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On the Outs is about life on the streets, so let’s get the inevitable adjectives out of the way: It’s gritty. And at times shocking. And almost always heartbreaking. This first collaboration between freshman writer-director Lori Silverbush and documentary filmmaker Michael Skolnik interweaves the stories of three teenage girls living in the most crime-ridden parts of Jersey City. One’s a dealer. One’s an addict. One lives a relatively sheltered life until she gets involved with a thug.

Even though it’s based on actual events, On the Outs is dispassionate enough to never trumpet that fact. Silverbush, Skolnik, and actress Paola Mendoza, who plays one of the lead characters and is credited as a co-creator on the film’s Web site, began developing On the Outs by setting up an acting and writing program in a New Jersey juvenile-detention center. Working with a selection of the inmates’ stories, the trio set out to cast actors who came from backgrounds similar to the kids’; they also invited the detainees to give their input during production.

The result, shot on quivering digital video, feels as disturbingly real as 2003’s similarly themed Girlhood. The film’s biggest flaw might be its opening, with the directors’ messy storytelling introducing you to all three girls and the people in their lives in such quick succession that it can be difficult to grasp their circumstances. But then again, Silverbush and Skolnik might be intentionally keeping viewers unsure and unsettled—after all, that’s an appropriate way to depict lives as unsure and unsettled as their main characters’.

Oz (Raising Victor Vargas’ Judy Marte), the dealer, for example, is introduced getting released from a detention facility and going home to a mentally challenged man, Chuey (Dominic Colon), whose relationship to her isn’t clear. Later, a family gathering reveals him as Oz’s brother. And the woman who looks to be about the same age as Oz? That’s her mother. The middle-aged woman at the table is Grandma.

A progressive sense of time is lacking, too, though one can’t imagine that any one of the girls’ days is much different than any other. Fifteen-year-old Suzette (Anny Mariano), baby-faced and naive, gets impregnated by Tyrell (Don Parma), an older dealer who hangs out with loud, chest-thumping gangstas who like to get wasted and play Russian roulette. But instead of getting the abortion her mother schedules for her, Suzette runs off with Tyrell, often looking terrified of the company he keeps and quickly learning that she won’t necessarily have a safe place to sleep every night. Oz continues selling crack but remains sickened by those who use—foremost her mother. Marisol (Mendoza) has a toddler she adores, although her love for her daughter is about neck and neck with her love for crack, which lands her in the detention center and her little girl in foster care.

If it all sounds too gritty, shocking, and heartbreaking to be convincing, it isn’t. The lead actresses inhabit their characters effortlessly, and Silverbush and Skolnik add authenticity by filming on Jersey City’s roughest streets, using locals for smaller roles, and eschewing the emotional cues of a score. And though the majority of the movie shows the girls dealing, smoking, or just witnessing the constant unrest in their neighborhoods, a few scenes stand out: A couple of boys, no more than 10, trying to buy drugs and then pulling a gun on the dealer. Marisol’s daughter screaming because she hasn’t eaten and there’s no food in the house. Suzette ending up in a cop car, where she meets an apparently younger girl who asks, “Is this your first time?” Suzette shaking her head no.

The filmmakers render such scenes with a rawness that never feels cheap or dishonest—even when they’re selling the big-picture tragedy summed up in Oz’s question to a detention-center guard: “How can you work here? For real—doesn’t that hurt your heart?”

It’s politics, not drugs, that shackle the characters in The White Countess. The movie, which will be forever famous as the final Merchant Ivory collaboration, opens in 1936 Shanghai, where a family of Russian royals has settled after escaping the Bolsheviks. The extended clan now lives in poverty, supported only by Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who nightly puts on rouge and lipstick to dance with the lonely hearts at a nightclub and turn the occasional trick. Her relatives, who apparently contribute nothing but criticism to the household, do not approve, especially because of the effect Sofia might have on her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly).

They shouldn’t worry: The only character here who really falls under the sway of the aristocratic taxi dancer is Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former American diplomat and current barfly recently blinded by a terrorist attack. He’s been dreaming of opening the perfect nightclub: classy, politically diverse, filled with bouncers who keep the peace merely by projecting the possibility of violence and women who exhibit “a balance between the erotic and the tragic.” He stumbles into Sofia’s erotic/tragic sphere; she helps him avoid some potential muggers lurking outside the definitely imperfect nightclub she works in; and, soon enough, one handsome, guarded expat is a lot closer to realizing his vision. That last word, by the way, is used frequently to describe Jackson’s project—a little joke made at the expense of the character, yes, but also one of the film’s many Serious Metaphors.

The White Countess, also the name of Jackson’s utopian establishment, is a characteristically stately if sometimes sluggish finale to producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s 44-year partnership. The gloomy monochrome of the Belinsky home and its wan inhabitants—who also make the film notable by including Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as Sofia’s aunt and Richardson’s real aunt, Lynn Redgrave, as Sofia’s mother-in-law—is meant to contrast with the vitality of Jackson’s nightclub. Though here, where a significant portion of the movie takes place, vitality is represented by a house full of clientele watching performances by ballerinas and people dressed as cats—and despite the plastered smiles, no one looks as if he’s having much fun.

And for good reason: Jackson, though pleased to have gotten the joint running, senses there’s something missing. Better booze? A livelier band? Nope: “political tension,” in his words. Although despondent over his failed peace efforts while with the League of Nations, Jackson still has a shred of hope in him. He theorizes that if members of opposite factions socialized, they’d begin to see their commonality instead of just their differences. And Jackson isn’t just wishing this for the good of all mankind—he knows that if Shanghai is invaded by the Japanese, Sofia will probably seek refuge elsewhere.

The screenplay, penned by Remains of the Day scribe Kazuo Ishiguro and loosely adapted from a Japanese novel, shares that film’s theme of isolation and how it might be overcome—though it tends to express it less gracefully. Jackson and Sofia’s agreement to have a strictly professional relationship, despite their obvious attraction, is referenced pretty much every time they begin talking about their personal lives—which is often. When he finally accepts her offer to feel her face, he responds, “Strange to think that all this time, I never knew how beautiful you were!” And once Sofia asks Jackson if the club’s heavy doors are meant “to keep out the rest of the world”—the one in which Jackson met tragedy and realized that peace between China and Japan was unlikely—well, that’s not the last time the analogy gets trotted out.

Consistently strong, however, are the performances. Fiennes’ Jackson is similar to his character in The Constant Gardener: stubborn, wounded, and believably risk-taking. (The twist is that he’s also physically wobbly and randomly loud, characteristics that seem to have as much to do with his affinity for the sauce as his disability or state of mind.) Richardson’s Sofia is understated—quiet but beguiling in her seductions and incomprehensibly submissive around her family, especially her sister-in-law Greshenka (a wicked Madeleine Potter).

The White Countess becomes more worthy of its excellent performances during its final chapter, in which all hell breaks loose. Jackson discovers that his partner in carousing, the Japanese Mr. Matsuda (a perfectly menacing Hiroyuki Sanada), may not exactly be his ally. And Japan’s imminent takeover of Shanghai sparks a mass exodus—just as Jackson and Sofia agree to get close to each other. When the troops finally roll in, it’s time for all involved—Sofia, her family, Jackson, his heretofore loyal driver—to Do What Must Be Done, and their decisions are sometimes wrenching. Everyone is out on the streets, frantically trying to execute their choices and changes of mind among the chaos, which is rendered with almost palpable urgency by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Removed from Merchant Ivory’s upholstered interiors, the not-quite-romance seems nearly as grand as the world’s conflicts. Finally, The White Countess feels real and compelling—a fit conclusion to both the film and an acclaimed partnership.CP”>Headline: Grit and Polish

On the Outs is about life on the streets, so let’s get the inevitable adjectives out of the way: It’s gritty. And at times shocking. And almost always heartbreaking. This first collaboration between freshman writer-director Lori Silverbush and documentary filmmaker Michael Skolnik interweaves the stories of three teenage girls living in the most crime-ridden parts of Jersey City. One’s a dealer. One’s an addict. One lives a relatively sheltered life until she gets involved with a thug.

Even though it’s based on actual events, On the Outs is dispassionate enough to never trumpet that fact. Silverbush, Skolnik, and actress Paola Mendoza, who plays one of the lead characters and is credited as a co-creator on the film’s Web site, began developing On the Outs by setting up an acting and writing program in a New Jersey juvenile-detention center. Working with a selection of the inmates’ stories, the trio set out to cast actors who came from backgrounds similar to the kids’; they also invited the detainees to give their input during production.

The result, shot on quivering digital video, feels as disturbingly real as 2003’s similarly themed Girlhood. The film’s biggest flaw might be its opening, with the directors’ messy storytelling introducing you to all three girls and the people in their lives in such quick succession that it can be difficult to grasp their circumstances. But then again, Silverbush and Skolnik might be intentionally keeping viewers unsure and unsettled—after all, that’s an appropriate way to depict lives as unsure and unsettled as their main characters’.

Oz (Raising Victor Vargas’ Judy Marte), the dealer, for example, is introduced getting released from a detention facility and going home to a mentally challenged man, Chuey (Dominic Colon), whose relationship to her isn’t clear. Later, a family gathering reveals him as Oz’s brother. And the woman who looks to be about the same age as Oz? That’s her mother. The middle-aged woman at the table is Grandma.

A progressive sense of time is lacking, too, though one can’t imagine that any one of the girls’ days is much different than any other. Fifteen-year-old Suzette (Anny Mariano), baby-faced and naive, gets impregnated by Tyrell (Don Parma), an older dealer who hangs out with loud, chest-thumping gangstas who like to get wasted and play Russian roulette. But instead of getting the abortion her mother schedules for her, Suzette runs off with Tyrell, often looking terrified of the company he keeps and quickly learning that she won’t necessarily have a safe place to sleep every night. Oz continues selling crack but remains sickened by those who use—foremost her mother. Marisol (Mendoza) has a toddler she adores, although her love for her daughter is about neck and neck with her love for crack, which lands her in the detention center and her little girl in foster care.

If it all sounds too gritty, shocking, and heartbreaking to be convincing, it isn’t. The lead actresses inhabit their characters effortlessly, and Silverbush and Skolnik add authenticity by filming on Jersey City’s roughest streets, using locals for smaller roles, and eschewing the emotional cues of a score. And though the majority of the movie shows the girls dealing, smoking, or just witnessing the constant unrest in their neighborhoods, a few scenes stand out: A couple of boys, no more than 10, trying to buy drugs and then pulling a gun on the dealer. Marisol’s daughter screaming because she hasn’t eaten and there’s no food in the house. Suzette ending up in a cop car, where she meets an apparently younger girl who asks, “Is this your first time?” Suzette shaking her head no.

The filmmakers render such scenes with a rawness that never feels cheap or dishonest—even when they’re selling the big-picture tragedy summed up in Oz’s question to a detention-center guard: “How can you work here? For real—doesn’t that hurt your heart?”

It’s politics, not drugs, that shackle the characters in The White Countess. The movie, which will be forever famous as the final Merchant Ivory collaboration, opens in 1936 Shanghai, where a family of Russian royals has settled after escaping the Bolsheviks. The extended clan now lives in poverty, supported only by Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who nightly puts on rouge and lipstick to dance with the lonely hearts at a nightclub and turn the occasional trick. Her relatives, who apparently contribute nothing but criticism to the household, do not approve, especially because of the effect Sofia might have on her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly).

They shouldn’t worry: The only character here who really falls under the sway of the aristocratic taxi dancer is Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former American diplomat and current barfly recently blinded by a terrorist attack. He’s been dreaming of opening the perfect nightclub: classy, politically diverse, filled with bouncers who keep the peace merely by projecting the possibility of violence and women who exhibit “a balance between the erotic and the tragic.” He stumbles into Sofia’s erotic/tragic sphere; she helps him avoid some potential muggers lurking outside the definitely imperfect nightclub she works in; and, soon enough, one handsome, guarded expat is a lot closer to realizing his vision. That last word, by the way, is used frequently to describe Jackson’s project—a little joke made at the expense of the character, yes, but also one of the film’s many Serious Metaphors.

The White Countess, also the name of Jackson’s utopian establishment, is a characteristically stately if sometimes sluggish finale to producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s 44-year partnership. The gloomy monochrome of the Belinsky home and its wan inhabitants—who also make the film notable by including Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as Sofia’s aunt and Richardson’s real aunt, Lynn Redgrave, as Sofia’s mother-in-law—is meant to contrast with the vitality of Jackson’s nightclub. Though here, where a significant portion of the movie takes place, vitality is represented by a house full of clientele watching performances by ballerinas and people dressed as cats—and despite the plastered smiles, no one looks as if he’s having much fun.

And for good reason: Jackson, though pleased to have gotten the joint running, senses there’s something missing. Better booze? A livelier band? Nope: “political tension,” in his words. Although despondent over his failed peace efforts while with the League of Nations, Jackson still has a shred of hope in him. He theorizes that if members of opposite factions socialized, they’d begin to see their commonality instead of just their differences. And Jackson isn’t just wishing this for the good of all mankind—he knows that if Shanghai is invaded by the Japanese, Sofia will probably seek refuge elsewhere.

The screenplay, penned by Remains of the Day scribe Kazuo Ishiguro and loosely adapted from a Japanese novel, shares that film’s theme of isolation and how it might be overcome—though it tends to express it less gracefully. Jackson and Sofia’s agreement to have a strictly professional relationship, despite their obvious attraction, is referenced pretty much every time they begin talking about their personal lives—which is often. When he finally accepts her offer to feel her face, he responds, “Strange to think that all this time, I never knew how beautiful you were!” And once Sofia asks Jackson if the club’s heavy doors are meant “to keep out the rest of the world”—the one in which Jackson met tragedy and realized that peace between China and Japan was unlikely—well, that’s not the last time the analogy gets trotted out.

Consistently strong, however, are the performances. Fiennes’ Jackson is similar to his character in The Constant Gardener: stubborn, wounded, and believably risk-taking. (The twist is that he’s also physically wobbly and randomly loud, characteristics that seem to have as much to do with his affinity for the sauce as his disability or state of mind.) Richardson’s Sofia is understated—quiet but beguiling in her seductions and incomprehensibly submissive around her family, especially her sister-in-law Greshenka (a wicked Madeleine Potter).

The White Countess becomes more worthy of its excellent performances during its final chapter, in which all hell breaks loose. Jackson discovers that his partner in carousing, the Japanese Mr. Matsuda (a perfectly menacing Hiroyuki Sanada), may not exactly be his ally. And Japan’s imminent takeover of Shanghai sparks a mass exodus—just as Jackson and Sofia agree to get close to each other. When the troops finally roll in, it’s time for all involved—Sofia, her family, Jackson, his heretofore loyal driver—to Do What Must Be Done, and their decisions are sometimes wrenching. Everyone is out on the streets, frantically trying to execute their choices and changes of mind among the chaos, which is rendered with almost palpable urgency by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Removed from Merchant Ivory’s upholstered interiors, the not-quite-romance seems nearly as grand as the world’s conflicts. Finally, The White Countess feels real and compelling—a fit conclusion to both the film and an acclaimed partnership.CP