We have seen the enemy

by Robert J. Hawkins | Jun 6, 2001
We have seen the enemy Three-quarters of all Americans believe the so-called "war on drugs" is a failure, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Were they asked, I wonder, before or after the movie "Traffic" (USA, R, VHS/DVD) hit theaters last year?

In director Steven Soderbergh`s gripping, brilliant movie, the message is pretty clear - if it is indeed a war, then we`re losing it on many fronts.

"If there is a war on drugs," says a thoroughly demoralized Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), U.S. drug czar for barely one month, "then many of our own family members are the enemy - and I don`t know how you wage war on your own family."

The czar speaks from personal experience. One of the movie`s series of closely intertwined stories begins in Cincinnati, with Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen), the bright, attractive and privileged daughter of the drug czar. Her rapid descent from plaid-skirted preppie to crack addict gives you anguished whiplash. Even her father is in clueless denial.

A second story begins on the gritty streets of Tijuana, Mexico, where a simple and honest cop, Javier Rodriguez (an Oscar-winning performance from Benicio Del Toro), only wants the local kids to be able to play baseball at night without fear. Instead, he sees his city as a battlefield in the real drug war, in which cartels and dirty cops shoot it out for control of the gateway.

A third moves us north to the wealthy San Diego enclave of La Jolla, where a pampered and pregnant society wife, Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), reels in shock to learn that her husband of 20 years has just been taken down by the DEA. He`s a major trafficker in the U.S. illegal drug distribution chain.

The story hits the streets of San Diego with DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), foot soldiers on the front line in the war on drugs. They love taking down the bad guys. Keeping them in jail is the hard part. Criss-crossing through all these scenarios is the rude education of czar Wakefield, a conservative, hard-line, Heartland judge and a three-scotch-a-night social drinker, who is picked for the hot seat by his old pal, the U.S. president.

His first clue comes when he floats a shallow compliment on the accomplishments of his predecessor. A weary czar (James Brolin), his two-year tenure over, shoots back something like, "I don`t think we`ve accomplished a damned thing."

Lesson No. 2: His plea for fresh, creative thinking from the various federal fiefdoms waging the war is met with stony silence. The biggest lesson, of course, comes from his own daughter.

"Traffic" earned Oscars for its director (also nominated for "The Gladiator"), film editor Stephen Mirrone, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan and supporting actor Del Toro.

This is a big, sprawling story. Soderbergh`s creative team crafted some interesting visual "hue cues" that help viewers keep their place. Everything south of the border is shot in sepia tones. Catherine`s decent in Cincinnati skews predominantely blue. La Jolla and the surrounding environs enjoy vibrant, sunlit color. The czar`s story is shot documentary-style with shaky hand-held cameras. When characters cross over into another story arc, their scenes adopt the style of the host environment.

In "Traffic" the big picture is bleak - the official war on drugs is in shambles. But the message on the personal level is far from pessimistic - individuals can and do make a difference.

As a resident of San Diego, I have to say "Traffic" rings resoundingly true. I cross the border and see the wanted posters for the real cartel leaders. I see the black SUVs with tinted windows. I read about the busts at the border and know that thousands of cars and trucks make it through unscathed every day. I know La Jolla and hear the stories about this big spender and that one. Worse, I see the easy drugs that spill over into my own son`s school. I watch friends grapple with addicted children and worry about my own. And I know that in "Traffic," Cincinnati is a surrogate for cities and towns all over America.

"Traffic" may have been inspired by a British television mini-series, but it is a gripping story ripped straight from the pages of today`s newspaper.

ALSO THIS WEEK

"The House of Mirth" (Columbia TriStar, PG-13, VHS/DVD) - A tragic love story adapted from Edith Wharton`s novel, the cast includes Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Linney.

Anderson (of TV`s "X Files") earned many accolades for her role as a socialite perched precariously atop New York high society.

"Holiday Heart" (MGM, R, VHS/DVD) - Based on Cheryl West`s play, Robert Townsend directs Ving Rhames and Alfre Woodard in this tale of love and redemption. Rhames is a choirmaster, who moonlights as a female impersonator named Holiday. He befriends Woodard, a drug-addicted mother with a bright young daughter, and a close bond develops when he gets them off the street.

"After the Storm" (Trimark, R, VHS/DVD) - Benjamin Bratt is working as an assistant to a wealthy tycoon, but when the boss`s yacht goes down in a storm, he partners with a local shady character (Armand Assante) to salvage the bounty left behind.

"Lloyd" (Monarch, PG, VHS/DVD) - Lloyd (Todd Bosley) is the 11-year-old class clown, who just can`t stay out of trouble. When he sticks up for an innocent classmate, the meanest teacher in the school ships him off to a class for "problem" students. He falls in love with a girl in the class, but finds out his main competition is a cool junior-high kid. With some help from a mysterious magician, Lloyd learns that confidence and self-esteem can get him places he`d never dreamed of before.

Taylor Negron, Tom Arnold also star.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARILYN

Ponder this: On June 1, Marilyn Monroe would have celebrated her 75th birthday. Instead, she is forever frozen in time - forever young, forever a blonde bombshell. Forever a movie star. Forever the queen of pop culture, preserved in amber.

As you might imagine, the movie studios that hold the rights to her films are making the most of this erstwhile landmark - especially with a new video format, DVD, every bit the equal, as bright and exciting as Monroe the Star.

Last week, MGM lead the parade with a new digital transfer of "Some Like It Hot" the comedy classic co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. It comes in two versions. The standard DVD is priced under $15. The Special Edition comes with a Leonard Maltin interview with Tony Curtis, a virtual "Hall of Memories," a featurette on the all-girl band, The Sweet Sues, previously unseen photos and much more.

Now comes the big one: a six-DVD box set, "Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection" from 20th Century Fox. Priced just under $100, the box contains five brilliantly restored movies - "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "There`s No Business Like Show Business," "The Seven Year Itch," "How to Marry a Millionaire" and "Bus Stop." The sixth disc is the documentary "Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days," which includes a reconstruction of her final, uncompleted film "Something`s Got to Give." (The documentary airs on TV as part of a daylong Marilyn Monroe Marathon, June 1 on the AMC cable channel.)

Each of the DVDs contains extra features - theatrical trailers, promotional features, Movietone News reels, photo galleries, various language options.

Jane Russell, Monroe`s co-star in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," will quietly celebrate her 80th birthday 20 days after the Marilyn Milestone. She lives in a small central California town, surrounded by children and grandchildren, perhaps as well known for her work on behalf of orphan adoptions as for her roles as a voluptuous and saucy sex siren.

"She was very shy, quiet," Russell recalled in a phone conversation recently.

She pauses and then adds, with a hammer on every syllable, "and not one bit stupid."

Message received. Russell recalls Monroe, in only her second starring role, as extremely sensitive, with feelings that were easily bruised.

"Marilyn would come into the studio way before I did and she was very nervous. I`d have to go to her dressing room and say, `Come on, baby, it`s time.` She was like my little sister."

Marilyn had her own dancing coach on the set, Russell recalled.

"After a take, I`d look to (director Howard) Hawks and Marilyn would look to her coach. Hawks had him thrown off the set and Marilyn went to her dressing room crying."

Hawks proved to be all the direction Monroe needed.

"He was wonderful, calm. He knew exactly what he wanted - plus he was a gentleman," says Russell.

Never really a part of Hollywood, Russell is far more interested in politics these days. Widowed in 1999, after 25 years of marriage, Russell is surrounded by her eight children and 15 grandchildren - an image far different from the man-savvy, gold-digger Dorothy in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

"It`s because of Marilyn that these films just keep going," says Russell, adding a touch sadly, "You have to die young to be famous."

DVD UPDATE

First time on DVD and available this week: the Sydney Pollack-directed comedy "Tootsie." Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, this PG-rated romp has Dustin Hoffman as a desperate, unemployed actor winning the role of a female character in a soap opera. The ruse works until he falls for the leading lady, played by Jessica Lange.

Others in the cast: Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Geena Davis and Bill Murray.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" arrives on DVD this week - the laser-disc version cut several years ago, in which the scenes inside the spaceship (added for a prior theatrical re-release) are deleted. The DVD contains 11 deleted scenes, many of which, Video Business magazine says, have been in and out of various versions. Steven Spielberg has re-cut the movie several times. It also contains a 101-minute film on the making of the movie and a 1977 featurette, "Watching the Skies."

COMING ATTRACTIONS

June 19: Jack Nicholson is a man of his word in the Sean Penn-directed thriller "The Pledge."

Russell Crowe is a man of his word (to Meg Ryan) in "Proof of Life."

July 10: Holly Hunter and Glenn Close lead an all-star ensemble in the drama "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her."

July 17: Orlando Jones and Eddie Griffin have a surprise comedy hit on their hands in "Double Take."

Aug. 21: "Hannibal," that chewy sequel to "Silence of the Lambs."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert J. Hawkins

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