Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rum Diary

Mad Men in Paradise                                
by Mark Dispenza

     Hunter S. Thompson's first novel is brought to the screen in an entertaining gonzo-lite story that chronicles a writer's journey from alcoholic slacker to socially-conscious crusader.  .Although written early in his career, following a wealth of nonfiction output, Thompson's novel was not actually published until 1998.
     Johnny Depp, who plays protagonist Kemp in the film, has been interested in bringing this story to the screen since he played Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  At one time "Fear" co-star, Benicio Del Toro, was even attached to direct.  After many false starts, Depp finally succeeded with writer-director Bruce Robinson at the helm.  Robinson, who is best known as writer of 1984's The Killing Fields, had not directed a film since 1992.
     Although the film is opening with some positive audience response, its reception from critics has been lukewarm.  Don't worry about it.  This is not Oscar material and certainly not a highlight of Depp's acting career, but it is an entertaining film filled with beautiful location scenery, a Mad Men-era setting, and great character actors doing what they do best.  The stellar cast includes Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins (with toupee) and Giovanni Ribisi.  Fans of Thompson and Depp will find the film particularly delightful.

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp

     The film opens with Kemp's arrival in Puerto Rico to work for a newspaper on the brink of going under.  It is a match made in heaven, as Kemp's propensity to overindulge in alcohol and parties has left him barely employable.  Neither Kemp, nor publisher Lotterman (Jenkins), have a lot of choice in the matter.
     A local real estate promoter (Eckhart) soon latches onto Kemp, believing that his money and Kemp's desperation will be enough to pimp Kemp's writing ability to push a huge multi-million dollar resort development.  Forced to sober up enough to do the job, and smitten by his new employer's girlfriend (Heard), Kemp begins to feel a bit dirty and eventually rebels, threatening to publicly expose the secret deal behind the development.
     There are a number of Thompson-like digressions along the way, including Kemp's first-time experiment with LSD, but there is a coherent story here and a lot of very entertaining characters to hold your attention.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ties that Bind

Martha Marcy May Marlene                                              
by Mark Dispenza

     A young woman suffers the chilling aftermath of life as a member of an abusive sociopath's communal family in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
     The film opens with a young woman's escape from a communal farm in an undisclosed backwoods location in upstate New York.  Known to her real family as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), and to members of the commune as Marcy May, she is frantic to get away and calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to pick her up.  With their parents now dead, Lucy is Martha's only surviving family member.  Lucy has not heard from Martha in the two years since she ran off and disappeared without further contact.
     Happy to have her back, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), take Martha into their home.  At first they are puzzled by her weird habits and strange way of speaking, but as she becomes increasingly paranoid and violent, they fear that she is becoming a danger to herself and everyone around her.
     The scenes of Martha's acclimation to normal life with Lucy and Ted are broken up with flashbacks to Martha's life on the commune as Marcy May.  At first she is happy to find herself in a new family headed by charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), but Patrick's love comes with a price.  He demands complete obedience to a code of his making, and of course, primarily to his benefit, and he is able to rationalize and justify every act of abuse and violence he commits. Things come to a head when Martha becomes party to a terrible crime, leading to her break with Patrick and frantic early morning escape.

John Hawkes & Elizabeth Olsen

     But has Martha really escaped?  She is deteriorating psychologically and imagines (or does she?) that members of Patrick's deranged family are watching her, ready to reclaim her at any moment.
     Writer-director Sean Durkin won Best Director at Sundance for this film, an impressive feat given that it's his first feature.  There is already Oscar buzz surrounding Durkin and star, Olsen, who effectively embodies the emotional complexity and deterioration of her character in a subtle and effective performance.  John Hawkes, who excels at playing complex characters who defy easy stereotype, makes Patrick both appealing and chilling.
     This is a complex psychological thriller, with a number of ambiguous story elements left to the interpretation of the audience.  That certainly won't make it attractive to the masses of the movie-going public, but if you like this kind of mind-bending, thought-provoking story, you're going to have a great time wrapping your brain around this one.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just Because You're Paranoid...

Take Shelter                                                                                              
by Mark Dispenza

     That dreaded feeling you have that the world is teetering on the verge of socio-economic disaster is given cinematic form in Take Shelter, in which writer/director Jeff Nichols poses the question, "are you just letting irrational fear rule your mind, or do you really have something to worry about?"  And the answer is, to quote an old saying, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't someone out to get you. 
     Curtis, a working man and father played by Michael Shannon, finds his sleep disturbed by apocalyptic visions of the near future.  The persistence of the visions are powerful enough that he feels he must act on them.  He begins distancing himself from everyone except his young deaf daughter, whom he feels he must protect, and he starts to build a costly and elaborate underground shelter. 
     His wife, wonderfully played by Jessica Chastain, grows more and more worried, not only because they cannot afford the cost of the shelter and he is placing his job at risk, but because Curtis may be losing his mind.  He is now the same age as his mother when she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to an institution, where she remains today. 

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain

     At first Curtis tries to rein in his own excesses, and becomes unsure of himself to some degree, although not enough to put a stop to his apocalyptic preparations.  He takes sleeping pills to get through the night, but that only makes the visions bleed into daylight reality, and Curtis begins to have waking hallucinations. 
     This is a very well-made film, although frankly I found the story to be predictable and did not feel as caught up in the suspense some of my fellow audience members seemed to feel.  The pace of the story is very good and the visuals are masterful.  Take Shelter did very well among both critics and audience members at Cannes and Toronto, and two weeks ago it took home Best Feature at Zurich
     I have little doubt that the film will do well as it goes into wider release this month.  This is a masterful second feature from a young director who is hitting it out of the ballpark again, with the first time being the critically-acclaimed Shotgun Stories in 2007, which also starred Shannon.  The depth of character and realistic performances from actors Shannon and Chastain will keep you riveted to the screen. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A New Evil Gets the Horror Treatment

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil                                                 
by Zac Sanford

     In Tucker & Dale vs Evil writer/director Eli Craig flips the backwoods horror film on its head, playing against the tropes that have plagued the genre for far too long.
     Just like with many horror films, a bunch of beautiful and sexy college co-eds are on their way to a weekend of camping in the woods. As they trek along the winding road the first big scare to our campers is that they are out of beer. They all scream, but at least it will be an easy fix. As they stop at the last gas station for miles, the annoying college kids stock up on beer and other libations.
     Before they can set off and arrive at their destination, Dale (Tyler Labine) sees and is instantly smitten by the beautiful Allison (Katrina Bowden). Tucker (Alan Tudyk) persuades Dale to go up and talk to her. His self-esteem may be low, but he's a lovable guy. Dale waddles his way up to the group, scythe in hand, and barely mumbles his words of passion.
     This is just the beginning of a string of misunderstandings by the "evil" college kids. With stereotypes and preconceived notions of hillbillies, they never give Tucker & Dale the benefit of the doubt. As they drink and partake in other illegal substances, Allison is "saved"' by Tucker & Dale, but with a slanted view on our heroes, the college co-eds led by Chad (Jesse Moss), go on a quest to save their friend.

     From here on the movie stretches a single joke through the remainder of the film. As each of the campers accidentally off themselves in ever increasing over-the-top situations, Tucker and Dale feel they must protect themselves. They see the kids on a suicide pact and must protect the lovable Allison from her friends, who want her dead.
     Any fan of the slasher genre should be able to appreciate first-time director Eli Craig, who does a great job of blocking shots to play off the notion of misunderstanding between Tucker and Dale and their evil counterparts. The film plays heavily on the tropes fans have grown to love and eventually bore of. And since you can't help but love the two leads, you have no problem cheering them on as they avoid the evil college co-eds.
     Tucker & Dale vs Evil is currently playing in limited release and can be viewed on many VOD platforms.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five Must-See Indies Now on DVD

by Mark Dispenza

     As another season of film festivals and Oscar campaigns begins, it's time to catch up on the must-see indies you missed this past year.  The Toronto International Film Festival is now over, and we are officially in the rush to the 2012 Oscars, or closer to my heart, the Independent Spirit Awards.  New American indies will be out in force over the next few months, screening at top film festivals across the United States from AFI-Fest to Palm Springs, Sundance and Santa Barbara
     You probably saw the films that took the major awards in 2011--127 Hours, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right, but chances are you missed some real gems that swept through your town like a tornado before you even knew they were in the neighborhood. 
     Looking over my top five list of "the other indies," I can't help but note that they all have the same recipe for great dramatic film--a powerful story, a director of unique vision and extraordinary insight, and a cast of talented actors who went the distance to create characters of unusual depth and complexity.  Available on DVD and your choice of download service, here are my favorite American independent films of the season past...

     Debra Granik's sensitive yet gritty, noirish journey into the impoverished world of the Ozark Mountains made then 17-year-old Jennifer Lawrence a star.  Supported by an ensemble of acclaimed performances, particularly by John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, Lawrence dominates the screen as Ree Dolly, a teen from a poor family in the Ozarks who must find her drug-dealing father before his bail is forfeit, causing the loss of the family home and putting Ree, her invalid mother and her two younger siblings out on the street.  The screenplay was adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell.  Granik showed real genius in drawing audiences into this forgotten community within our own country by combining a core of top Hollywood talent with local cast and crew, giving the film an unusual feel of authenticity.  Maybe this wasn't the best film of 2010, but it was pretty darn close. 

     Chances are you avoided this film out of fear that it would take you to the depths of emotional despair.  After all, it's the story of a couple coping with the loss of their four-year-old son following a tragic auto accident.  But this is not a story that dwells on tragedy.  It's about the hard journey to recovery. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play the traumatized couple, and Miles Teller plays the teenaged boy who was driving the car on the fateful day of the accident.  Several months after the tragedy the three are brought together again in the desperate search for elusive closure.  Director John Cameron Mitchell's beautiful visuals are a fitting frame for a wonderfully insightful story by David Lindsay-Abaire and an outstanding cast. 

     If you are a fan of actress Annette Bening and you missed this film, shame on you!  Largely lost in the massive marketing hoopla surrounding her appearance in The Kids Are All Right, this film showcased what I believe to be Bening's best performance of the year.  Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Mother and Child is the story of three women and their complicated relationships with children.  Bening plays a 50-year-old woman still unable to come to terms with the loss of the baby her parents forced her to give up following a teen pregnancy 35 years earlier.  Kerry Washington plays a barren woman who seeks to adopt a child of her own, and Naomi Watts plays a troubled young woman with a traumatic past who refuses to have a child.  The lives of all three come together at the end in a powerful climax that I won't spoil here.  Also noteworthy is a fine supporting performance by Jimmy Smts, who demonstrates that his acting talent is adjusting very well to middle age and a few more grey hairs. 

     In my humble opinion, Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut was the best romance of the past year.  Written by Robert Glaudini, this is the story of working class love between two people who are not the typical beautiful couple that ordinarily lead Hollywood love stories.  Amy Ryan delivers the goods as the object of Hoffman's romantic interest.  This is a couple with real world challenges who discover that love is indeed transformative.  John Ortiz shines in a supporting role as the best friend whose own marriage is on the rocks.  This is a story about love at its best--freely given and unconditional. 

     It's become a foregone conclusion that any film starring Robert Duvall is worth seeing, and Get Low is no exception.  Supported by wonderful performances from co-stars Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black, Duvall introduces us to the character of old hermit, Felix Bush, who one day shocks everyone by coming into town and arranging his own funeral--while he's still living.  Although the story opens with the type of curmudgeonly humor we've come to expect from Duvall and Murray, it eventually turns poignant.  It turns out that the funeral is an excuse for Bush to come clean about what really happened during the terrible tragedy years before that led to his exile.  Director Aaron Schneider's background as a cinematographer does much to enhance the look of the film.