Friday, October 1, 2010

In Michael Imperioli's THE HUNGRY GHOSTS, East meets West--with pizzazz

An unusually fine actor for some 20 years, Michael Imperioli will likely be remembered as Christopher Moltisanti, one of The Sopranos' most indelible characters. (TrustMovies is more likely to remember him for Sweet Nothing.) In his first turn as writer and director of a full-length narrative film, it should probably surprise no one that the performances he elicits from his entire cast are beyond reproach. This is all to the good because the film itself,  which I think may be brilliant in its way -- a small, very specific way -- nonetheless takes some getting used to. An ensemble piece in which the characters' connections to each other become clear only slowly and haltingly, THE HUNGRY GHOSTS takes its time reaching a destination. Ah, but when it does finally coalesce, opening up and out into an entire universe, it may quietly, sweetly blow your mind.

One of the final notes I scribbled while watching Imperioli's  film was, Is this a commercial for Yoga? If so, I’m buying! (Particularly if I could have a teacher like Zohra Lampert.) Ms Lampert begins and ends the movie, and god, it's good to have her with us. Her slightly spacey demeanor that oddly manages to combine depth and gravity -- plus that wonderful voice -- has long made me sit up and take notice. She's just the beginning. I sat up and took notice of every actor here -- from Steven R. Schirripa (below, left), who plays a heavy-set radio-talk-show host with a gambling addiction and problems with wife (Sharon Angela, shown bottom, left) and son (newcomer Emory Cohen, below, right).

Also on board are Aunjanue Ellis (shown two photos below), a young woman who seems to be packing up and leaving, but for where? Following her is a fellow (Nick Sandow) with a philosophical bent, just out of de-tox, who wants to reconnect. Everyone here is searching for something -- connection, fulfillment -- usually in the wrong, if typical, places, including a hot, sad menage a trois (below). Yet more than simply being about fulfilling our needs, the film also tackles the subject of people who avoid their responsibilities to themselves and each other.

As writer and director Imperioli captures intense moments of need on every character's part, and his actors bite into their role with absolute ferocity and moment-to-moment reality that smacks of total commitment. This kind of thing can sometimes lead to a self-involved, emotional "whacking off" that will eventually deaden a movie.  That this does not occur here comes from the filmmaker's surprisingly keen sense of nuance and shading, and of his creation of some off-kilter happenings that, while they seem odd, are also quite real (again, I think, due to the willingness of his actors to jump in and sink or swim).

Imperioli's plot, if you can call it that (it's mostly just the connections these people possess), takes its time cementing. But this allows us to begin piecing together these connections, which also helps us to better understand the characters. Humor bubbles up at odd times ("I don't trust the woods," one fellow notes suspiciously, while taking a walk in the midst of them) and when a scene on a brownstone stoop goes over the top, the actors still manage to coral it and bring it home.

In the press materials for the movie (which I always read after viewing), we learn that the title comes from a Tibetan brand of hell in which souls with tiny mouths are afflicted with big (and insati-able) bellies, and that the storyline and characters reflect the zeitgeist of post-millennial New York City, in which "the desperation of the West smacks up against the religious teachings of the East." I'll buy that. It certainly gives focus to the somewhat fractured, but very inspired, feelings I had at the film's finale.  In fact, maybe I will take that yoga class. Ms Lampert, are you hosting?

The Hungry Ghosts opens today, October 1, appropriately in New York City at the Quad Cinema.  Further playdates will follow around the country, I hope. This one deserves to be seen and experienced.

All photos are from the film itself, except that of Mr. Imperioli, by Steve Granitz, courtesy of WireImage.

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