Manito (2002)
Written and Directed by Eric Eason
Starring Franky G, Leo Minaya, Manuel Cabral, Hector Gonzalez, Julissa Lopez, Jessica Morales

Can a first time feature film shot entirely on handheld digital video starring a cast of unknowns represent an honest portrayal of inner city life? Eric Eason excels at one thing, imposing a mood on a time and place by offering the viewer little flavors swiped from a well-stocked sampler buffet. Unfortunately his overbearing atmosphere broadcasts the future as subtly as a drunken rhino on a three day binge and his attempts to express fast-paced city life by means of a constantly whirling digital camera drag this little picture down into the gutter of art trash. There’s redeeming qualities if you don’t mind picking through dead pigeons and discarded condoms running along the sidewalk.

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Ostensibly a family drama the more fulfilling effect Eason manages is to use the day of a fractured Latino family to explore their community. Manny Moreno (Leo Minaya) is graduating from highscool top honors with a full scholarship to Syracuse. His older brother Junior (Franky G) can barely get it together to put the deposit down on the rental hall in between shouting at his wife (Julissa Lopez), brushing off his kid and looking for the white-out to falsify some documents needed for his contracting work. But this is a big deal and nothing will get in between family, except for their absent father; Manny lives with his charming old-school Grandfather (Hector Gonzalez) who has nothing but obvious pride for his charge.

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There’s an early period dedicated to a couple slice-of-life vignettes. Manny takes the train to school and hangs out with his trash-talking friends, hams for the camera and tries to flirt like a street kid but is woefully unable to affect the same brash braggadocio as his peers. There’s an obvious excitement in the air, graduation is only hours away, but what excites Manny more is that his family is throwing him a party afterwards and he would really like Marisol (Jessica Morales) to come. Unfortunately she has to babysit her son.

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Across town Junior is frantically running around because his team of Mexicans bailed on a job. What he finds is a squad of laid off busboys begging to drywall in their uniforms. He’s late, there’s no time, so the restaurant staff climb in the back and watch as Junior, with his forged insurance registration, charms his way a townhouse, and then into the upperclass tenant. There’s still the rental hall deposit to be paid, and Junior hauls ass to the check cashing place looking for a certified check. He charms a girl working there as well, and presumably his money order works out fine in the end.

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Meanwhile Gramps is legging it through Washington Heights to an unremarkable doorway. He arrives in a brothel where he’s greeted warmly by the madam and all the girls kiss him on the cheek. Smoking his cigar, surrounded by admirers, he opens his case and reveals lingerie and jewelry for sale. But Mr. Moreno (Manuel Cabral), the missing father, has also been busy. Early in the morning he set about crafting the world’s longest sandwich and has it delivered to the place of the party. When Junior finds it there he flies into a rage, bringing the gift back to the bodego his father runs and throws it in his face. Obviously there’s some bad blood in this family.

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Graduation– hats fly in the air and the family poses for the camera. The guests begin to arrive at the rental hall and it’s a flurry of dancing and music, then heartfelt speeches dedicated to Manny. There’s even a gift from his teachers, a collection of money to help him buy all he needs when he moves to Syracuse for school. The one sour note being that Papa Moreno makes a surprise appearance after drinking all evening and has to be escorted away from the party. But it’s all smiles in the end: Marisol got out of babysitting and now Manny can escort her home; Junior’s putting his wife and kid in a cab so he can pay the band, or rather so he can sneak off with the check cashing girl who found herself invited to the party as well.

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And of course it’s all too good to be true. These are still mean streets and Manny and Marisol run into some local color riding the train home. Everything has been building to some traumatic climax and tonight is the night, the events are now inevitable. Not because of anything that the characters did or said– and this is all the fault of Eric Eason’s grip on creating a mood. The entire movie sweats bullets, and for no apparent reason. Junior’s profane tirades and ex-con swagger shouldn’t cause the amount of tension in this film, nor should the heavy burrough accents of the highschool kids and their jive talking. There’s no dealers on the corner, no gang bangers driving by slow, no threats and no real violence beyond a fight shot so wildly that it’s impossible to discern what’s going on. There’s no crushing crowds, no burning cars, no abject poverty. Somehow Eason creates the mood of violence without the traditional narrative tools, and so it’s impossible not to know where everything is going to end up.

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Even an obvious movie can be enjoyable, but strike two in Eason’s column is that his hand-held digital filmmaking makes watching this a chore. It could be the result of a poor authoring job for the disc but every slight movement by either the camera or the talent results in a streak of pixilated confusion. There’s no static shots to catch your breath and there’s nothing to be gained from the frequent whip-pans committed except a growing headache and lessening patience. The only sense of relief is a strangely placed montage of street scenes, introducing us too late to the vibrant neighborhood and the occasional off angle establishing shots acting as hangovers from art-school. Everything else is poorly framed, shot in the moment, circling endlessly and impatient. I know we’re supposed to feel like we’re right there and that it’s supposed to add some level of intimacy with the characters but it left me feeling like I had no idea where I was or who these people were. Obviously this also means that the lighting was poor because they relied on ambient lights, even for dark interiors.

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There’s some charming performances which suffer from this would be cinema verite, particularly that of the charming Hector Gonzalez. Julissa Lopez plays the aggrieved wife perfectly with an honest mixture of frustration, resentment, tenderness and hopelessness. Franky G’s testosterone ride seemed comical to me but I guess he launched a career from here acting in big budget movies where he clearly belongs. His machismo works fine but transitioning to a gentle moment, such as telling Manny how proud he feels, loses credibility. The younger actors are all embarrassing as only watching teenagers can be, but along with this inescapable truth is that most of them were a little too conscious of being in front of the camera. Even Leo Minaya, saddled with a heavy burden as the title character, is a little light in his abilities. He doesn’t flub lines but his sheepishness doesn’t blend with his street-wise clique, the intelligence that is bringing him to Syracuse doesn’t shine through, and mostly he seems capable of smiling and not saying much when the time is right.

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The story could have been decent with some obvious omissions. The family drama aspect didn’t have to turn out to be a thrown out Crime & Punishment episode– there’s plenty of other reasons why you can hate your dad. Junior’s womanizing seemed appropriate to his high-octane character but the portrayal of his seediness were unnecessary at best and unwatchable at worst. It’s as if Eason was worried his plot would be too simple and covered everything in a heavy coat of mayonnaise just in case. There are some bright spots, tho, even some truly great moments. Watching Grandfather walk down the streets of Washington Heights to the brothel to sell trinkets was a delight and it was an act of pure inspiration to have him bring his clients to the party, just as Junior let his converted busboys attend. The band performing was great to watch. The dialogue (blending English and Spanish) was hit or miss depending on the scenes. Anything with Junior seemed like a bad gangster flick, Manny and his friends were idiots, but small interactions between random characters was engaging and fun. If Eason had dropped the inner-city tragedy schtick and just let the movie be about a day in the life of these people he could have concentrated more on catching these little snippets and the movie would have been better, and very different.

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One thing this movie nails is the music. It’s awesome, high energy Latin-pop that compliments the movie up until the end of the party which is, of course, when the music stops and everything succumbs to spiraling down the drain. The audio was well recorded which is amazing when you consider what butchery was done with the camera. Thankfully there was no need for special effects or anything fancy. They could only have made decent but overbearing movie turn into a steaming pile of shit.

Manito was released by member’s club Film Movement but is available for rent on Netflix. It also contained a short film which claimed to marry slam poetry with something or other and I found it unwatchable. Sorry the screenshots look like shit but it’s what the movie looks like half the time.