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A few clips from "Another Day in Paradise"

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Review: Shooting guns, heroin in 'Another Day in Paradise'

Web posted on:
Thursday, January 28, 1999 3:05:27 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- In Larry Clark's "Another Day in Paradise," James Woods plays Mel, a two-bit crook with a heroin habit who drags his addict girlfriend, Sid (Melanie Griffith), around with him as he shouts at and robs people across this great nation of ours. He also likes to wave guns when he's overly agitated, which is most of the time.

Mel and Sid befriend Bobbie and Rosie (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner), a couple of young kids who also get their jollies through pillaging, and, of course, skin-popping narcotics. This ragamuffin gang soon forms a family of sorts, and they proceed to pull more and more dangerous rip-offs while growing increasingly (although erratically) fond of each other. It's sex, drugs, violence, and (mostly 1960's) R&B from there on out, and you definitely get the feeling that nobody's bothering to clean those needles.

Gee, you don't think this is gonna end badly, do you?

Let me say right off the bat that I normally can't stand this kind of thing. The reason I love the criminal-lovers-on-the-run classics "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Badlands" so much is that the creators of those films are playing with what the audience is willing to accept from their movie characters.

Those films are sometimes overtly about the artifice of movies, but the films that they've spawned have mostly been about how far we're willing to push it in a fake documentary context, one that seems as "real" as possible. Clark's debut feature, the almost wholly embarrassing "Kids," is a perfect example of where this mind-set has led us. It might just as well have been entitled "A**holes," for all the artistic insight it shed on the human experience.

Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner

Not a movie for everyone

That's why I'm so shocked that I have a lot of good things to say about "Another Day in Paradise," although Clark still shows off too much with orgiastic displays of drug-injecting and execution-style killings. This is not a movie for everyone, and I'm not certain that I even want to recommend it with strong reservations.

It simply wouldn't be fair, though, not to point out that Clark and his production team are masters at establishing a believably depraved atmosphere, and the movie features two rather extraordinary performances from Woods and the previously unknown Kartheiser. (This kid can eat that long drink of water from "Dawson's Creek" alive, although most teen-age girls will probably cry or throw up before they make it through his movie.)

The only recent film of this ilk that I admire from beginning to end is "Drugstore Cowboy." Gus Van Sant displays an extremely sharp sense of humor in that one, and, when one of the characters ODs, you feel bad because you actually liked her.

Well, at first, anyway, there's not much of anything to like about anybody in "Another Day in Paradise." Then, after Woods and Kartheiser start developing a bizarre father-son relationship, you still don't actually care about them (Kartheiser is the first cast member to be seen brutally killing someone, in the opening sequence of the film), but you do grow fascinated with the intricacies of how they respond to each other.

There's no plot to speak of, of course. Clark, his background in photography forever in full evidence, is usually chasing nothing more than brutally shocking images. However, he's no longer working with self-serving "Kids" screenwriter Harmony Korine, and that's a major bonus. This time, Clark actually has a script that deals with the nuances of character, if not story (making it five times more accomplished than what that weasel Korine was able to manage), and the results are a bit more likely to intrigue anyone who would otherwise be too nauseated to care.

Interest in characters, not their violent acts

There's a string of robberies, botched and otherwise, but the real interest lies in the performances. Every major cast member, save for one, manages fully credible work. Griffith does a more vicious variation on her character from "Something Wild," as a loser who's still caring enough about other people to give them a chance to get out of her crazed boyfriend's way before he starts shooting.

To say that the role is a departure for Griffith is an understatement -- lucky audience members get to see Sid inject heroin into both her neck and inner thigh, and the camera never flinches. I don't know if that really counts as actorly bravery, but it sure is something different for this actress, and you certainly never feel like you're watching an ambitiously slumming movie star while she wallows in the filth.

Kartheiser, as I've already said, is great, even as Clark is utilizing him as nothing more than an ambisexual poster boy (if he wears a pair of jeans without a shirt, you can bet that they'll hang suggestively.) That's Clark's visual territory as a photographer, too, but Kartheiser makes the languid sexuality compelling, because Bobbie doesn't recognize that that's part of why Mel is so interested in him.

There are also a couple of instances in which Bobbie receives a brutal beating, and the agonizing pain is palpable in the way Kartheiser drags his broken body around with him. It's an extremely naturalistic performance.

Body keeping Wagner's career alive

So is Wagner's, but only in the sense that most other people can't act either. I pointed this out already when I saw her affectlessly reciting lines in "Two Girls and a Guy," but the only thing that's keeping her on-screen at the moment is her memorably nubile body.

She's getting cast in some daring films, you can't deny that, but her performances thus far seem to be focused solely on her belly button, both physically and mentally. That body will undoubtedly keep her going for a while, but she'll need to show me more than her skin and her (Natalie Wood-notarized) birth certificate before I'm going to call her an actress.

So that leaves Woods, and he's absolutely devastating. He's the kind of actor that you either love or hate, and I think many people choose hating him because of the sleazeball characters he's always playing. You get no relief from that in "Another Day in Paradise," that's for sure, but Woods hasn't been this crazily animated since his work in Oliver Stone's "Salvador." The guy is scary in the extreme, even as he jokingly rolls his eyes at some of the less comprehending comments of his partners in slime.

No one can pitch a fit like Woods does, though, and his cold-blooded execution of a couple of helpless robbery victims is as powerfully ugly as some of the gamier parts of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." In this day and age, that may actually serve as a compliment. Regardless of whether I thought there were effective moments dispersed throughout "Another Day in Paradise," I'm not so sure that I'm comfortable with that.

Larry Clark is a sick puppy, and you can just about rest assured that that's the only review he's looking for. You get nudity (both male and female), sex, heroin injecting, heroin snorting, an overdose, a brutal stabbing, a couple of extremely bloody beatings, and those nasty executions. Great soundtrack, though. Rated R, edging towards NC-17, if you ask me. 99 minutes.

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