Judge Gordon Sullivan's life runs perpendicular to others.
In this neighborhood one voice will change everything.
The back cover of Explicit Ills (Blu-ray) proudly proclaims "the lives of strangers intersect in a bold and moving semi-autobiographical tale that crosscuts between the many people who overcome the obstacles in their lives in the face of poverty, drugs and the human condition." That's a pretty tall order for any film, especially one that only runs for 87 minutes.
The film is told in five interconnecting stories:
Heslin (Ross K. Kim-McManus), along with his parents Jill (Naomie Harris, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and Kaleef (Tariq Trotter, Bamboozled), is trying to live a spiritually clean life in the face of a dire financial situation.
Babo (Francisco Burgos, Pride and Glory) and his mother (Rosario Dawson, Clerks 2) are trying to deal with the fact that Babo is asthmatic and small for his age.
Demetri (Martin Cepeda) is a young teenager who just wants to make it with the ladies.
Rocco (Paul Dano, The Girl Next Door) is an aspiring actor dealing with the difficulties of poverty and depression.
All these people live in the same neighborhood of North Philadelphia, an obviously poverty stricken area where dreams are big but reality gets in the way. Like many recent multi-stranded narrative (especially Babel and Crash), these stories seem remarkably separate until a final climatic scene shows their interconnectedness.
That's the chief problem with Explicit Ills: no matter how unique the denizens of North Philly are, we've seen this before. Thanks to Babel and Crash these types of narratives come pre-loaded with heartstring tugging power. We know from the first scene that everything we see is going to turn out to be connected, and along the way we're going to see a catalog of ghetto ills. Here we've got poverty, drugs, and poor health care. I'm not demeaning those problems in any way, but they've been presented cinematically before, and it would take a tremendous story to pull them out of the "been there, done that" dump.
Which leads to the other problem with Explicit Ills: while all those other multi-stranded films push or exceed the two-hour mark, Explicit Ills doesn't even make it to 90 minutes. Considering we have five main stories with a central cast of ten or so actors, that's simply not enough time to get to know and/or care about all the different characters. That leaves them either incomplete or stereotypical. For instance the relationship between Michelle and Jacob totally plays out like a short version of Requiem for a Dream. While I can't fault writer/director Mark Webber for his influences, if I wanted to see Requiem, I'd just watch that instead.
Despite the sometimes thinly drawn characters, I have absolutely no complaints about the acting in Explicit Ills. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that the whole thing didn't turn into a "who can frown the best" session because of the seriousness of the subject matter. Instead, everyone from the child actors up through the more experienced thespians like Rosario Dawson shows a remarkable amount of depth and range.
The other thing I can't complain about is the look of this film. Webber and his cinematographer have crafted a gorgeous and varied palette to draw this Philadelphia portrait. The lighting creates an arresting look, and the variety of lens and camera positions keep the story visually interesting even when the characters are hard to care for. If Webber can continue to pair up with talented cameramen, he has a very promising career as a director ahead of him.
This Blu-ray release gives Webber's visual flair a solid presentation. I didn't notice any serious artifacting, and saturation and black levels were always good. Detail wasn't always as high as I'd like, but given the film's lower budget that's not unexpected. The 5.1 mix is fairly aggressive for a dialogue-based drama, but everything is clear and audible.
The disc does disappoint in the extras, sadly. The only supplements are the film's theatrical trailer and a "how to help" message. Considering this is a "semi-autobiographical" film, it's a shame we don't hear from Webber. Considering the caliber of acting talent on display, it would also have been nice to hear from performers like Rosario Dawson and Tariq Trotter on their roles in the film.
Explicit Ills is not a bad movie; it's just one that can't quite figure out how to orchestrate its positive elements to present the audience with something new. As it is, the film uses impressive visuals and strong acting to tell a story that most viewers will have heard before.
For failing to live up to the potential of its performers and its visuals, Explicit Ills is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
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