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'Tracing Cowboys,' 'Yonkers Joe'

January 09, 2009|Mark Olsen and Sam Adams

On the last scheduled day of shooting what would become "Tracing Cowboys," writer, co-producer and lead actor Sacha Grunpeter died in an auto accident. The specter of this knowledge haunts the finished film, directed by Jason Wulfsohn, giving it a sense of genuine loss and sorrow it might not otherwise have achieved. But the death of Grunpeter also overwhelms the film somehow, making its story of two ill-fated lovers seem arbitrary and insignificant.

Wulfsohn never trusts the performers or the nominal story enough to leave them be, slathering the film with an angelic voice-over and hammering home points that should be handled with more delicacy. It's not merely enough that Grunpeter's character points out the similarities in name among himself, his lover and characters from "The Searchers" -- imagery from the iconic western is then shown throughout.

Shot on HD with evocative locations in California and Mexico, the imagery in "Tracing Cowboys" does have a certain impressionist grace, but the film's romantic ideal of the road -- lonely diners, vintage cars and seaside shanties -- seems misplaced, oversimplified and overused.

Is it disrespectful to the dead to say that this mournful elegy to a fallen friend doesn't particularly hold up as anything but that? I certainly hope not.

-- Mark Olsen

"Tracing Cowboys." MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 617-1033.


Showing a con man's softer side

A mash-up of indie-film tropes, "Yonkers Joe" crossbreeds the world of small-time gambling hustlers with the story of a father and his Down syndrome son.

Proudly taking his nickname from the gritty New York suburb best known for its horse-racing track, Yonkers Joe (Chazz Palminteri) makes his living with his hands, switching in stacked decks and trick dice with such speed and dexterity that even his cohorts can't spot the move. Joe's craft is good enough for backroom poker games and clambake crap shoots, but sophisticated surveillance has made casinos all but impervious.

Times are already tough when Joe gets the news that his son, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), is being ejected from his special-needs facility just weeks shy of his 21st birthday and his transfer to a more permanent group home. His sophisticated vocabulary and physical prowess put Joe Jr. toward the high-functioning end of the scale, but his emotions lag behind. His fear at leaving his familiar environment and his anger at his father and long-departed mother manifest in foul-mouthed outbursts and bouts of violence that flummox his barely coping father.

More nimble with a pair of dice than father-son heart-to-hearts, Joe hatches a plan for a high-stakes score that will net him enough money to put Joe Jr. in a pricey private home. Palminteri sometimes seems more impassive than withdrawn, but Christine Lahti, who plays Joe's girlfriend and fellow grifter, manages to strike a balance between street toughness and nurturing sentiment.

The dialogue between Joe and his co-swindlers -- a happy band of character actors including Michael Lerner and Linus Roache -- is rife with pithy jargon picked up during writer-director Robert Celestino's days hanging around real-life con men, and part of the fun is deciphering lingo like "lumps for trumps" on the fly. But the dialogue lacks David Mamet's vernacular zing, and Michael Fimognari's cinematography is hazy and indifferent.

Celestino conjures a milieu, but not an atmosphere or a solid sense of place. It's like being inside a casino, without a glimpse of sky or a clock on the wall to chart the passing of time.

-- Sam Adams

"Yonkers Joe." MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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