Film Reviews


By • Mar 26th, 2004 •

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Fox Searchlight and Content Film present a Bloodline Films production in association with White Orchid Films
Running time — 82 minutes / MPAA rating: R

Three films a day is a mistake. I RSVP to two screenings at most, and hopefully spread them several hours apart. I do it out of respect for the filmmakers’ labor. I may end up disliking what they’ve done, but just in case I don’t, I’d feel remiss burying the experience with a second screening directly following the first.

And so it was the other day. At 11:00 a.m. I sauntered over to the Fox Screening Room to catch my first screening of the day, Ernest Dickerson’s new film, NEVER DIE ALONE. The ads are portraying it as a ‘black exploitation’ film, emphasizing the presence of rapper star DMX. And why not; that’s clearly the film’s target audience. A Fox rep welcomed us to the screening and offered a comparison between what we were about to see and the Blaxploitation flix of the ‘70’s. But what I saw was something substantially more than a genre piece; unspoolling in the dark was a tightly constructed, hard-paced eighty-two minute noir with more rewards than I could have expected.

Eighty-two minutes. That was the running time of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), the second of the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON series, and since I loved that film so much when I saw it in the theater at age eleven, I decided that every film I eventually made would have that exact running time. It was not to be. The times changed around me. Double bills went out with the 60’s, and two hour features became the norm. In the 70’s and 80’s, only Woody Allen dared to regularly break the ninety minute mark as part of his modus operandi. And then, in the 90’s, with the advent of the indies as a genuine force in the industry – not in the theaters necessarily, but certainly in the ancillary markets – diminished running times were back in vogue, and films didn’t have to be bloated beyond their ideal form in order to qualify for release.

The tightness of NEVER DIE ALONE does something unique to its characters – it allows us to get to the final frames and still feel the visceral, forlorn impact of everything that has befallen them. In a longer film, zombie-eyed Michael’s drive into the tunnel of light would have signaled hope and redemption at the end of his journey. But we’re still so mournfully attached to the death of his loved ones from less than an hour before, that it still feels almost insurmountably difficult for him to find peace.

But I get ahead of myself. Michael is an angry young enforcer for mob boss ‘Moon.’ When Moon isn’t doling out death to his enemies, he is coddled by duos of dumb blondes (one of the few ongoing gags in the film that never manages to find its footing). Michael Ealy plays Michael with a sullen, sensual resolve, and Clifton Powell easily inhabits ‘Moon’. They are wonderful actors, and Ealy has the best dramatic moment in the film, near the end, as he absorbs a ‘reveal’ along with us. The acting in general is one of the movie’s strong suits. Also delivering memorable performances are DMX as protagonist King David, returned after many years hoping to set things straight, and Drew Sidora as a jaded bartender who imbues her role with droll humor as well as the same corrosive cynicism as her fellow thesps. Jennifer Sky and Reagon Gomez-Preston are convincing as very different women who fall prey to King David’s sinister charms. They are not without their own flaws (no one escapes this film untarnished), but hardly the kind of negative personality traits sufficient to warrant the dire results of his wrath.

The script is James Gibson’s adaptation of one of Donald Goines’ cult novels. As unraveled on the screen, the story takes more ironic u-turns (one or two of them illegal) than you can count, and that’s a good thing. The story stays ahead of you, constantly throwing you off balance in a world off balance. For instance (SPOILER), as with Janet Leigh’s role in PSYCHO, our protagonist meets his demise at the end of the first act, and yet, in a twist on the Hithcock invention, he finds his way back into the film, providing the decadent thread that ties up all the loose ends by the finale. (SPOILER OVER) The dialogue, liberally seasoned with ‘mutha-fucka’s’ is, if you can get past the repetition of profanities, both incisive, witty, and street poetic.

Director Ernest Dickerson is a noted cinematographer among whose accomplishments in that field are DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X. Having relinquished the DP reins for directorial ones, he has found a marvelous counterpart in Matthew Libatique, who imbues every shot with a unified grain and grit, a handheld documentary look whose aesthetics transcend a purely documentary feel. It is so far one of the best looking films of the year, right up there with THE DREAMERS and LADYKILLERS (more on that momentarily).

Music is another area in which the film delivers. This is only George Duke’s second film score, and it varies as widely in tone as Hip Hop and Jazz. Every bit as surprising as the serpentine narrative, the composer deserves credit for taking chances. Spike Lee, with whom Dickerson worked several times, also has an experimental bent in regards to filmusic, displaying a willingness to construct counterpoints with score and imagery as recently as THE 25TH HOUR.

And now we cut to 4:00 p.m., and the second screening of the day, the Coen Bros ‘ THE LADYKILLERS. At what must be fifteen times the budget of Dickerson’s film, the Bros have spun another of their high tech webs around us, dripping with surreal art direction, cinematography in which every shot’s a zinger, and, disappointingly, a style so overwhelming content that the narrative never has a chance to take hold. For all its indie limitations, NEVER DIE ALONE has achieved a fine balance of substance and form.

Director: Ernest Dickerson
Screenwriter: James Gibson
Based on the novel by: Donald Goines
Producers: Alessandro Camon, Earl Simmons
Executive producers: Edward R. Pressman, John Schmidt, Angelo A. Ellerbee, Rudy “Kato” Rangel, Marc Gerald, Dion Fearon, Cameron Casey
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Christiaan Wagener
Music: George Duke
Costume designer: Marie France
Editor: Stephen Lovejoy

King David: DMX
Mike: Michael Ealy
Paul: David Arquette
Blue: Antwon Tanner
Edna II: Drew Sidora
Moon: Clifton Powell
Jasper: Luenell Campbell
Janet: Jennifer Sky
Juanita: Reagan Gomez-Preston

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