FRUITVALE STATION *1/2 (85 minutes) M
In the opening hours of 2009 Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old black man full of hope and promise, was shot dead by a San Francisco transit police officer at Fruitvale Station in front of scores of horrified commuters, one of whom videoed part of the event on her phone.
This was, by any measure, a dreadful tragedy. But was it more than that? Was it a homicide, fuelled by racism? Was the killing a new-century reprise of the 1991 Rodney King beating, where white officers abused their authority by paying out on a black man?
The latter seems to be the case as far as this well-meaning, naturally acted, horrifically unbalanced feature film debut by writer/director Ryan Coogler is concerned.
Coogler's noble intention was to add flesh and heart to the headlines by retracing the final day of Grant's life. This he does - or attempts to do - with an awkward mix of docu-drama realism (helped no end by shooting the ultra-low budget film on 16mm) and hagiography.
For all his street mannerisms, Grant (Michael B Jordan) is essentially portrayed as a saint-in-training. As we step with him through his day, we learn that he is a golden-hearted ex-con bent on reforming his character and proving himself worthy of his little daughter and loving mother (The Help's Octavia Spencer who, along with The Butler's Forest Whitaker, is also one of the film's producers.)
Presumably, the only reason Grant does not wear a halo throughout the film was because they didn't have enough money for visual effects.
Whatever its objectives, the film comes across as an emotionally exploitative, crudely manipulative prayer for Grant that is designed to rouse anger over his untimely death. And there's nothing, in principle, wrong with that, provided you abide by the principles of fairness you purportedly champion.
Fruitvale Station doesn't. The drama is so one-sided that any character giving Grant a hard time is cast as a white stereotype. An early example comes when he tries getting his job back at a supermarket after being fired for tardiness. The sense we get - or, rather, that we are supposed to get - is that a great social injustice has been committed against a black man who is just trying to do the right thing.
His good nature and desire to better himself are punched repeatedly in the film and, to be honest, Coogler is so good at verite filmmaking you do get sucked in. You feel for this kid. But you also feel something important is missing. And that thing is courage.
It's in the final reel that the film loses its nerve. Having started the film by showing the actual video footage - all jittery and hard to make out - what we needed here was clarity of what really went down.
Now, we've just learnt courtesy of the Geoff Shaw affair how deceptive hastily shot video footage filmed by amateurs can be. Based on video shot from a close angle, Shaw was unfairly accused of hitting an elderly gent. Then more footage emerged showing the same event from a wider, higher angle - and a very different story was told. It was Rashomon - The Video.
In Fruitvale Station, Coogler's recreation of the filmed event adheres to the distorting power of video verite. Rather than use cinema to clarify, he whips up a sequence that is just as visually jagged and confusing as the video. The only clarity he seeks to bring is to show the distress on Grant's friends and to portray the white cops as racist thugs. They love using the N-word. It's a charged and emotional scene, no doubt. But it feels like the payoff to a conditioning exercise.
It's in the montage-crazy wake of Grant's death that you realise you're only getting half the story. A few captions are thrown up on screen to say how there were riots, demonstrations, a heated trial, a reduced charge, and the excuse that the offending officer mistook his pistol for a tazer.
Presumably we are meant to digest this sudden blurt of information in the same spirit as everything else that has come before - as gross and deliberate injustice.
The powerful impression created is that something is up: the film could have been titled White Man Gets Away With Murder. But it's just too big an ask, too big a pill to swallow.
A far better, braver film far would have split the story, perhaps by spending that same day with the cop aswell. What was his story? Was he experienced enough? In the heat of the moment, is it possible to mistake a pistol for a tazer? Is he the hot-headed, incompetent racist the film makes him out to be?
Fruitvale Station is an emotionally charged drama, and it has received almost universal praise in the United States. But the sense by the film's clumsy finale is that we're only getting a small, selective part of a bigger picture. As the old saying goes, it doesn't matter how thin the pancake is, there are always two sides to it.
And as Spike Lee proved with Do the Right Thing (1989) showing both sides to a story can enhance and deepen your drama.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 *** (102 minutes) M
Carrying on where the last one left off, horror maestro du jour James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, The Conjuring) serves up a juicy, fright-filled spookfest with this follow-up to the 2011 hit.
Teaming up again with Saw co-creator and regular collaborator Leigh Whannell - who created the Insidious saga and who stars here as a bespectacled paranormal investigator - the spiritually harassed family endure yet more torment from beyond.
Back for more paranormal punishment are Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey in a lean, efficient, expertly crafted film that delivers shivers by bundle.
It cost a meagre $5m to make ans has thus far earned $140m globally, so fans can reasonably expect more of the same in a year or two.
MR PIP ***1/2 (115 minutes) M
On the troubled island of Bougainville, sad sack teacher Tom Watts (Hugh Laurie from House) enchants the lively local students with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. So taken is one girl that she imagines herself into the story.
The harsh reality of conflict, however, visits the island in the form of a brutal commander who is determined to discover the whereabouts of the mysterious "Mr Pip", whose name he saw written into the sand.
Based on the novel by Lloyd Jones, the film is a visually lush, surprising, moving story that wears its unusual premise with a deftly blended mixture of lyricism and brutality.
Director Andrew Adamson, best-known for Hollywood blockbusters Shrek and Narnia: Prince Caspian, conjures a semi-serene picture of village life that then feels the brunt of military oppression as atrocity is visitied upon the innocent islander folk.
Mr Pip is a gem of a film, and one not to be overlooked during the blockbuster season.
THE COUNSELOR ** (117 minutes) MA
With no apparent interest in restraint, journeyman director Ridley Scott (Alien; Blade Runner, etc) provides a glossily sordid scenic tour of the high-end Mexican drug trade with the help of an A-list cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and the ever-daring Cameron Diaz.
There's just one problem, and it's the same one we saw in 2 Guns; when things get nasty and the bullets start flying you just don't care where they land.
Working on the first feature-only script from novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road; No Country for Old Men), Scott brings his signature gleam to the proceedings, meaning lots of light, plush houses and actors voguing in expensive clothes as they negotiate the transporting of a major haul across the border inside a sewage truck.
He also vividly shows the corporate scale of the drug trade, with facilities staffed with specialists who repair bullet holes in trucks and people.
On the upside, the film contains a couple of quality decapitations and the scene where Cameron Diaz has sex with a Ferrari - she climbs astride the windshield while an astonished Bardem looks on - is certainly memorable, in an MTV Special Category Award sort of way.
Aside from that, however, the high production values, bloodshed and drug dealing don't add up to much more than an uninvolving time killer.
LASSETER'S BONES **** (99 minutes) G
In a splendid example of the sort of subjective documentary film-making championed by Werner Herzog, local director Luke Walker throws himself into the legend of Harold Lasseter, the explorer who claimed in the late 1800s to have stumbled across a mother lode of gold in the middle of the outback.
Nobody else has ever seen it, so Walker takes us on an absorbing psychological and geographical journey in his first-person struggle to disentangle fact from fiction.
The film is a courageously mounted venture in which myth busting and myth building struggle for supremacy. Indeed, Walker's trek into the outback to try and locate Lasseter's Reef is as much about the nature of historical "truth" as it is about finding the damned thing.
A fabulous documentary.
FALLOUT *** (86 minutes) M
With apocalyptic themes all the rage at the multiplex right now, this very good documentary by Lawrence Johnston (Night; Eternity) provides some much-needed perspective on the topic.
In detailing the social, historical and personal context of Neville Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach and the 1959 shot-in-Melbourne film by Stanley Kramer, the doc pierces into the psyche of the early atomic age while also reminding us about the perils of filmmaking. An array of articulate talking heads share the screen with a rich seam of archival footage.