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Friday, Aug. 13, 1999

'Another Day,' another downer


For a tale of junkie street kids who descend into a sordid spiral of theft, violence, and fast-fading dreams, "Another Day in Paradise" seems like a bitterly ironic title. But judging from director Larry Clark's lifelong fascination with wasted youth and living on the edge, perhaps this is as good as it gets.

Photographer-turned-director Clark is nothing if not consistent. His obsessions move from his books of still photography of sallow, down-and-out Oklahoma teens in the 1971 "Tulsa" and the 1983 "Teenage Lust," to the faux-verite NYC teen-sex and drugs of his debut film "Kids" in 1995. Well into his 50s now, Clark remains in the thrall of his teenage years of reckless behavior, though parenthood, rehab and a spell in prison have certainly given him a bit of perspective as well. Now he seems to be left in an emotional DMZ, wishing those wild youthful debaucheries could continue forever, but knowing full well that they can't.

Let's be honest: There is a definite attraction to living fast and wild, and getting away with it by being quicker, sharper and bolder than the average Joe. This adrenaline energy has inspired films from "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Badlands," through "Drugstore Cowboy" to "Trainspotting." Clark's latest, "Another Day in Paradise," takes this familiar story-arc of feckless fast living slowly turning sour and, surprisingly, manages to spin a few new riffs off it.

Street-kid junkie Bobbie (TV-idol Vincent Kartheiser, looking like a young Jim Carrol) squats in an abandoned warehouse with his equally stoned girlfriend Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner, "Lost Highway"), where he supports his habit through petty crime.

When caught robbing campus Coke machines, Bobbie is beaten to within an inch of his life by a porcine security guard. A friend's uncle, Mel (James Woods), is called in to administer some first aid, and supply the medicine. When Bobbie asks him if he's a doctor, Mel replies sarcastically, "I'm a doctor, shooting you up with heroin? No kid, I'm just a junkie and a real good thief -- they kind of go together."

Once Bobbie recovers, Mel gives him some good, fatherly advice: "Anybody who says crime don't pay only knows punks like you ... you're a bust waiting to happen."

Mel then offers to take Bobbie under his wing, and school him in the advanced art of ripping off pharmacies and dealing the dope swiftly before you do it all yourself. Bobbie jumps at the opportunity, and soon he and the equally directionless Rosie are hitting the road with Mel and his moll, Sid (a gravel-voiced Melanie Griffith). Alarm bells should be ringing in Bobbie's head when supposed master criminals Mel and Sid turn up hours late and tripping on acid, but Bobbie is so awed by age and money that he goes along.

Their initial heist of some amphetamines goes well, and Mel seems to know exactly what he's doing. But the second alarm bell goes off when Mel -- speeding his brains out -- buys a bunch of guns, and trains Bobbie how to use them: "A gun isn't your dick, so don't be whipping it out every time you have to prove something." Sure enough, the guns are soon pulled when a series of drug deals go awry, ending with a rather unprofessional body count.

As their little gang recovers in the backwoods retreat of a shady survivalist named The Reverend, Mel begins to crack under the pressure (and booze), finally deciding to pull an even dodgier heist.

Rosie is pining to cut their losses and run, but Bobbie just can't break his bond with Mel. Stupid, maybe, but try to imagine yourself in this situation: You're standing next to James Woods, who's swigging heavily off a bottle of Jack Daniels, a loaded firearm at hand. "I'm not leaving until I get what I came for," he snarls, eyes looking like they're going to pop out of his skull. Repeatedly jabbing his finger into your forehead to make sure you get the point, he rants: "Compromise is for losers. F***ing, f***ing nobodies!" Yes, sir, you nod and slip away with your tail between your legs. Am I wrong?

If there's any single reason to see this film, it's James Woods. He's at his best when playing characters who are spinning out, and he spins out big time here, no doubt drawing on his own reputed history of substance abuse. Alternately manic-funny and manic-scary, this is a performance of mood swings that turns on a dime.

Melanie Griffith, meanwhile, is a perfect foil. She might not be the first person you'd imagine mainlining in a neck vein, or wielding a pump-action shotgun with a casual efficiency, but she handles her tuff-chick role with a compelling mix of resignation and devotion.

Kartheiser and Gregson Wagner have less to do, as their performances are more driven in reaction to their elders, but they share an easy intimacy, and their naivete and misplaced trust in Mel is perfectly conveyed. They also share (in one of Clark's specialties) one of the more natural (and hence hotter) sex scenes of the year.

What really gives "Another Day in Paradise" its edge over the many similar couple-on-the-run films, is its weird surrogate-family dynamic, that has all four members bonding in an unconscious attempt to fulfill needs that they barely acknowledge. Bobbie sees in Mel the perfect father-figure: accepting of his weaknesses (drugs), and dispensing knowledge and attention, a leader who will take charge.

Mel's feelings are more complex: On the one hand, he sees Bobbie and Rosie as some sort of sop to Sid, with whom he will never father their own children. But beyond that, Mel is a megalomaniac who desires followers, but only if they're young and malleable enough to remain entirely in his thrall. In this analysis of leader/pack dynamics, "Paradise" packs quite a punch.

"Another Day in Paradise" was based on a book by an actual ex-con (Eddie Little), which gives it some claim to authenticity, a feeling that is supported by Clark's trademark quasidocumentary style, which isn't afraid to get up close and personal, all shaky and handheld when necessary.

But Clark does allow himself to get more lyrical here than he ever did in "Kids," which is a welcome change (but one that's disappointed those who were convinced of "Kids" supposed "realism"). The film's final shot, as Bobbie runs for his life through a swaying wheat field to the sound of a prophetic Bob Dylan on the soundtrack, soars higher than any speedball, and hints at the need for transcendence and change.

Kudos to Clark, who's obviously growing as a director.

"Another Day in Paradise" is showing at Cinema Rise in Shibuya.


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