Review: ‘Asphalt City,’ starring Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Reis, Michael Carmen Pitt, Katherine Waterston and Mike Tyson

May 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Tye Sheridan in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

“Asphalt City”

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Asphalt City” (based on the novel “Black Flies”) features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian, Latin and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young rookie paramedic, who wants to eventually become a medical doctor, experiences harsh realities when he is paired with a middle-aged, jaded paramedic, as they work in a rough part of New York City. 

Culture Audience: “Asphalt City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and can tolerate a movie that’s too long for its weak plot and is filled with formulaic stereotypes and scummy characters.

Sean Penn in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

The long-winded “Asphalt City” clumsily mixes melodrama with long stretches of dullness. This turgid movie about two contrasting paramedic co-workers has a mismatched cast and an off-kilter story plagued with predictable clichés. This last third of “Asphalt City” (which has a total running time of 125 minutes) is very manipulative when it turns into a hollow soap opera that cannot be improved.

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, “Asphalt City” (formerly titled “Black Flies”) is based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel “Black Flies.” Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown co-wrote the “Asphalt City” adapted screenplay. “Asphalt City” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, an event for movies that are either artsy or commercially crowd-pleasing. “Asphalt City” is neither.

“Asphalt City” takes place in New York City, where the movie was filmed on location. The movie has two main characters, but the story is told from the perspective of the younger character. Ollie Cross (played by Tye Sheridan) is in his mid-to-late 20s and has just started a new job as an ambulance paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. Ollie has been assigned to work with Gene Rutkovsky (played by Sean Penn), who is in his early 60s and is trying not think about getting close to the age when many people retire.

Ollie is inexperienced and eager to please. Gene is jaded and gruff. There have been so many movies and TV shows with this character dynamic of a young rookie paired with a cynical veteran. If you’ve seen enough of these types of duos on screen, then you can easily predict how this movie is going to go. In these types of stories, the younger person loses some type of innocence when spending time being taught by the older, more experienced person. The older colleague is usually “corrupt” or morally ambiguous in one way or another.

Ollie and Gene (who does most of the ambulance driving when they work together) work in the crime-ridden, low-income East New York neighborhood in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. Ollie is a bachelor who lives with two Chinese-speaking roommates in New York City’s Manhattan borough. Not much else is revealed about Ollie except that he’s originally from Colorado, and he’s studying for entrance exams for an unnamed medical school because he eventually wants to become a medical doctor.

Gene is divorced and lives alone in Brooklyn. Gene admits that his marriages have been ruined mainly because he’s a workaholic and a philanderer. Gene doesn’t say how many times he’s been married, but there’s a scene where he visits his “most recent ex-wife” Nancy (played by Katherine Waterston), who has custody of their daughter Silvie (played by Onie Maceo Watlington), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Nancy doesn’t let Gene see Silvie until Gene has made the child support payments that he owes. In this scene, Gene brings Ollie along for this visit so that Gene can introduce Ollie to Sylvie, as if to prove that Gene is capable of being an attentive father.

Much of the screen time in “Asphalt City” consists of Ollie and Gene responding to medical emergencies. There are some scenes where people legitimately have to be taken to a hospital emergency room. Some of the violence in the movie is there for shock value, such as a scene where a boy at an apartment complex was hurt by a violent pit bull, and Ollie sees an angry mob of men take the dog outside while one of the men shoots and kills the dog.

Too many other paramedic scenes become annoying spectacles of Ollie and Gene dealing with mentally ill people who don’t need an ambulance but are just shouting and causing disturbances. These time-wasting filler scenes don’t add anything significant to the story at all. In between responding to these calls, Ollie and Gene have mostly forgettable conversations while they are driving in the ambulance.

Ollie begins casually dating a single mother named Clara (played by Raquel Nave), who met Ollie at a nightclub. Clara has an infant son and doesn’t talk about who the father of her baby is. Don’t expect to learn anything meaningful about Ollie or Clara in this relationship. The movie’s only purpose for this relationship is to show Ollie and Clara having sexual trysts, and Clara experiencing how the stress of Ollie’s job starts to affect him.

The co-workers of Ollie and Gene are two-dimensional characters if they have any speaking lines of dialogue. The boss of Ollie and Gene is Chief Burroughs (played by Mike Tyson), a typically no-nonsense supervisor. Tyson doesn’t embarrass himself in this role (mainly because his screen time in the movie is less than five minutes), but his acting skills are obviously not as good as many other people in the cast. A paramedic named Verdis (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) is very generic and has no real effect on the movie’s overall plot.

There’s an obnoxious paramedic co-worker named Lafontaine (played by Michael Carmen Pitt, also known as Michael Pitt), who sometimes goes in the same ambulance as Ollie and Gene. Lafontaine is a drug-abusing bully who has no qualms about stealing medication and illegal drugs when he’s working. Predictably, Lafontaine makes newcomer Ollie a target for some of the bullying. Lafontaine is yet another empty “Asphalt City” character with no backstory and with dialogue that goes nowhere.

The movie doesn’t take a turn from repetitive and pointless scenes until the last third of the story, when Ollie and Gene respond to a call about an unconscious, HIV+ woman named Nia (played by Kali Reis), who has given birth in her apartment, shortly after she overdosed on heroin. What happens to the baby becomes a source of conflict and leads to a very heavy-handed part of the movie.

Sheridan and Penn are not bad in their performances, but their acting isn’t outstanding either. They have both played these types of personalities (Sheridan as an earnest protégé, Penn as a shady mentor) in many other movies, so there’s nothing new to see here. The movie’s supporting characters don’t have enough depth to be impactful. Ultimately, “Asphalt City” shows a lot of urban grittiness and sleaze, but the emotional core of the movie has no real substance.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “Asphalt City” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024. The move was released on digital and VOD on April 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Catch the Fair One,’ starring Kali Reis

June 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kali Reis in “Catch the Fair One” (Photo by Ross Giardina)

“Catch the Fair One”

Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “Catch the Fair One” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A former boxing champ goes on a dangerous vendetta to find out what happened to her missing younger sister.

Culture Audience: “Catch the Fair One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful thrillers that explore issues of human trafficking, race and social class.

Kali Reis and Michael Drayer in “Catch the Fair One” (Photo by Ross Giardina)

How far would you go to search for a missing loved one? It’s question that viewers will think about when watching the dramatic film “Catch the Fair One,” which is about a tough boxer who goes on a difficult and often-violent journey to look for her missing younger sister, whom she believes has been kidnapped by human traffickers. Anchored by a memorable performance by Kali Reis, “Catch the Fair One” is more than just a crime vendetta story. It’s also about inequalities in race and social class, told from a Native American perspective that’s rarely shown on screen.

“Catch the Fair One,” written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. And it’s easy to see why the movie won the festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. What could have been a very formulaic and predictable story is really a taut thriller that takes a few unexpected twists and turns along the way while letting viewers see the world through the viewpoint of a very unique character.

Some viewers might have a hard time believing that Reis’ Kaylee Uppeshaw character can be capable of doing some of the extreme things that she does in the movie and still keep going. But viewers who might be put off by any seemingly improbable moments have to remember that Kaylee is someone who’s desperate and feels like she’s got nothing left to lose. It goes a long way in explaining many of her reckless actions.

Kaylee, whose nickname is K.O., used to be a boxer until a back injury essentially ended her boxing career. The movie doesn’t mention where in the U.S. that this story takes place, but “Catch the Fair One” was actually filmed in New York state. Kaylee now lives in a women’s shelter and works as a waitress at a small diner. And she’s apparently so financially desperate that she steals food from the diner’s kitchen. The diner’s manager Missy (played by Faye Lone) is aware of this theft, so she discreetly tells Kaylee that if Kaylee ever needs food, she can tell the kitchen workers before her shift, and they will set aside food for her.

Kaylee used to be an International Boxing Association middleweight champ (just like Reis in real life), but was never super-famous. Kaylee did well-enough in boxing that she became a local hero of sorts. (There are flahsback scenes of Kaylee boxing, so viewers can see how talented she is.) While working at the diner one day, a teenage boy approaches Kaylee and asks to take a selfie photo with her. She politely obliges. When the fan asks Kaylee why she doesn’t box anymore, she says it’s because of her bad back.

There’s a lot more than an abbreviated boxing career or her back injury that bothers Kaylee. She’s haunted by the disappearance of her younger teenage half-sister Weeta Uppeshaw, who has been missing since November 23, 2017. (Weeta, who is shown in photos and flashbacks, is played by Mainaku Borrero.) Kaylee attends a support group for loved ones of missing and murdered children, but it doesn’t really ease much of her pain.

Kaylee is biracial: Her mother Jaya (played by Kimberly Guerrero) is Native American, while her father (who is not seen in the movie) is of Cape Verdean heritage. Although she is biracial, Kaylee identifies as Native American, and almost everyone in her social circle is Native American, including her closest friend/trainer Brick (played by Shelly Vincent), a very butch-looking lesbian. However, Kaylee has a strained relationship with her mother.

There are several different reasons why this mother and daughter could be estranged from each other, but one of the main reasons seems to be that Jaya might blame Kaylee for Weeta’s disappearance. It’s assumed that Weeta has been kidnapped, because she’s described as a good and obedient teenager who wouldn’t run away. The question that haunts Weeta’s family and other loved ones is: Is Weeta dead or alive?

Kaylee also happens to be a lesbian or queer woman, and there are hints that Kaylee’s mother doesn’t approve of Kaylee’s sexual identity. There’s a scene in the movie where Kaylee meets with her mother to reluctantly ask for some money. Kaylee mentions that she broke up with a girlfriend named Megan two years ago, while her mother doesn’t seem to care to discuss Kaylee’s love life.

And there’s another reason why Kaylee and her mother have tension in their relationship: Kaylee is a recovering opioid addict (heroin was her drug of choice), so when she asks her mother for money, Jaya responds by saying that she won’t give Kaylee any money unless she’s certain that Kayla is really clean and sober. It’s an emotionally charged scene, filled with simmering resentments that partially come to the surface. Kaylee angrily blurts out to her mother to admit that Jaya wishes that Kaylee, not Weeta, should be been the daughter who went missing. Jaya never admits it, but this outburst is an example of how, even before Weeta’s disappearance, Kaylee felt like her mother treated her as inferior to Weeta.

Early on in the movie, a private investigator tells Kaylee that he has reason to believe that Weeta has been kidnapped by sex traffickers. Brick knows some shady characters, and one of them is a blonde prostitute named Lisa (played by Isabelle Chester), who secretly meets with Brick and Kaylee because the word is out that Kaylee is desperate to find Weeta. Lisa says that she recruits prostitutes for a thug named Danny (played by Michael Drayer), who uses the nickname The Bird. Lisa shows Kayla a picture of a teen prostitute who looks like Weeta, and she tells Lisa that this teenager currently works for a pimp named Bobby (played by Daniel Henshall), who is Danny’s boss.

This information sets Kaylee off on quest by herself to find Bobby, because she figures that once she finds Bobby, she might find Weeta or at least information on where Weeta could be. The rest of the movie shows what happens on this treacherous journey, which also involves Bobby’s other family members: his wife Linda (played by Tiffany Chu); their underage son Bobby Jr. (played by Wesley Leung); Bobby’s father Willie (played by Kevin Dunn); and Bobby’s mother Debra (played by Lisa Emery).

Danny and Jeremiah (played by Sam Seward) are among the henchmen who come up against Kaylee, who is a formidable opponent. One of Kaylee’s quirks is that she keeps a razor blade hidden in her mouth, even when she’s sleeping. There’s a lot of brutal violence in the movie, including a home invasion that involves kidnapping, torture and murder. However, no matter what Kaylee does that can be considered heinous, Reis never loses humanity in her portrayal of Kaylee, who feels that she has run out of options. Kaylee might seem to be gritty and stoic, but her vulnerability is never far from the surface.

Kaylee does not have any plan except to find her sister, so she gets caught up in extreme situations that she does not anticipate. Although it’s not said outright in the movie, the context of her desperate search is that Kaylee has taken the law into her own hands because the police don’t care about finding a Native American girl, even a “good girl” like Weeta. If you consider that countless Native American females go missing, but their disappearances are rarely covered by the media, it’s easy to see why Kaylee feels that she’s not going to sit around and hope that law enforcement or the media will help in her search for Kaylee.

The 2017 crime thriller “Wind River” touched on this problem of U.S. law enforcement often sidelining Native American female crime victims, compared to white females who are victims of the same crimes. There’s no political preaching in “Catch the Fair One,” but the overtones about race and social class are there when it’s shown who are the men in charge of this human trafficking ring and why they feel so emboldened. “Catch the Fair One” does not offer any simple solutions to this systemic problem, because simple solutions realistically and tragically often don’t exist.

UPDATE: IFC Films will release “Catch the Fair One” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 11, 2022.

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