Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW DOUBLE FEATURE: PRICELESS ● DESIERTO

 

October 13, 2016

There has been little attention in movies paid to the issue of sex trafficking, particularly the "human" aspect of it; 2007 gave us Kevin Kline in "Trade"; in 2008 we saw "Taken" where a father saves his daughter after a kidnapping; a 2005 mini-series with Donald Sutherland and Mira Sorvino was more of a procedural. With the exception of "Trade", the stories have been clinical with little said about redemption, salvation or turning lives around. All that changes with PRICELESS thanks to its approach as being a deeper story on a cultural level that calls on the collective human experience. The result is itself, priceless. Profound messaging. Inspiring.

Based on true events, PRICELESS is the story of James Stevens - a loving husband and father who had everything going for him; a perfect a life as one could have. But in the blink of an eye, all that changed with the death of his wife. A good man in his heart, James is unable to come to grips with the death of his wife and begins a downward spiral from which he sees no way out. Fueled by anger and hatred, he can't hold a steady job, he's about to lose his house, his friends and family abandon him, but the most unthinkable horror of all - he loses custody of his young daughter. Desperate, James gets a lead on a deal that will make him some quick cash and solve his problems (or so he thinks) - drive an unmarked box truck on a one-time trip cross country for cash. Don't look inside the truck. Don't ask questions. But James does look inside the truck and is aghast at what he finds. His cargo isn't "what", but "who"; in this case, two young Hispanic women, sisters Antonia and Maria.

Although suspecting what the real purpose of this transport is, James ignores the obvious, intent on completing the job, getting his money and getting his daughter back. Developing a connection with the girls for the remainder of the trip, he talks with them - especially Antonia. These girls aren't cargo, aren't cattle. They are human beings. They matter. Difficult is for James not to see his own little girl in Antonia and Maria. (Thanks to some great work by Joel Smallbone, we start to see questioning transformation take shape in James' facial expressiveness.) He buys them clean clothes, gets them cleaned up, feeds them, moves them into the front cab of the truck with him until almost delivery time. But when he at his drop-off point and sees the manner in which the unsavory Garo whisks the girls away, not only are has suspicions confirmed, but his conscience starts to get the better of him.

At the defining crossroads of his life, will James take the money and run or will he become the most unlikely of heroes and turn his own life around with purpose and passion?

Joel Smallbone steps beyond his comfort zone as front man for the two-time Grammy-winning band for KING & COUNTRY and into the shoes of James Stevens. With limited screen experience, he undoubtedly calls upon not only his musical performances, but his own passion and beliefs, for invoking unspoken emotion within James. And the camera loves him. Smallbone's emotional journey proves resonant for so many and should open him up to audiences beyond those fans of his music with for KING & COUNTRY.

The real surprise of PRICELESS is David Koechner - WOW! What a role for him. This is the performance of his career. Totally unexpected. As Dale, a mild-mannered motel owner who befriends and mentors James in his crisis of conscience, Koechner is compelling with a quiet, even-keeled demeanor. Adding to his performance is the mystery of Dale's backstory which the filmmakers smartly hold back on until the third act of the film, bringing the story and events full circle, setting the stage for the ultimate conclusion. Adding to the depth of Koechner's performance is the editing and pacing of the film which essentially falls in step with Dale's consistent calm and patience.

When it comes to the character of Garo, Jim Parrack is, in a word, chameleonic! A recognizable talent on both the big and small screen thanks to performances in projects like "True Blood", "Resurrection", "Suicide Squad" and "The Adderall Diaries", not to mention his work on Broadway in "Of Mice and Men", Parrack is capable of bringing a softly-edged ambiguous intensity to a character and does just that with Garo. Upping the ante on his already high game, Parrack finds the core smarmy unsavory nature of Garo and then adds the smoothness of a snake oil salesman to the mix.

As Antonia, Bianca Santos steps up her game as well. Going beyond her work in television's "The Fosters", she digs deep into Antonia, building on the character's pragmatism and faith while never getting preachy. A trait one doesn't often feel conveyed on screen is that of loyalty. We often say a character is loyal to another, but we don't "feel" it. With Santos and her chemistry with Amber Midthunder's Maria, we feel an unspoken level of protection and loyalty beyond sisterly bonds, and done so with an undeniable conviction.

Cinephiles will delight in seeing veteran Luce Rains as he transforms into sleazy local police officer Melton.

Written by Chris Dowling and Tyler Poelle and directed by Ben Smallbone, with PRICELESS, Smallbone has done an exemplary job establishing a visual tonal bandwidth while keeping the essence of the visuals light and well lit. Even in darkness, there is more than ample street light, a perfect visual metaphor for the core values and ideals of the story, i.e., the light of God, the light at the end of the tunnel, there is always hope. The only time Smallbone goes dark and murky is during two scenes that take place in Garo's compound, particularly when SWAT shows up. Nice framing and lighting by cinematographer Daniel Stilling. Unfortunately, unlike Patricia Riggen's recent "Miracles from Heaven", PRICELESS doesn't quite achieve that cinematic feel. Stilling keeps imagery within that of his extensive career based television comfort zone as a camera operator, punctuating the imagery with just a few inspirational cloud/rays of sunlight scenes. On one hand, it's good as it allows the audience to focus on the unfolding emotion and James' inner journey. But on the other, I fear it won't "grab" audiences beyond the faith-based. Having said that, however, the ultimate scene of the film is not only its money shot, but also so emotionally powerful as to take one's breath away.

Although statistics aren't provided in the film, something that I always find beneficial with these social issue messages, the filmmakers smartly omit them here, thus keeping the film on a level of human connection as opposed to clinical analysis.

Structurally, the story is well told, substantiated. Loose ends tied up. There are a few foibles within some scenes, notably those involving James and Officer Melton. However, in the long run, what those foibles do is move the character of James forward in his growth and HIS loss of innocence. Key to the story is that James, like most people, has blinders on and is oblivious or refuses to see, what's happening in front of him. With each step he takes, or "little voice" he hears, his innocence is stripped away just as that of the girls. Nicely constructed dynamic.

There is something very priceless in the telling of the story of PRICELESS. Thought-provoking, eye-opening and uplifting.

DESIERTO

A film could not be more timely given the current election cycle than DESIERTO. Directed by Jonas Cuaron and co-written by Cuaron and Mateo Garcia, we are immediately thrust into the "no man's land" of the harsh, sun-cracked desert of a border crossing as we meet a truckload of 14 Mexican immigrants heading for the United States. When the truck breaks down, the group is forced to walk the rest of the way with the coyote transporting them electing to trek through the "badlands" as opposed to a safer, but longer, route. One by one we get to know something about each of these people, but particularly Moises. He has been in the US before, leaving a wife and son behind on being deported back to Mexico. But he has promised his son he will return to him and intends to make good on that promise no matter how many attempts it takes him. As a constant reminder of his son's love, Moises carries a talking teddy bear given to him by his son when he last saw him.

Because of Moises' prior attempts at crossing, he knows the ins and outs of travel, and he knows the terrain. As everyone trudges onward in the unprotected open terrain with three digit temperatures and an unforgiving sun bearing down on them, suddenly shots ring out and the travelers start dropping like flies.

Invisible to the group is Sam. Obviously with military or para-military training, he is a one-man vigilante squad intent on keeping immigrants out of the United States. His one friend, his companion, is his dog Tracker. And Tracker is trained to do just that - track. But if Tracker catches you, you may find yourself begging for a bullet from Sam's high-powered rifle guaranteeing a swift death as opposed to what Tracker will do. And one-by-one, Sam and Tracker pick off the pack, leaving Moises in a fight for survival against the desert, and Sam.

Compelling performances come from both Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan with Morgan being the real stand-out here. Mesmerizing with such powerful emotional hatred which turns to emotional devastation so as to channel his mindset of hatred into one of revenge, Morgan dazzles. A role that could have been very one-note, thanks to Morgan, we understand the complexities of Sam, his mindset, and the one very redeeming trait that gives him some humanity - his dog.

In speaking with Morgan, "one note" is the very thing that he wanted to avoid. Describing Sam as "a sad character, a sad case study", Morgan notes that "On the page, a character like this, and as brilliant as Jonas Cuaron is as a filmmaker . . .it came off very one note. This guy is a killing machine. . . I can't do just a bad guy. I have to believe the character. If I'm gonna play him, I have to have some sort of story and someplace I can go to, and whatever his hatred is of these people crossing the border, what does that stem from. . .I don't ever want to play a character that is completely one note. Trying to realize a character like that and bring it to life, had more challenges to it than I realized initially. . .I'm not looking to sympathize or empathize with Sam, just understand what he's doing. There's no justification for his actions."

The emotional resonance, thanks to Morgan's very demeanor and the physicality of the character, tacitly defines Sam. No dialogue or exposition is needed. Cuaron keenly places enough visual touchstones throughout the film to tell us who Sam is.

And he does the same with Bernal, although Moises has much more dialogue than Sam, providing more insight into the mindset of a father torn from his child, immigration as a whole, punctuated by vocal intonation. The fear, panic and frenetic battle to survive conveyed by Bernal is palpable and riveting.

As Sam doesn't give respite to the immigrants, neither does Cuaron give us, as he creates a beautifully choreographed cat and mouse dance that hones in on Moises and Sam, mano-y-mano, creating an intensity that is both dynamic and chilling. Thanks to the work of cinematographer Damian Garcia and the decision by Garcia and Cuaron to use only available light and take advantage of the natural topography of the landscape, the camera bobs and weaves with hand-held intimacy while simultaneously catching one off guard thanks to wide angle lenses and deep focus. A well constructed film, DESIERTO is a visual stunner of sun, sand, starkness and shadow. Sparseness of backstory mirrors the sparseness of the desert and subconsciously forces our attention to the two men, and dog, at the forefront; pushing our own boundaries of thinking. Establishing genre stereotypes but then transcending them in word and deed, Cuaron gives DESIERTO a visceral resonance.

Standout is that but for a final sequence that involved falling many feet down from a mountain of rocks, Morgan and Bernal are doing their own stunts - climbing, hiking, running and, in Morgan's case, shooting.

 

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