Archive for October 2011

The Rum Diary

October 29, 2011

If Hunter S. Thompson were a superhero, The Rum Diary would be a sort of origin story. Written by a 22-year-old Thompson but unpublished until 1998, the novel is a fictionalized account of his early writing days in Puerto Rico. With Johnny Depp in the lead role as “Paul Kemp” — the young Thompson’s avatar — the movie version unavoidably becomes a prequel to 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, wherein Depp played “Raoul Duke” (the older Thompson’s avatar). Weirdly, Depp at 46 playing a twentysomething Thompson doesn’t look much different than Depp at 34 playing a fortysomething Thompson. Maybe he’s a vampire, or maybe he benefits here from having a full head of hair (which he manfully shaved to assay Raoul Duke).

Depp here isn’t nearly as pixellated — or as drolly incomprehensible — as he was in Fear and Loathing, suggesting a Thompson who still has a handle on mundane clarity. Kemp drops in on the San Juan Star, a Puerto Rican paper dipping its toes in insolvency, and is hired without much fanfare. Assigned at first to puff pieces and horoscopes, Kemp stumbles across a local cabal of Americans planning to mar the island with hotels; they want him on their team, writing love letters in the paper to their shining capitalist efforts. Surrounding this is a lot of stuff that feels like padding but is the true subject of the movie: the building of a point of view, the discovery of a voice. Kemp/Thompson, who at first defines himself as politically “in the middle,” becomes radicalized and, perhaps not coincidentally, acquainted with the siren song of rum and psychedelics.

For certain fans of cult cinema, this isn’t just a prequel to Fear and Loathing; it’s also a spiritual sequel to 1987’s Withnail & I, the debut feature by writer/director Bruce Robinson. Withnail was Robinson’s fond look back at his bedraggled younger days in the late ’60s with a drunken flatmate. The Rum Diary marks Robinson’s return to filmmaking after nearly two decades away from a camera, and it’s clear that he’s most at home in the Withnail-like scenes of Kemp hanging around in dingy quarters with his shabby coworkers at the paper, Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). In the cynical Bob and the wild-living, drug-addled Moberg, Kemp finds elements of what will become the familiar Thompson persona. They are to him what Withnail was to Robinson. They destroy themselves but teach him how to live.

Everything to do with Amber Heard as the trophy girlfriend of one of Kemp’s capitalist-swine cronies (Aaron Eckhart) is dead air, but then this actress has always struck me as an energy drain. She hits her marks, says her lines, contributes nothing. Her vacuity is a little eerie. But Kemp is supposed to find her enchanting, so this aspect of the film doesn’t work — except, maybe, to explain the relative sexlessness of Thompson’s later writing. Thompson’s muse was never a woman — it was an opium ball dipped in rage. In the movie, Kemp and Bob drop — directly into their eyeballs — what appears to be acid, and though this leads to a comic-horror hallucination, we’re meant to see that the experience kicked down the doors in Kemp’s mind, wised him up once and for all. Or, as William Burroughs would put it, he saw what was at the end of every fork.

Robinson doesn’t punch that up for us. He doesn’t really punch anything up. Some of The Rum Diary is borderline boring, perhaps because it was written before Thompson had honed his voice, taken more trips, and developed how to mix it all into a savage political statement. This story is about a future master learning the ropes — learning to be Hunter S. Thompson. As such, it’s of obvious interest to Thompson acolytes and of no obvious interest to anyone else. As a fan of Thompson and Robinson, I enjoyed the film’s laid-back shagginess, though it’s not a patch on either man’s masterpieces. It’s good to see Bruce Robinson working again, and good to see a tribute to Thompson on over 2,000 screens nationwide (all hail Depp, whose Pirates whoring still got this thing made, and released on this level). It’s an entertaining footnote. But it’s a footnote.

Paranormal Activity 3

October 23, 2011

There’s something to be said for a horror franchise that finds ways to creep around our defenses using the medium itself. The Paranormal Activity movies — you may as well get used to them, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon — turn us into nervous security guards staring at video footage, staring at the eerily placid and dead frame, staring at each corner of a room, staring, staring AND THEN SOMETHING HAPPENS. As narrative, these films have been lampooned and laughed at, rightly so, I suppose. And the more the movies try to explain everything, the goofier they get. But as pure nerve-ending cinema using stillness and quietude to build dread, this series is hard to beat. A good portion of Paranormal Activity 3 made me feel like a wire cruelly tightened on a winch. The use of a camera attached to a modified oscillating fan recalls, of all things, the devastating conclusion of Francis Coppola’s masterpiece of paranoia The Conversation.

This one, like the previous film, is a prequel. It goes back to 1988, when Katie, the haunted protagonist of the original film, and Kristi, her sister and the lead of the second film, were little girls. They live with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who makes a meager living as a wedding-video producer. Dennis has video cameras and home editing equipment — his set-up looks plausibly clunky for the period. (Do not get me started on how a film set in 1988 is already a period film.) Dennis finds a different use for his tools when strange things begin happening around the house. Kristi keeps talking to an “imaginary friend” named Toby, sometimes in the dead of night. There are spooky sounds; there are things caught on video that are just off-kilter enough to be handwaved as VHS artifacting — at first.

Dennis sets up cameras in his and Julie’s bedroom, in the girls’ bedroom, and downstairs in the kitchen; the last camera he later modifies so that it pans slowly back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. A babysitter arrives, and the oscillating camera pans, rests on her, pans back. Something appears, then disappears, then appears again; the technique is memorably creepy. The directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, whose previous film Catfish was a skin-crawler of a documentary (whose authenticity has been heavily questioned), get us to fixate on the reveal/conceal/reveal rhythm of that camera, and in a later shot it leads to such an abrupt shock — to convince a skeptical character that something weird is indeed happening here — it releases our laughter.

Of course, leaving the house doesn’t mean leaving the weirdness behind. The family moves in with Julie’s mother, and Paranormal Activity 3 takes a hard left into literalism that raises more questions than it answers. (Paranormal Activity 4 will no doubt answer some and raise more.) In order to “add to the mythology” and provide some concrete justification for existing, the Paranormal Activity sequels have robbed the original film of its chilling randomness — the sense that anyone, like Katie, can mysteriously attract the amused attentions of a demon. Here we see why Katie and, later, Kristi were so besieged; it has something to do with the dearth of male children in the family, as described in the second film. It’s cheesy, like the revelation in Halloween II that the killer Michael Myers and the heroine Laurie Strode were actually siblings. What should be left vague and universally threatening becomes, with the addition of new material and old secrets, too specific to this one family; their terrors become solely theirs, not ours.

For most of the film, though, we’re scanning those dead frames for evidence of something, and we’re frightened. I enjoy sitting among a rapt audience for films that so intensely demand attention and absorption. Occasionally you hear a ripple effect of shock in the theater, as one person notices something bizarre and gasps, and then it spreads to other viewers. These movies bring subtlety and mystery — of the visual kind, at least — back to the horror genre. A shadow is just barely glimpsed in a doorway, unannounced by any sort of shrieking “sting” on the soundtrack. Things are there and then not there; things are not there and then, inexplicably, there. This series makes a virtue of low budgets and limited technique; Paranormal Activity 3 cost $5 million, still peanuts these days, the added expense owing to a few shots that could only be realized with computer effects. I don’t think much of where the “story” has gone and is apparently going, but in the moments that count, those silent wolf-hour compositions of gathering dread, the franchise has earned a place of pride in horror history.

The Thing (2011)

October 16, 2011

Give credit where it’s due: The Thing is not a remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic (or Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic, for that matter, of which Carpenter’s film was a remake). It is, rather, a prequel to the 1982 film, exploring what happened at the doomed Norwegian camp in Antarctica that the Thing escaped from, at the beginning of the ’82 film, en route to the American camp. I myself had been curious about what had gone down among the dead men. As it happens, the events at the Norwegian camp are pretty much the same as the events at the American camp. Aside from a new way to distinguish a real human from a person who’s been absorbed and imitated by the Thing, the new film doesn’t come up with anything fresh. It’s like the Star Wars prequels: Fan-fiction speculation over the years has probably been more inventive than what has now been presented to us as official Thing canon.

The major difference here, of course, is that the various permutations and transformations of the Thing carry the telltale sheen of CGI, whereas Rob Bottin’s revolutionary latex work in the 1982 film always occupied real physical space, giving the actors something to react to and interact with. Reportedly, the new film once sought to follow in Bottin’s footsteps with entirely practical effects, but the dailies apparently disappointed, and the studio ordered up digital enhancements. What’s left of the real-world sculpting of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. looks appropriately savage and surreal, but the result of the tweaking is that the Thing can now move more quickly and fluidly, and can do things it somehow can’t do later on, in the 1982 film.

Of course an American audience wouldn’t be trusted to maintain interest in a Norwegian-camp prequel composed entirely of Norwegians speaking subtitled Norwegian. So we have four Americans, an Englishman, a French woman, and a bunch of indistinct Norwegians, most of whom obligingly speak fluent English. One of the Americans is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a paleontologist recruited to have a look at the Thing discovered buried in the ice. Winstead isn’t a bad actress (she was a delight in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World), and at 26 she could plausibly be a college graduate and practicing scientist herself, but the problem is she doesn’t look it. Like many another actress these days, she looks far younger than her years. She doesn’t get to do much science-y stuff anyway, though she does figure out that the Thing can’t replicate inorganic material, so anyone without fillings in his teeth is suspect. (I’m guessing she means it can’t imitate anything bioinorganic, but the producers may have feared such a word would confuse the same stupes who were assumed to need Americans in a Norwegian story.) So we get several scenes with characters yelling at each other to open their mouths.

Look at the 1982 Thing again and you see a perfect thunderstorm of paranoia and suspense, brewed up by the clash of the cold front of director John Carpenter’s cool-cucumber style (the camera almost never moves, and it stares objectively at the characters much as a Thing would) and the warm front of Rob Bottin’s excitable-boy, sugar-fueled metamorphosis sequences, where chaos reigns. Director Matthijs van Heijningen, a fan of the Carpenter film, gets the externals but can’t duplicate the authentic chill and isolation of the original. (In some scenes, too, the steam wafting out of characters’ mouths in the cold air seems real, while in others it seems digitally pasted in. It’s distracting.) He isn’t free to bring anything of his own, either; he’s got prequel-cuffs around his wrists, locked into the look of the ’82 film, and its beginning, too. We know this film has to end with a Norwegian attempting to kill the Thing before it reaches another camp, and we assume everyone else will die. They don’t, though, and the door is left open for a sequel to this prequel: in addition to the Norwegian and American camps, there’s a Russian camp we hadn’t previously heard about. How many damn countries have guys stationed out there in the snow, and what are they all studying?

The Ides of March

October 9, 2011

I wish Democrats would stop making movies about Democrats. They aren’t doing themselves any favors. In The Ides of March, George Clooney directs and co-adapts (from a play by Beau Willimon) a story about how politics turns everything to crud — there’s no idealism possible. Even the Democratic candidates who talk a good, noble game have their secrets and shadows, which must be either protected or spun. And the contest in the movie isn’t even between a Democrat and a Republican — it’s between two Democrats vying for nomination. The spin, the malicious use of the media, it all begins at home. These guys, ostensibly on the same side, have to hammer each other to determine who’s going to go on to hammer the other side. Politics is ugly at any level, and, as the movie’s representative of the media (Marisa Tomei) puts it, whoever gets into the White House isn’t going to change the average person’s life for good or ill.

We see all this through the hooded eyes of Stephen Myers, a junior campaign manager, who’s slick, smart, and, in the person of Ryan Gosling, a little smug. Gosling has facility and intelligence, but here, spiritually, he’s still chewing on his Drive toothpick. I don’t feel much commitment to the character, and even less on Myers’ part to the campaign of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney himself). We’re told Myers has “the best media mind in the country,” but everything he does is Politics 101, and he lets himself get played. Almost everyone else does, too — it’s as if these people forgot en masse they were running to win. Myers has a drink with the opposition’s savvy campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) and somehow doesn’t expect this to come back and bite him in the ass. He has a fling with barely-legal office intern Evan Rachel Wood and somehow doesn’t expect that this won’t end well.

Once the real scandal kicks in, The Ides of March turns morose and obvious. This is Clooney in high civic Syriana mode, telling us that we should stay involved and informed even though the system is hopelessly compromised and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It’s the perfect Democratic film for this kicked-around party these days: drab, resigned, impotent, flinching from imagined punches. The movie has no spark, no juiciness: Power may corrupt, but in this film it doesn’t guarantee much fun. Gosling gets some teasing rhythms going with Tomei and Wood, but the only real warmth in the movie rests in the sleepy smile of Jennifer Ehle as the governor’s wife. The campaign offices must be the quietest and dullest I’ve ever seen in a political film. Nobody feels carried away by their candidate’s rhetoric or fired up by a challenge; nobody seems to love the job or even passionately hate it. This sad-sack group hopes to compete on a national-election level? The moviemaking is just as droopy; Clooney has his heart in the right place but usually not his camera.

A movie like this needs to be electric, even borderline farcical, like the 2008 made-for-HBO film Recount, or satirical, like the revered modern classic The Candidate or even Wag the Dog. Here, people mope in hotel rooms or on bumpy planes and eat bad food, and at times there are yawning pauses between lines — nobody ever seems prepared for anything that’s said to them. These are people who by nature and necessity must talk fast, act fast, think fast. Think of James Carville. Here we have Ryan Gosling with his invisible toothpick brooding over an intern while the best we’ve got — Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman — lean back into roles they could play in a deep coma, and may as well be. In the end, the movie says that politics is serious adult business subject to the easily swayed wishes of an infantile, moralistic public; the stupidity of the electorate is taken for granted, though it’s not voters who are the problem, it’s non-voters, whose apathy and distrust will not be assuaged here, to put it mildly.

50/50

October 3, 2011

Seth Rogen might be a fun buddy to have if you’re staring at Schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma. That’s the form of cancer Will Reiser found himself looking at on an x-ray, clinging to his spine like some opportunistic parasite out of a David Cronenberg film. Reiser was diagnosed in 2005 while he and Rogen were working together on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show (he’s cancer-free now). 50/50 is the result, a fictionalized account of how Reiser (called Adam Lerner in the movie, and played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dealt with the crisis by basically not changing much. As the movie (written by Reiser) tells it, he and Rogen (playing a version of himself named Kyle) hung out a lot, getting high and laid; they led the sort of pleasantly grubby lives you’d expect of guys in their mid-twenties. In short, they disregarded the realities of cancer and mortality for as long as they possibly could.

50/50 is a quiet refutation both of cancer itself and of the usual movies about illness. It has a low-key integrity. It tries very hard not to be the sort of cancer movie that Reiser and Rogen would watch on DVD and make brutal fun of from the couch. It avoids many narrative clichés, though Reiser can’t help it that the scene in which Adam receives his diagnosis, and momentarily blanks out in shock while the doctor rattles on, is probably common enough among patients to have been depicted in illness stories quite a few times before. For the most part, there’s no manufactured drama here. Adam is sick, and yet his biggest problem is how everyone around him reacts. His self-absorbed artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) says she won’t bail on him, but eventually does. She’s supposed to be the villain of the piece, but the relationship had been going south anyway; she just stuck around for a while because she didn’t want to be the bitch in the movie who walks out on the dude with cancer.

That may be the key to the film, really. 50/50 is full of people who have seen this movie before and know how they’re supposed to respond — supportively, selflessly. Since 50/50 is straining not to be that movie, almost everyone in it is baffled by reality — even Adam’s therapist (Anna Kendrick), who’s quite new at therapy, and quickly discovers that the various easy fallbacks (meditation music, etc.) won’t work so well on him. I wished for a spikier, more vibrant lead character, though. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam with uncommon delicacy and wit, but Reiser, as the semi-autobiographical screenwriter, may err on the side of modesty. Or maybe he really is this mild and untemperamental. Reiser gives Rogen, the scruffy baby Falstaff, the best lines and biggest laughs; it may be a thank-you gift from Reiser to the friend who made him laugh through pain.

The movie is being praised, and rightly so, for what it isn’t. But what about what it is? The absence of banality, sadly, does not equal originality. 50/50 is noble in its own way but not especially affecting. In its homey style and jokiness it’s as comfortable as an old shoe, and I don’t know that a movie about cancer should be comfortable. There are a few scenes with great old hands Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as cancer patients who take chemo along with Adam, and they’re in a different movie I wanted to see more of. These men are beyond bromides and even jokes; they just want to get high off weed-stuffed macaroons while waiting for the inevitable. They have a bitter gaiety in the face of death; on their last legs, they’re more vital than anyone else in the movie.


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