Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sunlight Jr., Go For Sisters, Aftermath

Sunlight Jr.

Go For Sisters

Three mild recommendations from the art house:

"Sunlight Jr." takes its title from the roadside convenience store where Melissa (Naomi Watts) works the day shift. She's traded in an abusive boyfriend, Justin (Norman Reedus), for a kinder one, Richie (Matt Dillon), who gets around in a wheelchair after a teenage motorcycling accident and lives largely on state assistance. They share a room at a rundown Florida motel until she mouths off once too often to her lecherous boss Edwin (Antoni Corone) and loses her job, forcing them to move in with her mother, Kathleen (a very strong Tess Parker), a foster mom with too many kids running around a small house, who like Richie turns to alcohol to get through the day. Director Laurie Collyer does a nice job of shining a light on lower-class life in modern America, and how harmful behavior patterns start and self-perpetuate. Dillon and especially Watts give their usual good performances (an abortion scene, in which Collyer focuses directly on Watts' face the entire time, is particularly memorable), but you may never lose the sense that these are actors - beautiful people - slumming it in the Everglades.

John Sayles - who appeared high on my top-ten list in both 1994 ("The Secret of Roan Inish") and 1999 ("Limbo") - brings his usual combination of plot and character study to the offbeat "Go for Sisters," about two black women, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) and Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), who were friends as children ("they always said we could go for sisters") and reconnect all these years later when Fontayne, a recovering drug addict lately out of the joint, walks into a meeting with her new parole officer to find it's Bernice. "Niecy," a notorious hard-ass, cuts her old pal some slack, prompting Fontayne to offer, "If I can ever do anything for you…" Turns out, Bernice's son Rodney has been hanging with some bad men down Mexico way, one of whom turns up dead, and now they're sending pieces of his ear home for ransom. The plot of "Go For Sisters" is fairly risible - Bernice calls on Fontayne to use her "street contacts" to help her find her son, and the two are clearly way over their heads once they get to TJ - and some of the nicknames ("Fuzzy," "The Rod") don't help. But Ross and Hamilton turn in compelling performances, as does Edward James Olmos, usually shrill and strident, quietly commanding here as the disgraced ex-detective they hire to guide them through Mexico. Some directors just lull you into their rhythm, and Sayles is one of them. I even liked his trifle "The Honeydripper" a few years back. This one's not great, but it casts a spell.

As Wladyslaw Pasikowski's "Aftermath" opens, Franek (Ireneusz Czop) travels from Chicago, where he's lived for the past twenty years, home to a small village in Poland, where his brother Jósef (Maciej Stuhr) still works the family farm. Jósef's wife has left him, taking their children with her to stay with Franek in America, and the townspeople seem to have it in for both boys, throwing rocks through their windows, running Franek off the side of the road, starting a one-sided fistfight with Jósef in an empty barroom. The reason: Jósef has dug up the main road from town to a tannery, which had been lined with dozens of Jewish headstones from the WWII era, and hundreds of others scattered unceremoniously about town. He's gathered them all out in the wheat fields and cleaned them up, though even he doesn't know to what end. Neither man is a crusader for religious tolerance; Franek calls Jews "Yids" and tells Jósef, "They won't let a Pole get an honest break over there" (he's been consigned to asbestos and demolition work). Jósef just feels intuitively it's the right thing to do. Pasikowski structures "Aftermath" as more a thriller than anything else, but the plot is pretty Level One and I often felt a step ahead of it (subtitles sometimes impart a halo effect to genre material). The film derives its strength from its intuitive knowledge of life in this small Polish village, when you can get by with the scythe and when you need the reaper, the politics of arranging for the harvester to come, the conflict between the retiring parish priest, who supports Jósef, and his protégé, who doesn't.

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