Born under a bad sign.
There are some films, and ones like Heavy and The Last Picture Show come immediately to mind, which are so quiet or flat or desolate that even the slightest bumps seem like mountains. These films use their ammo sparingly. Joe the King is one of those types of films.
Of course they are almost all independent films because, once the budget gets to a particular point, something has to blow up or someone has to get blown away or some super models have to get at least semi-naked do some blow, or some such thing. Only in the independent film world can you really create films without neat bookends, perfect organic plot curves, kill ratios, and enhanced body parts.
Joe the King is no exception, since it's the first writing and directorial effort of Frank Whaley. Whaley has done quite a bit of work on the other side of the film lens up until now, in films such as Broken Arrow, JFK, Pulp Fiction, and Swimming with Sharks. He's also done a good bit of independent film work as well, so I assume he's seen others live on the edge and decided to go for it himself.
As would also always likely be the case in similar circumstances, it was made on a shoestring budget. This is relative of course, since a 'shoestring' movie budget might feed a small third world village for a year I guess. But I think he's done very well for himself in his first time out, working with limited means. And it certainly helps to have famous actor friends, who will lend their time for a fraction of their normal fees.
This film won the 1999 Sundance Film Festival's screen writing award.
There's an old saying, which I probably can't say here; but, to paraphrase, it means 'screwed from birth'. Maybe I'm just a bleeding heart liberal commie, but I definitely believe that there are lots of people in our society who fall into this category. Our main characters, Joe Henry and his slightly older brother Mike Henry, played respectively by Noah Fleiss (A Mother's Prayer, An Unexpected Life, Double Parked) and Max Ligosh (Hackers), are poster boys for this demographic.
Joe and Mike both go the same local school, where their father works as the janitor. Bob Henry, played by Val Kilmer (Real Genius, The Doors, Heat), is an only partly conscious, abusive drunk, who owes money to everyone in town. When he's not passed out somewhere, he's home creating emotional and physical havoc on his kids and his wife. My Three Sons they ain't.
By the time we meet the family, the damage is already well under way. Joe is a turning into a complete kleptomaniac, who steals anything that's not nailed down. He's been in trouble with the law a number of times, and it doesn't take a weatherman to see which way the wind's blowing. Basically, he's headed towards a highly structured lifestyle courtesy of the state.
Joe works, illegally since he is only fourteen, at a local greasy spoon. When he hears that the proprietors are going away on a trip, he decides to break in and raid the cash box. He does manage to do it, but this sets up a chain of events that eventually lead to his being committed to a juvenile facility. But, it also might break the family out of its downward spiral into self-destruction.
Some other important characters are Joe's guidance counselor, Len Coles, played by Ethan Hawke (Gattaca, Floundering, Before Sunrise), and his buddy at work, Jorge, played by John Leguizamo (Carlito's Way, Regarding Henry, The Fan). But these adult characters are mainly supporting roles for the story of the brothers and their friends, some of whom are quite profanely funny despite their tender ages. Of course Hawke, Leguizamo, and Val Kilmer do provide the level of name recognition probably required to get the film made.
For the first review in seemingly forever, I can say that this DVD actually had a special feature! My record setting run has now come to a close. Frank Whaley provides a commentary track that I thought was quite good because of this being his first directorial and writing effort. He stuck to the action on screen and gave good insights into the making of the film, the issues with the actors and sets, et cetera…all pretty technical. For example, there were no long, disconnected, philosophical rambles completely unrelated to what is happening on screen, which is all too common. Periodically, Frank is joined in the commentary by both Ethan Hawke, and his brother Robert Whaley. Robert did the soundtrack and has a small cameo in the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, and all too commonly, films like this don't tend to get the red carpet treatment when comes to the DVD transfer. So this one is non-anamorphic and has a plain Dolby 2.0 soundtrack. While the soundtrack can be somewhat overlooked for this type of film, we can never let a letterboxed DVD go unpunished in this day and age. Though it was not horrendous looking by any means, it could have been better.
There were a couple of weird video transfer glitches that I noticed, but probably only sick obsessives like me would notice them. There were a couple weird glitches during some pans. And the extra shaky use of a hand-held camera in a couple places also causes some semi-nauseating moments.
If you aren't into the slow and introspective film genre, you might not like this one. Its all about stillness, and its highest emotional moment comes from Val Kilmer in about a five second period. But, because of the purposefully flat emotional landscape around it, those seconds are very effective in my opinion.
If you are a fan of small budget, independent film, then I would definitely recommend this one to you. I think that its point of view is interesting and the subject matter strong and relevant. It's always interesting to catch the first film of a good director, and I think he will become one if he sticks with it. First timers tend to put a lot of heart into it, and may never again get to make such a personal statement. If this one does well, someone will wave thirty million bucks in his face and he might be making Joe the Terminator next year.
Acquitted. An admirable effort from a promising new director.
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