June 13, 2003
Immigrant Life in All Its Jagged Rhythms
By A. O. Scott
''Manito,'' Eric Eason's debut feature, was made with very little money, a fair amount of skill and a great deal of heart. Most of the action unfolds in a single day in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, and Mr. Eason, using a hand-held camera and a largely new or nonprofessional cast, brilliantly captures the pulse of daily life in working-class, immigrant New York: the hectic rhythms of labor, leisure and family life, the stresses and pleasures, the anxieties and hopes. He has a quick-moving, incisive eye that captures little details of gesture and décor -- the way a young boy imitates his father's impatient morning alarm-clock slap, the magic by which a rented catering hall is transformed into a sacred place -- and also an ear finely tuned to the nuances of talk.
The characters are mostly Dominican, with a few whose roots are in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Their cultural, culinary and sexual differences are a source of perpetual argument and analysis, and they speak a fast, bracing combination of English and Spanish. The subtitles capture the sense well enough; the music requires no translation.
And for most of its brief, packed running time, ''Manito,'' which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans, has the lilt and momentum -- the swing -- of a musical performance. (It also includes one, by a tight, fiery merengue combo called Fulanito.) Though a dramatic (even melodramatic) narrative eventually takes shape, what you remember is the succession of moods and observations through which it emerges. Manny Moreno, or Manito (Leo Minaya), is the pride of his battered family -- his dapper, gentle grandfather (Hector González), his sister-in-law (Julissa López), and above all his older brother, Junior (Franky G.), who is trying to make an honest living as a painting contractor after serving a prison sentence.
The reason for his time in prison is revealed later, as is the source of Junior's hatred of his and Manny's father (Manuel Cabral), who lurks around the edges of his estranged family and tries to elbow his way into their celebration of Manny's high school graduation. But the lurking possibility of family tragedy is deferred -- so much so that its arrival seems under prepared and a little forced -- until we have understood the fragile normalcy that Manny and Junior cling to. Manny is a sensitive, studious young man, but also a bit indistinct, as if Mr. Minaya and the restless camera were dodging each other. (Manny's would-be girlfriend, Marisol, is much more vivid, partly because nobody would dare to turn away from the fearless, provoking gaze of Jessica Morales, in real life a medical assistant but a born actress.)
The volcanic center of the movie is Junior, and Franky G., who seems to be turning up everywhere lately (in ''Confidence'' and ''The Italian Job,'' as well as here) has undeniable star power. His acting may be rough and unmodulated at times, but he shows the complexity of Junior's temperament with furious economy. Junior's flaws are entangled with his virtues: he is both a family man and a compulsive philanderer, at once dishonest and dependable. His angry masculine bravado seems edged with panic, just as his brutal impatience is a reflection of his tenderness.
His performance anchors the film in an unpretentious realism that has something in common with Peter Sollett's ''Raising Victor Vargas,'' which was set in a Dominican neighborhood on the other end of Manhattan. Mr. Eason's sense of the streets is harsher; his summer day is more severely shadowed by poverty, crime and desperation. At the end, as the latent tensions within the family and the neighborhood burst into full operatic color, ''Manito'' loses some of its charm and
--A.O. Scott/ The New York Times - Review
By Dennis Harvey
An electrifying feature debut for writer-helmer Eric Eason, "Manito" chronicles 48 incident-packed hours in the lives of a Washington Heights Latino family. Furiously paced -- just shy of the sensory-overload point -- pic duly merits comparison to its spiritual granddaddy "Mean Streets," not in the usual imitative sense but rather in the freshness, character acuity and low-budget high style brought to a different NYC ethnic milieu. Story's downbeat trajectory is mitigated by the wild-ride quality of filmmaking, rendering prospects very good for specialized theatrical release.
Eason says he was inspired by Dogme 95 pics to make the jump to feature format after several shorts. Among "Manito's" many virtues is the way it interpolates several Dogme-tic techniques (hand-held digital vid lensing, etc.) without risking the copycat tenor of many official Dogme pics. Film has a turbo-charged verite feel uniquely its own.
That quality lunges right out of the starting gate as various principal characters reluctantly roll out of bed, communicating with each other in overlapping arguments and cell phone conversations. Muscle-bound Junior Moreno (a fierce perf by first-time thesp Franky G.) immediately channels his ever-hot-tempered energy toward long-suffering wife Miriam (Julissa Lopez) as well as the Mexican foreman (Panchito Gomez) who recruits day workers for Junior's not quite legal home-plastering biz. Reasons for Miriam's wary demeanor soon become obvious: Being a husband and father hasn't cramped Junior's lady-killer instincts one whit, with wealthy female business clients definitely on his to-do list.
Today is focused on a big event: Younger sibling Manny (Leo Minaya) is graduating from high school, and a huge party is planned. Headed for college on a full scholarship, Manny is the apple of everyone's eye, including rakishly elegant Grandpa (Hector Gonzalez).
Conspicuously absent from the preparations, however, is his and Junior's father Oscar (Manuel Cabral), who runs a bodega in the neighborhood but is ostracized from all contact. Only well into the story -- after he's been forcibly ejected from the boisterous celebration -- do we learn why: Oscar's criminal activities landed Junior in prison, after which the father abandoned him and the rest of the family.
This black sheep's uninvited appearance casts a pall over the hitherto raucous party. As it breaks up, Manny insists on escorting home his date, gorgeous single-mom classmate Marisol (Jessica Morales). On the subway, two punch-drunk gang bangers interrupt their sweet courtship. When things get scary, Marisol uses her mace can, instigating a harrowing chase from which the young couple barely escapes. Shaken, Manny refuses an offer to sleep over. Marisol, afraid the thugs are still waiting outside, presses a handgun on him "for protection."
The next morning dawns with a new series of cell phone calls: Manny is in jail for shooting an attacker who's now in a coma; the second assailant is still at large. Junior knows from experience that little bro doesn't have what it takes to survive long in the hoosegow, especially since he's swiftly transferred to the hard-core Rikers Island.
When Junior's desperate attempts to raise bail money, secure a decent lawyer, et al., prove fruitless, he chokes down his bitterness and approaches Oscar for help. Their tense, then terrifying confrontation reaches an awful impasse that leaves the family's future darker than before. This climax is searing, though subsequent, wordless coda ends the short feature a bit too abruptly.
Wound as tight as possible without choking off viewer respiration, "Manito's" headlong image/editorial schemes are leavened by naturalistic humor, lively dialogue and characters that never seem less than full-blooded. Many lead thesps here have scant or no prior pro
--Dennis Harvey/ Variety - Review