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CrankyCritic® movie reviews:
Joe the King

Starring Noah Fleiss, Ethan Hawke, Val Kilmer, John Leguizamo, Max Ligosh, Camryn Manheim
Written and Directed by Frank Whaley
no website

IN SHORT: Emotionally numbing, heavy duty flick for the arthouses. [Rated [R], 93 minutes]

Cranky tends to sound like a broken record at Oscar wannabe time of the year, 'cuz it's a well worn rule of thumb I use for evaluating "indie" movies: If the material is well written enough and well acted enough that the film delivers an emotional effect, even if you don't like that effect, then it has succeeded. The independent films, pretty much across the board, don't go for the happy ending route and definitely utilized higher quantities of brain power in their creation -- when you're working on a minuscule budget that's a necessity -- and most fail because they're too damned self-indulgent. That is not the case with Joe The King, written and directed by actor Frank Whaley, who called in some some star name friends to fill out the cast. Good writing will do that, though Cranky did feel that he had spent an hour and a half with ever increasing weights being placed on his chest, making it increasingly hard to breath, that's how emotionally affecting this movie is.

Set in the 1970s opening with a nine year old Joe Henry (Peter Tambakis) is a poverty level child in a family unit that is barely holding itself together. His father (Val Kilmer) is a drunkard and the janitor in the school Joe attends. Joe's humiliations begin in school; Joe is bare-assed spanked in front of his class by a vicious teacher (Camryn Manheim). It's established early that Joe is an outsider, with perhaps two friends to his name. He smokes cigarettes between classes and doesn't think twice about petty theft.

Five years later, dad is unemployed and hiding from debtors, all of whom use Joe to send "messages" to pay up. Mom (Karen Young) is working all the time. Older brother Mike (Max Ligosh) is doing his best to hold his own and find a life. 14 year old Joe (Noah Fleiss) is washing dishes in a local restaurant, eating scraps off the plates and stealing food to feed his brother. His father, in a drunken rage, destroys the only physical possessions that mean anything to his mom, her record collection. Are you getting that sense of an ever-growing weight on your chest?

Writer/director Frank Whaley's script is crystal clear -- you know in your gut that you're watching a kidlet who could be dead by 18. Petty thefts turn to grand larceny and all the conversation you will have afterward will center on the realization that the motivation behind all this kidlet's actions is a deep and unreturned love for his parents. I'll say no more than that.

All the grownup actors involved, especially Kilmer, are firing on all cylinders regardless of whether or not their characters are pathetic or desperate or sympathetic. Ethan Hawke plays the school guidance counselor John Leguizamo holds a substantial supporting role as a busboy stud in the restaurant where Joe works; the only adult male who watches out for the kid. That doesn't make him a positive character, it just means he's the only oasis of guidance in a world where everyone is drunk, scared, desperate ... you get the picture

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Joe the King, he would have paid...


That's about as high as I'll go for films so perfect for the arthouse circuit. There may be a little bit of hope to be gleaned from the film's ending, but not enough to offset the emotional pressure the film, as a whole, exerts.

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2016   by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.