Although "Falling Away" would have benefited from stronger main character focus and a less episodic scene structure, writer-director Michael David Trozzo's feature debut proves a sincere, authentic, generally stirring effort.
The film tracks the effect of a fatal school bus accident on three South L.A. teens: Elijah (Jason Finn), a hard-working kid aiming to leave the 'hood; his best friend, Julius (D'Angelo Wilson), a budding basketball star sidelined by a crash-related injury; and Emily (Jennifer Freeman), who's recently moved in with her shaky, ex-gang member father (Tony Todd). Bonds forge and break, parents navigate their own hopes and setbacks, and the future reconfigures itself, all while an earnest shrink keeps tabs on the kids' potential post-traumatic stress.
With much of the story told in contained, two-handed encounters, this brief film often takes on the tempo of a one-act stage play. While that alone isn't necessarily a problem, it seems to stifle Trozzo's ability to build a strong narrative momentum. Still, the picture is filled with enough solid, well-performed moments to hold interest and align us with its sympathetic lead characters.
Note to Trozzo: Better to have lower-keyed the script's fraternal use of the N-word; its liberal sprinkling of F-bombs and urban argot lend the film more than enough street cred.
— Gary Goldstein
"Falling Away." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes. At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.
Choppy gangster film from China
Not exactly a western, barely an action film and hardly a historical drama, the Chinese saga "Let the Bullets Fly" promises genre pleasures it routinely leaves un-triggered in its chamber.
Set in the country's turbulent south in 1919, director and co-writer and star Jiang Wen's initially lip-smacking premise starts with bandit Pockmark Zhang (Jiang) overtaking a train carrying a con man (Ge You) who's just bought the governorship to a corrupt town. With the con man's help, Zhang takes the governor role under the assumption he can earn more as a dirty politician than as a train robber, only to find himself pitted against the town's wealthy, citizen-terrorizing kingpin, Master Huang (Chow Yun Fat).
Even with three charismatic leads, the talky, convoluted nature of the cat-and-mouse between Zhang and Huang and their respective gangs is impossible to follow or care about, and the mix of identity comedy, cartoonish violence, philosophizing and grief over killed loved ones is hardly smooth.
There's the occasional eyebrow-raising visual — a main street covered in rifles and ammunition, a townsperson kicked around by one of Huang's henchman like a soccer ball — but any pretensions Jiang has to some sort of sneery-yet-moralistic, Leone-ish farce among thieves is lost.
— Robert Abele
"Let the Bullets Fly." No MPAA rating; in Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. At Laemmle's Noho 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
Mess of a 'Monday Morning'
Movies don't come much worse than "Monday Morning," a rambling, incoherent, ineptly assembled mess about a conservative Minnesota radio host who travels to Los Angeles and falls in with the homeless, the very same group he's broadly railed against on-air. Writer-producer-director and co-editor Nat Christian may have something to say about tolerance and classism, but his message is all but lost amid an utter inability to craft a watchable story.
Star Victor Browne, with his soap-opera good looks and hints of acting ability, is left to largely stumble around in a fog as his character, said radio host and would-be senatorial candidate (don't ask) Thomas Bach, upon arrival in L.A., falls victim to both amnesia and, soon, diabetic shock (again, don't ask). Bach ends up spending Christmas week as a lost man of the streets, allegedly learning compassion as he befriends a clichéd band of societal castoffs addled by drugs, alcohol and mental illness — not to mention bad hair and makeup.
Meanwhile, Bach has a worried love interest back home (Molly Kidder), but that odd-couple pairing makes about as little sense as everything else here.
Christian, who also plays a crass vagrant fondly named Damn, further repels with his audio-visual depictions of the most basic bodily functions. You were warned.
— Gary Goldstein
"Monday Morning." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.
Rural man visits the city
A 38-year-old man's coming-of-age story, the earnest "Ranchero" reaches for thematic resonance and ends up only cliché-deep. Its country-versus-city dynamic is well expressed visually but hobbled by a flat-footed scenario and mostly unconvincing performances.