Niagara Gazette

July 23, 2013

CALLERI: 'Fruitvale Station' and 'The Conjuring' tell real and fictional horror stories

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “Fruitvale Station” and “The Conjuring” are as thematically different as night and day, but both movies are about fear and how that emotion works on the human psyche.

In “Fruitvale Station,” which is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black man shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in Oakland, California, the most frightened person is Grant’s mother Wanda, a woman from a close-knit, religious family who understands the dangers that children face as they grow up in a community wracked by poverty and riddled with drugs. Her son is a two-time felon, who is slowly moving beyond his past mistakes. Oscar has a goal, which is to be a better person to the three most important people in his life: his mother, whose birthday falls on New Year's Eve, his girlfriend Sophina, and their beautiful four-year old daughter, Tatiana.

The passionate and powerful film begins on Dec. 31, 2008. Ryan Coogler, whose first feature this is, also wrote the screenplay, which highlights the encounters Oscar has with various family members, friends, and strangers on the last day of his life. Coogler is hugely successful at taking the young man beyond being another violent statistic in a city filled with violent statistics. By New Year’s Day, Oscar would be dead after an altercation on a rapid transit car leads to chaos on the Fruitvale Station platform. Up to then, the movie unreels as a series of well-constructed and revelatory vignettes that tell the audience things about a person’s life that don’t find their way into headlines.

At the BART station, director Coogler switches gears and reveals a stunning grasp of how to present real-time action generated by anger and mayhem, creating a supercharged atmosphere that rivets your attention. Cell phone videos captured the actual shooting of Grant when one of the transit officers pulled out his gun and shot him as he lay on his stomach on the tile. Coogler expertly places his camera in the middle of the melee. You cannot watch this sequence and not be affected by it. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography and Claudia Castello’s and Michael P. Shawver’s editing contribute strongly to the raw emotions and heated tension of the moment.

“Fruitvale Station” is superbly acted by all, with Michael B. Jordan as Oscar, Octavia Spencer as Wanda, and Melonie Diaz as Sophina deserving special mention. You should also take note of Buffalo’s Chad Michael Murray in the brief, but pivotal role of Officer Ingram, the transit cop who shoots Grant.

The movie won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Film in January at the Sundance Film Festival. In May, it was screened in the “Un Certain Regard” section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it won the award for Best First Film.

“Fruitvale Station” richly deserves these honors. It turns Oscar Grant into much more than a cause. It reminds you that he was most importantly: a son, a boyfriend, and a father.

"The Conjuring" is everything you want from a haunted house movie. Directed by James Wan, the man behind the successful torture themed "Saw" films, "The Conjuring" is about the mystery of things that go bump in the night and the fear this engenders. Perhaps importantly for some of you, director Wan does not utilize blood and gore in this feature. He sticks to making you nervous with edgy camerawork, smart editing, and the mental and emotional breakdown of the people who are being haunted by a specter they can't see in a big old house.

The movie, written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, is set in 1971 and is linked in some ways to the original "The Amityville Horror" fright film, not the awful remake. "The Conjuring" and the original "Amityville Horror" are connected because what happens in both of them is allegedly rooted in actual events.

In "The Conjuring," Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor and their five daughters movie into a house in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Immediately, strange things begin to happen, many of which are clever and startlingly. Fortunately, the couple has access to the Warrens, a husband and wife team of professional exorcists (demonologist and clairvoyant), who offer to help. They are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The acting in the movie is especially good.

"The Conjuring" is quite entertaining, and it's fun being in a theater with an audience that reacts as one to what's happening on screen. Some of the jolts may even stay with you for a while. Again, this is a not a blood-fest, but rather a classic-style, 1970s play with your mind and fill it with dread horror adventure.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.