> Volume 2 > Number 33

Volume 2, Number 33

This Week's Reviews:  Blood Simple (Director's Cut), The Cell, The Original Kings of Comedy.

This Week's Omissions:  Butterfly.

Blood Simple (Director's Cut)

(Dir: Joel Coen, Starring John Getz, Frances McDormand, M. Emmett Walsh, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, and Deborah Neumann)



1984 was a fine year for films.  Three epics took viewers and critics by storm, allowing most awards and praise to be given divided between Once Upon a Time in America, The Killing Fields, and Amadeus, with the latter taking most of it.

But, despite all the fine films of that year (which also included Michael Radford's 1984, Ingmar Bergman's After the Rehearsal, and Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense), my favorite still stands as Blood Simple.  The two first time filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, would go on to direct/write/produce more films that would see my various top ten lists including Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing.  To this day, they have only once made a film better than their first, the hard-to-defeat Fargo.

Blood Simple is seen as a crime drama with black comedy.  One of the main reasons why it has been able to stand the test of time is that it can be fun and intriguing to watch -- exactly what the Coen's did with Fargo.  To be able to laugh off what would otherwise be hard to handle is the strong point for these two.  Their more comedic comedies (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) can be hilarious, but do not have the drop-dead grabbing power of their best efforts.

The film is about what can happen when a plan goes awry.  Julien Marty, a small bar owner in Texas, begins to suspect his wife's infidelity with one of his bartenders.  For Abby Marty (McDormand), Ray (Getz) is one of the greatest things to happen in her life, but Marty sees him as a true competitor.  With both of them tarnished in his mind, Marty hires a sleazy detective to kill them.  From there, the downward spiral begins.

Joel Coen filmed Blood Simple with the chutzpah that often comes with a early film in a director's work (just compare early Sydney Pollock to the Sydney Pollock of late), it looks and feels like it is from someone overwhelmed by the fact that he is getting to make a film and placing all the stand-out shots in the event that this is their only chance.

Blood Simple was shot on a shoe-string budget, taking so many cuts in production that it picks up its own camp feeling.  How else can one describe the feeling behind a laugh as a man has his ear lobe pierced by an edge of glass?  This film, like A Clockwork Orange, may be best known to those interested in camp classics, but it is much more accessible than, say, I Spit on Your Grave.  There's so much here that those us who have seen and loved it can only wish that closed-minded individuals will take the time to catch this film.

While the stars of this film are McDormand and Getz, the real heart of the film are in the two supporting actors.  There is a wonderful feeling to the way Dan Hedaya creates a smarmy man, one that can take a licking but keeps on ticking.  The other great of this film is the late M. Emmett Walsh, who never had a better performance.  When returns to the film in the third act, there is such an incredible rush of energy that any print begins to gleam from his presence.

The print going around the United States this year is as a restored director's cut.  While I think that the word "restored" is used rather liberally for most films (this included -- though the sound is ages better than any print I've seen before), the recutting of this is a dramatic step-up.

While the film was good enough to take me away, I could always see why some people found the middle area really boring.  Here, the film seems fresher and cleaner -- the shortened scenes make the pace go perfectly and the story flow much better.  Unlike the Das Boot director's cut that actually hurt the film by adding too much unneeded time, this director's cut makes the film better by actually deleting stuff.

The only part that is new is an introduction from Mortimer Young of the fictitious film restoration company called Forever Young.  According to him, "filmographic techniques" unavailable in 1984, the original Blood Simple was hampered, but that the new version makes the film what it should have always been.  Indeed.


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The Cell

(Dir:  Tarsem Singh, Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Jake Webber, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dylan Baker, Jake Thomas, Patrick Bauchau, Gerry Becker, James Gammon, Catherine Sutherland, and Pruitt Taylor Vance)



Tarsem Singh (though it is included in the opening credits, the surname is omitted on most materials) sure has the style part of filmmaking, but the same cannot be said for the substance.  Now, I'm not necessarily stepping out to say that a gracious amount of style can ruin a film (hey, look at my favoritism for Quentin Tarantino), but in come cases, the audience is set-up for something more and never received it.

The Cell grabs up every but of its artistry in the look, but the feeling is not exactly there.  With a film like Pulp Fiction, the story is an automatic integration of the style, for Jules and Jim, the style speaks every word of the story, and for The Seventh Seal, the style simply makes the story even more interesting -- now, for The Cell, substance is an afterthought in a story that seems to yearn for some thinking.

The opening of the film, a travel through a child's head, gives the viewer the essence of the story with surreal imagery while still exciting the dramatics of it.  That is one of the things that hurt Armageddon -- the fact that it was built like an industrial size epic of emotion while wearing the shoes of cinematographer's senior thesis.

A kaleidoscope of colors and imagery would have set the film as merely eye candy.  When the subplots and emotional scenes come in, however, the film turns itself into a gothic thinking man's film.  By the time that it has switched sides a multitude of times, it has turned itself inside-out.

Jennifer Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a social worker that has allowed herself to be a scientific guinea pig.  Through a questionable process that allows psychologists to literally go into that mind of the patients (including a rag that looks to have a computer chip in it, a suit that seems to be a Dr. Who reject, and strings that support the entire weight of her body).  Through this, Catherine is able to take in the thoughts of a young comatose mind in hopes of freeing him from whatever is stopping him from living a normal life.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose, kidnapping women, drowning them in a tank, bleaching their bodies, and having unusual sex acts with the ending product.  This masochistic necrophiliac is Carl Stargher (D'Onofrio), who is actually a schizophrenic with a lackluster childhood.

When a snap in his brain sends him into a coma, the only way to find the whereabouts of this tank where one girl is still held in is to ask him.  With little to no chance of his recovery and the tank's water working on a programmed timer, the only choice is to enter his mind.  The only problem is, what type of mind houses such a person?

Tarsem has been a director of music videos and commercials for some time, and that fast action style is very present in this film.  The world is an amalgamation of nightmares, thoughts and worries that seem to be straight from the id of Tarsem or screenwriter Mark Protosevich.

Besides the two fine actors behind the computers (Happiness' Dylan Baker and Secrets & Lies' Marianne Jean-Baptiste), most of the cast falters.  The two male leads are horrible actors in my book.  Though each have been in a few great films, they have never really hit it off with me in a performance great beyond their films.

I have only bee crazy about Jennifer Lopez once, finding her performance in Soderbergh's Out of Sight to be a great career achievement, but much of what she does here could be done by anyone -- she is mere set pieces to stand in the middle of the great production and costume design.

What marks this film is its art direction and costume design.  At times exotic, at times frightening, the creation of Stargher's mind is so visually stunning that it could be the sole reason to make this a must-see film.  I remember finding problems with Roger Ebert recommending The Haunting last year based solely on its art direction.  Here, it goes far beyond that.  Even if The Matrix had been a poor story and uninteresting piece of cinema, the enhancements in visual effects would have touched it a way that no thinkingman's artistic merit could bring on.


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The Original Kings of Comedy

(Dir: Spike Lee, Appearances by Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac)



Not too long ago, Roger Ebert commented that one of the hardest films to review is the spoof in his review of Scary Movie.  No matter how many notes you can take, it's just tough, he said.  I beg to differ -- a spoof can be relatively easy to review, it's the concert films that are tough.

You try going out and writing a review of Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz -- it's not too easy since all you really have to comment on is what is played in front of you.  Now, this is even more true with comedy concerts.  How can you really comment on the dead monkeys in Richard Pryor Live or the native wife Mo Foo Foo in Eddie Murphy Raw or the fractured nursery rhymes in Andrew Dice Clay: A Night with Dice?

The fact of the matter is that all we really can do is give away the jokes.  What else do we have?  There's no political parallel here, no deep emotional breakthrough, no storyline.  Comedy concerts are here for the entertainment, the sole existence of a venue for towns that the concert did not touch and a photographic record of the event.

So, here I am, still with the problem of writing on this film, with no great epiphany on the horizon.  Since I do not want to start giving out jokes, ruining part of the film, I have only my analysis.  And, of what?  Well, I guess there's no real way to go except to look at how funny each comic is.

The Original Kings of Comedy follows a comedy concert of the same name featuring black comedians Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.  The troupe, brought together by Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence dean Lathan Entertainment, went across the country with their comedy, taking in large box office grosses wherever they went.  Since the tour was literally ignored by the white press, Lathan never really made it as big as it could have been.

This fact so incensed Spike Lee that he decided to make this his seconds documentary after 4 Little Girls.  Since there is not too much to making a concert film, the project fit right into Lee's schedule, filming the North Carolina performance.

The real treat of the film is Steve Harvey, who served as both the first comedian and as the emcee for the rest of the program.  His comedy brings the show to a constant high point -- musing about everything from the film Titanic to an audience member's horrible jacket.  While each of the other performers have their low points, there is not a single moment that Harvey does not shine.

While much of what D.L. Hughley says seems old (the chap comes off as a ten years late Eddie Murphy), his presence is needed, bringing some youthfulness to the group.  Though it has been brought to my attention that most of his jokes were from one of his own personal comedy specials, he still worked, especially when making fun of various audience members.

The weakest length is Cedric the Entertainer, who has a hilarious demeanor (overweight in a hat that looks like an old prop from The Godfather) but is not as funny when trying to be.  While I enjoyed some of what he said, the majority of his jokes either went over my head or were just plain bad.  Oh, well, can't judge a book by its cover.

The final performer is Bernie Mac, who has bulging eyes that could pierce a man.  His direct and often abrasive comedy is hilarious in its no-hold-barred direction, but cannot stand-up to what had already been an hour and a half of more charming fare.  That is not to say that the audience does not laugh at his many child abuse and gay bashing jokes, but after a while they get weary.

The Original Kings of Comedy is not some film to bring to the ages, it is not the type of production that will stand the test of time (for heaven's sake, most people have started to forget about Stop Making Sense), but at least here and now we can listen and laugh to the comic stylings of Steve Harvey.


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Reviews by:
David Perry