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Let's Just Stick with the Coffee

Movie Review: The Painted City
Spoilers: none

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An insomniac at a coffee shop undergoes a life-changing experience when he witnesses a murder/suicide. The event proves to be all the more troubling when he discovers that the identities of the two men involved tie directly into his troubled past. Now, Millhouse (Michael Hall), an off-centered, philosophically-inclined computer programmer, having spent countless days occupying himself with cups of coffee while twiddling cigarettes, has an actual reason not to sleep.

When the murder/suicide comes under scrutiny with the local police and the FBI, Millhouse initiates his own personal investigation into old friends and a former lover, Genevieve Conniver (Genevieve Lee Howell), to put the matter into perspective.

Other than into the dark recesses of his own mind, the journey of Millhouse leads him into obscure meeting-places, putting him in touch with a police detective, an FBI agent, and a crowd of creepy characters, resembling in kind their own dark-but-hypnotically charismatic leader. Thankfully, we don’t have to join him on that journey beyond sitting on the couch and watching it unfold. The question is, do we want to watch it unfold?

The Painted City is a title for a champion, a perfect-sounding ringer for any film dealing with counter-culture movements or themes. And as with the title, the film’s aura and lighting line right up with the creator’s intent. But intent is not what we take issue with when considering any ultra-low-budget film. Here, it is the result that gives us cause for concern.

The details are down pat—from scraped walls to scratched coffee tables. The too-long-winded poetic narration, which often stretches comprehension limits, is one of the few outstandingly well-done qualities. Hall has a strong screen charisma, a “healthy psychopath” look that serves him well. And for a movie obsessed with death, the suspense never totally dies, despite the film’s stretching on seemingly forever.

The on-edge music is as odd as the main character himself, but is overpoweringly cranked out, coming and going in curious and soon-familiar waves, as it is inconsistently used, not to evoke suspense, but to avoid a "dead air"/dialog combo. While purposely shot to establish its own style, the unnecessary facial close-ups, queer camera angles, and abrupt cuts can be distracting, as can the ridiculously short flashbacks to images that become almost a nuisance.

The mainly cosmetic quirks aside, we take issue with more important problems that present themselves with Sakr’s work; namely, The Painted City has some painfully bad glitches that manifest a grievous lack of focus.

The film progresses through its plot in thick layers that take the focus off of earlier ones. What begins as an interesting insomniac’s story moves its focus to a legal investigation of a disturbing (and rather clich├ęd) cult. From there, it zooms in on the mind of the cult’s leader before finally exiting with the conclusion of the investigation, leaving the whole cycle behind and focusing on nothing in particular.

Further, what we have is a head-shaking disconnect from reality that gets worse the further in we go. We have a detective (Kim Fuqua) that doesn't act or talk like a detective (or carry a firearm). He apparently is in the habit of calling his informants and telling them nothing except that when he has something, he will call back later. We have FBI agents (Marcella Laasch, Darren Ferguson) that get a little closer to seeming like they could pass for the real thing, but no cigar.

We have Millhouse being suddenly brought in as an informant into a difficult-to-prosecute criminal case against Carl Stedman (Anthony Redelsperger), the leader of this bizarre cult after the Jim Jones persuasion that seems to have infiltrated the community at large. Stedman has a “gifted” legal team that can get him out of any jam, superceding all laws of the justice system. Working to offset these flaws, let it be said that the soothingly eloquent and fatally charismatic Stedman is a runner-up for the most articulate film psychopath in any film I’ve seen.

It is never completely clear what The Painted City sets out to accomplish or leave with its viewers beyond the philosophically astute and applicable analogies used to express the hardships of the experience of living. In its many artistically-aspiring and carefully prepared scenes that involve everything from coffee, gun shots, creepy old men with gazing stares who speak in riddles at train stations, to lengthy scenes of obscure dialog that are often not even convincingly delivered, The Painted City is so chock-full of observations and moments that demand an on-the-edge-of-your-seat attention that the viewer becomes lost in the overabundance of dire delirium, semi-psychotic declarations, and segments best viewed while dropping acid.

The entire film seems to be made up of clever movie ideas, but heaped together to give content for a beloved film project of stoners. The repetition of improperly applied and reapplied background music, the delivery of well-spoken philosophical truths under intensely dramatic situations is brought into a headache-y nucleus of nonsense exchanges that leave the viewer with only one question: When will this end?

It seems fair to speculate that The Painted City has nearly all the right elements to succeed—intellectual depth, a right feel and mood, a curiously dark main character, and an even darker antagonist who more than challenges all who stand in his way. And it has the desire to succeed. All of that is not enough, however. On occasions like these, it is time to go back to the drawing board.

(JH)

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Grade: no grade
Rated: No MPAA rating
Director: Christopher Sakr
Summary: A man's life is changed he witnesses a murder/suicide at a coffee shop.
Starring: Michael Hall "Millhouse," Genevieve Lee Howell "Genevieve Conniver," Marcella Laasch "Agent Wade," MacKenzie Rae Campbell "Colleen Phelan," Jane Rosen "Margarite Strats," Terrance Scott "James," Dave Seitz "Marshall Phelps," Kim Fuqua "Detective McClean," Joel Janson "Stanley Norton," Juliana Wheeler "Seana," Darren Ferguson "Agent Warley," Anthony Redelsperger "Carl Stedman"
Genre: Crime / Drama
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