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Notes from a filmme fatale

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As the ceiling wept into the bucket beside her bed, a million thoughts duked it out in her mind. She lazily poked at a succession of letters that might allow her to continue renting her porous palace but she daydreamed of an unlikely world in which her loved ones thrived and her enemies understood exactly how irrelevant they were. Anyone observing this scene, however, would have known that she was really just dawdling on the task at hand, which was to concoct a review of Ask the Dust, an unsatisfying noir melodrama from the man whose brain birthed Polanski'sChinatown.

Robert Towne was the filmmaker's name, and she recalled the last entry into his oeuvre with a fondness reserved for a good meal or a better man. 1998's Without Limits, the little-seen story of track superstar Steve Prefontaine, was one of her favorite movies, so she had approached Ask the Dust with little trepidation. Dust featured the smoldering Colin Farrell and the va-va-voomySalma Hayek, and though she knew they weren't the greatest of thespians, they had had their successes, and they sure were easy on the orbs. But her naïve optimism had always been her downfall. Well, that and her taste for troublemakers who had a taste for her.

Dust was based on a semi-autobiographical tome first published in 1939 by John Fante, a novelist and screenwriter whose late-century resurrection can be attributed to fanatical support from hipster poet laureate Charles Bukowski. Farrell had called upon a flat Midwest accent to star as Arturo Bandini, a struggling writer of Italian descent (and Fante's alter ego --- he would write four novels centered around Bandini) living in a cozy LA flop whose many charms included a breezy view, a veritable shrine to writer HL Mencken, and four weeks' back rent. Arturo was deciding how to part with his last nickel at the opening of the film, and as plot would have it, he settled on a cup of coffee.

Standing between the man and his joe, however, was a spitfire named Camilla Lopez (Hayek, sporting an extra 10 or 15 pounds in all the best places). Arturo degraded the Mexican waitress using some choice slurs, Camilla parried with "You dago son of a bitch," and they were off to the races, constantly inventing new ways to make each other miserable. Naturally, both Arturo and Camilla had other distractions: she was vaguely entangled with a tubercular bartender (intriguingly played by Justin Kirk), and he was contending with a deluded writer's groupie (IdinaMenzel from Rent, if not overacting then coming damn close to it).

But the one who should have been memorializing these opinions had always resented films that forced her to buy into onscreen chemistry that didn't actually exist. It made the rest of the viewing experience unnecessarily grueling when she couldn't root for the protagonists, whose usual allure was conspicuously absent from Dust. And it certainly wasn't helping matters that an actor like Donald Sutherland, fresh off a lovely turn in Pride and Prejudice, would occasionally wander into the shot and make everyone else look like foolish amateurs with his perfect performance as Arturo's neighbor, down on his luck but not without honor.

Oh, she knew that films about writers were always tricky propositions. The only thing more boring than watching someone write was writing about how boring it was to watch someone write (one worthy exception to this rule was The Whole Wide World, a grand film with Vincent D'Onofrio as pulp scribe Robert E. Howard). Both the dialogue and the garden-variety noir voiceover in Dust had veered wildly from clever to embarrassing, though the film addressed the pervasive racism of the time, acknowledging LA's caste system mentality in which the Italians were only slightly more acceptable than the Jews, but both were far more palatable than the Mexicans.

And she recalled that Dust itself was gorgeous, thanks to luscious, sun-soaked imagery from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot and The Passion of the Christ) that enabled modern-day South Africa to steal scenes as 1930s Los Angeles. Then her thoughts turned to the score, which used both sad noir clarinet and defiant Spanish guitar to set the mood.

But the persistent plink-plink-plink of the water dripping from above finally yanked her from her reverie. And as she idly twirled a curl, she realized that she wasn't going to be able to concentrate on writing this particular night. Ask the Dust wasn't a bad movie, she conceded, yet it wasn't particularly good either. She desperately wanted to care but she felt nothing. And there is nothing worse than nothing.

Ask the Dust (PG), directed by Robert Towne, is opening Friday, March 24, at the Little Theatres and Pittsford Cinema.

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