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Underrated Depp shines in 'Blow'


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2001

Blow (R)

Blow (R)

George Jung was a small-time marijuana dealer in the 1970s when he got busted, jailed and schooled in a new, potentially lucrative narcotics trade: cocaine. Jung became the king of coke, handling an estimated 85 percent of U.S. trade and rubbing elbows with Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. Johnny Depp adds another rich character to his resume as Jung rises high and falls hard in director Ted Demme's peppy biography.

First impressions: "Demme, making nods to Boogie Nights, Goodfellas andScarface, handily captures the hazy, euphoric ascent of Jung, who grows ever greedier as the decades slip by and his activities and associations turn ever more sinister. . .

"Depp, as is his wont, plays Jung as an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, a man not so much creating his destiny as he is accepting his fate. Perhaps that's a cop-out, a way for Jung . . . to absolve himself of his misdeeds. But it makes for a terrific ride. And for much of the movie, with the exception of the overly sentimental final section, Depp gives as compelling a performance as any we've seen this year." (Phillip Booth, Times correspondent)

Second thoughts: Depp remains one of our most underrated actors. Maybe his first name or face is too cute to be taken as seriously as he deserves.

Rental audience: Depp fans, Studio 54-era survivors.

Rent it if you enjoy: Boogie Nights, Miami Vice reruns.

The Tailor of Panama (R)

Rogue British spy (Pierce Brosnan) gets demoted to a Panama assignment where he meets a meek tailor (Geoffrey Rush) connected to politicians and mobsters. This unlikely pair of con artists plans to steal a fortune from the U.S., Panamanian and British governments. Director John Boorman (Deliverance) retains the rich atmosphere, double-crosses and post-Cold War farce of John LeCarre's novel.

First impressions: "(Boorman) does an admirable job of maintaining the spy-caper feel of this comic drama, inspired in part by Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. The last act, though, is problematic, with the subtle black humor sullied by flesh-and-blood violence, followed by an ending that's just as suddenly and improbably sweet for nearly all parties. The tone, toward the last, is decidedly off key." (Phillip Booth, Times correspondent)

Second thoughts: Brosnan's decision to play a secret agent without his 007 safety net was a risk. Poor box office results suggest it won't happen again.

Rental audience: Spy gamists, LeCarre readers and travel agents.

Rent it if you enjoy: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Little Drummer Girl and The Russia House, on pages or screen.


New and noteworthy for digital players

Jodie Foster's film prodigy

Little Man Tate

Jodie Foster's first project as a filmmaker was this wonderful 1991 comedy-drama about a child prodigy and the two maternal forces in his life. Foster's eagerness to be a storyteller and her own experience as a preternaturally gifted actor make this DVD's audio commentary track a fascinating listen.

The title character is 9-year-old Fred Tate, played more eerie than cuddly by then-newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd (The Ice Storm). Where Fred's brilliance came from is anyone's guess. His mother Dede (Foster) is streetwise but not very bright. She encourages Fred's insatiable curiosity but can't give him every opportunity to satisfy it.

Uber-educator Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest) can. She wants Fred to live and study at her academy for budding geniuses and participate in the Odyssey of the Mind competition. Fred is torn between devotion to Dede and the promise of what Jane can provide, struggling to please both women while also becoming aware that he also has to please himself.

Little Man Tate is a great small movie with remarkable control over its funny and sad moments, never silly or treacly in either situation. That's the sign of a filmmaker with remarkable control of the material, especially for a debut. Not many can describe that process with such erudite precision as Foster lends to the audio commentary.

She isn't afraid to note when a scene looks "cheesy" or apologize for an naive moment that never felt that way to the audience. French New Wave influences are recurring themes. But the choice moments occur when Foster's instincts as an actor, scholar and single mother take over. She speaks low, yet passionately, with an understanding of human nature, telling how her characters reflect that and how directing a movie enhanced it for herself. Sometimes the word "and" is the only punctuation as Foster's mind goes into overdrive:

"As a single mother, your child becomes your universe. Your child is your everything. You're their policeman and their sister and their friend and the person they love and the person you love. It all gets very confusing. You tend to isolate yourself from the world and your focus goes to them and they become become everything vicariously that you hoped for yourself and never quite made. All the opportunities that you never have, you kind of hope you can shove into your children. . .

"That's a good thing because that's a bond that's unlike anything else. But at the same time it's a tremendous pressure on the child because the child feels responsible for the parent's happiness and responsible welfare and feels if they're not gifted and not excellent at things that they'll be a disappointment. They try to take that mantle on and try to fix things for the parent."

That's a lot of sociology to cram into two paragraphs, but that's how Foster operates. Certainly more thought-provoking than filmmakers wasting DVD space with self-congratulatory fluff and obvious observations. Foster made a smart movie in Little Man Tate. Now it's even smarter.


Videos worth another look

No-fault director

Mervyn LeRoy's return to the director's chair after a brief stint as producer gave film new benchmarks.

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Mervyn LeRoy was a dependable, socially conscious director when MGM hired him as head of production in 1938. He stuck around long enough to produce one expensive box office flop -- The Wizard of Oz -- before deciding to return to the director's chair.

If he only had a brain that could predict how that story turned out.

LeRoy, who died on this date in 1987, had a significant impact on American films. Several of his works -- Little Caesar, The Bad Seed and Random Harvest among them -- still set the standard for their respective genres.

None of them seemed like classics at the time. LeRoy was never nominated for an Academy Award for directing, settling instead for an Irving G. Thalberg award and an honorary Oscar for the 11-minute short subject The House I Live In. Unfortunately, that plea for religious tolerance starring Frank Sinatra isn't available on home video, but these selections are:

Little Caesar -- "Is this the end of Rico?" asked a dying mobster played by Edward G. Robinson. Not a chance. LeRoy's 1930 melodrama is still revered as the cinematic grandfather of The Godfather.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang -- World War I hero (Paul Muni) is wrongfully sentenced to brutal hard labor, escapes and becomes a model citizen. Not exactly Cool Hand Luke's fate, but a model for that movie.

Random Harvest -- Amnesiac veteran (Ronald Colman) starts a new life, then remembers his old one. Will saloon dancer Greer Garson stick with him through thick and thin? Audiences in 1942 couldn't tell through their tears.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo -- Forget the last hour of Pearl Harbor. LeRoy's depiction of Jimmy Doolittle's air raid has all the excitement and patriotism that Disney's publicity machine couldn't buy.

Little Women -- Louisa May Alcott's classic novel gets the MGM Golden Era treatment. The March sisters, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O'Brien and Janet Leigh, do it for themselves.

Quo Vadis? -- One of the better biblical epics of the 1950s with Robert Taylor's Roman general falling in love with a good Christian (Deborah Kerr). Eight Oscar nominations in 1951.

Mister Roberts and No Time for Sergeants -- Two military comedies that still work. The former is a brisk U.S. Navy comedy featuring an Oscar winning performance by Jack Lemmon as crafty Ensign Pulver. The latter stars Andy Griffith as a cornpone draftee turning the Air Force upside down.

The Bad Seed -- Still one of the best creepy-child melodramas. Patty McCormack is chilling as a perfect child masking a nightmarish personality.

The FBI Story -- Admiring history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with James Stewart as the agency's own Forrest Gump, always present at milestone incidents involving the KKK, Nazis, gangsters and Commies.

The Devil at 4 O'Clock -- Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra land on a South Seas island with an volcano ready to blow. A precursor to the disaster-movie genre that dominated Hollywood a decade later.

Gypsy -- Natalie Wood sings Let Me Entertain You in this glitzy biography of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and she does. Rosalind Russell, however, lip-syncs Everything's Coming Up Roses to Lisa Kirk's vocals.

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