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New Line Home Cinema presents
Last Days (2005)

"Have you talked to your daughter? What do you say to her? Do you say, 'I'm sorry I'm a rock-and-roll cliché'?"
- Record Executive (Kim Gordon)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: October 26, 2005

Stars: Michael Pitt
Other Stars: Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, Ryan Orion, Harmony Korine, Kim Gordon
Director: Gus Van Sant

MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content
Run Time: 01h:36m:47s
Release Date: October 25, 2005
UPC: 026359294129
Genre: black comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-AA- C

DVD Review

Last Days is the culmination of a three-film experiment from writer/director Gus Van Sant. His Gerry and Elephant (winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes film festival) were largely plotless, alienating mood pieces that followed characters as they marched unsuspectingly toward death—in the former, two men get lost in the desert and don't make it out; in the latter, a group of high school students sleepwalk through a normal day, unaware on an impending, Columbine-style massacre. Last Days, famously inspired by the death of iconic Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, follows essentially the same pattern, but this time, it's tracking the last days (or, really, the last day) not of a man who doesn't see death coming, but is too out of it to notice where his path is leading him.

Michael Pitt inhabits the roll of the Cobain surrogate, an eerily familiar singer named Blake. Totally free of typical narrative convention, the film begins with Blake wandering alone in the woods near a secluded home where he (and, perhaps, his band mates, though he doesn't seem to really register their presence) has holed up. For over ten minutes, we watched as he stumbles around, bathes himself in a lake, then sings the world's most depressing rendition of Home on the Range while absent-mindedly warming himself in front of a campfire.

There are no scenes of drug use on camera, but it's pretty clear that Blake is heavily medicated. We watch as he absent-mindedly returns home, fixes himself some cereal (putting the box away in the fridge and leaving out the milk), passes out, dresses and undresses, lets the phone ring, answers it without responding to the caller, avoids life at every turn.

His friends try half-heartedly try to engage him (Lukas Haas plays a character who continuously asks him for some help writing a song, as unaware of Blake's disinterest as Blake is of his presence, while Kim Gordon, of the band Sonic Youth, asks him if he's apologized to his daughter for turning into a "rock-and-roll cliché"). A Yellow Pages salesman (a real one, according to the supplements), stops by to try to sell an ad, and spends five minutes talking at Blake before eagerly leaving without confronting the truth of the person sitting in front of him.

It's hard to imagine what Van Sant is trying to say with all of this. We're shown how Blake lives, but we never really know why or how. The camera is distant, noncommittal, often not even concerned if Blake remains in the frame. Yet the movie is a masterful example of sustained mood and atmosphere. Watching Blake's zombie-march toward his ultimate end is arresting, even when we're simply watching him slumped over on a riverbank, hiding from life. The entire movie isn't from Blake's point-of-view, but from no point of view at all. We don't get to know, or feel, for any of the characters, we merely observe, almost always from a distance. Van Sant's last two films have played around with different notions of subjectivity and objectivity, and Last Days is certainly the most detached of the three.

This makes it sort of a tough slog for audiences who aren't interested in a poetic mood piece, I'd wager, and while critical response has been strong, many viewers (particularly Nirvana fans looking for some insights on the death of a legend) have labeled it pretentious, boring, or both. And they're not wrong, but they're also missing the point, I think. Van Sant is exploring the life of a man numbed by drug addiction; the film is likewise devoid of feeling. And yet it's also ironically emotional—watching a life ebb away turns out to be a tremendously draining experience.

In the decade since Cobain's death, conspiracy theories have spread like wildfire, and many believe (and have gathered some pretty compelling evidence to indicate) the singer was murdered. But if you're looking for a JFK-style barnburner, this isn't it. Though a careful viewing will provide a good indication of Van Sant's opinion on the whole matter (he was an acquaintance of both Cobain and his widow, Courtney Love, whom most theories implicate in the murder), he seems more intent on showing that, however he died, Blake/Cobain was, in a way, dead already, withdrawn from his music, his friends, his family, and his fans, little more than a shell. The movie is dedicated to his memory, but it's far from a celebration of his life.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyesno
Anamorphicnoyes


Image Transfer Review: Now here's something you don't see on every DVD—Last Days is included in both widescreen and full-frame formats on opposite sides of the same disc, and, in this case, it's the full-frame version that replicates the original theatrical presentation. The widescreen is cropped at the top and bottom, resulting in better resolution (thanks to the anamorphic transfer), but the full-frame version has, I suspect, the documentary immediacy Van Sant was looking for.

Regardless, both transfers look about the same from a video quality standpoint. Shot on film, it has a documentary look without the graininess of digital video. The transfer preserves the muted, wintery color palette and the natural feel of the photography, with deep blacks (essential during several very dark scenes) and sharp detail. I noted no edge enhancement or artifacting. This is a very nice, clean transfer of a somewhat unusual-looking movie.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: For such a small film, Last Days has a pretty effective mix, though one that does its job with small strokes rather than big flourishes. It is a front-heavy mix, but the surrounds are used to create atmosphere, which basically carries much of this dialogue-free film. During the opening sequences, a character warms himself in front of a campfire, and the crackling logs sound so real, and the aural landscape so well drawn, you are lulled right into the forlorn, emotional state that will last the rest of the movie. Some of the dialogue is a little tough to make out, as it was captured on location, and many of the characters mumble or talk to themselves, but it isn't a flaw in the mix.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 11 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Keep Case
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Pagoda music video, Happy Song
Extras Review: There aren't a lot of extras on this disc, but what's included is perfectly in keeping with the film in form as well as content. A "making-of" runs just under 20 minutes, and offers a loose, freewheeling look at the film's production via random on-set footage and interviews with the cast and director of photography Harris Savides. The film's loose, improvisational feel was no accident, and the cast discusses the process of shaping their characters with director Gus Van Sant. "It's almost not like a movie," Lukas Haas says. "It's almost more like an art piece." The piece also reveals how the Yellow Pages salesman scene came together (accidentally) and how Van Sant's dog walker got a part. Quirky and well worth a look.

The Long Dolly Shot (08m:37s) offers random production footage of a scene being filmed multiple times, while an eight-minute deleted scene, shot in a single take, show's Blake's musial genius and personal demons at work.

Finally, there's a music video from Blake's (Michael Pitt) fictional band, Pagoda, for Happy Song, written and performed by Pitt himself, which would've have been right at home on Nirvana's first album and on early 1990s MTV.

All of the extras can be found on the full frame side of the disc. The film is cut into 11 longish chapter stops, and there are subtitles in English and Spanish to help you out with Michael Pitt's muttering.

Extras Grade: C

 

Final Comments

An immediate, searing portrait of the pain of alienation, addiction, and artistry, Gus Van Sant's Last Days is unconventional, unsettling, often unpleasant, and perhaps, to some, unwatchable—less a movie than a meandering experiment in mood and tone.

 


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