The Park Bench


It's the awkward silences that bring us closer together.

It’s the awkward silences that bring us closer together.

(2015) Romance (Cake and Ice Cream/Galaim Vivendi) Walter Perez, Nicole Hayden, Stella Maeve, John Prosky, Brian Mulligan, Dustin Fitzsimons, Beau Bonness, Francisco Ovalle, Angel Arial, Madison Browning, Mackenzie Browning, Araceli Cesar, Jerry Franco, Ella Raziel, Stephen Brown, Carlene Moore. Directed by Ann LeSchander

As we build the relationship with the person we love, little things may take on special meaning to us. It could be a song we listened to regularly, as in the case of my wife and I. It could be a certain meal that you ate often as you were courting. Or it could be a place that takes on a certain importance in the process of falling in love.

Mateo (Perez) is the son of Mexican immigrants who is trying to navigate his way through college. He is holding on by his fingernails, only able to attend due to the scholarships he has obtained, scholarships that are now imperiled because he is failing English Literature. Even with that, he is forced to work a series of odd jobs in order to pay for schooling and of course to support himself.

Emily (Hayden) is getting ready to defend her Masters thesis in Library Science. She is also getting ready to marry Eddie (Fitzsimons), a pleasant young man who is studying to be a pharmacist. Her life is progressing upon the set course that she has planned for it; a good career, a stable husband who can provide for her, eventually a family and a suburban home.

The two are meeting at a park bench because Mateo needs a tutor and Emily has drawn his name from the student tutoring service. At first they don’t seem to be very compatible; Mateo’s schedule can be haphazard and Emily is a bit uptight about being on-time to tutoring sessions for the three times a week they need to meet. While the two have reservations about one another, eventually they decide to give it a go.

Emily turns out to be a really good tutor, just as she said she was. But she is learning a lot from Mateo as well; about his culture, about his viewpoint of the world (the viewpoint of the son of illegal immigrants). She is pleasantly surprised by the delicious food that Mateo’s mom cooks for him (a scene in which she tries ceviche for the first time is priceless).

The regular tutoring sessions at the same park bench turn out to be confessionals for the both of them as they get to know each other better. And as you can imagine, their feelings for each other begin to deepen into something else. Can the uptight Emily get past her need for stability to embrace love for its own sake?

LeSchander has crafted a very efficient but effective romance – I wouldn’t quite call this a comedy although there are some funny moments. Essentially this is the most cost-effective movie I think I’ve ever seen. The whole movie is set at a single park bench in a lovely glade (I wish I could find out which park this was filmed at; I’d love to go there someday). The scenes are delineated by framing devices and flashbacks and animations enhance the story.

The animations seemed a bit unnecessary to me but I can understand why they’re there. Mostly, this movie is all conversation and filming a conversation can be a very static enterprise indeed. While the two leads are attractive and do their jobs well, nobody wants to see a picture about talking heads. Unless it’s the Talking Heads, of course.

Bad musical puns on my part aside, there is a pleasantness to the movie that is quite appealing. Watching it is like sitting in a park yourself on a lovely warm spring day, watching life happen around you with the occasional odd lost birdwatcher wandering into frame. In that sense, this is a movie that tends to create the warm fuzzies, much like a beautiful spring day can.

It’s not without its faults. The ending seems a bit out of character, particularly for Emily. Hayden does a good job of taking a character who could easily be unlikable and making her at least sympathetic. Perez, on the other hand, has a good deal of charisma. His charm, good looks and screen presence could take him much further in the business with a little bit of luck (and an aggressive agent). At times, the spark between the two of them was less intense than I would have liked but then again, this is a fairly low-key endeavor to begin with and some sparks smolder slowly rather than ignite quickly.

This is very much the kind of movie that I have a soft spot for. It charms without being smarmy and tells its story well. LeSchander seems very confident behind the camera and she prioritizes the right things. This isn’t a movie that is going to make critics go wild with praise but it’s the kind of movie to build a career on. I liked it a lot and can recommend it as the lovely diversion that it is.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive leads. Perez has some screen magnetism. Charming. Efficiently made.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a collection of vignettes at times. Could have used a tiny bit more structure. Ending comes out of left field. Spark not there.
FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is LeSchander’s first full-length feature. Previously she has directed several short films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes No score yet. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :One Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 5 Flights Up

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Imperial Dreams


The face of urban stress.

The face of urban stress.

(2014) Drama (Super Crispy) John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, De’aundre Bonds, Keke Palmer, Fat Dog, Nora Zehetner, Todd Louiso, Sufe Bradshaw, Maximiliano Hernandez, Anika Noni Rose, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Jernard Burks, Wilfred Lopez, Nik Petcov, Kelita Smith, Zilah Mendoza, Kandiss Edmundson. Directed by Malik Vitthal

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the years since John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boys N the Hood illustrated the agonies and the ecstasies of South Central Los Angeles, little has changed. The choices are few for those restricted by poverty and apathy; selling drugs and using drugs. Getting out of the cycle of violence and poverty has become nearly impossible.

Bambi (Boyega) is boyishly handsome and just home after serving a 28 month stretch for armed robbery. His son Day (the Coach twins) has been staying with his Uncle Shrimp (Plummer) while Bambi’s girlfriend and baby mama Samaara (Palmer) is also in jail for a non-violent crime.

Bambi wants to be a good role model for his son and stay on the straight and narrow. Shrimp has other ideas. He wants Bambi to resume his place in Shrimp’s gang. Bambi would much rather get a job. However, the system is stacked against him; the state has filed for child support on behalf of Samaara, cranking a debt that Bambi can’t pay without a job. He can’t, however, get a job without a driver’s license and he can’t get a driver’s license with that child support debt on his record. It’s beyond Catch-22; it’s Catch-23.

As hard as it is for Bambi to stay straight, the thug life continues to intrude. His cousin Gideon (Bonds) is on the run from a rival gang who mean to murder him and Bambi’s proximity to Gideon is putting both him and Day in danger but Gideon is one of the few who are out to help Bambi make it on the level. Bambi’s mom (Zehetner) is a raging alcoholic and his half-brother Wayne (Akinosho) who has a partial scholarship to Howard’s business school but needs money to make up the difference so he can actually go to college is thinking of taking a short cut that may lead him down the same path that Bambi is trying to get off of. An act of violence puts everything in flux and puts Bambi even more at risk than he has been, leaving him and Day as vulnerable as can be, living out of a car that doesn’t run with a pair of skeptical detectives (Hernandez, Bradshaw) and a social worker (Rose) on Bambi’s back.

This is one of those movies that I really wanted to like a lot more than I ended up doing. Clearly Vitthal has a good eye and ear for inner city drama, and knows how to tell a good story. The trouble is, this is the kind of story that doesn’t really tell us anything new. Particularly in the light of recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and other places around the country, we’re particularly sensitive to the plight of young black men in predominantly African-American communities that are riddled with poverty, crime and drugs. While this story is sadly not one far from the stories of many young African-American men, I get the sense that it has been told more than once and more than once in this very Film Festival.

That said, Boyega (who was tremendous in Attack the Block) has the chops and the looks to be the next Hollywood superstar. In my review of that movie, I compared him to Denzel Washington and certainly he has that kind of charisma and screen presence. Here, in a much more subdued and less obviously heroic role, he struggles with his conscience and his frustration, knowing that the easy way out is to revert back to the old life, but that it would lead him to exactly the same place – if not a cold, steel slab in the morgue.

The rest of the cast are fairly solid, with the Coach twins doing particularly well as Day; the father-son dynamic between the two is genuine and affecting. Very often actors this young have a difficult time bonding with their screen parents but in this case that’s not the case. The heart of this movie is Bambi’s devotion to Day and if we don’t believe that, we don’t believe the movie. That the movie is convincing on that end is admirable.

I take it that the slang being used here is genuine to the time and place; at times I had difficulty figuring out what some of the characters were saying and subtitles would have been genuinely appreciated. While some might write this off as a feature-length rap video (and with some justification), that would be a bit presumptive. This is a solid film by a filmmaker with potential that is dominated by an actor who may well be a great one in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performance by Boyega. Loved the father-son dynamic. Captures the Catch-22 of the modern inner city.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really break any new ground. At times needs subtitles to follow the inner city slang dialogue. A few too many cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and foul language throughout; some drug use and lots of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed at the actual Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Homeless