NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with 'R Xmas director Abel Ferrara
UPDATE: A flaw in the audio of this disc was recently brought to my attention. See the "audio" section below for more information...
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Abel Ferrara's films don't really get a fair shake. He's often lumped in with
directors whose ambitions don't extend beyond splattering some violence and
villainy on the screen in the name of cheap thrills. But films like The King of New York, The
Funeral and Bad Lieutenant have deep emotional cores that far exceed
their intense genre leanings. His latest film, 'R Xmas is perhaps his
leanest film yet. At only 83 minutes it sketches out the thinnest of plots and
leaves some of the characters' biggest decisions up in the air. But Ferrara
turns these into strengths rather than weaknesses as he crafts a film with extraordinarily
instinctual character development and behavior.
The film is set at Christmas, 1992. New York still has a few months left before
Rudy Guiliani (you know, America's Mayor) takes over and drives the drug trade
underground. During this wilder time the law operates in more mysterious ways.
A husband and wife heroin team played by Lillo Brancato, Jr. and Drea De Matteo
try to provide the perfect holiday for their daughter while also stepping up
the drug supply for the season's increased demand.
While trying to score a black-market version of Party Girl, a sort-of slutted-out
Tickle-Me-Elmo, the wife (the characters are never named) is separated from
her husband. A mysterious man (also unnamed, played by Ice-T) informs her that
her husband has been kidnapped and that she has twenty minutes to bring him
money... and lots of it. Trying not to panic, she scramble to collect what she
can but everybody's gone out of town for the holidays. Over the course of the
night, shuttling between the kidnapper and home, she has time to rethink her
That's basically it. (the details need to be discovered through watching the
film.) And while the It's a Wonderful Life plotting isn't necessarily
a new thing, the incredible performances are. De Matteo (of The Sopranos)
and Brancato (formerly of the same show) create specific human beings with minimal
strokes. Ferrara's is a film obsessed with behavior. We don't learn about these
people through stilted soliloquies and exclamations but rather through watching
them do their daily lives. How they shop for Christmas presents, how the change
clothes, how they act under pressure. We're given little details but they add
up. They aren't typical drug dealers. They have their own, almost decent code.
They aren't surrounded by junkies and the effect of their business on the addicts
it feeds doesn't really enter their middleman world. They're primarily interested
in providing a nice life for their kid (impressively portrayed by young Lisa
Valens) and for themselves, not with a power trip.
Brancato delivers a quiet, deep performance. His Dominican accent may be laid
on a bit thick at times but he's doesn't overdo the characterization. He plays
his character as decent but still a bit macho, just at the start of a little
self-examining. De Matteo, however, is the revelation here. The packaging may
try to capitalize on Ice-T's presence (he's solid, as usual) but it's De Matteo's
film. Her intensity is luminous. She plays her role as intelligent and fierce
but still vulnerable and a bit scared. She builds walls around herself (dark
sunglasses, leather, tinted windows) but she's fully aware of what's at stake.
When Ice-T confronts here as to why she stays with her husband (who he doesn't
think very highly of and repeatedly calls a "Domincan piece of shit")
she exasperatedly states that she loves him. She doesn't have more words for
it but she knows it's true. De Matteo has the makings of a real actress, not
just the mob moll that she brilliantly plays on The Sopranos. It'll be
a real test of the filmmaking community whether or not she gets the chance.
'R Xmas may be Abel Ferrara's most intimate film (although it's a toss
up with the primal Bad Lieutenant) and his attention to the little moments
is commendable. I have to love any film where the characters take time out from
a kidnapping plot to hit a bodega for a pack of smokes. The opening and closing
scenes provide a frame of surprising sweetness but the film is far from a closed
book. Nothing is neatly tied up and with his "to be cont..." closing
Ferrara thankfully leaves the door open to spend more time with these fascinating
The anamorphic transfer is clean and the colors are true. Ferrara comments on
the disk that he tried to remove blue entirely from the spectrum for the film
and director of photography Ken Kelsch did an excellent job working with a tight
budget and a limited palette. The transfer is mostly sharp perhaps with a touch
of sharpening added, but nothing too bad. A couple of instances of dirt here
and there. Much of the film is very dark but the transfer handles that well.
Dolby Digital tracks are available in 2.0 and 5.1. The 2.0 sounds okay but the
5.1 really sounds sharp. Schooly D's music has real impact in this mix and the
dialog is clear. Good separation of tones. Spanish subtitles are available.
NOTE: There is one serious flaw in the soundtrack of this disc that I didn't catch the first time around: On the 5.1 track all of the music is isolated to the front right speaker and the LFE. Luckily the LFE saves a bit of the dynamic quality of the sound but the lack of music in the left and center channels is obviously an error. I regret not catching this earlier but still find the disc worthwhile for the price and the quality of the film. Perhaps Artisan will rerelease it with a corrected audio track but in the meantime 'R Xmas is still worth at least a rental. It's also possible that not all copies of 'R Xmas currently show this problem but don't be suprised if yours does.
The only major extra feature is a commentary track from Abel Ferrara and his
production designer / all-around partner in crime Frank De Curtis (unbilled
on the commentary). This is the same pair that Cinema Gotham interviewed
about the film and their tone is similar here. There are times when they
are very informative, breaking the film and their process down for you in great
detail and there are times when they mumble incoherently. Ferrara's unique energy
carries the track. (Sometimes a new scene will start and he'll ask, "What
the fuck is this?!?") They sort of drop off a bit near the end but for
getting a peek behind the scenes and a good look at the mind of the director,
this track works.
Trailers for some really bad looking movies are included (Jacked Up,
Playa'z Court, Outrage) as is a strange text-based plot description
on 'R Xmas.
Email Gil Jawetz at firstname.lastname@example.org
'R Xmas is not getting a fair shake as a theatrical release: It's only playing
in New York and Los Angeles, starting November 22nd. I first saw it in a theater,
packed with Ferrara fans and the experience was strong. Without adventurous
distributors to take films like this to the people audiences will miss a lot
of quality stuff. Still, DVD is a pretty good tool for getting the word out
and this disc, with its nice low price, commentary track and quality transfer
should be attractive to a lot of people. (Again, remember the audio flaw before making your purchase.) Ferrara has a loyal following but a
lot more people should enjoy 'R Xmas.