Blu-ray Review: The Last Face

By , Contributor
Sean Penn does his directorial career no favors with The Last Face, an attempt at social consciousness that devolves into a superficial romance. Since his 1991 The Indian Runner, Penn has been a very sporadic director (The Last Face is his fifth film behind the camera). Given the lengthy gaps between his efforts, he might as well have waited for something better than Erin Dignam's tale of two Doctors of the World aid workers who fall in love amidst war-torn Africa. Truth be told, calling this a "tale" is awfully generous—there's very little narrative drive behind The Last Face.

Let's talk positives for a moment. The film is quite beautiful from a purely visual standpoint. Barry Ackroyd's cinematography is awash in warm earth tones and makes consistently effective use of shadows and natural light. The Cape Town locations are photogenic enough (though, given the war- and triage-based subject matter, the imagery is often intensely unsettling) to lend Face a visual interest, if not much else. There's also Hans Zimmer's score, which—along with the consistently surprising sound design in general—is hyper-dynamic. But technical attributes alone aren't enough to save any movie from a story this unfocused. The aid workers are portrayed by Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, so there's marquee value. But anyone suckered in by the presence of these two stars will likely be dismayed by their exceptionally uninspired performances.

Depictions of brutal violence in Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are utilized as the backdrop for a romance that makes that already-turgid one in Out of Africa look positively Shakespearean. For Penn, who has cultivated a public image as a humanitarian and political activist, the marginalizing of The Last Face's most serious-minded aspects is confounding. Perhaps the idea was to hit viewers with a bit of hard-edged reality of African civil war after drawing them in with the promise of a lighter-touched love story. The trouble is, the vapidity of Wren (Theron) and Miguel (Bardem) makes their "story" unbearable. So does a two hour and ten minute running time that feels an hour longer due to Penn's leaden pacing.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray makes the most of aforementioned Ackroyd's cinematography. The transfer is gorgeous. Audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and, again, this is a highly dynamic track. Some of the dialogue is so quiet, you'll likely find yourself cranking up your system. Be forewarned, with war as the backdrop of The Last Face, those quiet moments are often followed up by startling, room-rattling explosions. They're enough to wake you up from all the dull "character drama" between Wren and Miguel.

Not surprisingly very little went into the supplements package for The Last Face, with only a ten-minute promotional 'making of' to shed light on the filmmakers' motivations for making this film. The reason it's not surprising is that theatrical distributor Saban dumped The Last Face onto DirecTV and apparently into a few theaters at or around the same time (Box Office Mojo doesn't list an entry for the film). The film is destined to fade from memory quickly and no one seems particularly interested in justifying its existence.
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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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