ROCKAWAY (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is established Visual Effects artist John J Budion’s first feature film as writer-director, and he likely exorcises some personal demons with a semi-autobiographical look back at his childhood. Set in the summer of 1994 in East Rockaway, New York, the story is told from the perspective of an adult John (Frankie J Alvarez), who narrates his recollections of that year.

Young John (played by Maxwell Apple), a somewhat withdrawn kid, hero worships brash New York Knicks guard John Starks to the point that he wears a Starks jersey almost non-stop. The two are polar opposite personalities, and the only one who really understands John’s obsession is his protective older brother Anthony (Keidrich Sellati, Henry from “The Americans”). Why does John need Anthony’s protection? Well that’s due to their abusive father (Wass Stevens, THE WRESTLER) who is bitter and angry most of the time – and takes it out on the boys and their mother (Marjan Neshat).

The brothers share two wishes: a championship for their beloved Knicks and a more peaceful living environment without their abusive father. They are so focused on the latter that they’ve created a scheme to “off” the angry dad – this despite their mother’s promise to take them away from it all as soon as she finds work in another city.

It’s about this time when John and Anthony meet some other neighborhood boys, and what follows is the easy camaraderie of kids when no parents are polluting the moment (an ideal that seems quite antiquated in this day and age). Billy (a standout Harrison Wittmeyer) is the mature-beyond-his years leader, Dom (James DiGiamcomo) is the unathletic jokester, Brian (Tanner Flood) is the brainy one, and Sal (Colin Critchley) is the motor-mouthed preener. The boys share a love of sports and the fine art of needling each other with sharp cut-downs. In other words, they are kids being kids, and this escapism opens up a new world for Anthony and John.

It’s a coming of age story with obvious comparisons to STAND BY ME and THE SANDLOT, and though not at the level of either of those classics, it does feature some fine nostalgic moments of childhood. The film suffers a bit from an ending that’s overly sappy and clean, though kudos to all involved if this is true to their life. It’s certainly a stretch for most. Adults are more likely than kids to find appeal here, and the film might have benefited from a better exploration of what drove the dad to such extremes.

watch the trailer:

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PATTI CAKE$ (2017)

August 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A gritty, New Jersey based story of a blue-collar white girl trying to make it in hip-hop sounds like the makings of a film festival favorite – especially since it’s the first feature from its director and features a star-making turn from an unusual leading lady. After being warmly received at Sundance and Cannes (and other festivals), the only remaining question is, will mainstream audiences show the love?

The obvious comparison here is Eminem’s 8 MILE, but there is also a touch of ROCKY, THE COMMITMENTS, and most all other sports and music movies featuring the dreams of those from ‘the other side of the tracks’. Writer/director Geremy Jasper has a nice feel for setting and actors, and it’s only the (at times) formulaic nature of the script that keeps this one in the crowd-pleasing category rather reaching a level of greatness.

Australian native Danielle Macdonald plays Patti Dombrowski, also known as Killa P, and most every other cruel nickname (Dumbo, White Precious) one might pin on a plus-sized Anglo girl found street rapping. As you would expect, her tough outer visage masks an all-too-familiar inner insecurity borne from a larger than life mother who blames her daughter for every misery in life. Bridget Everett plays the mother Barb, a hard-drinking, hard-singing, hard-blaming type who gives such sterling mother advice as ‘lose the top button’ for that job interview. Mother Barb, providing proof of her distance from reality, refers to herself and daughter Patti as “the Dombrowski sisters”, whom she claims are “setting the world on fire”.

The tenuous mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, and these two actresses (and the movie) are at their best in their scenes together. On the music side, Siddarth Dhananjay plays Jhen, Patti’s eternal optimist-pharmacist-music partner, while Mamoudou Athie is Basterd, a self-proclaimed anti-Christ anarchist. The three form a band called PB&J (Patti, Basterd, Jhen) which provides friendship, a creative release, and, mostly, a reason for existence. Their band, and especially Patti, gets a boost from Nana (a remarkable Cathy Moriarty) on vocals and the CD cover. Ms. Moriarty is now 56 years old (playing older here), and was only 19 when she made her stunning screen debut in RAGING BULL. Other supporting work is provided by MC Lyte, Wass Stevens and Sahr Ngaujah.

The neighborhood is Bayonne New Jersey (see CHUCK), an area where lines such as “blood is thicker than Jager” actually make sense. A 23 year old would-be rapper can work as a bartender and caterer, and still find time to hone her musical skills. It’s the land of misfits and music that only sounds sweet to a few ears – where dreams don’t consist of owning yacht, but rather “making it across the bridge”. Crowd-pleasing movies are quite welcome these days, and filmmaker Jasper has joined with dynamite actresses Macdonald and Everett in delivering just that. Expect all to reach greater heights over the next few years.

watch the trailer: