tragedy with more than enough blame to go around, along with some unfortunate coincidences and bad luck. To say the transit cops handled the situation poorly would be a gross understatement, but it's hard not to feel Coogler's trying to unnecessarily stack the deck. The facts tell the story, yet he insists on going beyond that, to the point that by the film's finish it almost feels like we've gotten a public service announcement.

The film follows the last day of the 22-year-old Californian's life before being fatally shot on that train platform, circumventing the rocky relationship he has with his girlfriend and the mother of their infant daughter, Sophina (Melonie Diaz, really strong), and his own mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). It paints a picture of an ex-con trying to do right and get on the straight and narrow for his family. For all we know much of it may have gone down as depicted. But certain details feel too convenient, with Coogler going so far out of his way to avoid portraying his subject as a saint that he ends up doing exactly that.

There's an early scene in which Oscar tries to save a dying dog hit by a car. Besides the incident being drenched in heavy-handed symbolism and blatant foreshadowing, I could have done without animal cruelty (real or simulated) to show us Oscar's a good guy. And just to level things out we also get a scene where he threatens his boss. No one thinks this young man "deserved" what eventually happens so it's perplexing that we're being lectured on his morality with contrived situations. Maybe they happened. Maybe not. But it rings false in the context of this film.

It's when we finally get to that train platform that things start to feel real. How the situation escalates to the point it does is so fascinating and disturbing that you almost wish the whole movie was this incident in real time, if it wasn't so difficult to watch. Coogler's clearly a skilled director, making excellent use of shaky cam to give us a found footage feel and show various points of view from different witnesses. Certain details from earlier pay off in surprising ways, creating a storm of events that tragically converge at the station. The last half hour earns its emotional response by doing away with the editorializing and grandstanding and just showing what happened .

Anyone who's seen Friday Night Lights knows how great an actor Michael B. Jordan is and so much of that natural charisma and quiet intensity is on display here. We care about Oscar because of his performance, one that too often must battle to overcome the script's flaws. It's a problem when a film is based on true events and you can't believe much of what happened even it it's completely true. The last shot reveals the film's true intentions. And that's the roadblock when tackling a controversial real life issue. Judgments and intentions are best checked at the door.

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