Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

La Mission


La Mission

Benjamin Bratt as an aging homeboy.

(2009) Drama (Screen Media Ventures) Benjamin Bratt, Erika Alexander, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Jesse Borrego, Talisa Soto Bratt, Tina Huang, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tatiana Rivas, Cesar Gomez, Neo Veavea, Cathleen Ridley, Max Rosenak. Directed by Peter Bratt

When it comes down to it, pride can be the defining force of a man. Pride is what makes him walk tall, gives him the sense that he is king of all he surveys. Pride can also kill the things he loves most.

Che Rivera (B. Bratt) is one of the cornerstones of his neighborhood in the San Francisco Mission District. He is an ex-con and recovering alcoholic who drives a local bus and in his spare time, details lowrider cars. He is respected and maybe a little bit feared as well. His swagger has caught the attention of Lena (Alexander), a new neighborhood and not in a good way. However as she gets to know Che better, her attitude changes (as does his towards her) and a tentative, awkward romance develops.

His world is his son Jesse (Valdez) who is a straight-A student with a scholarship to UCLA in the offing. Jesse has indeed made his father proud but has a secret – he’s gay. When Che discovers pictures of Jesse and his lover Jordan (Rosenak) in an – ahem – compromising position, Che goes ballistic. He throws his son out of the house and engages in a beatdown that alerts the neighborhood to Jesse’s sexual tendencies.

This shocks and horrifies Lena, who knows men like this through her job. The anger and rage that bubbles just below the surface and erupts into violence that could well one day be directed at her. The homophobia of Che also doesn’t fit well in her ideal. While this is going on, Jesse is undergoing trials of his own. The Latino community, heavily vested in machismo, doesn’t take kindly to gay men and he is harassed – sometimes violently – which Che is very well aware of. Gay or not, he is still his son but can Che find a way past his own pride, past his own cultural prejudices to bridge the gap with his son – and his girlfriend?

This is very much a love story but not between Lena and Che so much or even between Jesse and Jordan but between director Bratt and this neighborhood. The genuine affection and understanding for the culture is exuded palpably throughout the movie. The camaraderie between neighborhood homeboys is organic and even if the dialogue is sometimes clumsy, the feelings between the lines are not.

Benjamin Bratt made a name for himself on the original “Law and Order” series, and has since developed into a fine actor in his own right. Here he captures both the inner rage of Che, the conflict between his heritage and the love for his son but also his natural affability and charm. If you were part of the neighborhood, no doubt you’d be looking up to this man; he is generous with his friends and that friendship isn’t given easily.

Alexander, who was a cousin on “The Cosby Show”, is beautiful still as she was a decade ago in her TV days. She also “gets” the mentality of a Bay Area citizen with all that implies – the liberal mindset and the inclusive behavior. Having lived there for nearly two decades, I have known hundreds of people just like her there; not saints so much as they are passionate in their beliefs. She makes a fine counterpoint to Che’s macho ways.

There is an authenticity here that has been lauded by Latin critics as well as honesty in the depiction of the rejection of the gay son that the gay community knows all too well. There is a dignity here that is augmented by genuine warmth that even though not every aspect of the neighborhood is beautiful, it at least fees like home.

Love may not conquer all but it is a sure route to overcoming anything. The message of La Mission is not always clearly stated, but seems to be genuinely felt and in an era where moviegoers are often hammered over the head with platitudes that seem to be added to movies out of a need to have some sort of moral center, is a refreshing change of pace. It ain’t perfect, but it’s home.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at the neighborhood, its multi-ethnic culture and specifically the Hispanic lowrider culture. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending takes a little long to arrive. The dialogue is a bit clumsy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty rough here; there’s also some violence and a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star and the director are brothers and both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the soundtrack of the film that gives insight not only into the process of selecting the music but the exacting standards that were used in getting the music of the neighborhood right.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or maybe even made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Splice