Off Jackson Avenue -- Film Review

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Taking a page from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's playbook, "Off Jackson Avenue" follows three sets of characters whose lives connect in an unexpected way. At least writer-director John-Luke Montias, who also has a featured role in the film, makes things a tad easier for the audience by not scrambling the narrative timeline as "Babel" and "21 Grams" did. "Off Jackson Avenue" also thankfully forgoes the overbearing melodrama that threatened to tip those movies into the realm of camp.

On the other hand, you can always count on an Inarritu pic to feature a terrific ensemble of actors and impeccable production values, two things that are missing from Montias' low-budget effort. Of course, it's not fair to hold a DIY indie production to the same kind of technical standard as a studio-backed movie, but choppy camerawork and editing as well as awkward performances from some give the movie an amateurish feel that limits its artistic and commercial ambitions.

The first and best of the stories follows Olivia (Jessica Pimentel), a young woman who has made the long journey from Mexico to New York after supposedly being offered a job in a successful restaurant. Instead, she's escorted to a nondescript house in Queens, where her passport and luggage are taken and she's forced to "entertain" a rotating crew of male clients.

Meanwhile, a Japanese assassin (Jun Suenaga) lands in New York and is tasked with executing the operator of this prostitution ring, a volatile Albanian gangster. And in another part of Queens, small-time hustler Joey (Montias) risks jail time by continuing to steal cars to raise the funds to set up his own legit business.

Eventually, these characters do cross paths, but when that moment arrives, don't expect a lot of emotional payoff. That's not exactly a flaw, by the way; the casual, almost absurd randomness of their encounter feels more authentic than the more elaborate (and, to be honest, highly improbable) interpersonal connections in "Babel."

At the same time, though, it does make Montiel's decision to give all three stories equal screen time harder to justify. Certainly, Olivia's plight is far more compelling than Joey's car-jacking antics or his strained relationship with his elderly uncle. Although Suenaga gives the strongest performance in the film, his story line is undermined by a poorly conceived subplot involving the assassin's ailing mother, who lies on her deathbed in Japan while he's carrying out his current assignment.

Shot on 16mm, "Avenue" has an agreeably gritty visual look that echoes slice-of-life New York stories from the '70s and '80s including "The Landlord" and Bette Gordon's "Variety." Unfortunately, Montias doesn't demonstrate a strong eye for composition, and individual shots don't always cut together smoothly. There are several impressive scenes, but taken as a whole, the film is weighed down by significant creative and technical missteps.

Opens: Friday, July 17 (Goltzius Prods)
Production: Goltzius Prods. in association with the Group Entertainment and Multivisionnaire Pictures
Cast: Jessica Pimentel, Stivi Paskosi, Jun Suenaga, Aya Cash, Gene Ruffini, John-Luke Montias, Dan Oreskes, Judith Hawking, Michale Gnat
Director-screenwriter: John-Luke Montias
Producer: Michiel Pilgram
Executive producer: Gill Holland
Director of photography: George Gibson
Production designer: Tamar Gadish
Costume designer: Sandra Alexandre
Music: Ed Tomney
Editor: Michiel Pilgram
No rating, 80 minutes