October 2011 posts
Let’s start this review by saying that 1) I love Hunter S. Thompson and 2) I love Johnny Depp. That makes me the perfect audience for this movie…and if you can say the same, you’re perfect as well and therefore should be heading to the theater this weekend. The film, directed by legendary British actor/writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I, The Killing Fields) from his own screenplay, is a spot-on tribute to HST from his friend and devoted fan Johnny Depp. You may recall that Depp lived with Thompson at his Woody Creek, Colorado, house—just down the road from Aspen— when he was preparing to play a much older version of Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The story goes that Depp, rifling through boxes of cast off stuff in Thompson’s basement or garage as part of his preparation, found the manuscript of the unpublished novel The Rum Diary and the two agreed that it should be published and would make a great film. And so it became a labor of love for Depp, particularly after Thompson took his own life in 2005. The story, such as it is, centers on a young reporter (Depp as Paul Kemp) who arrives in Puerto Rico to work for the San Juan Star, a failing daily paper headed by a cynical publisher named Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) and staffed with a crew of misfits, including Sala (Michael Rispoli) the photographer, as well as a seriously drunk/drugged/hungover religious reporter named Moburg (beautifully played by Giovanni Ribisi). Along the way, our somewhat earnest but frequently drunk young reporter meets up with the slick and rich Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who talks of money and non-disclosure agreements and his gorgeous lady Chenault (a stunning Amber Heard). I won’t say much more—you should definitely check it out for yourself. But I will say that the performances are great; the period cars and clothes are equally wonderful (we’re talking Mad Men 60s); and the Gonzo vibe is totally present. Enjoy!!
Grade: A- A bit uneven, but hey! What do you expect?
BTW: Director Bruce Robinson, hand selected by Depp to direct this movie, won a BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar in 1985 for his Adapted Screenplay for The Killing Fields.
The Doors (1991/DVD/MTV)
Full disclosure: I have always loved this movie and been in awe of Val Kilmer’s amazing performance as Jim Morrison. So it was down right shocking when I looked it up on IMDB and realized just how little love it received at its release. Ebert gave it only 2 stars at the time (though his quote appears on the poster to the right); Rotten Tomatoes critics ranked it a meager 59%. Maybe people were tired of Oliver Stone in 1991. He got nothing. And even Kilmer—who did all his own singing—got only 2 best actor nominations: one from the Chicago Film Critics (which he lost to Anthony Hopkins for Silence of the Lambs—fair enough) and one from MTV (which he lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger for Terminator 2–ha!). No matter. The movie is still running—it was showing on MTV this past weekend—and it’s just as mesmerizing as always. Stone, who directed and also co-wrote the screenplay, famously took some liberties with the true story of The Doors but captured perfectly the trippy, drugged out scene they inhabited and the magic of their music, combined with the self-destructive, absolutely seductive individual who was Jim Morrison. Kilmer worked hard to inhabit that role and from the opening shot to the bitter end, he has us. Meg Ryan is wonderful as the long-suffering Pamela Courson (a role originally meant to be played by Patricia Arquette) and the movie is a reminder of how good Ryan was in those days. Kyle MacLachlan is great as Ray Manzarek, who tried his best to keep Morrison and the band on track. Also playing Doors musicians are Frank Whaley as Robbie Krieger and Kevin Dillon as John Densmore. There are appearances by Michael Madsen, Billy Idol, Crispin Glover (as Andy Warhol), Kathleen Quinlan (as Patricia Kennedy), John Densmore himself (as a sound engineer), William Kunstler (as Morrison’s lawyer in Miami) and even Oliver Stone himself as a condescending UCLA film instructor—perfect! The cinematography is incredible as visuals capture Morrison’s state of mind and red hazy concert scenes absolutely transport us to the late 60s. And best of all, the music of The Doors is woven into the film in perfect fashion—all those haunting tunes and lyrics coming back to you. It’s hard to get those songs out of your head when it all ends. A good time to get out your Doors CDs or better yet, your vinyl’s.
Martin Scorsese’s lengthy but excellent HBO documentary on the life and music of George Harrison started running October 5 and continues all this month, so there’s still time to find your Beatles loving/ HBO subscribing friend and get that popcorn going. Wait…make that pizza since this film, shown in 2 parts, is well over 3 ½ hours long. (BTW: It’s also available on HBO On Demand and HBOTOGO.) The film exists thanks to Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s second wife and widow, who says that she has been saving photographs, letters and memorabilia as well as film footage of him for decades. After she saw Scorsese’s 2005 “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home,” she approached the director to create a similar work of George’s life. And so he has. If you’re a fan of the Dylan documentary (and if you’ve missed it, be sure to check it out), you’ll find this one similar in structure and just as fabulous in bringing together an amazing mix of music, footage, stills, interviews, and clips—many never seen before. Part 1 shows us Harrison at the tender age of 17, hooking up with older classmate Paul McCartney who introduces him to John Lennon. After getting “discovered” playing Hamburg, Germany, the Beatles are on the road to rock fame, touring, coming to America, and basically being screamed at by hordes of young girls no matter where they go. This half ends with George’s discovery of Ravi Shankar and the sitar, and closing to the tune of “As My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Gorgeous. Part 2 essentially begins as the “fab four,” in their last days together, are painfully working on Abbey Road. Harrison is already writing his own songs and producing other works, among them the “Hare Krishna Mantra” single that became popular. By 1970 he has released his triple solo album, “All Things Must Pass,” produced in partnership with none other than Phil Spector! Who knew? There are other surprises: for example, Harrison founded Hand Made Films largely to fund “Life of Brian” for Monty Python, who lost their backer when the film’s “anti-Christian” theme was discovered. There’s lots more to learn and enjoy in the film. But it is long and I can’t stress that enough. Just don’t say you weren’t warned!
BTW: Thanks to interviews with McCartney, Ringo, Eric Clapton and Harrison himself, among others, we get a portrait of George that shows us he’s not the “quiet Beatle” he was made out to be, but rather was always searching beyond “the material world.”
ALSO: The film assumes a pretty high level of familiarity with the 60s and 70s, with Harrison himself, certainly with the Beatles, Ravi Shankar, and many other “happenings” from the period, so it moves without obvious explanation through a lot of material. Personally I liked that, but I could see that it could be confusing for someone less familiar with those days and times.
Based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, Sarah’s Key tells the relatively little known story of French Jews in the Marais district of Paris who were rounded up by their own countrymen on July 16 and 17, 1942; crowded for days into the Winter Velodrome located near the Eiffel Tower (where they were denied water or any toilets); and eventually sent by rail to Auschwitz where they were murdered. The movie cuts between two time periods: 1942 (and beyond) through the eyes of young Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and her Jewish family, and 2009 through the eyes of French/American reporter Julia Jarmond (Kristen Scott Thomas), whose in-laws ironically lived in and still own the Parisian apartment which the Starzynski’s were forced to leave in 1942. The dual-time structure of the film makes it more complex than it probably needs to be—particularly at the start—but ultimately is effective as investigative reporter Julia ties more and more pieces together leading to the final story arc. The movie is directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner who won the Deauville Prize for his script for “Pretty Things” with Marion Cotillard. Naturally the cast is French but watch for Aidan Quinn who makes his appearance toward the end. The story is very moving and of course, very sad. A friend of mine considers this the best movie she’s seen all year. Not sure I would go that far, but it is definitely worth catching. Bring your Kleenex.
BTW: Scott-Thomas delivers her dialogue in an American accent, although she is British, and speaks fluent French as she is Anglo-French. She received a César Award nomination for her compelling performance in this role.
FOOTLOOSE (2011/IN THEATERS)
250,000 viewers on Rotten Tomatoes have given this film a 73% positive rating–oh sorry…that’s the 1984 Kevin Bacon version! But not to worry…this year’s remake is showing the same rating…how cool is that? Just thinking about this movie gets the music going in your head and like the original, it will have your feet tapping in your seat. The teenaged girls in the theater where I saw the film really liked it—and my friend and I did too. The only difference between us was that we remembered the original (!) which was a big-time surprise hit, taking in over $80 million (a lot of money in those days) at the box office and creating no less than four chart topping songs, including the theme song from Blake Shelton and “Let’s Hear if for the Boy,” a rousing feel-good number if there ever was one. Craig Brewster (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) is the writer/director this time around and he says he is a super fan of the original, even going so far as sharing his writing credit with the original screen writer Dean Pitchford who describes the 2011 version as a mashup between his 1984 version and Brewster’s. A couple things have changed. Ren is now from Boston and comes to live with his uncle in the southern town of Bomont, Tennessee, after his mother has died of cancer. Of note, Ren is played by newcomer/unknown Kenny Wormald, who is a native of the Boston area and was a back-up dancer for Justin Timberlake. Taking the role of the “wildcat” is Julianne Hough, best known as the girl friend of Ryan Seacrest –just kidding—she’s really best known as a DWTS (Dancing With the Stars) pro who moved to the big screen with a role in Burlesque opposite Christina Aguilera and Cher. Dennis Quaid is credible as the Rev. Shaw Moore who, as you all know, convinces the town elders of Bomont to ban dancing as illegal after the death of his son in a car accident. Andie MacDowell, looking older and quite credible in the role, plays his wife. My favorite character of the whole movie is Willard—the country hick who befriends Ren and brings us a ton of comic relief. He is played by Miles Teller, who is best remembered for his terrific performance as the young boy in Rabbit Hole opposite Nicole Kidman. That role showed his serious side and this film gives us the exact opposite—terrific. And speaking of terrific, the dance numbers in this version are great, the tunes are still hopping, Ren gets his big solo dance number. You get the picture. My advice: give this movie a chance…you won’t be betraying Kevin Bacon. He would want you to go.
BTW: Julianne Hough shows plenty of skin and there’s obvious sex going on, but I think the film is safe for your middle aged kids to see. No worse than MTV reality shows, for sure!
50/50 (2011/IN THEATERS)
Despite a pretty soft showing at the box office, critics and audiences alike are giving this film lots of love—a 93% positive rating from critics and 94% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. So perhaps, as the filmmakers hope, word of mouth will carry the film to a bigger audience this weekend and for many weeks to come. I’m not sure. First of all, it’s a much more complicated film than the previews make it appear. Yes, it has funny bits and comedic scenes, and Seth Rogen is his usually bawdy self, but overall it’s a serious work that presents a realistic picture of what it would feel like to have cancer at the young age of 27. The answer: horrible. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), the movie is based on a script by Will Reiser who is essentially telling the real-life story of his experience with spinal cancer. Will’s part is played to perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who gives a rock solid performance. Levitt is Adam Lerner, a 27 year old Seattle resident, who is about as earnest as they come without being a total nerd: he works for NPR; he doesn’t drive; he obeys traffic signals; he runs; he doesn’t drink, smoke or indulge in any kind of drugs; he’s a neat freak, forever cleaning his kitchen—I could go on. But just in case he’s sounding like someone you’d cross the street to avoid, let’s add that he’s really appealing also—smart, caring, funny, witty. When he learns in a scene with a classic unfeeling doctor that he has a rare form of spinal cancer and his odds are 50/50, he behaves like most of us think we would—that is, he just keeps on going. And so does the film, which introduces us to Adam’s small group of supporters, the most important one being his best friend Kyle (Seth Roger) who’s always there for him. We also meet Anna Kendrick as the 24 year old novice counselor who is trying to help Adam “cope;” Angelica Huston (terrific) as Adam’s very concerned smother-mother; Bryce Dallas Howard as Rachael, Adam’s girl friend who finds cancer too much to cope with; and Philip Baker Hall who makes a few brief appearances as the “old guy” in Adam’s chemotherapy sessions. (And note, Hall really does introduce one of the funniest scenes in the movie.) In essence, Levitt plays the “straight guy” of the film—taking things calmly—but showing us graphically the true loneliness and suffering of this illness, and what it really takes to get through it. Not the easiest film to watch, IMHO, but it will stick with you.
Grade: B+ Somewhat uneven.
BTW: In real life, Reiser credits Seth Rogen as one of his true supporters during his bout with cancer. Rogen was convinced that Reiser’s story should become a film and true to his word, he helped produce 50/50, working with his Superbad partner Evan Goldberg. Now that’s a friend.
THE IDES OF MARCH (2011/IN THEATERS) You don’t have to be a political junkie to enjoy this film but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The timing of its release couldn’t be better, what with 2012 re-election politics hitting us square in the face every day. Directed by, written by and starring George Clooney, The Ides of March is adapted from Farragut North, a 2008 play written by Beau Willimon and said to be loosely based on Howard Dean’s 2004 primary campaign. The basic set-up is more than familiar: it’s Democratic Presidential Primary time; Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is the smooth, liberal, eco-friend, anti-war guy who has a make or break run going in Ohio against his Alabama based opponent who looks like a southern conservative, though we only see him once in the film at a short debate. Morris’ election team is headed by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a seasoned veteran with many years of experience. Zara’s no.2 young hot shot is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), an acknowledged media wunderkind. Opposite Zara on the other side is Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), equally experienced and pretty darn ruthless. Naturally we see teams of young volunteers in Morris’ Ohio headquarters, including gorgeous intern (read trouble!) Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the powerful head of the DNC, and her colleague Ben Harpen (Max Minghella) who is Gosling’s number 2. There are really only two other women in this movie–Marisa Tomei playing Ida Horowicz, a pesky NYT reporter who happens to live with Hoffman, and Jennifer Ehle as Morris’ ever -supportive wife (a small part). The movie starts slowly, with the requisite sum-up of the delegate count reviewed in over-voice by a TV reporter (who sounds like Rachel Maddow). It doesn’t take long to figure that the movie belongs to Gosling/Stephen—not Morris (who is played well but blandly by Clooney)—and his rising career, charisma and most importantly, his relationship with Zara. The pacing and plot pick right up about a third into the film when Stephen is lured into a bar by Duffy and shortly thereafter happens to pick up the wrong cell phone (Molly’s) where he finds his hero candidate on the other end. Once we reach that scene, the film really begins to click IMHO and rolls straight on through to a satisfying conclusion. Gosling is excellent, as he has been all summer, moving from a young, confident hot-shot with a hero fix on Morris to a coldly calculating real political operative. The final shot might remind you of Pacino at the end of Godfather II.
Grade: A- Slow start.
BTW: Playwright Beau Willimon shares Clooney’s screenplay credit for the film, as does Grant Heslov, who with George Clooney founded the production company Smoke House after Clooney’s production company Section Eight closed down. On the DVD commentary for Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), George Clooney says that shortly after he met Grant Heslov in 1982, Heslov loaned Clooney $200 to buy his first set of headshots and they have been friends ever since.
In the mood for more really fine Brad Pitt acting after seeing Moneyball? I highly recommend checking out this film which appeared in 2007 but was largely overlooked by a US viewing audience. What a shame. It couldn’t be better, IMHO. Pitt won best actor at the Venice Film Festival for his quietly sensitive portrayal of Jesse James in his last few months on earth–a fully formed performance showing lots of bravado but also insecurity and paranoia. Roger Deakins won the prestigious ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) award for his gorgeous cinematography and was also nominated for an Oscar for the film (Note: Deakins also shot the Coen brothers’ True Grit and No Country for Old Men). An Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor went to Casey Affleck for his spot-on performance as the “coward” Jesse Ford, a weasel-like young fan of James, brought to vivid life by Affleck. And there’s more–we also get to watch wonderful stints from James gang members Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, Jeremy Renner as Wood Hite, Garrett Dillahunt as Ed Miller, and even Sam Shepherd as Frank James. What a treat. And add to that Mary Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife Zee. It’s a slow-moving, beautiful masterpiece from little known New Zealand screenwriter/director Andrew Dominik. I think I’ll order it for my personal collection right now. Rent and enjoy!