(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have. Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films. But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to. Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already. I’m a film geek for God’s sake! I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old. I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time. So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see. Enjoy!)
I’ve always wanted to see this one. Javier Bardem was nominated for best actor and it’s directed by the guy who made BASQUIAT and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, 2 films I dig very much. I missed this one when it first came out in the year 2000, so this was my chance to check it out.
Based on a true story, Bardem plays Reinaldo Arenas, a famous novelist and poet. The movie spans his entire life, from his birth in 1943, to his death from AIDS in 1990. As a teenager in Cuba, he joins Castro’s rebels. By the 1960’s he meets a playboy named Pepe, who comes on to him. At first Reinaldo rejects him, but soon gives in and the 2 men begin a long love affair. He also begins to write. Since his radical publications and homosexuality go against the Cuban government, he is constantly being arrested as he is in and out of jail for much of his life. The he spends several years trying to get out of the country. He also meets a man named Lazaro, who ends up becoming his lover until his death in Manhattan.
It’s always tricky when trying to span this much time and giving the audience the information they need for you to genuinely care about the characters. And even though the movie has some good things going for it, it mostly fails to tell a cohesive and compelling story. There are 2 major elements in Reinaldo’s life: His writing and his homosexuality. And the movie is clearly more interested in his homosexuality. I was under the impression that this film was intending to celebrate this talented artist, but we never get to truly KNOW him as an artist. They briefly talk about his first novel, but I have no idea what it was about. Then later in the movie, we learn that he has written 10 other novels. When the fuck was that? The movie was far more interested in showing Arenas make out with different men than show what a great artist he was. I think there should have been a more balanced version of this story, that showed both of these elements equally. His love life isn’t entirely uncompelling, but it certainly got boring for me after a while.
The film’s major saving grace here is Javier Bardem, who delivers an outstanding performance as Arenas. He completely loses himself in the role, from the way he speaks and even right down to his body language. His walk is even very specific. Russell Crowe won for his performance in the solid (but overrated) GLADIATOR, but Bardem clearly gives the better performance. If there’s one reason to see this movie, it’s Bardem. The rest of the performances are fine. There’s also a couple of cameos by some famous actors. Johnny Depp plays 2 roles. One as a cross dresser and the other as a Cuban officer, the latter being the more effective one. Also, Sean Penn plays a farmer and is completely unrecognizable. I didn’t realize it was him until about after a minute of him on the screen. He makes the most of his very brief screen time. For me, I loved seeing awesome character actor Michael Wincott as an artist who informs on his colleagues.
Julian Schnabel’s direction has a very organic and flowy feel. There’s some great shots here. One of my favorites was near the beginning, with an infant Arenas in a deep hole and the camera swoops out and back very swiftly. It was pretty cool. But other than some great camera work and Bardem’s magnificent performance, the movie is a chore to sit through. As the film goes on, we learn less and less about Arenas. I could care less about his romantic troubles. They were very boring to me. And the film jumps around so much that I had a tough time figuring out who he was with, and what was going on. The structure is a gigantic mess. This could have been a compelling movie about a wonderful writer, but instead it’s a tedious, pointless mess. After spending over 2 hours with Arenas, I still knew nothing about him. Javier Bardem’s great performance seemed to be a complete waste. ★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence.
– Running time: 2hrs 13min.
(BEFORE NIGHT FALLS is available to rent on DVD from Netflix)