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A family in tenuous transition

June 13, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

With his striking physical presence, Franky G. attracted attention even in the starry ensembles of "Confidence" and "The Italian Job." His first film, Eric Eason's beautifully articulated "Manito" -- made before these two movies and now playing exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas -- demonstrates that he also has star charisma and enviable emotional reserves as an actor. He also, thankfully, has wit, humor and passion.

In "Manito" Franky G. is Junior Moreno, an ex-con Upper Manhattan painting contractor who is prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed legitimately, even if it involves sexual favors to satisfy a client. Focused and determined, Junior looks to be in charge of his life as an uplifting event approaches -- his younger brother Manuel (Leo Minaya), the Manito of the film's title, is about to graduate as salutatorian of his high school class and has won a full scholarship for college. Junior is gladly picking up the tab for a celebration.

Filmmaker Eason, in his feature debut, and resourceful cameraman Didier Gertsch have found the right visual style to capture the gritty vitality of the lives of Junior and Manuel and their Latino community. They make frequent but fresh and unmannered use of the hand-held camera to create a sense of catching the lives of their characters on the run, yet they understand the evocative power of a long shot. Their grasp of the expressive power of movie-making is at the heart of the success of this raw, edgy film. Eason also elicits an array of riveting portrayals from actors who in some instances are inexperienced but not awkward or self-conscious, so often the curse of such low-budget productions as "Manito."

Eason captures a family in transition, trying to free itself of a darker past than is clear initially. The film is suffused with a sense of the fragility of life at the mercy of fate. Except for Junior and Manuel's estranged father, Oscar (Manuel Jesus Cabral), the Morenos are likable. They include Junior's understanding wife, Miriam (Julissa Lopez), and their small son. The easygoing Manuel lives with his elegant, loving grandfather (Hector Gonzalez), a stylish purveyor of lingerie to brothel prostitutes. Manuel has just struck up an acquaintance with Marisol (Jessica Morales), who is beautiful, sultry and street-smart. (The assured Morales is in real life a medical assistant who never aspired to acting.)

As a dramatist Eason has a classicist's sense of structure and movement to complement his sense of the cinematic. "Manito," which has a special grand jury prize from Sundance among its 10 awards, is a small film with a big impact.



MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Some sex, language, violence.

Franky G....Junior Moreno

Leo Minaya...Manuel Moreno

Manuel Jesus Cabral...Oscar Moreno

Hector Gonzalez...Abuelo

Julissa Lopez...Miriam

Jessica Morales...Marisol

A Film Movement Series release of a 7th Floor presentation in association with Smashing Entertainment. Writer-director Eric Eason. Producers Jesse Scolaro, Allen Bain. Executive producers John P. McGrath, Paul Corviso, Neil Davis, Peggy Fry. Cinematographer Didier Gertsch. Editor Kyle Henry. Music Saundi Wilson. Production designer Christine Darch. Art director Melissa Imossi. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, on Beverly Boulevard just west of Fairfax Avenue; (323) 655-4010.

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