Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Woods, Melanie Griffith, Vincent Kartheiser, Natasha Gregson Wagner, James Otis, Branden Williams, Brent Briscoe, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Hipp, Kim Flowers, John Gatins, Ryan Donahue, Christopher Doyle, Karen Lee Sheperd, Lou Diamond Phillips
Written by: Stephen Chin, Christopher B. Landon, based on a book by Eddie Little
Directed by: Larry Clark
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language
Running Time: 101
Date: 04/01/1998

Another Day in Paradise (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Into the Woods

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Woods has been one of our best actors for the last 2 decades. He is a little bent but he's absolutely honest with us each and every time. His innermost heart and soul comes ripping out at us. And even when he puts up a protective veneer, that heart simmers just under the surface. Lately, his projects have not been choice. But he has scored one of his best roles ever in the new movie Another Day in Paradise.

Woods doesn't have to carry this material all by himself. He's surrounded by an able cast, all of whom match him, even if they can't surpass his intensity. In Another Day in Paradise, Woods plays Mel, a self-proclaimed master thief. Melanie Griffith plays Sid, his faithful companion who likes to shoot heroin every now and then. (It's nice to see Griffith back in a good role. She is a terrific actress who has always been in search of a career, cursed by her squeaky voice that gives some people the chills.) Mel and Sid have taken on a pair of young accomplices, Bobby (Vincent Kartheiser, in his first major role) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner, Two Girls and a Guy). Bobby is a small-time thief/junkie who steals quarters out of vending machines. Rosie likes heroin too, but is afraid of using a needle. Bobby gets caught stealing late one night and is severely beaten by a security guard. Mel is called in to help patch Bobby up, using his wartime medic experience. He takes a shine to Bobby and asks for his help on a bigger job. So the four of them -- a screwed-up, misplaced family unit -- hit the road.

Another Day in Paradise is the second feature by director Larry Clark, who made 1995's Kids. Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) was a great admirer of Kids and prodded Clark to make a second film. Clark's response is a kind of homage to Van Sant's own Drugstore Cowboy (1989) with a little bit of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) thrown in. Clark continues to use his gritty, low-res, style from Kids and the effect is that the action seems closer to us, like a documentary, but more unreal at the same time. It has the look and energy of certain 1970's B-movies (helped by a score made up of classic soul and blues songs). But Clark does not seem interested in that kind of exploitation. The drug and action scenes go by quickly and matter-of-factly. The effect is emotional, not voyeuristic. Because of this, the movie takes on a heavy resonance and is hard to take at times.

The scenes that really carry a punch are the simplest interactions of the characters. Mel, of course, becomes a father figure for Robbie. He teaches Robbie how to shoot and carry a gun, when to talk, and when to shut up. Sid and Rosie, likewise, form a quick mother and daughter bond, after we find that Sid is unable to have children of her own and that Rosie is pregnant. During a botched drug sale Robbie gets shot and is taken to the remote home of a friendly Reverend (James Otis) to recover.

We've seen all this stuff before, but the energy is crisp, and the actors have a real spark.

Gloriously, as I was getting wound up in the lives of these four, I also noticed that the plot itself wasn't paint-by-numbers. I was expecting at least a few crime movie clich�s. But the movie dumps most of them, and follows a simple string of logic. Another Day in Paradise is based on the unpublished memoirs of an ex-con, Eddie Little. Everything eventually goes wrong, of course, but it's not obvious how it's all going to turn out. And even if it was, watching Woods and his off-kilter family are worth the trouble. This is a strong, powerful movie.

(This review was originally written for

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