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MORIARTY Review Ted Demme's BLOW!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

There’s nothing more exhilarating for me as an audience member than seeing a filmmaker take a giant leap forward, find a voice, make a classic. Friday morning, when I settled into my seat and the lights went down, all I knew about BLOW was that Ted Demme was directing, Johnny Depp was starring, Paul Reubens was in it, and the trailer seemed kinda cool.

Just over two hours later, I found myself at a loss as the lights in the screening room came up. I was rattled, emotional, and I didn't want to speak to anyone yet. It took me a few moments to gather myself. I was filled with conflicting emotions. Part of what I was feeling was disbelief. How does something this good stay under the radar for this long? Part of what I was feeling was intense sorrow. BLOW is a remarkable human story with a bruised soul and a broken heart, a film that easily stands next to GOODFELLAS among the best of its type. But most of what I was feeling was that intense high that kicks in after seeing a great film for the first time, that rush of joy that keeps me going to the movies.

Make no mistake: BLOW is a great movie. It’s a film that’s overloaded with great images, great moments, great characters. It works as entertainment, as art, as character study and spectacle. It’s political and personal in equal measure, and it manages to tell a story that’s intimate and epic without losing either thread, without shortchanging either side of the story. Part of that is the exceptional screenplay by David McKenna and Nick Cassavettes, working from the nonfiction book BLOW: HOW A SMALL-TOWN BOY MADE $100 MILLION WITH THE MEDELLIN CARTEL AND LOST IT ALL, by Bruce Porter. Part of that is the remarkable rapport that Demme seems to have established with his cast of talented actors. Part of it is the soulful honesty that Johnny Depp brings to the role of George Jung, the center of this incredible whirlwind of a story. You can tell when you’re watching a film that was important to the people making it, when you’re watching something personal.

That’s not to say that they’ve canonized George Jung. Far from it. He’s presented with massive flaws fully evident. There’s a charm and a wit that Depp brings to the role that certainly makes him likeable, but that’s George, by all accounts. He’s a philosopher the same way Bukowski is, a guy who got his hands dirty and somehow had the ability to keep his spirit clean. When he and Big Tuna (Ethan Suplee) first get involved selling weed, it’s just a quick way to put together some cash. They’re not planning to become major drug traffickers. It’s just one of those things that develops. Depp’s girlfriend Barbie (Franke Potente) is a stewardess, and once Dooley (Max Perlich) visits them from back east and tries the outstanding California pot they’ve been smoking, everything just falls together. It all seems easy, normal, and fun, and Demme does a great job painting the kick on the ride up. The sun-drenched early California sequences of the film are among my favorite. This is where we meet Derek ForReal, played to oily perfection by Paul Reubens in the kind of character role that every single filmmaker in town should be falling over themselves to offer him. This is before life begins to kick the shit out of George and his friends. This is when they seem to have the whole world tied up, and the feeling is infectious, delightful.

Maybe the California sequences work so well because they’re in such marked contrast to the beginning of George’s life. He grows up watching his parents Fred (Ray Liotta) and Ermine (Rachel Griffiths) fight and feud and explode over money. Ermine leaves them over and over again, always returning home eventually, but tearing little George apart in the process. There’s something almost fiendishly appropriate about the casting of Liotta. After all, GOODFELLAS was one of the greatest examples of this type of memory piece in all of film. The saga of Henry Hill was presented with such a great eye, such a painstaking sense of detail, that it seared its way into the collective memory of the audience. Those are classic characters and images and scenes that are still vivid a full decade later. There’s a very good chance BLOW will stand that same test of time. On first viewing, I found myself gripped by that same sense of discovery, excited by my introduction to this particular story. Liotta and Griffiths do a wonderful job of showing us the two halves of George’s self that are going to spend his whole life warring. He is truly the product of his parents. I was moved by an early moment in which George watches his father sign away their house, bankrupt. He’s scared, worried about the future, worried about how his mother’s going to react. When he voices his fears, Fred tells him "Money isn’t real. Money comes and goes. Sometimes you’re flush, and sometimes you’re down. When you’re flush, it’s never as good as it seems, and when you’re down, you never think you’ll be up again. But life goes on." George’s whole life seems to be a reaction to that statement, a rejection of it. He becomes enslaved by the massive drifts of cash that he stacks up in spare houses and Panamanian vaults. Through it all, Fred never judges his son. He remembers the world that George grew up in, and his unwavering love for his boy is wrenching, beautiful. It’s one of the best portrayals of paternal protectiveness I’ve seen, much of its power due to the subtle way in which its drawn.

The pot business gets George busted, though, and he is sentenced to a prison term. He’s delivering the news to Barbie when she gives him equally upsetting news, and it was this moment that first really ripped me apart. Depp and Demme turn two simple words – "No." and "Why?" – into a gutpunch of enormous power. George freaks out in the face of tragedy and runs, becoming a fugitive. He’s not nearly as good at hiding as he was at smuggling, though, and he finds himself serving a major stretch of time in a federal pen. This is where he meets Diego Delgado, played by Jordi Molla in his Hollywood debut. I’ve seen him in films like JAMON, JAMON over the years, but he’s never made as much of an impression on me as he did here. He’s the one who tells George that he’s got the right skills but the wrong dream. "What do you know about cocaine?" he asks one night, and that simple question then spins into a series of events that becomes responsible for over 85% of all cocaine brought into the US during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Diego is the one who introduces George to Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). Diego is the one who provides the entrée to Columbian culture, the one who eventually brings George into the orbit of Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), the woman George marries. It is Diego who is the bringer of all things, both good and bad, into the second half of George’s life, responsible for as much joy as ruin.

Mirtha’s the best example. As played by Cruz, she’s like a wild horse that George tries to break. She lets him get close, but he never really owns her, and at the moment he least expects it, she bucks him, delivering a solid kick to the head for good measure. She may give George a daughter, Kristina, but she also takes that daughter away. She may be an adventurous, passionate lover, but she’s also a horrible, vengeful enemy. Cruz has never had a role like this in an English film. So far, she’s been used as the object of desire and little else. She’s on fire here, and I’ll have trouble shaking my eventual hatred of her character. Watching as she becomes George’s mother from childhood, crazy and obsessed with money and dramatic, it’s heartbreaking. George gets trapped into the exact same kind of hell that he worked his whole life to escape. The worst part is that he knows it. When he looks at little Kristina during these moments, there is such shame on his face, such disappointment with himself for letting it happen. Depp and Cruz more convincingly portray a violent, turbulent marriage than De Niro and Stone did in CASINO. In this film, you understand why he would be drawn like a moth to this particular flame. You can understand why he lets this woman destroy him. And you can believe that his daughter might be his one key to possible redemption.

Demme’s been blessed by a great series of collaborators on this picture, and they deserve mention. Kevin Tent, his editor, brings the same kind of shrewd eye to this material that he did to ELECTION. Much like Thelma Schoonmaker, Tent is developing a style that is recognizable, a fluid facility with time that allows him to stretch a moment, to freeze-frame with laser accuracy, and to underline moments with a sure hand. Graeme Revell’s original score is very good, but it’s the use of period music that is particularly effective, just as it was for GOODFELLAS or BOOGIE NIGHTS. In all three cases, real care has been taken to find cuts that have both the pull of nostalgia and the ability to sound fresh in a particular context. The Rolling Stones song that opens the film has been rattling around inside my head for the last three days. Michael Z. Hanan, Mark Bridges, and David Ensley, the film’s art department, play just as important a role in the establishing of specific time and place with their sets and costumes, a monumental job on a project like this. The passage of time is handled with grace, with plenty of particular detail that pays off in a convincing texture to the whole thing. Finally, there’s Ellen Kuras, the film’s cinematographer. Her work here is award-worthy, beautiful, luminous. She’s been provocative before with projects like SUMMER OF SAM, I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, and SWOON, but this is great stuff. It brings to mind work like John Alonzo’s CHINATOWN or Gordon Willis’ GODFATHER. She bends light and color to both story and character, and she manages to paint the emotional state of George Jung as we move through the ups and downs of his life.

I love films like this. I loved BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and MALCOLM X and RUSH and SCARFACE. I love these epic journeys through giant lives against difficult moral backdrops. To me, the purpose of the epic is not to moralize and judge these characters. Instead, it’s to try and make some human sense of the seemingly larger than life. There’s a great sense of integrity to the way BLOW is told, and I suspect it’s somewhere in the collaboration between David McKenna (AMERICAN HISTORY X, BODY SHOTS, BULLY) and Nick Cassavetes (UNHOOK THE STARS) and Demme (BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, THE REF, MONUMENT AVENUE) himself. All of these guys have done good work in the past, but the combination of all their energy, focused on such a captivating central figure seems to have pushed them to something more. In particular, there is one sequence towards the end of the film that obliterated me. There’s a small visual flourish that is so unexpected, so right on it stole my breath. That’s what I was still shaking off as the lights came up. I can’t wait for April 6, when this film finally opens. I’ll be there opening night, and I’m sure I’ll own it as soon as it’s available on DVD. It’s a film I want to revisit again and again, the highest compliment to any film that I know.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 7, 2001, 8:36 p.m. CST


    by phatjacck

    yawn...first..who cares

  • Jan. 7, 2001, 8:49 p.m. CST

    Almost first cocksuckers

    by Raddik


  • Jan. 7, 2001, 9:26 p.m. CST

    Whoa! Harry and Mori actually agree? What a landmark!

    by Lenny Nero

    Kick-ass...and I just saw the preview before Traffic, even though the preview left something to be desired.

  • Jan. 7, 2001, 10:02 p.m. CST

    Nick Cassavetes?

    by Digital

    When the hell did he get so talented? Last I saw of him, he was doing soft-core porn for Showtime. But Blow sounds great; I'll be there April 6. Heh, this is the first Talkback I've done since I was banned...

  • Jan. 7, 2001, 11:29 p.m. CST

    Such a glowing review . . .

    by cds

    One might think that it was "written" by Kevin Williamson, or "directed" by Robert Rodriquez, or that Harry "starred" in it, or that it was based on a "graphic novel."

  • Jan. 8, 2001, 6:50 a.m. CST


    by Gutty

    real reviews :

  • Jan. 8, 2001, 8:50 a.m. CST

    bring on the BLOW

    by WillardEisenbaum

    "I do not sniff de coke, I only smoke, sensimilla" -- Pato Banton. Good reviews, guys; both Moriarity and Harry have me chomping at the bit to see this movie, without having blown any surprises. Looking forward to what Ethan Suplee will do with his meatiest role since AmHistory X. Also I'm happy for Pee-Wee, and who doesn't love Johnny Depp?... AICN guys, don't listen to these jealous pricks who're just mad that they didn't get a Lord of the Rings golf towel, or a Dracula 2000 key chain. Pretty witty rejoinder from you up there, "cds", but ya forgot one: the geeks love this movie so much you'd think Bruce Campbell was in it. Now quit fuckin with everybody!

  • Jan. 8, 2001, 2:48 p.m. CST


    by marla singer

    Geez. Always getting paid off by the studios so you like the film huh? This is ... what? the 137th time this year? Wow. Impressive. Not that you could ever acutally LIKE a film or anything.... These talkbackers sure have your number!!!

  • Jan. 8, 2001, 3:31 p.m. CST

    Depp Vrs Grieco

    by Orange DetroiT

    I read Harrys review first, but this one helps me out a little more about what i wondering about the music. I have a feeling they got the right idea with music. Which really has me feelin this film . When I say pop music makes a film that doesn't mean I get excited and do a cart wheel When some one breaks into YMCa, or hey micky your so fine. But for example like " tell me" by the rolling stones ,and the way it was used in mean streets. that is a pretty obscure stones song, well compared to say satisfaction which has been jammed down our collective throats to death it is. Another good example of a film maker getting it right is "feel to good" by "the move" and the way it was used in boogie nights, thats two examples of a song really making the scene just perfect. I have a bilion more examples of this But I think you get what I mean, But I guess what Im really saying is with nick cassevetes involved can we dare to hope that blow will live up to or dare i say surpass such landmark early 90's work as Body of Influence, broken trust and of course the epic near trilogy that was Sins of Desire, and Sins of the Night. And what If any part will don swayze have in all of this ?????

  • Jan. 8, 2001, 5:31 p.m. CST

    Don't listen to these guys Mori!!

    by milo_tindle

    you can cut the jelousy with a knife!!!!

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 12:11 a.m. CST

    "blow" will unquestionably suck rubber donkey dicks

    by heywood jablomie

    Ted Demme outdoes Boogie Nights and Goodfellas. A-YEAHRIGHT! I soon expect to be hearing "Brett Ratner really is kinda like Cassavetes" and "Y'know, if you look at it a certain way, Roland Emmerich is SORT OF similar to Kubrick" rants on AICN.

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 12:12 p.m. CST

    I don't always like Moriarty's reviews, but...

    by ziranova

    This one was nicely done.

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 1 p.m. CST


    by Tett

    WTF? BOOGIE NIGHTS wouldn't exist without GOODFELLAS. It's practically a shot-for-shot homage to that and RAGING BULL. If PTA could've, he'd ripped off Scosese's nutsack and re-used that as well. A monkey with a Bolex could outdo BOOGIE NIGHTS, for all it brought to the table. It was nothing but watered-down leftovers from a much better director. I'll reserve judgement on BLOW until I've seen it, a concept many people on this board could probably use to enjoy films a bit more... Expectations are bound to be toppled... Tett

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 2:05 p.m. CST

    whining bitches need a slapping!

    by Brundlefly

    what is it with all these holier-than-thou assholes slagging this film review? Why can't 'Blow' be a good film? Ted Demme is a fine director, and if a filmmaker tackles a subject and nails it (Scarface, Goodfellas) does it mean that noone can make a film on that subject again?... -'Boogie Nights' may have used 'Goodfellas' as a template, but it takes fucking talent to make it work.I mean since when was film such an extraordinary arena for original ideas - every second film is a ripped off idea - it's what you do with the idea that counts....

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 3:29 p.m. CST

    a hushed awe for mali's superiority please....

    by Brundlefly

    Darling Mali_ocean, I guess i must prefer my moralising EXTREMELY one dimensional - because the last time i checked 'Scarface' was a FUCKING GREAT film! Let's not forget that Pacino himself said it was his favourite performance.Why is it so abhorrent to you that younger generations watch and enjoy these films, for whatever reasons? I myself am (slightly) older and still find "say hello to my little friend" an extremely amusing line, especially because after saying it, Al slays several people with a VERY big gun. Does this mean i am missing the deeper meaning, a hidden subtext only privy to an intellectual gargantuan such as yourself? Movies hold a different appeal for different people for a myriad of reasons, your reasons are not the only valid reasons - don't be such a goddamned grouch!

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 3:39 p.m. CST

    ...and another goddamned thing!

    by Brundlefly

    Hey mali_ocean, Maybe you shouldn't watch anything anymore...because chances are, you watched a film lately AND thought it was brilliant BUT two rows behind you a 'dork' x men fan watched that same film and truly loved it too....oh no! Foiled! You are no longer able to retain the exclusive verbal masturbation rights on your beloved film - someone else enjoyed it too! But they're entitled to their own opinion, right? As long as it's yours...

  • Jan. 9, 2001, 5:05 p.m. CST


    by milo_tindle

    as much as I can't stand that pompous ass Mali I have to agrre with him. Pacino's performance overshadows an aweful script with terrible dialogue.

  • March 3, 2001, 2:53 p.m. CST

    after Bardem, come Cruz and Moll

    by cifra2

    Well, I'm a spanish guy who's really very excited watching how Hollywood is discovering great spanish actors like Javier Bardem, Pen