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Sweeping ‘Dust’

‘Slevin’ has a ‘Pulp Fiction’ feel.


Hayek and Farrell.
  • Hayek and Farrell.

It’s no accident that there aren’t that many movies about writers, much less many GOOD movies about writers. Hemingway’s Marlboro Man lifestyle aside, an honest depiction of the writing process onscreen would pretty much be: Writer stares into space for awhile like he’s on a heavy dose of Thorazine, then scribbles in a notepad for an hour.

Not necessarily the stuff of high drama.

Surprisingly, however, some good flicks about writers do get made. An interesting new one is director Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust.” Starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, it is an effective character study, with an old-fashioned sensibility.

Farrell plays Arturo Bandini, a young Italian who — fresh on the heels of the sale of his first short story — moves to California during the Great Depression, looking to write the first big novel of Los Angeles. Months later, and literally down to his last nickel, Bandini goes into a greasy spoon for a cup of coffee and meets Camilla Lopez (Hayek), a proud Mexican waitress. A turbulent love/hate relationship is spawned between Camilla and Bandini, eventually leading to joy, sadness, success and death, all played out against the backdrop of societal racism and whether they can ever truly be together because of it. Around this pair revolves a solar system of losers and nobodies: the sadistic bartender with TB who wants to write Westerns; the heavily scarred (inside and out) young divorcee who lives by the roller coaster on the Long Beach pier; the shell-shocked World War I vet in Arturo’s boarding house who sells sexual favors to a lonely milkman, and others.

Though Hayek’s performance seems to be stuck on “fiery Latina,” Farrell is good as the young writer who wants to be a cocksure man of the world, but more often ends up the third-grader who pulls the hair of the girl he likes because he can’t tell her how he feels. Because of that pent-up frustration, Farrell’s Arturo isn’t all that likeable — prone to turn any personal embarrassment or awkwardness into an especially childish brand of cruelty.

But it is to Farrell’s credit that he sells it. We might not like Arturo, but we understand him, and when he grows into a bigger man in the end, we cheer for him. It’s the kind of performance that makes me believe that one of these days, sooner then you think, Farrell is going to get the perfect role that scores him some Oscar gold.

In short, “Ask the Dust” is really the kind of movie that doesn’t get made that much anymore. Sweeping in scope and full of great characters, it’s a damned fine excuse to go to the movies.

Getting ‘Lucky’

Though it’s been more than 10 years since the release of “Pulp Fiction,” that film is still the curse of every filmmaker trying to work in the crime movie genre. It must be maddening to sweat and slave over a script, only to hear it described as “Tarantinoesque” just because it employs gunplay and a few pop-culture references.

But, as the old saw goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. One new film that wholeheartedly embraces its place in a post-“Pulp” world is “Lucky Number Slevin.” Though it is plot heavy and overly glib, operating in the same kind of retro, ain’t-it-cool underworld that seems to encompass all of Tarantino’s efforts, it’s still a clever and exciting little movie in its own right, one that will keep you guessing right up until the last minute.

Josh Hartnett plays Slevin, a lovable loser who comes to New York to visit a friend. Soon after arriving at his pal’s mysteriously empty apartment, however, Slevin gets picked up by two thugs who work for a shadowy crime overlord called The Boss (Morgan Freeman). In a case of mistaken identity, The Boss thinks Slevin is a degenerate gambler who owes him $90,000. To wipe the slate and keep from getting a bullet in the head, The Boss tells him, Slevin has to do him a favor: Kill the son of The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), a former friend turned rival who had, only a few weeks earlier, killed The Boss’s son.

Taken back to his friend’s still-empty apartment, Slevin soon receives more visitors — hired thugs of The Rabbi. It seems The Rabbi has caught wind of the plan, and wants him to kill The Boss, or he dies. While that might have made for an interesting film in and of itself, from there “Lucky” turns into a whirling dervish of brutality and dark comedy involving a coroner (Lucy Liu) obsessed with “Columbo,” a decades-old bet on a horse who dropped dead at the finish line, two deceased bookies, a hitman named Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), and the all-important definition of “The Kansas City Shuffle.”

Though it’s hard to believe that Slevin could be such a smartass to dangerous men and not end up floating in the Hudson, “Lucky Number Slevin” is a well-played crime flick, full of enough twists and turns to keep anybody interested. Obviously a fan of Hitchcock, the writer (Jason Smilovik) earns his pay, constantly keeping us off balance, and providing a cast of characters who are — every single one — not what they seem to be. Though the similarities to “Pulp Fiction” are undeniable, this is a crime movie that stands on its own merits. If you don’t mind a little senseless violence, “Slevin” might just be your lucky number.

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