Friday, October 28, 2011

A Reel Review: THE RUM DIARY

A few years back, a good friend of this blogger remarked about how great Al Pacino used to be; right up to and including THE SCENT OF A WOMAN. After that film, the good friend maintains, Pacino shed his career-long subtle intensity and traded it in for obtruding HO HA HUWAH in every role. This blogger reluctantly agreed. As of late, Johnny Depp seems to have fallen into the same trap. His boyish charm has seemed to go away in place of the eccentricity and dazed bewilderment of Jack Sparrow. The real question is whether or not that style of acting works in any given movie; in this case, THE RUM DIARY.

In the 1960’s, Paul Kemp (Depp) a rum (ahem) guzzling boozehound, is a struggling writer/journalist who moves to Puerto Rico to restart his career at a failing local newspaper, which is run by editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Kemp befriends fellow journalists and drunks Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), before being recruited by shady real estate tycoon Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants him to paint a rosy picture of his dealings in the press. Kemp guzzles his way through the job, while falling in love with Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (a sexed up Amber Heard).

THE RUM DIARY starts off promising, but manages to get complicated. It never latches down onto a single storyline, and comes off as a very confused film. It begins as a man-searching-for-his-path tale, then forgets about it and switches to a lesson in journalistic ethics. It then forgets about that and goes to a real-estate swindle/mystery plot, with a love triangle wedged in just for good measure. Who to root for and why is the real mystery.

Director Bruce Robinson crafts together a film that feels like it would have been made in the 1950’s or ’60, with its snazzy music and beautiful, sweeping landscapes. He has a good eye for cinema, but a so-so ear for humor, as a lot of the jokes and gags are over the top and forced. The latter is forgivable, but his biggest sin is fumbling away the acting talent he assembled.

Depp channels Jack Sparrow all the way; he slurs like Jack, waxes philosophical like Jack, stumbles like a drunken Jack and yells like a scared Jack. Does it work here? For the most part yes; just don’t expect anything new from the man. Amber Heard is grossly underwritten; as a love interest for the protagonist, she’s barely in the film, does little, and the way her character finds closure at the wrap is weak and lame. Giovanni Ribisi is in his absolute worst performance of a lifetime; woefully miscast as a drug addict with way-over the top acting and a horrible voice.

The final act has a nice buildup, and feels like there may be a decent payoff; and then the movie ends with one of the worst, weakest, shittiest cop-outs ever put to film. It’s lazy and thoughtless. Overall THE RUM DIARY feels like a film we are supposed to like Just Because; we are supposed to like it Just Because it has Johnny Depp, a good cast, is nice to look at and is a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation. Sorry fellas, but it takes more rum than that.


Friday, October 21, 2011


TAKE SHELTER is a film that has been quietly cleaning house on the international film festival circuit in 2011, and rightfully so; between stunning photography, a powerful story and a knockout performance by Michael Shannon, the movie is a trip through dread and fear…all while being based upon love.

Curtis (Shannon) lives in a small town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their six year old daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart) who is deaf. Their money situation is tight as they make plans for ear surgery for their daughter. Curtis begins having nightmares about a cataclysmic storm; nightmares that are so powerful he believes them to be either true or an omen, and the visions and hallucinations repeat in the daytime. Keeping the nightmares and visions to himself, he channels his fears into building a storm shelter in their backyard; an endeavor that drains their bank account and threatens his job along with Hannah’s surgery.

So TAKE SHELTER is a little bit of FIELD OF DREAMS with the Noah’s Ark fable mixed in. The territory feels familiar, but it works because the focus here is not the question of Curtis’ sanity (although it does hang throughout the film), but on his love for his family. Throughout the movie, he risks everything he has worked for to protect his family which he loves deeply. In a film where his fantastical nightmares play such an important part, it’s that simple love for his family that the audience can instantly connect with.

Director Jeff Nichols’ directing style is perfectly suited for TAKE SHELTER. His careful eye meticulously frames each shot with stunning backgrounds, and his talent for tension, dread and horror come to life in the nightmare sequences. Nichols manages a constant forboding over the entire film which never intrudes, but the audience is always aware of its presence.

Michael Shannon’s performance is one of a lifetime. His near-silent method of conveying fear is always there and is convincing throughout. Jessica Chastain also nails it as the supporting and confused housewife; perfectly suited to play the loving mother trying to hold her family together.

On the surface, the finale feels a little drawn out and anti-climatic; right up until the mind-blowing ending which turns the entire film upside-down. It’s a turn that M. Night Shymalamadingdong might have attempted in his prime. Fortunately for TAKE SHELTER, the film does not hinge everything on that turn, and never wastes time playing guessing games with the audience. Its focus is always on love and family; and that’s never a little thing.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Return of River Phoenix

In 1993, actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in Hollywood. He was 23 years old. At the time of his passing, he had an impressive body of work with roles in STAND BY ME, THE MOSQUITO COAST, and a memorable turn as a teenaged Indiana Jones in THE LAST CRUSADE.

At the time of his passing, he was filming DARK BLOOD with director George Sluizer, and that film has remained unfinished for nearly 20 years. Until now. Sluizer has announced that he has re-edited the film and with additional voiceover work, believes it is good enough to be released. Sluizer has stated he plans to ask River’s brother Joaquin Phoenix to finish voiceover as River’s character.

Messing with an actor’s legacy can be a sensitive business. Many people tend to sentimentalize their movies and their actors, and want nothing to alter to that. Many circles on the internet are already calling for things to be left well enough alone, even going as far as crying graverobber. Many do not want to see this film, as they would rather keep their final memories of River…final.

Folk need to realize that it could be worse, and this gets into a larger issue. With the rapidly advancing CGI/Motion Capture technology, it would be a near-simple thing for filmmakers to resurrect ANY actor. There are certainly moral and ethical issues here (along with legal), but the possibilities would be absolutely endless. Imagine seeing a young River in another teenage Indy adventure, or one last look at him as Chris Chambers in the STAND BY ME universe.

And this can be taken a step further. How about seeing Christopher Reeves reprise Superman, or Marlon Brando reprising Vito Corleone?

Whether or not such approaches can work depends on how tastefully it’s done. And therein lays the rub. Motion Capture (at least for now) is often criticized for characters that look lifeless. Seeing a deceased actor in a poorly renditioned CGI blob would offend a hell of a lot of people.

So thankfully, this is not the approach that George Sluizer or anyone else is taking, and the aforementioned word, “tastefully” seems to be the key term here. Sluizer is mostly known in America (he is a Dutch filmmaker) for THE VANISHING, with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, which performed poorly financially and was reviewed even worse. But Sluizer does have a lot of years under his belt; he is 79 years old, which gives him the mature patience that a tender project like this would need.

If all the pieces fall into place, DARK BLOOD would be released sometime next year. This blogger would like to see that talented kid just one last time. As a lover of film, seeing a movie that was shot 20 years ago and never seen is just fascinating. Almost like finding buried treasure.

What say you? Is this blasphemy? Would you go see it? Should things be left as we remember them?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: Director Bryan Singer (X-MEN, X2, VALKYRIE) has confirmed that his planned remake of the epic EXCALIBUR has been scrapped. Warner Bros. apparently decided to go with another “King Arthur” type-film and didn’t want to produce competing films. Singer has decided to move forward with his BATTLESTAR GALACTICA adaptation.

OPINION: How much crappy news can we possibly cram into one Reel Speak FACT? First of all, Singer has spent WAY too much time doing remakes and adaptations as of late; all he has done is comic-book flicks in the form of the first two X-MEN films and SUPERMAN RETURNS (he also produced this year’s X-MEN FIRST CLASS). His WWII period-piece VALKYRIE proves that he can take a significant piece of non-fiction and make it worthwhile. Why is he hung up on remaking proven favorites? Both EXCALIBUR and GALACTICA have massive and passionate cult followings; the uphill battle he would be facing in pleasing the established audiences would be massive. Come on Bryan, come up with something on your own.

FACT: Matt Reeves has been named the director of the new upcoming TWILIGHT ZONE feature flick. Reeves has previously directed CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN, and somehow beat out some heavyweight names in the form of Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, Alfonso Cuaron, and Rupert Wyatt.

OPINION: Nolan seemed to be the best choice for a TWILIGHT ZONE feature, as his INCEPTION, MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE films played out like TZ stories anyway. Wyatt may very well surprise, but this blogger still feels that TZ stories are better off left as shorts, and that an “anthology” styled flick would be the way to go with a different director for each chapter. Besides that, Nolan is better off coming up with his own ideas (coughsingercough).

FACT: Speaking of Nolan, the LOS ANGELES TIMES is reporting that when his global production of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES moves to New York City this month, the Occupy Wall Street protests “may” be background for several scenes in the film.

OPINION: Before all you Occupiers start celebrating, please realize that Nolan is unlikely including the protests for the sake of pushing an agenda or a political point. The key term in the article is BACKGROUND, and it will be interesting to see how Nolan works the colorful and diverse background into his epic superhero film.

What say you?

Friday, October 14, 2011


Some people were just born to play cowboys; John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Elliott have always looked and felt right at home in the old west and made careers out of it. Riding under the radar all this while has been Sam Shepard, who only a few years after portraying Frank James, dons the gunslinger gig again. This time, in the role of another legendary outlaw, Butch Cassidy.

Decades after his alleged death, Cassidy (Shepard) is living quietly in semi-retirement in South America. Deciding to pack his life savings and head home to America to meet his son for the first time, he loses his house, and money in a shootout. He encounters Eduardo (Eduardo Apodaca), a former miner who promises to reimburse Cassidy all of his money (and then some), if he will protect him from the gang he stole the moolah from. Cassidy agrees, and he and Eduardo become targets for gangs and lawmen.

At the mid-point of BLACKTHORN, Cassidy thoughtfully says that there are only two points in a man’s life; when he leaves home, and when he comes back. BLACKTHORNE can easily be summed up in that neat little line. The film has a simple plot on the surface; find the money, get the hell out of dodge alive. But it is really the story of Cassidy’s life, intertwined with a morality tale; Cassidy is constantly faced with moral and ethical choices as he tries to find a new life with his old one just not far enough behind.

But what really makes BLACKTHORN shine are the flashbacks. Smartly intercut between present-day scenes, we get to see Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in all of their youthful, enthusiastic-about-life glory. They serve a purpose in showing how Cassidy wound up alone in South America, and they offer a stark contrast to youth and old age.

Director Mateo Gil knows exactly what he has here, and knows what to do with it. The beautiful landscapes of the old west are brought to life in vivid photography; who knew such vast places still existed? He also manages to shoot (photographically) Shepard in some gorgeous frames; the shots look like something you want hanging on your wall…classic and beautiful. Outside of some few outstanding gunfights, the pacing is slow, but appropriate (after all, ALL westerns should have slow pacing). The score alternates from some epic and classic guitar picking to some present-day folk-tunes; with the latter never sounding out of place.

Shepard IS Butch Cassidy. No one else on this earth could have pulled this off with the intensity and maturity that a veteran actor has. There is constant wisdom, melancholy and toughness that he shows just from a single look. And who knew he could sing a ballad so well?

Shepard is a real treat to watch. Equally pleasing are the flashback scenes with a young Cassidy and Sundance (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Padraic Delaney, respectively). The two have instant chemistry and pull off some real magic on-screen; magic not seen since two guys named Redford and Newman had the roles.

The finale has a bit of a twist that really puts Cassidy in a moral bind, and is a perfect way to end out the ride. The final few minutes may feel like things are unresolved, but further thought reveals BLACKTHORN to be pushing a message of the gift of youth, and wisdom of old age. There are a lot of smarts to be found here. BLACKTHORN is one hell of a film.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: A Detroit woman has filed a lawsuit against the distributors of DRIVE and her local theatre for using a “misleading trailer” to get her to see the film. The woman expected DRIVE to be more of a FAST AND THE FURIOUS type-film, rather than an art house style with minimal driving and car chases.

OPINION: Hopefully, this woman never saw the trailer to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, which was marketed heavily as a shoot-em up war movie and turned out to be a prodding character drama. But back to business…what this woman, and the litigators are likely to reveal is that ALL movie trailers are out to deceive people; they are out to make people think that their movie is good and worth seeing. A good trailer should be able to get people out to see anything, no matter how awful the actual movie may be. Just look at the fantastic trailers we got for WOLVERINE and THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, and how poor both films wound up; it’s something that’s been going on in movie history for a hundred years, and will likely go for another hundred. Hopefully this suit will get thrown out.

What say you?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: With the (goddamn) 3D version of THE LION KING raking in over $100 worldwide and still climbing, Disney (apparently with nothing better to do), is planning on releasing four of its classic films in the 3rd dimension. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will open in January 2012, FINDING NEMO in September 2012, MONSTERS INC. in January 2013, and THE LITTLE MERMAID in September 2013.

This makes the (goddamn) 3D schedule fairly beefy over the next few years. James Cameron is releasing TITANIC in GD3D in April 2012 (just shy of the 100th anniversary of the sinking), and George Lucas will begin releasing his STAR WARS saga, in order in February 2012, beginning with EPISODE I.

OPINION: As stated, neither Disney, Cameron, or Lucas has anything better to do but play around with this cursed fad; no new stories to write, no new ideas to film. But if we have to deal with this, and we do…

The 3rd dimension is all about depth; it only works if the filmmakers kept depth in mind when they were filming on set, or rendering an artificial environment (of course, all fillmakers should be doing that no matter what the hell dimension they are shooting for). This docket of films offers some, but not a lot of eye-popping opportunities. Like the chandelier/dance scene in BEAST, the large door-room scene in MONSTERS, INC., and several wide exterior-shots in NEMO.

Moving right along…Lucas’ pod-race in EPISODE I, along with the final space battle offers great opportunities of depth. Cameron’s TITANIC holds less opportunities, but that initial low-angle shot of the Titanic’s wrecked bow coming out of the darkness might be pretty darn cool.

As great as (goddamn) 3D may be in large scenes, it suffers horribly when the going gets intimate. Will the 3rd dimension add anything to Jack and Rose floating in the ocean, or any bedroom scene in MONSTERS? The answer is (goddamn) no. At that point the stupid glasses become an annoyance, and things feel better off if you only had to put the blasted things on during certain parts of the movie. Of course that’s an even bigger pain in the arse.

Every one of these films that are being released with the added dimension were big money-makers in their day, and each hold a place in our culture, and in our hearts. Any one of them can and would do very well in a digital 2D release. Certain films seem made for the big screen, and every one of these upcoming releases fall under that category. Let them stand on their own.

What say you?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Reel Review: REAL STEEL

REAL STEEL is a perfect example of a milk-shake movie; a million elements from a million movies mixed together for a sweet and refreshing flavor. Specifically, it takes pieces and parts from several sports (coughrockycough), family drama and sci-fi movies and simply gives them a new setting. Aside from the visuals, there is nothing here that hasn’t been seen before; and like a good milkshake, it’s enjoyable and out of your system just as fast as it went in.

In the not-to-distant future where robots have taken the place of humans in the sport of boxing, Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is a down-and-out former boxer who is struggling to pay off his massive debts while his remote-controlled robots gets smashed to pieces in competition. His world gets even more complicated when he discovers that he has a son, Max (Dakota Goyo) from his newly deceased former girlfriend. Charlie strikes a monetary deal with Max’s family to take him in, and discovers that Max has a talent and love for robot-boxing. They stumble upon an old robot named Atom; a diminutive, under-dog sparring-bot which Charlie teaches how to box. Together with Charlie’s gal-pal Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), he goes on to realize that Max’s importance in his life goes beyond the success he can bring him in the ring.

So STEEL is another high-concept film (fighting robots) coupled with a simplistic, and cliché family drama (deadbeat dad learning lessons from his stubborn son); with subplots of redemption and moral ethics just to be safe. The main tale here is older than time and thinly drawn with flat characters. Again, there is nothing new here, and it is hard to be objective when the plot is so familiar and predictable. It is only when the fighting robots come into play that things get better.

And when those fighting robots do come along, it is lights out filmmaking. Brought to life with stunning combos of CGI and animatronics, the fight scenes, comedy routines, and intimate scenes bring weight and legitimacy to REAL STEEL. It is fun to see the robots pummel each other, and we root for the underdog (Atom) because our characters have so much invested in him. Although the film feels and looks like the playroom of a five year old boy, it is fun while it lasts.

Jackman attacks the role with more charisma than we’ve seen from him in a while, and really seems to believe in what he’s doing. Goyo does very well as the annoying kid, but like most kids on film, comes off as way too sophisticated for an 11-year old.

Director Shawn Levy keeps the sci-fi elements very grounded; the fights are never confusing and he keeps his lenses on small-town America. Danny Elfman’s score is a ROCKY rip-off, and the use of Alexi Murdoch in the opening credits comes off as a lame attempt at maturity.

There is a nice buildup to the finale, which unfortunately ends with an resolution that can be seen from a mile away. The final fight is Rocky vs. Apollo I all over again, and the entire film can be summed up right there; even though it is tired and cliché, it works overall because it is a fresh look at an overused drama. Adults should be wary of being bored, and of their kids being inspired to punch cardboard boxes for hours.


Saturday, October 8, 2011


Donkeys and Elephants will likely use THE IDES OF MARCH as a political football; finding ways to point the finger at the players involved, trying to pinpoint one side or the other as the villain in the film. The parties would be mistaken to do so, for MARCH does not bother, or care which side is on the right or wrong. It spends all of its time exposing the behind-the-curtain goings-on of a Presidential campaign, in which there are no real winners or losers; all players involved are victims of the game they play.

Steve (Ryan Gosling) is a campaign co-manager for Governor Morris (George Clooney), who is running for President and is in a heated, deadlocked campaign in the Ohio Primaries. Steve really believes in his candidate, and works closely with campaign manager Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and plays cat-and-mouse tactics with reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei). After being offered a job from the opposing side from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Steve has an affair with young intern Mollie (Evan Rachel-Wood). He then falls into a scandal; one which will threaten his career and the campaign he has dedicated his life to.

MARCH wisely spends its time not focusing so much on the players, but the game that they play. It is loaded with political maneuvering; switching allegiances and ditching loyalty all for the sake of saving ass. It is a Shakespearean-like drama; Steve’s job security after the secret meeting with the opposing side is in peril, but he uses his affair with the intern to uncover a secret to save himself and perhaps his candidate. Steve is faced with many ethical, moral and legal dilemmas, and director George Clooney does fantastic work in maneuvering his characters around like chess pieces.

Clooney spends most of his time behind the camera; limiting his screen time to short, but very effective bites. Gosling proves his worth here; finding ways to display emotion and feeling without even speaking. Hoffman and Giamatti are spectacular as always.

The finale is a bit of a shocker, with certain players selling their soul to the devil not only for the sake of saving themselves, but for the job that they believe in. MARCH will likely find its way into film-appreciation classes over the coming years; not for the sake of political debate, but for the moral and ethical decisions that we all struggle with. That makes it timeless.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Reel Education: How Steve Jobs Changed the Movies

The sad and untimely passing of Steve Jobs has sparked many a remembrance this week; remembrances that recall his landmark achievements in the technology world. What is often overlooked is his contribution to the film industry; perhaps one of the largest and important contributions in the past 20 years. You may have heard of it; they call it Pixar Animation Studios.

Pixar began in 1979, known as the Graphics Group. It was part of the computer division of Lucasfilm before it was acquired by Steve Jobs in 1986. Investing his own millions in the company, Jobs and Pixar went into the computer hardware business. Its core product was the Pixar Image Computer, which was sold primarily to government agencies and the medical community. It was also used by Disney to improve their 2D hand-drawn animation films.

Sales for Pixar’s hardware were poor, so the company focused more on its animation department. In 1990, Jobs made the gutsy move of selling off the hardware division and putting Pixar into the movie business full-time. A deal with Disney was struck to produce three computer-animated films, with the first being TOY STORY in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history.

To date, Pixar’s twelve films have grossed an estimated $6.3 billion worldwide, and have won a total of 26 Academy Awards. But Jobs and Pixar’s stamp on the business goes beyond the green and the gold. Whether they intended to or not, the new computer-animation process obliterated the old, 2D hand-drawn animated film. It also inspired other companies like DreamWorks who went on to produce the SHREK franchise. In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recognizing the growing world of animated films, added a new category; Best Animated Film. A category that Pixar would dominate over the next decade.

Pixar’s films succeed because of excellent writing; writing that spawns simple and familiar stories in a fresh and fun manner. While Jobs likely never wrote one word in a screenplay, it was his business sense that kept Pixar functioning better than an iPod. It was a bold move for him to put Pixar into the untested waters of full-time computer-animated films, but he believed in it. It’s that type of faith that he put into everything he did.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: A new feature based on the classic TWILIGHT ZONE TV series is now in development. Directing candidates include Alfonso Cuaron (CHILDREN OF MEN), Rupert Wyatt (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES), Michael Bay (TRANSFORMERS) and Christopher Nolan (THE DARK KNIGHT). Unlike the feature produced in the 1980’s, this new film will feature a single storyline with just one director, and is reportedly based upon an original episode.

OPINION: Nolan is the clear frontrunner in the race to the Zone. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. But then again, Nolan doing a Humpty Dumpty film gets people excited, too. Twilight Zone episodes, which are basically short-films, are not easily stretched out to an 80 to 100 minute movie (just look at the recent THE BOX, which did poorly). The series always feels right at home when taken in shorter bites. This blogger would prefer to see another anthology film with a different director helming each story, as it would properly introduce a new generation to the Zone. Let Bay direct one, let Nolan, Wyatt, and Cuaron each direct one. Then invite Quentin Tarantino and you’ve got gold.

FACT: Speaking of Tarantino, Kurt Russell has replaced Kevin Costner in QT’s upcoming revenge-western DJANGO UNCHAINED. Russell will play Ace Woody (which sounds like a TOY STORY reject); an evil plantation owner responsible for training male slaves in fighting competition and female slaves in prostitution.

OPINION: Costner’s dropping out is disappointing, but bringing in Russell feels like a lateral move. Tarantino has been flirting with the western genre for years, so it’ll be good to finally see him dive in head first, although it’s all but a given that DJANGO will be one long Sergio Leone tribute/homage. How much would you like to bet we see Ace Woody in the Eastwood poncho?

FACT: With (goddamn) 3D revenue dwindling in the United States, the format may be facing the grave taking another blow last week courtesy of Sony Pictures. Sony has informed theatre owners that in May of 2012 they will no longer pay for the 3D glasses that go with the 3D movies. Other studios are expected to do the same. The move would bring the U.S. in line with the U.K. and Australia when moviegoers buy their glasses at the theatre and keep ‘em.

OPINION: One day, we will all look back on (goddamn) 3D as a strange footnote in film history, with this being the first nail in the coffin. If Sony is taking inspiration from the U.K., then God save the Queen...

What say you?