REVIEW: Buster’s Mal Heart

25 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

I don’t know why it took me over six months to connect Sarah Adina Smith’s headscratcher “Buster’s Mal Heart” to Richard Kelly’s cult classic “Donnie Darko,” but alas, the two have linked in my head. Both are films that it’s possible to show to a group of people, all of whom agree on the content shown yet diverge widely over whether it’s genius or madness. In such debates, I usually tend to fall somewhere in the middle – neither pole has a monopoly on good idea – and this instance is no different.

Smith puts star Rami Malek to chilling use as Buster, a soft-spoken family man who ends up working a “The Shining”-esque gig as the night desk man at a small hotel. The film does not just play on reserves of feeling carried over from his similarly reserved work in “Mr. Robot,” either. It’s a sensitive performance that reflects a quiet, shy man whose desire to please crosses paths with a grifting loon with an intent to deceive. Said shady figure, DJ Qualls’ Brown, spews apocalyptic rhetoric about a coming day of reckoning known as “The Inversion.” Whether out of boredom, politeness or curisoity, Buster never shuts down Brown’s babbling.

But eventually, tolerating Brown’s presence has consequences. While we witness his inability to rid himself of the negative influence, Smith intercuts glimpses of two other storylines involving Buster – or is it just Malek? One is a drifter making himself at home in the winter vacation houses of the rich during off-season. The other is a sunburned Jesus-looking fellow floating the open sea in a small boat. They’re connected, of course, but Smith never convincingly sells their tenuous linkage.

Standard linear, narrative cohesion is not the endgame, though even a more complex thematic relationship seems like a stretch. “Buster’s Mal Heart” stretches for cosmic, spiritual connections that I just couldn’t sense on the wavelength where I felt like the film operated. That does not mean they do not exist, nor does it discount the intriguing main section with Buster and Brown. B

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 2, 2017)

2 02 2017

impolexAn oft-cited dictum of Karl Marx states, “History repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.” There’s a pervasive sense that living through our current time is like watching the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s refracted through a funhouse mirror, albeit with the “fun” sorely missing. By accident, Alex Ross Perry’s debut feature “Impolex” seems perfectly positioned to capitalize on the moment.

The film supposedly takes inspiration from Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern classic “Gravity’s Rainbow” (I use qualifiers because I have not read the novel). Its protagonist, American soldier Tyrone (Riley O’Bryan) lugs German rockets around the forest after the end of World War II. He follows seemingly no clear path and shares episodic encounters with everyone from an escaped prisoner to a pirate and even a talking octopus. It’s an ambling journey where each step does not seem to build on or relate to each other, in part because Tyrone is extremely malleable to the message conveyed by the people he meets. He struggles mightily inside to also hold onto some vestige of his own personality amidst these encounters.

None of this makes sense. And yet, not making sense makes perfect sense. This pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” feels like a sketched line from the post-war existentialist dread to our present post-truth anxiety. Even if certain moments lack some spark or some scenes drag on, this thunderous 73-minute debut from Perry showcases his deep understanding of the psychological underpinnings of the film. “Impolex” marks a scrappy debut from a writer/director whose literary ambitions have informed some of the decade’s more audacious pieces of American independent cinema.