Sitting in Limbo: New Films by Abel Ferrara and Tom DiCillo
July 18, 2002 | Plenty of films go undistributed every year far more than actually reach theaters. When films by notable, respected filmmakers go without theatrical release, however, something isn't right. Two significant New York filmmakers veteran maverick Abel Ferrara and indie favorite Tom DiCillo - are currently watching as their latest works Ferrara's 'R-Xmas and DiCillo's Double Whammy, both fine films languish on the shelf.
"I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!"
Abel Ferrara has been making tough, gritty films about the streets of New York for over 25 years. His early films like Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981) have a ferocity and anger that goes way beyond even the grimmest of urban nightmares. Years later he created two of the most influential films to dissect the dark undercurrents of modern city life: King of New York (1990) took on the drug underworld and Bad Lieutenant (1992) police corruption. Both films embody their subject matter with an intensity bordering on obsession and in each film Ferrara provided his leading man (Christopher Walken in King, Harvey Keitel in Lieutenant) with the opportunity to do career defining work.
The key to Ferrara's films, however, has never really been the violence, the drugs, or the crime. His films display a surprising amount of heart and he approaches his characters with a level of intimacy that all the James Camerons and Michael Bays can only dream about. The quiet moments in a film like Bad Lieutenant, where Keitel's depraved character stands and stares at himself in the mirror, have more power than all the navel-gazing indie character studies put together.
His latest film, the oddly titled 'R-Xmas, is possibly his most intimate, tender film yet. The story is captivating and, in the hands of a different director, could have made a tense (and conventional) kidnapping drama: A husband and wife team (Lillo Brancato, Jr. and Drea de Matteo) lead a double life. First they're portrayed as the well-to-do parents of a young girl on the Upper East Side, videotaping their daughter's Christmas play, taking a horse-and-carriage ride, and shopping for expensive holiday presents. Then, after putting the little girl to bed, they head downtown where they get to work repacking drugs for street business. The combination of domestic bliss (they're loving, caring parents) and drug dealing is just one of the many character-defining conflicts in the film.
The film is constructed around two basic relationships: The husband and wife relationship (filled with lived-in tension and routine), and the wife and her husband's kidnapper (Ice-T). The kidnapper demands that the wife bring unspecified amounts of cash in exchange for the release of her husband. The kidnapper, however, is a confusing and contradictory figure and their conversations bristle with bizarre, uneasy energy. His motivations don't make sense at first, but when they come into focus, the film develops a complex system of morals. The couple may be living their own Christmas Carol, but there are no easy answers for them.
The film, which played at Cannes 2001, contains excellent work from the entire cast and crew, including New York film veteran Victor Argo (speaking Spanish) and cinematographer Ken Kelsch, whose moody, shadowy visuals make the film's world very real. Kelsch, who has worked with Ferrara for years, creates a beautiful, sad film filled with stark images that still manage to project the sensuality of the characters.
That's what's so unique about the film. It may be about drug dealers, kidnapping, and unsavory folks, but the tone and pacing are shockingly intimate. A scene that shows Brancato and de Matteo getting dressed to go out is reminiscent of the famous love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. There is a sense that we are seeing these flawed, confused people with their masks down, in between the dramatic moments that make up most films. De Matteo is particularly effective and her steel-jawed resoluteness and dyed blonde hair show a woman who has had to harden herself to the world around her. She still manages to let her tender side slip through occasionally but she is fully prepared to turn hard if the situation requires it.
De Matteo is an extremely talented actress who combines femme fatale vamp with punky anti-authority sentiment and street-smarts. The Queens, NY native has only been in a handful of films and, other than The Sopranos, 'R-Xmas has been her only chance to really develop a full character that she can live in. There is a spectacularly raw nature to her character that allows her, even when she's seemingly not doing anything, to communicate her inner thoughts. This woman seems to always be thinking and planning her next move. One particularly effective moment finds de Matteo calling various family members to try to drum up the cash to rescue her husband. Alternating expressions of hope and despair cross her face, but never self-consciously. When she does explode in anger she's fierce, but she's also scared. Her performance is outstanding and needs recognition. Ferrara's history with actors is impressive, from his work with Keitel and Walken through such actors as Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Annabella Sciorra. His work with de Matteo is another such defining moment. If there's any justice she'll be able to follow 'R-Xmas with other worthwhile projects.
Brancato is also convincing in his role as the more emotionally contained husband. He hides behind his soft eyes for much of the film, watching others act out on their emotions. Brancato, who first appeared in Robert De Niro's directorial debut A Bronx Tale, has improved steadily as an actor since that shaky start, and his performance as The Sopranos ill-fated Matthew Bevilaqua proved that he has the ability to combine goombah aggression with puppy-dog subservience. In 'R-Xmas he plays a level-headed character with at least as much good in him as bad and he helps the moral ambiguity of the film with his calm energy. Even though he's absent for a significant portion of the film he makes a strong impact. Both leads do outstanding work, playing their complex characters with their eyes as much as their words, and developing their personalities on the subconscious level where actors like Keitel, De Niro, and Pacino do their best work. Dialog, like in Raging Bull, is almost an afterthought. 'R-Xmas is a study of behavior, relationships, and emotion without ever resorting to melodrama.
There doesn't seem to be a Grinch preventing 'R-Xmas from hitting screens, unless you feel like blaming the total of film distribution. 'R-Xmas is an unusual film. It's a drug-dealer drama where only one shot is fired. It's about tough guys, but it portrays them as loving parents. It plays like a suspenseful thriller but it has one of the most ambiguous, open-ended final scenes ever committed to film. It's easy to imagine even the most adventurous distributors sitting in silence at the end of 'R-Xmas, counting the gross of Ferrara's previous films on one hand, calculating the marquee value of the cast, and passing on this tough, challenging film for lack of projected financial reward. In the 1970's 'R-Xmas would have fit in perfectly between Taxi Driver, The Conversation, and Serpico, even though it is as different from those films as they are from each other. But in today's market its independence is a liability.
If It Weren't For Bad Luck...
Tom DiCillo's Double Whammy is also a film that's interested in getting beneath the outer shells of some tough urban characters. DiCillo has a real New York indie pedigree: He went to NYU Film School, served as director of photography on Jim Jarmusch's first two feature films, including the classic Stranger Than Paradise, and went on to direct his own string of memorable indie films. Living in Oblivion, DiCillo's 1995 behind-the-scenes look at low-budget filmmaking, is possibly the most beloved film among indie filmmakers about making movies. His subsequent films (The Real Blonde and Box of Moonlight) received respectable critical reactions and DiCillo was well on his way to carving out his slot as one of the top indie filmmakers of his generation.
Double Whammy's struggle for distribution is especially ridiculous since it's easily DiCillo's most commercial film to date. Inspired by the classic crime dramas that he loves, he built the film on a great archetype: the cop who can't get a break. Denis Leary plays Ray Pluto, a cop cursed with a bad back and some terrible luck. In the cinematic opening sequence Pluto finds himself flat on the floor during a horrific fast-food restaurant shooting spree, unable to do anything to stop the crazed shooter. Without giving away too much of what happens, DiCillo finds a way to end the scene (and start the film) that is funny, shocking, violent, and telling. Pluto begins the film in the midst of a long losing streak and, in classic style, things just go downhill.
The thing that makes Leary's character interesting, however, is that he's got a real, flawed personality. While he may be motivated by anguish over the death of his wife and child, the way he shows it isn't standard movie angst, but rather to sink back into his couch, smoke hash, and watch a weird cheerleader exercise video. Plato's complacency is a reaction to the way he sees every attempt at forward progress backfiring on him and his control over his life quickly slipping his grasp. His frustration comes out in a couple of tirades but DiCillo tempers the patented Denis Leary anger with self-doubt and incredulity.
Details like this keep the film slightly off-kilter, as do some of the excellent supporting performances. The film is filled with actors turning in performances that mess with their usual personas. Steve Buscemi has played the ineffectual schlub many times, but his Jerry is sad, funny, lonely, and wounded, all in a few short scenes. He gets the audience laughing, but he's also got layers. Buscemi is a master at this sort of sad-sack character and his performance here is classic. Similarly, Luis Guzman is a pro at playing a type. From Carlito's Way to Boogie Nights he's given credible, funny performances, using his unique mug to play the tough guy with a slightly nervous edge. DiCillo, however, has cast the character actor in a rare emotional role. His "Papi" is a loving father and caring husband but without softening the toughness of an urban building super or his ethnicity. It's a dense, rewarding performance from an actor who needs more opportunities to show what he can do.
The other supporting performances are also good, if a little less complex. Chris Noth delivers a strange, mysterious performance as a crack investigator whose case-solving abilities threaten to ruin Pluto's chances of ever crawling out from his pit of bad luck. Victor Argo injects his high-volume police chief with a touch of uncertainty. As impressive as these veterans are, however, there are some excellent performances by some newcomers as well. Melonie Diaz, in her first film role, projects all the confusion and conflict of a young girl growing up torn between all the different influences of life. She plays it straight, which helps balance the more high-voltage performances of some of the other actors, and it works. Her Maribel is a girl who makes some big mistakes. Keith Nobbs and Donald Faison play Duke and Cletis, a pair of wannabe Quentin Tarantinos working on a screenplay in the bare apartment next to Pluto's. Faison is already a well-known face from Clueless and an assortment of other films and TV shows, but he works perfectly with newcomer Nobbs. The duo are hilarious as the know-nothing pair, whose script contains every cliche of the gangster age.
One of the main storylines of the film is the love story between Leary's Pluto and Elizabeth Hurley's Dr. Ann Beamer. Beamer and Pluto are both lonely, adult characters not sure if they're willing to take the risk to be together and, while Hurley's performance is too broad to deliver the right emotional notes, there is something nice about romantic characters that, as written, are allowed to act confused, selfish, and indecisive. Pluto is damaged and frustrated and not at all an idealized hero. DiCillo's talent is in combining these disparate elements into a fun and interesting whole. It doesn't always mesh perfectly (the ending may be striving for thoughtful ambiguity but it does feel a little rushed), but DiCillo is working with a broad palette and his ability to mix comedy and drama is shown at full effect.
The cast alone ensures Double Whammy an audience. Why hasn't it been released? Because Lion's Gate, the distributor that acquired the film back at Sundance 2001 has decided to table the film indefinitely. There is the distinct possibility that the film will go straight to video and DVD, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for fans, but Double Whammy, like 'R-Xmas, deserves a theatrical run. Both films are examples of independently spirited filmmaking at its finest: 'R-Xmas for its bold emphasis on character and tone, Double Whammy for the way it weaves the personal quirks of the director into a more conventional narrative without losing its individuality. Both of these films should be available to the public and, hopefully, they will be soon. In fact, at the 'R-Xmas screening at the Village Voice's Best Undistributed Film Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Abel Ferrara found himself deep in conversation with Stephen Baldwin and Paul Cohen whose Manhattan Pictures recently distributed Michael Apted's Enigma. While no further information was available at press time, there could be hope yet. Still, the website for Studio Canal, the film's production company, lists 'R-Xmas' release date as "End of 2001," which at this point seems rather unlikely.
Meanwhile, DiCillo laments the time that's passed since Double Whammy screened at Sundance. As he recently explained to Cinema Gotham, "by holding on to the film for so long, and then dropping it, they [Lion's Gate] have effectively destroyed any chance of another distributor buying the film. They have allowed the film to receive the kiss of death which is that it is somehow 'damaged goods.' This is utterly undeserved and has enormous ramifications on my career. Not to mention the unseen work of the tremendously gifted actors in the film. My only hope and it is extremely slim, is that I can find a small distributor to do a tiny theatrical release after the cable premiere."
Any adventurous distributors left out there?
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