Thursday, September 30, 2010

Boston Film Festival 2010 Day 05: Welcome to the Rileys, Down for Life

What to say, other than it's another day of the BFF. This was likely the best night of the festival by default - one average movie, one pretty good. The guests were friendly. As a night at the Boston Film Festival goes, not bad.

One thing I noticed after seeing the Scott Free logo in front of Welcome to the Rileys: The Scott family is having a remarkably productive 2010: Ridley directed Robin Hood,his son Jake directed this, his daughter Jordan directed Cracks, and his brother Tony has Unstoppable coming up. Ridley and Tony are known for being workhorses and talented in their different ways, I really liked Jordan's Cracks, and I became more impressed with Jake's work here as I wrote about it. That's an impressive track record for one family in one year.

Obligatory photos of people who were there:
Welcome to the Rileys star Melissa Leo, who also appears in Conviction

Terrible picture, as is the one that follows. I apologize for it. Real film festivals turn on the house lights when doing the Q&As.

Down for Life director Alan Jacobs and star Jessica Romero

I got a little uncomfortable during this Q&A. I'm not sure how to put this without sounding like even more of a pompous jerk than I'm accusing others of being, but there's something a little weird about sitting in a room dotted with middle-class white people in Boston praising the film for being realistic and suggesting how it might be a good teaching tool for turning at-risk kids' life around. Granted, I know nothing about the folks around me in the room (judging from other BFF audiences, it may have been all people with a vested interest in the topic, me excluded), but that's weird, right? I feel comfortable judging it to be a good movie, and saying that it feels authentic, but I really don't know enough about the setting to give it that level of praise. It seems like people talking because they want to register support of the movie's messages, not because they really have something to contribute.

Gads, I've gone from criticizing the BFF's management to its audience. This festival really brings out the worst in me.

Welcome to the Rileys

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

Welcome to the Rileys is not a tremendously complicated movie, but it is somewhat elegant in its construction. Its characters, their backgrounds, and their actions fit together like two components of a model whose pieces have been precisely manufactured to have complementary shapes, which in a certain way is what they are. Still, the filmmakers do a good enough job of disguising some of the seams, keeping it from looking too prefabricated.

It's been a few years since the Rileys' daughter Emily died, and neither of them are really in good shape. Lois (Melissa Leo) has become acutely agoraphobic, never leaving the house; Doug (James Gandolfini) has settled on a different routine, one centered around a Thursday night poker game, followed by waffles at an all-night diner, followed by a tryst with waitress Vivian (Eisa Davis). This time, he mentions to her that he's got a business trip to New Orleans soon; would she like to come? Once there, though, someone else catches his eye: Mallory (Kristen Stewart), an runaway teen stripper who stirs his paternal instincts. When he sells his business to stay down there after the convention, Lois realizes that this may be it unless she does something.

What writer Ken Hixon is going for here is pretty obvious - these people have gaps in their lives that the others can fill, although the Rileys are soon going to realize that Mallory isn't Emily. It's constructed fairly well, though. The trigger for Lois's agoraphobia is very basic, but Hixon and director Jake Scott let the audience make the connection rather than force it. Doug has a gratifyingly similar reaction to the audience upon seeing a pre-purchased cemetery plot. Scott and Hixon deftly avoid pointing out that Mallory allowing Doug to pay for the privilege of looking out for her is not far off from the stripping and prostitution that she regularly engages in, which would likely make the movie creepier than intended, but the idea is there to chew on if the viewer wants to.

Full review at EFC.

Down for Life

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

Down for Life has good bona fides where authenticity is concerned: It's based on a New York Times magazine piece, much of the cast was plucked from the South Central Los Angeles streets where it is set, and during the festival Q&A its start confirmed that it was true to her experiences. That's better than many films that flash a "based on a true" story credit, and though this one seems to fudge the ending a bit, it generally manages to balance drama and realism.

The film is presented as an essay that "Rascal" (Jessica Romero) is writing in hopes of landing a spot in a summer program. We're soon introduced to her mother Esther (Kate del Castillo), who used to run with a gang but went straight, and stepfather Rafael (Kurt Caceres). What Esther doesn't realize is that Rascal is not just a member of a gang, but the leader of its girls. Before school, they provoke a fight with an African-American group (Rascal's gang is mainly Latina), steal their car, and bring it to the chop shop. That gets the other gang as riled up as you expect. There are tensions everywhere for her, though - while her teacher Mr. Shannon (Danny Glover) is encouraging her to apply to that program in Iowa, gang leader Flaco (Cesar Garcia) sees that as a threat to his authority over all members. Tensions at home have her trying to crash with Vanessa (Emily Rios), a former classmate who has moved to a nicer neighborhood, but her mother won't have that...

The life of a gang member, whether male or female, is violent, and Down for Life does nothing to hide this. Director Alan Jacobs does an unusually good job of showing violence as both part of everyday life in this environment and genuinely terrible. The opening fight between the girl gangs is technically remarkable - the vast majority of movies with a much larger budget that are trying to sell action to an audience don't choreograph and shoot a group of nine or ten nearly so well; this one keeps them all in frame and looking much more like they are fighting than dancing - but it's partially upstaged by a detail from before the first punch being thrown: The girls take off their dangling earrings without breaking stride; this isn't a catfight, they know that someone looking to inflict damage (as they are) will go right for those, and they've got practice. He does other things, too: He keeps sexual violence to a relative minimum, keeping the focus on danger to life and limb and not making this about men vs. women; he shows it as just as likely to arise from supposed friends as enemies (violence as a tool for maintaining a hierarchy); he makes it sometimes be almost completely random, with no warning or plausible justification. Those of us living in a better area will recoil, but the cast just plays it as something they deal with.

Full review at EFC.

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