Take Out Girl


It’s not easy scratching a living in the mean streets.

(2020) Drama (1091) Hedy Wong, Ski Carr, Lynna Yee, J. Teddy Garces, Lorin Alond Ly, Dijon Talton, Mier Chasin, Lizette Hunter, Joe Rudy Guerrero Jr., Tony Bentajado, Cole Bernstein, Melissa Del Rosario, Adia Bell, Collin Hayes, Zavieh Harrell, Veronica Mitsuk, Marilyn Simon, Caslin Rose, Tania Nolan, Crystal Powell, Jody Marie. Directed by Hisonni Mustafa

 

Life is hard, particularly in neighborhoods that are not affluent. It seems like the game is rigged for those who already have all the money they could ever need and those who are just trying to get out of poverty and make a decent life for themselves have little to no chance at succeeding at that worthy goal.

Some just give up, but that’s not how Tera Wong (Wong) is wired. She is a born fighter, bred to take crap from nobody, and raised in an environment where you have to stand up for yourself or face being knocked down over and over again. That’s life in the bottom of South Central. She’s gone to college to learn business to better take care of her mother’s failing Chinese restaurant, but has withdrawn from school as she realizes that she is needed at the restaurant more.

Her mom (Yee) is bone-weary, suffering from a back injury she can’t afford to get fixed up – or even get decent pain meds for. She can’t even afford to take time away from work to rest her back. It’s a grim catch-22 that makes Tera, and her gang-banging brother Saren (Ly) angry and frustrated. Cousin Crystal (Chasin) also works at the restaurant, although her outlook is a little more optimistic. In the meantime, Tera knows all the side hustles in the world won’t elevate this restaurant out of the gutter, where she and her family seem destined to reside.

Then while out delivering, she crosses paths with Lalo (Carr), a local drug dealer. He seems to take a shine to Tera, who calls him on his crap, much to the disgust of Lalo’s enforcer Hector (Garces) and Girl Friday Chuey (Hunter). That’s when Tera hits upon an idea; she can run drugs for Lalo without ever being given a second glance. Most of Lalo’s runners affect a look right out of a gangsta rap video, almost asking for the cops to keep a wary eye out for them. Who would give a cute Chinese girl a second glance?

At first things work out better than Tera could have dreamed as finally she’s making enough money to help her mom in a concrete way. However, there is always a price to pay for walking on that side of the street and as tough as Tera may be, that bill will come due and sooner rather than later.

Urban crime dramas concerning unlikely people getting involved in the drug trade are nothing new; there are even several about Asian women getting caught up in drug distribution, some fairly recent. Few have had as electrifying a performance as the one delivered here by Hedy Wong to fall back on. Wong, who co-wrote the movie based on her own experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, plays a young woman who has learned to keep the walls up and the defenses on high alert. Her stiff posture, with the baseball cap slung low over her eyes, her lips tight in a kind of cupid-bow pout with a hard edge on it tell you all you need to know about the character. She is seemingly fearless – until you look closer. Her eyes sometimes betray the fact that she’s in over her head and knows it.

Her hard edges might make it difficult to identify with the character early on; when someone mutters “bitch” under their breath after an interaction with her, you can’t help but agree. But that’s not her whole story, and as the movie unspools you begin to see deeper into a character who has had to become hard out of necessity.

The dialogue is meant to be gritty and snappy, but it comes off as a bit cliché. Also, while the movie starts off compelling, it seems to lose its way about halfway through and finishes with a sputter rather than a roar, utilizing an ending that feels rushed and unearned. You may well lose interest by that time; I just about did, although the final twist would have been a good one if the filmmakers had taken the time to develop the ending a little more. In other words, if they had given as much care to the ending as to the beginning this might have been a much more solid film, but you end up feeling like you watched half a movie by the time the end credits roll.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out as a compelling urban drama.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and peters out at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity along with drug references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although meant to portray downtown Los Angeles, the movie was actually filmed in nearby Riverside.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Nice
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn

The Outside Story


From the inside out.

(2020) Dramedy (Sub-Genre MediaBrian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Cyril Creighton, Matthew Maher, Hannah Bos, Maria Dizzia, Jordan Carlos, Lynda Gravatt, Paul Thureen, Nadia Bowers, John Esposito, Fernando Mateo Jr., Chris Roberti, Rick D. Wasserman, Jordan Kenneth Camp, Suzette Gunn. Directed by Casimir Nozkowski

Our society has become increasingly introverted. Socializing has almost become anathema, especially now that there’s a deadly virus out there (which wasn’t the case when this was filmed). We live and die by our smart phones; we eat meals that are delivered to us. Our groceries are delivered to us. Many of us work at home, even before the pandemic. The need to be around other people is seemingly being bred out of us.

Charles Young (Henry) is at a crossroads in his life. He’s a film editor who works for TCM; whenever a star of yesteryear dies, he’s the one who assembles an “In Memoriam” feature to run for the channel. In a particularly morbid twist, the network keeps a number of these features on hand for stars who are aged enough or infirm enough that they might be next for the “In Memoriam” treatment. Charles finds this morbid, but not enough to switch jobs.

He once was a documentary film maker and has started avoiding friends who ask about the project he was working on. That’s kind of a sore point with him. He has a nice brownstone in Brooklyn where he lives and works. His girlfriend, Isha (Martin-Green) also lives there – until today. You see, she cheated on Charles, which she admitted to and apologized for. “It was a mistake,” she noted. Charles, however, can’t get past the thought of her with – in this case – another woman, and has broken up with her and asked her to move out.

Charles has been tasked with moving her car regularly so she doesn’t get a parking ticket until she comes to fetch her car and her things. When a delivery man (Carlos) brings over his favorite take-out Mexican, he accidentally brings her car keys instead of the house keys and ends up locked out of his apartment. With Isha possessing the other set of keys and not available until later, he at first tries climbing out on the fire escape to get in his window, but it’s locked. About to break his way in, the police officer (Mani) who has been issuing parking tickets all up and down the street stops him. Having run out without shoes or identification, he finds himself having to reach out to strangers – that he has lived alongside for years but never bothered to meet – to help him get in, especially since he has a deadline fast approaching.

Henry is a big, likable teddy bear of  a guy and after years of being a supporting player gets to shine on his own, and he makes the most of his opportunity. His comic timing is right on (he gets the best line of the film, as he is being arrested for trying to sneak into his own apartment before being rescued at the last minute and exclaiming “I couldn’t hear you over the injustice,” which about sums up our times). I hope Hollywood casting directors sit up and take notice; he should be getting bigger roles and more lead roles as well.

Usually one doesn’t notice the editing of a film, but it is surprisingly noticeable here – maybe because the lead character is a film editor. It’s choppy and abrupt, which is jarring at times. With a little bit of care, it wouldn’t have been a problem and when your lead character is in that particular line of work, it calls attention to the deficiency a little more broadly.

Star Trek fans will note the presence of Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery in the cast, but she is sadly underutilized here – perhaps she was busy filming Season 3 of the CBS All-Access series at the time. She shines when she’s onscreen, and hopefully we’ll see more of her in coming years. For my money, she’s even better here than she is as the cold, logical Burnham.

The movie does point out how isolated we’ve become as a society, with neighbors scarcely knowing each other (although everyone seems to know the more outgoing Isha). Even in New York, perhaps the most densely packed city in the country, there is that sense of people living in cocoons. That tendency has been exacerbated lately; chances are that it is going to continue to evolve in that direction, at least for the time being. At some point, the human need for socializing is going to outweigh the need for convenience.

Some movies are suited for rainy day viewing, and this one fits the bill to a “T.” It’s the kind of movie you want to watch in your stocking feet, with a warm blanket pulled over you and a bowl of your favorite snacks within arm’s length – and perhaps with your own sweetie cuddled against you. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon.

REASONS TO SEE: Henry is extremely likable. A great commentary on how isolated our lives have become even before the pandemic.
REASONS TO AVOID: The editing is a bit choppy, which is somewhat ironic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sparrow’s Dance
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Greta

Postal (2019)


Another reason to hate clowns.

(2019) Dark Comedy (Self-released) Michael Shenefelt, Nick Madrick, Eric Vega, Elyse Dufour, Forest Scott Peyton, Chase Wainscott, Kennedy Brice, Sarah Alexandria, Mia Jackson, Tony Dermil, Jonathan Pawlowski, Steve Coulter, Dean Phillippi Sr., George Spielvogel III, Reid Meadows, Justin Miles, Keary McCutchen, William Blaylock, Elizabeth Saydah. Directed by Tyler Falbo

A lot of movies you can see coming. They hit all the right film festivals, have all the right stars, the right director, the right writers, get all the right buzz from all the right critics. The point is, you’re aware that the movie is something special, either a major blockbuster in the making or an important indie movie that is going to be making a lot of end of the year ten best lists.

Postal isn’t like that. Some might bring to mind the 2007 Uwe Boll film based on a videogame that essentially only has the title in common with this movie. For one thing, the 2019 version is based on a true story (and if you doubt it, stick around to the very end) which of course could only have happened in Florida.

Phillip (Shenefelt) is waiting on a package and not just any package, nor is this just any day. The package is an engagement ring that he plans to present to his girlfriend Brittany (Dufour) in Hawaii; in fact, his flight to Honolulu is leaving that very afternoon. He’s entrusted the package to Bronco Delivery, America’s most trusted package delivery service (think FedEx).

But something goes wrong. The package doesn’t arrive at its scheduled time, the time Phil paid extra to receive by. So, like any normal person, he gets on the phone to Bronco’s Customer Service department and that’s where normal gets left behind in the dust. It starts with an all-too-familiar annoyance; the phone tree to nowhere. Finally Phil gets to talk to an actual human being; Kevin (Vega). Although Kevin seems nice enough and willing to help, things start to slide down the chute in a hurry as little things begin to go wrong and an already stressed-out Phil begins to lose it.

More than this I will not tell you; this is the kind of movie that is at its most effective when you don’t know that much about it. Half the fun is being surprised by what turns up around the next bend. There are a lot of twists and turns here, some devastating and some simply unforeseen. Da Queen and I were fortunate enough to see this at its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival; when Da Queen loves a movie, she makes no bones about it and I have rarely heard her laugh as hard as I heard her laughing at this one; the only reason I missed some of her laughter was because I was bellowing with laughter myself.

The script is insanely clever and witty; it doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to consider anything as it careens from one situation to the next and just when you think it can’t top itself, it does. The acting here is stronger than the average local production, with Shenefelt delivering a star turn as a poor schlub in the throes of a kind of customer service nightmare that becomes…well, see for yourself.

The movie is on the Festival circuit for now but once people start seeing this thing, I suspect some indie distributors are certain to take notice. This is a definite crowd-pleaser and was far and away my favorite film at the Festival, which is saying something this year considering how strong the line-up was from top to bottom. This may require some patience to find (at least for now) but trust me, it is the kind of movie you owe it to yourself to see. No matter how bad a day is that you’re having, it’s nothing as bad as this guy’s.

REASONS TO SEE: May be the funniest film I’ve seen in years. Most people will be able to relate to having a really bad day. Strong performances, particularly Vega, Shenefelt and Madrick. Dufour makes an ideal fantasy figure.
REASONS TO AVOID: This might not be your kind of humor.
FAMILY VALUES: Here there be plenty of violence and profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the 2019 Florida Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jawbreaker
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Ask Dr. Ruth

The Happy Poet


The Happy Poet

Paul Gordon ponders the difficulty in attracting a crowd to a quality product.

(2010) Comedy (Self-Released) Paul Gordon, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Liz Fisher, Amy Myers Martin, Richard Lerma, Sam Wainwright Douglas, Carlos Trevino, Anita Kunik, Paul Famighetti, Jordan Strassner, Matt Joyner, James Jensen. Directed by Paul Gordon

Dreams come in all sizes, big and small. Some people dream of changing the world, others are happy at merely changing their own lives. Some want to do great things – some just great things for the world.

Bill (Gordon) doesn’t have a grand agenda. He just wants to serve good, healthy food from a food cart in his hometown of Austin, Texas. However, he is drowning in debt, mostly due to student loans accrued as a creative writing major at the University of Texas. When he goes to a bank to see about getting a loan to start up his business, he is met with a nearly laughable offer of $750.

He accepts it and sets out to buy provisions and find himself a cart, which he does – an aging hot dog cart from a suspicious guy who has a thing about hot dogs. While Bill isn’t particularly against hot dogs per se, they are not exactly in his immediate business model.

He finds himself a spot in an Austin park and promptly has a truly awful day. Most of the business he gets is from people looking for hot dogs and who aren’t particularly interested in something healthy and organic. He can’t even give the stuff away – he gives one person an eggless egg salad sandwich as a free sample and the guy takes one bite and throws it away. Eventually he meets Curtis (Doubek), a guy who hangs out in the park most of the day who genuinely likes his food. That gives Bill the incentive to come back the next day.

He meets Donnie (Mars), a cheerful self-promoting dope dealer who thinks that Bill’s idea is a good one. He sets up a delivery service and hands out flyers. Curtis even comes up with a name for Bill’s cart – the Happy Poet. Business begins to pick up.

Bill becomes infatuated with Agnes (Fisher), a pretty cubicle drone who finds his lunch cart and she begins to come by regularly. With Bill a bit too clueless to ask her out (despite Donnie’s threats to ask her out himself if Bill doesn’t), Agnes finally asks him if he wants to go bowling with her. The night eventually ends up at Bill’s place where he reads her some of his poetry – an excruciatingly bad vaguely sexual monstrosity called “Chasm.”

However things begin to go south. Despite the good business Bill is getting, he is giving away far too much product to people like Curtis and even to Agnes. He also has payments due on the cart and he is pricing his food too low for him to make sufficient profit. He soon runs out of money and is forced to sell hot dogs, much to the chagrin of his customers.

He also discovers that much of the success of his delivery is due to Donnie’s sideline of delivering pot with the food. The betrayal sends him into a downward spiral of self-doubt and depression. Donnie feels bad about it and when it is discovered that Curtis has a little secret he’s been keeping from his friends, change is in the wind.

This is the kind of movie that doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It is low-key and quiet, getting under your skin rather than in your face. Director/writer/actor/editor/sandwich maker/truck unloader/generally in charge of a lot of things guy Gordon delivers his lines in a flat Midwestern monotone, a cross between Steven Wright and Bob Newhart. This really helps with the development of the character as a bit of a doormat. In fact, the title is very ironic since Bill is neither happy nor much of a poet (which he, in a moment of self-awareness, confesses to Curtis).

Donnie is very much the anti-Bill in the movie; loud where Bill is quiet, aggressive where Bill is passive and self-aggrandizing where Bill is self-effacing. In that sense, Mars and Gordon make a really good team, near-opposites that help create quite a unit. Doubek also does some pretty good work as the enigmatic Curtis.

Fisher does a great job as Agnes. She’s like so many young women out there; decent, giving but having to navigate a relationship that is a bit weird. There is a sweetness to the relationship between Agnes and Bill that flavors the whole movie with a subtle but intoxicating spice.

Austin is a good location for the movie. It’s an arts-favorable city with a hip, sophisticated young citizenry (many involved with the university or state government) and a thriving music scene. It’s a great place to live and the movie showcases that aspect of it.

I’m not really big on vegan and vegetarian food but I found myself kinda hungry for it afterwards; I’m not sure whether that’s attributable to Gordon’s skills as a filmmaker or a chef (I’m more inclined towards the former though). I also really appreciated the movie’s charm, slow pace and understated humor. The Happy Poet is not necessarily for those who limit their comedies to things like The Hangover or Judd Apatow’s movies (and their many clones) but for those who appreciate a quiet, reflective chuckle it is quite ideal. Do I get the free veggie chips with that?

REASONS TO GO: Gordon’s deadpan delivery contrasts nicely with Mars’ frenetic one. Charming story and a cast whose performances are as organic as the food.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too low-key for some who like their humor broad and raunchy.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of drug humor and some drug use, mild sexuality and a little bit of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eggless egg salad is an actual sandwich filling used at the filmmaker’s favorite organic food market sandwich counter in Austin.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeking out on DVD.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in India