| **** Biutiful
Javier Bardem returns to Barcelona in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, but this isn’t Vicky and Cristina’s Barcelona — it’s Santa Coloma, a suburb to which Franco imported Castilian-speaking countryfolk in the ‘60s in an effort to dilute Catalan culture. The “charnegos” have since moved on, replaced by foreign immigrants who work in the fringe economy to send money back home. Uxbal, a child of those first migrants, makes this happen, supplying illegal immigrant labor to sweatshops and the streets and greasing the wheels with the cops. He is also something of a corpse whisperer, giving peace to the bereaved for a price. And he is dying of cancer. He tells no one, while searching for someone to take care of his two children when he is gone.
In their “Death Trilogy” of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga wove three stories together in a way that has since felt played out (take Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, or Arriaga’s The Burning Plain). In this coda, or as Iñárritu calls it, his requiem, he focuses on one man’s story, which moves inexorably toward tragedy as Uxbal scrambles to earn enough money for the kids while trying to reach a détente with his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez). He keeps his children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) in the dark, while haunted by the father he never knew.
The title is a Spanish-speaker’s phonetic spelling of the English word, and in Santa Coloma Iñárritu has found another Babel, of Chinese and Urdu and Wolof, all striving for their place in American-style capitalism. There are echoes of Iñárritu’s previous three-story structure in the Chinese who make counterfeit purses and the Senegalese who sell them, with Diaryatou Daff particularly effective as a mother whose husband is deported for selling drugs on the side. The Chinese subplot fits less well; we need to know that Uxbal’s Chinese partners (Cheng Tai Shen and Luo Jin) want to get into construction, but that they are lovers seems ripped from one of Arriaga’s scripts. But mostly the focus stays on Uxbal, whose world becomes increasingly hallucinatory as he spirals toward an afterlife less conventionally imagined than Eastwood’s — an eternal winter in a snowy forest where Uxbal can finally meet his father.
| *** Waste Land
Directed by Lucy Walker. (NR)
As art stars go, Vik Muniz seems like a swell guy. Brazilian-born and Brooklyn-based, he decided to give back to his impoverished countrymen, hatching a plan to make portraits out of garbage with the help of catadores, pickers of recyclables, at Gramacho, a dump north of Rio said to be the world’s largest. Seen first in satellite photos, and then from a helicopter, Gramacho’s scale is overwhelming, the pickers appearing like industrious ants, but then we meet them face-to-face: the man who’s organized the pickers, an 18-year-old trying to feed her two children while avoiding prostitution, an old woman who used to work in a restaurant and now cooks for the pickers with whatever the supermarkets are disposing of. The women wear dangling earrings and brightly colored tights; the men read the books they find in the garbage: Dan Brown, Nietzsche, Machiavelli. The interplay between the distant view and the close-up informs the project, in which the pickers take the poses of subjects of famous paintings. Their organizer chooses David’s Marat.
This journey home is not what it seems. Muniz already had ongoing projects with street kids in Rio and his native São Paulo. Nor was this the first time he had worked with garbage. Muniz had recently recreated Caravaggios and Titians out of refuse. The handwringing over whether the pickers will get swelled heads if they go to London for an auction of their work seems like manufactured conflict, and in the press notes director Lucy Walker grudgingly mentions that billionaire art collectors were on the sidelines during the landfill shoot, the same collectors who would be bidding at the auction.
But it’s hard to complain about a project that raised over $250,000 for the pickers and transformed their lives, while they transformed the materials with which they support themselves into art. And there’s not a whiff of noblesse oblige about it.
| ** Zenith
Zenith, an aspiring cult movie shot on a shoestring on the meaner streets of Brooklyn and Queens, starts off with an intriguingly dystopian premise: In 2044 genetic engineering for happiness has led to a black market in expired drugs, coveted for their bad side effects. People still crave pain, and would that the film’s “experiment supervisor and creator” Vladan Nikolic had had the guts to push that thesis into Gaspar Noé territory. Instead we get a hodgepodge of Memento, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451 and the complete works of Richard Kelly, with the latter’s interactive components extended to social media and smart phones in what Nikolic calls “a transmedia experience.” But you’ve got to have a reason to log on afterward, and the film’s conclusion ties up everything in a tidy little bow that offers no room for reason.
Our narrator, Dumb Jack (Peter Scanavino), a med school dropout-turned-drug dealer, is only playing dumb. Each day he makes recordings of words that the rest of the world has forgotten. He’s on the trail of his dead father Ed (Jason Robards III), a minister who left the pulpit to chase the usual Bilderberg-masterminded conspiracy, leaving a series of VHS tapes behind. (The only real mystery is how Ed obtained a video camera that records with the crisp precision of today’s digitals.) Jack hooks up with a statuesque rich girl (Ana Asensio) who plays hooker for the same reason others take drugs. She knows words too, as if that really matters during the lengthy sex scenes, which are not gratuitous if your target audience is 14-year-old boys, who are the only ones who will find this movie deep.
The rest of us will wonder why the movie bills itself as “steampunk” (a transistor radio and a manual typewriter do not steampunk make), how familiar character actors like Jay O. Sanders and Zohra Lampert got mixed up in this, or why women are still dancing with snakes in nightclubs in 2044.