Written/Directed by Abel Ferrara
Runtime 85min - Unrated - Contains Language/Nudity
2 Stars (out of 4)
"4:44 Last Day On Earth" released to V.O.D platforms on 3/23/12. Amazon link at bottom of review.
I only heard about "4:44" a couple of days before (legally) viewing it online. It caught my attention because it stars Willem Dafoe, who is rarely in a movie with such scarce marketing. The name that really hooked me though, was Abel Ferrara. Younger readers may not know Ferrara, but he has left his mark on cinema in a big way. Most notably, he directed the original "Bad Lieutenant" starring Harvey Keitel. "King of New York" is the Ferrara film that I remember most fondly, largely because of Christopher Walken's incredible performance. Ferrara's films have a reputation of grittiness and urban violence. His work somewhat resembles Martin Scorcese, but without the vast resources that Scorcese has available.
Using his previous work as a reference point, I was really excited to see what Ferrara could do with a sci-fi drama. I knew the piece was set in New York and expected the urban landscape to be thoroughly explored given the director's reputation.
My expectations were off by miles.
Cisco(Dafoe) and Skye(Leigh) are a couple living in a rooftop apartment in New York. Nearly all of the film takes place there. In fact, the only other location is another city apartment. It's almost as if the piece was originally written as a play. In itself, that's not a bad thing. I've seen several good movies based on stage-plays. It takes some clever dialogue to do a movie like this justice.
In Lars von Trier's "Melancholia", the characters experienced the end of the world in a remote location with very little communication from the outside world. The characters in "4:44" have plenty of communication, probably a little too much. Instead of focusing on this couple we're constantly being side-tracked by local TV news, stock footage about Buddhists, and tons of video chat. It seems that everyone in the world uses video chat without exception. Even the boy delivering Chinese food to their apartment logs in and video chats with his family. Ferrara uses the local news segments to explain to us the when/what/how of the oncoming apocalypse. The film may have been deeper if those explanations were left out altogether. The film should be about the couple's last night together, the specifics of the cataclysm are irrelevant.
The stock footage of Buddhists is actually a nice touch, but I could have done with.less. There may have been some esoteric meaning in the vast amount of existential ramblings, but I found most of it to be hogwash. I'm not certain, but I believe I caught a glimpse of Werner Herzog's Buddhist documentary "The Wheel of Time" among the stock footage. This is interesting because Herzog recently adapted Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" into "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" starring Nicolas Cage. Perhaps this inclusion was a nod of approval from Ferrara.
In my opinion, there were only two effective scenes in the film. The first one is a sex scene involving Cisco and Skye. The camera work in that scene was great. There was nudity, but it wasn't the focus. I found it to be a highly erotic scene. It's a great example of how eroticism and pornography differ.
The other effective scene takes place after Cisco sneaks over to another apartment where his brother and a few old friends reside. There are drugs there, but the two siblings are recovered addicts. A simple, but intelligent conversation takes place around whether or not they should break their sobriety. Logically, they shouldn't worry about addiction because there is only a few hours left to live. On principal though, should one abandon all the work they did to overcome addiction because their time left is brief? In theory, a person could die any day regardless of the apocalypse, so why ever get clean? These are some interesting discussions that unfortunately, aren't explored nearly long enough.
The movie's publicity tells me that Cisco is an accomplished actor. I don't recall any mention of his profession in the film. I'm not even sure why it would matter other than to explain how the character could afford such an expensive apartment. Cisco also has a daughter from a previous interracial relationship. That subplot could have helped develop the character, but it's reduced to a couple of short sessions on video chat. I don't know anything about the character of Skye, except that she's an artist and often whines to her mother, again via video chat of course. Simply showing a person painting explains what they are, but not who they are. This is the case throughout the film. I don't know who these people are and I don't care if they die. This may not be a problem for action films, but it's a terrible attribute for a science-fiction drama.
The acting could have saved the film, but it fails to do so. Other than a few outbursts by Dafoe, the acting was mediocre at best. The majority of dialogue felt wooden and forced. It was as if I were watching a rehearsal or read-through rather than a finished film.
Abel Ferrara both wrote and directed this film. I think that may have worked against him. His directing is usually "in your face", the opposite of subtle. I think the screenplay he wrote was good, but needed a director who knows subtlety. If he writes more material along these lines, I hope he has the good sense to turn it over to someone who's a better fit.
All of that negativity, but I still won't tell you not to watch. As a fan of cinema, I'm always fascinated by the decisions a great director makes, even in their lesser works. "4:44" is not a terrible film, and it's available on Amazon Instant for a measely $6.99. I wouldn't be willing to pay theater prices for the experience, but $6.99 is very affordable for a new release. Especially if you are viewing with another person. Also, it's only an 85 minute investment. Even if it's not great, you've got the time.
Watch it now on Amazon.