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'Fruitvale' Stands Out At Sundance


Snow, superstars, and cinema. That combination can mean only one thing at this time of year: The Sundance Film Festival. Our movie reviewer, Kenneth Turan, is on the scene in Park City, Utah, as he is every year, to tell us about some of the movies at Sundance. Good morning.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with dramas. What really stands out for you, Ken?

TURAN: Well, the standout film this year is a film called "Fruitvale." It's a small film. It's based on a real story on what happened on the last night of 2008 when in Oakland, California, a young man named Oscar Grant was killed by a transit policeman, unarmed. It was a real awful thing that happened. It galvanized a lot of community opposition and it's been turned into a very, very moving film by a young first-time filmmaker named Ryan Coogler.

It stars a man named Michael B. Jordan who's familiar from "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights." It's the last day in this young man's life and he doesn't know it, but we know it. And it's terribly moving and it has a happy ending in terms of the movie side of things. It's been a big hit here in Sundance.

It's the film people mention most, and it's been picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company so it will be coming to theaters near everyone.

MONTAGNE: Well, that sounds like a classic Sundance Film Festival story, like last year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," where a debut director makes a big name for himself there.

TURAN: Yeah. I mean, it has some of that and it also has a wonderful back story in the sense that this young man, Ryan Coogler, was a student at USC, kind of finagled a meeting with Forest Whittaker who has a production company. He'd made some short films. He ran through a couple of feature ideas he wanted. When he mentioned Oscar Grant, Forest Whittaker just said immediately, let's do it, got up, and left the room.

Ryan said, you know, I just wanted to write the screenplay quick before he changed his mind. It's a wonderful story, all around, from a really tragic story, but it's just really nice to see these kinds of film connections being made.

MONTAGNE: And in terms of documentaries, I gather there's one that you've seen that actually plays like a drama - a thriller.

TURAN: Yes. There's one that really - I mean, it's a cliché, it had me at the edge of my seat. I said oh, my god. It's called "The Summit." It's the story of a terrible day in 2008 when 11 people died on a climb of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, but probably the most dangerous.

And there's a controversy about what happened. There's a controversy about why these people died. And part of the problem is, is that a lot of this happened in what they call the dead zone, which is so high up that your brain cells start dying while you're in there. So everyone's memories of what went on up there are different. And it's just really a fascinating story.

MONTAGNE: You often do say that documentaries are strong at Sundance. Tell us about a few more of them.

TURAN: You know, it's kind of like the traffic in Los Angeles. It's always bad. We always say, oh, boy, it's really bad. But some days it's really dreadful. And it's the opposite with Sundance documentaries. They're always good, and this year they are really, really good. For some reason they're just spectacular.

And they cover a really wide range of subject matter. They start from something like "Lynnsanity" which is a story of former New York Nicks star Jeremy Lynn who became a sensation off the bench in the NBA. There's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," which is the story of how all this stolen material was posted by Julian Assange, who was the man who founded Wikileaks and how it was posted by this soldier, Bradley Manning.

And it's really a joint portrait of both of these men. You get to really have a good sense of what they're like as individuals. And then there's this really wonderful film called "Twenty Feet from Stardom" about the great rock n' roll backup singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. They're just wonderful singers.

They tell great stories. Kind of an irresistible subject that, for some reason, had never been done before. But it's done now.

MONTAGNE: All right. That's Kenneth Turan talking to us from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. Thanks much.

TURAN: Thank you, Renée. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.

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