"Samoan Wedding"; "Romantico"

Robert Avila January 16, 2007

SF360.org introduces a new Tuesday feature: weekly reviews of films playing Bay Area theaters.

Formula doesn’t disappoint in “Samoan Wedding”

Incorrigible boy-men redeeming themselves as a unit — which, ironically, usually means breaking up the brotherhood to admit female companionship — is a theme very popular in movies of the last quarter-century or so. A bazillion growing-up-in-da-Bronx (or Joisey, or wherever) sagas were then joined by the new subgenre of “Full Monty”-type seriocomedies in which losers change their luck via some climactic community act.

Has this formula arisen because younger male audiences (and filmmakers) are taking longer and longer to abandon the adolescent pack mentality? Maybe — but hey, I’m just a film critic, not an armed and licensed sociologist.

Anyway, the several-guys-and-a-conflict dramedy is a conceit that has crossed nearly every cultural border. The new New Zealand delight “Samoan Wedding” is set in the Samoan community of Auckland, home to the world’s single largest Polynesian population. This very funny, accessible movie isn’t going to win any prize for conceptual originality. But the reason formulas exist is because sometimes they really work.

The four 30-ish protagonists aren’t bad guys, really … just very naughty. Their variably drunken, horny, fight-picking antics end up creating anarchy every time they party together. In particular, they’ve created an embarrassing denouement — sometimes including the arrival of police — to every wedding attended in recent history. After the latest such debacle (duly captured on videotape, like all the others), community elders call them on the carpet and summarily ban them from all future weddings. This presents a special problem as Michael (Robbie Magasiva) is supposed to be best man at his younger brother Sione’s (Pua Magasiva) imminent nuptials.

Begging a second chance, the quartet are told they might get back on guest lists if they demonstrate a little grown-up-itude by bringing girlfriends — not just onetime dates, but committed relationships.
The boys set about wooing available prospects, only to face universal rebuffs at first — their rep has well preceded them.

Hunky Michael’s myriad, mostly married white-chick conquests consider him exotic-erotic entertainment, not meet-the-parents material. Tyree a.k.a. Stanley (Iaheto Ah Hi) is such a wannabe-gangsta hiphop head he can hardly get past fantasies of doing some Beyonce-lookalike. Shy, bespectacled Albert (Oscar Kightley) doesn’t grok that corporate-cubicle neighbor Jane (Karena Lyons) likes him “that way.” Only Sefa (Shimpal Lelisi) has an actual, even live-in girlfriend, Leilani (Teuila Blakely), and she is already just about over his sorry cheating too-drunk-to-f- (at home) ass.

It’s the nature of the game that these guys are going to straighten up and fly right. But this is one case where cinematic familiarity breeds success. The performances are exuberantly winning; Chris Graham directs with style, energy and dead-on comic timing, actor Kightley and James Griffin’s script juggles laughs and rooting interest with seeming ease.

It’s always tricky to use a time-proven formula yet summon up enough genuine emotion to avoid coming off last year’s marketing-strategy meeting in celluloid form. “Samoan Wedding” does the trick.
Why can so few similar Hollywood projects boast the same? Maybe too many pre-production meetings strangle them in the cradle. After all, as nine out of ten employees of anything, anywhere will tell you: More meetings = more worker grief = worse product.

Only management-level personnel would suggest otherwise. But of course…they dictate our reality. On a more prosaic note, “Samoan Wedding” deserves to be seen on the big screen, but fear not if you miss it: Strangely, it comes out on DVD here mid-February.

“Romantico” mines the life of a Mission musician, and finds gold

Mark Becker’s absorbing documentary charts the journey and tribulation of Carmelo Muniz Sanchez, a mild-mannered but quietly intense 57-year-old Mexican musician and illegal immigrant who returns home after years plying the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District with fellow troubadour and pal Arturo Arias Garcia. We meet both men on a typical night as they work the local taverns, taquerías, and restaurants serenading the clientele for gratuities. Such Latin troubadours are a familiar sight in the heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhood, with its hearty mix of immigrant working-class, indigent, trendsters, slummers, gastronomes, and artists –