Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last Days

Originally Written and Posted at on 12/10/05 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Edits.

April 5, 1994 was a day that many rock fans would remember as Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain committed suicide only to be found three days later. 11 years since his death, many people still wondered why the gifted and tortured songwriter had done such a deed. In 1998, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomsfield tried to find answers in which he feels part of the reason he killed himself was his overbearing wife and Hole singer Courtney Love. Still, questions remained unanswered while some try to find a sense of understanding into Cobain's death. In 2005, one director chose to figure out that understanding through a fictional account about a young rock singer, similar to Kurt Cobain, who is spending his final days of his young life entitled Last Days.

Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, Last Days is the third and final part of his elliptical trilogy of death. Using the same minimalist style and improvisation that preceded the last two films, Gerry and Elephant, Van Sant chooses to explore one man's psyche as he is detaching himself from the world around him. Starring Michael Pitt, Asia Argento, Ricky Jay, Lukas Haas, Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, Nicole Vicius, Scott Green, Ryan Orion, and Harmony Korine. Last Days is a harrowing, eerie portrait of a downward spiral captured by the brilliant Gus Van Sant.

Wandering around in the middle of the woods, a young man named Blake (Michael Pitt) treks across the woods to detach himself from the world. After spending the night at a campfire, he returns home as the only people at his house are those who claim to be his friends. After retrieving a box that he had dug up while doing some domestic activities, a man named Thadeus (Thadeus A. Thomas) arrives to sell phone books that ends up being being awkward due to Blake's distracted behavior. Preying around his house, he locks himself where a young woman named Asia (Asia Argento) finds him. With her boyfriend Scott (Scott Green) and friend Lukas (Lukas Haas) also around, they deal with a couple of Mormon missionaries (Adam & Adam Friberg) as the two men with Asia and Lukas' girlfriend Nicole (Nicole Vicius) leave the house. Later that day, a private investigator (Ricky Jay) and a friend of Blake named Donovan (Ryan Orion) tries to find him unaware that Blake is hiding somewhere in the woods.

After Donovan and the investigator leave, Blake returns home where a record executive (Kim Gordon) visits to get him back into rehab. Blake instead, chooses to wallow around as his four friends return listening to music and doing all sorts of things prompting Blake to leave. Walking to town, he goes to a club where he talks with a club goer (Harmony Korine) and later returning home with an intent on what he wants to do.

Other directors would've either take an issue on suicide as something honorable or to attack the person committing it. Since the film is inspired by Kurt Cobain's suicide, like the previous films of Gus Van Sant's Death Trilogy, it brings more questions than answers. Yet, it's the right approach since Van Sant neither condemns nor praises Blake's final actions. Plus, Van Sant goes into that approach where the audience is aware of what this young man has accomplished yet everything that comes around it only troubles him to the point that he has a desire to kill himself. It's really about a man who is in the final moments of his life as he ponders what he's trying to live for.

Now the writing of the film is really more of an outline where Van Sant leaves more room for improvisation. In terms of its structure, the first act is really about Blake wandering around in his own torment and to the world around him. The second act is a bit more non-linear in which its where the directing and editing becomes very idiosyncratic. Where in one scene, we have Lukas and Scott talking to religious counselors while Asia is trying to find Blake, who is in his room watching a Boyz II Men video. It starts off with Asia trying to find Blake where we see the sense of perspectives. That style of Van Sant's editing, writing, and directing really comes into the forefront for entire second act where everything is happening to the Lukas and Scotts's conversations with Blake where it originally starts off with the two and their girlfriends partying. Even the investigation scene is where Blake leaves only to hide on a bench to watch the river while Donovan and the private investigator are trying to find him at the same time.

Though it's obvious what's going to happen in the third act, it's really more of a winding down to what's to come with an even more eerie aftermath. Particularly with the friends of Blake who feel that they could be in trouble since they were in his house. It's really more disturbing in the end since Van Sant doesn’t try to make the audience feel overly empathetic towards Blake. Another thing about Van Sant's writing in this film is the lack of dialogue since its often improvised for a sense of authenticity while Blake barely talks. It's that improvisation and minimalism that gives Van Sant's film an eerie quality, especially in one scene of the second act where Blake is performing and the camera on a dolly track is moving back to see Blake playing with his music. It's one of the scariest and most troubling scenes of the film. Van Sant on the directing front is as potent and observant than ever while on the editing, he gives the film a slow but deliberate pacing that works in its observation and study of the protagonist the audience is seeing.

Helping Van Sant in his minimalist, wandering vision includes two important collaborators who worked in his trilogy, cinematographer Harris Savides and sound designer Leslie Shatz. Savides brings a harrowing yet colorful cinematography to many of the film's interior, wooden scenes with little lighting that gives the film an evocative tone while many of the film's exterior scenes, especially at night where the lighting is often filled with available light or fire. The compositions Savides brings is beautiful while channeling the ghostly quality of what's to come. Leslie Shatz also brings that ghostly, ethereal quality to her sound design with its use of bells and choirs singing in the background that suggest something spiritual that's to come for Blake in his final moments. Shatz also conveys the use of music and the surroundings Blake is in away from the outside world with sounds of trains, waterfalls, airplanes, and everything else. It helps tells the story as Shatz, who won a Grand Technical Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, does amazing work.

While art director Tim Grimes brings a lot of detail to the look of Blake’s house including its dingy kitchen and wooden house design, costume designer Michelle Matland also brings the right kind of clothing from the sunglasses and sweaters that brings a nice reference to Kurt Cobain. Consulting a lot of the film's music is Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore who brings not just a lot of alternative rock to the forefront along with a cut from the Velvet Underground but also some original music from Lukas Haas and Michael Pitt who really conveys the eerie, disconcerting sound of the music of the times. One of the best pieces of music that brings humor to the film in a movie that lacks humor is Boyz II Men's On Bended Knee that shows that time of the 1990s. The film still retains the classical sense that Van Sant got in his previous parts of his trilogy while opening and closing the film with a mournful opera piece.

The film's small cast includes some fine performances including a few unknowns who are either local actors like the Friberg brothers who are really local actors while the Thadeus A. Thomas is in real life a phone-book salesman. These performances are done realistically and give the film a sense of realism. Cameos from Harmony Korine as a Dungeons & Dragons fan talking to Blake and Kim Gordon who brings a mysterious quality into her performance where the audience isn't sure what she’s playing though from an interpretive view, it could be an angel in disguise as a record executive. It's a fine performance while Ricky Jay brings a lot of humor to his character as he talks about Chinese circus acts while Ryan Orion is excellent as Blake's friend trying to find him while talking a lot of stuff to the detective. The performances of Asia Argento, Nicole Vicius, Lukas Haas, and Scott Green are well done since they do have their moments to stand out when really, they do great background work as Blake's patrons who are unaware of what he's going to do while look at him as a real person instead of a rock star.

Finally, there's Michael Pitt who gives the performance of his career as the troubled yet brilliant Blake. With very little dialogue, Pitt does a lot of muttering, mumbling, and talking to himself yet it sells within each moment of the film. Pitt manages to convey the torment and fragility of a young rock star who has simply has had enough. Often tripping on things, stumbling around, or just wandering off through sense of paranoia, there's never a moment in which Pitt wants empathy or sympathy since he knows what he's about to do is wrong and he can't escape it. It's a selfish character but it's a very human one as Pitt brings all of the qualities that is needed for this troubled young man. Still in his early 20s and with film roles in movies like Bully by Larry Clark, Hedwig & the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell, The Dreamers for Bernardo Bertolucci, and The Village for M. Night Shylaman, Michael Pitt is truly becoming one of the most daring and risk-taking actors of his generation and he's just getting started on his path towards greatness.

The HBO Films Regional 1 DVD of Last Days includes the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio in English, Spanish, and French along with English and Spanish subtitles. The DVD comes in two different sides and two different cinematic formats for the film on the first side. The film does the 16:9 widescreen format that is loved by most film buffs while Van Sant also chooses to bring the 4:3 fullscreen format which he preferred for this film since it was the original theatrical presentation he wanted. The special features on the DVD is very minimal but worth watching. One is a making-of 20-minute featurette where Van Sant, producer Dany Wolf, Harris Savides, and the film's cast talk about the improvisation and creativity that goes on behind the film and how inspiring it was to have a sort of freedom.

The second featurette is a making-of scene where it's the dolly shot track where Lukas Haas shoots the crew trying to get this long dolly shot with crew members trying to remove the railing so the camera wouldn't get that while balancing it. It's a great featurette for any aspiring film director. Only one deleted scene makes it to the DVD and it's the scene where Blake is performing from a ceiling view and it's the scene that was shot in the final cut in that long dolly track shot. Here, we see Blake performing with guitars, fuzz boxes, and everything as he destroys it in the end of the 8-minute scene. The final part of the special features is music video by the band Pagoda led by Michael Pitt which is an alt-rock song of the band performing with his co-star Nicole Vicius dancing around with tapes on her breasts while the band eat while talking. It's a fun video to watch.

While it's a film not for everyone and certainly for those who hadn't enjoyed Van Sant's recent work, Last Days is still an incredible, poignant film from Gus Van Sant led by Michael Pitt's entrancing performance. Though for those who didn't enjoy the elliptical approach of his previous films in the trilogy will sure hate this film. Fans of Nirvana obviously will have mixed feelings though its observant approach makes the film very interesting. While it's nowhere near the brilliance of earlier films like My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, or To Die For, Last Days does remain one of Gus Van Sant's more intoxicating and provocative films of his career. In the end, Last Days is a superb yet melancholic film from Gus Van Sant.

(C) thevoid99 2011

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