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Best of 2013: Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler on filming the harrowing tragedy of 'Fruitvale Station'

Oscar Grant was only 22 years old when he died after being shot in the back by an Oakland transit policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The public outcry that followed was inflamed because the shooting was recorded by shocked BART-train passengers who captured it on their cellphones and immediately posted online. One of the young Bay Area residents who was outraged by what transpired on the video was an aspiring filmmaker named Ryan Coogler, also 22. In Southern California, 21-year-old actor Michael B. Jordan watched the grainy footage on Facebook and had a heavy heart. “Being somebody who was so close to my age, it was almost like a peer getting shot down,” he says. “It kind of really sat with me.”

Three years after Grant’s death, Coogler and Jordan set out to tell the story of Grant’s last 24 hours alive in Fruitvale Station. It’s not an angry film, nor does it lionize Grant and make him a saint. Grant had dealt drugs and served a prison sentence. But at the time of his death, he was trying to start over — according to those who knew him best — and become the son, boyfriend, and father that others needed him to be.

Coogler had earned the trust of Grant’s family, and interviewed everyone who crossed paths with Grant on Dec. 31, 2008. Combined with cellphone records and legal documents, he pieced together Grant’s movements and interactions to create an informed version of his final day alive. Such details were crucial — especially for Jordan, who Coogler recruited to star — because there was very little if any video of Grant himself. That is, except for the horrible video of his final moments.

Fruitvale Station premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won several top prizes, was quickly picked up by The Weinstein Company, and is currently a serious contender for several year-end awards. Sundance audiences were stunned into silence by the film, which opens with the actual amateur footage of Grant’s shooting at the Fruitvale BART station. It was a decision Coogler wrestled with. “That was something that I was initially very firmly against,” he said at Sundance. “I didn’t want any real footage in the film. But you sometimes have to take a step back. Being from the Bay Area, I knew that footage like the back of my hand, but more people from around the world had no idea about this story. It made sense for them to see that footage and see what happened to Oscar, and I think it was a responsibility that we had to put that out there. From now on, everyone who sits down and sees this film, they see the truth. There’s no CGI in that, in what they did to that young man. That’s the real deal.”
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'The Way, Way Back' to close Los Angeles Film Festival; Full lineup announced

The 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival has revealed its full lineup, including Sundance favorites The Way, Way Back, which will close the festival on June 23, and Fruitvale Station.

The Way, Way Back follows awkward teenager Duncan (Liam James) through a summer break that’s rather nightmarish whenever he’s with his mom (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend, but has bright moments whenever he’s at the local water park, where he strikes up a friendship with one of the slacker employees (Sam Rockwell). Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate) and Jim Rash (Community) co-wrote, co-directed, and appear in the film. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2013: The deal report

Yes, the Sundance Film Festival is a temple to the glory of independent film and the purity of the art of cinema and blah blah blah. But it is also a vital marketplace for indie distributors to find the next blockbuster Little Miss Sunshine, or acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild, or wildly overpriced Happy, Texas. With the festival drawing to a close, Sundance 2013 has already proven to be one of the biggest deal-making festivals in recent memory, producing several major sales of movies that will either go on to become some of the buzziest films of the year, or, you know… not. We’ll update this space with additional deal reports throughout the week ahead. Here are the highlights so far: READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2013: 'Fruitvale' takes two major festival prizes

Fruitvale became the first Sundance film to win the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film since Precious in 2009. First-time director Ryan Coogler was inspired to write the film after 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by Oakland transit police on New Year’s Day morning 2009. Fruitvale tells the story of Grant’s last 24 hours alive, as he attempts to become a better father, a better boyfriend, and a better son and friend. “It’s about human beings and how we treat each other,” said Coogler, “how we treat people that we love and how we treat people that we don’t know.”

“For anyone out there who thinks for one second that movies don’t matter and can’t make a difference in the world,” juror Tom Rothman said as he announced the winner. “Please welcome — this will not be the last time you guys walk to a podium — Fruitvale.”

Other big winners included Lake Bell, who won a screenwriting award for In a World…, and the documentary Blood Brother, which also doubled with the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. Documentary

Click below for the festival’s official list of winners: READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2013: 'Fruitvale,' 'Before Midnight,' and the same-sex sexytime of 'Concussion'

Before the awards are given out tonight at Sundance 2013, I’ve got three of my own to bestow, to movies that have stayed in my mind in the days since I traded the relatively balmy cold mountain air of Park City, Utah, for the frigid wilds of the Northeast.

The first award, for The Best Drama Most Likely to Break Your Heart, goes to Fruitvale — which, I’ll wager, will win other, more official awards later today too. This vivid, fast-moving, fired-up story propels forward with truth in its engine: In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a young Bay Area African-American man named Oscar Grant was killed by a white cop’s bullet at the Fruitvale train station. Grant wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a sinner, either — just a guy with a live-in girlfriend and a young daughter, trying to figure out how to do right and stay away from doing wrong.

The high achievement of Fruitvale, by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler (an African-American son of the Bay area himself ) lies in the way Coogler shapes his story, dramatizing the last day of Grant’s life as a means of conveying character; in the energy and immediacy of the no-nonsense visual style; and in the fine cast he put together. Michael B. Jordan earns his movie-star stripes as Grant; the magnificent Octavia Spencer commands her part of the story as Grant’s mother; Melonie Diaz brings Grant’s girlfriend to full life. I hope Coogler has more stories he feels he needs to tell as urgently as he tells this one. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2013: 'Fruitvale' director Ryan Coogler on the life and death of Oscar Grant

“Call me. I’m a money player. Seriously.”

That’s what the ruddy-faced middle-aged white gentleman said to Ryan Coogler, the 26-year-old first-time writer-director of Fruitvale, as he shoved a business card into the young African-American man’s hand by way of introduction.

Seven days ago, Coogler was a complete unknown, a former college football player turned USC film student who’d captured the attention of Forest Whitaker’s production company with a trio of short films. But when Fruitvale premiered last Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, dramatizing the real-life tragedy of Oscar Grant, the young black man shot in the back by Oakland transportation police in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Coogler’s life changed. There was the standing ovation at the MARC Theater in Park City. There were the hugs and tears from Grant’s family members who attended the premiere. And then there was the avalanche of business cards from industry titans and wannabes who see Coogler as Sundance’s latest wunderkind, this year’s Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Coogler was the same age as Grant and living in the Bay Area when the 22-year-old was shot in the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, and he remembers the community outrage, especially since shocked New Year’s Eve revelers recorded the shooting with their cellphones and quickly uploaded it to the Internet. When Whitaker took an interest in Coogler’s fledgling film career and asked for ideas, the young auteur quickly pitched Grant’s story. The Oscar winner signed-off on the spot, and before long, Coogler was presiding over a hometown production starring Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordon as Oscar and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as his worried mother.

On Thursday night, Coogler took the stage again after a packed screening at Eccles Theater, Sundance’s biggest showcase. Another standing ovation. More handshakes and business cards. More “money players” circling — though the movie had already sold to The Weinstein Company.

Coogler sat down with EW to discuss the effusive reception to Fruitvale and his whirlwind week at Sundance.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Oscar Grant was shot in 2009, where were you?
RYAN COOGLER: I was home for Christmas break from USC. I was working security at a rave called Sea of Dreams in San Francisco. I was just working the door for extra money. I got a call: somebody had been shot at the BART station in front of like a 10-car train full of people. He had no gun on him and the cops shot him. I was like, “That’s crazy.” And by the time I got home, maybe like 10 a.m., he had already passed away. It was already all over the internet. READ FULL STORY

Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer talk 'Fruitvale' at Sundance: VIDEO

EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum has already named Fruitvale one of her favorite movies at Sundance, and just hearing writer/director Ryan Coogler and his cast talk about the film — based on the true story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an unarmed young Bay Area man shot down by police — you start to understand why. Coogler and Jordan joined castmates Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, and Ahna O’Reilly in EW’s Sundance interview lounge. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2013: Lisa Schwarzbaum's favorite films so far -- VIDEO

With Sundance in full swing, EW movie critic Lisa Schwarzbaum took a break from her packed screening schedule to chat with EW’s Anthony Breznican about the best movies she’s seen so far — including the moving Fruitvale starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer, Kill Your Darlings starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, and the unexpectedly charming comedy Don Jon’s Addiction starring writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. READ FULL STORY

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