No translation needed to grasp slow Chicano melodrama

Spoken Word

on July 23, 2010 by John P. McCarthy

It takes the Mexican-American melodrama Spoken Word a long time to express myriad sentiments that we've heard uttered many times before in many ethnic settings. Being centered on a Latino wordsmith-cum-performance artist doesn't really enliven the earnest effort. The performances of Kuno Becker as the aforementioned prodigal poet and Rubén Blades as his dying father ultimately help it avoid triteness and tedium. Not surprisingly, the Victor Nunez-helmed piece will elicit the warmest reactions in Hispanic markets, but it's proof that a knack for spinning verse is no guarantee of street cred in any culture.

Cruz Montoya (Becker) shoulders a number of burdens. He's a bi-polar recovering drug addict and alcohol abuser. He lost his mother at a young age and, more recently, a close friend shot himself in Cruz's living room. The latter incident apparently launched Cruz on his career as an urban poet. We meet the handsome twentysomething, now clean and sober, living with his painter girlfriend (Persia White) in the Bay Area. When not slamming down verbiage in West Coast cafes, he and a poet friend teach kids from Oakland's inner-city how to express themselves.

One November day Cruz gets word that his father has pancreatic cancer. After a three-year absence, he returns home to Santa Fe, New Mexico where neither Cruz Senior (Blades) nor his yuppified younger brother (Antonio Elias) is very happy to see him. The only two people that are genuinely excited are his childhood pal-turned-junky, George (Maurice Compte), and his former boss, nightclub owner and shady businessman, Emilio (Miguel Sandoval in oily, villainous mode).

Emilio wants Cruzito to once again manage a downtown hip-hop club, the scene of his former drugging and drinking. Since he's decided to stick around for the holidays to care for and mend fences with his father, he agrees--against his better judgment. Things get worse before they get better, but all's well eventually, in spite and because of the Grim Reaper's inevitable yuletide appearance. The enmity between father and son, and brother and brother, evaporates thanks in part to the bonding properties of a Chevy Impala that Senior, a retired teacher and amateur painter, has always prized.

Based on the experiences of Sante Fe poet and performance artist Joe Ray Sandoval, Spoken Word's primary flaw is that it takes its own sweet time. (Hence the snoring of the fellow seated next to me in one of Gotham's smaller screening rooms.) It plays ponderous, although Nunez (Ulee's Gold) is able to squeeze quite a bit of feeling out of the emotional climax, with Blades delivering understated authenticity and Becker wisely taking his cue from his elder castmate.

These quiet moments of touching family interaction are set up by a vision of machismo that exists despite the artistic tendencies of the males involved. It should be noted that the two female characters are strictly Madonna figures, nurturing and gently nudging their wounded men no matter how much guff or neglect they get in return. Having its Latino bona fides in tact and including a sprinkling of Spanish-language expressions doesn't prevent Spoken Word from feeling bland. Canned lines such as "Don't shut me out," uttered before Cruz even has a chance to absorb news of his father's illness, don't help.

The movie's defenders can point to lensing that nicely juxtaposes Georgia O'Keefe reminiscent backdrops with images of a lower-middle class Hispanic community tattered by drugs and crime. Less convincingly, they may cite the novelty of Cruz's literary vocation and the passages in which he recites his poetry in voice over, accompanied by relatively abstract visuals. It's difficult to form a strong opinion, pro or con, about the words themselves or the spoken-poetry movement they channel. Nunez visualizes these protagonist-P.O.V. bridges with tasteful restraint, but they don't impress one way or the other.

Communication may be essential to healthy relationships, and a few choice words amongst family members may promote fast healing. Yet just as ethnic dramas can be as tame and soporific as the whitest, white-bread scenario, linguistic dexterity does not ensure a vital motion picture. Advice Cruz gives to one of his writing students gets at what's missing: he exhorts him to "go deeper; move from the general to the specific." While in many respects Spoken Word is adequately specific, it's still not very deep.

Distributor: Variance Films
Cast: Kuno Becker, Ruben Blades, Miguel Sandoval, Persia White, Antonio Elias and Monique Curnen
Director: Victor Nunez
Screenwriters: William T. Conway and Joe Ray Sandoval
Producers: Karen Koch and William T. Conway
Genre: Drama
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 116 min.
Release date: July 23 NY, July 30 LA


Tags: Kuno Becker, Ruben Blades, Miguel Sandoval, Persia White, Antonio Elias, Monique Curnen, Victor Nunez, William T. Conway, Joe Ray Sandoval, Karen Koch

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