You know, it's hard out here for a pimp. Hustle & Flow, a Sundance darling, opens on a slowly receding close-up of Terrence Howard giving the pimp-talk routine, dipped in Memphis molasses, to scrawny, corn-rowed Taryn Manning, the main trick in his stable. A john pulls up and Manning does the wobbly, mini-skirted stroll to the ground-level camera, and the title comes up in funky '70s freeze-frame -- director Craig Brewer accentuates grain as much as Rob Zombie in The Devil's Rejects, though the big model here is not so much The Hills Have Eyes as The Mack, at least until the Rocky underdog-arc crystallizes. Howard surveys his pack (which also includes shrewish crotch-thruster Paula Jai Parker at the local strip club and big-orbed Taraji P. Henson pregnant at home), and yet the hustlin' life ain't all it's cracked out to be. (Tell that to the women.) A worn Casio from a street wino and a trip to the church where bud Anthony Anderson engineers the gospel rhythms form a sudden epiphany -- wise to "one of them midlife crises," he reawakens his old love for music and becomes determined to crank out a rap hit, his one ticket out of the screen's grimmest Memphis and into the Big Time.
For an alleged indie hit, the film is nothing if not shrewd about audience-hooking and sensory-manipulation. The creation of music from scratch lies at its center, with plenty of time for details (egg cartons stapled to walls for sound-proofing, the search for the right timbre through recording and re-recording) and family support: Manning trades booty for a microphone and Henson turns background moaner, so that Howard's opus, "Whoop That Trick," can materialize before platinum-recorder Skinny Black (Ludacris) arrives in town. The song is unveiled, processed static about whore-slapping that inevitably gets heads a-bobbin', both on the screen and in theaters -- further proof of Brewer's gift for commercial hustle? In any case, Howard's soulful intensity and lived-in ardor certainly justify the floating breakout-star hype, while Henson, Manning, Parker and Elise Neal, demeaning stereotypes or not, let fly with some of the most vivid female eruptions so far in the year. DJ Qualls, taking and toking, expounds on rap's affinities to the blues, but the director's role model remains Howard's hip-hop Mac Daddy, whose fame, savored from behind bars following the required gun-waving climax, ultimately stems more from the fact that he's kicked Ludacris' ass than from any artistic expression running through his lyrics. All to the applause of Sundance audiences. At least with The Mack people knew who was getting pimped.
"Your senses will never be the same," Tommy advertised three decades ago, and Tropical Malady, Thai wunderkind Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new experiment ("movie" seems a misleading tag for what's been "conceived" here), validates the claim. None of Russell's sensory slamming, though -- the picture achieves the most ravishing of effects through the most mysteriously, lyrically offhand of means. A track-in on a large swan ornament, a long-shot of a nude guy wandering through the woods, erotically tangled legs and arms in a movie theater, a karaoke interlude, the underground cave where the idol, wrapped in neon, bleebs out tinny Christmas tunes. All of them unexplained and, preferably, inexplicable, as befits one of the world's leading proponents of a new kind of cinema: I haven't seen Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong's previous pastoral, yet, as his 2000 feature Mysterious Object at Noon made exhilaratingly clear, the filmmaker is determined to re-imagine the medium from the ground up. The earlier film traveled from one storyteller to another to piece the narrative together, documentary layered upon constructed fiction (or is it the other way around?); Tropical Malady starts out with one story then discards it midway for another (or is it another?). This broken structure is something I can see Pasolini doing circa Pigsty or Medea, and very few others.
Like Van Sant's Last Days, Tropical Malady is a moment of lush quiet amid summer noise. Apichatpong's radicalism is absolute yet light as a breeze, and intensely pleasurable. The opening titles come up ten minutes into the film, long after the non-plot is on its way: a young soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) falls in love with a shy country boy (Sakda Kaewbuadee) who lives near the Thai village where his unit is camped out, and the two spend a languid, utopian 45 minutes hanging out by the edge of the forest, playing video games, taking the dog to the vet, riding a bike, bumping into a couple of likable, middle-aged sisters. The boy licks the soldier's hand and strolls into the dark. Fade out. The screen lights up on a different story, or perhaps the same story distilled into fable format -- a soldier (the same soldier?) stalks the thick jungle for a tiger, who, when taking human shape, turns into a naked, body-painted lad (the same lad?). Footprints become paws, a monkey squeaks "His spirit is starving and lonesome" in subtitles, and a greenish ghost calmly rises from a fallen cow. The first half's rhythms turn even more circuitous as the splendid night sequence stretches beyond Jacques Tourneur-horror and into humid transcendence, man and animal, face to face, the unbridgeable and the spiritual shimmering in a phosphorescent tree. Watch it, be irritated, maddened, and exhilarated.
Back to the mainstream, for The Dukes of Hazzard. Well, maybe not so mainstream, since the Broken Lizard minds are behind it -- Jay Chandrasekhar directed, with some of the same glee and awareness of the material's disposable stupidity he brought to Super Troopers and Club Dread. Not much room for satire, though: moonshine-running pals Luke Duke (Johnny Knoxville) and Bo (Sean William Scott) have to save their Hazzard County farm from greedy Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds), which somehow leads to a trip to Atlanta. The Confederate flag tattooed on top of General Lee, the boys' orange Dodge speedster, gathers more boos than kudos from the folks in the suburbs, including a posse of pissed-off black guys, but a study of the pop-trash reverberations of Red State shenanigans gets shoved aside for slow-mo shots of cars zooming through the air. Or am I reading too much into a summer remake of a late-'70s yahoo syndication staple, of which my knowledge extends exclusively to Google searches of "Catherine Bach's sweet, sweet ass cheeks"? For the record, Jessica Simpson, herself scarcely less a fruit of our culture's obsession with crap, fills in the cut-off Daisy Dukes in this version; not nearly as nicely, but, then again, gratuitous ass-shots are yet another thing done better in the '70s.
Reviewed August 11, 2005.