‘Graceland:’ not your average Hollywood thrillerMovie Review Thursday, May 2nd, 2013
It has been a while since I saw something on screen and said out loud, “Oh, my God.” But I did that while I watched Graceland, Ron Morales’s taught indie thriller about kidnapping, child prostitution and poverty in Manila. Early in the film, Marlon (Arnold Reyes), the driver for the rich and sleazy Congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), is driving his and his boss’s teenage daughters home when they are hijacked by a kidnapper dressed as a policeman. They drive to a deserted area of a massive dump; the girls are whimpering, Marlon is tearfully protesting, and suddenly the kidnapper shoots Changho’s daughter in the chest before absconding with Marlon’s. It is a quick shot, with only a split second of blood splatter, but that brief moment as young, recently chipper, now terrified Sophia stutters and dies made me exclaim out loud.
There are several moments in Graceland that are shocking or discomfiting, but none of them – including murders, several plot twists, and the nudity of the very young prostitutes Changho likes – felt exploitative. This is a contrast to how similar plot points have been handled in, say, Law & Order: SVU or Taken, in which sex and violence are gratuitous demands of genre. While Graceland is suspenseful and paced in order to raise your heart rate, Morales seems less interested in titillation than in the moral dilemmas created by poverty and desperation.
In order to get his daughter back, he needs to convince Changho that his own daughter is still alive. And he also needs to convince his hospitalized wife, who is in need of an organ transplant they cannot afford, that their daughter is safe. Lies compound each other, and the detective on Changho’s payroll (a terribly hammy Dido De La Paz) is very suspicious.
Shot on location in the grimy slums of Manila on a shoe string budget, Graceland features a cast of well-known Filipinos. American audiences expecting a certain kind of naturalistic acting from their indie films will appreciate Reyes’ desperate performance, but De La Paz, Cobarrubias, Marife Necesito (who plays Changho’s wife), and Leon Miguel (who is the main kidnapper Visel) vacillate between wooden and melodramatic. Morales, whose story structure, visual direction, and editing show him to be a great talent, does not have equal skill when it comes to working with actors, some of which is because his dialogue – at least as translated from Tagalog to English for the subtitles – is a bit clichéd.
The ending of the film, which I will not spoil, is assuredly not clichéd, however. Instead of going the route of most Hollywood thrillers, Morales refuses the easy moral certitude that comforts the comfortably middle class American audiences.
Marlon’s life and the life of his wife are both too precarious for that sort of luxury, and Morales communicates that disease expertly in the final short of Reyes’ wide-eyes and nervous hope.
Written and directed by Ron Morales
Starring Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias and Dido De La Paz
At Reading Gaslamp, and online at Amazon and iTunes
Any Day Now
Alan Cumming is best known nowadays for his smart, snarky, and subtly camp performance as Eli Gold in The Good Wife, the best show on network television. But he originally became famous for playing the MC in Sam Mendes iconic revival of Cabaret in the late 1990s; he won a Tony and legions of straight and gay fans. He is a song and dance man, but not in the chipper, jazz hands Glee way; he is mischievous, sly, sexy and sardonic. And very, very funny. In Travis Fine’s gay-parenting drama Any Day Now, Cumming plays a drag performer in 1970s West Hollywood who becomes a father to an abandoned teenage boy with Down’s syndrome. Both his Broadway skills and his (somewhat) more tempered dramatic skills are on display, and in his greatest screen role, Cumming makes the film, despite its missteps, memorable and moving.
Rudy (Cumming) is the lead of a trio of drag queens who perform at a WeHo bar. One night he picks up a patron, handsome assistant district attorney Paul (Garret Dillahunt), and it is him Rudy calls when he discovers that his junkie neighbor (Jamie Anne Allman) has disappeared, leaving her developmentally disabled son Marco (Isaac Leyva) alone. Paul balks at first, but when Marco escapes the foster home where he’s been sent and Rudy and Paul find him, they quickly become a family. In order to make that happen, however, they have to lie to a judge about their relationship. Paul’s boss figures out what is actually going on, and since it’s the late ‘70s, gay parenting goes on trial. Literally.
Fine’s screenplay is structured a bit too much like a Lifetime issue-of-the-week movie, and, particularly during the court room scenes, some of the scenes are cartoonish. Gregg Henry, who plays the homophobic opposing lawyer, is a stereotypical monster.
Fine’s direction of his actors inside Rachel Morrison’s beautifully colored cinematography makes up for some of the clunky writing. But the movie is held together by Cumming’s broad, versatile, deeply sympathetic performance as Rudy. (His only flaw is his wonky Queens accent, which is a bit inconsistent.) His musical performances are key; when he sings “I Shall Be Released” over the last few images, it’s heart-breaking.
Any Day Now
Directed by Travis Fine
Written by Travis Fine and George Arthur Bloom
Starring Alan Cumming, Garret Dillahunt and Isaac Leyva
On DVD and Amazon.com
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