by Jason Whyte
People like Steve and Rocky scare me. They represent everything that can happen due to the desanitization of the media and violence to children. They see R rated films, they spend their money on the wrong things, and it's all in the media. "They're a symptom, not the cause!," shouts a character being held up in Ash's second film, "Pups". After watching it, I thought that I had been through the whole cause.This film premiered two days before the Columbine massacre in 1999. The distributor, Monarch Films, was planning a theatrical run with the film, but feared its subject matter would cause an outrage and pulled distribution, causing the film to survive only in festival screenings, a few public screenings in LA, then a release on video and DVD. It may take some work to find "Pups," but it is worth the reward.
"Kids will be kids."
One of the opening images is absolutely terrifying: 13 year old Steven (Cameron Von Hoy) is in extreme close-up on a video monitor, attempting to commit suicide. It turns out to be a hoax, but as he mentions later, he learned how to do stuff like that on TV. Steven then finds something in his mom's room. His girlfriend Rocky (Mischa Barton) waltzes by later, and he shows what he has found: a .44 magnum revolver, fully loaded. Where was it? "In my mother's bag in the closet," Steven boasts, and as they walk to school, an ashmatic Steven takes the gun with him (without telling Rocky), and starts to go crazy with the idea of doing something with it. Rob a bank.
Steven thinks this is all a game, that he's entering a bank as a kid with one gun, holding up everyone (well, maybe not everyone, just a few tellers and a customer or two). Rocky is terrified but eventually goes along with it. And at the outset of the game, a negotiator (Burt Reynolds...yes, Burt Reynolds) tries to match wits with the 13 year old.
Ash is a notable director for his way of making films feel all to real with uses of the camera and editing. The camera doesn't follow in the way Robert Altman or Woody Allen would do; Ash creates a loose, documentary feel to the movie, as if it is another character. Ash made a film in 1997 called "Bang" that featured Darling Narita (who plays Joy, a hostage in this film) as a down-on-her-luck woman who gets in trouble with the police, handcuffs the cop to a tree and proceeds around the town wearing the police outfit. It wasn't a groundbreaking film, but an interesting one in the way Ash played with the audience's mind. "Pups" has the same kind of raw power: even though we will probably never rob a bank in our lives, we do wonder what it would feel like. Viewers will no doubt question their attitudes to the subject matter in this movie, object to the antics of the children, obviously, but still be taken aback from it.
"Pups" also is revealing on how children respond to violence. Steven and Rocky fly around the bank, like "Bonnie and Clyde" (even referring to that film a few times), wired on the fact they are on television, live. At one point, even Kurt Loder of MTV shows up to do an interview, which turns out to be one of the strongest moments in the film. As the kid talks to Loder and he is asked many important questions, we discover one thing: this kid just doesn't give a shit.
While the urgent sequences are in full force in the film, there is some subtle intimacy with the strangers in the bank communicating with one another, trying to figure a way out of the situation. There's a scene where Rocky gets her first period in the middle of the robbery, and she brings a female customer in the restroom with her to help her through it. Another involves a wheelchair veteran (Adam Farrell) who slightly pushes the kids on.
The lead is Cameron Von Hoy, who is absolutely devastating as Steven. We come to hate him throughout the film, but he is absolutely realistic as a kid doomed to the images he has seen, his ashtma (which, obviously, does not fare well in Los Angeles) which brings him down throughout. He's more natural than many child performers at his age. Mischa Barton, who I have been a fan of since I saw "Lawn Dogs," isn't the center of attention of the movie, but is shattering as well in the way her boyfriend leads her on to the path of danger. Burt Reynolds is very good as a negotiator who doesn't take any crap from the kids ("This isn't a movie!") and keeps getting calls from his family on the phone. The only weak link are some of the adult hostages, who bring unwanted comic timing in some scenes.Ash has made a disturbing, powerful film that feels all too real. The Columbine incidents may have happened as the film came out, which is too bad. How I found this distrubing was that I was in Los Angeles a few years ago, and a hostage crisis was underway at a Target department store the first morning I was in the city, and the TV footage in this movie was too similar for words. I was astonished. But that's good; a film that makes us question our own instincts on how we respond to people like Steven and Rocky, is not only a reward of the film, but also our own.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=3493&reviewer=350
originally posted: 09/14/04 15:37:45