For a city whose river once caught on fire, Cleveland doesn’t seem to capture the imagination of many filmmakers. Sure, the Mistake by the Lake plays home to both one of the iconic Christmas movies of all time (“A Christmas Story”) and one of the most iconic baseball movies of all time (“Major League”). But outside of genre and the scruffy charm of the Harvey Pekar biopic “American Slendor,” you don’t see much of Cleveland in the movies.
Which is too bad, since the city embodies all that is both great and tragic about the American city – I would love to see a big-screen adaptation of Mark Weingarten’s epic novel “Crooked River Burning,” for example. But until then, by coincidence, two new films set in Cleveland, “The Land” and “Uncle Nick,” happen to be hitting DVD shelves this month. They’re very different films, but in their own ways both could only be made in Cleveland.
“The Land” is the more accomplished of the two, a gritty and picturesque drama set in the desperate and desolated street corners of the city. Four teenagers are about to leave high school behind, and their prospects are limited to trade school and a life of just barely getting by. Their parents (including Michael K. Williams as a factory worker and Kim Coates as a seedy diner owner) don’t offer much in the way of hope that they’ll do better than just surviving.
The boys have been trying to break into competitive skateboarding as a way to earn some money, but in a classic Catch-22, they need money they don’t have in order to compete in tournaments in order to get the money they need. So they resort to some petty crime, and one night boost a car that happens to have a trunk full of MDMA.
The most ambitious of the four, Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), cajoles the others into selling off the pills to make money. Flush with cash, the teens are exhilarated. Until, of course, the rightful owners of those drugs come calling. The film’s true original touch is that the local drug kingpin is actually a queen, a sweet-faced but utterly ruthless middle-aged woman named Mama (Linda Emond) who runs a stand at the gentrified farmers’ market, but is equally as adept selling drugs as she is selling apples.
The plot is a familiar one for urban dramas, and “The Land” sticks a little too close to formula in its tale of good kids getting in over their head in a dangerous world. But there’s a texture to “The Land” that is gorgeous and authentic; writer-director Steven Caple, Jr. knows these streets and evokes every abandoned building, every trainyard, every backyard fireworks display lovingly. There are interludes where we just see the kids riding their boards in slow motion that are thrilling in capturing a sense of place and time. He could just use a little better material to work with.
I don’t think “Uncle Nick” was actually shot in Cleveland, and it didn’t need to be; the action of this raw black comedy is confined to one house on Christmas Eve. Nick (comedian Brian Posehn) is the ne’er-do-well brother of the even more loathsome Cody (Beau Ballinger), a dirty T-shirt entrepreneur celebrating the season with his chirpy new wife (Paget Brewster) and sexpot stepdaughter (Melia Renee). Nick is going over for Christmas Eve not in the spirit of holiday cheer, but because he thinks he has a decent shot at bedding his new step-niece. This should end well.
What makes this a Cleveland story is that screenwriter Mike Demski frames the family antics around a colorful recounting of a 1974 Cleveland Indians-Texas Rangers game that featured one of the worst ideas ever in baseball, 10 Cent Beer Night. As fans get drunk and riot in the stands, Nick’s family gets drunker and meaner in the family room.
It’s kind of a funny, very Cleveland idea, suggesting that failure and acrimony are part of the city’s civic history. But “Uncle Nick” is only fitfully entertaining, lurching from bitter to maudlin without giving its characters much to do onscreen except gripe at each other. At least the drunken Indians fans didn’t go all gooey and sentimental on us in the ninth inning.