Los Space Invaders

Illustration by Anders Mutzenbächer/Ateliér 444Photo: Cinepantera/Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The low-budget Mexican charmer Duck Season centers on two lonely 14-year-old boys who spend every Sunday eating junk food and playing Xbox games by themselves in a smallish apartment in a faceless housing development. In movie terms, this is a limited, potentially suffocating setting, and the black-and-white film stock does little to liven it up. Yet in the hands of the writer-director, Fernando Eimbcke, such constricted space is infinitely subdividable. Now we’re watching the best friends—the taller and gawkier Flama (Daniel Miranda) and the curly-haired Moko (Diego Cataño)—as they bang on their controls and bombard each other with expletives; now we’re behind their heads, eyeballing the action figures that blast one another into porridge. Now we’re riveted by side-by-side tumblers, as Flama serially fills each with Coke while Moko dips his finger into the foam to prevent spillovers—a soda-pop-de-deux. The space is remarkably porous and unexpectedly accommodating to intruders: a 16-year-old neighbor, Rita (Danny Perea), who asks to use the oven to bake a cake, and a pizza deliveryman, Ulises (Enrique Arreola), who gets locked with the boys in a tug-of-war over payment. (He arrives eleven seconds later than the company guarantees—Flama and Moko open the door holding a stopwatch.) It’s all rather tense for a while. Ulises waits mulishly for his money; Rita’s cake burns; the boys’ indifference is oppressive. But what gradually descends over these four—and over the audience, too—is about the loveliest, most inspiring torpor imaginable.

The style and tempo—deadpan exchanges separated by black—evokes Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and the vacant expression of the boys recalls the nerdy anomie of this generation’s peculiar teen anthem, Napoleon Dynamite. There’s even a touch of The Breakfast Club in the way the characters finally connect. But I found Duck Season easier to love than any of those films—less visually straitjacketed than the first two, less grandiosely romantic than the third. The faces are beautifully fluid, the boys in that no-man’s-land between childhood and full-bore puberty; the girl with more awareness than both put together but limited in how she can apply it; and the pizza guy on the brink of discarding his youthful dreams—his mother having told him that “opportunities in life are like bullets in a shotgun” and that he has already fired his. The imminent divorce of Flama’s parents gives the movie a strong emotional undertow; the very apartment in which the film takes place is a battlefield. One possession in particular—an unremarkable painting of a duck taking flight—is the source of a bitter custody dispute, and here becomes an object of mystical contemplation.

Duck Season is a hangout movie, and not to be bruised with superlatives. The black and white isn’t meant to be show-offy, as in something like Good Night, and Good Luck; Eimbcke seems to have chosen this palette to make it harder for us to interpret what we see. He makes brilliant use of his budgetary limitations. Or it might be that his limitations mirror the characters’, and his imaginative leaps suggest a way out for them, too. The fullness of Duck Season is in direct proportion to its smallness; its modesty makes it bloom.

Photo: David Bloomer/Courtesy of Paramount Classics

Robert Towne has wanted to film Ask the Dust, John Fante’s second autobiographical novel (the first was Wait Until Spring, Bandini), for 30 years, and I wonder if he got so caught up in re-creating the period—Los Angeles in the thirties—that he lost touch with the book’s youthful delirium. The modern edition comes with an effusive (if unenlightening) preface by Charles Bukowski, who recognized in Fante a fellow self-melodramatist. The book is about a young Italian-American writer, Arturo Bandini, who settles into a colorful L.A. flophouse to become a Great American Author. He swerves back and forth between artistic potency and impotence, grandiosity and worthlessness, penury and (when the check from the publisher back East arrives) plenty. He is at various times inexplicably rejected and even more inexplicably worshiped. He is transfixed by—and wants to rescue—Camilla, a Mexican-American waitress who can’t find it in herself to love another dark Latin type. She chases the whitest of Americans while Bandini hisses insults at her, rubbing her nose in her ethnicity.

The movie’s best stretches are those insult-fests. Bandini (Colin Farrell) flashes a smile and dumps his coffee all over the restaurant floor; Camilla (Salma Hayek) appraises him sexily and shreds his latest short story. Towne is a deliberate—marvelously deliberate—screenwriter, and the relish he brings to the couple’s attraction-repulsion is palpable. Working with the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Towne transports us back to the era of his Chinatown, but minus Roman Polanski’s malignancy; the light of Ask the Dust both burnishes and sears. It’s a place that tantalizes Italian-Americans and Mexican-Americans, who can’t manage to transcend their respective hyphens.

Something is missing, though. The themes are all there, but the movie doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier and rev you up. In turning Ask the Dust into a more conventional romance, Towne has muddled the triangular relationship of Bandini, Camilla, and the bartender Bill (Justin Kirk); Camilla’s passion for the non-hyphenated American barely comes through. And while Farrell is delightful—he has never evinced this kind of low-key, rakish charm—he’s not hungry, the way Tom Cruise might have been. (Cruise co-produced the film for Towne, who’s sort of his house screenwriter.) The arc of the story—Camilla’s comings and fleeings, the arrival from nowhere of a feverishly smitten Jewish woman, Vera (Idina Menzel)—is very perplexing. Ask the Dust only snaps into focus when Towne leaves Fante’s book and … Well, I won’t give it away. I’ll just say that in period love stories, there’s no such thing as an inconsequential cough.

Duck Season
Directed by Fernando Eimbcke. Warner Independent Pictures. R.

Ask the Dust
Directed by Robert Towne. Paramount Classics. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Los Space Invaders