After watching this flirtatious indie flick, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wants to revisit Manhattan. Apparently, everyone is hot there.
A film as light-hearted as the sweet dreams of immigrants and as sour as their struggles to survive.
Petty Crimes, a.k.a. Aller simple pour Manhattan, is an impressive multicultural effort. French director Michel Ferry brought a French lead actor and a French cinematographer to Manhattan, where he shot a film peopled with East Coast Americans of Asian descent, a Hispanic character actress, an American with Spanish movie experience, and an unknown Native American. Just watching it makes your horizons feel broader, reinforcing the interconnectivity of our world.
Does this multicultural bliss mask an inferior film, or is Petty Crimes a classic tale of independents triumphing over Hollywood gloss? The truth is somewhere in between, but on the whole Petty Crimes is surprisingly good.
Facts of the Case
Michel (Jérémie Covillault) is a petty crook who has fled his native France. He lives illegally in Manhattan, trying to live clean and enjoying the occasional hookup after a night on the town. Michel is a lovable scoundrel, a pretty boy with some dirt under his nails and a streak of sex appeal. He falls hard for a sexy vixen with a pink wig and rollerblades. It turns out that Zoe (Sarah Zoe Canner, Mujeres en un tren) is actually a student of immigrant law who paints erotic art in her spare time. These two prize catches are veterans of the battle of the sexes, and each has high-caliber suitors. Though he has nothing to offer this smart, sexy, and talented lawyer, Michel pursues her with passion. Will Zoe open up to Michel? She'd better decide quickly, because the INS has caught up with him…and so have his old partners in petty crime.
Michel Ferry was the second unit director on a handful of '80s Hollywood flicks, such as A Dry White Season, Frantic, Under the Cherry Moon, and Red Sonja, so he's not a hack. He shows a sure, if not masterful, directorial touch in Petty Crimes.
It is often stated in film geek circles that Hollywood is bankrupt of originality. We see the same ideas, clichés, and scenarios repeated over and over. In fact, if you're watching a Hollywood film you've never seen before, you can often loosely predict the next line or scene. I'm not ready to proclaim the death of Hollywood originality, but it is hard to deny the uniform cinematic language employed by many Hollywood films.
Petty Crimes travels a long way by sidestepping these conventions. As the movie unfolds, we don't have a clear idea of where it will go. Obvious clichés are forgone in favor of quiet moments of emotion or frustration. The characters seem real, like you're watching them try to decide what to do next on the fly. Petty Crimes doesn't progress from one pat scripted moment to the next; the characters take time to flirt, argue, and waste time together. Subplots take off and stall without necessarily being anything more than they appear. Yet Petty Crimes is not slow or padded, and it has a clear direction. We don't know what to expect, but the film proceeds honestly and without pretension.
This success comes because the cast and crew have already made their first mistakes, so Petty Crimes has surer footing. Each element of the production benefits from this blend of decent experience combined with young enthusiasm.
The cast does a great job of keeping us engaged. Petty Crimes is a study in networking. Supporting actors Andrew Pang, Ann Hu, Vanessa Aspillaga, and Brian Geraghty all have one thing in common: Law and Order. Coincidence? It isn't a stretch to assume that someone was familiar with their work on the series, liked what they did, and pulled them into this production. Lead actress Sarah Zoe Canner has been in a few films and has written and starred in her own independent short films (one of which is included as an extra). From creating and submitting short films to film festivals such as the Columbia Film Festival, Canner has amassed valuable writing and acting experience in a relatively short span of time. She is compelling and poised in Petty Crimes, attractive but not outwardly conscious of her appeal. Lead actor Jérémie Covillault has the most experience, with a solid list of French films and television shows under his belt. He uses that experience to wring a careworn demeanor out of Michel while retaining optimism. As a pair, Covillault and Canner generate chemistry.
Canner's writing experience comes to bear because she cowrote Petty Crimes with director Michel Ferry. The script is solid, leading us down a winding but believable path. Cinematographer Jean Coudsi doesn't have much credited experience, but Ferry obviously liked his work on Hantises enough to bring him on for Petty Crimes. These connections show that Petty Crimes has the spirit of collaboration behind it.
This isn't surprising given its roots, but even though Petty Crimes walks like a gritty American street drama, it talks like a French comedy. French comedy is of two general camps, the outlandish and the understated. We get understated here, where the subtlest moments of humor are uncued. Michel and Zoe flirt in front of a massive painting that turns out to be a vagina. Michel flees from the INS in his underwear, and a friendly neighbor offers him something flowery to wear. Petty Crimes rarely asks you to laugh out loud, but it does provide you with a subtle feeling of warmth and life. The flip side is the omnipresent street and its constant call to Michel. When Michel's old buddy Kim shows up to seduce him back into crime, we see that Andrew Pang picked up a trick or two from Chow Yun-Fat in The Corrupter. Pang has the raw charisma, false sunniness, and keen edge to convince us of his criminal tendencies. Manhattan itself is a player in Petty Crimes, as we see when cops harass Michel.
So…indie flick with a multicultural flair, peopled with a young and beautiful cast, flirtatious warmth, and a good mix of petty crime and romance, capably handled…what's not to like?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Petty Crimes may take us down a winding but believable path, but that path devolves in the last 20 minutes. At some point, the charming, unpredictable, and energetic film becomes a plodding, predictable, mired one. I can't put my finger on the precise moment, but Petty Crimes jumps the shark at about the hour mark. It quickly moves from charming to mundane, leaving me to wonder where it went wrong. The ending isn't contemptibly bad, but it lacks the spark of the rest of the film. The actual ending of the film spikes into television police drama territory, giving us little of substance. Petty Crimes isn't the kind of movie that needed a big chase scene and gun fight at the end.
I flip-flopped between thinking that Petty Crimes had one of the most appealing visual styles I've seen in independent cinema and thinking about the poor image quality. The movie is shot using creative but non-alienating compositions. The cinematography employs spatial relationships to its advantage, enhancing both the action and the humanity of the movie because we feel connected to the characters. Certain closeups show that the actors are actually pretty people and not benefactors of great makeup and visual trickery. Unfortunately, Petty Crimes suffers from blurred focus, a vagueness where detail would have been better. Because it is digital video, it lacks the high contrast and glossy smoothness that characterize traditional methods. Various glitches and stutters took me out of the flow. Incidentally, the audio fares much better, even in relatively demanding outdoor scenes. The mix between ambient noise and dialogue is pleasing and has detail to spare.
After seeing Petty Crimes and looking up more of Sarah Zoe Conner's work, I was indignant at the relative lack of awards for her short film Get Lucky. Well, it is included as the only real extra on this disc, and it proves that my indignation was misplaced. Get Lucky isn't as bad as many short films I've seen, but it has myriad problems and reveals less sophistication than does Petty Crimes. Sarah Zoe Conner herself is not as riveting, the audio and video aren't very good, and the plot is not engaging. It wants to be a neo-noirish "girl trapped in an intolerable situation" drama, but it fails to gel. When the stoned big-shot director pulled out a knife and told the poor actress "I'm gonna cut off your tits," I didn't know whether to laugh or sigh.
Petty Crimes is a flirtatious, gritty comedy with heat and wit to spare. It forges its own path, keeping us engaged and connected to the characters without relying on cliché. Films like this reveal the promise of independent cinema and provide good alternatives to Hollywood. The movie gets a flat tire near the end, but the first hour makes up for it. I'll be keeping an eye out for more of Sarah Zoe Conner's work.
The court finds Petty Crimes's eponymous verdict fitting. But enthusiasm goes a long way in this courtroom. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vanguard Cinema
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