South of Pico

  South Of Pico
  Henry Simmons

  2 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

It says on the box cover that "South of Pico" won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture at The American Black Film Festival in 2007, and that leading man Henry Simmons won a Best Actor award at the same soiree. (He should, this gig will probably put him on the bread line for a few years to come.) Also, Ernst Gossner won First Feature Best Director accolades at the Pan African Film Festival for creating "Pico." I've never heard of either festival. After watching the film, I came to the conclusion that it must be real easy to win one of these awards.

Not to pile on too many negative points, but it's dangerous to mount an advertising campaign comparing "South of Pico" to "Crash." "Crash," one of the most highly acclaimed films of 2005, featured Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser going against their G-rated images. "Crash" contained some genuinely disturbing commentaries on race, class and violence. "South of Pico" merely mirrors the same events with a minor league cast, a far less engaging script, and a wafer-thin budget. There's an occasional noteworthy scene, and when I say occasional, that means they occur as often as it snows in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, most of the best scenes involve the cast's child actors - and we all know that W.C. Fields, who used to whack Baby LeRoy around the set, was more fond of kid thesps than I am - so that tells you just how far south of credible the adult's performances are.

As with many pictures these days, the film's ending -- a violent confrontation between strangers on a quiet Los Angeles street -- is its jump point. The action then backtracks several hours, documenting the circumstances that brought the six characters to the film's decisive moment. Carla, (stiff Gina Torres, acting as if she's receiving a full cavity search), is an anti-social waitress whose only friend is her eleven year old neighbor, Francine. Carla's dedication to her solitary existence is tested when a customer takes an interest in her...

Honorable, dedicated physician Walter Chambers (Henry Simmons, as stalwart and principled as Dudley Do-Right) treats cancer stricken children. Dr. Chambers faces the moral dilemma of trying to make a dying child's final days more comfortable. The boy's parents insist Chambers continue to administer futile radiation treatments that will cause him great pain and hasten his demise. (Jimmy Bennett gives a frighteningly sensitive performance as cancer victim Mark Weston.) Worsening Chambers' mood is a golf date with a self-absorbed megalomania benefactor, who wants a kickback for his sizeable donation...

Limo driver Robert (long necked Kip Pardue, a candidate for rigor mortis testing) slept with his girlfriend's best friend and wonders why she walked out on him. Assigned to drive an enticing bride to her wedding, Robert and his passenger, Angela, (voluptuous Christina Hendricks of "Madman" fame), take a detour to satisfy her urge for a pre "I do" fling. Their encounter is something out of Penthouse Forum, with much fumbling, groaning and heel marks on the limo's ceiling. Angela encourages Robert to chase after his girlfriend and commit to repairing his relationship with her. Robert is as scared of commitment as a Perdue chicken is of a skillet, but he sets out to win his girlfriend back, although he probably shouldn't have left his souvenir from Angela hanging out of his pocket...

Fifteen-year old Patrick (Soren Fulton, portraying teenage angst dead on), is infatuated with a girl at school who's way out of his league. Burned by love, his home life a shambles, Patrick's tries to reconnect with his wayward father. Hopping (or is it hip-hopping?) on his bike, Patrick sets out to meet his Dad, and gets lost in the desolate, crime ridden streets of South Pico...

Jorge (Giovanni Lopes, looking innocent and lost) is an English-challenged day worker who's a virtual indentured servant to beer-swilling, lazy landscaper Miguel (Alejandro Furth, oozing sleaze). Miguel has hired Jorge out to work three jobs in one day, while he pounds down the cervezas and reaps the cash. Inexperienced Jorge tries to negotiate a chain saw while wobbling in a bucket truck, then fix a wall, and manicure a lawn, all within a few hours. Exhausted, Jorge is further disappointed when Miguel gives him his dilapidated truck to drive home, which is full of Miguel's clattering, empty beer bottles. Nodding off, Jorge drives down a humble residential street in South Pico...

There are more gaping holes in the script than in a South Cali tenement. The streets in this part of L.A. are perpetually empty. You get the feeling it's not necessarily because the action takes place in the sullied part of the city; there just wasn't enough cash in the till for extras. And we're never told why Carla is such a self-made social pariah. There's a hint at the beginning of the film when Carla's mom calls. Carla doesn't pick up and listens stiff-lipped as mom leaves a message on her answering machine saying her father's in the hospital, she's not feeling too good either and there's no one to tend to the family garden. We never learn if its dad, mom's droning, or battling crabgrass that caused Carla to turn her back on the world. Also, characters that are meek (Carla and Patrick), emotionally bankrupt (Robert) or able to contain their emotions (Dr. Chambers), shouldn't suddenly turn into power punching vigilantes. And there's one blow straight out of a Popeye and Bluto confrontation that's so telegraphed and overstated it's unintentionally hilarious.

As for the performances, it's bad enough Gina Torres resembles a constipated Shih Tzu, her acting is well south of tolerable. There was some guy many years ago who sued Mary Hart (yes, sweet, adorable Mary Hart) because her voice literally gave him fits. Gina Torres is my Mary Hart. I can get over Gina's goggle-eyed Crypt Keeper visage, (well, eventually), but what's more distressing is her lack of expression. Torres has one expression - that of a cinched knuckle sandwich. You're supposed to be shy and emotionally damaged Gina, not imitating a cryogenic sleep. An occasional smirk through your death mask doesn't get it done, and speaking audibly is an acting requirement, not an option.

Henry Simmons was as stiff as the Tin Man on Viagra when he played Detective Baldwin Jones on "NYPD Blue," but he was also a virtuous, righteous inspiration for minorities. The problem was Jones was one dimensional -- and that phase was boring. Nice to see Simmons play a character that's a little more rounded. I wasn't sure until now if Simmons had the proper facial muscles to form a smile or show a hint of vulnerability. Simmons is on the receiving end of the movie's only original heartbreaking moment when his character tells an exhausted, frightened Mark that he plans to proceed with useless radiation treatments. "It burns from the inside...," Mark cries. "Why do you try to hurt me when you can't cure me! I HATE YOU!" Mark's screams stop Chambers dead in his tracks, the pain of his act of betrayal draining all emotion from his face. See Gina, that's how a lack of emotion works!

Kip Pardue looks like the dumb-dusted dude who used to sell us Dell computers - and that guy was a stone cold genius compared to Pardue's Robert. Blame director/writer Gossner for making Robert an engorged, talking sex organ who just doesn't get it, but Pardue has to take responsibility for the limo driver's lethargy. This guy's such a waste of protoplasm he's lucky he's even got a girlfriend, let alone one to cheat on.

The only reasons to watch "South of Pico" are Soren Fulton and Jimmy Bennett. I swallowed hard every time Bennett came on the screen as the hollow-eyed, wasted Mark. At first his character is positive, full of the hopes, wishes and dreams associated with all children his age. He shrinks, curling up in a fetal ball of despair when Dr. Chambers pronounces his death sentence. His hurt is genuine and disturbing. Despite his age (12) Bennett has an adult-sized acting resume, having made over 30 TV and film appearances, which explains his leg up on the rest of the cast. Fulton depicts just about every teenage boy - love struck, needy, confused and rebellious and he makes the audience believe everyone of his desperate, soul-searching acts.

Paul (not-so) Hipp plays Carla's love interest, "Comma Man," a character so moronically nice he's not even given a real name. He's called Comma Man, because the way his hair stands on end and his slightly bent posture makes him look like a comma. His puppy-love fixation with reluctant, maudlin Carla is a real stretch, making him seem more like a stalker than a suitor.

Imitation is the sincerest form of imitation only if the clone is equal to or better than the original. If you've seen "Crash," this scaled-down carbon copy will make you say, "Pico-boo."



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