Friday, July 24, 2009

On DVD: "Explicit Ills"

I don’t know about you, but I’m about through with the interconnected multiple storyline structure. The only directors who’ve shown the ability to pull it off were Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, and Altman’s dead; so, clearly, is the “Altmanesque” multi-character drama. They’ve been an inescapable indie chestnut since Anderson’s Magnolia—a film which basically did it as well as it could be done, not that that’s discouraged countless pale imitators. Crash certainly wasn’t the worst of the bunch, but its Best Picture win (an honor that escaped Nashville, Short Cuts, and Magnolia) seemed to open the floodgates to the likes of Even Money, The Air I Breathe, Love Actually, Bobby, and Powder Blue, each one straining to tie together an increasingly disparate group of stories that seem to share the sole characteristic of not being interesting enough to carry their own film.

Now we have Mark Webber’s Explicit Ills, a look at the woes of poverty as seen by several (seemingly!) unconnected Philadelphians. A single mother (Rosario Dawson) struggles to pay for the medicine of her asthmatic son Babo (Francisco Burgos). A teenage boy (Martin Cepeda) longs for the love of an around-the-way girl. An upscale couple (Naomie Harries and Tariq Trotter) tries to start a business and raise their son right. And a drug dealer (Lou Taylor Pucci) and a young artist (Frankie Shaw) meet during a deal and embark on an intense, whirlwind romance.

Writer/director Webber has good film sense; his compositions are well-organized and his sparing use of the moving camera is effective (as with that slow dolley during the scene where Dawson is getting ready to go out). Some of the filmmaking is sloppy (watch the other customer at the counter during the pharmacy scene), but it’s all heartfelt.

The trouble is that his screenplay is disorganized and wildly uneven; it doesn’t have a motor powering it, so the stories don’t really fit together. Some of the individual pieces are intriguing, while others are dull and self-indulgent, and several scenes are just plain inexplicable (in retrospect, I can’t even begin to guess why Paul Dano’s character exists). Dialogue is often strained and awkward, particularly for female characters.

And if you’re going to put Rosario Dawson in your movie, for God’s sake, put her in your movie. I’d estimate her total screen time at less than 15 minutes (most in the second hour—I kept wondering when she was going to turn back up), and while she’s good (this is an actor incapable of a false moment), you wish there was more of her and less of, say, the boring buppies. The only other actors that really make an impression are the kids—Cepeda is charismatic, while Burgos (making his film debut) is rather an extraordinary young performer.

By the time Explicit Ills comes to an end, we’re waiting for that moment of clarity that will tie everything together, and when it comes, it’s quite a letdown (you need more of a unifying moment than everyone just kind of ending up at the some place). The final scene is obvious and less than satisfying. Explicit Ills is a movie you keep hoping will find its way, but it never quite manages to move beyond its good intentions and become a compelling picture.

I don’t doubt the passion and decency of all involved in making Explicit Ills; it was clearly intended to as a delivery system for a genuinely important message about current economic conditions. But it’s not a consequential narrative. We’re not involved with or particularly interested in the characters on screen, who mostly amount to one-dimensional placeholders; it’s a film that goes through the motions but never draws us in.

"Explicit Ills" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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