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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "Cellmates"

Not exactly a romantic comedy despite a romantic element, this caricatured sendup about not-quite-gone bigotry is set in a style not far from the Coen Brothers' "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" both in comic exaggeration of behavior and in satiric audacity. In this case, it's a head on assault on racist tropes that characterize the 1970s South, in the time of George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan, aka, the KKK. In co-writer/director Jesse Baget's modality, it's as unrestrained as it is endearing, thanks to the positive connections that actor Tom Sizemore builds with the audience and despite the constantly mugging silliness of his anti-heroic hero.

The movie begins with a brief prologue describing how Leroy Lowe (Sizemore) became enamored of the KKK as a child, rose to the position of Grand Dragon as he matured (in age only, one might argue), and ended up in the East Texas state prison for fraud and tax evasion along with his pal Bubba While frequent sessions with the morally vile, one-rule Warden Merville ("do what I want") (a perfectly twisted Stacy Keach) are gruesome interludes with an obstreperous tyrant, they are, at least, escapes from the sweat work on the potato fields that give the iron-fisted bossman meaning in life. The other compensation that makes prison life endurable is getting to share his cell with his best pal. Until Bubba chokes on a potato when he's informed that Leroy's mother is half-Jewish, cutting off his circulation and resulting in brain loss and transfer to the psychiatric unit.

Poor Leroy is left alone in his cell until one Emilio Ortiz, a modest Mexican field laborer with a wild hairdo, is assigned to his cell on a charge of participating in a strike action for better pay. Leroy's first move is to draw a line down the middle of the cell dividing "Mexico" from "America." But despite everything Leroy throws at him, Emilio remains ever-supportive and comedically charming, adding new meaning to the term, cellmate.

The key to Leroy's transformation is his retarded realization that Warden Merville's office maid Madalena (sultry Olga Segura) has developed an attraction to him which eventually comes to passing a note to the bewildered prisoner, now discovering feelings he never has before. But the note is in Spanish, which he doesn't know. Forced by curiosity, he submits to the pressure and allows the cellmate he has ostracized to translate it for him and this develops into a whole new relationship as the notes get more personal and revealing, shifting the movie into a zone of relationships and endearment. Between the budding romance and his cellmate's chipping away at his gruff exterior with his hardened cheerfulness, the clansman is on a journey toward new horizons.

This 5-character Indie piece works plenty well on what has all the indications of being very low budget (but not low-brow). At the same time, it's got plenty to recommend it, not the least of which are two surprising performances, that of Sizemore and Keach. Broad as the brute force presentation of hotbutton racial issues are, the players are fully up to attacking it for all they're worth and they're a revelation in terms of what their prior work may have led us to expect -- always an excellent accomplishment for an actor.

Filmography wise, Sizemore was on a tear in 2011, having scored thirteen credits in that very busy year, this included. Clearly his troubles with the law haven't put a dent in his castability.

The film also scores by way of introducing two more actors with considerable skill. Jiminez ("Innocent Voices"), who calls to mind the ingenious Alfonso Arau ("Posse") of a prior generation, seems made for exactly this kind of over-the-tip characterization. And Segura who, while held at a physical distance from her prison enamorata, has no trouble emitting credible heavy breathing toward him when she's in his presence.

Baget, who also produced and edited, is clearly a Coen brothers devotee, and serves up what might play as well on a theatre stage, what with its limited number of players and equally limited scope. The exteriors of the indentured convicts working the potato field as well as the Klan scenes in the early going, could be viewed on a proscenium screen. But, though the cast and scope may be limited, there's nothing limited about the cinematography by Bill Otto which presents a fine, natural quality to the unnatural nature of the otherwise cartoonish design that includes extreme wide-angle closeups.

And, while I was engaged every moment with Baget's sometimes hilarious freedom from reality in his sheer overstatement, "Cellmates" is clearly not destined for a wide mainstream audience. I'd put it this way... if you liked "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" this is likely something you won't want to miss. Of all the attractions and distractions of the piece, I found myself, overall, greatly amused and entertained. Plus, I learned a lot about potatoes.

The jug band music behind the end credits seem wholely appropriate to the framework and to the audience it targets.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Tom Sizemore
Convict Leroy Lowe in a typical moment.

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