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Non-Review Review: Staten Island

Staten Island is a convoluted little film that seems to shameless emulate several anthology films, with the most obvious influence being seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, borrowing the device of telling three interlocking but distinct stories set in different timeframes relating to the same bunch of characters. Still, that’s not necessarily a reason to dislike the film, which manages to offer an interesting, if not comparable, set of tales. James DeMonaco probably should have realised that borrowing so heavily from a classic film sets a ridiculously high standard, and one the movie falls far short of reaching. Still, there are moments where the film does work, even if they seem evenly-spaced with awkward and pointless sequences.

One psychotic mobster, sitting in a tree...

I have never been to New York, even though I sometimes feel like I have. I mean, the city is everywhere in fiction. The iconography is hard for anybody to ignore or overlook. The places, the streets, even the taxis are all part of a rich and shared cultural memory that has reached around the world. I’ve always wanted to go, but never had the opportunity – and yet I feel like I know the city. The better moments in DeMonaco’s film play off that familiarity, focusing on three tales told in “the forgotten borough” of the world-famous city. When I think of New York, I think of Manhattan – it casts a pretty long shadow, and DeMonaco’s crime story tells the story of three people living in that shadow.

There are long lingering shots of each of his three leads staring at the island across the bay, with something close to subtle resentment. Their bigger, more popular, more recognisable neighbour seems to make them feel inadequate by its very presence. It seems that all three are trying to figure out how to get past the rather basic limitation of living on Staten Island, regarding Manhattan with something like envious eyes. Even though their desires don’t directly apply to the island sitting across the water, the movie follows what’s arguably misplaced greed and anxiety, as each of the three tries to find their place in the world, after looking out the window to see something that feels so firmly anchored and established.

Short cuts?

I don’t know if the movie is really fair to Staten. It doesn’t paint a flattering picture, even if it seems wryly ironic. I feel like a charlatan for admitting this, but my only real familiarity with the island came from the name of the ferry. I wonder how residents of the borough reacted to the film, or if they felt the film merited any reaction at all. Still, it makes for an interesting hook, setting these stories in the shadow of an island recognised the world over, and it’s moments like this that work well.

The movie follows the stories of three characters. As with any anthology, the movie needs all three stories to resonate to be considered a success. Unfortunately, only two of the three stories really work. The first follows a mob boss played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who plans to take control of the island, and – when that fails – decides to save some trees instead. It’s one of the few points in the movie where the absurdity almost seems to work, turning the gangster into a would-be environmentalist. Still, the steps in-between feel somewhat stilted, as does the rather convenient gimmick of the gangster’s ability to hold his breath for extended periods. (No points for guessing that comes in handy.)

The smell of success...

In many ways, the first section exemplifies the general problem with the film: the basic premises for each of the three stories feel absurd, but they aren’t written with any really eccentric enthusiasm – they feel like they’re kind of going-through-the-motions around these hair-brain schemes, instead of indulging in the absurdity of it all. The very phrase “gangster-turned-environmentalist” promises some insane and outlandish plot twists, but the movie feels too mechanical in execution.

The second instalment follows a sanitation worker who steals a massive amount of money in order to get his son into a gene therapy programme. It’s a one-note joke that plays off the fact that Ethan Hawke was the lead in Gattaca, and it’s easily the most disappointing of the three segments. Don’t get me wrong, it is funny to hear Hawke say things like, “One thing though… um… on the TV’s out there, they had this… um… they showed where they had an operation that made the kids real smart. What is that? I mean, is that like science-fiction or…?” But it doesn’t feel like it’s enough to sustain an entire section of the film, especially the one that ultimately feels so conventional – you know exactly where the plot’s going from the start, and you know exactly how it will play out.

Gunning for success...

The third section of the film follows a deaf and mute butcher played by Seymour Cassel. This segment allows DeMonaco to play around a bit, and is perhaps the most rewarding sequence. While it’s still a little bit too safe and predictable, there are a number of beautiful shots where DeMonaco asks us to experience the world from the perspective of the butcher, with the sound whited out, and getting a glimpse into how the character spends his time, after hours. I’d argue that these little touches are the most affecting of the film, and they add up to the best of the three stories contained in the movie.

To be fair, it’s not really bad. It’s just disappointingly average for most of its runtime, with a few moments of brilliance thrown in just to tease the audience. DeMonaco has assembled a superb cast. In particular, Vincent D’Onofrio and Vincent Cassel are well worth the price of admission, carrying their sections of the film when things get a little bit too mired in cliché or predictability. DeMonaco’s film promises off-the-wall bizarre and surreal antics, but the execution feels disappointingly straight-forward.

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