2013 Best in Cinema: Features

Though we’re well into the new year, I’m officially wrapping up 2013 by reflecting on my favorite films of the past 12 months. I’ve spent much of these weeks into 2014 not only thinking about how to curate this list, but how to communicate why these 10 films resonated with me so much. The delay in posting this list is because writing about film, while decidedly fun, is the most challenging for me. Not only in thought, but in how to best articulate those thoughts in such a way that entices those who stumble across these words to understand what makes these 10 stories unique out of the other 55 films I saw last year. (Clearly, it was a slow year for me at the movies). The truth is, as I suspected this past summer, many of my top films were established earlier in 2013 and remained there even as we moved through the more Oscar-worthy films positioned later in the year. I do want to note that as of posting time, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see Her, which I know is doing quite well on the award-circuit currently. So, barring this film – here are my top 10 feature films of 2013:

10. the way way back

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There are those films that radiate a nostalgic feeling in such a way that no matter what happens along the journey you’re going to connect. I knew this would be one of those films about 5 minutes in. The Way Way Back endearingly depicts summer in a way that any person who has survived the complications of youth would understand. While circumstances differ in every person’s journey, many can relate to being young with 3 months of too much time on our hands, the weight of the world on our shoulders, and friction with our parents. Crafted in such a way that highlights equal amounts of humor and truth, while set in the alluring backdrop of Cape Cod, this film captures the epitome of all things summer, celebrating its uniqueness and doing so in a way that just takes you back.

9. gloria

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It’s a valid criticism that American made films don’t give voice to women over forty. It’s as if once a woman finds her happily ever after at age 28 in a formulaic Hollywood romantic comedy, she retires into domestic bliss with the man of her dreams and then dies. Her story is over from that point forward. Chilean cinema eclipsed Hollywood twofold in 2013 – not only by giving that much-needed voice and on-screen presence to woman in her late fifties, but by examining something a little bit deeper than finding your happily ever after with a man. Ultimately, its finding that happily ever after with yourself; a lesson that seemingly that takes a lifetime to learn – and one we must learn over and over again in stages as we age. Sebastián Lelio’s Gloriaaccompanies our title character transitioning to a different phase of her life. While her happily ever after didn’t lead to a successful, life-long marriage; she has raised children who are starting families of their own, is in relatively good health, has a job to pay the bills and a comfortable place to live, but most importantly – she has the spirit to keep trying. We first meet Gloria as she’s making the club circuit looking for a good time. What has the makings of a possible cliché “later in life” happily ever after refreshingly is onto something more as the story unfolds. There’s a loneliness to Gloria as she moves through her circumstances that’s authentic and tangible. And though we see periods of her story where she falls into the traps of behavior you’d expect from a woman half her age (i.e. continuing to forgive a man when all signs point to devastation) there is something redeeming in her choices because of her palpable solitude. The good news is that through Gloria’s comedic, yet dramatic character arc; we see that with age comes wisdom – we do better and bounce back quicker…even if we have to re-learn that lesson later in life yet again. And p.s. Paulina García is pure magic.

8. to the wonder

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When it comes Terrence Malick, I’ve learned over the years to approach his films from a pure visual artistic expression first, and a narrative expression second. This is largely because while I don’t always appreciate the execution of the plot, I enduringly appreciate the pictorial grandeur of how he uses cinema, creating some of the most alluring imagery you’ll ever see on-screen. Most surprisingly then, To The Wonder was the first time I’d seen one of Malick’s films where I found solid visual and narrative attributes. Aside from effectively communicating the circumstances of the plot without much dialogue, but with the lyrical poise of intricate camera work to drive the story forward, To the Wonder is best described as a dance. The eloquent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki keeps the camera in a near constant state of motion, literally dancing around the actors, through spaces, and sequences. Like a magnet, you’re drawn into the emotion of the film through the camera unlike any experience I’ve had. Yes, this is still a Terrence Malik “art film,” complete with a visual artistic expression first, and a narrative expression second – the formula I’ve come to expect from him. Yet this time, the visual expression is accomplished in such a way that propels and assists the narrative, rather than merely outshine it.

7. dallas buyers club

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There’s an old saying that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Admittedly though, there were several volumes on this particular shelf that included “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Failure to Launch” – not exactly leaving room to do much other than to judge. And don’t get me wrong, we all have to pay our dues in this business (then our agents) so there’s no shame in doing what you have to do to find your footing, establish your name, and then go for projects that really show what you’ve got. Ladies and gentleman, Matthew McConaughey has arrived. While there were already several films under his belt that did more than project a pretty boy exterior, there was something about his bold (and physically dangerous) performance in Dallas Buyers Club, that surprisingly elevates McConaughey to one of the formidable talents working today. And in some ways this makes me utterly happy. I do like it when someone pegged a certain way reveals another layer of themselves, gracefully giving the finger to those who dare typecast them. Along with a stellar performance by Jared Leto (who very much has my vote for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar night), Dallas Buyers Club is not merely an outstanding, though solemn portrait of how one of the worst diseases in modern history ripped through our culture, but is a representation of what you find looking beyond the surface. The harmonious thing about this film is that just like Ron Woodroof’s character who surprisingly leaves his “playboy” persona behind and becomes an advocate for finding medication for AIDS patients, Matthew McCounaghey has also won a battle against what people likely perceive him to be.

6. like father, like son

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Presenting a devastatingly complex situation while commenting on socio-economic juxtapositions relative to raising children and building families, Like Father, Like Son was the highlight of my 2013 AFI experience. Director, Hirokazu Koreeda masterfully creates an examination of what defines family, underscoring the age-old dichotomy of nature vs. nurture. Is blood really thicker than water? When our main character, Ryota, a highly successful and strict, traditional businessman learns that his only son was switched at birth due to a hospital discrepancy, the film sets about how to best navigate a path with no road signs. Do the two families simply swap the young boys, hoping that biology will take care of building a connection with their natural birth parents – or does the fact that 6 years spent with a child that you’ve been raising as your own make it that straightforward? What resonated with me about this film was not merely the engaging scenario that ultimately would never yield satisfying results no matter what these families do, but in how we see Ryota pushed to the breaking point just before breaking through. Everything that Ryota relies on as a man cannot readily iron out his predicament: not his money; his strict, controlled nature; nor his traditional beliefs. Essentially, we see Ryota surrender to what is, rather than what he thinks it should be; a lesson we could all learn from the cards we’re dealt with in life, yet don’t know how to play. From there, it really doesn’t necessarily matter what happens between these two families, because once reality is accepted better choices for all involved can be made.

 

5. fruitvale station

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Of all of the films I saw during the summer of 2013 – this was the only one that hit me in such a way that I couldn’t readily let go when I left the theater. It sparked a need to really evaluate my thoughts on Oscar Grant’s story and the film that took on the complicated task of telling it. You can read my full analysis on Fruitvale Station, here. What I take away from this film and its real life story is that there are indeed always two sides to every story, and it’s typically the mistakes found on both accounts that lead to unfortunate and even fatal consequences.

4. all is lost

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Without the gravitas of Robert Redford, I question how a film such as this would ever get made if pitched to a room of execs, let alone be one of my surprise favorites of 2013.  Everything about All Is Lost is a risk, destined to complete failure if not precisely executed. Filmmaking 101 leads many artists to believe that solid character development is essential to creating a successful motion picture, and I would argue that this assertion is absolutely correct…until I saw this film. All Is Lost follows Robert Redford, simply credited as “Our Man” as be battles for survival alone at sea after hitting a shipping container floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We’re merely inserted into his day just before crisis hits.  This is all that we know of our protagonist. We don’t know his name, why he’s traveling alone in the middle of nowhere, where he’s going, and what circumstances in his life brought him to this particular journey. And yet, we root for him. What Director, J.C. Chandor achieved with this gem is by making the decision to cast Redford. Redford’s incredible range as an actor was more than crucial when carrying a 106 minute feature-length film that came down to a mere 33 page script. This is because while the events of fighting for survival drive the story, it’s Redford’s facial expressions, and these expressions alone, that hold the audience and pulls sympathy for our nameless protagonist. What little we do learn about our character is trickled only through how he handles his abhorrent situation as a skilled sailor. These pieces of information provide context for Redford’s character and is an inspired way to connect to the viewer, however small, without relying on a typically wordy or flashback driven model to achieve this. All Is Lost challenges artists alike to think outside of how we cultivate character development and how storytellers actively gain an investment from their audience without depending on the overly used prototypes in filmmaking. All Is Lost does so flawlessly.

3. blue jasmine

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As far as I’m concerned, the Best Actress Academy Award winner was chosen just as Cate Blanchett disturbingly makes her way to a park bench, sits down, and starts talking to herself, a completely and utterly broken soul at the end of Blue Jasmine. In June of 2013 after seeing this film, I made this assertion well before we even approached awards season and I stand by it – I would have a hard time being as convinced of a person’s mental breakdown unless it happened right in front of me. Simply put, Cate Blanchett’s performance made this film. Period. And though Woody Allen’s writing and direction are to be commended, along with excellent casting of supporting characters, I cannot say with confidence that I would have such esteem for this film if it weren’t for Blanchett’s extreme and consuming immersion into the instability she created in Jasmine.

2. 12 years a slave

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There are films crafted so impeccably that you lose yourself in them in such a way that you don’t get back, and if you do – it’s certainly not immediate nor in the exact same way entirely. This was my experience with 12 Years A Slave. While it’s no secret that the history of the United Sates is forever saturated in shame for the oppression of more than one specific race, there was something about following Solomon Northup’s harrowing account that left me a little more faithless in humanity, because it hits close to home. This story, more than any other of the year, highlights how undeniably cruel and unjust humankind had, and therefore has, the capacity to be. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece was far and wide the most expressive and demanding film of 2013. It embodies an equally enthralling and heartbreaking subject manner, ambitiously depicting a time not long ago. Outside of consistent, unblemished performances from every single character you encounter in this eloquently executed saga, I couldn’t suspend myself from thinking that this was America only 173 years ago today. The demands of McQueen’s accomplishment, position the viewer in an emotional state of constant despair, never wavering as many Hollywood tales often do to dilute harsh experiences. In fact, we’re placed in as much of a comparable state to our characters, who are perpetually inundated with torture and despondency, as much as we possibly can be sitting in a theater seat hundreds of years later. You feel the atmosphere, because you feel the characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ghastly ability to say more with his eyes than a line of dialogue, paired with Michael Fassbender’s capacity to create such a disgusting human being that in his own right is fighting demons deeper than is ever revealed, makes the characters that come out of this film layered; and even if only on the smallest of levels, relatable. While I’m not at all suggesting that anyone couldn’t connect to the anguish of this narrative, I almost instantly felt an emotional attachment to this story as a black female being re-acquainted with ancestry. The reason that I didn’t entirely get myself back after experiencing 12 Years A Slave, aside from being such a well-made film, is also in part because I think about how wildly different my life would be had I been born only 142 years earlier.

1. before midnight

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Before “Sunset” (2004) there was “Sunrise” (1995) just after “Midnight” (2013). If someone where to ever ask me what film has a sequel that is better than its predecessor, I would emphatically answer that I can now name two – and they’re both from the same series. I cannot think of another series of films that so eloquently depicts a nearly 20 year journey of the complexities when building an intimate relationship with another person.  These films have developed a formula, a narrative structure, and cinematic style that illicit a breath of fresh air every time. Before Midnight explores Jesse and Céline’s relationship 9 years after the last film now with 2 kids and the insecurities that come with finding your forever. I cannot find a better word to describe this film other than “poetic.” It never falls into deep clichés or loses an authentic connection to the viewer. I simply adore the dynamic of Jesse and Céline’s relationship; their intense connection abundant with humanity, open communication, and true friendship. It is that foundation that leads to some the best and most sophisticated dialogue I’ve ever heard on-screen, creating two of modern cinema’s best characters.

Please check out my favorite documentaries of 2013, here!


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Best Dressed: The Top 5 Fashion Hits of the 2014 Golden Globe Awards

From the comfort of my couch and in my pajamas over pizza, last night was the perfect way to wind down a productive, yet relaxing weekend. The 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards did a notable job of keeping a 3-hour presentation moving along; and though I always love Amy Poehler and Tina Fey on the mic, I recall last year being bit better executed on the comedic front. I was surprised to see some much deserved, but unexpected, wins of the night. (Robin Wright, I’m looking at you!) Of course, aside from who takes home the statue – this is the night to star-gaze at all things fashion. When thinking about my favorites of the night – I went for total package glamour. This meant not only a show-stopping gown, but impeccable hair, make-up, and accessories. There’s nothing worse than a gorgeous dress with terrible styling. These ladies nailed it. Here are my top 5 picks of the night:

5. | Reese Witherspoon in CALVIN KLEIN

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 4. | Taylor Swift in CAROLINA HERRERA

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3. | Jenna Dewan-Tatum in ROBERTO CAVALLI

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 2. | Cate Blanchett in ARMANI PRIVE

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1. | Kate Beckinsale in ZUHAIR MURAD

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**Disclaimer: Since it’s obvious I wasn’t at this year’s ceremonies snapping high res photos, all photo sources are noted below:

Reese Witherspoon

Taylor Swift

Jenna Dewan-Tatum

Cate Blanchett 

Kate Beckinsale

 

2013 Best in Cinema: The Documentary

If there were only one film genre left in the world and I had to choose what that would be, what I would spend all of my time consuming if every other form of filmmaking were to vanish – it would unquestionably be the documentary film. The admissible voyeurism of spending time with real-life characters in situations that span every subject matter imaginable, where you truly get inside someone else’s world for a substantial amount of time, appeals to the very essence of me. This is largely because documentaries satiate core traits of my personality – the need to always be learning, experiencing, or exploring something new – that allots for analysis, critical thinking, visual expression and entertainment. It is in hearing other’s stories, struggles, triumphs, and sometimes even ongoing battles without resolution as the film credits roll; that often find me leaving the theater questioning society, life, and myself. In many ways, documentaries challenge us through avenues that fictional features simply cannot. They are rooted in reality and because of it, there’s no real escape.

Here are my top 5 feature film length documentaries of 2013:

5. stories we tell

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This film will resonate with anyone who has family drama, family secrets and elusive family myths. And what living, breathing person doesn’t? Stories We Tell is an intimate portrait of a woman trying to understand her mother’s past and the identity of her biological father once she learns of her mother’s extramarital affair. What director Sarah Polley does so well through sharing her personal story, is by creating an inviting space for those inside the narrative, and those outside who are merely observers in their seats. What likely was a difficult subject matter to document through the participation of actual family members and friends, comes across as authentic. We can genuinely feel the chemistry and emotion of the on-camera storytelling accounts, because Polley maintains a sense of nostalgia all the way through. Not only in how she got her interviewees to open about times past, but by virtue of how she gives life to her mother’s presence through Super 8 home video style footage. Though I later learned that these are “home video re-creations” using an actress (I somehow missed that at the time), their placement still isn’t distracting from the narrative. In fact, it has the opposite effect for the viewer. You feel as though you are gaining access. This invitation, along with whatever tough conversations Polley had, not only to convince much of her family to trust her as an artist to participate, but to trust herself enough to know that delicate line when airing dirty laundry, innately demands an honest intimacy all around to be effective. Admittedly at the time, I thought the film was just “okay” – who doesn’t have family secrets to uncover? Why should we care about this particular story? Though as I look back on it now, I applaud Sarah Polley for boldly making this film. I can’t say that I would have. The complexities of any family’s myths and digging around in forbidden territory, could lead to greater family disconnect, rather than uncovering the truth and bringing closure. The risk seemingly pays off for Polley, both artistically and personally.

4. a place at the table

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What I take for granted walking into any grocery store in Los Angeles, California is a luxury for many areas in this country. The United States of America, the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, is suffering from food insecurity and hunger. To this day, A Place at the Table is a film I think of often as I walk the produce aisle in the market buying fresh fruits and vegetables. I was so moved, upset, and saddened by this film, that I dedicated an entire post to it in early 2013. Please see my full review and thoughts just after seeing this incredibly eye-opening film here. America, we have a problem.

3. inequality for all

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You have to admit, it’s pretty genius to have a self-described (and charmingly comfortable with it) “little person,” challenging “the big man” – sharing such a wealth of information about the state of the american economy and how we created a complete mess of it with fervor, intellect, and humor. Inequality for All follows former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, as he raises awareness about a huge elephant in the room that seems to be gaining weight with every passing year. How is it that the rich keep getting richer; and the poor, getting poorer? Told in such a way that even those who flunked Econ would understand, without dumbing it down either, Reich effectively explains how the american economy got into the chaos it’s currently in and what we can do to lessen the gap of  income inequality. In fact, Democracy itself is at stake as we see the very essence of politics being funded by top 1% of the wealthy – where politicians and platforms are largely driven with the sole agenda to protect the wealthiest of the wealthy, and holding the 99% in a constant cycle of playing financial catch-up. Reich’s message is simple, this imbalance will continue to lead to more harm than good for the american economy and the remnants of what was the American Dream is rapidly fizzing into, if not already, the unattainable. A must see for every American aspiring to that white picket fence, 2.5 children, and comfortable savings account ideal. According to this film, the only sure way to wealth in America is be born into it. Rags to riches stories are far and few in between.

2. 20 feet from stardom

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Dreams lost, dreams found, dreams re-dreamed. 20 Feet From Stardom invitingly follows the unknown icons of the music industry. Those whose words we know better than the actual verse to a pop song because it’s the chorus that often sticks with us. And while it’s their lyrics and voices that melodically repeat in our heads when incessantly humming a tune, the spotlight is far from their reach. They are the background singers. They are literally steps away from the superstar, and are oftentimes more musically apt and vocally talented than the person at center stage. This touching documentary examines that 20 foot barrier that is nearly impossible to overcome. It takes a look into the lives of veteran and working background singers, whose only dream was and is the spotlight and their struggle to get there. What makes someone a star? As I walked away from this experience, I concluded that in many cases – almost all cases – simply having talent isn’t the answer. 

1. american promise

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American Promise is not only my favorite documentary of 2013, but will remain among my favorites in this lifetime. What Hoop Dreams did for the sport, American Promise does for education. It heroically follows the lives of two then 5 year-old boys as they embark upon what is considered a disadvantage in their academic careers: being born African-American and male. The film chronicles 13 years of triumphs and failures as each boy navigates an educational system designed to quickly weed out the weaker students, while building up the stronger ones with promises that if they can survive, any college of their choice is available to them. Part experiment, part video diary, American Promise serves as a series of sections from a “day in the life” of Idris and Seun, who both start out on an equal playing field by enrolling in one of the best (and most expensive) preparatory schools in New York. What happens as one continues with a rigorous prep school curriculum, while the other eventually moves to a public school system to finish out his education? The results were pretty eye-opening and admittedly both surprising and somewhat disappointing after you’ve invested in Idris and Seun’s worlds, cheering them on, simply expecting different outcomes. The years of struggles in grades k-12 for the opportunity to apply to the top-tier universities in the country, but finding perhaps that prep school may not be as pivotal as one might think to garner a seat at an Ivy League University after years of hard work, the film opens a much-needed discussion on how and where to educate future generations. One question I keep coming to as I think about this film is does the expenditure of private schools really make a difference when it comes to higher education? Can a public school train its students to have the same level of academic discipline as a private school? If American Promise isn’t a wake-up call about the state of our educational system from kindergarten all the way to higher education, about how we measure intellect, and the seemingly growing competitive pressure to always perform high under the guise that it ensures your chances at a bright future, I don’t know what is. The commitment of documenting a rather taboo, overlooked subject matter; coupled with the passion and pressure involved in seeking a good education, while highlighting the influence of parental guidance during these formative years, complete with the simple pit-falls of life along the way, American Promise portrays what has to be one of the most compelling and conversation-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen.


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AFI Fest 2013

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What: AFI FEST

Where: Hollywood, CA

The heart of Hollywood has been pulsating even louder than usual lately. The American Film Institute (AFI) took over the TCL Chinese 6, TCL Chinese, and the Egyptian Theaters to showcase the best in 2013 cinema from around the world. What is already one of the most eclectic and congested parts of town, an 8 day film festival added to the Hollywood & Highland mix makes for an exciting, though admittedly, exhausting experience. One can’t help but sit and people watch – overstimulated by everything from the most obvious of tourists, to street performers and impersonators alike, to cliché “industry” types and other cinephiles waiting in festival lines hours at a time. The bright lights and crowds move about on Hollywood Boulevard just beyond, a frenetic nature in the air.

Within the chaotic atmosphere, you find the quiet. For me, the quiet came as the theater darkened, comfortably seated, my favorite person next to me, the first frame – at once dark – illuminates the big screen. It’s still pretty mesmerizing to me given the number of films I’ve seen in my life; in particular, over the last 10 years or so; how given the right circumstances I’m instantly transported into another world, temporarily leaving my own.

This year, a conscious decision was made to see the smaller foreign and independent american films over fighting for tickets and seats to the large galas and world premieres. This found me taking in films from all over the world from established directors to newer emerging filmmakers.

And yet, among the frenzy, the quiet, the excitement, the exhaustion; something felt different about this particular festival season.

Last year and in years past at AFI, there were films I knew while watching them unfold would be among my favorites of the year because I was already so lost in their mystic.

The Hunt, in 2012, comes to mind. The moment Mads Mikkelsen walks into the town church and sits in a pew among his peers who have ostracized him so deeply in the wake of false child molestation accusations, his eyes so rich in emotion, I can still feel that experience a year later. That scene remains one of the finest acting performances I’ve ever seen. I recall seeing Central Park Five that same year, unbelievably upset by such a story; infuriated with our legal system. A system that is still failing these young men wrongfully accused of a crime with no retribution, not even so much as a simple “I’m sorry.”

In 2011, Snowtown was so well-crafted and got under my skin so deeply, I remember physically hating the movie. I was in such a conflict as I cast my ballot at the end of the film. I wanted to say the film was awful. And it was. But only in sharing a visually graphic recreation of unfathomable acts that happened in real life. It was at that exact moment, I learned you can equally hate and like a film. I loathed what this film represented and how it made me feel, but it was so accomplished that I had to put my judgement aside about the narrative, and focus on the storytelling.

In 2010, my first official full AFI fest experience – I found myself taking in the galas and premieres to some of the best films of that year. Blue Valentine not only painted an unflinching portrait of a deteriorating relationship, but it introduced me to Ryan Gosling himself (*swooning*) during the Q&A afterward. The Fighter, I recall was two hours of pure unadulterated fun. The audience so engrossed, we cheered all the way through…and did so out loud. This is where Melissa Leo officially became my hero.

I can’t say I walked away from AFI FEST 2013 feeling this way, as if I’ll look back with the same fondness at key moments so vivid, it’s almost as if it just happened. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all of the films that I saw this year when I think about them individually. They each had a captivating narrative and a visual style that aptly told their story. However, collectively, when I look back over the 6 films that I took in this year, the overall power of a cinematic experience didn’t hit me as profoundly as in previous years. Perhaps I should have taken in more of the galas and premieres to create those larger than life moments, mixed in with the quiet ones to create a more memorable time. Perhaps I should have simply chosen a different selection of films to see altogether.

Nonetheless, I always applaud the art of making a film – knowing how much time, passion, and effort goes into crafting words onto a page, cultivating a motion picture for audience consumption. That alone is no small feat.

Here are the 6 films I saw at AFI Fest this year, ranked from my favorite to my least favorite.

#1 | Like Father, Like Son

 #2 | Gloria

#3 | Blue Ruin

#4 | Stranger by the Lake

#5 | Breathe In

#6 | The Unknown Known

As we near the end of the year, Like Father, Like Son and perhaps even, Gloria, have a shot at making my top 10 of 2013. We’ll have to see how the next 7 weeks play out at the movies.

Until next year…

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{Venues.}

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{How to kill time while waiting: snapping random pictures of your feet, your kindle, and your food.}

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{AFI FEST 2013.}

Halloween on Halloween

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Happy Halloween Guys!

The plan tonight is rather low-key: a night in with my boyfriend, indulging in some take out on the couch watching the original Halloween. It was just released on Blu-ray for their 35th anniversary edition (and was unexpected purchase while at Target last week for something completely practical. Happens. Every. Time.).

Play safe tonight,

Candice

5 Reasons This Week Will Rock

Happy Monday! A few things that I’m looking forward to that should make for an exciting week…

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1. An impromptu visit to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica this weekend brought a few new treasures to play with all week long. These big brown eyes of mine will have a little more drama than usual thanks to an old gal pal’s recommendation for Benefit’s They’re Real Mascara. I’m in love! Bonus points for cashing in on my Sephora rewards points for Victor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb – my new signature scent this week. Hello, gorgeous!

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2. Starting a new read for my new book club. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is on my Kindle and ready to go!

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3. My Chromecast will be here in a few short days and I’m beyond excited to expand my entertainment options. I jumped on this gadget the moment I saw the email announcing its awaited release. A small step for those of us who refuse to pay for cable…at least for the time being.

 


4. Looking forward to getting into the Halloween spirit this coming weekend. A visit to the Sherwood Mansion for the annual Sherwood Scare is sure to set the tone. Beware boys and girls!

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5. Netflix has done it again. Like my recent addictions to Thirty Rock and Friday Night Lights, I’m discovering juicy new entertainment (that’s been off the air for ever and I’m just now getting to it). I’m sure any time I have to myself this week will find me in front of my TV devouring Gossip Girl.

xoxo,

Candi

Top 10 Films of Summer 2013

It’s been 5 days since the start of fall, and while the weather hasn’t made the complete shift from summer in L.A. – I can see it slowly pushing through. My air conditioner is being used less and less, I find myself wanting a sweater more often, and needing a blanket when I’m in the mood to be cozy on the couch at night. As we bid goodbye to long days of warm sunshine and the need to be around a consistent a/c source, I’m reflecting back on all things summer movies.

Though the calendar marks mid-June as the start of summer, it seems Hollywood drives when the season officially begins – the first weekend in May, releasing the first of many summer blockbusters to come for the next 3 months. I do like to indulge in many of the blockbusters, but I definitely make it a point to keep a strong connection to the smaller independent, foreign, and documentary films that also flood the market.

Let’s just say it was a busy summer. I can’t tell you how many collective hours I spent in the movie theater…well, I can. I’ve seen 28 films from May 3rd – September 21st (which I’ve deemed the end of the summer movie season for the purposes of this post, though some might argue the official “summer movie” season ended weeks ago).

It will be interesting to see how things shift as we move forward toward Oscar season where the best in cinema is yet to come.

Here are my top 10 films of the summer:

10. the great gatsby 

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With many people (myself included), Baz Luhrmann can be a hit or a miss. (I loved Moulin Rouge, but had a hard time with Romeo & Juliet.) I think what one must understand when approaching his material is to expect fantasy, expect extravagance, over-indulgence, knowing that your suspension of disbelief is all part of the plan. In other words, just expect too much. I went into Gatsby thinking that I might not like the film because of the buzz it was getting around the industry, and the fact that it was 143 minutes instantly put me in the frame of mind ready to not like it. I was presently surprised. I found myself easily engrossed in the screen by a very charming Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carrie Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan – their chemistry undeniable. Aside from such precise casting, one couldn’t help but fall into the too much. The lush 1920’s costume design, the decadent art direction, and witty writing made for an enjoyable 2.5 hour experience.

9. enough said

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Part of the reason that I chose to end my summer movie review season just as the calendar officially turned to fall, was because I was so fond of this film that I wanted to give it a proper salute. It won’t be one of my top ten films of the year, but Julia Louis-Dreyus and James Gandolfini had me smiling (and I mean literally) for 1 hour and 40 minutes straight. The situation our protagonists find themselves in couldn’t be more “Hollywood,” full of coincidences that make for a great comedy that would be far from comedic if it happened in reality. What the film does well is not only maintain sincere humor along with depth to each and every character, but by not falling into a complete romantic comedy stereotype. What can I say? It’s a sweet film and an ever sweeter way to bid farewell to the very talented James Gandolfini. Enough said.

8. world war z

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I wasn’t expecting much from this film, and in fact, was going to skip it. Another zombie movie? After a culmination of good reviews, and the fact that it never hurts to spend 2 hours looking at Brad Pitt, I went in with a rather uncertain disposition, looking forward to another blockbuster flick. World War Z delivered. It’s naturally fun. It does a phenomenal job of building tension and taking the viewer into another world wrought with creative apocalyptic ingredients. I was completely taken in, thanking the films gods that the story got right to the point and didn’t let go until the end. I know that fans of the book were not so thrilled, but I didn’t read it. And in this case, it was probably a good thing. 

7. 20 feet from stardom

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Dreams lost, dreams found, dreams re-dreamed. 20 Feet From Stardom invitingly follows the unknown icons of the music industry. Those whose words we know better than the actual verse to a pop song because it’s the chorus that often sticks with us. And while it’s their lyrics and voices that melodically repeat in our heads when incessantly humming a tune, the spotlight is far from their reach. They are the background singers. They are literally steps away from the superstar, and are oftentimes more musically apt and vocally talented than the person at center stage. This touching documentary examines that 20 foot barrier that is nearly impossible to overcome. It takes a look into the lives of veteran and working background singers, whose only dream was and is the spotlight and their struggle to get there. What makes someone a star? As I walked away from this experience, I concluded that in many cases – almost all cases – simply having talent isn’t the answer. 

6. the conjuring

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Four words come to mind when I think of this film: Holy. Awesome. Scary. Movie. In my book, when you’ve seen one scary movie, you’ve likely seen them all. Horror is a complicated genre to pull off and I’m not easily fooled. However, the delectable mixture of a well-crafted “based on a true story” tale, fueled by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson’s performance as paranormal investigators/real-life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring did in fact get to me. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the next scare as much as I was starting to believe that perhaps there may be some validity to paranormal activity, which I’ve always been rather ambivalent about. James Wan certainly has a talent for directing the dark side and has taken the horror genre to a fresh new level. To this day, the one horror film that admittedly did fool me was 2004’s Saw.

5. the way way back

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There are those films that radiate a nostalgic feeling in such a way that no matter what happens along the journey you’re going to connect. I knew this would be one of those films about 5 minutes in. The Way Way Back endearingly depicts summer in a way that any person who has survived the complications of youth would understand. While circumstances differ in every person’s journey, many can relate to being young with 3 months of too much time on our hands, the weight of the world on our shoulders, and friction with our parents. Crafted in such a way that highlights equal amounts of humor and truth, while set in the alluring backdrop of Cape Cod, the film singlehandedly captures the epitome of all things summer, celebrating its uniqueness and doing so in a way that just takes you back.

4. fast 6

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Fast 6. You read that right. BY FAR, the most fun I had in a movie theater this summer was on Friday, May 24th at 8:00pm. Opening night at the Arclight in Hollywood found me among other like-minded hardcore fans of the race car driving franchise phenomenon! Pure adrenaline, completely cliché and ridiculous dialogue, along with even more ridiculous and unrealistic over-the-top action and stunt sequences had the entire audience cheering out loud. The icing on the cake was the surprise hello from Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the entire Fast 6 cast in-person as the film credits rolled. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it again. It doesn’t get more popcorn summer blockbuster awesome movie fun than this! Yeah!

3. fruitvale station

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Of all of the films I saw this summer – this was the only one that hit me in such a way that I couldn’t readily let go when I left the theater, sparking a need to really evaluate my thoughts on Oscar Grant’s story and the film that took on the complicated task of telling it. You can read my full analysis on what will likely be in my top 10 films of the year, Fruitvale Station, here.

2. blue jasmine

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As far as I’m concerned, the Best Actress Academy Award winner was chosen just as Cate Blanchett disturbingly makes her way to a park bench, sits down, and starts talking to herself, a completely and utterly broken soul at the end of Blue Jasmine. I know it’s early in the year to make this assertion as we approach awards season – but I would have a hard time being as convinced of a person’s mental breakdown unless it happened right in front of me. Simply put, Cate Blanchett’s performance made this film for me. Period. And though Woody Allen’s writing and direction are to be commended, along with excellent casting of supporting characters, I cannot say with confidence that I would have such esteem for this film if it weren’t for Blanchett’s extreme and consuming immersion into the instability she created in Jasmine.

1. before midnight

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Before “Sunset” (2004) there was “Sunrise” (1995) just after “Midnight” (2013). If someone where to ever ask me what film has a sequel that is better than its predecessor, I would emphatically answer that I can now name two – and they’re both from the same series. I cannot think of another series of films that so eloquently depicts a nearly 20 year journey of the complexities when building an intimate relationship with another person.  These films have developed a formula, a narrative structure, and cinematic style that illicit a breath of fresh air every time. Before Midnight explores Jesse and Céline’s relationship 9 years after the last film now with 2 kids and the insecurities that come with finding your forever. I cannot find a better word to describe this film other than “poetic.” It never falls into deep cliches or loses an authentic connection to the viewer. I simply adore the dynamic of Jesse and Céline’s relationship; their intense connection abundant with humanity, open communication, and true friendship. It is that foundation that leads to some the best and most sophisticated dialogue I’ve ever heard on-screen, creating two of modern cinema’s best characters. While not impossible with three months left in the year, it would be very difficult to top this film as my favorite of 2013.

Farewell summer, hello Oscar season…

The Big Picture: A Night at the Oscars

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{A super excited selfie on the way to the Bowl!}

It doesn’t feel like an authentic L.A. summer until there’s a trip to the Hollywood Bowl. Not only is it a quintessential experience when living in the City of Angels, it also happens to be my favorite place in L.A. if I had to pick one.

This past Labor Day weekend found me right where I wanted to be: with my guy, a small picnic dinner, and seat at the Bowl ready for a night of movie music under the stars. The Big Picture: A Night at the Oscars was an enchanting extravaganza celebrating music from Academy Award winning films that magically echoed through the warm September night. Conductor David Newman and the immensely talented Hollywood Bowl Orchestra recreated soundtracks to some of Tinseltown’s most renowned stories masterfully playing the score over live picture projected on their new state of the art LCD screens. As clips from famous films such as To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), The Artist (2011), An American in Paris (1951), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) played on the large screens, I almost forgot that the accompanying live music was even happening! The synchronicity and the crisp, booming sound were so solidly fused with the visuals, you felt like you were just watching a movie as you would any other time.

What was particularly special about this night was the eclectic mix of films and genres the program chose to highlight. Instead of the very obvious choices you might expect on a night like this, films such as Bullitt (1968), Up (2009), and You Only Live Once (1937) were saluted. In fact, I admired that they didn’t focus merely on films that won the coveted Best Picture award, but films that won accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a variety of areas from film editing, to acting, to screenwriting.

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{Making our way up to the cheap seats…yet again.}

Unlike this time last year with an engaging Jason Alexander as host – there was a weakness in the show with this year’s selection. Mary McDonnell (the President’s wife who dies in Independence Day) was an odd choice. She was ever so gracious, but clearly reading from a teleprompter and just didn’t have that natural relaxed spirit you’d expect in hosting duties on a night like this. I’m not one to be too harsh in this situation, I can only imagine what it’s like getting on stage in front of an 18,000 seat amphitheater, but I was often taken out the evening festivities when she was on stage. She just wasn’t the right person for the gig unfortunately. This would be my biggest criticism of the evening (outside of some obnoxiously loud people behind us.)

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Otherwise, the night was another huge success. This time I went homemade with a ham and cheese sandwich (sometimes a girl just needs one), good conversation, lots of people watching (you couldn’t ask for a better place to do this!), and a night dedicated to two of my greatest loves: movies and music.

If I’m still carrying anything with me as I write this, the evening inspired me to check out films that I haven’t ever seen before or want to watch again. I see a night curled up on the couch with The Wizard of Oz and some popcorn in my near future.

The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Their summer season ends this month.

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Highlights

Happy Friday! Boy, am I looking forward to the weekend coming off an exhausting week. Last weekend, I got the worst “stomach bug” (if that’s what you want to call it because I could never actually pinpoint what caused it in the first place) that took a few days to shake. The pain subsided after a day or so, but physically drained me in a way that lingered for days. I don’t get sick or experience ailments very often (aside from my horrible allergies to dust and anything furry) but it’s when you’re under the weather you truly realize that there’s no better reminder to treasure your good health. Needless to say, once this passed, it sure made me grateful for mine!

Though I spent most of last weekend trying to take it easy, I managed to see The Spectacular Now at the Arclight and spent some time perusing Amoeba before the movie started. As far as The Spectacular Now goes, I was pretty disappointed overall. The film was the talk of Sundance (behind Fruitvale Station) this year and the trailer, very enticing. While I personally thought the film wasn’t executed very well (mainly due to casting choices and some script issues) it did make me want to read Tim Tharp’s novel from which the film was adapted. I suspect that the weaknesses in the film are more eloquently developed in the book because it has the substance to make a very rich story.

Otherwise, most nights this week I was simply content to be at home enjoying my new Kindle reading this month’s book club selection in between watching hours (and yes, more hours) of Friday Night Lights. This is the newest Netflix addiction that I am just now catching up on at a speed that’s pretty insane because I love it so much. Yes, I realize this news is about 7 years too late.

I did venture out 2 nights that were the absolute highlights of my week. Meeting a friend to catch-up on some girl talk over much-needed strawberry margaritas (in an awesome pineapple shell no less) was the perfect way to kick-off the work week; and seeing Blackfish last night, a documentary that explores the exploitation and psychology of orca killer whales once captured and trained to entertain millions at SeaWorld. Apparently, Shamu and his peers are a part of some of the biggest cover-ups in modern times.  It certainly sparks a continued debate about removing species from their natural habitat for the sole purpose of human enjoyment. This film is worth a visit to the theater.

While it isn’t expected to be too warm this weekend, the sun seems to be making a solid comeback. The plan is to hit the beach and hang out with my Kindle, my guy, and the ocean.

Have a great weekend!

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{Strawberry margaritas and girl talk at Pink Taco.}

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{New to my collection? Couldn’t pass up on The September Issue on a recent visit to Amoeba.}

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{Starting my first official novel on my new Kindle Paperwhite – And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. So far, so good!}

Fruitvale Station

MV5BMTQ0OTU1MDkxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjI5OTA3OQ@@._V1_SX214_I’ve seen nearly 40 new films this year and I can’t think of one that left me so equally upset and melancholy all at once. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film, in part because I have mixed emotions about the series of events. No matter what way I look at it, there’s absolutely no rationale that equates to the senseless death of a 22-year-old young man, young father…young human being.

Fruitvale Station follows the true story of the unfathomable shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle in front of hundreds of people on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station as it returned from San Francisco on New Year’s 2009. After a night of partying to ring in the New Year in the city, what started as a night of celebration quickly took a wrong turn. Grant got into an altercation with another passenger on the train that ultimately lead to the detainment of Grant and several of his friends. Given the tensions on the platform that night likely only fueled by alcohol, the atmosphere, remnants of anger from the fight that started on the train, and the reported aggression of the officers from the moment they arrived on the scene – the situation was bound to get out of control; because, unfortunately, it had all the ingredients to do so. All over what was later described, in essence, as a mistake.

Writer/Director, Ryan Coogler, in his first feature-length film boldly undertakes what is arguably one of the most controversial real-life cases in recent times; treating such sensitive material, still fresh in the minds of many, with grace and an emotional intensity that grabs the viewer from the first frame and doesn’t let go until the last. In a powerful move narratively, Coogler opens the film with actual raw video footage captured on a passenger’s cell phone of Officer Mehserle (though the name was changed for the film) pulling the trigger on Oscar Grant as he’s already being forcefully held down by a second officer. Though the footage is highly pixelated, the tension of the scene is palpable. Instantly, you’re invested wanting to know how we possibly got here.

Consciously saturated by the tension and uneasiness from the opening sequence, Coogler shifts the audience to a recreation of events and our journey toward impending collapse begins. Structurally, the film rewinds focusing entirely on Oscar Grant’s last 24 hours alive, carefully inserting the viewer into what Grant likely also thought was just another day – not his last. This significant approach immediately humanizes the film, shaping a more tangible and compelling narrative. Like Oscar Grant, the viewer in their seat is simply living through another day, never really knowing where life might take them at a moment’s notice.

The film, eloquently shot in many of the same Northern California locations where Oscar Grant himself spent his final hours, does a phenomenal job chartering solid character development given the short amount of time that we spend with the protagonist and his family. Actor Michael B. Jordan, who seamlessly melts into the portrayal of Grant, persuasively captures varied facets of a diverse human being dealing with the nuances of the day, both good and bad. Through Jordan’s performance, we see ourselves in Oscar Grant to the extent that, we too, experience a myriad of emotions in 24 short hours given the circumstances faced in a single day.

Pointedly, the film examines Oscar’s attempts to address some of his demons, namely his moral struggles with selling drugs as a means to support Sophina and 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Thematically, Coogler returns frequently throughout the story to Oscar’s redemption; seemingly highlighting his personal attempts to get his life back on track. This lays the framework for the audience to invest even more deeply into our lead because we see his sensitivity and his endeavors to right wrongs.

As a viewer, this is where I found weakness in the script and where I think “Hollywood” might have stepped in and perhaps lent their formulaic interpretation to the story. While the character is solidly defined within the ramifications of the narrative, something seemed amiss. More specifically, where I question the balance of the film is in the representation of Grant himself. Hollywood is notorious for reshaping events and modifying character traits in many “based on a true story” tales with the aim to tug at the emotions of the audience, and it almost always works. As such, it did cross my mind while entranced at the movie screen if Grant did spend the last 24 hours of his life reassessing his place in world as much as the film depicts? Did he really have a heart-wrenching experience of rescuing a dog who had just been hit by a car? Help a pregnant lady get access to a restroom? Engage in such a vulnerable conversation about promising to come home safely to little Tatiana? Did Grant head to the beach and contemplate his faulty choices in life just before dumping out drugs into the ocean in an attempt to start anew on the eve of his death?

While the film is far from portraying Grant as some sort of angel, devoid of any human flaws; there was a problematic element of coincidence in him finally realizing that he needed to make some serious life changes (and did) hours before he was shot. If this were true, it would make his death all the more tragic. Perhaps this ultimately was the case. It was New Year’s Eve, so it would be an appropriate time to reflect on where you see yourself going. Clearly not being there personally, one would hope that Coogler kept to the spirit of what actually happened as best as he could to honor the truth. The caveat being, that in the art of cinema, the goal is to connect with the audience; usually by painting the protagonist as a tortured hero.

Where I think the feature adaptation got it best, was during the narrative’s climax as the audience returns to the Fruitvale BART station, now more informed about Oscar Grant as a person and where he stood in the world. With an equal level of intensity introduced at the beginning of the film from the actual cell-phone captured footage; Coogler masterfully re-enacts the series of events, capturing the chaos, the tension, and the emotions flaring on the train platform that night to perfection. Surely, having hundreds of eye witnesses and raw footage to reference almost corners Coogler into retaining a high level of authenticity, but pressures everyone involved with the film to get it right.

Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with the parameters of the tragedy. Fresh off the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case just few days earlier, I went into the theater with a heightened sense of possible racial motivations leading to another case of injustice. As I watched the film, something became clear and this is where the mixed emotions I mentioned earlier come in. Ultimately, I was disappointed in the entire situation and everyone involved. It was clear that the atmosphere on the BART station that night was getting out of control. It was New Year’s, people were drinking, there was an altercation, and because of this the environment was naturally elevated toward hostility. While there was absolutely no basis for the officer to shoot Grant in the back (though his excuse was that he thought he was reaching for his taser), I couldn’t help but wonder why Grant and his friends didn’t just cooperate instead of resisting arrest and shouting epithets at the officers? Likewise, why were officers being so unnecessarily aggressive and shouting epithets at these young men? I cannot say with absolute certainty that Oscar Grant is no longer with us because of a bigoted cop who exclusively pulled the trigger on another urban youth out of pure hatred based on what I have seen of the footage and the interpretation depicted in the film. Part of me truly believes all of this could have been avoided if everyone involved had checked their emotions and calmed down. There’s fault all around in this, but at the cost of young life. This is equally upsetting and saddening.

The officer involved was sentenced to 2 years and served 7 months time in the shooting death of Oscar Grant. This is where I do question racial and social injustices. Would this officer only have served 7 months if Oscar Grant were not a young black male? If Oscar Grant where a wealthy, Caucasian-American youth, would a “mistake” like this garner more time in prison? Furthermore, I fail to understand why an officer of the law couldn’t tell a taser from a handgun? Given that Mehserle wasn’t in a life threatening situation, why wouldn’t he check which weapon he had in-hand or be level-headed enough to just be more conscious? Yes, it was a stressful scene, but as an officer of the law I would challenge his judgement. I’d argue that use of either mechanism; gun or taser, when your “suspect” is already pinned by a fellow officer seems like unnecessary force – accident or not.

Symmetrically, just as the film opens, the film also closes with real footage. This time, of a memorial tribute to Grant’s memory on New Year’s 2013, depicting a now older but solemn Tatiana, Grant’s only daughter. Book-ending the film with raw video of where Grant’s life took a turn for the worse and how it is remembered is a notable move by Coogler. This method of inviting and exiting the viewer to events of Fruitvale Station reminds the audience, that while you are watching a 90 minute Hollywood interpretation, a young man is still dead. This exit propels the viewer out from the screen and into that reality; where that reality is that many of life’s complications and subsequent turmoil are caused by emotional decisions made in the heat of the moment, that have consequences that last for a lifetime.

Stepping off the page and out of the movie screen, where things are left frustratingly unclear is in my research after seeing the film thirsting for details, wanting to know more about that night. I read that eye witnesses testified that Grant and his friends didn’t resist arrest, yet the officers were extremely forceful. Adversely, I read quotes from officers on-site that night that say otherwise – that the scene was one of the most intense nights in all their years in the field and the young men were resisting arrest. As a viewer trying to wrap my head around what truly happened, but finding contradiction in my investigation, only contributes to deeper mixed emotions and leaves more unanswerable questions that does justice to no one. While there are two sides to a story, there’s also the truth – and an even bigger contention that speaks more highly of humanity is that we have people who cannot come to a consensus of what that truth is despite a life lost. This is quite disturbing no matter what way you look at it.

Well-crafted, well-acted, with questionable motives in character development, yet ultimately fair, but still very tragic; Fruitvale Station is a reminder that one of these days could be our last and for no substantial reason other than an arguable “mistake.”

Let’s learn from this one.

{Trailer.}

*image courtesy IMDB