Before Night Falls
Oh, how I adore Javier Bardem. These past five years have been groundbreaking in his career, but before Eat Pray Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and No Country for Old Men, the Spanish heartthrob had a knack for landing roles which were not as stylish and required a gift for versatility. The roles that came before the year 2000 consisted mainly of two kinds of steamy romances: ones in which he co-starred and slobbered over Penelope Cruz or other leading ladies; and ones, such as The Ages of Lulu or Second Skin, where he played a gay love interest. In Before Night Falls, Bardem plays Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban writer with a "sensitivity for poetry," who later trades in verse for novels. Director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, [Lou Reed's] Berlin) seems to have a knack for biopic tales of artists, be it literary or fine arts. Directors who stick with the same subject matter in all their films usually fall into two categories: ones who are playing it safe and disappoint; and those who have a natural gift for bringing consistent, yet similar stories to the screen. Schnabel does the latter, and though he has less than six features under his belt, each of his works has an amazing cast of stars who were willing to take risks and play some very controversial roles under his direction. Look for an almost unrecognizable cameo by Sean Penn and one from pre-teen Diego Luna.
The film begins by going over Reinaldo’s childhood in Oriente, a place that is presented as poverty-stricken, yet rich with the wilderness and isolation that would remain a source of inspiration for the rest of his life. His gift for poetry was not only recognized by his teacher, but by everyone who stumbled upon his phrases and single words that were etched into trees. As an adolescent, he moves with his single mother (Olatz LÃ³pez Garmendia) to HolguÃn, where the nightlife and revolutionary energy causes him to run away from home with the hope of joining Castro's rebels. Before long, during college in Havana he is noticed by a group of literary enthusiasts who offer him a job working for the National Library. While roaming the streets he meets Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), a socialite who brings nothing but trouble and remains his lover for many years, though they see other people. The sexual revolution was sort of a counter-attack to the oppression that Arenas and his fellow countrymen experienced. Homosexuality became a tool to fight back against the revolution that he once held sacred - one that sees artists as a threat and nontraditional behavior of any sort as something that holds back progress. Reinaldo ignores this and continues to enjoy his lifestyle and soon he meets and befriends Jose Lezama Lima, who becomes his mentor. Lima's encouragement and connections lead to Reinaldo being offered help with his first novel that he wishes to get published.Continue Reading
If I had to sum up Cry-Baby in a sentence for someone, I would say that it is the wet dream of John Waters. Not since Kenneth Anger has there ever been someone who plays on the homoeroticism of hairless leather-daddies and rockabilly culture with such style. The movie also has what I would consider to be a dream cast for Waters, with Johnny Depp leading the pack. There's also his late muse, Ricki Lake, and small performances by Iggy Pop, Mink Stole, Joe Dallesandro, and a cameo by Willem Dafoe. To boot, the soundtrack is also outrageously good, featuring some of my favorite doo-wop, rockabilly, and psychobilly songs.
To compare this gem with other greaser vs. socs movies would be placing an emphasis on the more typical parts of the story; a nice town in 1950s suburbia is split in two, with its elite on one side and the trailer-trash on the other. But you have to remember that this is not The Outsiders or Grease, nor a jailhouse/Elvis flick. In fact, it's a parody of such movies. Waters takes the road-rebel genre and turns it into an opportunity to direct an over-the-top musical about teenagers and star-crossed love. The result is a story about a young man named Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Johnny Depp), a juvenile delinquent who prides himself on the ability to shed a single tear when confronted by his emotions. Behind him, sporting leather jackets with his name on the back, is his gang, referred to by the town as “drapes.” Perhaps the name comes from the emotional curtain of hair that keeps half of their faces in shadow. There's his plump and pregnant sister, Pepper (Ricki Lake); the fiery Wanda (Traci Lords); and the oddest couple to ever hit the screen, Milton (Darren E. Burrows) and his gal, Hatchet-Face (Kim McGuire). Their rivals on the playground are the suburban “squares,” and like other movies with the same theme, these characters are given little screen time and are presented as the enemy. The starlet among them is Allison (Amy Locane), a blonde who's seen as the most talented and beautiful among the rich. Allison and Cry-Baby lock eyes while getting a polio shot in the gymnasium. The sight of her makes him shed a tear, and the rest is history.Continue Reading
I readily admit that among my favorite films some are more naturally enjoyable than others. I’ve enjoyed the films of Guy Maddin and Godard and Bergman I’ve seen, but their films are generally not those I’m going to put on after a few drinks on a Saturday night. That sacred time slot is reserved for The Girl Can’t Help It or All about Eve or True Romance. A really brilliantly made film designed to be popular with lots of people is my favorite kind of film, truth be told. Ed Wood is a superb film that should have been a hit with audiences but was inexplicably not. I’d lump similarly marvelous entertainments, Quiz Show and L.A. Confidential, into this category as well. The fact that they were celebrated by critics and not particularly popular with the public is just another piece of evidence that I don’t understand the American public very much at all.
Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s lost classic. He was sent into movie director purgatory because of its dismal box office performance and it took several films (mostly remakes) to regain his stature as an auteur with box office clout. Ed Wood is Burton’s ode to the auteur, in this case a hopeless kind of auteur. It’s a celebration of the kind of director who stays defiantly, naively, but always sincerely true to his own cinematic vision. Ed Wood the man is notorious as one of the worst directors who ever made movies in Hollywood. Burton uses Wood's life and career as a means to examine the pressures on an artist as he tries to turn his vision into reality. The film is also a touching story of friendship between a Hollywood monster movie has-been (Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi) and the ultimate Hollywood outsider working on the fringe of the poverty row film industry. It’s also a love letter of sorts to a Hollywood that no longer exists—Hollywood the small town with its crazy hat-shaped restaurants and eccentric, seedy show people. Not since Edward Scissorhands had Burton made such a personal film about the life of an artist.Continue Reading
Over the decades, Tim Burton has made himself into a brand name (mostly off the success of his earlier films). While he is a master of images and ideas inspired by comic books, B-movies and campy pop culture, the story and payoff rarely lived up to the potential. After an impressive run of films about outsiders like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (and the box office bonanza of Batman and Batman Returns), Burton peaked with what is still his best movie, a biography of the beloved, transvestite director of horrible films, Edward D. Wood, Jr., titled appropriately enough Ed Wood. The flick follows Wood in his “Golden Period” of the 1950s and his collaboration and friendship with has-been horror icon Bela Lugosi on three quickie cheapies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and his Citizen Kane, Plan 9 from Outer Space. All three films are on the Mount Rushmore of so-bad-they-are-good movie classics. Wood’s best qualities may have been his enthusiasm and an ability to build a stable of oddball friends who took part in his projects. Burton has managed to craft both a moving tribute to a talentless dreamer and a perfect scene-for-scene recreation of those hilarious films.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Last Exit to Brooklyn), and instead of the usual Danny Elfman score this one is provided by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), who brings a fun mix of sci-fi and conga room. Based on the book Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, the script was written by the screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who were hot in the quirky bio business, also penning The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, as well as the Problem Child movies and TV series). Ed Wood marks the second of at least seven films Burton has made with Johnny Depp. And the casting of Depp at the time was really ingenious; who knew the pretty-boy had such creative chops? Depp wonderfully infuses Wood with an ah-shucks charm; everything seems to give Wood zeal. Always the optimist, Wood believes in everything, whether it’s his inept actors, sets, shots or his girlfriend’s sweaters--or the belief in the stardom of Lugosi who, at this point, was a heroin addict with failing health and is played beautifully by Martin Landau. When Wood sees Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a TV psychic, make ridiculous predictions, he believes him. He spots Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) in the ring, and instantly sees a great actor. And these random people that Wood meets along the way and in whom he believes join him in his own dream of making movies, and in turn believe in him. It's a motley group that includes Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a homosexual in search of a sex change operation who is most memorable as The Ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and eventually the horror show hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), plus assorted goofy crew members. They forge an "Island of Misfit Toys" style family; think Wes Anderson without all the preciousness.Continue Reading
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading