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

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Sympathy for Delicious


 

Sympathy for Delicious

Prince is looking a little worse for wear these days.

(2010) Drama (Maya International) Christopher Thornton, Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Noah Emmerich, James Karen, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Dov Tiefenbach, Niko Nicotera, Deantoni Parks, Stephen Mendillo, Sandra Seacat. Directed by Mark Ruffalo

Miracles can be tricky things. There’s no guidebook in how to deal with them. If you got the power to heal people with the touch of your hand, what would you do with it?

“Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) was once one of the hotter scratchers – although some would prefer the term DJ – on the underground music scene until a car accident left him confined to a wheelchair. It’s also left him broke and bitter, living in his car on Skid Row. He has a grudging relationship with Father Joe (Ruffalo), a do-gooding Catholic priest who thinks Delicious has it better than most (i.e. his car) which he should be willing to share with others.

Delicious basically just wants to be left alone and says so. But that’s not going to happen when he discovers that he has the miraculous power to heal with his touch – but sadly, not himself. If anything, this leaves Delicious more bitter and angry than before. He takes up with Ariel (Lewis), bassist for an unremarkable metal band whose singer who calls himself The Stain (Bloom) – quite aptly, I believe – sneers at everything and everybody who isn’t The Stain, while their harried manager (Linney) tries to get a record deal that simply isn’t forthcoming.

Father Joe sets Delicious in a hotel and pays him a meager amount – all he can afford – to heal and as word spreads the notoriety of Joe’s mission grows. Delicious though sees all the benefit going elsewhere and none to him, so he sets himself up with the band so that his healing can be part of the show. However, things don’t go quite as planned and Delicious learns that there are down sides to miracles.

This is Ruffalo’s first directing effort and all in all it isn’t bad, but it isn’t distinguished either. He and Thornton, a close personal friend of his, have been trying to get this made for more than a decade. I don’t know that it was worth the wait, but it does have its moments.

Thornton, best known for playing Cliff Cobb on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does a pretty good job as the bitter and churlish title character. He also wrote the script, so there’s perhaps some familiarity with the emotional landscape he must traverse. There are times he’s completely unlikable but there’s never a moment when the character seems false.

Ruffalo got a fairly fine cast for a micro-budgeted indie, including his own participation. I’ve always liked Ruffalo as an actor and his laid-back likability has carried him through a number of films. Here his character is still likable, but there is definitely a hidden agenda behind the facade. It’s a bit of a change for him.

Linney is as dependable as ever as the sultry manager, not above using a little sex appeal to sell her band. The cast is in fact pretty solid top to bottom. The story is pretty authentic in how people would react to a genuine miracle, particularly in that specific place and time. Organized religion gets a pretty harsh grade (which I would tend to agree with) in terms of how the miraculous would be used to their advantage. However, the secular world doesn’t escape unscathed either as spectacle and rock and roll get skewered as well.

The problem lies in that the movie is a bit overwritten. The focus between the secular side (symbolized by the band) and the religious side (Father Joe) should have been tighter.  The battle for Delicious’ soul is really the central core of the story and at times it feels like an afterthought. It could have used someone to stop and say “What are you trying to do with all this other stuff?” I would have liked to have found out more about Delicious and where he’s coming from, more about Joe and what he’s about. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t given much depth. They’re given a part to play and there’s nothing really behind them. They have no past and no future, only the present.

I like Mark Ruffalo and I like what Thornton did with his role, but at the end of the day this is merely adequate; it’s not something I can give a ringing endorsement to but neither is it without merit. For those who are picky about what they watch, there are many more worthy ways to spend their time. For those who are movie gourmands who watch a lot of movies, there are worse ways to spend their time. What you get out of this movie depends on which camp you fall in.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting digs at the nature of miracles and religion as well as the failings of men. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwritten. Could have used more focus on the central characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is bad language throughout, some depictions of drug use and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thornton is actually paralyzed; he was injured in a climbing accident when he was 25.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,826 on an unreported production budget; sorry folks but this one lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resurrection

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

The Soloist


The Soloist

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx try to get away with some loot from the Disney Theater.

(DreamWorks) Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Nelsan Ellis, Rachael Harris, Stephen Root. Directed by Joe Wright

Friendships can sometimes be formed in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of people. These are the sorts of friendships that can be life-altering for both of the parties involved.

Steve Lopez (Downey) is a successful columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While his marriage is on the rocks (to his editor Mary (Keener) no less) and he has been injured in a bicycle accident, his career is at least doing well.

One afternoon he hears music coming from Pershing Square near the Times building and discovers a homeless man sawing away on a two-stringed cello and making astonishing music. This is Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and as Lopez later discovers, he was once a prodigy who studied at Julliard before his schizophrenia forced him to drop out of school and essentially from life.

Intrigued, Lopez writes a column about Ayers. A reader, touched by the story, sends a new cello for Ayers which Lopez delivers. This touches off a friendship between the two as Lopez acts as something of a guardian angel for the highly erratic and sometimes explosive Ayers. Lopez follows Ayers to a shelter in downtown L.A. (filming took place on Skid Row where the shelter is located and actual homeless people were used as extras) and inspired, writes a series of articles on the homeless situation in the City of Angels.

This leads to awards and acclaim for Lopez but he feels conflicted about this – like he’s profiting on the plight of his friend. He tries to help him, sets up recitals and an apartment for the former prodigy but Ayers’ mental illness is once again getting in the way. Will the demons in Ayers nature prevent him from leaving the mean streets of L.A.?

Like real life, the movie doesn’t answer this question because this true story is continuing. The real Nathaniel Ayers still lives in Skid Row and while his fame has allowed him to leave the streets, he still grapples with his mental illness.

Director Wright (who previously directed Atonement) has a good eye for detail and uses his L.A. locations to make a gritty, grimy portrayal of the streets which exist in a truly tragic juxtaposition within blocks of the glamour of the Walt Disney Theater in downtown L.A. Oscar-nominated (for Erin Brockovich) screenwriter Susannah Grant has the thankless job of trying to capture Ayers’ madness without compromising the story’s realism and for the most part, she succeeds although she does wander into maudlin territory from time to time though not enough to torpedo the movie.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Ayers and Lopez; if the actors can’t capture that then the film is a disaster. Fortunately, Wright cast two of the better actors working today in Downey and Foxx to tackle the roles and they both do stellar jobs. Downey has the more nuanced role in Lopez; he’s flippant and cynical but with a soft heart. He’s not the stereotypical driven and ambitious journalist; he’s more of an observer than a reporter.

Jamie Foxx resists the urge to over-dramatize the mental illness of Nathaniel Ayers but still manages to effectively portray the demons that torment him. This performance required a master’s hand to pull off and fortunately it got one. I don’t know if this is Foxx’s second Oscar-winning performance (it’s unlikely – the movie was postponed from its original November 2008 release date and relegated to the relatively barren April, when few films get any Oscar consideration) but it certainly merits a look.

Wright and Grant set out to make the movie as real and believable as possible and except for a few hiccups were successful. I like that the movie ended without tying things up in a neat package. I also admire the performances of the lead actors which are so compelling that some fine character actors also cast here are almost shuffled off to the wayside not through any fault of their own.

This movie, possibly because its release date was mishandled, didn’t get the kind of box office love it should have gotten (and might have gotten if the studio had stuck to a fall release date). Still, if you didn’t see it in theaters (and you probably didn’t), this is worth seeking out on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: Both Downey and Foxx turn in outstanding performances. The relationship at the heart of the movie is believable. The resolution of the movie is not really a resolution but ties the events together nicely while ringing true to the realism of the story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story occasionally meanders into the maudlin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of crude language, some drug use and the overall theme of mental illness and homelessness might be a bit much for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the final concert scene in the movie, the real Nathaniel Ayers Jr. can be seen in the front row of the concert hall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers Jr. in which the interplay that the actors modeled the relationship on is clearly visible. There is also a feature and an animated short on the situation with homelessness in Los Angeles which has one of the largest homeless populations in the world.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Astronaut Farmer