Posts Tagged ‘life is hot in cracktown’

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

From the very first scene, a nasty and brutal gang-rape perpetrated by a gang of drug-dealing inner-city youth, it’s obvious that writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo’s “Life is Hot in Cracktown” (based on his book of the same name) requires a very strong constitution on the part of any prospective viewer. This is ruthless, cruel, dehumanizing stuff (and for those interested, this scene’s extension by a couple of minutes is the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts (the DVD cover for which is pictured atop this review) of this movie). It’s also depressingly and unavoidably realistic. And the brutality doesn’t stop there—the same gang performs a shockingly obscene forced enema on an old retiree who they routinely terrorize out of his social security checks by any means available. This is every bit as tough to watch as anything in the notorious 70s porn enema-rape flick “Waterpower” starring Jamie Gillis, a movie so steeped in controversy to this day that the identity of its actual director still remains a mystery (although the smart money is on Shaun Costello).

So yeah. Buddy G still hasn’t lost the grindhouse-derived ability to absolutely knock you for a loop that he first displayed in his 1986 masterpiece “Combat Shock”  (and the film boasts a terrific gindhouse-style advertising tagline : “Be Cool. Life is Cool. You’re So Coll In Cracktown.” How awesome is that?). And because of my freakishly high regard for that film, as well as his masterful and criminally-underrated 1996 offering “No Way Home” starring Tim Roth, “Cracktown” is a movie I wanted to not just like, but love. I went into this fully expecting it to be the movie of the year, if not the half-decade. And maybe that’s the problem, because  in the end, what we’ve got here is a decent little indie flick that certainly stands head and shoulders above 98% of what Hollywood is offering, and is more refreshingly honest and unselfconscious than at least the same percentage of today’s independent film offerings, but I still can’t escape the feeling that it’s nowhere near as good as it could, and quite frankly should, have been.

First off, let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t so much Giovinazzo doing his own thing as it is him trying to assume the mantle of Hubert Selby, Jr. In the DVD extras, there’s a pretty interesting little “making-of” featurette where Buddy even says as much, and Selby is listed in the “thank-you”s during the movie’s end credits. Viewed as straight-up homage, in fact, it works just fine, although it ultimately lacks the visceral punch the Selby-scripted of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” or “Requiem for a Dream” because those stories really ripped you apart with their powerful endings, and “Cracktown” is too much a series of “day-in-the-life-of-residents-of-an-inner-city-hellhole” vignettes with often oblique, at best, connections to one another to provide the type of deeply-rooted audience-to-character relation that Selby’s stories use to absolutely rip our fucking guts out. Instead, what we have here are admittedly fascinating glimpses into the lives of admittedly fascinating and painfully realistic characters with no payoffs for any of their stories at the end.

It’s a testament to both Giovinazzo’s talents as a writer-director and the amazing performances of his extremely talented cast that we want to know more about these people, but that doesn’t make the fact that the movie only skims the surface of their stories any less satisfying. That’s as apt a summation I can think of as to why “Cracktown” ultimately feels like a letdown, even though you desperately want it to be anything but.

Taking center stage in this amazingly gifted ensemble is Kerry Washington as Marybeth, a pre-op transsexual and multi-drug (primarily heroin) addict who lives with her small-time burglar husband, Benny (portrayed with understated depth and understanding by Desmond Harrington), and works as a prostitute to finance their mutual habit. Washington is flat-out spectacular in this role and should definitely (but almost equally as definitely won’t) receive serious Oscar consideration for work here. Think about is : this is a woman playing a man living as a woman. She nails the part, my friends, absolutely nails it, and Harrington’s quiet, typical-guy confusion as Benny fruitlessly tries to resolve his heterosexual identity with the fact that the love of his life is, biologically speaking, still a man underpins every word he says and move he makes. It’s one of the most riveting screen relationships I can honestly ever recall seeing.

Other standout performances come from newcomers Victor Razuk as Manny, a struggling young father working two jobs, one as a daytime security officer at a welfare hotel the other as a graveyard-shift clerk at a Mexican convenience store, in an effort to support his wife and baby at home and who dreams of nothing more than saving up enough money to buy a modest starter home for his family, and Evan Ross as Romeo, leader of the aforementioned pack of violent neighborhood drug dealers, who dreams of “making his bones” with the larger gang infrastructure and ends up making a tragic mistake (or was he set up?) in his scramble up the underworld ladder. He’s got an innocent face and burning, seen-too-much-for-his-years eyes, and has a hell of a lot of natural screen charisma. You haven’t seen the last of either of these gifted young actors.

The other major subplot revolves around Edoardo Ballerini and Illeana Douglas as a crack-addicted couple with two kids living in the welfare hotel where Manny works and trying to balance their highly irresponsible lifestyle with some semblance of  parental responsibility — and failing miserably at it. They put in solid turns in their respective roles but are frankly outshone by their on-screen children, especially Ridge Canipe, who plays their son Willy, another wise-beyond-his years boy who forms a bond with a truly heartbreakingly young female child prostitute who works the same corners where he begs for spare change while his folks are off on their numerous benders.

Throw in smaller cameo parts by Lara Flynn Boyle and Brandon Routh as neighborhood junkies, Vondie Curtis Hall as a beat cop, and rapper RZA as a druglord gangbanger,  and you’ve got quite a group of players here. Heck, even the former Mrs. Prince, Mayte Garcia, pops in for a few minutes.

These are characters we never see in movies apart from throwaway “street scenes” where our leading man or lady walks down a dark street or alley and is either propositioned or mugged. These are lives few of us know very much about. They’re written with authenticity, and performed with same. But the plot structure of this movie lets them all down.

We’re given brief glimpses into their lives, trajectories or “arcs” for each of them unfold before us, and in the end, none of them are resolved. Maybe that’s realistic, maybe that’s the way it is, but in the end it feels like Giovinazzo didn’t really know how to end any of these stories, and in that respect it feels more like a documentary about various street people that happens to be performed by actors. It’s refreshing, it’s honest, and it’s authentic—but as I said before, it’s still ultimately unsatisfying.

I appreciate what Buddy G is trying to do here, I really do. It’s a genuinely gutsy piece of filmmaking in so many respects, which is what makes it’s plethora of non-resolutions feel even more like a cop-out. “Combat Shock” didn’t do this, nor did “No Way Home.” And given that our guy Buddy spends most of his time teaching film classes and working in German television these days and so rarely helms a feature film, one can’t help but feel that he missed an opportunity here, and a rare one at that, since there’s literally no telling when he’ll get another chance like this.

The atmosphere in “Cracktown” is undeniable. Giovinazzo absolutely captures the feel of life in the lower east side streets that he based his stories around (while the movie was shot in downtown L.A, you’d never know it so convincing is the world he and his cast have created). You definitely see enough of these people, and their world,  to understand what makes them tick — but you don’t see nearly enough of them to understand why.  As a result, “Life is Hot in Cracktown” makes me eager to read the book it’s  based on to gain a more detailed sense of who these characters are, but I don’t particularly care if I ever see the movie again.

"Combat Chock" VHS Cover
“Combat Shock” VHS Cover
DVD Cover for original Troma release of "Combat Shock"

DVD Cover for original Troma release of "Combat Shock"

For fans of cult director/author/film school professor Buddy Giovinazzo—and who in their right mind isn’t?—August promises to be one hell of a month. First off we’ve got Troma’s new double-disc edition of Giovinazzo’s first full-length feature, “Combat Shock.” Not to be confused with the earlier, 91-minute “Director’s Cut” DVD that’s just slightly longer than the VHS release, this is the full 96-minute cut that played just a few times under the film’s original “American Nightmare”  title before being picked up by Troma for distribution and undergoing a name change. The new two-disc set, which will be part of the so-far-damn-impressive “Tromasterpiece” collection will also feature all of Giovinazzo’s pre-and post-“Combat Shock” short films,  a new interview with Giovinazzo, and they’re “porting over” the absolutely awesome commentary with Giovinazzo and fellow underground cinematic auteur  Jorg Buttgereit from the original DVD release.

 If you were only going to buy one DVD  all freaking year, I have a feeling this would be it.  The story of Frankie (played by Giovinazzo’s brother Ricky, who also did the music score for the film, one of most seriously deranged soundtracks ever), a so-far-down-on-his-luck-he-can’t-even-remember-what-luck-is-anymore Viet Nam vet has been described by Giovinazzo himself as “Taxi Driver” meets “Eraserhead,” and I’d have to say you could throw a bit of  “The Deer Hunter” into the mix as well, but in truth it’s better than any of those flicks—heck, it’s better than all of them combined—and still has the power to shock the living hell out of an unsuspecting viewer over 20 years after its original release.  Hollywood pablum like “Born on the Fourth of July” has nothing on this movie in the grim-tale-of-a-returned-nam-vet sweepstakes. Giovinazzo blows megabuck epics of  Stone, Scorsese, and Cimino out of the water with the harrowing, less-than-zero-budget grittiness of this film. See it if you haven’t, see it again if you have. It’s availabe now (yup, came out on Tuesday) and mine’s on the way from Amazon as we speak. A full review will follow once I’ve has the chance to watch it a couple of times.

Troma's new "Combat Shock" double-disc release

Troma's new "Combat Shock" double-disc release

But the good news doesn’t stop there, because August 25th sees the DVD release of Giovinazzo’s latest feature, “Life Is Hot In Cracktown,” based on his book of the same name. This one got a very limited theatrical run—it certainly never made it here to Minneapolis—but it’s supposed to be pretty damn gritty and uncompromising, as well. It’s got a veritable all-star cast (just check the poster below) and a decent-sized budget, but the reviews of it I’ve read all seem to indicate that it’s still pure Giovinazzo. I can’t wait to see it.

"Life is Hot in Cracktown" movie poster

"Life is Hot in Cracktown" movie poster

So there you have it, the month of August is bookended with Buddy G.  Reason for conoisseurs to be excited indeed. In the meantime, if anybody might know where a guy could track down one of those “Combat Shock” t-shirts with Frankie holding the gun to his head saying “Fuck It!,” let me know—best movie t-shirt ever, bar none.