The Man Who Made Kids Has Redeemed Himself

Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise , from a screenplay by Christopher Landon and Stephen Chin, based on the novel by Eddie Little, marks a surprising advance over Mr. Clark’s wildly overrated, hideously attitudinal and defiantly disgusting maiden film, Kids (1995), in character development and emotional articulation. This time around, he’s used some talented actors, instead of adolescent amateurs, and created characters who evolve dramatically and psychologically, instead of just striking a rebellious pose and holding it for two hours. Mr. Clark’s hard-core admirers probably will disapprove of the fact that he and his collaborators have injected some morality and intelligence into the Baudelairean formulas for bashing the bourgeoisie.

Even so, the early going is harrowing enough in its corrosive criminality and numbing needle-point drug addiction. Our first encounter with teenage runaways Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) seems to occur in the lowest depths of hell, from which there is no way up. Bobbie’s modus operandi is smashing into vending machines to gather enough quarters to feed his explicitly depicted heroin habit. After one night’s haul, he is confronted by a sadistic security guard with a big club, and, during the ensuing beating, Bobbie stabs the guard to death. And this is just the exposition. Meanwhile, Rosie is snorting any loose dust in her vicinity, though too frightened of needles at this point in her depravity to shoot up with Bobbie.

You may ask yourself, at this point, why you should care about these terminally dead-end kids, particularly when Bobbie seems close to death from internal bleeding after his nocturnal foray in search of dope money. Besides, what else can you expect from Mr. Clark after Kids ? But the movie takes on added generational and dramatic dimension with the introduction of Uncle Mel (James Woods), a professional thief, and Mel’s heroin-addicted girlfriend and partner, Sidney (Melanie Griffith). Gradually, Mel and Sid assume father and mother roles with Bobbie and Rosie, who are eager to embrace surrogate parents with the supposed know-how to lead them into the criminal big time, one of Mel’s self-mesmerizing fantasies.

For a while, this family seems happy enough in the desperate stretching of time to compensate for the odds against any of the characters’ living to a ripe old age. Mel possesses enough stylish bravado for the whole family, and the first big drug-money exchange goes smoothly enough to induce in the audience the expectation of a montage of easy scores. When Mel presses his luck by transacting business with a band of Hitler-loving rednecks, all hell breaks loose with a barrage of shotgun blasts and automatic-weapon fire. Mel is gravely wounded, and Rosie physically abused, but Sid and Bobbie save the night from total disaster by killing all the real baddies. After this fiasco, Rosie wants Bobbie to break away from Mel; Bobbie and Sid want the family to lay low; but Mel lays down the law or, rather, the outlaw, demanding another attempted score. By this time, Bobbie is in too deep with Mel to abandon him, and the last act of the melodrama unfolds with the fatefully sinister introduction of Lou Diamond Phillips as a lecherous, treacherous gay criminal who leads Mel into a tangled web of betrayals and blood baths. Night bleeds into morning, and the film ends with everyone showing their true and untrue colors.

The important thing is that we know and feel more at the end than we did at the beginning, and the steady blues score by Clarence Carter, Otis Redding and others does not so much underline the characters as measure the heartbeats of their foreshortened existence. Mr. Woods, Mr. Kartheiser, Ms. Wagner and Ms. Griffith constitute a marvelously congenial ensemble as well as a compatible fictional family. What has been derided as Clark-ian clumsiness in the direction of the explosive violence strikes me as thematically appropriate for a truly realistic demystification of supposed criminal expertise. Mr. Clark has captured the heart-stopping uncertainty and unpredictability of a gun-packing, drug-selling-and-consuming subculture somewhere in the abstract middle of America.

Accidental auteurist that I am, I never expected Mr. Clark to rise from the moral wreckage of Kids to the redemptive romance of Another Day in Paradise . It just goes to show you what an intelligently complex screenplay and a bunch of good actors can do to make an unappetizing world watchable.

A Boy Loses by Winning

Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven reminds us that Iranian filmmakers work under censorship laws repressive enough to make the old Hollywood Production Code look like the Magna Carta. Hence, there is neither much kiss-kiss nor much bang-bang in contemporary Iranian movies. Yet Iranian films keep winning awards at international film festivals and have secured a reasonable representation on the foreign-language art-film circuit. How to explain this apparent paradox? Is liberty, much less license, overrated in the making of movies? Indeed, is it almost a handicap to be allowed to show anything short of a snuff film on the screen?

I have begun to sense a quiet backlash against a perceived critical free ride granted to Iranian filmmakers not allowed to agitate overtly for reform in the political and social arena, nor to attack governmental repression in any form, nor to depict troubled sexual relationships or any semblance of criminal activity. Are we too easy on their variations of background-foreground, text-subtext and illusion-reality strategies?

As it is, I happen to like Children of Heaven for its storytelling virtuosity, its two wondrous child performers, Mir Farrokh Hashemian as the schoolboy Ali, and Bahareh Seddiqui as his sister, Zahra, its evocation of lower-middle-class life in Iran, and its uncanny understanding of the convulsions of childhood panic over the most seemingly trivial transgressions. Ali is not a particularly brave little boy. He is terrified of his father, as I was on occasion when I was growing up in Brooklyn and Queens. Indeed, I identified with Ali as a class-A crier when things went badly and he was threatened with punishment.

The anecdotal structure of Children of Heaven is simplicity itself. Ali picks up his sister Zahra’s shoes at the shoemaker’s and then loses them inadvertently at the grocer’s. Fearing his father’s wrath, Ali persuades Zahra to wear his sneakers to school, since she attends the early session and could then return them to him before his later session begins. This subterfuge results in the spectacle of first Zahra, and then Ali racing frenetically through the streets, all to keep Ali’s father from punishing him.

The plot thickens slightly when Zahra’s shoes turn up on the feet of another schoolgirl. More mystery, more frantic movements from one place to another. Finally, Ali is entered in a race in which he seeks a third prize for the award of a pair of sneakers, rather than the more prestigious first and second prizes. But in the exhausting frenzy of the race, Ali miscalculates and comes in first. He is heartbroken, and cannot smile even in victory.

Even in the possibly inflated context of Iranian cinema, Children of Heaven is nothing if not impressive in its economy and efficiency. It never resorts to Pirandellian maneuvers to lend irony to the simple scenario. Yet its sociological acuity is as sharp as any other Iranian film. And more than most movies in the West, it dignifies work and craftsmanship with an exquisite eye for detail. The director has probably seen The Bicycle Thief and The Four Hundred Blows , and has, in any event, learned to define an entire society through the feelings of its children.

Adding to Truffaut

François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969), from Truffaut’s screenplay, based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, has been revived in a restored version by the ever-adventurous Film Forum. Mermaid , as Annette Insdorf astutely notes in her book, François Truffaut , marks the end of Truffaut’s Hitchcock cycle consisting of The Soft Skin (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), all films made around the time Truffaut was working on his interview book with Alfred Hitchcock. Ms. Insdorf argues further that the 20 minutes that were cut haphazardly from the French print for its 1969 American release make Mermaid more clearly a story of love than of revenge.

To me, Mermaid is unconvincing as a story of two murders and the mad love that arises from them, then and now. The main reason is the fatal miscasting of the two leads, Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo, in a blatant homage to Ms. Deneuve’s dangerous beauty. Truffaut was in the midst of a love affair with Ms. Deneuve at the time he made the film and, to my knowledge, Mermaid is the only Deneuve film in which she goes topless. For the record, her brief and casual exposure reveals a nicely unspectacular bosom. Yet Roman Polanski in Repulsion (1965) and Luis Buñuel in Belle de Jour (1967) got much more erotic élan out of Ms. Deneuve than did Mr. Truffaut.

As for Mr. Belmondo, a French Bogey type, he was too strong a male icon to serve as Truffaut’s enraptured alter ego. Jean-Pierre Léaud would have been closer to the masochistic requirements of the role than Mr. Belmondo. As for the Hitchcock influence, the restored footage actually loosens the tension of the melodrama even more than in the “butchered” version. Today, as in 1969, Mermaid never achieves the morbid intensity of the Hitchcock of Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958), or the Jean-Luc Godard of Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Masculin-Féminin (1966), or even the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player (1960).

This is not to say that Mermaid is less than the work of a lyrical poet who loved women à la folie .

Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise , from a screenplay by Christopher Landon and Stephen Chin, based on the novel by Eddie Little, marks a surprising advance over Mr. Clark’s wildly overrated, hideously attitudinal and defiantly disgusting maiden film, Kids (1995), in character development and emotional articulation. This time around, he’s used some talented actors, instead of adolescent amateurs, and created characters who evolve dramatically and psychologically, instead of just striking a rebellious pose and holding it for two hours. Mr. Clark’s hard-core admirers probably will disapprove of the fact that he and his collaborators have injected some morality and intelligence into the Baudelairean formulas for bashing the bourgeoisie.

Even so, the early going is harrowing enough in its corrosive criminality and numbing needle-point drug addiction. Our first encounter with teenage runaways Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) seems to occur in the lowest depths of hell, from which there is no way up. Bobbie’s modus operandi is smashing into vending machines to gather enough quarters to feed his explicitly depicted heroin habit. After one night’s haul, he is confronted by a sadistic security guard with a big club, and, during the ensuing beating, Bobbie stabs the guard to death. And this is just the exposition. Meanwhile, Rosie is snorting any loose dust in her vicinity, though too frightened of needles at this point in her depravity to shoot up with Bobbie.

You may ask yourself, at this point, why you should care about these terminally dead-end kids, particularly when Bobbie seems close to death from internal bleeding after his nocturnal foray in search of dope money. Besides, what else can you expect from Mr. Clark after Kids ? But the movie takes on added generational and dramatic dimension with the introduction of Uncle Mel (James Woods), a professional thief, and Mel’s heroin-addicted girlfriend and partner, Sidney (Melanie Griffith). Gradually, Mel and Sid assume father and mother roles with Bobbie and Rosie, who are eager to embrace surrogate parents with the supposed know-how to lead them into the criminal big time, one of Mel’s self-mesmerizing fantasies.

For a while, this family seems happy enough in the desperate stretching of time to compensate for the odds against any of the characters’ living to a ripe old age. Mel possesses enough stylish bravado for the whole family, and the first big drug-money exchange goes smoothly enough to induce in the audience the expectation of a montage of easy scores. When Mel presses his luck by transacting business with a band of Hitler-loving rednecks, all hell breaks loose with a barrage of shotgun blasts and automatic-weapon fire. Mel is gravely wounded, and Rosie physically abused, but Sid and Bobbie save the night from total disaster by killing all the real baddies. After this fiasco, Rosie wants Bobbie to break away from Mel; Bobbie and Sid want the family to lay low; but Mel lays down the law or, rather, the outlaw, demanding another attempted score. By this time, Bobbie is in too deep with Mel to abandon him, and the last act of the melodrama unfolds with the fatefully sinister introduction of Lou Diamond Phillips as a lecherous, treacherous gay criminal who leads Mel into a tangled web of betrayals and blood baths. Night bleeds into morning, and the film ends with everyone showing their true and untrue colors.

The important thing is that we know and feel more at the end than we did at the beginning, and the steady blues score by Clarence Carter, Otis Redding and others does not so much underline the characters as measure the heartbeats of their foreshortened existence. Mr. Woods, Mr. Kartheiser, Ms. Wagner and Ms. Griffith constitute a marvelously congenial ensemble as well as a compatible fictional family. What has been derided as Clark-ian clumsiness in the direction of the explosive violence strikes me as thematically appropriate for a truly realistic demystification of supposed criminal expertise. Mr. Clark has captured the heart-stopping uncertainty and unpredictability of a gun-packing, drug-selling-and-consuming subculture somewhere in the abstract middle of America.

Accidental auteurist that I am, I never expected Mr. Clark to rise from the moral wreckage of Kids to the redemptive romance of Another Day in Paradise . It just goes to show you what an intelligently complex screenplay and a bunch of good actors can do to make an unappetizing world watchable.

A Boy Loses by Winning

Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven reminds us that Iranian filmmakers work under censorship laws repressive enough to make the old Hollywood Production Code look like the Magna Carta. Hence, there is neither much kiss-kiss nor much bang-bang in contemporary Iranian movies. Yet Iranian films keep winning awards at international film festivals and have secured a reasonable representation on the foreign-language art-film circuit. How to explain this apparent paradox? Is liberty, much less license, overrated in the making of movies? Indeed, is it almost a handicap to be allowed to show anything short of a snuff film on the screen?

I have begun to sense a quiet backlash against a perceived critical free ride granted to Iranian filmmakers not allowed to agitate overtly for reform in the political and social arena, nor to attack governmental repression in any form, nor to depict troubled sexual relationships or any semblance of criminal activity. Are we too easy on their variations of background-foreground, text-subtext and illusion-reality strategies?

As it is, I happen to like Children of Heaven for its storytelling virtuosity, its two wondrous child performers, Mir Farrokh Hashemian as the schoolboy Ali, and Bahareh Seddiqui as his sister, Zahra, its evocation of lower-middle-class life in Iran, and its uncanny understanding of the convulsions of childhood panic over the most seemingly trivial transgressions. Ali is not a particularly brave little boy. He is terrified of his father, as I was on occasion when I was growing up in Brooklyn and Queens. Indeed, I identified with Ali as a class-A crier when things went badly and he was threatened with punishment.

The anecdotal structure of Children of Heaven is simplicity itself. Ali picks up his sister Zahra’s shoes at the shoemaker’s and then loses them inadvertently at the grocer’s. Fearing his father’s wrath, Ali persuades Zahra to wear his sneakers to school, since she attends the early session and could then return them to him before his later session begins. This subterfuge results in the spectacle of first Zahra, and then Ali racing frenetically through the streets, all to keep Ali’s father from punishing him.

The plot thickens slightly when Zahra’s shoes turn up on the feet of another schoolgirl. More mystery, more frantic movements from one place to another. Finally, Ali is entered in a race in which he seeks a third prize for the award of a pair of sneakers, rather than the more prestigious first and second prizes. But in the exhausting frenzy of the race, Ali miscalculates and comes in first. He is heartbroken, and cannot smile even in victory.

Even in the possibly inflated context of Iranian cinema, Children of Heaven is nothing if not impressive in its economy and efficiency. It never resorts to Pirandellian maneuvers to lend irony to the simple scenario. Yet its sociological acuity is as sharp as any other Iranian film. And more than most movies in the West, it dignifies work and craftsmanship with an exquisite eye for detail. The director has probably seen The Bicycle Thief and The Four Hundred Blows , and has, in any event, learned to define an entire society through the feelings of its children.

Adding to Truffaut

François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969), from Truffaut’s screenplay, based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, has been revived in a restored version by the ever-adventurous Film Forum. Mermaid , as Annette Insdorf astutely notes in her book, François Truffaut , marks the end of Truffaut’s Hitchcock cycle consisting of The Soft Skin (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), all films made around the time Truffaut was working on his interview book with Alfred Hitchcock. Ms. Insdorf argues further that the 20 minutes that were cut haphazardly from the French print for its 1969 American release make Mermaid more clearly a story of love than of revenge.

To me, Mermaid is unconvincing as a story of two murders and the mad love that arises from them, then and now. The main reason is the fatal miscasting of the two leads, Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo, in a blatant homage to Ms. Deneuve’s dangerous beauty. Truffaut was in the midst of a love affair with Ms. Deneuve at the time he made the film and, to my knowledge, Mermaid is the only Deneuve film in which she goes topless. For the record, her brief and casual exposure reveals a nicely unspectacular bosom. Yet Roman Polanski in Repulsion (1965) and Luis Buñuel in Belle de Jour (1967) got much more erotic élan out of Ms. Deneuve than did Mr. Truffaut.

As for Mr. Belmondo, a French Bogey type, he was too strong a male icon to serve as Truffaut’s enraptured alter ego. Jean-Pierre Léaud would have been closer to the masochistic requirements of the role than Mr. Belmondo. As for the Hitchcock influence, the restored footage actually loosens the tension of the melodrama even more than in the “butchered” version. Today, as in 1969, Mermaid never achieves the morbid intensity of the Hitchcock of Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958), or the Jean-Luc Godard of Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Masculin-Féminin (1966), or even the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player (1960).

This is not to say that Mermaid is less than the work of a lyrical poet who loved women à la folie .

The Man Who Made Kids Has Redeemed Himself