Chopper, Krampack, To Die (or Not)

by Dan Sallitt

These blurbs were written for the Chicago Reader as part of their coverage of the 2000 Chicago Film Festival.  The paper published only the last two blurbs, in a somewhat edited form.

CHOPPER. Real-life criminal Mark “Chopper” Read enjoyed celebrity status in his native Australia after a best-selling 1991 autobiography and subsequent television exposure.  This biopic by Andrew Dominic begins with Read as a young man leading a charmed life as a kingpin in a maximum security prison, and picks up years later as the somewhat worse-for-wear parolee demonstrates his unfitness for civilian life in various unpleasant ways.  As portrayed by standup comedian Eric Dana, Read is a charismatic, highly intelligent, exhibitionistic alpha male, alternately capable of gruesome violence and warm fellow feeling, childlike loyalty and Machiavellian manipulation, philosophical serenity and delusional mania. First-time writer-director Dominic sets himself the difficult task of keeping all our different responses to Read in simultaneous focus, and succeeds brilliantly: Chopper is at the same time a very funny black comedy and a frightening portrait of pathology, thanks to Dominic’s unerring control of tone.

KRAMPACK.  Dani (Fernando Ramallo), an adolescent boy vacationing on the Mediterranean coast with his family, invites his best friend Nico (Jordi Vilches) to spend the summer with him.  Dani and Nico are more than ready to leave behind their mutual masturbation sessions and lose their virginity, and their flirtations with two vacationing girls (Marieta Orozco and Esther Nubiola) seem likely to be consummated.  But both boys begin to realize that Dani is more interested in spending time with Nico than in pursuing women.  Even before the plot kicks in, writer-director Cesc Gay (adapting Jordi Sanchez’s play with co-writer Tomas Aragay) avoids most of the pitfalls of the coming-of-age film, establishing a droll, deadpan style of line delivery that imparts a faint flavor of absurdism to the boys’ clumsy courtships.  And Krampack earns additional points for not shying away from the polymorphous perversity of teenage sexuality, and for its honest, unsentimental development of the boys’ dilemma.  Not an immensely ambitions film, but a satisfying one.

TO DIE (OR NOT).  This playful omnibus film by Spanish director Ventura Pons (Beloved/Friend) presents itself as a meditation on fate and mortality, though its glee in permuting its crazy-quilt narrative is its only real conviction.  The film’s first half (titled To Die) strings together a series of short comic episodes, related only by the demise of a central character in each; the second half (titled Or Not) retells the same stories, altering them so that the characters survive, and revealing surprising connections among the episodes in the process.  Pons is above all an entertainer, and he takes care never to let our attention wander, peppering us with comic flourishes and farcical plot twists.  But showmanship this total is reductive: one can’t imagine Pons sacrificing a laugh in order to make a character more complex, or a theme sharper.  The effect is of a very elaborate sitcom.