Three Dramas from eOne Films
Fruitvale Station (July 23/13)
Inspired by true events, Fruitvale Station follows Michael B. Jordan's Oscar Grant as he goes about his day-to-day routine in the buildup to New Year's Eve. It's a palpably low-key premise that's employed to continuously engrossing effect by first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler, with the movie's slice-of-life atmosphere perpetuated by its subdued visuals and uniformly impressive performances. In terms of the latter, Jordan's captivating and downright electrifying turn as the flawed central character remains a consistent highlight in the proceedings - as the actor's stirring work ensures that Oscar quickly morphs from a fairly off-putting figure into a wholeheartedly sympathetic protagonist. Coogler, for the most part, does a superb job of infusing the narrative with a palpably (and irresistibly) authentic feel, and there's certainly never any doubt that Fruitvale Station represents an accurate portrayal of life within Oakland's less-than-savory neighborhoods. The compelling vibe ultimately compensates for the inclusion of far-from-subtle elements within Coogler's screenplay, as the filmmaker's efforts at humanizing the central character are, at times, almost offputtingly clunky (eg Oscar helps a fellow customer with her shopping, Oscar elicits advice from a stranger about proposing to his girlfriend, etc). This is an extremely minor complaint for a movie that is otherwise consistently engaging, with the emotional punch of the film's final stretch confirming Fruitvale Station's place as a superior piece of work.
An Invisible Sign
Based on a book by Aimee Bender, An Invisible Sign follows Jessica Alba's Mona Gray as she attempts to find her own path after her mother (Sonia Braga) kicks her out of the house - with the movie detailing Mona's subsequent endeavors in both her personal and professional lives (eg in terms of the latter, Mona takes on a job as a math teacher at the local elementary school). Filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo kicks off An Invisible Sign with an intriguing animated sequence that does, admittedly, establish a promising atmosphere of quirkiness, although, as becomes clear almost immediately, this interlude is hardly indicative of everything that follows and the movie is, for the most part, a slow-moving drama centered around a hopelessly closed-off protagonist (ie Alba's ongoing efforts at transforming Mona into more than just a oppressively off-kilter figure fall hopelessly flat, and there's never a point at which one is able to wholeheartedly root for the character's success or happiness). The movie's less-than-engrossing feel is compounded by a continuing emphasis on Mona's on-the-job exploits, as such scenes suffer from a palpable aura of lifelessness that's emblematic of the movie's misguided sensibilities (ie what's the point, exactly, of the oddly combative and sporadically vicious student?) It is, as such, ultimately impossible to label An Invisible Sign as anything more than a plodding, consistently tedious waste of time, with the last-minute inclusion of an admittedly nice moment between Mona and J.K. Simmons' Mr. Jones coming far too late to make any real difference.
The Samaritan (February 5/13)
The Samaritan follows Samuel L. Jackson's Foley as he's released from prison after a twenty year stint, and although he quickly finds happiness with Ruth Negga's Iris, Foley finds himself drawn back into the life by a scrappy young thug named Ethan (Luke Kirby). It's a rather conventional premise that is, at the outset, employed to less-than-engrossing effect by filmmaker David Weaver, as the director, working from a script cowritten with Elan Mastai, employs an almost excessively deliberate pace that amplifies the narrative's familiar elements - which does, in turn, ensure that the film's first half, though watchable, is rarely as compelling as one might've hoped. (Jackson's impressively subdued performance goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, to be sure.) There's little doubt, then, that The Samaritan benefits substantially from the inclusion of a shocking turn in the narrative at around the halfway point, with the unexpectedness of this development infusing the proceedings with a jolt of much-needed energy and paving the way for a satisfyingly plot-heavy second half. Weaver's slower-than-molasses sensibility ultimately prevents the film from becoming the engrossing thriller he's clearly aiming for, and it is, in the end, impossible to label The Samaritan as anything more than a passable thriller that would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the aforementioned twist.