Archive for October, 2011
REVIEW: ‘Rum Diary’ may serve as the true birth of Hunter S. Thompson
Much like the previously reviewed film “The Tree of Life” from two weeks ago, “The Rum Diary” is a tale years in the making. In this case, the journey of “The Rum Diary” from the mind of Hunter S. Thompson to the silver screen was fifty years. Thompson wrote the novel in 1961, though it wasn’t published until 1998, and brought to the screen this year. It’s also been a journey for director Bruce Robinson, who directed his last film in 1992 (“Jennifer 8”). The novel and subsequent film is loosely based on Thompson’s time as a journalist in Latin America, making it difficult (and fun) to discern fact from fiction.
Unable to support himself as a novelist, American journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) takes a job with the floundering San Juan Star newspaper in Puerto Rico. As a young talent among washed out employees at the paper, Kemp catches the eye of local real estate mogul Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, “Thank You for Smoking”). In the midst of witnessing what Americans have done to cripple the island economy and its population, Sanderson asks Kemp to help create a favorable public opinion of developers with plans that will further encumber the locals. Kemp must choose between accepting the posh island life offered by Sanderson or exposing him and the men who look plan to ruin the island.
“The Rum Diary” is gritty, rum-filled adventure through the Caribbean with plenty of twits and turns. Kemp is not your typical protagonist – he carries an air of indifference with him throughout most of the film that paints him as a borderline anti-hero. A predictable and somewhat forced love story drives the narrative a smidge too much and leaves you wondering if Kemp is truly driven by righteousness or the quest for personal revenge. Despite that flaw, the film is an antithetic yet personal coming of age story, and something you would expect from the imagination/reality of Hunter S. Thompson.
This is the second time Depp has brought Thompson’s work to life onscreen. In 1998 he played quirky journalist Raoul Duke in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Depp says he found the pages of “The Rum Diary” while living with Thompson during filming of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and convinced him to have it published. It is extremely fitting that Depp – longtime friend of Thompson – took the role of Demp in the film version of the story.
Depp is joined by a talented cast that includes Aaron Eckhart portraying the greedy antagonist Sanderson (though one could easily argue that American apathy, greed and capitalism are the true antagonists of the film), talented “that guy” Michael Rispoli (“The Sopranos”) as Demp’s trusty sidekick Bob Salas, and the always-on and extremely versatile Giovanni Ribisi as the peculiar and slightly insane Moburg (a far cry from his early work on TV’s “My Two Dads” back in the mid-1980’s). Amber Heard (“Zombie Land”) rounds out the cast as Sanderson’s girlfriend and Demp’s love interest.
“The Rum Diary” reveals perhaps a softer side of Thompson. The film shows not the hard drinking, outspoken writer and founder of Gonzo journalism, but rather an idealist fighting the changing capitalistic and politically-influenced world around him. The film’s denouement features a text overlay stating “This is the end of one story and the beginning of another…” – it’s almost as if “The Rum Diary” serves as the true birth of the Hunter S. Thompson that the world knows today.
YATES: Film does a great job capturing emotions that go into a single football season
There’s no doubt about it, we’re in the thick of the football season. NFL teams are beginning to show their true colors as contenders or pretenders, some key NCAA matchups are right around the corner, and high school playoffs are about to begin. It just felt right to revisit a vintage football movie for classics week. The field is filled with many players, including the underdog story (“Rudy”), one with historical implications (“Remember the Titans”) and a chronicle of Texas high school football (“Varsity Blues”). This week’s choice, however, is an inside look at NCAA football with 1993’s “The Program.”
“The Program” documents the pressures faced by coaches and players over the span of one year at fictional Eastern State University (ESU). The football program brings together an assorted group of characters from across the country, led by starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Joe Kane (Craig Sheffer doing his best Christian Slater impersonation). As the team attempts to return to a major bowl game, players begin to cave under the pressures of the game and college life. You could call “The Program” a fictional expose on the NCAA that is somewhat rooted in truth. The film touches upon academic fraud, steroid use, improper payments from boosters, and other violations that occur more than sports fans would like to admit.
The character development is what makes “The Program” a classic in the sports genre. Joe Kane comes from a family of alcoholics, and not surprisingly that’s the first thing he turns to when things get tough. His Heisman season includes a tumultuous romantic relationship, a bar fight, a DUI and a stint in rehab. Defensive leader Alvin Mack (Duane Davis, son of former NFL player Willie Davis) has his NFL dreams and plans to get his family out of poverty crushed by a serious injury. The two players vying for the starting tailback job are also fighting for the hand of the same woman. Career special teamer Steven Lattimer (Andrew Bryniarski) skyrockets to the top of the defensive line depth chart with the help of steroids, and sees his world begin to crumble around him because of the drugs. You easily find yourself rooting for the players off the field as they face their own personal conflicts.
The film’s verisimilitude is aided by cameo appearances by sports personalities such as Chris Berman, Lynn Swann and legendary coach Bo Schembechler. Despite the setting of the fictional ESU, their opponents include the very real Michigan, Georgia Tech, Iowa and Mississippi State University. Set design includes turning South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium into ESU’s Wolf Den Stadium, which offers some realistic in-game sequences. Director David Ward knows his way around a sports film, directing the first two “Major League” films.
The cast of “The Program” is diverse and includes strong performances from a young cast that includes Halle Berry and Omar Epps. Davis and Bryniarski shine while keeping up a significant level of intensity. Sheffer is perfectly cast as the outlaw team leader wrestling with inner demons. Abraham Benrubi is spot on as always as the loveable and aloof offensive lineman Bud-Lite Kaminski. Veteran James Caan is surprising dull, which can be credited as a product of the script. Coach Winters is a flat character who stands idly by while his program falls to pieces.
The film’s third act is apropos as the climax features the final game of the regular season rather than a title game or major bowl. The falling action of the narrative reveals the cyclical nature of college football programs. Ending right where they started, the ESU coaching staff walks off the field discussing recruiting needs for the upcoming season — as if the past six months never happened. That’s the nature of a major college program, which will eat up and spit out the toughest, most hardened players and coaches. “The Program” does a great job of capturing on celluloid all the hardships and emotions that go into a single season, creating several memorable characters and one-liners along the way.
YATES: The film will have a different meaning for everyone
Eclectic director and screenwriter Terrence Malick is a man of great patience. In a career that spans five decades, Malick has directed only five feature films — and waited twenty years between his second and third films (the critically acclaimed “The Thin Red Line”). New to DVD is “The Tree of Life,” a project that Malick began writing in 1978 after completing his second film. “The Tree of Life” is meant to explore the origins and meaning of life through the eyes of a middle-aged man dealing with the relationships of his past.
Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) find himself disillusioned as an adult and attempts to reconcile with the world around him by examining his tumultuous relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack’s father, a hard-nosed company man who feels he settled in life, tries to instill discipline in his three sons with unrealistic expectations and physicality. Jack questions his own motives as well as those around him while losing his innocence during his childhood days in the 1950s.
“The Tree of Life” is incredibly abstract with a fractured linear structure. It qualifies as an experimental film as much as it could a traditional narrative. The film is described as having a non-linear narrative – but that would imply that there is some sort of narrative to begin with. The film jumps between three planes of time – the present, Jack’s days as a young boy during the 50’s, and imagery representative of the origins of the universe. You have to wait through 45 minutes of a collection of random images and memories before a nugget of narrative structure appears in the form of Jack and his three brothers growing up.
It is unfortunate that Malick chose to go the route of the abstract. Though the childhood angst story has been done many times over, Jack’s childhood is heavy in verisimilitude with scenes featuring polar contexts as the boys experience the joys of childhood purity while under the heavy constraint of their father. Malick scratches the surface of Jack’s struggle with the burden of protecting his family from his father’s abusive hands, only to yank us back into his world of the unknown with adult Jack wandering through an urban jungle as he reconciles with the aforementioned scenes from his past.
There is a highly interpretable climax to the film that features not only Jack and his family but a score of others, presumably on their own spiritual quest. Whether this plane exists as Heaven, purgatory, or perhaps a single synapse firing inside the mind of Jack is up to the individual viewer to decide. The sequence does offer the film some form of resolution – somewhat of a surprise given the hypothetical nature of the film.
If you are a fan of the abstract, “The Tree of Life” is worth a view. It is the stylized work of a philosophical auteur who invites you to join him in a transcendental experience. The film will have a different meaning for everyone due to its complex and abstruse construct, but I suppose twenty years of pondering the meaning of life will do that to a film.
YATES: This political drama places at the top of my “Best films of 2011” list
After ten years in the media, I view politics a bit different than most people. Having covered countless campaigns and experiencing the “spin room” during a 2004 presidential debate, I watch politics from the inside out. There’s so much more happening than simply a candidate talking about his or her policies, and that is what “The Ides of March” captures. Forget the candidates, ignore the latest polls… the real action in any political campaign is all behind the scenes — and to say it gets a little ugly is the understatement of the year.
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic young press secretary for Pennsylvania Governor and democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). Myers and campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) are attempting to win Ohio, which would all but guarantee the nomination for Morris. While the Morris campaign battles Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman for Ohio, Myers is exposed to the dark side of politics. Courted by the opposing campaign, betrayed by the media, and drawn into a conflict between Governor Morris and a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood), Myers must choose between his own ideals and selling out for a potential spot in the White House.
The phrase “The Ides of March” is reference to a fateful day or moment. In the film’s case, the fateful moment is the crushing of a young man’s ideals and belief in a man promising change for a society. Governor Morris bares a strong resemblance to that of current President Barack Obama circa 2008. He is a young, liberal politician hoping to bring new ideas to the White House and runs on a platform of change. The policies he runs on (less dependence on foreign oil, new energy initiatives, and eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy) take a back seat to the tarnishing of political wunderkind Myer and the political landscape that surrounds him. A fun subplot is the engagement between grizzled campaign veterans Zara and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Screenwriters George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (who penned the play the film is based on) were mindful to restrict the plot to the Ohio democratic primary, giving the intangible political campaign a home (Cincinnati). Throwing in the minutia surrounding a national campaign could have quickly thrown the plot off track.
The film’s casting is immaculate, specifically Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Paul Giamatti, despite his limited time on screen. Gosling brings another dose of brooding, but with enough flair to connect with the audience. His transformation from an untarnished idealist to a manipulating political shark is a stunning character arc, complete with a final scene that settles in like a slow burn.
Veteran actor George Clooney also shines in the film and is quietly becoming the antithesis of the Hollywood star, opting for indies over big budget blockbusters. He adds to his list of passion projects with this film, which is arguably the crown jewel, as Clooney is credited as director, actor, producer and co-screenwriter. Other critically acclaimed films recently produced by Clooney include “The American” and “Men Who Stare at Goats.”
“The Ides of March” reveals nothing new about our flawed political system — the best line of the film is perhaps Giamatti’s “It’s not about the democratic process; it’s about getting your guy in office.” However I find it somewhat telling of where our priorities are as a country and the lethargy that surrounds the political system when a movie about fighting robots easily defeats a sharp film such as this at the box office. It’s too bad, because audiences are missing out. While the recent Ryan Gosling film “Drive” did nothing for me, I’m placing this political drama at the top of my “Best films of 2011” list.
YATES: ‘League’ crowning achievement for director Penny Marshall
I was recently talking with my screenwriting students about creating a character type. When discussing films featuring characters with a strong arc, someone mentioned Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own.” When I admitted I had never seen the film, I was met with several pairs of astonished eyes. With classics week upon us, the baseball playoffs beginning and a promise to my students to fulfill, what better time for a baseball-themed week?
I’m not sure how “A League of Their Own” has escaped me since 1992. On the surface alone, the film is intriguing as a period piece set during World War II and based on true events — something that always piques my interest. It is an interesting case study to examine how Hollywood fictionalizes real events for the silver screen. Nineteen years after the film’s release, I stepped into the cinematic batter’s box to finally watch “A League of Their Own.”
When World War II threatens to cancel Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs owner creates an all-women baseball league to fill the void. Harvey recruits the country’s most talented and appealing female players to fill out the four-team league. Led by Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and her sister Kit (Lori Petty, “Tank Girl”), the Rockford Peaches begin to capture the country’s attention. When the threat of war ends, the ladies must prove they belong in baseball — just as personal drama and family strife begin to pull the Peaches apart.
Much like the ladies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the actors are an eclectic collection — from the great Tom Hanks and Geena Davis to Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna — who really shows off her acting chops in the film, albeit playing a character not far from her real life personality. Hanks goes from gruff alcoholic to redeemed coach in a somewhat uninspiring arc — no fault of his own, we simply don’t see enough of his character. Davis plays a reluctant hero, torn between baseball and starting a family, and though it goes unsaid, she gives us enough subtext to know that deep down Dottie wants to remain on the diamond forever.
Penny Marshall — probably best known to my generation as Laverne from TV’s “Laverne and Shirley” — is an accomplished director, with a filmography that began in 1986 with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and includes “Big” and “Riding in Cars with Boys.” This movie is sandwiched in the middle and may be her crowning achievement. She brings the 1940s to life by incorporating mainstream mediums of the day (newspapers and cinema newsreels) as part of the narrative. The film’s most challenging task appears to be the mise-en-scene, which accurately reflects the era, where every outfit and every piece of the set was created in the mold of a day gone by. The combination of the mise-en-scene and use of period-relevant mediums allows the audience to get lost in the past, just as protagonist Dottie Hinson does in the exposition of the film.
Two things caught me off guard in the film. I had a preconceived notion that the film was a drama, but it really falls under the comedy genre, and often times cheesy at that. It works due to the quirky collection of characters (and the actors who portray them). I was most surprised to find myself a blubbery mess during the third act. I easily admit that I am a crier — sometimes a well-crafted Folgers commercial can get the waterworks going. The film’s resolution is a reunion of the ladies of the Rockford Peaches, and after following the girls during the prime of their lives, the juxtaposition of them as elderly is quite gripping. Perhaps it’s just me — “The Notebook” had the same effect and changed the way I look at the elderly forever. That is cinema at its best, when it can change your worldly outlook. Be sure to stick around during the closing credits to see reunion footage from the ladies of the real All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Judging by the looks of it, the girls can still play!
WIEGENSTEIN: Thrill of the game runs deep in ‘Eight Men Out’
Happy playoff season, everyone! Now let’s talk about the biggest scandal in professional baseball history. (Well, until “Juiced” got published, I guess.)
“Eight Men Out” is a baseball picture in which actual ball-playing is only partially featured. Its game montages often play like a “greatest errors” blooper real, which is of course the point. In telling the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, there’s a cap on how much talent can be on display — not too much of it was present in the World Series it depicts, after all.
Based on Eliot Asinof’s book of the same name, “Eight Men Out” offers a beginning to the ongoing saga of gambling in baseball (later chapters authored by Pete Rose, among others) with the recounting of the “Black Sox” scandal that expelled almost an entire starting lineup. The Chicago White Sox are the finest team in the country as the film begins, but this apparently means nothing to the team owner, Charles Comiskey. He sends them flat champagne in lieu of a bonus payment.
It’s this undervaluing, so says Asinof at least, that leads several Sox players to turn toward the shadier side of the gambling ring and decide to throw the year’s World Series (and lose to Cincinnati, ugh). From there, it becomes a question of which players are fully showing up to play the games and who attempt some of the most blatant false errors possible. Meanwhile, two sportswriters operate as the Statler and Waldorf of the film — writer/director John Sayles himself, and the great Studs Turkel, chomping into his dialogue almost as enthusiastically as he does his cigars.
Largely told from the perspective of disapproving third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack), the actions of the other players are viewed through lenses both compassionate and harsh, depending on the player. Poor Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn, who’s consistently excellent), an aging-but-brilliant pitcher, needs money for his kids’ college fund. Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), on the other hand, is completely underhanded and so oily he almost leaves a sheen on the camera lens. (Speaking of which, Charlie Sheen shows up here too, though his presence is dramatically overstated by the film’s promo material.)
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Black Sox scandal — the potential participation of all-star player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson — is waffled on by the film. D.B. Sweeney plays the slugger as a man slow as molasses and heavily influenced by those around him. While the performance is notable for its understatement, it doesn’t speak too highly of the man himself. The rest of the Sox are offered a significant test in their acting: can they retain a true sense of character, or do they let the costumes and gimmicky accents do the heavy lifting for them? Luckily for “Eight Men Out,” the majority of the cast winds up in the former category.
Sayles is a tad too fond of 1900s nostalgia for much of the film; several scenes featuring some grating child actors are in desperate need of trimming. But the truly important part — the thrill of the game — runs deeply through “Eight Men Out.” It’s that passion that makes the story of the Black Sox so steeped in melancholy, and the resulting combination remains potent nearly a century later.