'4:44': Last Day on Earth Boring
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The New York-born and -bred director Abel Ferrara once had a rep as a kind of No-Wave Martin Scorsese. Ultra-violent, sexually explicit explorations of sin, excess, guilt and possible if not probable redemption such as "King of New York" and "Bad Lieutenant" were cinematic touchstones of a basic (but not primitive) emotional/cinematic expressiveness. But after pockets of extremely desultory work enlivened by the occasional revelation, and some career pitfalls that could well have come about as a result of his own walking the walk of his most debauched film characters, Ferrara has ended up in a different place, kind of an eccentric avuncular cinematic presence still wrestling with issues of morality and action in micro-budgeted, made-on-the-fly (or while flying by the seat of his pants) urban fables.
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His new picture, "4:44 Last Day on Earth" is, like last year's "Melancholia," a story of apocalypse told from an intimate perspective. In a real-life-news-reader-as-himself cameo that's actually likely to elicit giggles from most New York-based viewers, New York One anchor Pat Kiernan sets up the movie's premise from a TV screen: "Al Gore ... was right." A hole in the Earth's ozone layer has "dissipated far more rapidly than even the worst doomsayer could have imagined," and as of very early in the morning of the next day, it's all over for humankind. How are we gonna take it, anyway? Well, as per this vision, lead character and ostensible Ferrara stand-in Cisco (stalwart Abel regular Willem Dafoe) mostly hangs out in his better-than-serviceable loft with gaminesque young artist girlfriend, Skye (Shanyn Leigh, who's appeared in most of Ferrara's films since 2005 and was his girlfriend last time I checked). He talks to people, including a daughter and an ex-wife, on Skype. He sings and dances along to music from a party across the world that he tunes into on Skype again. He finally decides to learn the name of his Chinese restaurant delivery guy. And lets that guy use his Skype account. He gets out of the house, checks out the street, visits some friends who are indulging in some substance abuse, because why not? He wrestles with his own early sobriety.
It's not an entirely original observation to speculate that, faced with not just their own doom but the extinction of their race, people will act in the same self-interested and petty ways that they do in everyday life, in which they're assuring themselves that they in fact do have a future. This is pretty standard not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper-punctuated-by-an-occasional-blowup stuff. To his ex, Cisco says, "You gonna be angry? Still? Now?" The exchange causes practicing Buddhist Skye to freak out, and she seeks assurance (via Skype) from her mother, who assures her, in an authoritative-sounding German accent, "You've done the right thing with your art." (The accent is explained by the fact that the mom is played by Anita Pallenberg; as is customary for him, Ferrara has assembled a pretty interesting demimonde cast.)
Ferrara drops various references to current cultural and political phenomena, likely seeking to forge a resonant eschatological chain by the time it comes for the film to bring home the final message. Not to lord it over y'all as a particularly spiritually enlightened film reviewer or anything, but I can't say that I was particularly surprised or moved by the film's resolution. And since Ferrara's best work has, for me at least, always been about galvanizing the viewer out of a complacent or even necessarily expected perspective, "Last Day" doesn't end up falling into that category. In fact, my main takeaway from the picture was that the loft didn't look like an entirely unpleasant space in which to meet doomsday.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.