Friday Review Roundup – July 22nd

     July 21, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

Last Days

Early on in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Blake, the Kurt Cobain surrogate played by Michael Pitt, arrives quite literally at a fork in the road whilst wandering through the Pacific Northwest countryside, at which point the whole intriguing endeavor seems on the verge of collapse. Van Sant got himself into similar trouble with Elephant, which sacrificed the haunting Bela Tarr-inspired formal ambiguity of Gerry in favor of saying something very obvious, very incendiary and so very stupid about Columbine. Luckily, this moment doesn’t amount to much; if anything, it feels like self-parodying irony, a bit of levity acknowledging the inevitable conclusion of this otherwise tragic tale.

In closing out his Trilogy of Tarr, Van Sant is once again polarizing critics (about the only people who bothered with his last two films), some of whom view him as an opportunist feasting on recent human tragedies for dubious artistic nourishment.; This was certainly true of Elephant, but Last Days is something else entirely – a strangely playful rumination on detachment and surrender that veers far enough away from the tabloid version of Cobain’s fate, intriguingly chronicled in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney, that it gradually becomes clear that Van Sant is interested in capturing the gestalt of the event, not the truth.; The external agonies, provided by everyone from a label exec (Kim Gordon) to a chatty yellow pages salesman (real life Yellow Pages salesman Thadeus A. Thomas), are largely irrelevant to the elliptical narrative, but they have an aesthetic value that’s critical to Van Sant’s vision.; This a film that’s felt, not intellectualized.;

One thing I loved about Last Days, which is the best film I’ve seen so far in this very bad 2005, is the way Blake mutters like Elliott Gould channeling Popeye in The Long Goodbye all the way to his lonely death.; Though he complains during one of his more lucid laments that he “can’t do anything anymore”, there’s still music left in the guy, which is dramatized to devastating effect in a phenomenal single take that voyeuristically observes Blake building a seething wall of anguish one instrument at a time as the camera slowly backs away from the castle-like estate where he’s holed up. He’s giving voice to the storm roiling within (Cobain’s bitterness was apparently exacerbated by severe dyspepsia), but the release is hardly cathartic.; Music may have offered relief before; now, it’s just another means of reinforcing his misery.;

There are some fascinating echoes in Last Days (I love the way the “bended knee” motif references The Velvet Underground and Boyz II Men), enough that I’d like to see the movie again just to pick over its complexities.; I wasn’t very happy with myself for digging Pitt’s “Death to Birth” ditty, particularly in light of what he did to “Hey Joe” in The Dreamers, but, damn it, the song got to me.; This film got to me.; And I’d almost forgotten how good that felt.

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The Island

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The arrival of The Island brings with it sweet vindication for those of us who believed director Michael Bay was operating on more than just unbridled id.; ;Patient, thoughtful and only mildly excessive, this sci-fi treatment of the hot button cloning issue centers on a literally underground facility created to serve and sustain the very rich, who pay through their touched up noses for the creation of flesh-and-blood doppelgangers whose various limbs and organs may one day get harvested in the event of an emergency.; One such walking spare parts repository is Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor), a rather sensitive lad who can’t stop questioning the meaning of his sheltered life.; The lie is that he’s one of the last surviving members of the human race who’s now responsible for helping to repopulate an annihilated planet, of which the only inhabitable section left is known as “The Island”.; The clones are further incentivized by the possibility of winning a trip to this idyllic locale through “The Lottery”.

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Tragically, the clones aren’t up on their Shirley Jackson, so they’re completely unaware that this call-up to topside is sacrificial; in this case, it means their conventionally conceived counterpart is in need of a liver, a kidney or maybe even a whole baby.; When the curious Lincoln inadvertently wends his way to the above medical facility, and sees the grisly truth for himself, he rescues his soon-to-be terminated best friend, Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), and lights out for sanctuary in a world he was told didn’t exist.; On his tale is a stoic bounty hunter (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been hired by the nefarious owner of the facility (Sean Bean).

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Surprisingly, Bay takes his time getting to this point (about forty minutes or so), which is when the vehicular mayhem we’ve come to expect from the director kicks in with a satisfying fury.; Particularly worth noting is the phenomenal set piece that begins with Lincoln bouncing steel tire axels into oncoming traffic that gleefully segues into a jet-bike chase – the vehicles are called W.A.S.P.s – that plays like an urban version of the Endor speeder pursuit from Return of the Jedi.; It’s a breathtaking mix of practical stunt work and CG enhancement that’s seamless in a way that’d make James Cameron proud.;

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Most impressive is the way Bay’s dialed down his typically hyperkinetic editing style to a degree that allows us to appreciate his innate skill for visual storytelling.; Though this ain’t exactly Raiders of the Lost Ark here – the screenplay by Alias veterans Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, who worked from an original draft by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, is dogged by logic skirting television fixes that too often cheat just to keep the narrative clipping along – Bay is measured and efficient in ways he’s hinted at but never really approached in his previous smash-‘em-ups.; And he saves his best for last in the film’s climactic moment, pulling off an elegant series of shots that crystallizes the theme in a surprisingly poignant manner.; Bad Boys II, this is not.; Let’s just hope that The Transformers isn’t cause for regression.

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The Devil’s Rejects

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In following up 2003’s controversial House of a Thousand Corpses, Rob Zombie has made huge strides as a screenwriter and director with its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects.; Whereas the last film squandered an effective set-up (and one superbly epic slo-motion sequence) by descending into incoherence halfway through, Zombie maintains his focus and tells a tight, nihilistic tale of terror that’s got some very unsettling notions on its mind about the nature of good and evil.; But while the film is suitably unflinching in its depravity, it winds up being defanged by a persistently goofy tone that makes it all feel oddly good natured.;

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The best grindhouse films are the ones that not only leave you despairing man’s capacity for wickedness, but also call into question the sanity of the auteur.; The Devil’s Rejects, however, is downright quaint when compared to the likes of Maniac, Mother’s Day or Fight for Your Life, which isn’t a bad thing, per se, it’s just that you get the feeling Zombie wants you to think him a very sick man.; But there’s a strong moral impulse guiding this film; in the end, there’s a point to all the murder and torture, meaning that you exit the theater talking theme and technique rather than staggering desperate to the nearest bar in order to drown the transgressive images seared into your brain.;;

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Like Tarantino’s magnificent Kill Bill, this is a blood-splattered commentary on revenge, which is mercilessly being sought by Sherrif Wydell (William Forsythe), whose brother was offed by the titular trio – Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) – in the first film.; Though he has the family cornered in the early going, the threesome manages to escape, and promptly make their way to a nearby motel, where they brutalize members of a touring Country and Western group.; They eventually find safe haven at the amusement park whorehouse of Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree), who ultimately goes Lando Calrissian and sells them out to the relentless Wydell.

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Zombie, a noted heavy metal musician himself, proves adroit at working jam band rock-and-roll into the aural texture of the film – e.g. The Allman Brothers, Steely Dan and Lynyrd Skinner (though I could’ve done without the “Free Bird” finale, which is dragged out long enough to get the song into its interminable bridge).; And it’s a kick to watch him adding iconic genre actors like Foree, Leslie Easterbrook and P.J. Soles into the mix.; But all of these touches only contribute to adding a safety net where nothing but unforgiving concrete should await the viewer.; Had Zombie jettisoned the jokey tone of the original, he might’ve had himself the triumph some critics seem to think he’s achieved here; instead, it winds up being a well-made half-measure.; He means the subtext, but he doesn’t mean the rough stuff.

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