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Cinema Signal: A solid low-budget multi-story that works.

Sing Like an American Idol, Women's Edition
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. "Off Jackson Avenue"

As a movie reviewer, I receive many invitations from start-up production entities seeking attention for their films. Often low to extreme low budget, most of the time with an unknown cast, frequently first-time efforts. As much as I'd like to support these efforts, time pressures dictates a cautious approach and taking a pass on most of them. Sometimes, though, there's something about the presentation and/or description urges a look-see and, sometimes, it pays off. "Off Jackson Avenue" is one of those.

In a neat 80 minutes, auteur/actor John-Luke Montias puts together a three-dimensional portrait of this neighborhood's mean streets peopled by drug dealers, murderers, slave traders, car boosters and other cutthroats. It's not a pretty picture, but Montias, with more know-how than production money, milks it for drama, humor and tragedy.

Olivia (Jessica Pimentel, "Pride and Glory"") starts it with her arrival into the United States under the assumption that she's headed for a waitress job in a restaurant and hoping her culinary skills will result in moving up to her specialty of Mexican cook. But when airport greeter Ivan (Daniel Oreskes), an oversize bull of a man drives her to a house off Jackson Avenue, and is ordered to take a shower and join the other women idling on couches, she realizes that she's gaping into a hell-hole of darkness and brutality.

Tomo (Jun Suenaga), a Japanese national and professional hitman, arrives for a meeting with his Chinese-mob client for his assignment. While following his target he stays in phone contact with his brother in Japan, following their mother's illness. In his legit life, he's a teacher who can barely survive on his meager salary and a model of devoted son. That will affect his ability to carry out his well remunerated sideline, but he doesn't and won't flag from his commitments.

Lastly, there's Joey (writer-director John-Luke Montias), a high-strung opportunist who cadges automobiles with his swift ability to hot-wire a car. Turning each vehicle over to his fence for $1,500 here or $2,500 there, his purpose is to come up with $100,000 to satisfy his dream: to buy, own and operate a local tire store. A street type, Joey's ambition includes having his uncle Jack (Gene Ruffini)--whom he's moved in to share his apartment when the argumentive older man became too infirm to hold down an ordinary job--work for him.

Olivia is miserable. She's mortified by her naive trust in people that put her in these demeaning circumstances, under threat of injury and pain, either from Ivan or the even crueler boss of the operation, Milot (Stivi Paskoski), a small-time pimp and drug trader from Albania. She does what she must, learning from her fellow workers and submitting to a brute policeman who wants to be her regular John. There is a moment, however, when she's alone, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, when she silently decides what she must do to get her passport back and flee her enslavement.

Interestingly, in this silent moment, subtle soundtrack music plays a part to indicate a critical mood transformation.

In large part, the movie works as well as it does because of Montias' tendency to avoid the obvious cliches and make it original. Storylines do not merge into one, though, as dramas playing out in the same neighborhood, some intersections occur. Tomo's victim, it turns out, we recognize.

The band of prostitutes aren't bland stereotypes, either, minimally revealing individuality. What's best here is Montias' casting, which adds to the credulity of women accepting their fate. The hitman's deep concern over his mother's health is a sign of humanity within a diametrically opposed framework. It may be a too-obvious setup for the contradictions in people, but it adds up to a very nice collection of irony in a concise package that can be accepted as fresh.

In fact, Montias is playing the chords of contradiction throughout this little tryptich. His own character, that of Joey, is both willing to perform faceless crime and truly take care of his ailing uncle; add to crime statistics and be a responsible small business owner.

Montias doesn't rush his character tales in this patchwork of multi-national criminal life in one corner of New York City. Instead, he allows the dimensions of each one to unfold and keep us in a state of anticipation of outcomes and ironies--an approach with much promise. Count me in for his next film offering--I smell a burgeoning talent here.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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I saw the movie at a festival, and it's a great little film.

                                                           ~~ brenda r. 

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