Judge Bill Gibron used to live in Cracktown, but recently moved up to Methtropolis
Be Cool. Life is Cool. You're so Cool in Cracktown.
How do you follow up one of the definitive cinematic statements of the '80s, a horrific look at life post-Vietnam in an urban setting reeking of decay, drugs, and desperation? If you're Combat Shock auteur Buddy Giovinazzo, you spend the next 23 years in a self-imposed semi-exile, writing the occasional short story and making the infrequent independent feature. You wait until the rest of the planet catches up with your particularly harsh vision of existence on the fringes and hope that they appreciate your grasp of the severity and sadness of the situation. And then, as the groundswell of praise for your original American Nightmare (Combat Shock's working title) builds, you land a series of cinematic body blows with your latest all start effort—an equally bleak examination of addiction and the toll it takes on the society in general, and the residents of a California skid row specifically. The result is a stunning achievement in authenticity known as Life is Hot in Cracktown, and after a short theatrical run, it's about to hit the digital domain with devastating insight and accuracy.
Marybeth (Kerry Washington, Lakeview Terrace) and Benny (Desmond Harrington, Dexter) are just one of the couples we follow. She's a pre-op transsexual. He's a crackhead who robs apartments. Together, they hustle the streets for the dope they need while spending time with a trust-fund buddy who can't decide is he's a man or a woman. In a welfare hotel downtown, a pair of junkie parents (Ileana Douglas, Factory Girl and Edoardo Ballerini, The Sopranos) leave their two small children unattended, the better to scour the neighborhood for a fix. Their no-nonsense son (Ridge Canipe, Bad News Bears) tries to care for his sister, while befriending a tweaking homeless man (Brandon Routh, Superman Returns) and a teen prostitute who is pimped out by her own mother. Into all this despair and degradation comes two polar opposite forces: Manny (Victor Rasuk, ER), a young father who works two jobs all to keep his family from falling apart, and Romeo (Evan Ross, ATL) a fledgling gang boss who sees nothing wrong with raping, beating, and abusing everyone in the neighborhood to get what he wants.
If Combat Shock was a weary, excessively dire walk on the wild side of early '80s NYC, Life is Hot in Cracktown is said sickening stroll times ten. If anything Giovinazzo's jaded view of an American Dream gone sour is even more spoiled and rotten retrofitted for 2009. Hope here is measured out in tiny white rocks, even the most mainstream of characters corrupted by the ever-present haze of a drifting, depressing smoke. Some may argue that the outsider auteur is just wallowing in squalor for squalor's sake, that he has no real point to his manufactured misery outside of the slumming star turns and a desire to shock and disturb. Such a statement, however, fails to take into consideration the underlying truths told here. Giovinazzo isn't just offering a "there before the grace of God go you" denouncement. He's deconstructing the entire War on Drugs as a dismal national disgrace—and you know what, he's right. Even the hardworking Joe can't succeed when he is surrounded by a lawlessness that comes from a lack of social concern and a desire to demonize instead of help.
But there's more than just a message here. The acting is superb, with everyone from Routh to surprise cameos by RZA, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Richard Portnow providing flawless performance accents. Key to our caring is Ms. Washington as she-male Marybeth and Mr. Rasuk as Manny. On the one hand, we see a person foolishly believing that they can master their addiction and still have a "normal" life. On the other, we have someone naively trying to better themselves, working double shifts and studying for the GED while the rest of the world successfully crumbles around them. By hanging onto their story arcs, but following where Washington and Rasuk take us both physically and emotionally, Life is Hot in Cracktown becomes an unforgettable portrait of poverty unaddressed and power abused. Indeed, the lasting images from this film are the most disturbing—Evan Ross' Romeo urging his pals to gang rape a local gal, his "it's fun" excuse, said hoodlum hunkered down in a dead man's apartment, a massive gun held to his cheek as he prepares to "shoot it out" with his enemies. Life may be "hot" in this particular part of America circa the 21st Century—but it's also horrific. And trying. And as told by Giovinazzo, absolutely brilliant.
Offered to DVD Verdict in a Screener Only presentation, it is hard to comment fully on the technical specifications offered. There was only one "extra" to speak of—a trailer for the film—and the video and audio had some definite issues. When Anchor Bay finally releases the film on the digital format, one hopes they clean up some of the obvious drop out during the dialogue scenes. The proposed Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo 2.0 mixes could also provide a better balance between the music and the ancillary elements of the soundscape. As for the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the picture presented was clear and crisp, though there was some slight pixilation during the twilight scenes and some distracting grain elements at night. Of course, none of this really matters if the distributor remasters and rectifies any of the previously mentioned flaws. They do represent one of the few pitfalls in being a full service film critic, however.
Still, when one gets a chance to visit a movie as special as this, all
pragmatic missteps are forgiven. In a realm which has long since given up on art
as a means of making commercial sense, Buddy Giovinazzo remains independent
cinema's sole saving grace. Life is Hot in Cracktown is not to be missed.
It is a powerful, provocative—and at times, pathetic—mirror on our
current social clime…and as such, the reflection is often hard to take.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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