Fruitvale-Payoff-FINAL-jpg_162629-1Early this year, I noticed fervent statements on Twitter regarding the next “big” film out of Sundance: Fruitvale. Later re-titled Fruitvale Station, the film had been touted as the year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild by people like actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. More than six months later, the film hasn’t lost any momentum, despite the fact that it’s no Beasts of the Southern Wild. Forgiving comparisons to a film that stands as one of the more transcendental works by an American indie filmmaker, Fruitvale still packs a potent punch, but its power comes from a more emotional place rather than spiritual.

Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station follows a young black father on his last day alive before a confrontation with police ends in his shooting death. As I have a job in the news industry, I remember this story as it unfolded. Oscar Grant was among a group of friends detained at a BART station in Oakland, California, early New Year’s Day 2010, following a fight on a transit train. During his detention by police, Grant lost his life after a transit officer shot him. Witnesses captured the moment on cell phone video. The officer later argued that he had confused his gun for his Taser when he shot the 22-year-old in the back while he resisted arrest.

Taking place over the course of only a day, the filmic account of this incident is all about setting up the tragedy of that night. It opens with the voices of a young couple sharing fanciful New Year’s resolutions against a black screen. The banter between the man and woman is full of humor and affection. Carbs are mentioned and so is Oprah. FRUITVALEThen, the first images we see is grainy cell phone video footage of four young black men sitting against a wall while three BART Police officers loom over them. This is actual footage recorded by a witness from a train car held at Fruitvale Station where police had responded to the fight. What happens next is chilling. It’s real-life foreshadowing into director Ryan Coogler’s re-creation of that day’s events with Michael B. Jordan taking on the lead role.

The fractured, associative narrative of the film’s introduction offers a minimalist sensation of the warmth and horror the director aims to set up for the duration of the rest of the film. It’s all about riling up emotions and sympathy for Oscar and his family. Though the majority of the drama shows Oscar having to deal with a troubled past that includes a bad temper, infidelity to his child’s mother and dealing marijuana, the film mostly offers up a man who is simpatico with strangers, family and even stray dogs.

Forgiving a few moments of over-contemplative slow-motion and two or three scenes too many establishing that Oscar has a heart, Coogler has some brilliant moments that highlight intimacy on a warm, cozy level that feels hard to deny. FRUITVALEIt happens on an almost subconscious level that transcends overt efforts to stir up sympathy. It involves the serendipitous culmination of the film’s various scenes and some choice instances of camera placement, including the amount of floor space shared by children during a sleepover and a glance from below an escalator as Oscar and his friends bunch together on a few steps and head out into the dark of New Year’s morning.

The film’s strength comes from these subtle, warm moments more than anywhere else. These scenes and instances— and there are others— where dialogue does not matter, offer a bridge to the humanity, life and hope that connects the viewer to these people not matter the racial makeup of either the audience or the on-screen characters. A low-key, yet sincere approach by the actors helps fuel these moments, a notable accomplishment of restraint for a first-time feature director. It does not hurt that the film also features another notable appearance by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother Wanda.

But it’s Jordan who most makes this film. I entered with reserved expectations having first come to know the actor during his over-sincere performance as Alex on one of the great network television shows more people should be watching: “Parenthood.” But, here, Jordan embraces a much more complex role and dives into the nuances of a persona that must adapt to varied social environments and other characters, be they a drug dealer, his girlfriend, his mother or his friends. fv-sg-000_lgThe director also employs an inventive trick that reveals the complexity of this character by showing Oscar doing one thing with one person while texting something else depicted in a superimposed image representing exchanges with another person. Oscar is intriguingly complex, a man who would rather withhold information, even if it means trouble, which again adds to the intricacies of his interactions with others. It’s one thing to reveal a character through verbose dialogue, but it’s another to reveal him by what he does not say.

Some may complain that Fruitvale Station takes a one-sided approach to the incident, as the film leaves little room for humanizing the police officers (a menacing performance by Kevin Durand as a rather boisterous cop who may have played a hand in Oscar’s death could only serve to enhance any of those protestations). But one could also forgive it for focusing on the disenfranchised who often receive a raw deal in the judicial system (see the most recent protests against Stand Your Ground laws in many states). At the end of the movie, a few lines of text sum up the culmination of the events of that night, including the charges and sentence for the officer who pulled the trigger. It elicited a gasp from the audience during the preview screening this writer attended and someone in the audience shouted “Trayvon Martin,” in reference to the current debate on Stand Your Ground. The film, helmed by a black director, cannot be faulted for this approach, as it taps into a current, honest sense of disenfranchisement.

As I noted, I do remember this news story as it unfolded all the way to its trial. I cannot say the film changed my sense of sympathy for the victim and his family. To share some focus on the officer would only lend sympathy to a broken justice system that only continues to propagate divisions among classes and race. Coogler’s decision to only follow Oscar, however, illuminates the humanity at the core of the story. If it can prove as a reminder of the space we share as human beings, then Fruitvale Station should be seen and celebrated for what it is, and indeed, come awards season, an Oscar may serve this film well, as it stands as one of the most important films of 2013.

Hans Morgenstern

Fruitvale Station is Rated R and runs 90 min. It opens in wide release today. The Weinstein Company hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

Update: Fruitvale Station finally hits theaters in the UK and Ireland on June 6, 2014.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg, that one-of-a-kind director who delights in exploring the darkest twists and turns of cinematic language in order to illuminate our shadowiest corners, points his lens at a man so full of money he seems to have paid for it with his humanity. For those who think being so rich that you have trouble spending all your money is something to aspire to, consider Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). He’s a man so out of touch with his feelings, he needs death to find life. It’s a subject befitting Cronenberg’s seeming obsession with intellect, behavior and the material world, and the director certainly takes off running with it.

No matter what subject Cronenberg probes in his films, he has refined them over the years to exude a hyper-real, creepy atmosphere. This includes his most recent, seemingly straight-forward film, A Dangerous Method, an examination between Freud, Jung and their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 20-10]). That film seemed fixated on bringing the writings and theories of psychology by this trio to life via ponderous dialogue. Despite some primal physical encounters, the real battles between these intellectuals were fought in dialogue, and those words were often quite sharp.

Cosmopolis, a film that takes place in a prescient future of civil unrest where people like Packer cannot throw away their money fast enough, fits in snug with the Canadian director’s style, especially in his obsession with bringing to life the written word, similar to A Dangerous Method. Though it is a cinematic adaptation of Don Delillo’s 2003 book, this remains one of the most offbeat Cronenberg films since the surreal video game vortex that was eXistenZ, which shamed The Matrix that same year of both films’ release (While The Matrix was all literal exposition, eXistenZ actually created the feeling that “the matrix” was real, and we were living it). The dialogue of Delillo, too meandering and breathless to seem realistically possible, remains intact and only heightens the strange quality of the film.

The Cronenberg touch is there from the brief abstract, digitized opening title sequence, which features droplets of black, gray and brown paint a lá Jackson Pollack as they dribble onto an earthy, glowing orange canvas. Cronenberg has said opening titles offer an important gateway to a film, so it matters metaphorically. My only regret about the opening is that he does not allow it to continue longer, like the old days of film. A throbbing electronic pulse and the jangle of a swelling electric, reverbing guitar, recalling Edge’s playing for U2, provides the soundtrack that crescendos and then diminuendos in one sweep. As the end credits will reveal, Cronenberg regular Howard Shore is still his go-to for film scores, though this score, a collaboration with Canada’s synth-obsessed indie band Metric, feels different from any other in their history together. It still works well throughout the film as it pulses and rumbles to life on occasion in the film. The score often swells up out of silence, ticking and humming to highlight certain moments of heightened exchanges between characters before diminishing and fading away, almost phantasmagoric in its shifting quality, heightening a sense of foreboding that permeates the film.

In the film’s first scene, a camera positioned low to the ground tracks across a fleet of white stretch limousines. One after another, the hulking metal tubes loom, awaiting launch into what seems to be New York City. Some of these might very well be decoys, as the film will imply Eric is a powerful, infamous executive many want to see dead. For all the criticism and expectation weighing on Pattinson as the kid in the Twilight films, his portrayal of Eric fits snug in the Cronenberg world. His sleepy eyelids and stiff jaw suit the character well, and even if the British actor’s version of an American accent might seem odd to some, it only adds to the distant alien quality of the character. Clearly exuding his Master of the Universe status, Eric exchanges terse sentences with his head of security, Torval (Kevin Durand). “I want a haircut.” “The president’s in town.” “We don’t care. We need a haircut.”

From these first lines, anyone who is a fan of Cronenberg knows they are in for something existing beyond an experience in life or in the movies, for that matter. The interior of the limo is sound proof to the point that all you hear are the voices of the people inside. It’s so disquieting that it reveals just how much one takes ambient noise for granted. The saturation of color, even between light and shadow seems so unreal that Jay Baruchel appears almost unrecognizable as he contorts his face stressing over Eric’s nagging, if monotone, questions of the security of their computer network. It marks the first of many meetings inside the limo, as the film features a parade of characters that typify the excesses of capitalism from hip computer geeks to lusty cougars to hollow rap stars, among the most obvious. Every once in a while, Torval appears, offering his boss impromptu risk assessments that grow more and more sinister as the film progresses: “We have report of imminent activity in the area … nature as yet unknown.”

In the limo, Eric sits in what appears to be a throne with armrests that glow and flicker with data on money exchanges. The interior is all gorgeous lighting and symmetrical framing. Outside the vehicle’s windows, the cityscape glides past so smooth it appears like a cheap green screen effect. But it’s also by design, as this guy may just be rich enough to afford limos that have the best shock absorbers money can buy. The bubble the limo provides also emphasizes Eric’s distance from the rest of the real world. With Cosmopolis, Cronenberg presents a snapshot of a creature of money, and he explores the expanse of imagination to show just how extremely rich Packer is. The man makes money by the “septillionths” of a second, hording it and spending it with no regard. Eric is prepared to buy whatever he wants, as everything has a price for him. During a meeting in the limo with an art dealer and casual sex partner Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) he tries to negotiate the purchase of the Rothko Chapel. It is also one of the few times he looks frustrated, as she tells him it’s not even for sale. “It belongs to the world,” she says. “It’s mine if I buy it,” he responds.

Other instances in the film where Eric seems frustrated occur in the company of his colder half, his new bride, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), revealed as a rich heiress who fancies herself a poet. She holds out sex, as he asks for it with little reserve, much less romance. He cannot find the soul required for the effort, it seems. He has already had sex on his throne inside the limo with Didi, who thrashes about in reverse cowgirl like a giddy girl. It may seem depraved, but it serves to illuminate how out of touch this man is. When Elise sees him after the deed, she says, “you smell of sex.” He shrugs and blames his prostate check-up in the car by a doctor who finds his gland “asymmetrical.”

The heightened stylization of acting and staging never rings hollow, though some have argued the film has little “story.” Instead, it meshes brilliantly with the subject matter on an almost surreal level. This is a film about something more than crossing town for a haircut. This is a man on a quest to feel something again. Not that he is supposed to be sympathetic, but how many can know what life is like for a man as rich as this man? Eric becomes an enigma, enhancing his extreme, violent behavior during the film’s final scenes. Most everyone in the world of Cosmopolis indeed seems to want to see the man dead, as riots blow up in the street and a final confrontation with a whispering unhinged character (Paul Giamatti) looms to cap off the film.

Cosmopolis ends on what seems an open-ended note. But what happens after the film cuts to black matters little compared to a slight glimpse of humanity revealed by what leads to whatever that end may be. Like the best Cronenberg films, the moment is a mix of the banal and the extreme, highlighting the journey more than celebrating a pat conclusion. Cronenberg’s best films, Videodrome, A History of Violence and eXistenZ, present the audience with a mirror, and it can prove unpleasant for some, so knee-jerk responses by viewers might not all be flattering, but that speaks to the film’s potency.

Cosmopolis may be over-the-top and unreal, but its satirical sensibility is not far off the mark. One need not look further than a certain presidential candidate who drops $10,000 bets like they’re $5. Or pop culture mega millionaires with their own reality shows who have sacrificed their souls for portraying femme bots on television to sell high interest/short-term credit cards and “fashion” to their followers. Cosmopolis is a brilliant indictment on capitalism and the class divide it has spawned, something all too real in today’s zeitgeist.

Hans Morgenstern


Cosmopolis is Rated R and runs 108 minutes. It is distributed by Entertainment One who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens today, Aug. 24 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach 18 — Miami Beach, FL
AMC Sunset Place 24 — South Miami, FL
Gateway 4 — Fort Lauderdale, FL
Regal Delray Beach 18 — Delray Beach, FL
Regal Shadowood 16 — Boca Raton, FL

Edit: Cosmopolis returns to theaters in South Florida for an exclusive run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque beginning Friday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)