Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me

Pop quiz! But don't worry, just two questions and they're both multiple choice...

1. Craig Brewer's best film -
  a) was remastered in 2010, but has yet to be released
  b) was screened at the Indie Memphis Film Festival
  c) contains some awesome music
  d) all of the above

2. Craig Brewer's best film is entitled:




  d) none of the above

If you answered 'd' to both questions, congratulations, you scored 100%. Bonus points were also awarded for actually knowing the name of Brewer's best film, which is 2000's The Poor & Hungry.

Extra special bonus points and a hug from me for anyone who knows if and when the remastered version of The Poor & Hungry will be released on DVD. I'm hoping it will be in October in conjunction with the release of Footloose which I'm dreading (and please, dear God, do not put TP&H as an extra on the Footloose Special Edition Blu-ray - it needs it's own release, ok?).
Don't get me wrong, I love Hustle and Flow as well as Black Snake Moan. Even if they're not perfect films, they are definitely unique in that Brewer really knows good music and how to weave it into a story properly. That said, the 2011 Footloose trailer looks like an ill-conceived, 80's pop and lock, hybrid abortion with abominable acting and a cringe-inducing story (the original was just as teeth-grindingly bad - it's nostalgia and Kenny Loggins which make the movie seem so much better than it is). If anyone could make a new incarnation of it work though, I think it could be Brewer. It may be the only smart, non-mercenary, hiring decision the producers of the new film made, but he's a good choice for a music-filled film. While I'm talking about it, why, oh why, did the writers update the already-anachronistic-in-the-80's story? Why not set the remake in the 50's, when it would be a much more believable and timely story?
On the other end of the movie-making spectrum from the new and unproved Footloose, however, is Brewer's sublime The Poor & Hungry. The film is a low-budget classic with great performances by unknown actors (that can emote circles around psuedo-celebrities like the act-rocious Julianne Hough), who portray gritty urban characters in a poignant story set in Memphis with the town's music supplying the atmosphere.

Synopsis - Three poor people in Memphis try to find a little happiness.

Eli Foote is a shy, reticent, pony-tailed and bearded, big, but slightly tubby guy, who works in a strip bar and "could go the rest of his life without seeing another bouncing titty."  In addition, Eli works in a Memphis chop shop as a part time car thief/auto dismantler. At the outset, Eli realizes he doesn't have the stomach to do the actual thieving, but reluctantly agrees to act as lookout while others snatch the cars. Eli's female pal, Harper, is a low level street hustler of questionable sexuality who is constantly coming up with ever more desperate ways to make money. One of the things that really work well in the film is the relationship between Eli and Harper with Eli being like a quiet, put-upon, but gentle bear, and Harper a rabid, chattering squirrel with Attention Deficit Disorder.

The third major character in the story, Amanda, is a young cello player who lives with her infirm father. While helping steal her car, Eli spies Amanda playing her instrument and subsequently finds a tape she's previously made in the stolen car's cassette deck. He receives an epiphany from listening to the music which is basically that life doesn't have to suck.
All three characters of Eli, Harper and Amanda are on the last rung of life's quiet desperation ladder and are looking for a way out of their unhappiness. For each, the other holds the key. Harper wants Eli to help her with a car scam, Eli wants to be with Amanda and Amanda wants to chase away her loneliness with Eli and Harper. They are all modest, pitiable characters that you don't as much root for as hope nothing bad happens to. As the story progresses, there appears a glimmer of hope for just a little bit of happiness for each of them. At the same time, the story feels like an impending tragedy is looming. Brewer does a great job of storytelling and I particularly liked the way he edited the film which really elevates it's shot on digital look and gives it a more cinematic feel. The pacing is surprisingly quick given Brewer takes his time in telling the story and developing the characters. I never felt the film's 118 minute runtime as I was thoroughly engrossed with even the tiniest details of the character's lives. At one point, I was transfixed as Eli built a model car late at night. In the remastered version, apparently Brewer has trimmed around ten minutes from the movie. That's fine, but probably unnecessary, as I've watched this film several times and have never grown restless.
The acting is very good, particularly the three leads played by Eric Tate, Lindsey Roberts and Lake Latimer. Brewer uses long, lingering takes, and I never caught the actors becoming aware or impatient. Tate, in particular, was great at holding on during the prolonged period at the end of some of the takes. Roberts is the obvious standout as the loopy, chatterbox Harper, but it was Tate I couldn't take my eyes off of. He has the authentic look of a lower working class guy that you might meet up with in a slightly grungy bar. The difference is, though he looks somewhat menacing, he actually spends most of the story in some kind of fear or anxiety.
I usually can't stand shot-on-digital or video taped movies as the directors just seem to point and shoot with no thought of camera movement (other than the shaky-cam shots), lighting or imaginative editing. It's clear Brewer took all these things into account and put a tremendous effort into the film. There were long periods where I would completely lose awareness of the cheap filming process employed as I was so engrossed with the characters, story and cool atmosphere that Brewer must have spent painstakingly hours to achieve.
To my knowledge the movie has yet to have a widespread release on any format. I taped it off of IFC about ten years ago so it may show up on that channel occasionally. It's well worth tracking down in any event. It will be an interesting comparison to make - Brewer's first film The Poor & Hungry vs his latest effort, The Rich and Entitled, oops, I mean, Footloose - This is Our Time.

Score 8.5/10


  1. Hey, thanks for the tip....
    I'll check this one out.

    By the way, does the title of "Black Snake Moan" make you as uncomfortable as it does me? I don't know what it is; there's just something about it that creeps me out.

  2. Thanks Andrew, and yes, Black Snake Moan sounds like something FM Bradley would appear in. Good movie, though I think the exploitation poster was a little misleading in relation to the story, although Sam did chain her up at one point.
    I was really surprised how good TP & H was given its budget limitations, it's one of my favorite films of the past 10 years.