Sunrise Sunset?

Tampa's Hyde Park art house may be in trouble. Ask The Dust won't help.

click to enlarge MARQUEE PROPERTY: Sunrise is one of the Bay area's primary sources for out-of-the-box cinema. - Joe Bardi
Joe Bardi
MARQUEE PROPERTY: Sunrise is one of the Bay area's primary sources for out-of-the-box cinema.

These are dangerous times for film lovers. They're plenty dangerous for popcorn movie fans, as anyone who's endured Aquamarine or Ultraviolet can tell you. But for those of us who are also passionate about films that try harder — y'know, the more esoteric stuff that doesn't necessarily show up at the megaplex — the news is even worse.

If you haven't yet heard, Sunrise Cinemas may be in trouble. No one's talking much about this yet, but published reports have revealed that the gazillion-unit condo project planned for Old Hyde Park will straddle the exact spot where Sunrise now stands.

You don't have to be a city planner to get the drift here. If the project becomes reality, Sunrise Cinemas — the Bay area's primary source, along with Tampa Theatre, for outside-the-box cinema — will simply cease to exist.

The writing might already be on the wall. Two weeks ago, at the precise moment that the issue of Weekly Planet with my review of Manderlay was being printed, an e-mail went out notifying critics that the film would not be opening here. Manderlay was apparently "postponed" (a probable euphemism for cancelled) when Sunrise discovered that the film's studio couldn't be bothered buying advertising for it. Opening a movie without studio support is a risky enough proposition, doubly so for a small theater with an uncertain future.

Pretty much the same thing happened last week when an independent production called Winter Passing was summarily yanked from Sunrise's schedule (we'd written about that one too, but managed to pull our review at the last minute). In all fairness, this sort of thing isn't uncommon in the notoriously fluid world of non-mainstream film — there are only so many prints of a small movie like Winter Passing, so when a theater in Des Moines decides to hang on to theirs for an extra week, Tampa might have to go without — but the signs here indicate something more troubling.

All of this is prelude to my very mixed emotions about reviewing Ask the Dust, currently scheduled to open at Sunrise on March 24. Having spent the past two weeks reviewing films that wound up not opening, I'm not looking forward to the possibility of going 3-for-3. Beyond that, though, I desperately want to support Sunrise Cinemas at this critical time and to convince you to do likewise — but the simple fact of the matter is that I don't really have much good to say about Ask the Dust.

Just to compound the problem, we're talking about a 30-years-in-the-making labor of love from one of Hollywood's most venerated artists — Robert Towne, the man who wrote Chinatown and The Last Detail, two of the greatest American films of the '70s.

It's hard enough trashing a movie by just anybody. Trashing a cherished project from a personal hero — a project that a fine and possibly vulnerable local venue has chosen to take a risk on — well, let's just say that sometimes there's not much difference between this film critic gig and setting fire to a basket of puppies.

Still, there's no getting around that Ask the Dust is not a very good movie. The film is a slight (very slight) return to Chinatown territory — Los Angeles in the romantically seedy '30s — but Towne doesn't seem to have much of a clue as to what he's doing there this time.

Colin Farrell, who also seems unsure of what he's doing here, projects precious little personality as struggling writer Arturo Bandini, tossing off great, steaming piles of voice-over narration and typing away at the Great American Novel in his tiny L.A. hotel room.

A second-generation Italian-American with identity issues, Bandini dreams of snagging one of those cool California blondes who "grow like oranges out here." Instead he finds himself inexplicably obsessing over a dark-haired Mexican sexpot (Salma Hayek, introduced to us breasts-first, in a shot so unsubtle it boggles the most unboggleable mind).

Towne doesn't seem to have a handle on either of these characters or on the dynamics of their relationship, a problem that goes to the heart of what's wrong with the film. Much of Ask the Dust is devoted to the weirdly passive-aggressive cat-and-mouse played out by Farrell and Hayek: He insults her shoes, she brings him curdled milk, he gives her one of his stories to read, she rips it to shreds, he pours beer on her floor, and so on.

The relationship seems to change from moment to moment with little of it making much sense either emotionally or intellectually, almost as if Towne had cut out huge chunks of scenes and re-arranged them at random like some Burroughs cut-up.

It's nearly impossible to figure out what's going on with Farrell and Hayek, but all of the characters in Ask the Dust manage to behave in ways that are enormously odd without being particularly interesting or appealing. Everyone speaks in a stilted, stagey way that was probably cribbed directly from the Jon Fante novel from which the film is adapted, but that bears no resemblance to the way people talk in real life (or even in old movies about real life).

The prime offender is Farrell's Bandini, whose archly delivered voice-overs range from whiny soliloquies about his insecurities with women to faux-profound comments about life, death, L.A. and the, uh, American experience. Frankly, the only thing that might keep you awake through most of this is the possibility that all of that teasing between Farrell's and Hayek's characters might eventually pay off in some actual sex.

There are several films here and none of them really work. Ask the Dust tries on different shapes at the drop of a hat — flitting from self-consciously enigmatic musings about the universe, to the vaguely sado-masochistic relationship between its leads, to weighing in on social ills such as discrimination — without really doing justice to any of them.

At one moment, the film is a Barton Fink-like take on writer's block, and at another point it seems to be channeling Ed Wood lecturing on the evils of marijuana. Nothing really connects to anything else; the tone shifts from irony to dead seriousness with no warning and, frankly, it's all so scattershot that it's hard to know what to make of any of it.

There's no getting around the fact that Ask the Dust is a failure, but the movie is so inexplicably bizarre that it might just be one of the more interesting failures you'll see in this lifetime. In a perfect world, one where everyone's time was unlimited, checking out a monumental oddity like this, warts and all, would be a no-brainer.

In the real world, where there's precious little time for the luxury of seeing movies that aren't certifiable masterpieces, the limitations of Ask the Dust may prove more daunting. Then again, the movie does eventually show us both of its big, beautiful stars buck naked, and if that's what it takes to put a few more butts in the seats over at plucky, beleaguered Sunrise Cinemas, then so be it.

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