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Blow: infinifilm

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz

Written by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes
Directed by Ted Demme

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"As his various girlfriends knew too well, from junior high school days on up, George suffered from a constitutional incapacity to maintain a monogamous relationship. Put plainly, he was a hopelessly compulsive fornicator, to the degree that occasionally even he had to stand aside from himself and stare back in wonder. As for actual marriage, to tie himself legally to a person for the rest of his life flew directly in the face of all his dreams, of the Costa del Sol, of the cafés in Ibiza, of the women — especially of the latter, the countless, unending supply of women.… 'I was doing a lot of cocaine in that period and sometimes I'd say things that didn't stay with me very long. But I knew the Colombians were definitely big into families, into respecting the family, even though the guys screwed around alot.'… George eventually told Mirtha that if she really wanted to get married, they could act the part; they could pretend."

— Bruce Porter, Blow

Here's the thing with drug movies. They are always anti-drug. Unless it's a Cheech and Chong comedy, of course.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, really. For some people — indeed for many people — drugs are bad. Drugs wreck their health, spoil their relationships, and deplete their bank accounts, often with a stranglehold that ends only with death. On the other hand, their are millions of responsible drug users who, though consuming the products illegally, are nevertheless job-holding, family-raising, competent citizens. Just once, I'd like to see a movie about a drug dealer who only sells to adults he knows, operates his business ethically, and dies peacefully in his sleep at the age of 102 after a lifetime of supporting charities, artists, and doing other good works.

Not likely to happen. Instead, we will continue to experience an unending string of movies in which the main character experiences a terrible fall from grace, drug dealers are always double-dealers, all women are conniving drug whores, and the hero ends up chastened, but wiser. Blow is only a recent version of such films.

Blow is about George Jung, a Weymouth, Mass., native now serving time in a federal prison. But in the '60s, if you snorted cocaine somewhere in America, you were probably consuming cocaine that George Jung ferried into the country. He started out as a marijuana dealer in Manhattan Beach, California, in the '60s. His innovation was to bring Mexican pot into the country via low flying planes, his first rig stolen right off a stretch of Tarmac. Busted for smuggling, he served time with a fellow named Diego (Jordi Moll), who introduced him to the higher glories and more profitable merchandise of coke. Jung was an associate of Pablo Escobar (played by the chameleon-like Cliff Curtis), and he lived the '70s high-life. Discos. Parties. A trophy wife with kinky interests. Mountainous piles of cocaine everywhere. Brick-like stacks of cash in secret alcoves.

But it's not enough for Jung to be literally punished by the criminal justice system. The movie must also punish him, and in a way that is meant to make us ache for him. Thus though he is what we would consider, outside of his drug peddling, a good person, Jung is surrounded by traitors, has a shrill grasping wife (Penelope Cruz), and has a daughter he loves but is denied. In the end, Blow amounts to a moral brief on Jung's behalf. The film so takes Jung's side that it ends with a title-card lamenting that his beloved daughter still hasn't visited him in prison.

*          *          *

Blow is based on a much more detailed book by Bruce Porter that recounts these true events, but the movie still feels like a rehash born of director Ted Demme's studious scrutiny of the Scorsese oeuvre (but not his uncle Jonathan's). Jung's story is presented in the popular current medicalization mode, and he is shown to be torn between his failed businessman father (Ray Liotta) and his status-seeking mother (a miscast Rachel Griffiths), a shrew torn from an Oliver Stone script. He serves under a series of father figures, whom he ends up exceeding before they inevitably betray him, from the hairdresser Derek (Paul Reubens at his best) to drug kingpin Augusto Oliveras (Miguel Sandoval).

But though Blow has a lively surface with music-vid style editing and a series of "looks" that mimic the movie style of whatever era Jung happens to be living in at the time, the film doesn't have the joyous gravitas of Goodfellas or the out-of-control rage of Scarface. And like Traffic, Blow takes a conventional stance on drugs — they are bad, and the people involved with them get destroyed.

Nonetheless, Jung is played by Johnny Depp with compassion and detail. Perhaps he spends too much time worrying about Jung's hair. But, as this reviewer has asserted elsewhere, Depp is arguably the best actor of his generation. He prefers strong directors (Oliver Stone, John Waters, Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski, Emir Kusturica) over strong material, and he is not afraid of charismatic co-stars (Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken). American playwright/actor William Gillette called good acting "the illusion of the first time," and that is what Depp, like Brando and Dean before him, brings to the screen. His delivery is subtle, varied, and lays the groundwork for a tale that relies on a sympathy with the lead character to carry the viewer through the more fantastical elements of the story. The only problem is that Jung the real person as recounted in Porter's book is not as nice a guy as the movie Jung, who is presented as a sentimental and loyal serial monogamist to the women in his life. The real-life womanizing, calculating shipping-and-distribution expert is replaced by a bumbling nice guy pining over his daughter. Blow should be experienced only in conjunction with the book, which should be the real infinifilm element.

*          *          *

Blow is the third of New Line's "infinifilm" releases, and depending on taste, it is probably the best, with 15 Minutes the worst and Thirteen Days in the middle. As with the other films, the disc is packed with additional material, some of it informative, some of it of dubious pertinence to the film. The infinifilm format, which uses pop-up menus to distribute relevant supplemental material throughout the movie as it plays, is strong, and a good way to organize the material on a disc. But in the end, the format is only as strong as the original movie and the quality of the supplements. Somehow, a self-celebrating Paul Thomas Anderson-style "film diary" that's a disguised credit list — introducing everyone in the crew so they'll get their 15 seconds of fame — can strike the viewer as truly uninformative and a profound and waste of time and disc space.

Other supplements are of varying degrees of interest, built around the disc's unyielding and conventional anti-drug attitude. Two documentaries, the almost 30-minute "Lost Paradise: Cocaine's Impact on Columbia" and the seven-minute public service commercial "Addiction: Body and Soul," don't challenge the viewer but also don't say anything new. The fact-track serves up a steady stream of alarming information about drug use and the drug trade.

There's also a commentary track with Ted Demme and George Jung, recorded at different times. Demme is, how to say, very happy to be making movies and, predictably, doesn't seem to see anything wrong with the process, the people he works with, or the story he had to tell. There are also segregated video interviews with George Jung conducted in prison with a fish-eye lens. Jung is, it should be needless to say, less attractive as himself than he is in the person of Johnny Depp. His tales are well-practiced, and again, one must turn to Porter's book for an in-depth perspective on the man.

Also here are 10 deleted scenes with optional director commentary that amounts to about 25 minutes of additional material. The main beneficiary of this is Cliff Curtis, whose Pablo Escobar gets two more additional, character-enhancing scenes. Also, the Diego subplot is fleshed out, and the longest deleted scene concerns the Feds trying to convince George to rat on Diego at a trial in Florida. In the movie proper we don't know what happens to Diego after he betrays George. One of the weirdest supplements is called "Character Outtakes." Perhaps part of a scheme that was dropped, this shows the cast members talking about George in character. It's a good thing they were dropped. The performances, as written (or improvised), are arch and obvious. Besides Demme's production diary there is also a performance-style music video of Nikka Costa doing an unmemorable song called "Push and Pull".

The anamorphic transfer on this single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL) disc is a flawless 2.35:1. Audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround, with closed-captioning as the only subtitles. There are also DVD-ROM features such as script-to-screen, and the official website, plus the teaser and theatrical trailer and cast and crew filmographies. The disc comes, appropriately, in a white keep-case.

— D. K. Holm

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