Fruitvale Station

July 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Ryan Coogler (debut)
Written by: Ryan Coogler (debut)

Whether you know the story behind the death of Oscar Grant or not, first-time director Ryan Coogler lays it all on the line for you at the very beginning of “Fruitvale Station,” a stunning and emotionally rich film that paints a uniquely authentic and compelling picture of a 22-year-old young man who lost his life on January 1, 2009. Oscar might just be a name to you now or a headline you remember reading in the newspaper a few years ago, but in “Fruitvale Station” Coogler turns him into so much more – a three-dimensional person whose fears, flaws, dreams, and character create a reason to agonize over the tragedy that occurs and hope it never happens to anyone again.

In “Fruitvale Station,” which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May (not to mention a well-deserved two-minute standing ovation), Coogler starts the film off with the real-life footage of the night Oscar is killed; footage that is recorded on cell phones by onlookers who witnessed the events unfold. After spending the evening with his girlfriend and friends in San Francisco to celebrate New Year’s Eve, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is detained by transit police in the subway station during their trip back home to Oakland when a fight breaks out. During the commotion, one of the officers attempts to subdue Oscar on the ground and then fires a single bullet into his back allegedly thinking he is firing his taser. Oscar is pronounced dead at the hospital later that morning.

While the death of Oscar is one of the most surreal things you’re likely to see online, “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t allow it to become the sole purpose of the story. This is about Oscar’s life, in fact, and Coogler is steadfast in showing us who the lead character of this narrative is from as many vantage points as possible. As truthful as it is, the raw look at Oscar is sometimes not flattering, but Jordan gives his character the human qualities it takes for an audience to stand behind someone that has made his fair share of mistakes. As Sophina, Oscar’s supportive girlfriend and mother of his only child, actress Melonie Diaz (“Raising Victor Vargas”) gives a touching performance and sets up a strong familial network between Oscar and the most important women in his life, which include his sweet daughter (Ariana Neal) and his loving mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

As Coogler’s first feature film of his career, “Fruitvale Station” is a cinematic anomaly. First-time directors shouldn’t be making movies as poignant as this. It’s a testament that the industry needs to find more room for intimate independent projects that examine social issues and deserve more attention. Who cares about the politics? Coogler’s focus is on the people.

Melonie Diaz – Fruitvale Station

July 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In the critically-acclaimed drama “Fruitvale Station,” which tells the true story of 22-year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), actress Melonie Diaz (“Raising Victor Vargas,” “Be Kind Rewind”) plays Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend and mother of his only child. During the film, we watch the relationship between Oscar and Sophina evolve as both try to raise their daughter Tatiana the best they can before a tragic event changes everything. During an interview with me, Diaz, 29, who is of Puerto Rican descent, talk about the experience of meeting the real Sophina before production and explained why a certain scene in the film worried her more than the others.

I know you met the real Sophina before production started on the film. Many times, actors who are portraying a living person don’t get that opportunity. Why did you think it was important for you to meet her and her daughter Tatiana and spend time with them?

It took [director] Ryan [Coogler] a long time to earn their trust. He dealt with the family in terms of getting to know who Oscar was. Early on, he explained to me that Sophina knew [Oscar] the best. She was the mother of his child, his girlfriend, his best friend. I think if I didn’t meet her, it would’ve been a dishonest portrayal in terms of who she is and her and Oscar’s dynamic. It was really important to Ryan and the family that we make the film as true to life as possible. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that if I hadn’t met her. I learned so much about their relationship and who she is. She is really an impressive person. She is really an authentic person. I’m really glad I got the opportunity to sit down with her and feel out her energy.

How personal did the conversations get with Sophina? Did you get a chance to talk to about her relationship with Oscar or the night he died? Or did you keep your time with her fairly unobtrusive?

Yeah, I didn’t want to be obtrusive. She did tell me a couple of stories here and there, but I don’t think it would be polite if I shared those with you. But she definitely opened up at some point. I think she understood that our intentions with the film were not bad. We wanted to do it in the best light possible.

I read you weren’t aware of Oscar’s story until you found out the film was being made. What was going on in your mind when you clicked on that YouTube video for the first time and saw what transpired the night Oscar was killed?

I’ve only seen it once and I won’t see it again. It’s a video full of fear and anger and hate. It’s very upsetting. I wish this didn’t have to happen. But in a large way, I am thankful for that video because it’s factual proof that this happened. There’s no way around saying that this didn’t happen. I think that helps bring awareness to our society right now. That video is really disgusting. I really have nothing nice to say about it.

Although they’re completely different stories, I think the film is very timely right now because of the Treyvon Martin case and the feeling of many Americans that the judicial system is broken. Personally, did you have a take on the events that lead to Oscar’s death and the way the court handled it? Can you even take a side when you’re so close to the story now?

You know, I really don’t want to talk about that because my feelings are not positive. I think there’s a clear problem with our judicial system at the moment. As a person, I’m a little frustrated because I feel like I have no power. That leaves me a little unsteady, but at the same time I think a movie like ours shows a side to these people who are killed like that. That brings these issues to the forefront. When you come see our movie, you’re choosing to be aware and choosing to be conscious. Hopefully, that knowledge will help you raise your children to be kinder and more thoughtful and be a little less judgmental.

There are countless murders and deaths every year in this country. Just recently, Chicago hit 200 homicides, a number which is actually down from last year. Why do you think some cases like Oscar’s story and like Treyvon’s story get the attention they deserve while other ones are forgotten sometimes?

Hmm. I don’t have the answer to that. I think Oscar’s story is unique in a sense that it was caught on tape. There was visual proof it happened. With Treyvon, there was an audio tape of that. I wish I knew why. There’s obviously a theme with this behavior. I think [the media] tends to paint the person of color as this vicious thug way too consistently. I’m not sure why. The only thing we can do is ask questions. Why are these cases not talked about more often? Honestly, in the past couple of weeks I’ve been really confused at what is going on. There is this total confusion in me.

Talk about the scene after Sophina and Oscar are split up and she has to leave the transit station without him. As an actress, where do you pull emotion like that from? Has it just built up throughout the film and you reveal it to us at that moment or is it more than that?

It’s interesting because that portion of the film was supposed to be shot at the beginning. I was working on it and doing so much research. It takes me a while to get to those places. I can’t just turn it on as an actor. But I got really lucky because [that scene] got pushed to the end. So, there was a lot of time for my affection for [actor] Mike [Jordan] to grow. I got to know him and Ryan better and you get more attached. There was more of an understanding of this little family unit. I really don’t know what happened. I know the night before I didn’t sleep. I was nervous. There was this pent up feeling where you have to bottle it up and then when you get there you have to go full throttle. What’s interesting about that, too, was that I was also really sick. I had the worst flu of all time. I always crash during night shoots because my body can’t deal.

I read in another interview that you emailed Ryan and expressed that you were scared about that scene. What scared you about it?

Well, I think the last 20 minutes really become Sophina’s movie. The audience has to live through Sophina. We have to feel the pain and sense of loss through her. That’s something Ryan and I talked about. The stakes were really high. I knew I was responsible to make the audience and the world feel the loss of this young man.

I’ve followed you since the beginning of your career. I thought you were great in “Raising Victor Vargas.” My favorite scene in that film is when you’re playing charades and trying to get Judy Marte to guess what animal you’re pretending to be and you’re like, “I’m a baby bird.” I don’t’ know what it is about that scene, but I love it!

You know what’s so funny is that I used to do that. That wasn’t written in the script. That was just me, Melonie. I always used to joke around like that. “I’m a baby bird.” Everyone was like, “Is that a joke? You should do that in the movie.”

I think what makes that scene great is how serious you are when you say that line. It’s like, “I’m a baby bird, of course! How do you not know that!?”

Yeah, like, “Doy!”

Anyway, sorry to get off track. I think your performance in “Fruitvale Station” is the best of your career, honestly. What have you learned about yourself as an actress over the last 12 years you’ve been in the industry?

I’ve learned that I respond to strong directors. [“Fruitvale Station’] is by far the biggest drama I’ve ever done – like heavy, heavy drama. It’s something I’ve felt like I’ve kind of avoided for some reason. Well, I’m kind of in the middle. I don’t think I’ve learned that much. I don’t want to sound like I’m some accomplished person to be honest. I think I’m still learning and going through it.

What about the industry in general? Are the choices you’re making synonymous with how you want to be perceived as an actress?

Yes and no. I try and do other things, but sometimes they don’t really work out. Yeah, I’m not this big Hollywood mainstream actress, but who cares? I think I just have a certain sensibility for smaller projects. I like intimate things. I think I do well in that kind of environment. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t love to do bigger projects. I feel everyone has their own journey. This is just mine.

Nothing Like the Holidays

December 2, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Alfred Molina
Directed by: Alfred De Villa (“ Washington Heights ”)
Written by: Alison Swan (debut) and Rick Najera (debut)

While the number of slapstick Christmas comedies usually go off the charts this time of year as much as Santa’s cholesterol, the Christmas family dramedy is the other holiday sub-genre that usually demands screen time in December.

Last year, “This Christmas” featured an African American family reuniting for the holidays after four years. In 2005, Sarah Jessica Parker met “The Family Stone” and experienced all their dysfunctional love. This year, Christmas gets a little Latin flare Puerto Rican-style with “Nothing Like the Holidays.” The film follows the Rodriguez family from the Humboldt Park area in Chicago as they come together in what might be the final Christmas they spend together as a family.

The reason: Anna Rodriguez (Elizabeth Pena) has announced over dinner that she has decided to divorce her children’s father Edy (Alfred Molina) after 36 years of marriage. She has reason to believe he has been having an affair. No one takes the news lightly including Mauricio (John Leguizamo), one of the Rodriguez boys, who has become a successful lawyer in New York, and his sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a struggling actress living in Los Angeles.

Freddy Rodriguez (“Grindhouse”) plays Jesse, another Rodriguez brother, back home from Iraq. He thinks his parents are adult enough to make their own decisions. His mind isn’t really focused on his mom and dad’s problems, especially since he has a handful of his own. He has returned home to find his ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz), whom he still loves, has moved on with her life. He is also still haunted by the death of one of his friends in the military.

It’s not only Jesse, however, who has issues. Everyone has something going on in his or her trying life and debut screenwriters Alison Swan and Rick Najera tangle it all together in a cinematic version of stale fruitcake. While storylines that focus on Jesse and his hardships give the film a more serious tone than your average family head-butting session, there’s not much time to build on his character since the script seems sculpted from the blueprint of a tiresome telenovela. Instead, secondary stories like Maruicio and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing) arguing about the best time to have a baby, and issues that revolve around Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), a family friend and ex-gang member who is bothered that the guy who killed his brother years ago has been released from prison and is now hanging out in the old neighborhood.

The scene-stealer of the film is Luis Guzman (“Waiting”), who plays the family’s kooky electronics-loving uncle, but he and Freddy Rodriguez (one of the most talented young Latino actors working today) can’t raise the film above the usual stereotypical family dramedy we get every year. It might be in different packaging this time around, but a pair of socks is a pair of socks no matter how colorful the gift-wrapping.

Hamlet 2

August 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Joseph Julian Soria
Directed by: Andrew Fleming (“Nancy Drew”)
Written by: Andrew Fleming (“The Craft”) and Pam Brady (“Hot Rod”)

“Hamlet 2” is so politically incorrect, it makes “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers” sound suitable for preschoolers to sing.

The film begins and ends with Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, a Tucson high school drama teacher, who proves that “if you can’t do, teach” wasn’t just a saying created to piss off teachers. Dana hasn’t had much luck as an actor other than the few infomercials and herpes commercials he’s starred in.

He falls back on teaching drama despite being the laughing stock of the entire school for the horrid plays he writes, produces and directs. Adapting “Erin Brockovich” as a stage production really isn’t a great way to show the school that they should keep funding the program.

It really doesn’t matter anyway. Dana only has two high-spirited students in his class, and it seems like the principal is about to drop the bomb on theater unless they start making some worthwhile plays. When the new school year begins, however, Dana, who is having some slightly dysfunctional problems at home with his wife (Catherine Keener), is surprised when his drama class is filled to maximum capacity with new students. Unfortunately, the mostly-Latino group of kids are only there because they couldn’t take the courses they really wanted so were funneled into drama to slack off.

But when Dana decides to write a sequel to William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the students must rise up against the school and community who become infuriated with the blasphemy-filled script Dana has written for the them to perform.

While director/writer Andrew Fleming pulls no stops, a few gags go a bit long before falling flat. Still, there is enough wickedness and total lack of morality (a lot of it hilarious) that will have you asking why Steve Coogan isn’t in more mainstream comedies (he is in “Tropic Thunder,” of course). With “Hamlet 2” Coogan has proven that British comedy sometimes does translate well for us American heathens.