Homeless (2015)


This ain't Oshkosh, B'Gosh!

This ain’t Oshkosh, B’Gosh!

(2015) Drama (Wet Paint) Michael McDowell, Julie Dunagan, Lance Megginson, Hosanna Gourley, J.W. Buriss, Parker Townsend, Carole Midura, Michael Francis Paolucci, Alec VanOwen Nance, Carlise Dixon, Tammy Bason, Jeffrey Fetts, Deborah Keller, Dena Bleu, Samuel Hoggs, Bruce Florence, Melissa Stuckey, Karen Reynolds, Mara McCaffray. Directed by Clay Riley Hassler

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of homeless people – assuming we think of them at all – we tend to view them with distaste; dirty, smelly, drug-addicted drunks who are colossal failures at life. They are in the predicament they are in because they’ve made terrible choices, or have been massive screw-ups. We rarely feel sympathy and if anything, we would rather sweep them out of sight, out of mind.

Gosh (McDowell) – pronounced “Josh” –  is not like that. He’s a teen who has fallen through the cracks. His father is in jail, his mother out of the picture. He has been raised by his grandmother (Midura) since his father was jailed but now his granny is dead and gone; he has nowhere to go, nobody to take him in.

He goes to a homeless shelter whose rules are overly restrictive. He spends his days trying to apply for jobs that he can never get without a place of residence. He hangs out in places where he can hang out without being thrown out on his ear. Being that it’s Christmas time, indoors is preferable as the weather outside is frightful. Being inside though is not so delightful.

It is inevitable that the shelter throws him out on his ear. He goes to a mall for shelter and while sitting in a food court is approached by Tina (Dunagan) who is handing out free samples of bourbon chicken at the Chinese food kiosk in the food court. She takes the time to talk to him and helps him get a job standing outside the mall in a sandwich board pimping the eatery. She also puts him up in her home when she finds out he doesn’t have anywhere to go. There he befriends her son and begins a relationship with Krystal (Gourley), a local waitress. He’s amassing a good deal of cash. Things are looking up.

But Tina has financial problems of her own and having an extra mouth to feed, particularly a teenage one, is putting an unbearable strain on her. She makes a choice that will have terrible consequences on Gosh.

At this year’s Florida Film Festival, two films dealt with homelessness in America. While the first movie (see below) dealt with the issue in an urban, African-American environment, this takes a look at the problem in a smaller city (Winston-Salem) and while some of the Catch-22 issues of the first film are present in the second, they are different movies entirely.

Like in Imperial Dreams, the lead performance is strong. While John Boyega is a superstar in the making, McDowell doesn’t quite have the same screen presence – yet. However, he does deliver a compelling performance that grabs the attention of the viewer from beginning to end. Gosh isn’t always the most likable of characters. He is, after all, a teenager and sometimes he does things that make you want to bang your head against the nearest stone wall. However, he’s caught in a situation that few of us will be able to relate to and likely would handle less well than he does. There’s some awkwardness in his personal relationships, which is to be expected in someone his age. He has his hopes and dreams but his dreams are quite basic; for shelter, love, acceptance, food…things we take for granted.

Hassler captures the boredom of homelessness. There isn’t much to do all day but wait around, read a newspaper perhaps and wait for calls from potential employers that never come. The loneliness that Gosh undergoes is easily discernible, and heartbreaking. At one point he is so heartsick he can barely respond to those who are trying to communicate with him; it’s absolutely gut-wrenching to watch.

The score reminds me somewhat of the music of Peter Gabriel which is a very good thing. While I thought the movie could have used a bit of trimming, it takes on an important social issue that deserves further imagination and does it well. Some might find it to be too much of a downer, and to be honest the introduction of Tina’s son into the mix is unnecessary and adds nothing to the story. Still, this is a solid movie that deserves to be seen, one of many such at this year’s Florida Film Festival. Hopefully it will catch some sort of distribution and either make it to home video, broadcast or even a theatrical release. If so, find a way to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performance by McDowell. Terrific score. Tackles an important social issue.
REASONS TO STAY: Relentlessly grim. Feels too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was entirely filmed in the Winston-Salem area over 25 days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: I Am Thor

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The Search for General Tso


A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin, Philip Chiang, Andrew Coe, Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, Harley Spiller, Tammy Fong, Sue Lee, David Leong, Cyrstyl Mo, Wing Wah Leong, Don Siegel, Ed Schoenfeld, Wing Yee Leong, Renqiu Yu, Fuschia Dunlop, Wang Pinduan, Robert G. Lee, Fred Wong, Susan Carter, Ella Lee, Lily Han. Directed by Ian Cheney

Florida Film Festival 2015

There probably isn’t an American above the age of five who hasn’t had Chinese food of one sort or another during their lives and for a good percentage of Americans above that age, Chinese is a regular cuisine on the menus of our lives. And of all of those, most have at least tried if not fallen in love with General Tso’s Chicken, the most popular dish in Chinese cuisine in the United States, and other than pizza and maybe tacos, the most popular ethnic dish in America.

But how did it get to be that way? Who is General Tso exactly and why did this chicken dish get named for him? Was it General Tso himself who invented the dish or did someone else do that? And how do you make it?

Good questions all and each one is answered in this lively documentary which has a very compact one hour and thirteen minute run time. Cheney interviews a wide variety of subjects from historians and authors on Chinese-American culture to restaurant owners and chefs. Here he paints a vivid picture of a race that came to America’s gold fields in the 19th century and stayed on as laborers. Racial prejudices on the West Coast, which were extreme when it came to Chinese workers, led to the enactment of the Exclusion Act which made it nearly impossible for new workers to immigrate to the United States and made life intolerable for those who were already here, who then spread throughout the country with essentially only two careers available to them; launderers and restaurant owners.

This is much cultural anthropology as it is foodie doc, and while there are some nifty animations that help keep things light, the undercurrent has some surprising depth to it as we see how difficult to achieve the American dream was for Asians even in recent times, as one Missouri restaurant owner calmly explains how his father’s restaurant was dynamited shortly before it was to open and even once it did, there were picketers exhorting him to return to China since the local white population didn’t want Asian business owners, and this was less than 50 years ago.

It also raises the question of authenticity. General Tso’s chicken, which has a sweet and spicy taste to it, is expressly for American tastes; you won’t find the dish in this form in China, particularly in the Hunan province where the real General Tso (yes, there was one) once lived. We also discover that a chef from Taipei claims to have invented the dish, although it was adapted by a more famous New York chef after visits to Taipei and took off in the ’70s to become one of those ubiquitous menu items you find in nearly every Chinese restaurant, take-out place or bistro.

While many purists decry the dish as inauthentic, one has to wonder what authentic really means in a cuisine that varies greatly from province to province in China and has evolved a great deal over the years. Maybe you won’t find this when you visit China but what matters more is whether or not you yourself like it and crave it. It may not be the kind of Chinese food you get in, say, Shanghai, but if you can’t go to Shanghai and check out the real McCoy you can at least taste what you get in Springfield, Missouri and enjoy it just as much.

REASONS TO GO: Informative. Lively. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: Lots and lots of talking heads. WILL make you hungry for Chinese food whether you like it or not.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that would worry all but the most overly fussy parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: McFarland USA