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Between the serious faces portrayed on the poster and the heist gone wrong plot synopsis, I had no idea Hot Tamale was going to be as much of a comedy as it is. Beginning with the bizarre death of lead Harlan Woodriff’s father, the kooky family is huddled around the frozen corpse while the son stays in the background wondering if he’d ended up in the wrong family. It all has an air of drama—besides the inclusion of actors Harland Williams and Beth Grant—as we assume Randy Spelling’s Harlan is looking to excise himself for the podunk environment as an intelligent kid with aspirations of a higher calling. And then the reality of what this film is comes through in the next scene with the introduction of salsa music to his limited sphere of worldly creations by exchange student Caesar Lopez, (Matt Cedeño). Interrupting his friend in the act of having sex to find out what those awe-inspiring sounds were—the salsa, not the feminine shrieks of pleasure—a desire to travel west and become a timbale drummer is formed. Yes, that is the main plot point all the drugs, sex, hitmen, diamond thieving, and back country naïveté revolves around.

So, right from the get-go, you realize the proceedings are a completely tongue-in-cheek look at a fish-out-of-water guy lucking his way through surviving life in Los Angeles. Most of the jokes fall flat—although the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival audience I saw it with seemed to be having a great time laughing—and the performances are all hammy, but somehow I did have an enjoyable time with the cast of characters and asinine situations they put themselves in. The fact that this white boy with no dance moves can be good with the timbales let alone win over a hardcore Hispanic community’s salsa band is unfathomable in itself, but getting the gorgeous Diora Baird as a girlfriend—her complete lack of being bashful is admittedly a high point in the film’s enjoyment factor—and a Ricky Martin wannabe, only straight, in Caesar as a best friend can be nothing but comical. The real surprise, however, is that I found Spelling’s wide-eyed innocent to be endearing in a Randy Quaid from Kingpin type of way. The guy won me over by never losing that quality, either showing some acting skill or working because he has none.

The adventure truly begins at a rest stop on Harlan’s trek to LA from Wyoming. He meets Jason Priestley’s Jude, a well-dressed businessman on the run from the men in a recently arrived car. The scene is funny due in part to the two engaging in an interesting conversation pertaining to ostrich meat and the cameo by Sandy Martin, who has made a career of using gender-obscurity for both jokes, in this film, and drama, in “Big Love”. Sean Blakemore and Mike Starr arrive to make everyone’s life a living hell as they search for Jude’s bag, recently left in Harlan’s truck before he moseys along on his way. Blakemore is effective as the badder bad cop in this duo, while Starr pretty much rehashes his role from Dumb and Dumber as the good bad cop—not necessary a bad thing by any means. Their constant bickering and miscommunication as far as violence level goes leads to many good laughs portraying the city folk juxtaposition to Harlan’s clueless country bumpkin. Spelling’s character learns the ropes quickly, though, learning he can’t leave valuables in his car without risk of theft, that beautiful women launder their clothes while naked in order to wear what they’ve cleaned, and a hidden pot farm can come in handy when you need to have twenty thousand dollars.

In the end, however, besides a few funny exchanges like the pot-high paranoia panic attack, a bunch of familiar face cameos including “Weeds” actress Renee Victor, a sexy bedroom romp by Baird to a rock song that did catch my ear, and many culture clash moments, Hot Tamale is no more than a decent time for when you have nothing else to do. If you enjoy stupid comedy—which most of America does—you won’t be too disappointed, but don’t expect anything more than that. It is always fun to watch actors looking like they are involved and having a good time without the burden of expectations to live up to, although I’d have enjoyed my time more if the story was stronger and not just a bunch of tired aspects culled from better movies in hopes of achieving success. So, if you feel the need to go out and see this film because you are a huge Randy Spelling fan and live the goal of seeing everything he is involved with, I won’t say avoid it like the plague; I did laugh a few times and never felt bored. However, if you are looking for a recommendation from me to say go out and see this movie, I’m sorry but I’ll have to decline.

Hot Tamale 5/10

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photography:
[1] From left, Jason Priestley (in the role of Jude) and Randy Spelling in the film “Hot Tamale” 2006 directed by Michael Damian.
[2] Diora Baird in the role of Tuesday in the film “Hot Tamale” 2006 directed by Michael Damian.

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Originally conceived as two short stories, one about a boxer and the other a banker, writer/director Elias Plagianos decided to combine both tales into The Crimson Mask, making its Western New York debut at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. After realizing short films have little to no chance of making back the money put forth, he saw how the two ideas rested on the same general Faustian principle of selling one’s soul for a hastily thought out scheme for success. Rather than giving their essence to the Devil, however, these characters give up existence for debt, in effect becoming slaves to commerce as steady rises beget rapid falls. Seeing so many people in the NYC area living as though money wasn’t an object, Plagianos saw them ruining their lives once the collectors came to call. So, becoming his characters in order to create them—racking up credit card debt to finance the planned two million dollar budget that became a $180,000 reality—he set forth to tell the story of two men over-extending themselves, cosmically intertwined by an ancient, cultish history. A higher power pulls the strings for a reuniting of Parker and Caine at the underground Crimson Mask’s Trial by Combat.

Beginning with a well-choreographed sword fight, recalling those of Highlander fame, the film shows us the theatre of blood for which the community of its title lives to continue. The secretive leaders of The Crimson Mask subtly lead a candidate to them, setting events in action that play to their weaknesses and desires for the good life, without care for the consequences. It is a sort of manufactured fate that intervenes to put them on a collision course that can only end with death or murder. Whereas some victors stay entrenched within the society, rising up the ranks to become controllers of it, others decline the invitation, realizing the sacrifices made and the slavery they instill with people unaware of the lies being fed to them. To remain in the group, one must accept their role in the destruction of man, of keeping the general public under control as pawns to be used for entertainment and replaced when their jobs have ceased to be useful. Perhaps having children is one reason to walk away, finally learning the value of life and the ingrained power of protecting them from the cruelties of the world.

The shear fact that this film was made is a success story worthy of an audience. Shot in three weeks, taking a full year of post-production and another of festival rounds, all after the lengthy six year gestation period writing the script, the visual aesthetic and production value show how much one can do with very little. Many sets were created and exterior location shots are held at a minimum to keep costs down, yet so many moments portray a cinematic feel of an abundance of resources. Plagianos says that he applied filters and computer techniques to enhance the imagery, shown to great effect with a glare-filled memory sequence of Joshua Burrow’s banker Thomas Caine and his father as well as a gorgeous scene in the wrestling ring, over-cranked for dramatic slomotion and intercut with a past flash of Robert Clohessy’s boxer Parker, now faking his craft for cash. Some instances do admittedly feel a bit over-produced, especially the early third dealing with Parker, displayed with an old-time Depression era sheen from wardrobe to sets. Even the jazzy sax score made me think of a past era, putting into my head that these two lead actors existed in different times, set on a collision course. This hypothesis is proven false, though, with one of many revelatory connections at the end concerning Parker’s daughter.

The way in which everything plays out does cause you to wonder whether what you are seeing is real or not. Perhaps the time difference is intentional, adding another layer of fantasy to the metaphoric tale of greed and regret. Any time you infuse a story like Faust into your film, the melding of the real and mystical is unavoidable. While I enjoyed the allusions to that classic German tale, I do think they were too blatant, but that could just be me giving the general public the benefit of the doubt in knowing of the story, something undeserved if my German-language Masters student friend’s shock I knew of it is any indication. I loved the subtle inclusion of marionettes in the hands of a homeless man, one the Devil and the other a soul about to be sold. The interaction with Burrow works on the level of his character, but also metaphorically to his actions if you are familiar with Goethe. By bringing that character back later on, now as a literal manifestation of the control being wielded by the Crimson Mask collective, and named Dr. Faustus, became a little too much, tainting the ethereal connection it held before.

Again, though, despite thinking some moments were heavy-handed, I do believe Plagianos’s choices are intelligently made and for the better of the script at hand. It doesn’t hurt that your two leads, Burrow and the underused journeyman Clohessy, understand their roles and play them with the type of passion deserved. Watching Parker on his last legs of life still able to talk back to his employer—a great no nonsense turn of Brooklyn underbelly from Lee R. Sellars—with humor and wit, as well as have the ability to attempt to retrieve his pride when defeat by sword seems his only option, goes a long way in making the climatic scene resonate. It may be one more convenient connection at the hands of a higher power, using ‘The Book’ of Chapter Three’s title to bond these two men together as slaves unwilling to back down and be pushed around like puppets, but beneath the contrivance is a measure of truth. If anything, the multitude of overlapping plot threads and crisscrossing of paths only adds to the illusory aspect of the film, making The Crimson Mask into the morality tale its creator set out to make. It’s inspiring job of professionalism as a first-time feature with little in the way of monetary resource shows the promise this young man’s future holds. I look forward to checking out his next two projects, but I’ll let him announce them himself at Cannes this May.

The Crimson Mask 7/10

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courtesy of www.thecrimsonmask.com/

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When first contacted by writer/director Sandra Feldman about her film A Touch of Grey screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, I was somewhat taken aback by her being a family physician. To me, it was an interesting career change from the medical field to filmmaker, but after seeing a few credits to her name as a stunt double and the film’s own message about crossroads and picking a direction, I fully understand the decision. She said how the film has been described as Sex and the City meets The Big Chill, and I do believe that is as appropriate as you can get. Admittedly, the beginning half is a tad too much Carrie Bradshaw-esque for me—although the home-maker professional type not high and mighty ‘I am woman hear me roar’ since, according to one character here, that whole women’s liberation movement had to be created by a man, how else could more responsibilities be considered freedom—but once Liz arrives and the wine stock is consumed, secrets come out, the stinging truth is thrown about without filter, and we see behind the curtain of stress built up from decades of largely unheralded work.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Feldman wrote this story as a stage play; it’s use of just four main characters residing in a hotel room for the duration lends itself to that medium. Either way, she and co-director Ian Mah have crafted a film calling to mind those classic talkies of the 80s such as the aforementioned Big Chill and friendship catharses like St. Elmo’s Fire. We can tell from Barb’s, (Maria del Mar), opening attitude and conversation that her life isn’t as peachy-keen as the façade she puts up for her girlfriends. Thinking about the unencumbered days of their youth in high school, free from knowing the hard truths and reality of the world, a hotel room is booked and invites to her three closest chums are sent. A girls’ night out is set into motion as perfect Karen, (Katya Gardner), kooky Patti, (Kirsten Bishop), and independent Liz, (Angela Asher), agree to travel to Toronto for some catching up, a little wine tasting, and some fun on the town with the knowledge of one simple rule—if you get out of line and risk ruining your life, such as Patti ‘harmlessly’ flirting with a 20-year old by sticking her foot on his genitals, you get tied to a chair back at the room until regret overpowers the alcoholic buzz of adventure.

As a result, the beginning is full of formalities and pleasantries as everyone tells of their perfect existences through obvious lies. We see Karen’s uncomfortable body language when mention is made of her husband’s Tampon commercial, Patti trying not to scream in frustration when talking about her day to day routine consisting of nothing considered meaningful in comparison to Barb, who’s own recap of life is short and sweet to the tune of great job, caring husband, and perfect children. It’s three middle-aged women with red wine in their hands attempting to prove to the others that the dreams and aspirations of so long ago have come to fruition. So they laugh and catch up, readying themselves to leave for the kind of free-wheeling fun they haven’t enjoyed in over twenty years, the wild nights of tattooing the phrase “Where’s the Beef?” in not so appropriate places. While all well written and acted, for a guy like me it’s a bit too female-specific to fully engage in the proceedings. Only when they finally leave for a city hotspot do I anticipate some salacious activity, except Feldman goes all Reservoir Dogs on us by cutting straight to their return to the hotel, one of them duct taped to a chair.

And here is where the strength of the screenwriter’s voice comes through. I can only assume much of the material spewing forth from the uninhibited minds of these women is personal, but being so specific and emotionally draining, I can’t see how it isn’t. Patti’s naively simple-minded attitude, talking about the strategy of taking her shirt off before breaking bad news to her husband, is flawless, soon becoming revealed as a mask for the sexual desires hidden inside; Karen’s perfect little existence as the wife who made sacrifices for the family is shattered as a secret is uncovered to prove she is in fact a complete hypocrite; Liz arrives to the fray on the cusp of a divorce, so happy for her independence yet so focused on getting half of an inheritance from someone who wasn’t a blood relative to her out of selfish greed; and Barb’s gradually building stress-induced dissolution of emotion actually has her forgiving her own father for leaving them when she was young, feelings she herself has started to harbor. All the pent-up anger and feeling of utter defeat comes bubbling to the surface, driving these old friends apart as each projects their own ideals and unwarranted judgment on the rest.

Each woman is a three-dimensional representation of the American wife circling the center of an abyss leading towards complete mid-life crisis. For every oddly expressed quarrel like a way too long exchange about the use of propositions and imperatives, there is a bitingly thought-provoking diatribe about controlling one’s urges, not feeling guilty for seeing younger men as sex objects when supposedly all men do the same towards youthful women, and the fact no female figure of authority ever told them the truth about marriage and motherhood. Gardner and Asher are the most effective performers, really delving into their polar opposite roles to full emotional effect, while Bishop’s early annoyance makes way for a more authentic bimbo-lite demeanor as a mask of insecurities, all while del Mar slowly takes center stage as the seemingly sure-headed and successful one of the bunch, yet completely lost and adrift. Her portrayal of Barb is at times strained and over-the-top, (something that would lend itself well to a theatrical version), but always finds its bearing to become devastatingly real, especially during the final shot. As a result, A Touch of Grey is an emotional roller coaster that I’m sure most women can find a little of themselves in each character while men, if they stick around past the estrogen-heavy start, can appreciate the weight of gravity pushing down without release towards a decision that will shape the last few decades of their lives.

A Touch of Grey 7/10

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