Four Frames – 28 Days Later (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. To tie in with Frightfest, The Big Picture is running a series of horror-related features and reviews. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Danny Boyle’s 2002 horror classic 28 Days Later.

The zombie film was, to excuse the pun, a sub-genre that had flatlined at the turn of the century.

Movies thrown together by hacks with low budgets and even lower ambitions had consigned the undead to the DVD shelves. What this sub-section of horror needed was an injection of life and British genre-spanning director Danny Boyle was the man to administer it.

28 Days LaterBoyle’s raw and unsettling 28 Days Later acknowledges its debt to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy while striking out on its own with an all-too plausible apocalyptic nightmare that, as the director has argued, could happen next Wednesday.

Four weeks after anti-vivisectionists uncage an infected monkey from a research lab and unwittingly unleash the highly contagious ‘Rage’ virus, Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma in a deserted London hospital.

Confusion gives way to a queasy disbelief as he wanders the streets of a seemingly depopulated city that has evidently suffered some sort of cataclysm. A glance at a newspaper featuring the headline ‘Evacuation’ reinforces this, but Jim has no comprehension of the threat he faces.

28 Days LaterTo overcome the challenge of depicting an abandoned London, police closed roads at 4am to allow filming to take place, although only for an hour so as not to incur the Rage-like ire of drivers. The rewards can be seen on screen in what has rightly become one of modern horror’s most iconic scenes.

What gives the scene an even more resonant eeriness is its stillness. London has rarely looked more serene or threatening thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle’s urgent DV cinematography, while the escalating horror that Jim and the audience experience as he stumbles further into the city is amplified by Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s apocalyptic post-rock.

28 Days LaterThere are clever touches, such as when Jim feverishly picks up a pile of banknotes, little realising just how worthless they now are. Likewise, a shot of Jim dwarfed by a giant advertising billboard showing smiling, healthy models is a blackly ironic antithesis of what’s to come.

While the nods to the Dead trilogy are clear, the threat of infected, rather than undead, owes more to Romero’s cult classic The Crazies (1973), in which the citizens of a small American town are sent into a homicidal rage after being contaminated with an infectious disease.

The film is also heavily indebted to John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids, in particular when Jim awakens in the deserted hospital (a scene subsequently lifted by TV show The Walking Dead).

28 Days LaterJust as 28 Days Later has borrowed from past masters, so too have others stolen from Boyle’s horror classic, most notably the concept of the ‘fast zombie’ that has shown up in Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead (2004) remake, Zombieland (2009) and, more recently, the mega-budget World War Z (2013).

As the world entered a dark new chapter post 9/11, 28 Days Later’s horrific vision of a world turned upside down reflected our fears of just how precarious social order actually is.

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Review – Fruitvale Station

There’s something remarkably matter-of-fact about Ryan Coogler’s portrait of the hours leading up to the tragic and needless shooting of Oscar Grant III.

An undeniably powerful and harrowing lament of a life taken far too early it may be, but Fruitvale Station fails to break free of its heavy-handed shackles

An undeniably powerful and harrowing lament of a life taken far too early it may be, but Fruitvale Station fails to break free of its heavy-handed shackles

The drama that unfolds over the course of Fruitvale Station‘s 85 minutes could so easily have been amplified for propagandistic effect, so it’s to the credit of both the writer-director and a mature and measured Michael B. Jordan in the lead role that this is avoided.

However, a heavy-handed script, manipulative visual touches and a televisual style cut the film short of being a truly outstanding debut feature from Coogler.

Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) hangs out with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in Fruitvale Station

Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) hangs out with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station follows the final day of Grant, a young guy from California who spends New Year’s Eve in 2008 trying to make a fresh start.

As well as attempting to work things through with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) for the sake of their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), Oscar is treading a more straight and narrow path with the law and hoping to get his job back while preparing for his mother Wanda’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday.

Oscar's loving mother Wanda  (Octavia Spencer) in Fruitvale Station

Oscar’s loving mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) in Fruitvale Station

However, in a cruel irony, an act of kindness earlier in the film inadvertently creates a chain of events that lead to Oscar’s death at the eponymous Fruitvale Station when he’s shot in the back by a BART police officer; an act filmed by several passengers on their mobile phones.

The film’s elliptical structure opens with chilling footage taken by one of the passengers before rewinding back to the start of the day and following Oscar until his tragic shooting. The harrowing events at the station are undeniably shocking and are powerfully reenacted by Coogler with the help of Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray as the police officers whose actions led to his death (the officer who shot Oscar argued in court that he mistakenly used his firearm, believing it to be his Taser weapon).

Sophina (Melonie Diaz) faces an awkward moment with boyfriend Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) in Fruitvale Station

Sophina (Melonie Diaz) faces an awkward moment with boyfriend Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) in Fruitvale Station

There’s a sadness to the scenes leading up to this moment as we know Oscar is going to be denied the fruits of his labours. However, Coogler lets himself down by forcing the issue too much.

The death of a dog right in front of Oscar is a little too on the money and isn’t helped by the director pulling the shot back to show a train leaving a station as a prophetic sign of what’s to come.

Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand) imposes himself on Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his friends in Fruitvale Station

Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand) imposes himself on Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his friends in Fruitvale Station

Later in the film, Oscar suggests to Sophina that they should stay in, but she insists on going out to enjoy New Year’s Eve. Likewise, his daughter implores Oscar not to go out because she can hear “gunshots” (actually firecrackers), but he promises her there’s nothing to worry about.

This lack of subtly extends to some of the visual choices made by the director. A slo-mo scene of Oscar running after Tatiana feels manipulative and the cheesy score laid on top merely reinforces this. A further life decision that sees Oscar driving to the coast and staring out to sea is beautifully filmed, but serves no other purpose than to hammer home a point we’ve already ascertained.

Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station

In spite of this, the performances are universally compelling, with Spencer on devastating form as Oscar’s mother, whose hopes of a better life for her son following a stint in jail are cruelly snatched away. Diaz is also excellent as the headstrong Sophina, while Neal is a natural who’s required to do as much heavy lifting as many of her older co-stars.

However, this is Jordan’s film and he gives a magnetic turn as Oscar. Jordan is careful not to paint his character as a saint, rather’s he’s a good man who’s smart enough to understand the path he needs to take is different to the one he’s found himself down.

An undeniably powerful and harrowing lament of a life taken far too early it may be, but Fruitvale Station fails to break free of its heavy-handed shackles.