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With: Benjamin Bratt, Giancarlo Esposito, Talisa Soto, Rita Moreno, Mandy Patinkin, Nelson Vasquez, Michael Irby, Michael Wright, Griffin Dunne
Written by: Leon Ichaso
Directed by: Leon Ichaso
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, strong language and sexuality
Language: English
Running Time: 103
Date: 25/01/2002

Piñero (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Poetry Slam-Dunk

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While most biopics come across as puffy and self-important like a hefty hardback novel, the new film Piñero seems like it's scrawled in blank verse on the back of a greasy paper bag -- and that's a compliment.

I had never heard of Miguel Piñero (1946-1988), a Puerto-Rican poet, playwright and actor who lived in New York during the era of Basquiat and Schnabel. His resume may not look so impressive at a glance -- a few appearances on TV's "Kojak" and "Miami Vice," a play called Short Eyes that I'd likewise never heard of, and a couple of parts in movies like Fort Apache: The Bronx, Jim McBride's remake of Breathless, and William Friedkin's Deal of the Century. But to Puerto Ricans, he must seem like something of a legend.

Local nice-guy actor Benjamin Bratt (Traffic, Miss Congeniality) occupies Piñero's persona with gusto, strutting, bowing, stealing the center of the room, wallowing in his own destruction. It's a pretty basic rags-to-riches story destroyed by drugs, disease and petty crimes, but director Leon Ichaso (Sugar Hill) plays the whole thing like a wild poem, concerned with only the emotional resonance of the moment.

Shot on digital video, Piñero runs faster through the poet's life than biopics ordinarily do -- one reviewer astutely pointed out that it feels like Piñero's life is flashing before our eyes, as it must have felt to him. We meet some of Piñero's friends, most importantly Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), who always had a spare bed or an extra shirt for the self-destructive Piñero and helped establish a sort of safe house for upcoming Puerto Rican stars. We also meet Piñero's mother (played by another local, Rita Moreno) in flashback, his lover (Talisa Soto) and Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin), the creator of the Public Theater that gives Short Eyes its first shot.

Griffin Dunne has a funny cameo as the agent who first approaches Piñero about a Short Eyes film (released in real life in 1977). Most of these characters zip in and out on the film's periphery. They're seen through Piñero's eyes only as extensions of him, rather than as full-fledged characters. My favorite scenes, though, are the ones in which Bratt recites Piñero's poetry -- in a smoky club and on a city rooftop performing for a camera. It's here that I got the best sense of the man, his fearlessness, his feverish cool, his life-force. And again, when his friends gather for his funeral at the film's end and each takes a verse of "A Lower East Side Poem," we can sense that even though it was short, Piñero's life was most likely full.

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