Friday, July 31, 2015

Five Star: Keeping it Sort of Real on the Streets of Brooklyn

A famous rapper or two might have pointed out to the rest of the naïve square world, you do not stop being a gang member just because you are suddenly famous. James “Primo” Grant certainly understands how that works. He is not famous yet, but he takes a big step in that direction with his film debut, playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself in Keith Miller’s Five Star (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Primo is a Five Star, a senior member of the Bloods gang who can cut through the initiation rigmarole should he chose. That is indeed what he is offering John, the skinny, not-as-slick-as-he-thinks-he-is son of Melvin, the recently deceased elder statesmen among street gangs. John is eager to start making money, but it is not immediately clear whether he has the necessary discipline to survive the life. His mother suspects he is continuing down his father’s path and she is not happy about. However, it is difficult for her to object, given how much she ignored regarding the absentee husband she still loved.

In terms of narrative, Five Star is pretty simple, telegraphing what turns it takes quite far in advance. As a character piece though, it is pretty compelling. Without question, the death of John’s father is significant to many people in many ways. Naturally, it is especially so for John, yet it also reverberates for Primo, who already has four children, with a fifth on the way. He would like to get out of the gang for their sake, yet he fears he will not find another source for the respect and camaraderie he gets as a Five Star.

Grant is a quietly electric presence, who just seems to simmer on screen. There is no question he is a natural, delivering stone cold dialogue with a come-to-Jesus heaviness that would give Tarantino chills. Unfortunately, John Diaz lacks his power and depth, coming across as merely churlish and immature as his namesake. On the other hand, Wanda Nobles Colon is wonderfully forceful and earthy as John’s mother.

Miller is a talented filmmaker, who has a knack for narrative-documentary hybrids. Like his debut, Welcome to Pine Hill, Five Star is considerably more interesting and emotionally involving than a thumb nail description would suggest. He has clear affinities for Brooklyn neighborhoods and those marginalized by society, as well as a keen ear for dialogue.

Five Star
is a small film, but it is uncomfortably intimate. Yet, even though it clocks in just under ninety minutes, Miller displays a bit of a tendency to meander now and then. Still, there is a real kick to the film when it connects. Recommended for those who admire DIY Brooklyn independent filmmaking, Five Star opens today (7/31) in LA at the Arena Cinema.