Let’s get one thing straight. Ordinarily, this is not a film I would watch. Right off the bat it has a couple strikes against as far as movies that I would find appealing. Let’s take this flick’s trailer for instance. Yawn. I was bored out of my mind when I first saw it and I think it carried the tag line of movie of the year or some nonsense like that. I wanted nothing to do with it and scoffed at the press invite for this film. However, then the reviews started to pour in. First my eccentric neighbor where I used to live a few months back stopped me and told me how amazing Fruitvale Station was. I nodded my head and pretended like I was interested in what he had to say, but in the back of my mind I know this guy only likes all those independent art house films I could truly care less about. Then came Aaron Neuwirth’s 5-doggie theatrical review which can be found by clicking here. Suddenly, I started to take notice and thought to myself, am I missing out on something truly special here? So when Anchor Bay offered me the chance to review this Blu-ray title, I jumped as soon as I read the words “Hi Brian.” I want to see what all the buzz is about regarding this title firsthand. So here goes nothing.
When I was researching this title over the summer, what really made me take note of Fruitvale Station was not only the fact of how successful it was, but also that it was director/writer Ryan Coogler’s debut feature film. That means a hell of a lot to me being a wannabe filmmaker in the world of Hollywood. However, I digress because most days I don’t feel that’s an attainable goal. So let’s talk a little more about Fruitvale‘s successes before we move on. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for US dramatic film, making it the first movie since 2009′s Precious to simultaneously capture both awards. It also went on to take home the Prize of the Future at this year’s Cannes and so on and so on. And finally, let’s tackle what Hollywood cares most about…the money! The movie grossed over $16 million dollars at the box office, making it one of the top ten highest grossing indie films of 2013. Now tell me ladies and gentlemen…that’s not bad for a debut feature film from Ryan Coogler, is it? Hell no! The boy won the lottery his first time playing. Throw this man a parade! OR could it be that there simply wasn’t much to offer in the versatile form of competition around the time this feature was unveiled? OR could it be the topic we’re all afraid to touch upon? OR could it be a combination of it all? Quite possibly! Who knows? That’s for you to speculate and think about. My job is just to report the facts when they present themselves. And the fact is when Fruitvale Station was released on July 12th everyone and their mother was screaming Oscar! Were their screams valid? Hold on…hold on. That’s what I’m about to talk about.
So let’s talk about the story first. I really don’t think it’s possible to tread into spoiler territory here. If you don’t know what you are getting yourself into, then why are you here? The tale of Fruitvale Station is based on a true story and recounts the tragic last day in the life of Oscar Grant who was brutally gunned down by two arrogant police officers at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in Oakland, CA on January 1, 2009. The tale is tragic enough, but the documentary follow along style in which this is shot definitely puts you in the passenger seat. I’m not going to deny that. However, as tragic as this story is, I got to say, and I know I’m going to get stoned for this, the simplicity of the tale is nothing you haven’t seen on the Lifetime channel a hundred times now. There I said it. However again, what makes this tale so special and so elite this year, in my opinion, are the brilliant performances of the actors. The story and writing is simple, but the actors really go out of their way to deliver powerful and moving performances, with the exception of the doctor at the end, to not only sell the story, but also to make you care. So before I go on I would like to take a moment to talk about them in a little more detail.
The role of Oscar Grant is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. The effective way that Jordan play’s the character lends credibility to the real life persona of the man offscreen. There’s a lot of dialogue that reinforces the fact that he’s a loving person, maybe too much in my opinion, but Jordan also helps us to see that he was not a perfect person either. He was very flawed. He was unemployed, a drug dealer, a cheater and most of all a curser. That boy had a mouth. But nevertheless, he was also a very loving person in how he would go out of his way to help a total stranger in a supermarket (although I really don’t know his intention there) to the caring, loving family man he really was. Jordan’s performance sells this and if you even have to question that, you’re dead wrong so don’t even try. It also doesn’t hurt when your mother is played by Octavia Spencer. Need I say more? Perhaps, one of the biggest surprises for me was Ariana Neal, who played Tatiana, Oscar’s little girl. As far as I’m concerned, she stole the show. That girl is going to be a force not to be reckoned with when she grows up and hopefully sharpens her acting chops even more if that’s possible. She hits every beat perfectly. I’m sorry to relish, but I always am easily swayed when a youngster moves me like that. And let’s not forget that the film also stars Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina, and Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray, I have not heard that name in awhile, as the two BART police officers.
Now, let’s get back to the tragic last day story of Oscar Grant that we see onscreen. It makes me wonder how much of that was Hollywood beating it into you and how much was the truth. From what I know, Coogler was able to work closely with the Grant family attorney as well as the Grant family themselves in researching and gathering as much information about the real Oscar as possible. However, even after knowing that I can’t help still feeling conflicted and a little bit skeptical. To me, it just feels like the filmmakers, because of the very simple story this is, just went a wee bit out of their way to kill you with Oscar’s random acts of pleasantries as for just about every F-word he mutters there’s also an I love you. And there’s a scene that involves a dog. Did that really need to be in there? I think not. I think I got the idea just from Oscar’s family values alone that underneath his rugged gangster outer appearance he was a kind and caring man, albeit just a troubled one. And to me that’s the unfortunate side of living in California and not being rich, or really the same can honestly be said for just about anywhere too. However, the cost of living in California is so outrageously high out there that it truly is no wonder crime is so bad. I have witnessed it firsthand before, even being held up on the city streets in Los Angeles. And I’m not making excuses for anyone, but what’s a person to do when they need to provide for a family and they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth? Just the cost of moving to a different state can cost upwards in the amount of five thousand or more to move all your belongings. So yeah, things are rough for Oscar, and you definitely are going to pick up on that and if you have half the heart you say you do, you’ll feel for him as well. And don’t get me wrong because I’m not sure where I’m going with all this talk here, but perhaps with a change of scenery and a better financial situation, Oscar and family would still be laughing and thrviing right now. We’re all products of our environment and people like Oscar seem to be able to overcome that stigma, but still we need to keep in mind that Oakland’s a very tough city. And that unfortunately brings me to my next topic.
Was this story that’s told a case of racial profiling? My God…how I don’t even want to go down that road, not that I don’t have my own formulated opinion form what I saw, but in order to avoid any kind of conflicts here let’s just agree to disagree no matter what anyone’s opinion is and say that Fruitvale Station is a human story of a son’s love for his family and vice versa a mother’s love is universal. It proves and reinforces the fact that life is too short and that you should always be grateful for what you have even if it’s not the latest iPad Air. You may not always think so, but family really is everything sometimes. Everyone has a tale, some more tragic than others, but it’s how you choose to rise above the rough patches and obstacles that truly defines you as a human being. So from what I can tell of the performances and story I saw unfold on the screen is that Oscar Grant was far from a perfect person, but he had his priorities straight where they mattered as far as I’m concerned, family and love. The two BART police officers that humiliated him and gunned him down, well…that’s a whole other story. As tragic as it was we will never know what went through the mind of that officer who shot him for no good reason at all. Was it truly a rookie mistake and he was just reaching for stun gun and drew the wrong one? Unfortunately, if there is a God, only he would know the answer to that. And I’ll leave it at that.
So what it all boils down to me as a reviewer is how good was the film. I have to admit after watching this I could not give it more than a score of a 4. It’s just not a film I enjoy watching. It’s not a Hollywood story. It’s a mundane every day tale of hard life, a little too much of reality for my own liking. However, after several text conversations back and forth between WSB reviewer Brandon Peters and myself I was able to effectively take my biased opinions about these kind of true life stories that really don’t work like 99% of the other fairytales I normally watch and toss them aside for the moment. That gave me the credibility and clout to effectively think about the movie itself and the ways it accomplished what it set out to not only be, but the points it strived to get across. So I made a compromise. However, I’m not going to say this movie is the best film I have seen this year because it’s not. I’m judging it on its merits, its wits and most importantly its effectiveness. Did it accomplish what it set out to do? I believe so. The story of Oscar Grant, while an isolated one, is yet another tragic tale of events that go down all the time in our country. Is it racial fear or profile? That’s up to you to decide. My above film score is ultimately it hitting it’s beats near perfectly. Now with that being said, I very much enjoyed watching my chaser film, Kick Ass 2, even though it’s nowhere near as iconic as the first film. How’s that for changing subjects?
Now that we got all the philosophical talk out of the way, let’s talk the real reason you are all here…the Blu-ray disc vitals…or as I like to call it the pb&j (picture, bombastic audio and jamming extras). The Weinstein Company brings Frutivale Station to the Blu-ray format with a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC codec framed in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I’m not going to lie and try to deceive you, things look pretty rough here occasionally due in nature to the way it was filmed on Super 16mm. Anyone that hates excess grain in certain scenes will not be pleased here. I guarantee it. However, for the most part, due in nature to the 16mm capture, things look rather pleasing here other than the tragic subject matter of course. Blacks are pretty deep, skin tones are pretty flat and accurate and details are sharp when they’re encouraged to be. Do you want me to paint an accurate picture for you? Sure you do! Picture how Black Swan looked for the most part and I think you can kind of understand where I’m coming from here then. There’s no excessive noise, dirt, debris or artifacts in the picture. The presentation is as gritty as is the the controversial subject matter that unfolds onscreen and in my opinion, you want that, no? It has that low budget documentary kind of feel to it, but after you get trapped in the story it all becomes second nature and trivial in my opinion.
Fruitvale Station is brought to life organically courtesy of a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track, albeit a very front heavy one. However, this is a drama. Did you really expect to be engulfed in blazing fires and action all around you? For what it is, compared to your average Lifetime channel movie, it’s still a very effective audio track. I would have just liked to see a lot more atmospheric activity happening around me, that’s all. Now, I did mention it is front heavy. Although I did not mention how loud this one is. It is loud and authoritative…up front of course. There are those rare tracking moments such as when New Years Eve fireworks go off that you hear the rear speakers come to life. I know this sounds weird, but after living up north all my life this was one of the first times I realized fireworks were prevalent on New Years Eve. We don’t have that up in Ohio. Boo! The LFE also goes boom more occasionally than not with the nicely rendered sound effects, ambient moments and heavy driving music. Again, I just wish more of that “ambience” trickled into the rears and as a result we would have a much higher score here in this department. Luckily for me, the most important ingredient in a drama like this in my belief is the dialogue levels and never once did I ever strain to hear or understand anything. So take that as an added plus! There’s also a Spanish language track in addition to English and Spanish subtitles selectable from the disc’s main menu.
Fruitvale Station on Blu-ray may be beefy with emotion, but the “beef” factor is not so much the case in the special features department. While I was not expecting much, perhaps an audio commentary with Coogler and Jordan would have hit a home run here with some dynamic and engaging conversation while the film plays out. So instead we get two lonely featurettes, however, they do run extensively long for something you would ordinarily only expect an average 7-minute runtime at best. And best of all…it may not be an iTunes HD Digital Copy, but you do get a code to redeem an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the film. Something’s better than nothing, right? So let’s take a more granule look at the two real extras you have to play with here.
- Fruitvale Station: The Story of Oscar Grant (HD, 21:27) – This is your basically making of featurette mixed with some film clips, promotional moments and interviews (actors, crew and others). I really loved hearing the actors chat about this film, especially Octavia Spencer. We also get some footage of the real riots that happened when the indictment and sentencing went down on the two BART police officers. Whether you feel justice was served is a whole separate story I’m not qualified to talk about, nor do I want to. And of course, due to this being released in modern day times you did not think you were going to get away with there being some comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case, did you? That’s all covered in this featurette too. But getting back to the movie itself, we also see some footage from the awards it won at events like Sundance and Cannes.
- Q&A With Cast & Filmmakers (HD, 27:29) – This Q&A session all went down in Oakland, CA. I think what was most memorable for me from this extra was hearing director/writer Ryan Coogler talk about his passion and of course this story.
Aw…finally getting tot this conclusive point in the review seemed like a lifetime for me because I feel like I’m walking on eggshells with the all the racial issues and accusations at stake here, not to mention this film is so widely respected in the 2013 movie community too. Make no mistake, Fruitvale Station is an effective film. The performances knock it out of the ballpark here and carry this simple story. The real struggle for me and maybe you too is being able to critically see that it’s a good movie and justifying whether or not you would ever want to take this journey again. I know the answer to that question, do you? The choice is yours to make and yours alone. There are two sides of the coin at play here I feel. The people that say movies like these do nothing but harm already heightened racial tensions and others that will be the first to admit that more tragedies like Oscar Grant’s need to be made into films for people to foster awareness to these everyday problems that unfortunately never seem to ever disappear from our society at large. For me, sometimes just knowing the history of our country and how we treated others in the past and sometimes still do is shameful enough. However, I digress. This is not about me, it’s about you and what you want out of life. I believe I accomplished with my review what I set out to do by delivering an unbiased look at the film itself and the presentation and trying to stay away from all the controversy. This is an explicit look at a troubled, but loving young man whose life was tragically cut short simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is Fruitvale Station.
Audiences can own Fruitvale Station on Blu-ray Combo Pack with Digital HD UltraViolet on January 14th by clicking here. For all those who just can’t wait that long the film will be available early on Digital HD Download at your favorite digital retailers on December 31st. Happy New Years!