Monday, October 31, 2011

The Rum Diary

Having Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp is really a no-brainer. Depp had become friends with Hunter S. Thompson, the author of The Rum Diary and of whom Kemp is based on in an autobiographical sense. Depp had previously played Raoul Duke (another autobiographical character) in Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and even narrated Alex Gibney's documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. If what I've heard about Thompson's speech patterns and behavior is to be believed, Depp has arguably inbued a little bit of Thompson in many of his roles. Don't get me wrong, Depp has an unbelievable range that can be seen in his ever-expanding list of accomplishments starting for me with What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and perhaps most recently witnessed in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In The Rum Diary, Kemp is a bad boy agitator who can still appear suave as to mix with the high-society types, but he is still just as natural at hanging out with his blue-collar co-workers and knocking back shot after shot of a variety of liquors. Kemp is a journalist who has begun working for the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico and he uncovers a land-buying conspiracy involving a private island that is being overseen by a shady businessman (Aaron Eckhart). We witness Kemp/Thompson go from being inexperienced to an experienced man in terms of the passion for his craft. Still, that one notable arc doesn't prevent the film from being dull, boring, and feeling like it went on for thirty to sixty minutes too long.

Depp plays the character very one-sided and it feels weird that a character so confident has to sit around and act second-fiddle to everyone from businessmen to even his own editor (Richard Jenkins). Maybe this is because I can't help but think of Depp as this superstar actor/celebrity, but remembering my affinity for his work in films like Finding Neverland, I think I would be able to deal with having to watch Depp go from visiting private beaches to slumming with alchololism. Without a focused character, you have a wandering story. The other actors (the ones I've mentioned as well as Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) play some interesting characters, but the characters that matter such as Kemp and Chenault, played by Amber Heard, are just to plain and simple. At least Heard was sensual in her portrayal, that helped keep my attention.

Writer-director Bruce Robinson had previously directed the phenomenal Withnail and I where he showcased the "high-end of social" drinking (as Kemp puts it) and managed to create a multi-dimensionality that really made the piece feel coherent. That is completely lacking in The Rum Diary and for all of Depp's passion for his late friend, Hunter S. Thompson, the film just feels like an exercise in digging oneself into a ditch.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Like Crazy

A lot of my admiration for Like Crazy comes from the fact that I'm an aspiring filmmaker and to watch an 89 minute film that was improvized, shot on the Cannon 7D, and cost $250000 and have the end result be as good as it is, is a breath of fresh air from a lot of the larger budget productions I've recently seen. The film follows the long-distance relationship between Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones). There is actually a statistic about long-distance relationships. Only 10% of them ever lead to a continued togetherness. Our brains and bodies are just hot-wired to be in physical proximity to those we love if we want to continue loving them, especially if the bond isn't as strong as say childhood friendhip or a parent-child dynamic.

Jacob ends up in Los Angeles and Anna ends up in London, but before that, the first time we really see their love for each other is when they touch their hands up against each other with a glass window inbetween them. That may end up feeling forced and corny as you watch it (it's one of those things that tends to happen more in movies than in real life), but that isn't the point. The point of this whole narrative is to have us experience all the moments a couple shares from being too in love with each other to being just plain cynical about the idea of companionship. The acting is certainly stronger than the writing (or the written outline by director Drake Doremus and his co-writer Ben York Jones), but my believability as an audience member in this relationship just continues to evolve as I noticed all the little mental and physical details that the film brings to light.

This is one of those films that can be identifiable in an universal sense and yet I still find myself questioning what is the point of entering a cycle of romance if there is any truth to be found in the events of this film or films like Revolutionary Road, 500 Days of Summer, or Blue Valentine (which depending on who you ask, there either is or isn't)? I guess pursuing love is just one of the faucets of human nature that we all end uncondtionally following and being crazed about... no pun intended.

Margin Call

My response to Margin Call is tough to break down into words. Not because of how the film makes all this technical mumbo-jumbo relatable, but the moral implications that arise from a look at about thirty-six hours at an investment banking firm during a financial crisis. The screenwriting and directing debut of J.C. Chandor is an accomplishment in all of its filmmaking elements- cinematography, acting, and as I pointed out, writing and directing. The movie feels like a hybrid of all the things that made films like 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, and Too Big to Fail manage to work. There is a tension created from something that on the surface seems so cut-and-dry. With this stellar cast giving gravitas to the dialogue, you have another film that manages to feel so lively while dealing with a topic that can be both fascinating and overbearing.

A layed off employee (Stanley Tucci) in risk management, manages to slip a thumb drive to one of his employees (Zachary Quinto) of something he was working on before the firing. The data on the drive shows that the firm isn't headed into a financial crisis, but that it has already passed that point and in another twelve to twenty-four hours, will be too far out of the control of any of the traders. A solid number is never given on the damages that will be faced and in fact it took me a little while longer, than perhaps those versed in this world, to understand what exactly the problem was.

The film is just so well-acted. The cast also includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, and Aasif Mandvi. There are scenes where at least eight of the principal actors are in a room together and the result is the ever developing intensity that may cause the film to peak a little early, but I was too in awe of the delivery of some of these monologues and dialogues that I didn't really pick up on the early climax well after I had left the theater. As I mentioned- the music, cinematography, and editing only adds to the drama (a pleasant surprise considering how it was overseen by a director making his debut). I truly felt like I was "in-the-know" when it came to the moments where important decisions that could affect a character's life were made.

Maybe I've just been too busy to write reviews directly after I watch a movie, but I still feel like no matter how much time has passed between when I finished watching the movie and started writing this response, that I still don't feel like I've truly cracked the complexity of the film. Maybe the complexity is all just my perception of it. Either way, I wholeheartedly recommend this just for the caliber of the performances with special recognition to Spacey, Bettany, Irons, Quinto, and Tucci.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Thing

Although this film is called The Thing, directed by Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr., it is actually a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film. Something that you may or may not know depending on how much of a movie buff you are is that Carpenter's film is actually a remake of the Howard Hawks 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, which is in turn based on the popular novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. For his film, Carpenter took another look at the novella, but he has been quoted saying that he, like many filmmakers of his generation, loved the films of Hawks, so he was obviously inspired by both the original film and literature. One thing that all three films have in common, is how scary the idea of the Thing actually is. It travels across the galaxy and presumably takes over planets by morphing into its prey. It can take out a whole population by living alongside them.

The 1951 version really deals with all the communism paranoia that was going on at the time. It had a lot in common with Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a film that Philip Kaufman expertly remade). Carpenter borrowed some of the direction Hawks set up for his story, but this time with advancements in makeup and visual effects, he delivered a film that was just as good if not better than the first albeit in a different manner and style. It had a lot in common with Ridley Scott's Alien. So, where does this new film fall on a scale in comparison to the previous two? Unfortunately, despite being a prequel, it completely feels like a redux of Carpenter's film just with a lot of CGI.

Set in 1982, paleonthologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is asked by a colleague (Eric Christian Olsen) and his boss (Ulrich Thomsen) to come to Antarctica to take a look at an alien lifeforem that discovered in a spaceship, deep in the icey ground. Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje also star as helicoptor pilots, who along with the scientists, become trapped when the alien inevitably escapes from its frozen state. Cue some dogs barking, a blizzard, an abudance of flamethrowers, and a redo of the famous blood testing sequence from Carpenter's film. Although this time the testing is handled based on everyone's dentures, the film is still clearly just trying to achieve the same suspense that Carpenter mastered with that scene. It is the highpoint of this film, but as I've just pointed out, we've seen it before.

A variety of other issues are raised. The use of CGI is actually somewhat harmful for this story. Van Heijningen used a mix of digital and practical effects relatively seamlessly, but when it is clearly more CGI than prosethetics/makeup/etc.- it is really damn CGI looking. It just flat out evokes less fear than Carpenter's original version where he was able to create fear without CGI because of the many different forms/scenarios he placed the monster in. We see a little too much of the Thing in this prequel. We've seen its forms before back in the 1982 version, so perhaps Van Heijningen should've taken the approach that a recent film such as Super 8 took and not show the creature up until the end (this approach even worked for Alien in 1979 as that monster was shown rarely).

My other biggest gripe is how Winstead's character is handled. First off, she doesn't even refuse undertaking her mission (I have a feeling there is a deleted scene of her doing so if I remember the footage screened at New York Comic-Con 2010). Rules of classical storytelling were made to be broken, but her acceptance later feels unbalanced as one minute her character is worried and screaming and the next she is burning stuff with the grimmest of looks on her face.

This film is just another example of the recent horror remakes that simply retread the ground the original film presented (and this doesn't even apply to horror, the best remakes are the ones that take on a slightly new territory). Examples include A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th (although I'm not a huge fan of the original film). I applaud Rob Zombie for taking some major chances with his prequel/remake/sequel of Carpenter's Halloween that doesn't end up working. The last time I really felt like there was a good update/remake of an American horror film was Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (that was produced by the same guys as this movie I'm reviewing).

Obviously, in horror films, logic sometimes has to go out the window. Even in the most classic of this genre, characters are going to make the most stupid and irrational decisions in a panic because the story needs two hours of screentime. This happens in life, but obviously storytelling can sometimes be a balance between being unique and being relatable. I just feel that a majority of horror films forget the "relatable" part no matter how passionate the director, producers, and writers are. Especially when it comes to remakes and having too much of an affinity for the original material.

That all being said, I still didn't outright hate my experience with this movie. If you could pick a film to re-visit and partially copy and imitate, Carpenter's The Thing isn't a bad choice.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Ides of March

Actor-directors have been said to focus a lot more on performance. Actor George Clooney (director of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, Leatherheads) has struck me as a guy who walks that tightrope of trying to balance all-star casts while being equally adept at telling the story with a camera. I feel like other recent actor-directors (i.e. Sean Penn, Jon Favreau, Ben Affleck) he only grows with each film, sometimes substantially and sometimes minimally. With The Ides of March, I think I see his greatest improvement in storytelling to come from his strengths as a screenwriter. I do realize he wrote the script with Beau Willimon (based on his play, Farragut North) and usual co-writer Grant Heslov, but this script is one that I would call taut (as many others already have). By this I mean that the script is very tense, without any narrative "slack" as to never let up.

The film follows junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) who is working to ensure the election of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) who is running for President. Their goal is to win the Ohio primary elections which requires the support of state Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). Myers is an idealist, which contrasts with his boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a realist. He believes in all the "bullshit", as reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) puts it, that doesn't always belong in the world of campaigning. One day, Stephen gets a call from the fellow Democrat-competition's campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), to meet for a few drinks. Duffy tries to hire Myers and in the process Myers manages to learn something about the competition. I'll stop there at the inciting event because from that point on, the film ventures into a plot that is as unpredictable as it is dark.

I should point out that this is a film more about the world of campaigning than policy. The script may be making reference to the lives/campaigns of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Howard Dean, but they just provide the context of a world full of politics. This movie is more about backstabbing and themes of loyalty and not about Republican ideals versus Democratic ones (if anything, this film makes it out to seem as if both sides have their fair share of solutions and problems). This movie is more about a loss of innocence when a man needs it the most and I'm not talking about Morris, I'm talking about Myers. One might think it would be the politician who goes through these sort of moments, but here it is Myers faces all the ups and downs.

This film features the best cast I've seen this year so far. Gosling continues to amaze and Clooney demonstrates the two traits I've always admired in some of his most memorable characters- his charm and his cutthroat demeanor. Evan Rachel Wood is also exemplary in the important role of Morris intern Molly Stearns who is Myers's love interest, but also the daughter of the chairman of the Democratic National Convention. With the caliber of acting giving the material such strength, I'm still pleased with how Clooney, Heslov, and Willimon have still chosen a great moment to have the story end. It's right when you feel so damn depressed, not out of sadness, but of pity. You see some "tough-shit" cynicism that destroys Stephen's own idealism. Facing reality as Myers does only leaves him where the script leaves its audience, in the realm of ambiguity fueled by many conflicting emotions.


This film is based off the life of its writer, Will Reiser. He found out he had cancer in his twenties and went straight to surgery, skipping chemotherapy. He was also friends with Seth Rogen, who in the film plays Kyle, the friend of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is the character based on Reiser. Rogen is also producing the movie with his collaborator Evan Goldberg. I actually kind of get the vibe that the two are in a way revisiting some familiar ground as the friendship between Adam and Kyle reminds me of the friendship of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill's characters in Superbad (which Goldberg and Rogen wrote). Just replace the need to get booze with the need to overcome a cancerous tumor on one's spine, so with the help of a best friend and a cute girl, you just might complete your goal.

When Adam finds out about his cancer, he turns to Kyle and to his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) for support, but holds off on telling his mother (Anjelica Huston) because of how worrisome she can become. Adam soon finds himself going through chemotherapy with some older marijuana-loving patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) and is assigned therapy with "Dr." Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick) who is still working on her doctorate. There are times when Adam feels like he isn't going to make it, but his relationships with Katherine and Kyle help him to manage his grief.

As Kyle, Rogen is as filthy-mouthed as he is loving. As Katherine, Kendrick exemplifies inexperience with being emotionally vulnerable (I'm reminded of her performance in Up in the Air where she also played a young professional thrust into a world she may have not been ready for). As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he continues to build an impressive filmography of diverse characters. I truly can't say enough positive comments about his continuing growth as an actor. The great thing about this movie is that there is a character to relate to for just about everybody. You've either been where Adam is, had friends like Kyle, had a mother like Diane, or had a girlfriend like Rachael. If you haven't been in the shoes of any of these characters, I'd like to hope you know somebody who was or is.

Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) shows a great understanding of the story he is tasked with telling and helps to give the film an even more stylistically distinct voice. Take the scene where Adam gets high for the first time or the montage during the surgery- I feel Levine and his crew are trying their best to only improve what Reiser has given them. The film does seem to set up a traditional third act where all of the characters have moments where they open up or outright explode against each other. Despite the predictability in the structure of this story, it still left me with a memorably emotional experience. Not to say the film takes itself into a corner, it just decides to take a traditional route with somewhat untraditional material (I can think of only a few films that treaded similar ground such as Rogen's own Funny People).

A few professional critics are calling this a "cancer comedy" and are making the point in their reviews to point out how risky it might be to handle such subject matter so lightly. I do have to agree that the film does have some outrageously funny moments, but it is grounded in reality so I don't take issue with how Reiser and Levine have chosen to handle the subject matter or even think it bares as much discussion as it is getting. This wasn't like Airplane (my favorite comedy) where suddenly characters have boxing gloves and a tire iron as they tell a woman to get ahold of herself. This film (which feels more like a drama with some good jokes) treats cancer as the realistically grim situation with a character who has chosen to respond to it with humor. In the process, the truth behind the humor becomes more apparent. Even if the movie isn't close to what others might've experienced in dealing with or losing someone to cancer, I'd like to hope that 50/50 provides some comfort and at the very least puts a smile on your face through its antics.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Movies watched in September

*-Denotes a re-watch
Note- A review will be published later this week for 50/50.

50/50 (2011, Jonathan Levine)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)*
Cinema Verite (2011, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)
The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson)*
Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper)
Everything Must Go (2011, Dan Rush)
Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)
Gimme Shelter (1970, Albert Maysles and David Maysles)
Killer Elite (2011, Gary McKendry)
Meek's Cutoff (2011, Kelly Reichardt)
Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
Too Big to Fail (2011, Curtis Hanson)
Warrior (2011, Gavin O'Connor)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Network TV Winners and Losers

Network TV rarely tends to have anything worth watching with the exception of a few comedies. I'm being slightly snobbish with that comment, but I'm speaking from "the top down." By this, I mean that with channels such as AMC, FX, HBO, and Showtime having such a high quality of programming, very little measures up from ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC. I just finished my viewing of all the new network pilots. I realize that shows can grow, but generally speaking the shows with a good pilot usually (and there are notable exceptions) turn out to be worth your time. Sorry for another entry in the format of a list, but I'd be here until November typing out of my specific thoughts on each one (and little blurbs won't do the good or even bad ones justice). So here they are and I am being generous to adjust for those that don't look "top down" as I do.

Watch- Revenge
Don't watch- Charlie's Angels, Pan Am, Suburgatory
Still coming this fall- Last Man Standing, Man Up, Once Upon a Time
Still coming this winter- Apartment 23, GCB, Missing, The River, Scandal, Work It

Watch- A Gifted Man, Person of Interest
Too soon to tell- 2 Broke Girls, Unforgettable
Don't watch- How to Be a Gentleman
Still coming this winter- The 2-2

Watch- Ringer
Don't watch- H8R, Hart of Dixie, The Secret Circle

Watch- New Girl
Too soon to tell- Terra Nova
Still coming this fall- Allen Gregory, I Hate My Teenage Daughter
Still coming this winter- Alcatraz, The Finder, Little in Common, Napoleon Dynamite, Touch

Watch- Up All Night
Too soon to tell- Prime Suspect
Don't watch- Free Agents, The Playboy Club, Whitney
Still coming this fall- Grimm
Still coming this winter- Are You There Vodka It's Me Chelsea, Awake, Bent, Best Friends Forever, The Firm, Smash, Who's Still Standing?

I'll update in November and again in January or February.