Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

(2019) Drama (Big Boss Creative) Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jacob Vargas, Blake Michael, Jenny Gago, Tim Abell, Tabitha Brown, Anthony Jansen, Karim Diane, William Guirola, Braxton Davis, Danielle Dotson, Destiny Toliver, Sarah-Jayne Bedford, Monique Chachere, Pam Levin, Tori Griffith, Kelly Hancock. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of homeless people in this country today. Most of them are people who have fallen through the cracks, unable to support themselves due to mental illness, drug abuse or just plain bad luck. A staggering percentage of those living on the streets are children.

One such is Alisha (Buck), a street-savvy 12-year-old girl whose dad refers to her as Princess – that is, when he remembers who she is. For the most part, Iraq war vet Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Gathegi) is caught up in a waking nightmare of mental illness, reliving terrible moments from his time in country. Willis was injured by a roadside bomb and his periods of lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. Alisha’s mother has long since split, a victim of her own nightmares generated by drug abuse. Father and daughter survive on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Alisha doesn’t have to live on the street. She has a caring social worker named Magdalene (Ortiz) who genuinely wants to see her safe and sound but time and time again, she refuses or runs away, preferring to be with her dad who has nobody to take care of him but Alisha. Her dad’s paranoid delusions preclude him from accepting any sort of help. Most of the time he is docile, going wherever Alisha leads him but occasionally something triggers him and he gets violent.

Alisha has become entirely suspicious of the motives of most adults, Magdalene’s obvious example aside she has dealt with far too many people who don’t have her best interests at heart. Even Magdalene doesn’t seem to understand how devoted she is to her dad nor is Magdalene able to act on it even if she did. Even genuinely good people like prospective foster parent John Austin (Sheen) who, like Alisha, is a talented writer is met with stony silence and suspicion.

Things begin to spiral from bad to worse as Alisha falls into the clutches of a human trafficker and briefly considers selling herself to get her dad and her out of L.A. and away to somewhere where they can both be safe. However, her dad’s demons surface at the most inopportune time and Alisha is left facing a nearly impossible decision.

In many ways this is a very powerful film and much of the reason for that is the performances. Buck does an impossibly mature job playing young Alisha and bears the burden of carrying the film on her back with dignity and grace. From time to time a child actor comes along that you know instinctively has enormous talent, talent enough to move on and become a big star in his or her own right. Buck is just such an actress; there isn’t one false note in her entire performance here and she pulls it off in a way that would make a whole lot of adult actresses green with envy.

Gathegi also gives a standout performance. Yes, I know he mostly has to stare straight ahead with a blank expression but you try doing that for a long length of time and see how difficult it is to do. In rare moments of lucidity, Bo is fully aware that he is an anchor dragging his daughter down into his own private hell and he whispers to her gently that it is all right for her to let him go. We never know if he heard him until the very end of the film. The chemistry between Buck and Gathegi is natural and alive; the two work seamlessly off one another. The performances aren’t the problem here.

In many ways this is a very cliché film and Carlson like many indie filmmakers seems loathe to make the kind of deep cuts during the editing process (Carlson is an editor by trade and the hardest thing in that line of work to do is to edit your own footage objectively) that the film needed. As a result, it feels at times that the plot is running in place and not getting anywhere. Not only is the movie on the long side, the plot has a whole lot of clichés; the well-meaning social worker with an overwhelming case load and constraints laid on her by an unfeeling bureaucracy; a war veteran with psychological (or in this case physical issues causing the psychological) issues, a seemingly nice guy offering salvation but delivering damnation.

It’s a shame because I think there are a lot of good ideas here. In the interest of transparency however, I should point out that of my circle of friends who have seen the film, I am very much in the minority – Da Queen in fact has proclaimed this as her favorite film of the Festival so far. I can see where she would like it – the father-daughter relationship is very powerful here and I think a lot of people are going to be swept up by it and that’s not a bad thing. Still, those who look beyond the best feature of the film might see a few imperfections in the overall work.

REASONS TO SEE: Buck delivers a strong performance and has good chemistry with Gathegi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie wanders a bit and could have been a little shorter.
FAMILY VALUES: The is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson is best known for his 2011 award-winning documentary Bhopali.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Most Dangerous Year

Sleep Dealer


Sleep Dealer

No sleep for the weary.

(Maya Entertainment) Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas, Luis Fernando Pena, Giovanna Zacarias, Marius Biegai, Emilio Guerrero, Jake Koenig, Ursula Tania, Jose Concepcion Macias. Directed by Alex Rivera

Technology has become in many ways a crutch. We have come to depend on it to solve our problems and make the world a better place, but it seems that rather than doing that it tends to create new problems. Still in all technology gives us hope for the future; but what happens when the future becomes a thing of the past?

In the near future, the United States has built a wall around it, closing its borders. It remains connected to the world via the Internet, to which people are plugging into now directly into their cortex and their spine so that not only do they experience onscreen but directly into their brains, able to experience the memories and emotions of others. This is a costly process, but it can be purchased on the black market for the right price.

Memo (Pena) lives in the Mexican village of Santa Ana Del Rio in Oaxaca. The river that nourished the farm of his father (Macias) has been dammed up by a big corporation and the cost of water has skyrocketed. None of this matters to Memo, who loves technology and dreams of being part of a brave new world. He has a talent for hacking and picks up military chatter of the security forces guarding the dam.

Unfortunately, he’s naïve about how sensitive the company is to being listened to. They perceive it to be the work of “aqua-terrorists,” groups that believe that the big corporations have no right to control basic human needs like water and are anxious to give water back to the people by any means necessary. The companies are quite willing to fight back, also by any means necessary. Unfortunately, there is collateral damage of innocents caught in the crossfire.

Devastated by having his home destroyed and his father killed by a military drone, Memo travels to Tijuana where he meets Luz Martinez (Varela), a budding reporter who sells interviews on her blog site, only nobody has purchased any yet. However, to her surprise, her interview with Memo is sold to an anonymous buyer who pays in advance for more interviews with Memo.

In the meantime, Memo has gotten implants on the black market, enabling him to connect to the Internet but more importantly, allowing him to get work in a virtual workplace. The technology exists for workers in Mexico to connect to computers who connect them to robots in the United States that do the actual physical labor; the Mexican workers control the robots. These workers are called “sleep dealers” because they are required to stay awake for their entire shift as falling asleep causes a feedback that can cause them injury and/or death, and their shifts can be very long indeed.

Memo however has more on his agenda then being a worker in this new age; he wants to find those responsible for the death of his father and bring them to justice. The key to his plans rests in the hands of a military pilot who no longer believes in the cause he’s fighting for. Can Memo fight the powers that be without being crushed by them?

First-time director Rivera is the son of first-generation immigrants from Peru; several of his cousins came to the United States as undocumented workers, so he has a real passion about their story. He is also extremely fond of science fiction movies, having been reared on movies like Blade Runner, Brazil and Star Wars.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the budget of any of those movies, so he has to make do with effects that are less than state of the art. The movie is visually striking nonetheless and the concept is exceedingly interesting, and makes some logical sense.

The acting isn’t what you’d call compelling, but Varela and Pena do solid jobs. Varela is the best-known member of the cast, having appeared in Blade II, Innocent Voices and Hell Ride. Pena is best known for his appearances in Mexican telanovelas, or soap operas.

One of the things that I love most about science fiction is that it gives us a forum for examining issues of the present-day. Certainly immigration and undocumented workers are a problem much on the minds of Americans, and certainly on the minds of those living south of the border. Globalization, both in economic terms as well as in terms of information exchange, seems to be inevitable, and will no doubt create problems of its own. The idea of virtual workers is not so far-fetched; as we offshore data entry and call center jobs, as well as manufacturing ones, it won’t be long until corporate sorts wanting to maximize profits will look for ways of offshoring manual labor as well.

Those who love dystopian visions are going to really dig this; those science fiction fans that prefer Star Wars-type action are going to be largely disappointed. Rivera has crafted a movie that does what it can with the budget it has, but more importantly, gives you pause to think. This is a very impressive debut that largely flew under the radar, getting almost no American release at all. It’s worth seeking out, although it might take some doing for you to find it. It’s well worth the effort.

WHY RENT THIS: An intriguing premise told from a viewpoint rarely seen in modern film – that of the undocumented worker.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Budgetary constraints made some of the film’s effects look a little bit cheesy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sexuality; there are also a few thematic elements that might be a bit much for younger viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize (given to a film focusing on science or technology) at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everybody Wants to Be Italian