TRIBECA 2010: Another Take on THE SENTIMENTAL ENGINE SLAYER

[ Our Thanks to Joshua Chaplinsky for the following review ]


Omar A. Rodriguez Lopez is gonna need a bigger hat rack.
The prolific solo artist and fearless leader of Latin progsters, The Mars Volta, is now a bona fide filmmaker. Not just a film director, mind you, a film maker. Not since the heyday of Vincent Gallo have I seen one man take so many credits in a feature film. Producer, writer, director, actor, composer, craft service- all control R belong to Omar, in this his directorial "debut." I put debut in quotes because according to him he has made 3 films prior and at least one since, this is just the first to see the light of festival day.

So who or what is The Sentimental Engine Slayer? Other than sounding like the title of a Mars Volta b-side, my money is on Barlam. Played by Lopez, he is a sensitive young lad who likes to build model cars, and may or may not be the perpetrator of one or more sexually motivated homicides. He lives in a squalid house with a pack of dogs, his drug addicted sister, and her lazy white boyfriend. Barlam is insecure, an easy target for bullies, and probably a virgin. There is no linear plot to speak of.

That is all well and good, you say, but what is it about? To be honest, I wasn't quite sure until the director himself took the stage for a post screening Q&A. Despite rumors of being a tyrant, Omar came off as likable, well spoken, and unlike many directors, surprisingly forthcoming about the meaning of his film. There were technical difficulties resulting in what sounded like a Mars Volta vocal effect, but I still managed to glean what the film was about-  finding oneself.

OK, I can see that. The fragmented nature of the narrative corroborates this. But that doesn't make the film any easier to digest. Because while Barlam is trying to find himself on screen, Lopez is trying to find himself as a filmmaker. There are a lot of interesting ideas at play in Slayer, but many of them are left undeveloped. This amounts to a lot of missed opportunities, making for a frustrating viewing experience.

The performances aren't the strongest, either. Omar has moments of quiet effectiveness, but the same can't be said for the other actors. The film is cast with family and friends, none of which are professionals.

One of the places where the film does excel is the sound design. That may come as no surprise to some of you- Omar is a Grammy winning musician, after all- but I was worried the score would be jam packed with his patented brand of Carl Brutananadilewski inspired "Widdly wah! Widdly Widdly wah!" But Omar wisely eschews such wankery, opting for a more subtle mix of ambiance and white noise that is only obtrusive when appropriate.

As with his work in The Mars Volta, Omar is playing by his own rules. You either dig what he is doing or you don't. He probably doesn't care. For some, like the frizzy-haired college kids asking for autographs after the film, the man can do no wrong.  As a love/hate Mars Volta fan, I have to pick and choose my moments. For me, The Sentimental Engine Slayer is not one of those moments. Its disjointed mixture of The Last American Virgin and Blue Velvet just didn't do it for me. If I had to describe the film in one word, I would have to go with "interesting," out of kindness. Still, it is obvious Omar loves what he does, which gives me hope that one day he produce a film I will be able to connect with.

JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY 
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