Sunday, November 8, 2009

“Free food for the poor!”

I’ll say this for CharredHer—they may be cut from the same bolt of cloth as their partners-in-weaseldom, Bombast Cable—but the On Demand service they offer (and naturally, I’m talking about the FREE movies section) showcases some interesting television fare from time to time. In addition to Part 3 of IFC’s Monty Python: Almost the Truth—The Lawyer’s Cut documentary, they offered up these two offbeat goodies that may not necessarily be DVR keepers…but they made the time pass a little more pleasantly for me yesterday evening. (Warning: possible spoilers ahead)

Roadside Prophets (1992) – Blue collar working stiff Joe Mosely (John Doe) has no sooner been introduced to a new co-worker in Dave Coleman (David Anthony Marshall) when Dave joins the choir invisible after being electrocuted in a freak accident involving a video game machine. But before this turn of events, Dave has told Joe about an “El Dorado” in the desert wilds of Nevada—a home to a casino/hotel/restaurant where the people there “treat you like home”. Since Dave had no next of kin, Joe forks up the dough to cremate him (he later discovers to his dismay that Dave’s parents are still hale and hearty—they just disowned him) and then decides to light out for this fabled place to dump his deceased friend’s ashes. He meets up with an annoying kid named Sam (Adam Horovitz)—he may or may not be Dave’s ghost—who begins to idolize him (Sam buys a motorcycle so he can ride along) even though he has a few problems, like a fetish for roman candles and “Motel 9” franchises. The two anti-heroes meet a colorful cast of eccentrics along the way, and when circumstances leave them flat-broke and without transportation in “El Dorado” they split up and go their separate ways…a little richer from their wacky experiences.

I’ll confess that I’ve had my eye out for this little sleeper (written and directed by neophyte Abbe Wool) purely on the recommendation of a fellow film geek, and while it’s not the most profound movie I’ve ever watched I can’t deny I wasn’t entertained by it. The big draw is seeing some eclectic celebrities and performers in various cameos and bit parts: Arlo Guthrie, David Carradine (simply sublime), Dr. Timothy Leary (he’s got a line in this one that practically sent me to the floor: “…speed kills. Or worse…it makes you psychotic”), Don Cheadle, John Cusack (as a “dine and dash” king), Flea, Stephen Tobolowsky (“Hey, why is this instrument of potential torture still intact?”), Bill Cobbs, Lin Shaye, Nancy Lenehan and Jennifer Balgobin as an exotic dancer with the memorable moniker of “Labia Mirage.” Horovitz is the weak link in this one—he’ll really get on your nerves after a while—but I found Doe’s laid-back performance to be both funny and charming; if only he had set out on his odyssey alone. Prophets’ soundtrack also contains some of the most diverse tunes to which you’ll ever give a listen, from Gary U.S. Bonds to the Beastie Boys to The Pogues (I especially liked Carradine’s Divining Rod and a little ditty from Harry Dean Stanton—Make Yourself at Home in My Heart—written by Billy “I Can Help” Swan.)

Alambrista! (1977) – Independent director Robert M. Young has held the reins on a number of first-rate sleepers over the past thirty years that include Short Eyes (1977), The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), Dominick and Eugene (1988), Triumph of the Spirit (1989) and Caught (1996)—so I was surprised to see this offering turn up on Flix on Demand (and letterboxed, no less!). Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), a young Mexican farm laborer whose wife (Ludevina Mendez Salazar) has just given birth to their first child, sneaks across the border into the U.S. to earn money as an illegal despite his mother’s admonitions that his father went the same route and never returned home. He manages to get across and get work by meeting up with some fellow brasseros (who sleep in different areas each night to avoid being picked up by la migra) but his new friends are rounded up shortly after; he then finds work in a fruit field and befriends Joe (Trinidad Silva), a fellow illegal who takes Roberto to Stockdale with the promise of making money…but disappears (and has apparently been killed) hopping a freight train during their trip. Stranded in the city and unable to speak very little English, Roberto is helped by Sharon (Linda Gillian), a café waitress who allows him to crash on the kitchen floor of her apartment; he makes headway in saving money by getting good jobs but this comes to an abrupt end when he’s picked up by immigration while the two of them are at a dance. He ends up in Colorado with some fellow illegals (hired by a “coyote” that needs scab workers to bust a strike) but becomes homesick for his native land after learning that a worker who died in the fields is his father (John Sandoval). At the border station, Roberto watches as a pregnant woman (Lily Álvarez) goes into labor—after which she gives thanks that her new son was born on U.S. soil.

A fascinating portrayal of one man’s struggle to achieve the American Dream, Alambrista! manages to depict the unflattering existence of undocumented workers in a realistic and warts-and-all manner without feeling the need to get into the viewer’s face. It’s a purposely low-key character study, and though some critics have argued that the characters in the film are often reduced to stereotypes I vehemently disagree—the portrayals in the film are engagingly positive and are individuals that you’d most assuredly like to get to know better. The high point of the film is the romantic relationship between Roberto and Sharon; even though he is married he consents to a dalliance for the simple reason that he feels he owes the lonely woman something for her kindness in providing him a place to stay. (There’s a particularly touching sequence when Roberto spots Sharon looking longingly at a scarf in a store he’s purchasing a cowboy hat; he buys the scarf, too, presenting it to her at the dance.) One of the best scenes in Alambrista! has Roberto and Sharon purchasing a money order in a post office, and Sharon’s Spanish is so poor she asks a passerby (Maria Elena Delgado) to help out. She hears the woman repeat the words “mi esposa” and when she asks her to whom Roberto is sending the money the woman replies: “His wife.” I also got a chuckle out of a scene in which Sharon takes Roberto to “her church”—which consists of a “Holy Roller” revival tent and sermon from a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Reverend J.D. Hurt).

Being a low-budget film, there aren’t too many big names in this movie—fans may remember Silva as a semi-regular on Hill Street Blues, where he played Jesus Martinez, a local gang leader often engaged in negotiations with Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti). Ned Beatty appears in Alambrista! as the “coyote” and character actor Jerry Hardin—the man who played the redneck roles when James Best was busy—has a delightful bit inside Gillian’s café as a talkative cuss who doesn’t seem to catch on that his seatmate, Roberto, doesn’t understand a word he’s saying (but smiles all the same so as not to ruin Hardin’s long-winded story). Cult actors Julius Harris and Edward James Olmos can be glimpsed as pair of drunks who taunt Roberto and his fellow illegals as they wait outside the café for the trucks that will take them to work; Olmos is a longtime favorite of director Young’s, having also appeared in Cortez, Saving Grace (1986), Spirit, Talent for the Game (1991), Roosters (1993), Slave of Dreams (1995), Caught and several episodes of the revised Battlestar Galactica series. If you get Flix on your cable system, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

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