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VINNY, the gold standard of NY filmmaking
January, 2012
And the winner is... GUN HILL ROAD
hoo-Hah!  After years of hints, Hollywood finally went all out and hit us with their worst performance in modern times.  Bankrupt of any new and fresh ideas, nine out of the ten highest grossing films of 2011 were sequels.  The other, was based off an '80s TV cartoon.  Proving that they'll jump on any money-making scheme until sucking it dry, seven of those ten movies were also shot in 3-D.  Of course these ten "films" were the ones the general public actually liked.  Hollywood offered a lot more junk but thankfully by the time Jack and Jill came out even the opiated masses had had enough.  Sadly, the same can't be said of Al Pacino.  He gladly took his paycheck to "act" alongside Adam Sandler in perhaps the worst movie of the new millennium.  Hoo-Hah indeedy-deed.  And like Pacino himself (who's best performance came while playing a gay bank robber in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon) there was little to say about this year's local independent scene.   

A few films (like Shame) stood out but that crop has been dwindling since the demise of Hollywood's indie-subdivsisions several years ago.  Perhaps the combination of few indie-subdivisions, lack of any new ideas, a second poor year in a row at the box office, and widespread political strife can offer a new beginning for Hollywood.  A situation similar to what Lumet enjoyed while making Dog Day.  Ironically, in a year when the iconic Lumet passed away, the best of the bunch this year was also gay-themed.  No bank robberies but this year's Vinny winner was as gritty as anything the '70s (or even the urban-dominated early '90s) had to offer.  This year's Vinny goes to Gun Hill Road.  A movie about a transgender teen which is about as far from arthouse as any indie movie can get.

Right from the title, Green (making his feature film directorial debut) makes us aware that this will not be arthouse.  For anyone familiar with the Gun Hill Road area of the North Bronx, it's obvious that this story will be more Do the Right Thing than Brokeback Mountain.  Before the opening credits it's already obvious that this will be the type of gay themed story which few filmmakers have even thought of tackling.  And yet it's so much more. 

Before delving into the "more" part, first the grit.  Green tell us the story of Enrique, a 40-something year old ex-con who comes back to the hood after a three year stay up-river.  From a brutal jail scene it's clear that Enrique has anger management issues.  Extremly voilent ones which also feature a slice of strret-tough homophobia.  At the same time, even while bonding with the same neighborhood guys who probably helped Enrique stay inside his circle of crime, it's also obvious that Enrique is trying to turn his life around.  Yeah, he's a lit fuse, but one begging to be put out. 
Around his wife and son Enrique makes it clear that he's trying to start over.  Unfortunately, from the looks of his wife and son it's also obvious that they've been down this road before.  It's also obvious that they've changed since last seeing Enrique.  In different ways they both drop hints about having changed. 
Hints point to Angela having found a loving and far more gentle boyfriend.  Stronger hints point to Michael being gay.  Not only is becoming more open about his homosexuality, but he's also showing his desire to become a woman.  While collecting the many hints, Enrique's anger builds and builds.
In seeing Michael transform into "Vanessa" we see a side of transgender life which is rarely, if ever, explained in movies.  We see the dangerous shots Michael takes from illegal and dangerous neighborhood drug suppliers.  We see the scary risks Michael takes to become Vanessa and see how he is treated by his peers.  It's not all good or all bad, just real.  Michael does have friends, but they're as immature as he is.  Michael does find a boyfriend, a probable drug dealer who pays to help Michael in his transformation, but he doesn't want to be seen with Michael/Vanessa in public.  The fine lines in portraying real people with real POVs as opposed to generic good guys and bad guys is where Green truly shines.

Even Enrique, a violent brute who often lashes out is not all bad.  Instead, he's someone trying to rebuild in an environment he doesn't want to accept.  He's frustrated and can't understand the circumstances around him.  His heart wants to do good even if his fists won't let him.  The fuse has been lit and tension grows.  The audience knows that the bomb will go off.  The questions are when, and how much damage will it do?
Once again Green handles that bomb in expertise manner.  While the film features its share of violence, none of it is gratuitous.  None of it is there to shock.  None of it is there to manipulate audiences.  All of it is simply painting a true picture of a certain situation in a certain environment known for its roughness. 
Although there's an overall lacking feel in terms of camera-work, Green does a magnificent job with his cast.  Judy Reyes (of Scrubs fame) proves that she can do drama.  Harmony Santana, a true transgender making her first ever film appearance, is solid throughout while the always terrific, Esai Morales, is exceptional as Enrique.  Morales is such a powerful actor that it can be seen how he'd be too much for a first time director.  This is not the case under Green's guidance.  Morales' approach was just right throughout.  Never was he allowed to stray into the realm of unintended comedy that others (like Denzel Washington and Al Pacino) have often delved into. 
Gun Hill Road is a small movie with big heart and a lot to say.  Hopefully there is a bonus message too.  One that shows that even without Hollywood money or Hollywood indie-subdivision money, a talented cast can be assembled to make a great film.*

Note - For a full list to ALL previous Vinny winners, please click here.