Film: Tales of Could-Have-Been

Be Cool fails despite Travolta's youthful swagger; Born into Brothels thrives on its message of hope

Mar 9, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Gangster-turned-entertainment mogul Chili Palmer (John Travolta) takes a rooftop meeting with business partner Edie Athens (Uma Thurman) in Be Cool.

John Travolta dances! A twisting dance floor reunion between Uma Thurman and Travolta, together for the first time since their memorable dance in Pulp Fiction, is the highlight of Be Cool, director F. Gary Gray's predictable sequel to the popular 1995 gangster comedy, Get Shorty.

Travolta sings! It's his first musical performance since his Danny Zuko role in Grease. If only that was true — because a singing Travolta would at least bring Be Cool some campy panache, an oddball flavor and a sliver of originality, perhaps enough to raise it above the pile where it lands, just another lackluster sequel that's half as entertaining as its predecessor.

Be Cool is not as hip or funny as you'd expect it to be, despite the comic sparkle of Get Shorty nine years earlier, its source as an Elmore Leonard novel and Travolta's most youthful performance since his early, best films, Urban Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever.

The smile seldom leaves Travolta's taut, tanned face during his upbeat performance as gangster-turned-entertainment mogul Chili Palmer, who in Be Cool, decides to leave the movie industry for the music industry. Travolta clearly feels good to be dressed again in Palmer's signature black-on-black wardrobe, his lacquered hair positioned just so and armed with a witty dialogue of fast-paced comebacks. For me, the feeling is mutual. It feels good to see him funny, relaxed and completely at ease with a character, something that doesn't happen as often as it should.

Comedy is the key to Travolta's success. As an action man, Travolta fares no better than Sylvester Stallone, unloading awful films — Swordfish, The Punisher and Battlefield Earth. As the cool as ice Chili, a perfect balance of mischief and menace, Travolta outdoes Robert De Niro when it comes to playing comical, likable gangsters.

Uma Thurman, fresh from her dynamic performance in Kill Bill, matches Travolta's easygoing nature and free-wheeling spirit as Edie Athens, the owner of an independent record label who takes a liking to Chili. Thurman has a thick Jersey girl accent, her trademark legs that go forever and an easygoing nature every bit as relaxed as Travolta's. Like her costar, Thurman gives the impression that her Be Cool character is hers and hers alone.

Danny DeVito reprises his Get Shorty role as actor Martin Weir but makes little impact in the film. Harvey Keitel looks appropriately shaggy as a thuggish manager who butts heads with Chili over Linda Moon (Christina Milian), a pretty singer they both want to represent, but never achieves the necessary menace. Vince Vaughn enjoys some sizable laughs as the film's clown, a music manager and wannabe black gangster, but his pimping speech and Hip Hop wardrobe lose their comic spark early into the movie. James Woods has no equals when it comes to portraying obnoxious behavior but he's not around enough to make a difference.

Be Cool sprints to life with a comical mob hit from a gangster who can't shoot straight, but Gray (working from writer Peter Steinfeld's adaptation of the Leonard novel) has no idea where to take the numerous set ups and double crosses. The result is a film with half the spark of Get Shorty and not one comic surprise to its credit.

Gray, a veteran of music videos, is at his best when filming the concert footage of Linda Moon and Aerosmith at concert singing "Sweet Misery."

Chili replaces his gas-guzzling Cadillac with a Honda Hybrid, but the good joke is beaten down to redundancy. But Be Cool has one moment of pure bliss: Edie and Chili dancing away to the Black Eyed Peas at a Los Angeles nightclub. Their dance is the one thing in the movie worth watching.

Travolta keeps looking back to Pulp Fiction and Vincent Vega as a sign of what he should be doing. He should be looking at Grease — and Gray should have forced him onstage with Steven Tyler and Christina Milian for the film's big concert scene.

Yet Travolta keeps smiling throughout Be Cool. He knows he looks good despite the mess all around him.

The hopeful message in Born into Brothels, a spirited documentary about the children of Calcutta's red light district from co-directors Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, is that anything is possible when someone is willing to invest their heart and soul, if not their very life into the endeavor.

At one end, Born into Brothels is about Calcutta's prostitutes, whose life-by-any-means spirit enables them to scratch out an existence for themselves and their families. But Born into Brothels is just as much about the filmmakers, Briski and Kauffman, who break the director's barrier of impartiality in order to make a difference in the lives of their subjects.

Born into Brothels is a socio-political film tackling the plight of the impoverished women forced into prostitution with a focus on the stigmatized children who live in the red light district of Calcutta as the children of prostitutes. It is also about an arts project that teaches children how to use cameras is the means to inspire them to better lives and a possible escape from the red light district.

The danger at the heart of the film is that the young girls will of follow in their mothers' footsteps. By becoming involved with the children and playing a key role in the story, Briski and Kauffman hope to control the outcome of their story.

Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district, is a grim setting for any story but Born into Brothels turns hopeful when the story of the nonprofit arts group Kids With Cameras, which teaches the red-light children how to take photographs in the hope of inspiring them to better lives, takes hold. Kauffman and Briski are behind the camera, and the story revolves around Briski's efforts with the children.

Born into Brothels is not just about the child prostitutes. It's also about the children of prostitutes and one woman's actions to change their lives. By following the individual children in the photography class, Kauffman and Briski bring inspiration to an overly familiar, depressing setting and become something they never set out to be — the heroes of their own life-affirming tale. Be Cool grade: D+; Born Into Brothels grade: B+