Miramax // 2001 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // August 9th, 2002
"A masterfully vivid portrayal of the Latino icon Miguel Piñero."
Miguel Piñero is thought by some to have influenced rap with his rhythmic, emotional poetry. The founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, his play "Short Eyes" was nominated for several Tony awards. A thief, a junkie, and some say a brilliant man, his life story surely set many a filmmaker's mouth drooling. Writer and director Leon Ichaso brought the Piñero story to life with the help of acting dynamo Benjamin Bratt (television's Law and Order, Miss Congeniality). Now you can bring the hardcore world of Piñero home, newly released on DVD by Miramax.
Miguel Piñero (Bratt) had a hard-knock upbringing. His father abandoned his mother (Oscar winner Rita Moreno, West Side Story) and four siblings at a young age. Despite his mother's best intentions, Miguel became a thief, succumbed to abuse, took to drugs and eventually found himself in prison. There, however, he discovered writing. Pounding out ideas in his cell at Sing Sing, he says he "came alive." The product of his jailhouse inspiration was "Short Eyes," an intense play brought to life by influential producer Joe Papp (Mandy Patinkin, Yentl). Miguel made Tony history with "Short Eyes," found acting work, opened the Nuyorican Poet's Café with friend Giancarlo Esposito (Miguel Algarin, Ali) -- all the while continuing to steal and shoot up. No one, not even his loyal long-suffering girlfriend Sugar (Talisa Soto, License to Kill) could save him. He died at 40 of cirrhosis of the liver.
Leon Ichaso's main objective in Piñero was to make this recollection of Piñero's life as immediate as possible. We know this is not a documentary, nor does it pretend to be; it wants be as gritty, visceral, truly evoking a life on the streets. Underexposed film stock, handheld camera shots, and clear-eyed flashbacks contribute to a raw, disjoined atmosphere -- and like life, which is peppered with memories, projections of the future, and longing, the film is not told in an organized and linear fashion. This tack, however, was not as successful as it should have been.
There are many characters and so many events that surround Miguel's life. When it becomes a major challenge to keep up with the sequence of Piñero's life -- which it does almost right away -- it becomes a tedious watch. The juxtaposition of these scenes seems haphazard and abstract; instead of adding meaning from the particular way they are organized, I was overwhelmed by artistic excess. Too much abstract thought can be a bad thing -- bad, and messy. It was as if the scenes were in order, then randomly shuffled like a card deck without a thought as to how certain scenes were placed.
Most of all, I wanted more solid profiles of Sugar, Giancarlo, and the other significant others in Piñero's lives. As soon as you get a feel for one of the character's emotions and point of view, you are whipped to a flashback or a completely different section of Piñero's life. This disjointedness may have reflected what life was like to Piñero, but in a filmmaking aspect it is just too "busy" to do his life's retelling any justice. Piñero uses a pastiche of film stocks and out of order structure to a far extreme, leading me to think perhaps the filmmakers just wanted to be artsy for art's sake.
This film is still worth a watch and lean at just over 90 minutes. I spotted some evocative, telling camerawork and lovely use of music; the performances are very well done. Once is enough, though -- too much camera movement and the nonstop switches in film stock are liable to give you a headache.
Let's go over the acting a bit further, to my favorite part of the film: Benjamin Bratt. Not only is he F-I-N-E -- FINE, he is exceptional. This role is difficult; even when not performing, Piñero is jive talking, reflecting the mayhem of his life growing up on the street. He's self-obsessed, brilliant, hard to take, a walking caricature. Because Bratt absolutely commits to this role, he makes this man who hides behind his fears and brilliance a real human being and occasionally likable. Slender, hairy, and electric (and did I mention HOTTER THAN A BOILED POTATO?), he is a wonder to watch. Bratt must be relieved -- tired of bottom-feeding on crap like The Next Best Thing (don't remember it, do ya? Poor Ben!), now he might have a chance to earn a golden statue to outshine his ex-girlfriend Julia Roberts' golden boy.
Visually, the filmmakers got the gritty look they wanted with the digital video approach. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is loyal to the saturated colors, altered footage, and oversized grain that Ichaso forced into the production. Because of the digital, whites are harsh, lighting is hard, and the colors look more like thick acrylic paint than fluid watercolors. This is a digital filmmaking issue, however, not a transfer one. Overall, a good transfer by Miramax -- no edge enhancement that I can see, or any other major flaws. Overall, it was clean and crisp.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound nicely showed off the rhythmic music and singsong spoken word of Piñero. Music came through loud and clear in all the speakers and dialogue was mostly contained in the front. My one complaint is a sense of slapping on sounds -- the music felt "layered" onto dialogue instead of well-mingled with the words. There are a few well placed directional effects to be found here, and the mix is apt for the film it supports. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
Extras on this disc are a bit wan, including a short film called "A Look at Miguel Piñero The Man." It should have been called "A Look at Anything BUT Miguel Piñero The Man" because it really talks to the participants of the film on their views of Piñero, plus the hows and whys of the film itself. Frankly, after a biopic whets the appetite for more information about its subject, I'd rather see more about, well, the SUBJECT -- documentary footage, clips of his work, that kind of thing. Instead, the short film was a routinely interesting picking-the-brains of the participants of Piñero and offers some information about how the film was written and shot.
Also featured are the Piñero trailer and Sneak Peeks of upcoming DVD releases, which are pretty standard (though Mexico City with Stacey Edwards looks promising). We get to see "Miramax Gold," a PR trailer of all the Miramax films that were nominated and won Oscars last year. In other words, "see how many Oscars our marketing department bought us last year!" Ohhhh, that was low!
Piñero is as full of itself as its subject was. Sometimes this self-importance can create brilliance; sometimes, it can create an overcooked piece of art. Still, even a piece of art that slips on its own extravagance can be a good watch, and I wouldn't pass this by for a rental. Most of all, Benjamin Bratt is pretty damn good -- see it for the acting, and throw everything else away. Bratt is filling enough for a cinematic meal.
Back to Sing Sing! Piñero must present the parole board with better extras and better pacing...it's life in prison. Except for Ben -- he can come home with me!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* A Look At Miguel Piñero The Man
* Theatrical Trailer
* Sneak Peeks
* Sound Portraits