Seen at the Movies: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a fictionalized accounting of rocker Kurt Cobain’s final hours, is being acclaimed in some quarters as a masterwork. But where some have seen mysterious depths under its stubbornly unrevealing surface, I just saw opacity. The Cobain character, here called Blake, is played by Michael Pitt, and for two hours the viewer watches him stumble around a ramshackle stone mansion and its grounds. He builds a campfire and sings "Home on the Range"; he eats Cocoa Krispies and macaroni and cheese; he nods off during a visit from a Yellow Pages ad salesman; and at one point, he even picks up a guitar and sings. What he doesn’t do is talk much or make coherent contact with the other residents (Assistants? Hangers-on? Friends and/or lovers?) of the house, who largely ignore him. The film is intermittently mesmerizing—as they demonstrated in Elephant, Van Sant and his DP Harris Savides are masters of the long take—but just as frequently narcotizing. The skewed chronology is more confounding than anything (again, this element seemed much more organic in Elephant), and without much attention paid to Blake’s artistry, the character seems like just another druggie. Working in the pre-1950s standard aspect ratio 1.33:1, Savides does his traditionally atmospheric work, and sound designer Leslie Shatz provides a rich ambient track to accompany the images.
There’s a lot more music in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, which basically puts a Memphis pimp in the center of a Mickey-and-Judy, let’s-put-on-a-show story. Terrence Howard is Djay, a hustler who works a stable of three hookers out of his Chevy, but who has big dreams of being a rapper. He manages to scrape together a crew, using one of his women as a singer, and intends to present the results to Skinny Black (Ludacris), a visiting local boy made good in the music business. On a story level, none of this is remotely believable, and the depiction of Djay as basically a pimp with a heart of gold doesn’t go down so easily if you give it any thought at all. That said, Hustle & Flow is energetic and very entertaining on a scene-by-scene basis, and Terrence Howard gives a charismatic, richly detailed performance. (The supporting cast, including Anthony Anderson, DJ Qualls, Taryn Manning, and Isaac Hayes, is also excellent.) And despite its fairy tale substance, the movie is persuasively steeped in place. Cinematographer Amelia Vincent makes you feel the swampy Memphis climate, and production designer Keith Brian Burns comes up with locations for Djay’s house and a local bar that sell the seedy atmosphere in spades. Djay’s t-shirts and his workers’ cut-rate sexy wardrobe, courtesy of costume designer Paul Simmons, also seem just right.–John Calhoun