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New Line Home Cinema presents

Blow (2001)

"The official toxicity limit for humans is between one and one and a half grams of cocaine, depending on body weight. I was averaging five grams a day, maybe more. I snorted ten grams in ten minutes once. I guess I had a high tolerance."- George Jung (Johnny Depp)

Stars: Johnny Depp
Other Stars: Penelope Cruz, Franka Potente, Paul Reubens, Jordi Molla, Cliff Curtis
Director: Ted Demme

Manufacturer: LPMC
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive drug content and language, some violence, sexuality
Run Time: 02h:03m:14s
Release Date: 2001-09-11
Genre: drama

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Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BAA A

 

DVD Review

Blow is the supposedly factual account of the life of George Jung, the man who revolutionized the drug trade in America in the late 1970s and the early 1980s when he acted as the nation's chief importer of cocaine. This man, now serving life in prison, should be despised by all. He's indirectly responsible for millions of criminal acts, ruined lives, and babies born addicted. This is not a person that I want to sympathize with, or, for that matter, to glamorize. Director Ted Demme felt differently. His picture succeeds in providing a compelling narrative and an exciting dose by dose account of the rise and fall of perhaps the most influential drug dealer of all time, but, like most Hollywood biopics, it falters a bit in relating the gravity of his actions. If, perhaps, the script had shown us the consequences of Jung's actions, and his reactions to them, this could've been a masterpiece. Instead, it's a somewhat hollow, but always entertaining and visually stimulating, retread of similar stories (I'm thinking specifically here of Casino and its ilk, or simply, most of Scorsese's catalogue).

George Jung (Depp) was your typical child, caught in the midst of a dysfunctional family. His father (Ray Liotta) was strictly working-class, and he could never make enough to sate his wife's (Rachel Griffiths) shopping needs. One day, while watching his dad file for bankruptcy, George decides, rather abruptly, that he will never be poor. Cut to the mid 1960s. George is all grown up, living in California, and making a healthy wage selling pot on the beaches with the help of his supplier/partner Derek (Paul Reubens). He decides to up the ante, importing premium hash from Mexico and smuggling it, using his flight attendant girlfriend (Franka Potente), into the East coast, making himself a small fortune in the process. Eventually, he is busted in Chicago with 660 pounds of marijuana, and sent to prison for two years. There he meets Diego (Jordi Molla), an inmate who opens his eyes to the world of cocaine. "I entered prison with a bachelors in marijuana, and left with a PhD in cocaine," says George. Before long, he is acting as the right hand man to Pablo Escobar, introducing cocaine to America and earning his place in the halls of infamy. He meets, marries, and produces a child with Mirtha (Cruz), but his chosen profession will wreak havoc on his family life.

Director Demme has always been rather visual, but here, he obviously is attempting to hone his craft. If nothing else, Blow is beautifully shot. Scenes in George's childhood have a supersaturated, nostalgic glow; events in the 1960s are drenched in golden summer hues. Demme and cinematographer Ellen Kuras give each period in Jung's life (and each decade) it's own visual style, and, through changes in lighting, exposure, and film stock, are able to visually match George's downward spiral. Demme always plays with editing, wipes, and visual cues to add energy into the familiar screenplay.

The script, despite the very familiar overall structure, is quite good, if a bit superficial. We are asked to sympathize a bit too much with George's predicament and the loss of his child, and, as I said, a more honest picture would have not shown George in such an attractive light. Yes, he was just a man making a living, but not enough is done to show the consequences of his choices (at least, those beyond his own family). Still, the dialogue is excellent and refreshingly free of clich╚s, and the three-act structure somehow feels derivative but not labored.

Johnny Depp goes largely unnoticed as one of the finest actors of his generation, and George Jung provides him with his juiciest role yet. I was impressed by his work upfront, but once I watched the supplemental features and the actual footage of Jung, I was floored. Depp has captured the man, mannerism for mannerism. He never plays for sympathy, and his work actually almost covers for many of the weaker points in the script. Likewise, Ray Liotta deserves recognition for his return to form as Jung's father. Though the character is granted near-sainthood (another flaw in the script), his work is multi-layered and convincing. Penelope Cruz does what she can with a rather underwritten role, but many of her scenes are, shall we say, a bit trying on the nerves (how long can you listen to someone screech in Spanish?). And finally, Paul Reubens, free from the shackles of his Pee-Wee persona, gives a highlight performance as the comical Derek. He's obviously having a blast with the role, and his scenes are some of the best in the picture.

In the end, Blow leaves me entertained but unsatisfied. Perhaps if the script were a bit less sympathetic, I'd be happier. I also felt much of the cocaine aspect (by far the most interesting portion) was glossed over, especially the infamous friendship between Jung and Escobar. At two hours, the film feels short. Some stories demand a longer running time. Certainly a character as compelling as Jung does.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Blow uses varying film stocks and color mixes throughout, giving each section of the film a different look. This technique holds up well on DVD, and this stands with the best of the best in terms of image transfers. The beginning has a lush, saturated look with very bright reds and greens, but no apparent color bleeding. Later on, the look is more naturalistic, with colors looking somewhat subdued, in contrast with the bright beginning. Throughout, the image is remarkably deep, with an excellent "3-D" look. There is no noticeable edge enhancement, and just a big of aliasing, no doubt caused by anamorphic downconversion. This is another disc in a long line of outstanding transfers from New Line.

Image Transfer Grade: A
 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: While it's not a loud, aggressive action mix, the audio on Blow certainly doesn't. The surrounds are put to good use, usually enhancing the great pop songs used throughout. When the surrounds do kick in, they help create a natural and enveloping soundfield, with subtle directional and panning effects. The dialogue is always clear and the sound effects bring some good heft in terms of LFE. I'll mention it again, though, what impressed me most was the effect 5.1 sound had on the liberal use of music in the film. Nothing like a well-mixed rock tune to put a smile on your face (or ears).

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English CC
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
10 Deleted Scenes
Screenplay
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Ted Demme and George Jung
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Character Outtakes
  2. Nikka Costa music video, Push and Pull
  3. George Jung Interview Segments
  4. Fact Track
  5. Blow video diary
Extras Review: Somehow, New Line managed to create a brand that exceeds even the vaulted Platinum Edition. Blow is the third release in the Infinifilm line, and it offers the best all-around supplements package yet. If you'd like an in-depth description of Infinifilm, check out my review of 15 Minutes or Dan Heaton's review of 13 Days. Needless to say, with this being based on a true story, there's plenty of reason to go "behind the movie."

The documentary included, Lost Paradise: Cocaine's Impact on Columbia, sounds interesting, but it ends up something of a bore. For one thing, it is subtitled in Spanish, which is fine when you are preserving the original version of a film, but a bit annoying for a piece like this. Consisting mostly of interviews with various experts on the drug trade in Columbia, this is a 25-minute surface history of the region. The overall piece is jumbled, and not much of substance is conveyed. The only real moments of interest come from news clips of Pablo Escobar and various atrocities that were committed by his men. A short, 6-minute clip is also provided, entitled Addiction: Body and Soul. This piece features more talking heads, mostly doctors and psychologists, who explain what drugs do to the body, and how they cause dependence. This is worth a look, if only for the confusing-yet-comical animated explanations and a few brief words from a "Neuropsychopharmacogeneticist."

Also included in the "real life" portion of the extras is a gallery of interviews with George Jung, conducted by director Ted Demme. Jung is still in prison, and not looking too good, so these clips are informative but a bit depressing. Jung talks about his involvement with the script, the actors, and his thoughts on the film in general. He seems to really like it. Heck, if they got Johnny Depp to play me, I'd like my biopic too.

Becoming a standard for Infinifilm releases is the fact subtitle track, which offers trivia throughout the film, some of it more relevant than others. I quite like this feature, but I don't think it should be included in place of English subtitles (although English captions are present, provided your display supports them).

Moving on to the more traditional "making-of" material, there is a humorous 17-minute "video diary" that covers the film from start to finish. Basically, this is a truncated version of the type of piece featured on the Magnolia disc. While you don't see a lot of footage, I appreciate this on-location material much more than a fluffy "first look" featurette. Portions of this could also double as an outtake reel, and Johnny Depp gets in some good lines here and there.

Ten deleted scenes run around 25 minutes, and most of them feature commentary from Demme. Some are brief character moments that were either redundant or cut for time, but there were two long scenes that I feel were cut unjustly. "Pablo and George" and "Asking for Permission" were both scenes that greatly expanded Pablo Escobar's role in the story. The moments with Pablo that remain are some of the most compelling in the filmˇhe's a fascinating character. Though both scenes are rather lengthy, I think a glimpse at the dynamics of friendship between Pablo and George would've helped the film immensely. Demme's comments aren't really all that informative, as he usually just says, "I loved this, but at the end of the day, it just took focus off of our main story." Unfortunately, I think they chose to tell the less interesting story.

Speaking of commentary, Demme provides a screen-specific track for the film as well, interspersed with non-specific interview segments from Jung. Demme is a talker, and he keeps the pace going, but his comments are fairly technical. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but those who are more interested in on-set anecdotes and actor stories will find less to enjoy here. Jung's comments are more personal, as he basically just reminisces about his rather turbulent life. The sound quality during his comments is variable, and occasionally you hear other prisoners yelling or alarms sounding (which actually works quite nicely... atmosphere, you know).

Another cool extra is a gallery of Character Outtakes. Basically, these are clips of the actors, in character, talking about George Jung (the character). I can't imagine what these were shot for... TV spots, perhaps? But they are worth a look, and the Paul Reubens selection is a kick.

On the promotional side, there is a music video for the Nikka Costa song Push and Pull (good, smoky tune), some brief filmographies, and two trailers so good they merit repeated viewing. For those who can tolerate PC Friendly, the disc also offers DVD-ROM access to the screenplay.

Extras Grade: A
 

Final Comments

I don't want to sell Blow short. It's a solid script, stylishly produced, with an excellent cast and Johnny Depp's best performance in years. If all Hollywood movies were this good, we'd have nothing to complain about. But when compared to classics from Scorsese (Goodfellas), or even recent work from P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights), Blow seems a bit hollow. Not quite pure, 100% classic filmmaking, but it'll still provide a nice buzz.

Joel Cunningham 2001-08-31