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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Like': Gritty Cinderella Tale a Vibrant Directing Debut


Debut films, and debut directors, tend to arrive and fade away with a depressing frequency, but "I Like It Like That" and writer-director Darnell Martin are going to be around for a while.

Lively, assured and practically vibrating with color and excitement, "I Like It Like That" marks the emergence of a passionate new film voice. Though it is rough around the edges and overreaches at times, it has the great benefit of a filmmaker intimately connected to her material who knows how to convey its essence to an audience.

Set in the Bronx neighborhood where Martin herself grew up, "I Like It Like That" is a gritty Cinderella story that moves easily from comedy to romance to unblinking reality without compromising its integrity. Touted by Columbia as the first African American woman to make a major studio movie, Martin has bitten off a great deal, gracefully touching on the pressures poverty and misfortune put on parents and children, husbands and wives, yet she handles it with humor as well as compassion, heart as well as soul.

Most of all, "I Like It Like That" is the story of Lisette Linares and her fight to be both self-reliant and in love, a wife and mother as well as a woman with a business plan, a fight to be, most difficult of all, simply herself.

Conveyed with striking confidence and sass by Lauren Velez in her feature debut, Lisette's plight as a person with an independent spirit caught in a culture that does not necessarily value that is obviously the situation writer-director Martin is most invested in.

But Martin (like her character, the child of a mixed marriage) also has such an affinity for the Latino culture the story is awash in that this slice of city life seems to erupt on screen with a special vibrancy and volatility.

For openers, the film's gaudy look, its meticulous eye for exactly the kind of streets and apartments its people inhabit, is directly on target. The same is true for Martin's take on her characters' psychological texture, their thoughts on the vagaries of love and marriage, respect and fidelity.

Best of all is Martin's vivid ear for street language. Unlike dialogue in films like "Fresh," which pretend to realism but feel false, "Like" is bracingly authentic, brimming with juicy, profane talk that combines arch put-downs ("Lisette, why do you think my last name is 'lend me' "?) with a saucy sexual frankness.

"Like It's" opening scene is a case in point. It has Lisette in bed with her husband, Chino (Jon Seda), but the moment is not exactly romantic. The macho Chino is so intent on extending his personal record for sexual endurance that the entire neighborhood is in an uproar, from the broom-wielding Mrs. Gonzalez downstairs to a raucous crowd on the stoop to the couple's three ever-rambunctious children.

Even at its best, Lisette's life is chaotic. Not only does she have this immediate family to deal with, but a fussy mother-in-law (Rita Moreno), a transvestite brother (an effective Jesse Borrego) who owns the local botanica , and neighborhood hot-number Magdalena (Lisa Vidal), who has an out-of-wedlock child and a serious eye for Chino. No wonder Lisette often flees to the bathroom for stolen moments of glorious solitude.

Yet despite all these obstacles to their happiness, Lisette and Chino, who has pictures of his children tattooed on his arm, have managed to stay married and in love for 10 years. His job as a bicycle messenger supports the family, and though outsiders are dubious, Lisette insists that "what Chino and I got is spiritual."

Then a sudden blackout (the film's original title) and some subsequent looting changes everything. Chino finds himself in the Bronx House of Detention, his $1,500 bail looming impossibly large, and Lisette becomes unexpectedly responsible for supporting her family, keeping her oldest boy (Tomas Melly) from an infatuation with crime and trying to get her husband out of jail.

Out of this crisis, however, Lisette sees a glimmer of opportunity. A chance encounter leads her to slightly obnoxious record producer Stephen Price (Griffin Dunne) who wants to sign Latino acts but knows nothing from the culture. Can Lisette's hustle and street smarts lead her at last to a cubicle to call her own, or will Chino's die-hard machismo and the machinations of neighborhood busybodies be too much for even her to handle?

As even this skeletal outline indicates, "I Like It Like That" has a crisis-a-minute feel to it that can be tiring, as can the realistically cacophonous quality of its dialogue. But this is one film whose minor missteps are easy to forgive, for though its situations may get out of hand, the feelings behind them are always real. With strong and vivid acting from all the principals, including little Tomas Melly, an orphan discovered at a public audition, "I Like It Like That" ends up as savvy as its writer-director, which is good news indeed.

* MPAA rating: R, for lots of language and strong sensuality. Times guidelines: It is suffused with the sexual frankness of street life.

'I Like It Like That'

Lauren Velez: Lisette Linares Jon Seda: Chino Linares Rita Moreno: Rosaria Linares Griffin Dunne: Stephen Price Lisa Vidal: Magdalena Soto Tomas Melly: Li'l Chino Linares A Think Again production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Darnell Martin. Producers Ann Carli, Lane Janger. Executive producer Wendy Finerman. Screenplay Darnell Martin. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski. Editor Peter C. Frank. Costumes Sandra Hernandez. Music Sergio George. Production design Scott Chambliss. Art director Teresa Carriker-Thayer. Set decorator Susie Goulder. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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