Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

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Cinema 2011

The latest entry in a very talented editor’s Cinema series.  Incredible job yet again.

 

 

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Review: The Rum Diary

Half Measures

Hunter S. Thompson was many things, but a man of half-measures was not among them.  So perhaps that’s why Johnny Depp’s long-gestating adaptation of the author’s novel The Rum Diary feels so disappointing and – an awful critique of any work related to Thompson – uninteresting.

For his part, Depp is committed and convincing as a young Thompson getting his journalistic legs under him in 1960s Puerto Rico. He plays the odd ticks and slurred speech with panache and often wise restraint, as this is character is a messy but mostly functional drunk, not the drug-addled marionette that many think of as later-year Thompson.

But whereas Depp’s performance achieves a sort of misanthropic balance, the rest of the film feels decidedly limp-wristed by playing things so middle-of-the-road.  The story involves a young alcoholic reporter stationed in Puerto Rico, where he observes the injustice of the local politics and commercially-driven politics of print journalism, while also finding time to fall in love with a taken girl and consume unholy amounts of the local booze.  The societal situation in Puerto Rico is never full sketched, and thus any relevant critique of American policy or insights into inter-cultural relations is murky at best (Thompson fleshes this out adroitly and passionately in the novel).  Aaron Eckhart is charmingly reptilian as a white mogul looking to fleece the locals of their land, but the character never rises above cliché. Neither does Gionvanni Ribisi’s surly hyper-drunk lout of a failed journalist, chewing scenery with bulging bloodshot eyes and chaotic arm movements.  The actors are trying, and the film’s attempts or empathy are genuine, but the whole thing feels hesitant, unfocused, and rather pointless.

Granted, The Rum Diary is not a particularly zany novel. It’s a snapshot of a Hunter S. Thompson who is a bit more innocent and idealistic than the later incarnations.  But it’s also not a particularly good book.  The adaptation feels like the sincere effort of a fanboy (Depp) committed to bringing everything of his idol to the screen that he can…even if the director, co-stars, and audience could never care as much about the material as he does.

Awesome ‘A.I.’ mash-up

A DJ named Pogo has been doing these for numerous films, and you can check them all out on YouTube.  I just thought this one from A.I. was a good sample.

 

Movies At Home: The Eagle

Uneven Histories

Many who have seen The Eagle claim that it bogs down in the middle, when our Roman legionarie protagonist wanders into the wilds of ancient Scotland searching for the standard of the fabled Ninth Legion that was decimated there twenty years earlier.  But this is where the film is at its best, as it takes advantage of the “journey” phase of its plot to immerse the viewer in an otherworldly land of dense mists, alien peoples, and lost histories.  It’s also where the film can drop away from its clunky script and let the landscape and the period to which it is so faithful take over, as Anthony Dod Mantle’s beautifully foreboding cinematography does more to evoke the response this films seems to be going for than its inferior writing ever could.

Career documentarian Kevin McDonald knows how to shoot a scene and he knows how to give his actors space to breathe (perhaps too much space, given the leads’ limitations), but his best efforts of craft just cannot raise the film above its utterly pedestrian script.  The story, based on the terrific novel Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, should be much more engrossing than the script allows it to be, and although Channing Tatum isn’t terrible in the lead and puts forth the requisite amount of square-jawed resolve, the onscreen talent just can’t do much with such mediocre material.  Political allusions are far too on-the-nose, later chase scenes lack the visceral impact of the mystery-shrouded wanderings, and the talk frequently comes off wooden and heartless.  It’s a shame, because while there are moments of dark surreality and wonderful evocations of place that recall great films like The New World, this  could be so much more than just a decent period flick exploring a fascinating piece of European history.

Trailer: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Here’s a new trailer for Tomas Alfredson’s latest, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  I can promise that I will seek this film out as soon as it is released here in South Florida.  Talk about an elite acting stable…

Moneyball in Action

There is something achingly bittersweet about the ending of Moneyball.  A man grows into himself, groundbreaking approaches are given legitimacy through success, yet those closing lines remind us that Billy Beane never won a World Series.  His Oakland A’s franchise lost even more of their hard-farmed talent and settled into dismal mediocrity once others figured out their game, and Beane himself may soon find himself in the unemployment line.

But Beane’s success is right there in that summary; others figured out and co-opted his game.  He did change the face of the sport, but like so many other true visionaries throughout history, he isn’t the one to reap the major benefits.

This excellent piece in the New York Times’ Sports page explores the way “moneyball” has changed not only the way baseball teams are built(the lower-market Cardinals and and Rangers charge into the World Series while mega-budgeted favorites like the Red Sox and Phillies lie defeated on the roadside), but the entire culture of the sport.

The Top 150: D – E

The Dark Knight


2008

Any remaining notions that comic-based films were incapable of being legitimate art were swept away with this superbly staged noir of the Caped Crusader.  The impeccable direction and overriding sense of dread build the package, but the greatness lies in the towering performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, one of cinema’s most disturbing and captivating villains.

Das Boot


1981 (Germany)

Most war films present the horrors of the panoramic battlefield, but this assured thriller made battle feel punishingly claustrophobic.  Even though it presented of glimpse of World War II through the German point of view, you can’t help but be moved by the struggles and fears of the submarine’s beleaguered crew.  Still Wolfgang Peterson’s finest work.

The Day the Earth Stood Still


1951

Before it became the genre of space battles and giant explosions (not that those aren’t cool), science fiction was the genre of giant insects and killer blobs.  But in between those eras, it was occasionally the Genre of Ideas, in the tradition of its more thoughtful literary brethren.  This expertly written classic gave us aliens less concerned with invasion and more concerned with saving us from ourselves, whether or not we actually deserve to be saved.

Dog Day Afternoon


1975

It features arguably the best performance of Al Pacino’s illustrious career, and the film itself is a slow-burning study of alienation and lost souls that doesn’t pass judgment on its bank-robber protagonists, nor does it cast them as any sort of heroes despite the crowd-rousing cries of “Attica!”  The brutal ending would be a foregone conclusion even if this weren’t based on a true story, but it still manages to break your heart.

Don’t Look Now


1973

A psychological horror film that merciless plays on the viewer’s nerves and expectations, Nicholas Roeg’s best film is visually precise yet enigmatic exploration of the supernatural.  Perception is constantly muddying reality in the film’s labyrinthine Venice setting, and the death of a child lingers with an emotionally beleaguered couple no matter what steps they take to move past it.  A spooky and mostly non-violent presentation of terror and grief.

Do The Right Thing


1989

Too often cited as an inflammatory “black vs. white” soapbox, Spike Lee’s dizzying film is much more complex than that.  Featuring a stunning array of characters and expert use of “hot and cold” toned cinematography, it comes at racism from a variety of angles and never pretends to offer easy answers.  Lee established himself as a new kind of auteur, and to this day no one has taken his torch with such skill and barely contained rage.

Double Indemnity


1944

The first masterpiece of what would be a string of them in the incredible career of director Billy Wilder, this 40s noir is perfectly structured and impeccably acted.  Based on the chilling James M. Cain novel, it’s a bundle of darkly wrapped cynicism as only Wilder could deliver.  Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale is among the greatest female villains in cinema history.

Dr. Strangelove


1964

The greatest and most iconic satire ever produced, Kubrick’s hilarious and quietly disturbing sendoff to the lunacy of the Cold War still maintains much of its bite.    Replete with great lines and engagingly off-the-wall characters, it’s brought together by the stunning three-role performance of Peter Sellers, whose unique brand of insane comedy fits the material perfectly.

The Empire Strikes Back


1980

Adding a darker tone and some strong philosophical musings to the best adventure series in the history of movies, the first sequel to Star Wars is the finest film of the entire run.  George Lucas’ decision to step away from the director’s chair is noticeable in the performances, which seem much more relaxed and naturalistic.  The convergence of plotlines in the majestic Cloud City provides an unmatched rush of science fiction excitement, not to mention the greatest twist ever seen on the big screen.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser


1975 (Germany)

An internationally successful vanguard for New German Cinema, Werner Herzog’s breakthrough film dramatizes the legend of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who shows up in a 19th century German town with no past, no identity, and no voice.  Casting a former mental patient as the affectless yet strangely endearing lead, Herzog depicts the ravages that civilization can wreak on unspoiled human innocence.

Eraserhead


1977

Still one of the most unnerving nightmares you’ll ever see visualized, David Lynch’s surreal mood piece is the ultimate expression of paternal fear and anxiety.  Lynch manages to make the most mundane objects and events, like a radiator or a family dinner, into symbols and spectacles of the macabre, and it’s still hard to imagine anything more disturbing than the incessant cries of that monstrous little bundle of joy.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


2004

Who would’ve thought the most pure and affecting romance of the new millennium would could from the twisted mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  Director Michel Gondry handles the visual demands of this race against memory loss with grace, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet form an unlikely yet endearing couple and deliver some of the best work of their careers.

E.T. – The Extraterrestrial


1982

It might come as a surprise that one of the most moving meditations on the wonders of childhood and the pitfalls of American parenthood would come via the story of a stranded little alien, but Steven Spielberg couldn’t have picked a better angle of approach.  Instead of the paranoid dread of alien invasion, we get an affecting story of a boy and his best friend, affirming our wonder at the stars as a place of possibility, beauty, and redemption.

The Exorcist


1973

The tales of viewers fainting and vomiting and leaving the theater upon its release are legendary, and what’s behind all that hoopla is still one of the most genuinely frightening cinematic experiences ever created.  The creepy atmospherics and the overwhelming air of malevolence make it an enduring horror artwork, and it’s hard to ever get the downstairs crab walk in the extended edition out of your head.