"Take Out" (2004)
Possibly the most devastating slice of neorealism since "The Bicycle Thief," Baker's powerful drama (co-directed by Shih-Ching Tsou) focuses on illegal Chinese immigrant Ming Ding (Charles Jang) and, like the filmmaker's previous film, takes place over the course of a single day. Separated from his wife and child by thousands of miles, Ming struggles through his thankless job while attempting to rescue himself from a punishing debt that has put his life in danger. Navigating the treacherous urban terrain on a creaky bike, he dashes from one location to the next in search of a few measly tips. Both suspenseful and sad, "Take Out" turns the city into Ming's biggest foe, with its never-ending traffic and oppressively bright colors that continually threaten to bury his plight. You'll never forget to leave a tip again.
Criticwire grade: A
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Kino released the film on DVD and Indiewire parent company SnagFilms has the film available in its digital library. You can watch it in its entirely below:
"Prince of Broadway" (2008)
Another tale of an illegal immigrant working in the fashion district, "Prince of Broadway" takes a more upbeat approach by borrowing the tried-and-true conventions of the reluctant-parenthood comedy. The suave Lucky (Prince Adu), a Ghana immigrant who works for the hustling Armenian Levon (Karren Karagulian, who surfaces in all of Baker's films), spends his days selling counterfeit merchandise to unwitting American tourists. One day, a woman he barely remembers shows up and leaves him with a two-year-old boy whom he's told is his son. Taking the adorable child home, the befuddled Lucky gets thrust into the responsibilities of fatherhood against his will, a simultaneously hilarious and unsettling process that forces him to reconsider his high-stakes profession. Baker maintains a bittersweet vibe throughout, in large part thanks to Adu's ability to remain likable in spite of his character's many flaws. The movie makes the case for why Baker should make studio films -- or, rather, why movies like "Prince of Broadway" should supplant them.
Criticwire grade: A+
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Netflix subscribers can watch the film in its entirely online. It is also available on DVD.
Watch the trailer below:
Focused on a pair of women in California's San Fernando Valley, "Starlet" lacks the same emotional consistency of Baker's earlier films but nevertheless succeeds as a compelling look at the vapidity of day-to-day life and the universal desire to escape it. The story revolves around 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway), a sleepy-eyed stoner who wastes her days hanging with her roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone). Driving around town with her requisite Chihuahua -- whose name provides the movie's title -- Jane looks like a walking stereotype of American laziness. Her seedy profession, revealed at the beginning of the second act, only furthers this perception. (It shouldn't be a spoiler to mention it, but Baker positions it as such; curious types can figure it out with the help of a Google search.) Although the details behind her arrival in L.A. never come up, it's clear that Jane has erected a mental wall that prevents her from making progress in life. Hemingway brings enough vulnerability to the character to make her an intriguing subject, but Baker has broader aims. After nabbing a random vase at a neighborhood garage sale, Jane faces a Talmudic conundrum when she discovers that it's filled with $10,000. Does she return the money or not? She tracks down the owner, reclusive 85-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson), and, without revealing her intentions, Jane falls into a curiously supportive relationship with her. Using the same anthropological approach he brought to his previous films, Baker depicts Jane's lifestyle by stripping away its glamorous elements to peer at the reality beneath. (Read the full review from SXSW here.)
Criticwire grade: B+
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Music Box films releases the film in New York this Friday at the Landmark Sunshine and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Other cities will follow.
Watch the trailer below: