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by Jay Seaver

"Trying to build something in the Motor City."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are a lot of actors where following the usual advice to "write what you know" will not get them the noteworthy part they crave; former Detroit landlord Nickola Shreli is not one of them. He has probably never been in the sort of binds that his character has, but he and director Malik Bader have built a tense little film about an underseen environment, so it was at least a good starting place.

The movie itself doesn't start in a great place, as Elvis Martini (Shreli) sets a fire in a building he owns for the insurance, only to realize with horror that his wife is inside. Two years later, he's raising his daughter alone and quite broke: The bank is threatening to foreclose on his other building, being a fellow Albanian-American will only get him so far with the loan shark he owes ten grand, his daughter Lena is out of school because he can't pay the tuition, and one of the only two of his tenants that will pay the rent on time is using the basement to grow weed. When he evicts Rolexa (Maia Noni), a call girl who hasn't paid her rent in three months, he finds a bag of cash that won't completely get him out from under, but will go a long way. Except, of course, that this would be the first time in movie history that taking a bag of money that's just laying around would keep things from getting much, much worse.

The filmmakers take their time getting there, though that's not something to complain about. Neighborhoods that are at least partly ethnic enclaves like the Hamtramck area of Detroit have personalities and rhythms that the audience needs to get used to, and getting to know the world that "Visi" lives in and his place in it is an important part of the movie. It also gives the filmmakers time to plant that Elvis isn't really taking things seriously enough in the viewer's head, letting both a fondness for the character and the possibility that things will go very wrong build simultaneously.

At least, I suspect that many will grow fond of the flawed Elvis. Shreli invests him with a friendly, upbeat personality - he seems to genuinely like most people, and even his occasional snarkiness seems more like friendly ribbing than actual disdain - that has a bit of a flip side as it tends toward laziness or otherwise taking the easy way out. It packs the guilt over his wife's death down tight, but even the explosions when someone mentions it feel unforceful - not half-hearted, but too diffuse to really do much damage. And as things go to hell in the second half of the movie, Shreli makes sure that, as much as this is a focusing event for Elvis, it's not one that immediately redefines who he is. He's panicked even if he's acting decisively, not suddenly brilliant. There's an amiability to this guy, able to overshadow if not erase his potential for fierceness, but always the nagging sense that you shouldn't count on him.

That's going to be rough, because the last act puts him in a nearly-impossible situation, and Shreli and Bader do an excellent job of cranking up the tension. Just as with the first half of the movie and its slice-of-life tendencies, there's never a moment that rings false here as each demand made on Elvis and each problem he creates for tomorrow to deal with today feels like the logical next step. That's doubly impressive because the climax are not grounded at all - late addition to the action Stivi Paskoski plays his gangster as sadistic and really willing to go that extra mile to be cruel in a way that serves as a direct counter to Elvis in many ways. The final confrontation is kind of shockingly over-the-top and impressively bloody, but probably works best because saving Lena is going to require Elvis to think one step ahead for once in his life, and who knows if he can do that?

Bader makes a great picture out of Shreli's script. Things seem a bit shaky early - literally, in the case of the prologue - but he and his collaborators do an excellent job building a story out of small bits that add up to plenty more. The group shows Detroit in kind of rough shape but not the ruins often used to depict the city, which is a nice change. Bader and cinematographer Christos Moisides go for a widescreen frame, which is a somewhat unusual choice for a relatively contained story, but fill it well without making things larger than life. They also capture very different feelings for day and night.

Shreli wrote himself a pretty good part, and Bader made it into a nice movie, especially for not having a lot of resources at their disposal. The heavily Albanian-American cast gives it a different feel, even if it's a story that has a lot of the expected basics.

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originally posted: 07/25/15 04:54:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Malik Bader

Written by
  Nickola Shreli

  Nickola Shreli
  Stivi Paskoski
  Danijela Stajnfeld

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