Film Review: The Basketball Diaries (dir by Scott Kalvert)

When exactly did Leonardo DiCaprio become a good actor?

That may seem like a strange question because, today, Leonardo DiCaprio is often and rightfully described as being one of the greatest actors around.  He regularly works with the best directors in Hollywood, including Martin Scorsese.  His performances in The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Revenant should be viewed by any aspiring actor.

And yet, it’s easy to forget that Leonardo DiCaprio has been around forever.  Long before he was Martin Scorsese’s go-to actor, he was appearing in movies like Critters 3.  He started his career when he was 14 years old and spent a few years appearing in commercials and sitcoms before making his film debut in 1991.  (He was 17 when he made his first movie but, as anyone who has seen any of his early movies can attest, he looked much younger.)  When you watch those early DiCaprio films, you’re left with the impression of an actor who had some talent but who definitely needed a strong director to guide him.  Watching those early DiCaprio films, it’s always somewhat amazing to see both how good and how bad DiCaprio could be, often in the same movie.  If a scene called for DiCaprio to be quiet and introspective, he was a wonder to behold.  But whenever a scene called for big dramatic moment or gesture, DiCaprio would often become that shrill kid who made you cringe in your high school drama class.  I think that part of the problem is that the young DiCaprio was often cast as a passionate artist and, when you’re a certain age, you tend to assume that being a passionate artist means that you spend a lot of time yelling.

Take a film like 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, for instance.  In this film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a real-life poet named Jim Carroll.  The film deals with Carroll’s teenage years, which were basically made up of going to Catholic school, writing poetry, playing basketball, committing petty crimes, and eventually getting hooked on heroin.  It’s pretty dramatic stuff and, with his face that’s somehow angelic and sardonic at the same time, the young DiCaprio certainly looks the part of a teenager who split his time between private school and the streets.  Though the young DiCaprio was way too scrawny to be believable as a star basketball player, he’s convincing in the scenes where he’s writing out his thoughts and his poems.

But then, Jim’s best friend (played by Michael Imperioli) dies of leukemia and a despondent Jim goes from pills and inhalants to heroin and both the film and DiCaprio’s performance quickly goes downhill.  Playing drug addiction (and, even worse, drug withdrawal) tends to bring out the worst instincts in even the best actors and that’s certainly the case with DiCaprio’s performance in The Basketball Diaries.  Suddenly, Leo is shaking and yelling in that shrill way that he used to do and, when he has gets emotional, he overplays the emotions to the extent that you can actually hear the snot being sorted back up his nostrils and you, as the viewer, start to get embarrassed for him.  As soon as Jim starts screaming at his mother (played by Lorraine Bracco), you really wish that the director or the writer or maybe the other actors had stepped in and said, “Leo …. dial it down a little.”  If you need proof that DiCaprio’s a far better actor today than he was in 1995, just compare Leo on drugs in The Basketball Diaries to Leo on drugs in The Wolf of Wall Street.

When The Basketball Diaries does work, it’s usually because of the actors around DiCaprio.  In one of his earliest roles, Mark Wahlberg has such an authentic presence that you kinda wish he and DiCaprio had switched roles.  (Yes, there was a time when Mark Wahlberg was a better actor than Leonardo DiCaprio.)  Bruno Kirby is chilling in a few cringey scenes as Jim’s basketball coach.  Ernie Hudson bring some welcome gravitas to the role of an ex-junkie who tries to help Jim straight out.  And then there’s poor Lorraine Bracco, bringing far more to the role of Jim’s underappreciated mother than was probably present in the script.

The Basketball Diaries is one of those films that seems profound when you’re like 15 and you come across it playing on TBS at like 2 in the morning.  Otherwise, it’s mostly interesting as evidence that, over the past 20 years, Leonardo DiCaprio has certainly grown as an actor.

Film Review: Someone To Watch Over Me (dir by Ridley Scott)

Last night, my BFF and I were searching for a movie to watch.  As we were looking through what was available on demand, we came across a film from 1987 called Someone To Watch Over Me.  The film was described as being a romantic thriller about a “happily married cop who becomes infatuated with the wealthy and beautiful woman he’s been assigned to protect from a death threat.”

“This sounds like it might be good,” I said, “Plus, it’s directed by Ridley Scott and he’s good … sometimes.”

“Who’s in it?” my BFF asked.

“Tom Berenger.”


“He was in Inception.”

“Who did he play in Inception?  Was he the rich guy or was he one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s friends?”

“Neither.  He was just kinda there.”

Anyway, whether it was the Inception-connection or the fact that my friend was tired of listening to me obsessively read the description of every single film that was available on demand, we decided to watch Someone To Watch Over Me.

And you know what?

It’s no Inception but Someone To Watch Over Me is still a fairly entertaining little film.

In Someone To Watch Over Me, a youngish Tom Berenger plays Mike Keegan, a New York cop who has just been promoted to detective.  When wealthy socialite Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers) witnesses a murder, Mike is among the detective assigned to guard her.  Though the resolutely blue-collar Mike and the sophisticated Claire come from different backgrounds, they both find themselves attracted to one another.  For Mike, Claire represents the type of lifestyle that he can only dream of.  For Claire, Mike is the opposite of the pretentious and vapid men that usually surround her.  Unfortunately, a sinister gangster is attempting to kill Claire and Mike’s down-to-earth wife Ellie (played by Lorraine Bracco) will kill him if she ever finds out.

Now, let’s make one thing clear.  The plot of Someone To Watch Over Me is just as predictable as you think it is.  As you read my summary, you probably guessed every single thing that happens in the film.  There are no surprises and there are no twists.  Everything in the movie plays out exactly the way that you’re expecting it too.

And yet, as predictable as it was, I still enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me.  One reason was because of a scene in which Ellie reacts to Mike’s self-serving apologies by punching him in the face.  Lorraine Bracco — who is great in this film — throws that punch as if the fate of every woman on the planet’s self-respect depended upon it.  When she strikes out at her husband, it changes the film.  It’s no longer a film about romance.  Instead, it becomes a film about adultery.  Even while the film itself tries to play up the romance between Claire and Mike, both Ellie and Lorraine Bracco refuse to be pushed to the side.  After sitting through so many films that feature women nobly stepping aside so that their significant other can find happiness with his “true love,” it was refreshing to see Ellie call Mike out on his sanctimonious bullshit.

Secondly, I enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me because it truly is a time capsule of the time when it was made.  I was born in 1985, which perhaps is why I’ve always been fascinated by 80s films.  If nothing else, they give me a chance to see what was going on in the rest of the world while I was busy learning how to walk.  Someone To Watch Over Me was released in 1987 and everything about it — from the fashion to the celebration of wealth and glamour to Ridley Scott’s artfully composed shots of New York at night to the vaguely cokey vibe given off by some members of the supporting cast to the landline phones — made me feel as if I had stepped into my own personal time machine.

So, in the end, Someone To Watch Over Me is not exactly a great or even a memorable film.  However, I’m still glad we watched it.