Saturday, December 26, 2009

James DeMonaco's STATEN ISLAND proves one of the year's top "specials"

Near the top of his "special list" this year (more about that soon) will reside a film that has just come out on DVD this week and was viewed by TrustMovies this morning. He was actually debating whether or not to send it back to Netflix unwatched -- being busy and all -- but is very happy that he decided to stick the DVD in the machine and give it a few minutes.

Once hooked, his entire morning went by the wayside.

Should you read the description for STATEN ISLAND, the first outing as director from writer/producer James DeMonaco (shown, right), you'll probably think, "Oh, another mobster movie." Well, yes and no. Peruse some of the comments on either the IMDB or Netflix sites, however and, whether they are pro or con, you'll get the distinct sense that you're in for something different. The very brief theatrical opening the film had in New York City resulted in a couple of good reviews but several bad ones. Even as the credits appear, you may notice another surprise. The film comes to us partly via Luc Besson's Europa Corp., with M. Besson listed as a co-producer.

Almost from its beginning Staten Island is by turns dark and comic but always lyrical. A lyrical mobster movie? Exactly. And it is Mr. DeFranco's lyricism -- quiet, ever-present but never forced -- that defines his movie. That, and his relevant and sad theme: men -- alternately dumb, evil or simply plodding -- attempting for all they are worth to leave something important to the world, or at least do something that will be noticed.

DeFranco's lyric quality comes through in many ways: In his dialog, which is charming, off the wall and oddly sweet; in his humor, which often has these same three qualities; in the visuals, with their alternately dark or happy color palette; and especially in the performances of the four leading actors, Vincent D'Onofrio (shown two photos up surrounded by his henchmen, and above, in a treehouse), Ethan Hawke (below, right), Seymour Cassell (below, left) and Julianne Nicholson. The very last shot of D'Onofrio, for instance, with his legs in the air, is as dark as it needs to be yet remains funny and lyrical. All four of these actors, usually quite good, join forces here to create an odd but viable world in which terrible/bizarre things happen from which humor, grace, even tears will flow. Cassell is as good as I have ever seen him (with not a single line of dialog), Hawke continues to surprise, Nicholson grounds the films with her alert and honest presence, and D'Onofrio is (as usual) equal parts strange and real. His is the most difficult role and he nails it: burrowing in & coming out on the other side.

As a writer, DeFranco begins with a funny, satirical narration/
history, then tosses us into the middle of things, curling his plot in on itself (even the plotting is lyrical), going back several times to one pivotal point in which a loaf of bread is tossed. All the quirky behavior and situations we see begin to make sense fairly soon, however, and the filmmaker effectively uses every last quirk to bring home his theme. All comes together in a finale and denouement that are both just in desserts and rich in feeling.

I am probably overselling this little film. But, hell, it's one of my favorite (and certainly my most unexpected) movie experiences in many a moon. Give it a try, I implore you.

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