Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary
Grade: B
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins
Director: Bruce Robinson
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(Reviewer’s note: What do you when you really like a film but disagree with it? You write a review like this.)

I’ll start my review of The Run Diary with a short explanation of why I ceased to be a journalist some time ago.

Very simply, I never knew a journalist in his 40s who wasn’t a deeply unhappy person. They were all poor, burned-out, and resentful. I remember once sitting in a job interview with the bureau chief of the Associated Press and listening in on a phone call with his wife about how in the world they were going to afford a minivan. And this was 1999, when they were practically giving away minivans with two bottles of Pepsi. And this was the state bureau chief of the Associated Press!

That’s the first thing that you need to understand when you consider the self-righteous pose that journalists unfailingly assume. Because underneath that whole “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” routine are a lot of people who regret the choices they’ve made in their lives. And so they soothe themselves with a cocoon of self-righteousness that’s really unrequited envy. That’s understandable, because serving as the public watchdog is essentially one long, repetitive kamikaze raid against unstoppable American carriers, except unlike kamikazes journalists don’t get the relief of dying and missing the next morning.

The Rum Diary is the adaptation of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s novel about his times as a journalist in Puerto Rico, and Bruce Robinson’s film drips in newspaper ambience. Consequently, it’s very wise about newspapers and journalists. It has the wackjob cop reporter, the husky photographer who always appears to be sweating to death, and the harried editor beaten down by the demands of his job. It also gets the moral preening so right that it actually participates. While I really like the film for its amusing adventures and early-sixties-Mad-Men-tropical-division ambience, I come away with a very different take on the values it holds, for the stated reason.

With rum-soaked deadpan bemusement, Johnny Depp plays Kemp, a new reporter at the worst newspaper in Puerto Rico. Kemp is a talented writer and a talented drinker at a newspaper short of the former and full of the latter. His adventures in Puerto Rico range from drinking to cockfighting to bowling to drinking. He pools his poor pay for a crummy apartment with a pair of oddball newsmen (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) who get high, drunk, or both and watch the television through a window across the alley with binoculars.

The so-called villain of The Rum Diary is Aaron Eckhart’s slick real estate man Sanderson, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what he’s doing that’s so wrong. Kemp comes to regard him as a criminal, but Sanderson’s crimes against humanity appear to be building a resort, having a hot girlfriend, and not being such an inebriated junkie screw-up that he can’t get to work in the morning.

Seriously, what exactly does Sanderson do wrong in the film? He befriends a newcomer. He recognizes Kemp’s talent and invites him on a massive resort deal. He provides Kemp with a home, gives him a cool car, and pulls strings to bail him out of jail when his screw-up friends land him there. In return, Kemp violates his trust, swipes his boat and tries to steal his fiancée (The Pineapple Express’ Amber Heard, who’s pretty good at the ray of light part and not so good at the putting-emotion-into-her-line-readings part).

But here’s the real thing … Kemp doesn’t hate Sanderson. Kemp wants to be Sanderson. Honestly, he’s pretty cool with the whole high-life until his irresponsibility gets him kicked out of it. His self-righteousness doesn’t come from a well of conviction but from a well of sour grapes.

The film indulges in pouring some “lovable losers” sympathy on its journalists, generally a bunch of drunk and disorderly idiots, as if they are somehow ennobled by their failures. They’re losers, they’re practically the Chicago Cubs, and we’re all supposed to love losers, especially when squared off against sweet-smiled successes like Sanderson. Except I really rather hated them. I was supposed to be cheering them on, but mostly I kept thinking Kemp should kick them out of his life, get his stuff together, and beg his way back into Sanderson’s graces. Because it’s like watching the Big Lebowski, except The Dude has actual talent and he’s wasting it by bowling with Walter.

All of this means The Rum Diary is a movie about alcoholics who can’t figure out that their problem is that they’re alcoholics. This makes The Rum Diary Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia without the painful self-awareness.

Does that sound like a recommendation? Well, it is, even if it doesn’t. And a pretty strong one, actually. Good film.

Take Shelter

Take Shelter
Grade: B
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
Director: Jeff Nichols
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Why are art films becoming horror films?

Art film directors are finding the best way to relate to our frazzled age is to mask it in the aesthetics of terror. Last year’s apocalyptic ballet movie, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, was a leading entry in this new trend. It might as well have had zombie dancers. This year it’s Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols story of mental illness, marriage, and prophecies of doom.

Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, a family man in small-town Ohio who may be having a prophecy or may be losing his mind. He keeps having visions of dead birds, murderous people, and a giant storm coming to wipe out his town. The film traces his crumbling relationship with his family as his vision turns to obsession. At great cost, he decides to expand his storm shelter to prepare for a storm that the sane world doesn’t see coming. The audience is left to question whether he is wise or deluded.

Have I liked any movies this year? I want to like Take Shelter more than I do. I do like it. But I want to feel that unconditional passion for a movie that I haven’t felt in some time.

I respect Take Shelter for taking an intelligent approach to mental illness. Its picture of a supportive marriage is refreshing. Shannon has a lot of great moments without saying much, and Chastain has more of an impact than her limited character might be entitled. However, for a film with an unusual plot (although very similar to Todd Haynes’ brilliant Safe), it’s strangely predictable. Its too-cute twist ending also undermines the rest of the movie without producing any gain.

Its supporters feel Take Shelter taps into the uneasy feeling we have of the present and the future we see on the horizon. We do live in an age where we wonder if today’s worst fears are tomorrow’s reality. At the same time, the apocalyptic visions here have not much antecedent in real life. They seem to matter more to the people in the film than they do to us.

The Texas Killing Fields

The Texas Killing Fields
Grade: B
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain
Director: Amy Canaan Mann
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As I watched The Texas Killing Fields, I had one question running through my mind: why don’t they make more films like this?

I don’t mean this in the Terrence Malick random-acts-of-genius sort of way, as in “why can’t every filmmaker take seven years in post-production to create a high-minded masterpiece?” I mean it in a “whatever happened to the if-it’s-Friday-it-must-be-a-new-police-procedural movie” sort of way.

Texas Killing Fields feels like it dropped out of 1986 with its spiked hair barely mussed. This film used to star Ellen Barkin as the fish-out-of-water detective from the city investigating a crime in the backwater. Or Mimi Rogers as the damsel in distress who needs protection from a killer after witnessing a crime. Or, if you’re really lucky, Ellen Barkin as the damsel in distress who needs protection from a killer after witnessing a crime. Someone like Al Pacino or Tom Berenger would star as the cop who crashed into the apartment just as the killer broke in. Killer dead. Mystery solved. Let the kissing begin.

In short, this used to be what adults did on Friday night – mom and dad get a little mystery, a little romance, and a chance to support the neighborhood economy by paying the babysitter. Yet I can’t remember the last time I saw a standard-operating-procedure cop film like this. When did a cop film become so rare that it could be treated as a bit of a prestige picture?

A cop movie about multiple murders on the Gulf Coast refinery town of Texas City, The Texas Killing Fields certainly embraces the genre clichés – the intense family man detective from a large city now working in the small town (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); the hard-knocks ape-in-a-suit partner with marriage issues (Sam Worthington); a complete weekly motels’ worth of transients who have probably done something wrong, even if none of them are the murderer. Nothing in Texas Killing Fields will seem unfamiliar, but there is a value to doing the old things the right way, especially when they are delicately written, acted with intensity, and capture the local flavor with some useful color. The Texas Killing Fields ultimately raises this interesting movie theoretical: at what moment does yesterday’s cliché become tomorrow’s classicism?

Beyond that, note that the director is Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of producer Michael Mann, and notice that extra-loud gunshots run in the family.

The Ides of March/Contagion

The Ides of March (d. George Clooney)
Politics moves so quickly now that movies can’t keep up with it. Production time mangles relevance. George Clooney's The Ides of March sits you in a John Edwards-like scandal with an Obama-like candidate. Riffing on political events of just a few years ago, The Ides of March nonetheless feels like a movie from a dusty past. Situated in an era of mass-protest spectacle, we get an insider’s story, of a semi-idealistic press secretary (Ryan Gosling) who finds out – get this – that politics is dirty business that’s not always what it seems. Directed and starring George Clooney, The Ides of March isn’t really a bad film, just very generic.
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Contagion (d. Steven Soderbergh)
A film for everyone who has ever suspected Gwyneth Paltrow will be the death of us all. Stephen Soderbergh takes the clinical approach to the deadly virus genre, extracting the natural grotesque hysteria and dread for a realistic government procedural, depicting a worldwide race between the viral nature of information and the viral nature of, well, viruses. Even the stars in the all-star cast meet abbreviated ends, while mid-level public health and Hollywood bureaucrat Jennifer Ehle saves the day. Then she goes straight back to work without a press conference or Oscar buzz. A 70s-style big topical film with an all-star ensemble, Contagion is that rare example of a movie that is exactly the sum of its estimable parts - nothing more and nothing less.


Grade: B
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright
Director: Bennett Miller
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No one wants to watch a movie about the Yankees.

No one wants to watch Throwing Money At It: Superstars, Dollar Signs, and Left-handed Relief Pitching. No one wants to hear the story about how the Pinstripes used their massive financial advantages to hire the best coaches, scouts and players in order to forge an American League dynasty – and guess what – they did it!

There is no market in the American imagination for the Goliaths of Gotham. We love the Davids of Decatur (himself a David in a real sea of Goliaths). Our national mythology trains us to root for the little guy, to imagine ourselves as the little guy even when, for example, we’re the world’s dominant power. We glorify the innovators and rebels at the expense of the proven and traditional.

So we make movies like Moneyball. Moneyball is the baseball term applied to the overrated success of the millennial era Oakland As formed by general manager Billy Beane (played in an invitingly laconic big-star performance by Brad Pitt). These teams had a way of outperforming expectations in the regular season before dying in the playoffs. Beane achieved his success by elevating cutting edge statistical analysis over traditional scouting, allowing Oakland to compete with the monetary advantages of the big-market teams.

Baseball shows reverence for certain player statistics handed down through the generations. Moneyballers (like the film’s Jonah Hill) gained their success by asking whether these statistics really matter to winning baseball games. They favor on-base percentage and slugging percentage to batting average; average hits per 9 innings to ERA. They love walks, runs, and going deep in the count. They hate steals, bunts, fielding percentage, and fielding percentage again.

The new stats allowed the As to identify and sign undervalued and inexpensive players. These players excelled at getting on base and helping the team score a pre-determined amount of runs over the course of a year. This number of runs had been calculated as the number needed to win a division. (The Moneyball system is not designed to beat more talented teams in seven-game playoff series – hence Beane’s teams never won a title. The source book by sportswriter Michael Lewis is subtitled “Winning at an Unfair Game.” It could just as easily be “A Better Variety of Losing.”)

The more spiritual fault of Moneyballers – they re-evaluate the statistical basis for producing wins but never ask if the real success of baseball is winning. Certainly that’s the immediate demand for front office people wanting to keep their jobs. But do we really want a game of baseball with a bunch of statistically-approved on-base robots drawing abnormal numbers of walks? Is the real value of athletics to society the sense of collective victory? Or is it mythology? Is it taking something common and contemporary and delivering it to the realm of the legendary and timeless? To the credit of prominent screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), the script gets something like this, framing it as whether statistics rob the game of its sentimental romance (while the film’s dreadful pacing and Bennett Miller’s predictable, add-nothing direction nearly robs the film of its.)

In one of the year’s best films, the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog explores a French cave with the oldest-known cave paintings – recordings of the bears, lions and buffalo of the time. We also see the first sparks of narrative exaggeration – oversized horns, ferocious teeth, endless rumbling herds. We sense the tales of the great hunters, the legendary athletes of their time. We watch the creation of history, imagination, culture. We grasp the need of storytelling to our human essence. We also see the first impulses toward the larger than life.

Thinking about that cave, and thinking again about Moneyball, I wonder: are the statisticians a vanguard of clairvoyants for the new reality? Or are they, to borrow Herzog’s creative formulation, crocodiles staring into the abyss?