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Somewhere in the City
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Ridiculously pegged as a Robert Altman version of Friends, director Ramin Niami's Somewhere in the City takes as its inspiration the way that New Yorkers share so much close space but still know so little about each other. The film's half-dozen or so plotlines all involve the residents of one apartment building in a downtown Manhattan walk-up. The cast is a wacky mix of local legends and indie darlings including Sandra Bernhard, Peter Stormare (Fargo), Bai Ling, and Robert John Burke, and the stories are cute and urbane but with a sweetness that helps the movie work better than it probably should.
The main characters include Betty (Bernhard), a therapist who can't find Mr. Right, Lu Lu (Bai), a Chinese immigrant looking for Mr. Green-Card, and Marta (Ornella Muti), the wife of the super who's also having an affair with Frankie (Burke), a crook with constant designs on the next score. The film weaves in and out of these people's lives (and others, including Stormare's actor Graham and Paul Anthony Stewart's Leftist radical Che) without ever really tying it all up in a satisfying way, but the combination of downtown flavor and fine performances makes the film more compelling.
The cast is universally good but a few performers stand out. Bai Ling is touching as the confused Lu Lu. She seems a woman without a real sense of self as she auditions potential husbands in her apartment and seems completely overwhelmed (Later she dives into the city's nightlife and her transformation is fun to watch.) Stormare is also terrific as the gay actor and mentor for younger wannabes. His performance is as far from his Fargo psycho as can be. Muti is also really good. The Italian actress, who has an extensive filmography overseas, will be new to most viewers, but she's likeable and engaging.
In addition to the lead actors there are a few appearances by notable New York personalities, including weird rock band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, late night TV host Al Goldstein (seen briefly hosting his show Midnight Blue), and a lengthy cameo from former mayor Ed Koch later on. These bits don't make the film but they do add some local flavor.
Similarly helpful is the score by John Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground. His work here is moody and effective. It has a dissonant downtown vibe that works with the fragmented multiple character style of the script.
The full-frame video is not pretty. Dark and gritty with noticeable grain and a lack of detail, this is one low-budget looking film. There's also a good amount of dirt on the print at times. A lack of Hollywood slickness is not a bad thing at all but the print and transfer here obviously don't look their best. It's a shame because Niami's compositions are dense with atmosphere and clutter, all rendered rather poorly here.
The 2.0 audio is similarly run-of-the-mill. Like many indie releases this one is lacking in the technical departments, something that may be unavoidable, but will certainly hurt the appeal of this disc to many.
A trailer (pretty rough looking) and photo gallery are available, along with director's bio and selection of trailers for other releases from First Run Features.
Somewhere in the City has some memorable moments and a few fine performances but a lackluster (and overpriced) DVD release will prevent this little film from finding a wider audience. It's a shame since fans of urban indie flicks will find a lot to like here.