The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

January Home Video Wrap-up, Part 1

Fruitvale Station

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Ryan Coogler’s feature directing and writing debut is a fictionalized look at the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man shot to death by transit police at a train station on New Year’s Day 2009. The events were big news when they happened, another in a long line of examples of police overreach into violence at the expense of the black community. Coogler easily could have gone down this path and made Fruitvale Station into an issue film writ large, but represses this approach, opting instead for a more personal look at the man at the center of the story.

We follow Oscar through his last day, and it turns out to be one of the more eventful days of anyone’s life. Oscar, in preparing for a night out on New Year’s Eve, manages to run into every important figure in his life and history over the course of a few hours, a sort of This is Your Life in film form, as an unmistakable cloud of dread follows him from place to place, event to event. Coogler’s script is pretty difficult to swallow thanks to this approach, as it becomes clear that he is not a fan of subtlety. Everywhere Oscar goes, he is greeted by pointed foreshadowing, as his mother makes sure to tell him to take the train that night, and loved ones remark that he “be safe” and he responds by letting them know he’ll see them soon. It would only be slightly less absurd for him to walk around with a neon sign sticking out of his back declaring I’M GOING TO DIE TONIGHT. It’s pretty rough at times.

It would take someone of singular talent and charisma to make a script so full of pitfalls as Fruitvale Station work on any appreciable level. It’s good, then, that Coogler has just the person up to the task, putting all of his overly oppressive foreshadowing and symbolism on the back of Michael B. Jordan of The Wire and Friday Night Lights and Chronicle fame. Jordan is a strong enough actor to actually make aspects of this work a little bit, giving us an Oscar Grant who feels like a real person even as he moves through manufactured omen after manufactured omen. Jordan makes you believe that Oscar is a flawed man trying to make good, and makes sure that he isn’t simply a saint going through his metaphorical last rites, no matter how much Coogler wants to push him in that direction.

It’s impressive that we got something relatively decent out of this howler of a script. It’s a credit to Michael B. Jordan that this was even possible in the first place. A better script (perhaps one that doesn’t find it necessary to gimmick up by having everything happen on one day) that wouldn’t play things up in such an arch way certainly would have helped, and likely would have been more deserving of Jordan than what we actually got in Fruitvale Station. It’s worth watching, and shows promise for Coogler as a young director (and a little less as a young writer), but the recommendation comes with many caveats.


You’re Next

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Low budget horror films are a funny thing sometimes. The horror genre is so well-worn that it can be at times difficult to find your own niche. As such, subgenres are a big part of the modern day horror world, whether we’re talking torture porn (Hostel, Saw, or Wolf Creek), found footage (The Blair Witch Project, or The Devil Inside), slasher (Friday the 13th) or revenge fantasy (I Spit on Your Grave), among a litany of other options. Adam Wingard’s You’re Next falls into the realm of home invasion horror, somewhat in the style of Funny Games (with a bit of revenge mixed in to taste).

The story follows a large family gathering at a secluded mansion, celebrating the anniversary of their parents. Things turn grim as the family is ambushed by crossbow-wielding white animal mask wearing psychos intent on killing all of them. The mayhem escalates as the group splinters and the weaker are killed, and one of the women (Erin, Sharni Vinson) comes to the fore as our dominant protagonist. The house is large, allowing for a good and robust cat and mouse game during the more stalk-y sections of the middle hour (and, to be honest, makes better use of the space than another film set in a giant house, August: Osage County). Doing so allows for some Home Alone elements to sneak their way in as the victims work to fight back against their predators.

As is probably not too surprising, You’re Next is not redefining the horror scene. Wingard does take some liberties, including having a penchant for casting other indie directors in some of the lead roles, including Joe Swanberg (one of the pioneers of mumblecore and the director of last year’s Drinking Buddies) and Ti West (actually a horror director, of The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil). Swanberg’s inclusion is a notable one, as the film has been referred to as helping to establish a new (and somewhat on the nose) subgenre that mixes the low budget and improvisational style of mumblecore with the horror setting (‘mumblegore’ if you will), and the conversations here take on a casual, loosely scripted feel that would not seem out of place in a film like Computer Chess or The Puffy Chair.

This style is generally what makes You’re Next stand a bit apart from its genre. The horror components of the film are not particularly noteworthy, though the use of the animal masks is visually striking, especially in the way the red blood splatters over their harsh white as the arteries begin to open. The chief way the film continues to retain its interest lies in the characters, and there are some wonderful interactions late in the film that brushes with the fourth wall without quite breaking it.

You’re Next isn’t a movie that breaks too many boundaries, but its scares are effective and it does enough in its own little ways to stand out from the rest of the pack ever so slightly.