Remember back in the mid-90s when Steve Buscemi was in every movie you saw at the cinema or rented from the video store (ask your parents, it’s what we had to do to see a film). Now he’s more likely to be known for his star turns in 2 landmark TV series. In series 5 of “The Sopranos” Tony Blundetto, a mobster from the old school, drives his cousin Tony Soprano to (spoiler alert) murder. “Boardwalk Empire” chronicled the rise & fall of another New Jersey gangster over 5 series. Buscemi dominated this outstanding show in his role as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson & deservedly picked up all the acting awards going.
Back then, in the 90’s, Steve’s restless performances & his exophthalmic eyes made him noticeable in whatever part he played. He appeared in all the Coen Brothers films, a couple by Tarentino & Tom DiCillo, Robert Altman’s “Kansas City”, John Carpenter’s “Escape to L.A.”. He was, of course, one of Bruce Willis’ gang who saved the Earth in “Armageddon”, the “Marietta Mangler” in “Con Air”. None of us who have seen the delightfully odd “The Search for One-Eye Jimmy” (1994) are going to miss it from this list. I found this film for just £1 ($1.57) & it’s a jewel of my DVD collection. Steve Buscemi obviously liked to work & he was in demand by the top directors of the day. On a very busy schedule he also found the time to direct his first feature film.
If you have not seen “Trees Lounge” (1996) & you have just watched the trailer then you know that you have missed out on something very fine. The film stars & is written,& directed by Steve Buscemi, who plays Tommy, a man with a broken past who is hoping to find a future at the bottom of a glass. He’s too high to make good decisions, too wasted to care that much. He takes a job driving an ice cream truck around the Long Island ‘burbs, helped out by 17 year old Debbie (Chloe Sevigny) & that’s never going to end well. “Trees Lounge” is a study of drinking culture that hits home, the bar is not “Cheers”. There’s a touch of Bukowski in the story but Tommy arouses compassion & sympathy despite his obvious failings. Now this may be my own projection (I’ve had my own dodgy moments) or the great performance by Buscemi. I’m going with the latter.
Tommy is no loner & “Trees Lounge” no one-man band. The large ensemble cast all make convincing contributions. It’s too long a list to include everyone here. Mimi Rogers, Carol Kane & Seymour Cassel come to mind (as Ms Rogers often does !) but another day it would be another 3. David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos” employed the same casting agency for his series & 4 of the actors, including Michael Imperioli (Christopher Soprano), moved across to New Jersey. I watch a lot of low budget American indie movies & “Trees Lounge” , along with “The Station Agent”, endures as a benchmark for its dark humour, authenticity & humanity. 5 stars (out of 5).
After such a first-rate debut Buscemi’s next film was an adaptation of Edward Bunker’s prison novel “Animal Factory” (2000). Bunker, Mr Blue in “Reservoir Dogs”, had served his time in the joint & his books pull no punches. Among the film’s co-producers with Bunker was Danny Trejo, “Machete”, who the writer had met in Folsom State Prison. Trejo is part of another excellent cast led by Willem Dafoe as a veteran con who takes Edward Furlong under his wing. Remember Furlong, such a nice young man who was flying back then with “American History X” & “Pecker”. In 2002 he lost the part of John Connor in “Terminator 3” &…well, what happened ?
Also in the cast is John Heard, a leading man in the 80’s (“Cutter’s Way”, “After Hours”) who spent too much time having a good time but always gives good value. In the clip the transvestite Jan the Actress is played by Mickey Rourke, whose star was later to rise again in “Sin City” & “The Wrestler”. He had been a fine actor before getting distracted by boxing & plastic surgery. “Animal Factory” is a good film, the assembly of tough guys all doing their thing. It’s more “Midnight Express” than “Shawshank” & that will always get a thumbs up from me.
In the next 5 years Steve Buscemi was great in Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World”, hilariously robbed a bank in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish”, handled return gigs with Jim Jarmusch, Robert Rodriguez & Michael Bay. His return to directing with “Lonesome Jim” (2005) was a very low-budget affair. The film is written by James C Strouse, a specialist in stories about mixed-up, miserable men. When Strouse directs his own scripts he’s a little over-sentimental, though the new one, “People, Places & Things” (2015) with Jemaine off of Flight of the Conchords, is worth a viewing. In Buscemi’s directorial digits “Lonesome Jim” is a charming study of one man’s despondency.
Jim (Casey Affleck) an aspiring, failed novelist, returns to his family home super pissed off, convinced that everything he touches turn to crap. His family, Dad (Seymour Cassel), Mum (the delightfully mad Mary Kay Place), brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) & Uncle Evil (Mark Boone Jr), are of little help though that’s another great cast. Into Jim’s life comes Anika, a nurse, an optimistic, straightforward, ray of sunshine. She is played by Liv Tyler…well, what can a poor boy do ? Before this film I thought that young Casey made movies because he knew some people who knew his brother Ben. He certainly delivers as the morose Jim, showing a potential that was delivered on in “The Assassination of Jesse James”, “Gone Baby Gone” & “The Killer Inside Me”. With “Lonesome Jim” Steve Buscemi showed that not only was he a top-notch actor but also an assured director who had been paying attention on all those film sets.
In 2007 there was another feature, “The Interview”, a two-hander with Sienna Miller which I have not seen. He directed 4 episodes of “The Sopranos”, including the unforgettable “Pine Barrens”, Paulie & Christopher taking a clueless walk on the wild side. There have been 6 episodes of Nurse Jackie & a web series “Park Bench with…” which is definitely at the top of my to-see list. Steve Buscemi has a proven track record as a director & I hope that now he is done with Nucky & “Boardwalk Empire” that there will be more of his films to entertain us.