Cinema Signal:

Sex, Scams, and Street Life:
The Sociology of New York City's Times Square
(In paperback from Amazon)
. "Downtown: A Street Tale"

You can round up a decent set of actors, and you can somehow sell a financier to back your film, you can put together an adequate crew, and you can make your movie. But, what this film illustrates is how, with all that, a film with a bad script is destined to be a disaster.

Screenwriting 101: no film works without at least one character to bond with, root for, or just care about. The figure that writer Joey Dedio seems to have in mind to fulfill this essential dramatic demand is the character he, himself, plays: Angelo. The opening scene opens with him doing his thing, anything to score some drugs, including his prostitution with a male john in a car. Frankly, it would take a nobel-prize-winning writer to dig out from that kind of sordid introduction, and Dedio, the writer (last seen in "Bomb the System"), is as far from that as an icycle from death valley.

The action revolves around a group of young misfits, homeless people who are squatting in the ruins of an abandoned walk-up in Manhattan. Everyone welcome; bring your own drugs.

Angelo's the go-to man when there's a breakdown, providing a sort of ad hoc emotional glue to keep the gang together, hence the de facto leader of the sniffers. What he can't do or provide he'll fill in with promises, a hug, and a meal at the local Haven House where Aimee Levesque (Genevieve Bujold), a caring mistress of the deprived and dysfunctional, is holding court and keeping track.

Which is more than director Rafal Zielinski ("Hangman's Curse") could surmount with dialogue and character portraits that are baffling, fragmented and ineptly drawn. It's a generally sour scene, the most pathetic characteristic of which is the lack of anyone who we'd want to care about.

Flora Martinez ("The Secret Lives of Dentists") plays Maria, a forlorn but beautiful (a Rosario Dawson type) junkie whose destiny provides some tragedy but, as with every character, we have no substantial take on her and are given no understanding of what put her here beyond the general stereotypical assumptions that the writer seems to be depending on for our sympathies.

First this strung out lady is with Hunter (Chad Allen), a really hopeless mess of an addict whose impulses are a study in self-destruction; then when she finally gives up on that avenue of acceptance, she considers a marriage and getaway with Angelo who briefly shows that he might be a heterosexual.

Who comes off best in the acting department is the estimable Ms. Bujold ("Finding Home"). I'd hazard the guess that it was the wisdom of experience ("Anne of the Thousand Days," 1969) and a mechanism of self-protection that saw to it that her role didn't get lost down the embankment of incompetence undermining most of the other roles.

Cameos are provided by John Savage as H2O, a wheelchair-bound drug dealer, and Burt Young as Gus, a kindly friend who is willing to take in one of these unfortunates. The fact that she's a young hooker has nothing to do with it, of course. These castings afford the production more marquee value than dramatic. In an actual part, if minor, Chuck Cooper as Sergeant Williams came through with professional creds entirely intact.

One can't blame, however, the main team of actors who tried their best to fill in the blanks in their deficiently scripted parts. For them it's an addition to their showcase reel and, I'd guess, their "schedules" weren't exactly a problem.

The biggest problem, I'd judge, is for Domenica Cameron-Scorsese who plays Cheri, an addled hair-brain married to Billy, a guitar-toting wanderer. By virtue of her family ties as the daughter of Martin Scorsese, which she is wise to include in her professional name, she is in the center of a famous-person spotlight. Trouble is, she's the least promising of the lot. Unless, of course, that eye-fluttering indecisiveness is put on for her character here, but I doubt it. She seems an actress badly in need of more workshop.

Which is pretty much the impression I came out of the movie with. I had no sense that I'd learned one damn thing about street life in New York, nor was my sympathy for addicts affected in any way. The film, in my view, is more hopeless than these homeless but not as bad as going cold turkey.

My advice to Dedio, for what it's worth and until he proves me wrong: act; don't write. And, for the producers: quick to the DVD bins.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Off base
I've seen the movie and I disagree with the review.
Site rating: 3

I saw the movie and simply cannot agree with Mr. Brenners review and considering the reaction of the rest of the audience, who loved it, it is obvious that they do not agree with him either.

Despite Mr. Brenners opinion to the contrary I found myself immediately drawn into the film and I did cared about the characters very much. In fact I cared so much about the Kick (Dedio) character and was so drawn into the film that I almost had to restrain myself from yelling "No!" at the screen during a climactic scene!

As for Mr. Brenners disparaging comments about Domenica Cameron-Scorsese's performance he is so far off base that I am truly stunned. Her performance was absolutely amazing and totally believable. I was extremely impressed by her talent. Oh, and I cared deeply about the character she was playing too Mr. Brenner. There is something not quite right about anyone who wouldn't. Mr. Brenner is correct when he says "Screenwriting 101: no film works without at least one character to bond with, root for, or just care about". That is EXACTLY WHY 'Downtown: A Street Tale' WORKS! The viewer does bond with, root for and care about the characters--very much!

                                                           ~~ Lee Ann 



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Chad Allen and Joey Dedio
Another crisis downtown.

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