Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel
 MONUMENT AVE. (1998)  **

Directed by Ted Demme. Screenplay by Mike Armstrong. Photography, Adam Kimmel. Editing, Jeffrey Wolf. Production design, Ruth Ammon. Music supervision, Amanda Scheer-Demme. Prodcuers, Jim Serpico. Cast: Denis Leary, Jason Barry, Billy Crudup, John Diehl, Greg Dulli, Noah Emmerich, Ian Hart, Famke Janssen, Colm Meany, Martin Sheen, Jeanne Tripplehorn, et al. A Lions Gate release. 90 minutes. Not rated.(Violence, language, drugs).


In the 19th century arts, reaction to romanticism begat realism (mostly in France) which begat naturalism, which begat verismo (in Italy), which, in the 1940s, begat Italy's neorealism in movies, which begat various types of neo-naturalist films in America and elsewhere.

Monument Ave. is a slice-of-life movie that leaves the viewer uncertain as to whether it is plain realism (telling it like it is) or mixed with naturalism (heredity, environment, circumstances beyond their control determine the life and fate of the characters).The film has its share of atmosphere but is lacking in explanations, motivations, and development of characters.

Charlestown, a one square mile Boston enclave of Irish-Americans, is a depressing location. Monument Avenue separates its blue-collar area from the part that apparently is being yuppieized by outsiders. Only the drabness of its "natives" and their homes is shown. Within this, the focus is almost exclusively on insular low-lifes, specifically a group of five pals who drink a lot, talk a lot, snort coke and are what's usually described as "petty thieves," an expression that makes me wonder where "petty" starts and where it  stops. Their specialty seems to be car thefts, under the tutelage of Bobby O'Grady (Leary).

The first thing you might notice is that the United Kingdom does not have an exclusive in local accents. The Charlestownites' speech  can be as tricky as cockney. As they gab, their sentences often overlap; many conversations are set bars with distracting ambient noises; some accents come and go -- not  a major objection given the devilish difficulty performers have with accents. The sound recording is not adequately sharp. To follow the dialogue is a problem. Not that the audience misses much, as the talk is less than fascinating. In one of the clearest arguments, the pals are discussing movie actors and specifically female breasts, natural or siliconed.

This is one of the more picturesque bits in the movie. Another is the opening, a skillfully done sequence that looks like a car chase at night, but is not. It has marginal relevance to the story, such as it is. A third, most suspenseful and frightening, has the boys grab, insult, mistreat and almost shoot an unfortunate black man who had wandered onto their turf.

Several of the characters display crosses hanging from their necks, but religion does not go a long way with these men and women. Nor does their very limited vocabulary in which the only clearly uttered words are the f-verb and the f-adjective. They are used perhaps 1,350 times, or once per four seconds, which makes the film a champion in the Guinness Book of Records.

In the bars (more exactly, gloomy pubs), both nothing and everything goes on. A friend just out of jail, suspected of having talked too much to the cops, is executed Mafia-style -- the way many Mafiosi are gunned down in restaurants. The Irish code of silence (called omerta in the Mafia) makes the witnesses tell  police inspector Hanlon (Sheen) that they saw nothing. He has already guessed that their alibi will be "I was in the bathroom." "21 guys in the bathroom at the same time?" marvels Hanlon in one of the very few bits of (sinister) levity of the movie.

The petty thieves have no capo, no don, no godfather, as in the Mafia, yet there is a puppet-master,  Jackie O'Hara, called rather too cutely Jackie O, as sometimes Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was. He is played fairly interestingly by Colm Meany who justly became famous for his lovable Irish father in the wonderful The Snapper (U.K., 1993). His subsequent film roles, both light and heavy, have not been impressive -- although he is very good in the not-yet-released Claire Dolan.

Jackie is unloquacious by Irish standards. Behind his show of friendliness, is a quietly menacing figure, that of a benefactor to some locals whom he helps with donations -- or loans that place them under his thumb. There's a current of antagonism between him and Bobby, who, presumably the smartest of a sad lot, a candidate for first place among the boys in the hood, a man conscious of Jackie's manipulations.(This is spelled out in an explosion of tempers during in an awkward hockey-on-asphalt game).

Leary has presence, cool and not overdone within the film's context, and with glimmers that may make you say about him :"What a waste! He could have done better things." The rest of the characters are merely unexplored sketches.

The plot is minimal -- but that's no criticism. Real life does not always have plot material in it, so that the lack of it would not have been a drawback had more care been lavished on the characters. Were the film-makers thinking that their creatures were so empty that there was no way to round them out? Instead, the film concentrates on mood, more atmospheric than artificially colorful -- and does this well. Even so, the photography may have tried too hard to be uncompromisingly realistic by shunning the use of supplementary lighting, so that some interior scenes remain too dark and eye-straining.

At picture's end, suspense does pick up. I will not give away the details, but it is unlikely that when gunplay explodes, the dancers right next door to it do not seem to hear it; and that inspector Hanlon appears within seconds. Also, the death of a character just as he had decided he wanted out, is too neat a cliche of tragic irony.

It's a sad little film. As an abused girl --Jackie's mistress who has, on the side, an affair with Bobby--states: "Nothing's gonna change."

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel