Bukowski: Born Into This
Runs Fri., July 30–Thurs., Aug. 5, at Varsity
When Barbet Schroeder released his 1987 treatment of the life of alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Bukowski (1920–1994), Barfly, The Village Voice's Michael Musto bitchily inquired, "Is that an adverb?" Indeed, Bukowski did everything in the manner of a barf: At his legendary poetry readings, he demanded two bottles of wine and a pot to vomit in, and his writing was one long, colorfully pungent streak of logorrhea.
John Dullaghan's new Bukowski docu-bio is much more restrained. In the many scenes of the writer through the years, at public readings and in private interviews with Dullaghan and others (including Schroeder), we meet a man whose barf is worse than his bite. Only once, in a horrifying scene captured on video by Schroeder, does Bukowski reveal his vicious side, drunkenly assaulting his doting wife Linda for vague if not imaginary offenses. The rest of the time, he's sweet, funny, pensive, philosophical. As his admirer Roger Ebert once told me in amazement, most people who tried living the way Bukowski did would wind up down and out, but he started out on the bottom and nihilistically caroused his way to the top.
Unlike most of his fans and imitators, Bukowski had a secret weapon: Besides drink, his other excess was work. A heroic failure as a wage slave, he did as little as possible for 16 years at the L.A. post office, so as to reserve time for the important things in life: red wine, stinky bidi cigarettes, and writing hundreds of pieces a year. Then, at the turn of the '70s, when his barely solvent would-be publisher offered him the equivalent of $479 a month in today's money to quit his job and write full time, he batted out an autobiographical novel, Post Office, in 19 days. In the documentary, his publisher recalls asking, astonished, how he could write so fast? "Fear," answered Bukowski.
He had plenty to fear for most of his life. Beaten savagely as a child by a brutal father (abetted by his German mother), Bukowski was an outsider at school, too, thanks to a truly startling case of acne. He reminisces about a high-school dance he watched from the sidelines, his face wrapped in blood-oozing toilet paper. Later in life, we see how the grown-up Bukowski aged into a kind of battered handsomeness; his sly, slitty eyes, naughty grin, abominable showmanship, and remarkably prolific work drew droves of groupies. Eventually, he settled down with wife Linda, who actually helped him quit drinking shortly before he died.
While this movie argues that Bukowski wrote better than Whitman and Wordsworth—certainly untrue—you come away convinced he could definitely drink and fight better. In his own clownish, romantic-rebel way, that's not a bad legacy to leave. (NR) TIM APPELO
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Opens Fri., July 30, at Meridian and others
Weird summer. Not only has Danny Leiner, director of Dude, Where's My Car?, somehow delivered a sharp, sporadically hysterical teen comedy, it's also everything Dude shoulda/coulda been: a deliriously profane stoner lark with enough satiric subtext to certify that the creators aren't as moronic as their characters. Interestingly, H&K's titular protagonists aren't dolts at all, but bright, upwardly mobile, three-dimensional minorities liberated from the indignity of lame, forced catchwords like "shibby" and "hoo-hoo."
Like Kevin Smith's early, refreshingly unpretentious work, the story is driven by the characters' basest Jersey-boy instincts. After intentionally blowing his umpteenth med-school interview, acidic, deadpan Kumar (Kal Penn) convinces his best buddy, Harold (John Cho), a pantywaist junior investment banker, to get baked and head to White Castle, home of the love-'em-or-hate-'em, 40-cent, onion-slathered, square-pattied mini-burgers. Zany, lowbrow, hit-and-miss adventures ensue—potential hottie love interests play a game of "Battleshits" in the women's room—but H&K branches out into nobler, if sometimes poorly realized, tangents.
The movie sets up a rogue's gallery of blatantly racist cardboard obstacles to torment its Korean and Indian-American heroes, most gratingly an "extreme" skate-punk gang and a cabal of corrupt, nightstick-wielding suburban cops. These villains are harmless Crayola cartoons, yet their unceasingly vile rhetoric clashes with H&K's generally genial comic tone. Here the film misses a great opportunity to score intelligently against institutional racism.
Meanwhile, two of Harold and Kumar's bong-hitting buds salivate over The Gift on cable, eagerly anticipating Katie Holmes' topless scene. This seems like throwaway frat humor until the thread reappears 10 minutes later, and one of the stoners mutters, in spot-on Seinfeld, "This is the most confusing film ever. Is she possessed, is she not possessed?" just before the full monty payoff.
H&K lives and dies on timing and the bizarre. Doogie Howser's Neil Patrick Harris cameos as an e-popping, stripper-ogling self-caricature, a turn that makes Fred Savage's "Wait! I can feel my dick!" moment in The Rules of Attraction look like Travolta in Pulp Fiction. If this pleasant midsummer surprise is any indication, at least Cho and Penn won't be asking Dude, Where's My Career? anytime soon. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI
A Home at the End of the World
Opens Fri., July 30, at Egyptian
Yes, it's a shame that Colin Farrell's johnson was edited out—or haven't you been enjoying those news reports?—because what works in this imperfect adaptation of Michael (The Hours) Cunningham's poignant 1990 novel is hanging admirably loose. In its many quiet moments, World achieves an informal tenderness rarely seen in American movies about male friendship.
Farrell plays Bobby, who was raised as an aimless teenager in the Ohio home of his best friend, Jonathan (Dallas Roberts), after essentially being orphaned. In a '70s prologue featuring doe-eyed younger actors, we see how the boys found solace in each other: Nervous Jonathan idolizes Bobby's counterculture nonchalance, while Bobby craves the stability of Jonathan's middle-class calm. Adulthood sends them onto different paths. Jonathan grows up gay and moves to New York in the early '80s, where he settles into a bohemian existence with roommate Clare (Robin Wright Penn). Bobby is a baker living at home with Jonathan's mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), until he, too, journeys to Manhattan and, much to Jonathan's distress, impregnates Clare. After some initial consternation, the three friends move upstate in an attempt to redefine the conventional family.
That's a lot of plot, and neither director Michael Mayer nor Cunningham, who wrote the screenplay, is nimble with the heft. Cunningham's dramatic shorthand may frustrate fans of his novel: Gone is the wounded back story of Jonathan's life as a fey adolescent; Alice's narrative voice is missing altogether, leaving Spacek with little to do but exude a hausfrau's bewildered compassion (which she does exceedingly well). Mayer, meanwhile, too often relies on the nudge of a pop soundtrack or Duncan Sheik's overwrought score to deliver his defining moments.
But the film doesn't cheat where it really counts (Farrell's member notwithstanding). The innocent diddling the boys indulge in as teenagers is calmly depicted, as is the embattled but unwavering affection they display as men of differing sexual identities. Bobby and Jonathan share more than one embrace, and the movie never gets moist and well-meaning about it. Neither do the actors. Newcomer Roberts has understated grace; the usually wan Penn avoids easy caricature in a fine turn as a frazzled fag hag; and Farrell finally lives up to his reputation—he gives a real performance here, unforced and convincingly without guile. In a way, World is much like its protagonists: You have to endure its awkward early stages in order to enjoy something refreshingly grown-up. (R) STEVE WIECKING
Maria Full of Grace
Opens Fri., July 30, at Seven Gables and Meridian
Grace ain't what Maria is full of. It's shit: high-grade cocaine or heroin packed into 60 or more bulging condoms she swallowed with difficulty in Colombia en route to JFK. If one breaks, she dies; if she steals or loses one along the way to meeting her gangster handlers in New Jersey, everyone in her family dies. Why does she do it? For transporting $350,000 worth of junk, she gets up to $8,000 tax-free. The average Colombian annual income is $1,830.
But if generic poverty were her only motive, I doubt tyro director Joshua Marston's drug-mule movie would've copped film-fest awards from Seattle to Sundance to Berlin. (At the latter, incandescent newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno tied with Monster's Charlize Theron for best actress.) Moreno depicts an idiosyncratic individual, not a walking social problem in urgent need of a women's room. This Maria is a bit of a wild-child teen. She's fed up about being stuck in a crummy house crammed with crab-apple relatives, sick of her soul-crushing job plucking thorns at a rose plantation. When she informs her no- account boyfriend she's pregnant, he loyally says he's "not going anywhere." That's for sure! Maria is determined to get somewhere, even if she has to hitch a motorcycle ride to low-down, big-time Bogotá. She gets into the drug trade because she's full of beans.
Moreno is a poker-faced revelation. Evidently she looks the part of a drug mule—customs stopped and searched her at JFK in real life. She also fits the profile of a star who can carry a film. All of Marston's exhaustive social-milieu research would've come off as dead and labored without her animating presence to render it real. The prick of the rose thorn, the bark of the boss, the X-ray gaze of customs officials, the fangs of the gangsters—her big, luminous eyes make us register every emotion. (Though her director is American, the dialogue's mostly in Spanish, with subtitles.) Her co-stars are pretty good, too. The villagers vividly convey the mind-forged manacles that trap small-town types. Her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), achieves an artless realism as a dumb, impulsive kid who tags along on Maria's drug-mule maiden voyage.
The Colombians they meet once they perilously escape JFK are plausibly good and bad without being Goodness and Badness personified. The drug lords are scary without being generic. One good guy, a kindly Colombian travel agent and activist (Orlando Tobon) who helps families bury the drug mules who die, is an actual person who does such work daily.
Marston has done his homework. What makes it artwork is Moreno's performance. He's no great shakes at handling cameras or crafting cinematic rhythms, but his star keeps us riveted as her ordeal takes its course. She can't overcome the movie's central problem: a plot that proceeds as predictably as peristalsis. Watching Maria, you realize just how crucial the intercutting between parallel narratives was to the impact of Traffik, Traffic, and most successful drug-smuggler flicks. With only one story and one possible outcome, as here, it's tough to sustain suspense.
Plot isn't what saves this film. It's that one face: smart, soulful, and defiant. One look and you're hooked. (R) TIM APPELO
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Opens Fri., July 30, at Uptown and Varsity
Informed metalheads may scoff at the notion of their macho Marshall-stack gods baring their souls in therapy, but this behind-the-music documentary will be most rewarding precisely for those without Kill 'Em All in their record collection, without any visible tattoos, without any shameful history of '80s mullets or flashing their tits at Metallica in the Tacoma Dome. The less you know about metal, the better. What makes Monster so interesting and enjoyable—if a bit talky—is how it takes the familiar midlife crisis and restages that psychodrama far from the standard suburban/office setting. The members of the gazillion-selling metal band Metallica are totally unlike us, and yet they're just like us. Paid great sums—and rewarded with great temptations—for expressing rage, lust, and frustration in arena-rock spectacles of smoke and feedback, these tight-trousered titans shrink to human proportions on the couch.
The first and most misleading joke about the movie is to imagine it as a real- life Spi¨nal Tap. The catch is that everyone in the movie, except perhaps the therapist, has seen that same film one thousand times and gets all the jokes about turning it up to 11. As lead guitarist Kirk Hammett told me about Monster during the band's March concert visit to Seattle, "Spi¨nal Tap is one of my favorite movies, and if it turned out like Spi¨nal Tap, that would be a great thing!" He wasn't kidding. He was laughing. Because, as the axiom goes, laughter springs from pain. And he, like drummer Lars Ulrich and singer/guitarist James Hetfield, knew the cameras were running during their tissue sessions: "There was a tremendous amount of risk being taken. This could've become a big fucking farce."
Lending to this air of self-awareness, the band originally hired two experienced documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, to chronicle the making of its Grammy-winning 2003 album, St. Anger, as a kind of infomercial. (The filmmakers had originally drawn the group's notice with their prior excellent docs Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost.) Promotion turned to drama, however, with the addition of a therapist, Dr. Phil Towle, to coax the band back together following the departure of bassist Jason Newsted. Then, after laying a few tracks and baring a few resentments, Hetfield abruptly departs for 11 months of rehab, leaving the cameras running back home. (The entire duration of filming was almost two years.)
Monster isn't all hugs and tears and "I love you, man" moments of bonding. Therapy—perhaps like creating music—is revealed as a fitful, imperfect process. Also occasionally tedious: The film does drag a little in the minutiae of recording and recovery. Hetfield initially rolls his eyes at Dr. Towle's honey-voiced platitudes; Hammett seems eager to embrace the healing rhetoric; while Ulrich serves as the in-house wag and cynic—tapping his foot impatiently like the drummer he is. Each is essentially a family member in a family that isn't functioning too well, and viewers will likely identify with one of the three. (A replacement bassist is finally hired, but he doesn't register too strongly.) Away from private jets, stadium concerts, and eager groupies, the three betray the same professional resentments and personal insecurities that might attend, say, a dentists' or an accountants' office.
"It is sort of strange being, like, a famous guy," admits the normally taciturn Hetfield. By the end of Monster, the band has effectively de-famed itself, shed its protective mantle of myth and invulnerability. If its members occasionally seem a little Tap-ish, so be it. The music continues, and the guys finally seem happier having been, in a sense, unplugged. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., July 30, at Pacific Place and others
This adaptation of the obscure British '60s sci-fi show has lots of blinking lights, exploding oil rigs, strange-looking vehicles (not quite spaceships, not quite ships, not quite sure), and mad scientists, which means that children will probably adore it. It also has all the usual components of a typical kid-saves-the-day movie, but unless you're somehow frightened by a bad guy who wears smeary eyeliner (Ben Kingsley, of all people) or entertained by the blossoming crush between two awkward 15-year-olds, it's going to be torture for adults to sit through. Juvenile lead Brady Corbet may possibly be dreamy enough to lure female tweeners; he spends the movie trying to prove he's brave enough to join his family superhero group. Widowed patriarch Bill Paxton says discouraging things like, "No school, no rockets," but the kid never wises up enough to, say, swipe the keys to the family rocket for a joyride around the galaxy.
The underdog plot somehow concerns young Corbet rescuing his family from Kingsley's evil clutches. Then come more blinking lights, more strange vehicles, more mad scientists. Trivia types will recall that the original television series (1964–66) starred puppets, not people, and the live-action casting here hardly represents an improvement. Before, the stars were marionettes; now it's the audience that feels jerked around. (PG) HEATHER LOGUE