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

Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

Joe (2013)


Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

(2013) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, John Daws, Kay Epperson, Lico Reyes, Erin Reed, Dana Freitag. Directed by David Gordon Green

florida-film-festival-2014We are none of us born perfect and some of us come into the world with more obstacles than others to achieve perfection. We still plug away nonetheless, eking out our place in the world and trying to make a life that we can call our own.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. He is trying the straight and narrow as the boss of a crew that poisons trees so that a developer can come in and snatch the land for rock bottom prices, then raze it and do what they like with it. It’s illegal as hell, but it’s the most honest living Joe can find.

He drinks and smokes too much and from time to time gets into bar fights, particularly with a lout named Willie Russell (Blevins) who shoots Joe in the shoulder in retaliation. Joe takes up with hookers and drives a battered old truck, occasionally running in with the law and getting bailed out by his old friend Earl (McPhaul) who knows that despite the rough edges Joe is basically a decent sort.

One day a young teenage boy named Gary (Sheridan) shows up looking for work along with his father Wade (Poulter). The dad is an absolute disaster; a raging alcoholic who beats his son up and takes the money he earns to buy cigarettes and booze. Gary on the other hand is a hard worker who impresses Joe from the get-go and the not easily impressed Joe takes the boy under his wing somewhat and becomes a mentor to him.

Certainly Gary could easily be headed on the same freight train that his father is riding but even the exceedingly imperfect Joe is more of a role model than his dad. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Wade who meets up with Willie Russell who after further humiliation from Joe is ready for something even more violent.

Cage in recent years has achieved the kind of notoriety that no actor wants – for excessive scene-chewing and taking on roles in movies that are wildly forgettable or worse. Here in one performance he very nearly erases a decade of performances that are simply put not worthy of a man of Cage’s talent. This is the Nicolas Cage whose movies I looked forward to seeing; this is the guy who won Oscars and charmed critics with his offbeat charisma. Those who have been disappointed by his recent run of B, C and D movies can rejoice that he’s finally been given a role deserving of him.

Sheridan continues his hot streak of excellent roles in mainly Southern gothic films. As in Mud he has a first-rate adult actor to work with and one gets the sense that Sheridan is learning well from watching pros like Cage and Matthew McConaughey at work. One gets the sense that he is going to be around for a good long time and may well be the most decorated actor of the 2020s.

Green, like Cage, had a little bit of a career hiccup after a promising start; it seems likely that he knew that he wasn’t doing his best work and took a step back and started where he came from – the indie drama. This is his best work in awhile, the fine Prince Avalanche notwithstanding. He captures the sordid desperation of the very lowest and impoverished classes in rural Texas and allows them their own brand of dignity. These aren’t people you may hang out with or even want to, but Green gives them more respect than other directors might have been willing to in the same position. Kudos to him for that much.

This can be tough going in places. The sordid existence of Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie Russell may be too much grit for some but those willing to stick it out will be rewarded with a real gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Cage’s best performance in years. Gritty and unpleasant but always compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The ugliness can be overwhelming.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly disturbing stuff including depictions of child abuse and alcoholism, violence, foul language and strong sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter, who passed away two months after filming concluded, was actually a homeless man with a history of alcoholism and violent behavior when cast by Green, who is known for casting local non-professionals in his movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lunchbox

Hesher


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

(2010) Drama (Wrekin Hill) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Brendan Hill, John Carroll Lynch, Monica Staggs, Mary Elizabeth Barrett, Audrey Wasilewski, Lyle Kanouse, Frank Collison, Allan Graf, Rafael J. Noble. Directed by Spencer Susser

People come in and out of our lives like there’s a revolving door. Some stay for just moments; others are there for life. The effect that people have on our lives however doesn’t always have anything to do with how long they are in them.

TJ (Brochu) is a 12-year-old kid who’s life has been devastated. He mourns his mom who passed away recently but he gets no help with it – if TJ is devastated, his dad (Wilson) is catatonic. He mopes around the house, unable to go back to work. His own mother – TJ’s grandmother (Laurie) – is seriously ill, her body racked with cancer.

TJ is bullied brutally at school by Dustin (Hill) who in one memorable scene forces him to eat a used urinal cake. He is alone and losing his way but into his life comes two people; Nicole (Portman), a part-time grocery clerk whose life is teetering on the edge of financial disaster (a parking ticket is enough to make her panic) who takes pity on the young boy who is getting the crap kicked out of him by life.

Then there’s Hesher (Gordon-Levitt). TJ meets him when, consumed by frustration and rage, he throws rocks into the windows of a house under construction which turns out to be where Hesher is squatting. TJ’s act gets Hesher discovered and with that avenue of shelter closed to him, he decides that since TJ lost him his residence that he’d just go and crash with TJ.

TJ’s dad doesn’t like the idea but he’s really too shell-shocked to do anything about it. He’s checked out of life for all intents and purposes. Grandma is much more excited about the idea – for whatever reason she finds Hesher to be exciting and alive – mainly because he’s willing to pay attention to her.

And so Hesher interjects himself into TJ’s life and not always in a good way. He’s sort of like a forest fire; sometimes it’s a good thing to get rid of the unwanted shrubbery but more often than not the trees get killed with the shrubs. There’s no predicting how the fire is going to act.

This is the kind of movie that leaves one scratching one’s head. On the one hand, you have some pretty good actors who are putting on some pretty impressive shows, including Brochu who wasn’t well-known to me before I’d seen him in this film. Gordon-Levitt clearly takes this movie over – after all, it’s called Hesher and not A Bunch of Things That Happen to a Family in Mourning. He is not a Bill and Ted metalhead – he is the real deal, and if he sometimes seems clueless, well maybe he is. But he’s definitely an enigma.

On the other hand, people don’t act here like they logically would. Hesher is allowed to get away with all sorts of mayhem and people get pissed at him but they go right back to letting him do whatever he wants. I think at the very least he’d get a pretty good sock on the nose, or at least a few nights in jail. There are no consequences here and life doesn’t operate that way unless you’re a billionaire, a politician or Lindsay Lohan.

Even though the action takes place at various times of the day, it felt like the entire movie was shot in late afternoon or early evening. I don’t know if it was the lighting, the ambience or just me but even if it was a happy accident, that gives the movie an air of melancholy that fits in nicely. Grief often feels like perpetual dusk.

The message of Hesher seems to be that one must live life, even if one’s life sucks and even if the life one chooses to lead is a selfish fest. Any sort of life is better than no life at all. Hesher kind of fits into that paradigm nicely – watching Hesher is better than watching no movie at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Really well acted across the board.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little Hesher goes a long way. Sails off the edge of indie preciousness.

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? There’s lots of bad language and worse behavior, drug use, disturbing images, violence and sexual content – much of it in the presence of a minor. Not role model stuff in the slightest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the Japanese release, the film was re-titled Metalhead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a viral YouTube clip, as well as not just one but two outtake reels, including one devoted entirely to takes ruined by airplane engines roaring overhead.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $382,946 on a $7M production budget; not a box office success by any stretch of the imagination.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Open Range

A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material

Strayed (Les Egares)


Nobody does sensual like French cinema.

Nobody does sensual like French cinema.

(Wellspring) Emmanuelle Beart, Gaspard Ulliel, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Clemence Meyer, Samuel Labarthe, Jean Fornerod. Directed by Andre Techine

In times of war, ordinary people are sometimes caught up in extraordinary situations, leading them to do things they never would have considered in simpler times. When the world turns upside down, we sometimes find ourselves relying on those we might not have otherwise.

Odile (Beart) is a schoolteacher and mother who has already given a great deal to the war. Her husband was killed early on during the German invasion of France. With the Nazis knocking on the doorstep of Paris, thousands of terrified citizens flee for the countryside and what they thought was safety. Odile and her children, teenaged Philippe (Leprince-Ringuet) and young Cathy (Meyer) are driving down a refugee-choked road when German bombers suddenly, viciously drop bombs on the road and gun down survivors. The three barely escape and watch their car get annihilated. When Philippe panics and begins to run, he is hauled down by a young man with a shaven head who we later find out is named Yvan (Ulliel), saving him from the guns. Yvan leads the family into the woods.

After spending the night in the woods, a new experience for the children who up to then had lived a privileged existence, Yvan discovers a large villa in the woods. It has been abandoned by the owners but otherwise is perfectly habitable, with food stores, running water and electricity. Yvan wants to break in and stay in relative safety there; Odile, with her middle class standards, abhors the idea and urges them to find a village or someplace where they can stay. Yvan convinces her that the children need rest and a place to clean up and have a meal. He essentially winds up breaking in whether she likes it or not. Soon, they are living there as a family.

However it is a dysfunctional family. Odile is contemptuous of Yvan, thinking he is wild and uncouth. However, she recognizes that without him, they would be unable to survive as he supplies them with food when the stores left behind run out. At first she wants to hike to a nearby village but when that nearly turns into disaster, she retreats back to the villa, there to stay.

For Yvan’s part, he is attracted to the older woman in a sexual way. The other children look up to Yvan as a big brother, perhaps even a surrogate father – the latter role Yvan is all too happy to play. As the family begins to rely on Yvan more and more, Odile becomes oddly attracted to him. It’s as if she is reverting to a more primal mode, wanting to keep a provider close at hand by any means necessary.

The idyll, as complicated as it already is, becomes more so with the arrival of two French soldiers. Yvan, feeling threatened, wants to kill them so that they don’t report the squatters to the authorities. Odile is glad to have the gentle Robert (Labarthe) for company and the carefree Georges (Fornerod) as well. However, under the surfaces of each member of this drama are secrets unbeknownst to one another. When they rely on each other for their very survival, what will become of them when those secrets begin to emerge?

Beautifully photographed in the area around Castres, France, Techine brings an idyllic quality to the country home and its inhabitants. The horrors and realities of war are far away from this secluded spot. Beart is wonderful as Odile, a widow coping with the loss of her husband and increasingly vulnerable in a harsh world. When a life preserver is thrown her way, her instincts tell her to resist but inevitably she reverts to a different state of mind, one of the primal urges of women early in human history in which finding a provider was paramount, so being attractive to those providers became a survival skill. Odile doesn’t even realize that she is operating on this basis.

Ulliel, who appeared in the excellent Brotherhood of the Wolf, has a very complicated role to take on, and he handles it extremely well. Yvan has grown up on his own and lacks many social graces and even basics, such as reading and writing. He is often unsure how to act or react in the presence of a beautiful woman, and his own raging hormones begin to guide him. He is alternately cruel and kind, uncaring and helpful, angry and hurt. In other words, like most teenagers, he is going through a maelstrom of emotions, sometimes several at once.

Leprince-Ringuet is also impressive as Philippe, who is a few years younger than Yvan yet worships him as a hero. He is desperately searching for a role model now that his father is gone and he uses Philippe to fill that void, perhaps unaware of the consequences of that to his mother. When Yvan casually rejects him, he turns on Yvan as only a hurt, rejected young boy can.

The family’s struggle to find food and shelter without being detected by Nazis or by the police of the Vichy government lend an air of palpable suspense that permeates the film. While not an overt thriller, it nonetheless carries elements of that genre and integrates it nicely into the overall feel of the movie; the idyll being one that doesn’t belong to them and one they know they must pay for eventually.

The movie does move very slowly towards its climax, and is somewhat talky in places. I love good dialogue as much as the next guy, but sometimes silence and circumstance can be a far more effective tool in getting the story across.

As good as Beart is here, when she turns the corner from being suspicious of Yvan to being attracted to him, the emotional shift doesn’t feel genuine. I understand how it could happen but the writers and Beart failed to make the connection onscreen. I think the movie would have benefited had they done so.

Other than those quibbles, this is a solid movie. Lately I’ve found myself having a great deal of affection for French cinema, and while this isn’t the finest example of it out there, it is nonetheless worth seeing if you can find it (I know it is available on Netflix, which is where I found it). I urge you to watch it with a good bottle of wine to wash it down with – French cinema, like French wine, alters perception in subtle ways.

WHY RENT THIS: Masterful performances by Beart, Ulliel and Leprince-Ringuet bring the tensions of an untenable situation to life. Gorgeous cinematography of the French countryside that will gladden the soul in an otherwise bleak tale. Director Techine creates a marvelous air of tension that permeates the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The sexual attraction between Odile and Yvan, while natural on his end, doesn’t make as much sense on hers. The movie can be a bit too talky in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some terrifying wartime violence, smoking, drinking, nudity and sex between a teenaged boy and an adult woman. This is definitely for adult audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the novel “Le Garçon aux Yeux Gris” by French novelist Gilles Perreault.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nobel Son