A new entry in the Fast and Furious series will be crashing noisily into cinemas this summer, but will it offer anything to match the high-speed races between ambulances that Luke Lorentzen captured in Midnight Family? The ambulances aren't racing towards the scene of an accident so they can assist each other; they're each trying to get there first, knowing that this is the only way they are going to get paid. Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic, informing us that in Mexico City – population nine million – the state runs less than 45 ambulances. This has led to an industry of independent private ambulances springing up to fill the gaps, and one of these is run by the Ochoa family, with whom Lorentzen embedded himself for three years, hunched down in the back of their ambulance and capturing the dramatic events with his phone.
This phone was often attached to the ambulance's hood, watching the faces of Juan Ochoa and his teenage son Fer as they negotiate the city's traffic, with Juan shouting through the loudspeaker to try and clear people who have taken no notice of the siren. Late in the film, this vantage point presents us with a distraught mother as she rides up front while her young daughter receives treatment in the back. It's the film's most unbearably gripping sequence, but Lorentzen has a keen sense of what to show us and what to look away from. He generally views patients from behind or lets us glimpse them in the edges of the frame while focusing on the Ochoas. As one patient lies on a gurney while waiting to be transported into the hospital, her two arms briefly extend into the shot from beneath the frame, as she examines her bloodstained hands. Perhaps she's trying to come to terms with what has happened to her. Maybe she's wondering how much this is going to end up costing.
Despite the amount of time he spent filming, Lorentzen has been judicious with his footage. Midnight Family runs for a shade over 80 minutes and Lorentzen, who edited the film himself, gives it a narrative shape through an escalating series of crises that the Ochoa family has to negotiate. They live from incident to incident with no idea how much they are going to make in a single night, and on many occasions they barely recoup enough to pay for their nightly meal. Given their perilous situation, they inevitably begin encouraging patients to opt for a private hospital, where they will have a better chance of getting paid, even if the state facility is closer. As they pick up more critically ill patients, this question takes on life-and-death ramifications; their own desperation is pushing them to exploit people in a desperate situation, and while he shoots with empathy, Lorentzen also gives us plenty of room to ponder the ethics of the family's tactics.
Midnight Family is both tight and loose. Lorentzen knows when to ramp up the tension but he also gives us a sense of the long hours spent waiting for a call, and he's fortunate that the family he has chosen to follow are so engaging. In particular, teenager Juan provides an entertaining running gag as he breathlessly narrates the evening's action in regular phone calls to his unseen girlfriend, while his younger brother Josué prefers riding in the ambulance and helping out with the family business to doing his homework or even going to school. Josué's desire to be at the heart of this drama is perfectly understandable, but we are left wondering what the future holds for him, his family and this city. The current situation, caused by institutional failure and driven by desperation, doesn't appear to be serving anyone, least of all those most in need.
Institutional failure lies at the heart of The Public too, but this sedate drama is unlikely to get any viewers' pulses racing, or to leave any ambiguities for audiences to ponder as the credits roll. Emilio Estevez wrote and directed the film, as well as starring in the lead role, and he makes his points emphatically and repeatedly: homelessness is bad, libraries are good. The Public is about a group of homeless people, who habitually use the Cincinatti Public Library as a de facto shelter during the day and one day refuse to leave when the library closes. They instead decide to occupy the space, staging a peaceful protest against the city's lack of sufficient shelters, which has led to a number of deaths during a recent cold snap; but despite the massed ranks of police and media outside, and dark mutterings of how these situations “never end well,” the film never develops any tension. Estevez's writing is too blunt and simplistic, and his direction lacks urgency. He builds a number of subplots into the narrative, like Alec Balwin's search for his missing son (you'll never guess where he shows up!) or Estevez's own unlikely romance with Taylor Schilling, but these threads only serve to pad out the running time rather than illuminating our understanding of the characters, who remain resolutely one-dimensional throughout. Estevez gives us clear heroes and villains here, with the most notable villains being a perma-sneering Christian Slater as a slick mayoral candidate and Gabrielle Union's fame-hungry TV reporter. When Estevez quotes a chunk of The Grapes of Wrath during a news broadcast, the good guys – like his assistant (Jena Malone) – get it, while Slater and Union just give us a “What the hell was that?!” reaction.
All of this may serve to suggest that The Public is a bad movie – and, well, yeah it kind of is – but as it unfolded I found myself warming to it more than I expected to. There's something endearing about its unabashed sincerity and while it's never really exciting or moving, it's no hardship to spend time in the company of actors like Baldwin, Slater or Jeffrey Wright, many of whom do decent work despite the insufficient writing. Best of all is Michael K. Williams as the homeless rebels' ringleader. So often better than the material he's given, Williams is the kind of actor who is capable of single-handedly altering the energy of a scene, and boy do a number of scenes in The Public need the kind of charge he can deliver. I don't think Emilio Estevez is a good enough filmmaker to give a social issues movie like this the gravitas and edge it needs to fire up an audience, but he is a good enough filmmaker to make the kind of gentle, pandering movie that exerts a moderate hold on our attention for two hours before quickly dissipating from memory, and that's the level The Public works on. I have to give him credit for one unexpected move, though. In a film that offers very few surprises, I did not anticipate Estevez's own bare buttocks being so central to the (quite silly) climax. Just when I think he's playing everything too safe, the man literally puts his ass on the line.
I watched Like a Boss for one thing and one thing only: Rose Byrne. You owe me one, Rose. Her innate sense of timing sparks a couple of amusing moments in this shambolic affair, and she develops a lively dynamic with Tiffany Haddish that may be worth revisiting in a better film, but no comic talents could save a project so misbegotten. Like a Boss exhibits all of the dismal traits that are familiar from too many modern studio comedies: slapdash plotting, boilerplate framing and editing, incoherent characterisation, ugly lighting, wall-to-wall muzak, a trite empowerment/friendship message, and so many dead spots. I'd love to know what script encouraged this many talented performers to sign on, because there is little evidence of it in these 83 choppy minutes. Byrne and Haddish play lifelong friends who run a struggling independent makeup business together, but their personalities and levels of intelligence seem to fluctuate from scene-to-scene, and the plot conceived by cosmetics queen Claire Luna (Salma Hayek as a Jessica Rabbit/Miranda Priestly hybrid, but not as much fun as that sounds) to steal their best product is similarly incomprehensible. This cast is too talented to not raise a few chuckles – and Billy Porter gets the film's one standout comic bit – but the actors mostly appear stranded, shouting their lines into a void and desperately trying to improv some life into half-baked material. The film's ending is an embarrassment for every single person involved, including Lisa Kudrow, who turns up for a baffling one-minute cameo. As the credits began I looked out for the name of the director – just to check the film had one – and I was dispirited to see Miguel Arteta credited. He's a filmmaker who has done sharp, perceptive work in the past, including another recent collaboration with Salma Hayek, the sly and thorny Beatriz at Dinner. I'd advise anyone reading this to skip the fiasco currently polluting cinemas and seek out that earlier film instead.