Pittsburgh, PA
October 23, 2018
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
A & E
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Travel Getaways
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  A & E >  Movies/Videos Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Film Clips: ' City of Ghosts ','Raising Victor Vargas'

A roundup of new releases

Friday, June 13, 2003

'City of Ghosts'

RATING: R for language, some violence

STARRING: Matt Dillon, James Caan

DIRECTOR: Matt Dillon

"City of Ghosts" has atmosphere aplenty, a cast that's none too shabby in Matt Dillon, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgard and Gerard Depardieu, but a story that's as loosely woven as a wicker chair that eventually gives way after you sit on it.

It's so disjointed that, during a critics' screening, two of the reels were mistakenly shown out of order (I'm sure it's been fixed) and it took a while to even realize it.

Dillon directed, co-wrote and stars in "Ghosts" as Jimmy, an insurance salesman. It takes a hurricane, literally, for the FBI to realize the firm is a Ponzi scheme, and that the policy money is gone with the wind.

And so is Jimmy, who bolts for Bangkok and Cambodia, where he is reunited with the brains of the scam, a fatherly figure named Marvin (Caan). In Phnom Penh, trustworthiness and safety are in short supply. Jimmy's passport is lifted by a stranger, a monkey steals his sunglasses and the roads are often deathtraps. As a criminal compadre tells Jimmy: "You're lucky one of your kidneys isn't lying at the bottom of someone's ice chest."

Waiting for his cut of the money, Jimmy is drawn literally and figuratively into the high grass -- where the landmines lurk. He eventually has to decide if Marvin was right in saying, "You're the way you're going to be for the rest of your life."

Sprinkled throughout are characters or backdrops that shout "local color": cyclo driver, midget who runs a nightclub, brothel where the women are displayed behind glass, Buddhist temple, bar with the requisite spinning ceiling fan and customer base of crazies and losers, plus a former general, ex-prostitute, Russian mobsters and one art expert (Natascha McElhone).

None of this makes for a coherent whole, and all the morning fog in the world cannot substitute for streamlined, sensible storytelling. I would be willing to forgive the small distractions, such as music occasionally drowning out dialogue, if "City of Ghosts" dialed down the ambition and dialed up the logic.

-- Barbara Vancheri

'Raising Victor Vargas'

RATING: R for strong language

STARRING: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte

DIRECTOR: Peter Sollett

It's a combustible combination. A 72-year-old grandmother, one of 14 children born on a farm in the Dominican Republic, raising three teen-agers in a tiny apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Grandma tends to overreact, but she is observant. When eldest grandson Victor Vargas -- a troublemaker, in her mind -- invites a girl named Judy to dinner, she notices something suspicious about the guest's drinking glass. Her lipstick imprint looks just like the one that mysteriously turned up on a tumbler in the dish rack.

"Raising Victor Vargas" tries Grandma's patience. She blames Victor, who fancies himself quite the ladies' man, for being a bad influence on his brother, Nino, and sister, Vicky. Grandma knows Victor was behind the phone being pitched from the window and repaired with tape. Grandma's solution: a lock and chain on the phone.

If "Raising Victor Vargas" shimmers with realism (you can almost feel the stiff plastic on the sofa and the ground-in grime on the front door), it's largely because the filmmakers found their actors by posting fliers for open casting calls. That's how they came across Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, who play characters with the same first names and were cast in a 30-minute short from the writer-director, Peter Sollett, which led to this, his feature debut.

Adding verisimilitude is Silvestre Rasuk, who must be the leading actor's brother since they share the same last name and look almost like twins. And as Grandma, Altagracia Guzman looks right at home in her housedresses and weariness.

Like a human camera, Sollett deposits us in a neighborhood where the community pool is ground zero for flirtation, where the gossip travels faster than a subway car, where chickens thrive and where Grandma hopes that lighting candles in church will make her foursome a happy family again.

Little happens and much happens in this movie, which is its curse and charm. Characters change as they assert themselves, declare their affection, let down their carefully cultivated barriers and simply try to keep the peace. The focus is so tight on the core group, though, that we never learn how Grandma ended up guardian to the teens or what their expectations and dreams are.

Although Sollett wrote a script, he used it as a jumping-off point for improvisation and many of the lines sound as if they were invented by the inexperienced cast. That works, as when Victor tells his brother to suggestively lick his lips to attract girls, and doesn't, as when a couple tease each other in a scene that seems amateurish because of repetition.

Just like his cast, Sollett seems bound for bigger and even more impressive projects. "Raising Victor Vargas" may be a little rough around the edges, but it's about as close to reality moviemaking you can get, without detouring to documentary filmmaking.

-- Barbara Vancheri

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections