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NEVER DIE ALONE

The idea of a gangsta movie told in the style of “Sunset Boulevard” seems strange, and in Ernest Dickerson’s “Never Die Alone,” it proves not just peculiar but quite awful. Based on a novel by Donald Goines, who was a gangster type himself, it’s the story of a New York drug dealer called King David (DMX), who narrates his flashy but tragic career from beyond the grave (supposedly via a bunch of pre-prepared audio tapes on which he’s recorded his memoirs). Happily, he bequeaths the tapes–along with his pimpmobile–to just the right person: an angst-ridden would-be reporter, Paul (David Arquette). The structure allows for the facts of David’s life to be doled out piecemeal while contemporary events–in particular, his death at the hands of Mike (Michael Ealy) and Moon (Antwon Tanner), enforcers for Moon (Clifton Powell), a drug lord from whom David once stole a bunch of cash. When Mike, who had a grudge of some unnamed sort against David, is marked for death by Moon to cover his tracks, a cat-and-mouse game follows as Mike targets Moon’s gang and they in turn aim to eliminate him. (They’ve already dispatched Blue.) Meanwhile Paul tries to uncover the truth about David’s past and Mike’s motives while avoiding Moon’s goons, who are also out to get him.

The convoluted structure and Dickerson’s gritty presentation (in tandem with cinematographer Matthew Libatique) are a combination which would be sufficiently grim on its own, but things get worse. The characters, or more properly caricatures, are a lost cause. King David is described by Paul at one point as having a kind of nobility, but nothing could be further from the truth: he’s an absolute scumbag who takes special pleasure in hooking his succession of women on heroin and then dumping them. And the dialogue he’s provided with by scripter James Gibson (presumably derived from Goines’s original) is the purplest of prose, filled with the most laughable hard-boiled cliches. DMX’s performance, moreover, is curiously flat; one would expect the rapper to exhibit at least a flash of charisma, but none shows up at all. As for Arquette, he suffers extravagantly from his supposed journalistic ideals, but nobody could make this sloppily-written character seem remotely real. The rest of the cast adds little to the mix. Powell is conventionally sleazy as the drug kingpin, and David’s stable of squeezes–mediocre TV actress Janet (Jennifer Sky), college brain Juanita (Reagan Gomez-Preston) and the hopped-up Edna (Drew Sidora), whom he’d knocked around before leaving New York for the West Coast and who proves key to unlocking the mystery of his murder–don’t register very strongly, either. Ealy has a smoldering presence as the intense Mike, but sometimes seems as inexpressive as Clarence Williams III.

“Never Die Alone” is so outlandishly bad that it actually incites a viewer’s morbid curiosity: you watch it wondering how much worse it can get. And there’s a kind of grim satisfaction when, at the close, the editor to whom Paul shows the story he’s based on David’s tapes declares it entirely incredible; at least one smart character has arrived on the scene. If only one could assume that its makers intended the movie to be funny, you could acclaim it as a successful (and rather subtle) take-off on the genre. But that doesn’t seem to be the case: the humor here appears entirely unintentional. As a result even DMX’s fans are likely to desert it in droves, and the picture may quickly expire in a fashion at odds with its title–with every seat in the theatre empty.

MARCI X

Lots of movies get green-lighted in Hollywood that turn out badly, but usually you can at least perceive why someone might have thought that the project had some small chance of working to begin with. Every once in a while, though, a picture appears that’s so jaw-droppingly awful from beginning to end that its very existence is an affront–and how it came to be made at considerable expense is simply unfathomable. “Marci X” falls into this select company; it’s even more misguided than last year’s mega-bomb “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” It’s truly hard to believe that Paul Rudnick wrote anything that resembled this.

Back in 1996 Daman Wayans starred in “The Great White Hype,” a clumsy satire of racial divides in the boxing game. Now he appears in this attempted satire/romantic comedy about white-and-black on the contemporary music scene, and the result is more painful still. “Marci X” is an embarrassment to all involved, including the audience–a clash of cultures story that plays as a clash of stereotypes instead, so clueless about its subject that it’s like a being force-fed a 10-CD retrospective of Vanilla Ice’s greatest hits. It’s no wonder its release has been delayed so long. What’s surprising it that it hasn’t been kept under wraps indefinitely.

Lisa Kudrow plays Marci, a wealthy New York socialite whose millionaire father falls ill when a right-wing senator attacks him for owning a record label that features on its roster Dr. S (Wayans), a hip-hopper with a propensity for spouting lyrics not likely to endear him to the Tipper Gore-Bill Bennett crowd. For nearly ninety minutes (in this severely cut version of what must have been a longer movie–necessary connections are often simply lacking), she tries to deal with all the bad press by persuading him to take a more accommodating attitude; and in the process, though it’s frankly inexplicable from both sides, the two fall in love.

What’s truly astonishing about “Marci X” is the utter contempt with which it treats all its characters, and thereby its cast. It’s predictable that the senator would be portrayed as an unprincipled shrew–such is the PC view, of course–and that Christine Baranski emerges from the role without a shred of dignity. But nobody else–not even the people you’re apparently supposed to like–fares much better. Marci is just a standard-issue Jewish princess, and Kudrow plays her robotically, in a way that leaves her neither attractive nor remotely sympathetic. Wayans comes off even worse, saddled with the sort of jive stereotype that seems woefully past its expiration date. The role might have worked as a four-minute sketch on “In Living Color” years ago, but stretched to an hour and a half it’s absolutely insufferable Hip-hop culture is completely defanged here to render it palatable to a white audience that will never show up anyway, and as part of the process Dr. S. is presented as a thoroughly unthreatening, cuddly African-American artifact that’s necessarily irresistible to women (especially, it appears, to those elderly white ones inevitably presented in pictures like this as uncontrollably randy). (The weird voice that Wayans uses for the rapper takes him even further from the realm of reality.) Of course, it’s impossible to believe that any mutual attraction could ever arise between these two cardboard figures, and even more impossible to care. Richard Benjamin appears as Marci’s father, looking suitably cadaverous. But he’s also directed the movie at a geriatric tempo that suggests his pacemaker might actually need recharging. The production side of things, on the other hand, is fairly praiseworthy: from a technical standpoint “Marci X” looks spiffy–an example of attractive packaging within which tawdry contents lurk.

The whole of this movie is atrocious, but the most terrible parts are definitely the musical numbers. There are several of these for both Wayans and Kudrow, as well as couple of hideous routines for a group called Boys ’R Us (just one opportunity for the script to engage in some really puerile gay-based humor). But the makers save the absolute worst for last. An elaborate song-and-dance that precedes the final crawls, giving “cute” information on the future of the various characters, is certainly the nadir of this gruesomely bad movie, and will send viewers fleeing up the aisles–faster than Seabiscuit.