Monday, October 31, 2011

Doctored Interpretations: "The Rum Diary"

I found Hunter S. Thompson's early novel The Rum Diary (it originated in the 1960s but remained unpublished until 1998) to be beautifully written when I first read it years ago, and while my memories of it are somewhat hazy, I remember thinking that it could be a decent film adaptation. It contains a vibrant locale (1960 San Juan, Puerto Rico in the midst of political turmoil), and a balanced mix of characters and conflicts. Before seeing its adaptation (written and directed by Bruce Robinson), I became worried that it would try to mimic Terry Gilliam's film version of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Yes, the two different books contain vastly different material, but given the cult success of the previous film, and especially since star Johnny Depp again inhabits the lead role, one wouldn't be faulted for expecting another attempt at the same hedonistic style. However, The Rum Diary, in addition to being one of Thompson's few available pieces of fiction, is also one of his most straightforward narratives. Fear and Loathing was a successful attempt at visualizing a long drug binge, and Robinson's version of The Rum Diary smartly embraces the storytelling, thereby giving audiences an interpretation of Thompson that remains honest, even if, in this case, the book proves to be more memorable.

After waking up from a night of binge drinking, journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) heads to the office of the San Juan Star, an English language newspaper in the heart of Puerto Rico. The paper is under heavy financial strain, but Kemp is nonetheless offered a job by Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), and he immediately becomes close with the staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the often fired/rehired junkie journalist Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). While working on dead-end assignments (including a memorable scene in which he interviews, off-camera, an American couple who are vacationing in San Juan but refuse to visit any places besides their hotel and the bowling alley), Kemp becomes acquainted with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American businessman who wants Paul to help write promotional material for (illegal) real estate deals that will eventually drive the locals into even worse poverty. Kemp quickly becomes enamored with Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson's fiancee, which adds further complications, especially after Sanderson bails him and Sala out of jail after a reckless night on the town. With the Star on the verge of shutting down, Kemp, Sala and Moberg attempt to bring the shady business dealings to light, even though the paper cannot risk controversial material.

With the exception of his voice, it's refreshing to find that Depp plays Kemp as an original character, rather than as an imitation of Hunter S. Thompson (even though the original novel is semi-autobiographical, it's impossible not to imagine Kemp, both on the page and on the screen, as a stand-in for the Doctor). Yes, Kemp is prone to heavy drinking and a commitment to journalistic integrity, and much like Thompson, he manages to be a detached outsider even when he's in the middle of the most important scenes. Only at the end of the film do Thompson's characteristics become consistently noticeable, and even then, Depp is as reserved as an actor can be, with the actions being based on the plot developments, rather than the character's personality. It would be too tempting to see Sala as the Dr. Gonzo character, but this only comes after a brief drug hallucination scene (the only blatant reference to Fear and Loathing) and after a long sequence of a drunken night out. Sala is written as a stock "buddy" character, but Michael Rispoli plays him exceptionally well, employing equal parts integrity and comic relief without being terribly obvious. At first, I found Giovanni Ribisi's Moberg to be grating, but I quickly realized that the character is supposed to be annoying. Moberg, while technically a journalist, is seen walking around the island like a vagrant, dressed in a comically over-sized trench coat, producing dangerous moonshine and drugs, and happily blaring phonograph records of Adolf Hitler speeches. I always consistently notice film characters who would be terribly hammed up by certain actors, but Ribisi manages to create an air of perverted slapstick. Eckhart has an strange ability to play seriously flawed/demented characters yet maintain a seductive edge; even when the audience knows he's being conniving or wrong, it's easy to see why characters would fall for his schemes. Sanderson is not nearly as twisted as Chad in In the Company Of Men, but Eckhart uses the same acting gifts. For better or for worse, his unsavory characters are compelling. That's the whole point.

The relationship between Chenault and Kemp is very basic and provides some of the film's faults. It's hard to tell if Heard is a good actress, because her character is, for the majority of the film, nothing but a trophy fiancee for Sanderson. The sexual tension between her and Kemp isn't exactly sly (their first meeting is in the ocean while she's skinny dipping), but their long stares and near-physical interactions become too obvious, and the audience is merely left counting down the seconds until they actually embrace. After that, the film's closing title sequences are too easy of an ending. However, Heard does what she can with Chenault. Even though she's an object for everyone but Kemp, the character is not played as dumb or insulting; she's merely tied to her relationship with Sanderson before she's able to break away. Depp and Heard are enjoyable to watch together, but are victimized by the script's occasional misstep.

A lot of credit has to be given to production designer Chris Seagers. The San Juan settings, especially given the era, doesn't have a lot of happy mediums. The locales are either poverty-stricken or tastefully wealthy (Kemp, Sala, and Moberg are the only whites to live in destitute dwellings). However, even though both types of settings are integral to the story, they feel authentic. Kemp and Sala's apartment is somewhat comically rendered, but the dive bars, slums, and dance halls of San Juan aren't marked by obvious (read: insulting) indicators of depression. Sanderson's residence is a classy beach house, but isn't depicted as a ridiculous mansion. Combined with the subdued cinematography and costume design, The Rum Diary works as a contrast of bright and dark hues, both casually and intentionally, with a lot of jumps between the two. Even in the extremes (Kemp's apartment, specifically), the exaggerations are pointed out in the script, but Seagers does an impressive job of creating a classic movie feel to the environments.

After leaving behind directing due to disillusionment with the Hollywood system, writer/director Bruce Robinson finds himself with a decent piece of material with which to return. His script is much stronger than his directing, but his directorial style is fairly straightforward in this film. The Rum Diary moves toward expected climaxes and developments, but Robinson writes exceptional dialogue with well-placed one liners and a knack for comedic timing, and the direction moves along with it. Again, some of the developments are cliched and can be seen coming several minutes beforehand, but these are small faults, especially since the majority of the film, combined with the excellent cast, works so well. I've yet to see Withnail and I, lauded as an excellent British black comedy, but The Rum Diary definitely has its moments of dark humor, and it will be interesting to see the differences between his smaller work and this more big budget production. On top of that, Robinson's attention to detail makes some negative aspects--binge drinking, chain-smoking, and even cockfighting--blend together as merely parts of an era, without moralizing or apology.

I would guess that the majority of people who seek out The Rum Diary will be Hunter S. Thompson fans, and I hope that they have read the novel beforehand, lest they be disappointed. Atmospherically, it's very true to Thompson's work, and shows that even his standard storytelling manages to convey his beliefs without the almost trademark insanity. Strange as this is to imagine, the film also works nicely on its own, even for people unfamiliar with Thompson's journalism or fiction. With another other people involved, I might be harsher with the criticism of the film's ending and antagonism. However, the cast and filmmaker do their respective work very convincingly, and overall, it's a lot of fun and beautifully styled. And the best compliment to Thompson is that his ideas can be separated from his constantly portrayed public persona without anything being diminished.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Other Moneyball: Notes On the NBA Lockout

For the last few weeks, I've been toying with the idea of doing a piece on the current NBA lockout, but a few troubles and issues have delayed it. At first, I wondered why I cared so much, especially given my other interests and goals: the impressive fall book season; much needed, behind the scenes work for Instafiction; getting used to a seasonal position back in bookselling; and so forth. The bigger picture, however, is literally a bigger picture. With so much going on in the world, namely the passionate Occupy Wall Street movements, why am I concerning myself with the squabbles and ridiculous back-and-forth between billionaire team owners and millionaire professional athletes, men who wring their hands over lost revenue and income, but in reality could never work another day in their lives and still have a better quality of life than the often mentioned 99%? But then again, even as I plan to visit Chicago's Occupy groups in the very near future, and as I focus on my literary goals, there's no shame in my being a basketball fan and annually looking forward to cold winter evenings with drinks, friends, and a game on TV. Last year's playoffs, even with my Bulls falling to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, proved to be some of the most exciting postseason basketball in recent memory. And right now, with NBA games canceled through November 30th (at the time of this writing), fans could be "treated" to a repeat of the 1998-1999 season, which was cut to 50 games and featured watered down playoffs that didn't feel complete, especially since no team had a truly full season.

Right now, the NBA Player's Union and league executives are trying to pass a new collective bargaining agreement. There are many contractual stipulations at hand, but the most divisive issue has been BRI: Basketball Related Income. The team owners want a 50-50 split of basketball revenues, whereas the players want to get 52%, which is down from the 57% given to them under the previous agreement (these stats are taken from this article from The Associated Press). Much like the recent NFL lockout, another instance of "billionaires fighting with millionaires," the average person likely has little sympathy for either side. The owners purchased their teams, and like any business, profits are the bottom line. They pay millions in player contracts with the hope of putting winning teams on the courts, and therefore increasing income via the fans. But suddenly, with the potential for even more money on the table, the owners frantically point to fiscal losses and demand a salary cap. The players, while directly responsible for the income that a team generates (executives cannot hit three pointers or play defense), have the option of playing overseas for less money, but still for thousands and even millions. This also doesn't take into account advertising and income related to endorsement deals. Again, these are just the details. I'm a basketball fan, but after months of unemployment and still living drastically beneath my meager means, these details aren't meant to give an edge to either side. In reality, no matter what the final agreement is, both sides will be financially well off for life, and the whole cycle will begin anew when the future agreement expires.

Billy Hunter, the Player's Union Executive Director, and David Stern, the NBA's Commissioner (pictured above), keep going back and forth in the media, thereby, perhaps intentionally, giving sportswriters the obvious angles in which to pursue the story. Sometimes, this is done humorously, making for a read that is at least enjoyable, even if it sheds no new light on the subject (see some of the articles in Grantland, such as this one from Jonathan Abrams). More often than not, sportswriters are naturally critical of the whole debacle, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. Yesterday, Hunter claimed that he (and the union) feels "snookered" by the owners' attempts to bring the two sides closer together. Sean Deveny of The Sporting News offered this statement in a recent article: "The rest of the world—normal folks, the ones who watch the games, the ones dealing with a battered economy, not just here but all over the world—are looking at a group of 400 players and 30 owners fighting over 2 percent of $4 billion." His claim is that the fans are the ones who should feel insulted, since they are the ones who financially support the organization. However, much like the aforementioned NFL lockout, it's tiring to see the fans help up like neglected children who are watching their parents fight. In the scheme of things, basketball fans can turn to NCAA basketball and other winter sports, but there's something insulting about the idea that the consumers are always portrayed as innocent pawns who just want to give their money and time to the NBA. I personally watch games, but I never purchase licensed products or find myself swayed by commercial advertising, but that goes for areas outside of the NBA as well. In this economy, both the players and owners should realize how lucky they are to have this much money to fight about.

The problem is that NBA fans have not made major complaints about the lockout, which is fascinating to me. I'm a very casual football fan, and I wouldn't have been deprived if the NFL season had been scaled down or canceled, but at that time, football fans were constantly taking to social media to bemoan the potential loss of that game. Yes, football is much more popular than basketball right now, but the media members are the ones attempting to create fan backlash where there is none. However, where are the fans who were rooting for various teams during the playoffs? I saw a variety of impressive commentaries via Twitter last spring, yet nobody seems to care if the entire NBA season is lost. However, there is a much more important angle that has been lost in the shuffle, and does tie into the money that fans end up spending.

In the above AP article, Commissioner Stern was said to have apologized to the people whose livelihoods are directly connected to the NBA: the salespeople, concession workers, cleanup crews, maintenance workers, and regular employees who work at the twenty-nine NBA arenas. However, there wasn't even a direct quote from Mr. Stern, only a recapped line at the end of the article. To me, this is the biggest travesty of the entire lockout. At the end of a given workday, I'll have plenty of things to occupy my time if there are no basketball games to watch this winter. NBA players will have other sources of income to live better than the rest of the world. Owners, people who amassed staggering fortunes that allowed them to purchase their teams, won't be counting spare change in order to buy a gallon of milk. However, nobody is thinking about the people who earn money directly or indirectly (restaurant/bar owners and staff, the aforementioned stadium workers) who are losing money that is the difference between getting by and being poverty-stricken. In this sense, my opening mention of the Occupy Wall Street movements could also apply to the National Basketball Association. In this case, there is a true representation of the divide between the 1% and the 99%. With an entire month of the season already canceled, the league needs to come to an agreement, and fast. If fans do become apathetic, their withheld dollars won't affect the players or the owners, but rather the faceless worker who very well is working at a stadium to support a child or a family. At the end of the day, there is so much more at stake than the ability to watch a game. If more people called attention to the plight of average workers, if priorities were truly in order, none of this would be happening. Instead, fans and readers will be fed the same recaps until the agreement is met, when in reality there should be outrage, not for the players, but for the people who depend on their abilities to draw fans and supporters. Once the agreement is reached, there will be smiles and handshakes all around, and the fierce divide will be conveniently forgotten. But none of those dollars will go to the people who need it the most. Much like the Occupy movements, this isn't about handouts, but rather equality and the rights of people to earn a living.

So this is my message to the league and the union: try to think about the people you pass in the hallways at the arena. You probably won't, but imagine your survival depending on an extra paycheck. There are thousands depending on you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roughly 39 Problems

To get into the spirit of Halloween, I had planned to write at least one review of a horror film or a collection of good scary stories, slated for the end of October. However, a recent, random film screening has moved this plan up a couple of weeks earlier than anticipated. Reviews of horror, especially film versions, are often produced by niche websites and publications that strive for comedic or far too serious angles, but with the occasional positive. Two of my fellow bloggers are must-reads for excellent horror film reviews: Bob Turnbull has a wealth of essays at Eternal Sunshine Of the Logical Mind, many of them focusing on rare or under-the-radar movies from Japan and the world abroad. Vincent Sassana's HTML Slop contains reviews of sometimes terrible movies, but his writing is finely balanced between the critical and the hilarious. I recently saw Christian Alvart's Case 39, a seemingly forgettable horror film that was released in the United States last year to very little attention (my first awareness of its existence came when it popped up on my girlfriend's Netflix queue, and we watched it with a shrug, wanting to see a random scary movie). I lack the skill of writing funny takes on bad films, but after a lot of thought, Case 39 is actually a good example of questionable horror craft and misguided films in general. I never write about a piece of media unless there are at least some positives, but even a throwaway film does have the potential to educate.

Renee Zellweger plays Emily, a social worker who begins to investigate a troubled young girl and her eccentric parents. Lily is bright and caring, but her grades are slipping drastically. Emily's first visit is obviously unexpected and unwelcome, and she takes an immediate, sympathetic liking to the girl, telling Lily to call her if she needs anything. A distressed late-night call leads Emily and police detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane) to the house, where they save the girl from being killed by her parents. Afterward, a young boy in Lily's support group brutally murders his own parents, and calls are traced from Emily's house, leading some to believe that the two young children communicated right before the killing. Emily investigates Lily's old house and finds signs of her parents attempting to barricade themselves from the girl. While evaluating Lily, psychiatrist Douglas Ames (Bradley Cooper) is questioned by the girl and is made to reveal his worst fears. Once all of this comes together, and after seeking out the former parents for questioning, it becomes apparent that Lily is a mind-controlling demon, and is seemingly impervious to control or elimination. Emily must fight through everyone else's disbelief to vanquish the "little girl."

It has often been said that some of the best horror films are psychological, but there's nothing wrong with a combination of the psychological and the supernatural. However, re-read the above plot synopsis: the genre rarely provides ground for originality, since every possible scary movie element has been done, done again, told from different angles, and so forth. However, Case 39 commits some pretty basic errors, ones that become all the more unnerving when the rare decent moment comes up. First of all, I've often wondered why horror films with famous cast members tend to do poorly. Perhaps higher production costs, given the cost of the actors associated, make horror movies too glossy and sacrifice emphasis on direction and writing in favor of seeing well-known faces in precarious, CGI-infused situations. In my opinion, scary movies are better when seemingly done on the fly, with relatively unknown actors seeming more like characters instead of having the audience make mental notes of "Hey, _____ is about to get killed!" I've never really considered Renee Zellweger a favorite actress, but I've never really disliked her. Her performance is fine, but given the limitations and obvious developments of the story, any actress could have been cast and able to frown and look stressed out. Ian McShane (Deadwood) is physically cast as a stock type, a grizzled yet caring detective. Bradley Cooper's role is actually important for unexpected reasons (more on that later). Child actress Jodelle Ferland actually works quite well as the demon child. She doesn't overact and makes a convincing portrayal as a seemingly bright, innocent girl. Later in the film, CGI takes over, but she manages to be unnerving and unsettling when letting the hints of her true character come out. She's soft spoken, direct, and in one of the film's best scenes, adds a lot of creepy atmosphere to the simple, childhood act of spinning around in a wheeled office chair.

In such a film, any actor is reliant upon the screenwriter and director. Screenwriter Ray Wright seems to have not expended any energy into the story, following a "paint by numbers" formula that manages to foreshadow every so-called twist and turn. For such a weak film, he at least attempts to build up the climaxes instead of revealing the demonic forces early and often; then again, even someone like me, a film lover who is behind on noted horror movies, gets used to the cliches and the supposedly scary moments. However, there are three key moments in the film that should make an audience wonder how much better the final product could have been. This isn't a horror-comedy, but at one point, Emily tells her boss that Lily's mother is an emotional slave to her husband; he turns and asks if she had actually interviewed his parents. Toward the end of the film, Emily confronts Mike outside of his church and asks why he believes in religious forces and not the ones outside. Religion and horror have been explored many times in film, but this loaded question could have possibly provided more intriguing angles. And finally, when Lily asks Douglas about his fears, she tells him that she doesn't like him and finds him smug. I sincerely hope that this line was added after the casting was done, because it works as unintentional comedy: she seems to be saying that to Bradley Cooper, not his character. Director Christian Alvart doesn't provide any directorial touches other than the ones seemingly mandated by horror conventions. Of the technical aspects, the best work is done by cinematographer Hagen Bodanski. The colors are drab and gray, and every setting seems to be muted and depressing. It might seem like an obvious atmosphere for such a film, but it's done well without being ominous to the point of distraction.

In any case, this film will ultimately be forgotten, but will probably benefit from the impulse rentals and screenings around this time of year. I was also taken aback by the title. Case 39 is a reference to the final case examined by Emily at the end of her workday (another cliche). However, it recalls Brad Anderson's vastly superior Session 9 (2001). If this was meant to be a homage, it backfires terribly, since it subconsciously reminds viewers of the better films out there. Or is it supposed to reference The 39 Steps? I couldn't find any plot similarities, but again, it's a bad titling decision to salute films that work on a better psychological level.

In searching for images to use in this piece, I came across a review written in the British newspaper The Guardian. This is a slight spoiler, but the article's headline was nearly perfect in its jab at the film's quality: "If only the producers had been sensible and marketed this Renee Zellweger horror as the movie in which Bradley Cooper vomits bees."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Past Is the Present: Wilco's "The Whole Love"

Ever since falling in love with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back in 2002, I've grown as a music listener, as far as branching out into the various bands and musicians I count among my favorites (before that landmark Wilco album, my tastes were limited, to put it mildly). In that time, I've also tried to develop my skill of music critiques, and, inadvertently, the band's subsequent releases have helped in that sense. From 2004's A Ghost Is Born until last week's release of The Whole Love, I've followed a pretty consistent pattern. I become extremely excited when one of their new albums is announced, and I acquire it the day it comes out; as with certain authors and books, there's a limited number of releases that I anxiously await. With Wilco's developing sounds, they haven't released anything in the last ten years that I've immediately embraced. A Ghost Is Born remains one of their most challenging albums, since it's such a painstaking mix of sounds, technical accompaniments, and was drastically different than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. However, once I had listened to it a few times, it became one of my favorites. Today, 2009's Wilco (The Album) is their only release that I would say I dislike, only in comparison to their previous works. It's fine on its own, but given what they're capable of doing, I found it to be a step back, but it has grown on me more in recent months. Therefore, I was cautiously optimistic about last week's release of The Whole Love, Wilco's first self-released album on the dBpm label.

While not reaching the creative peak of their late 1990s-early 2000s work (which isn't mean to be a criticism, since that output would be nearly impossible to match by anyone), The Whole Love does prove to be an impressive mix and match of songs that highlight the band's styles and previous efforts, and the two opening tracks are the best examples of this. "Art of Almost" is a wonderfully audacious opening track, going all out immediately. It's a seven minute song that ends up going in several different directions, but without being distracting. It opens with a grainy techno beat before seamlessly moving into a steady rhythm, with Tweedy's voice blending with the myriad of sounds going on behind him. Lyrically, it's mildly poetic and doesn't insist on offering a lot to take in, but the focus is on the music, which stuns with its ups and downs and alternations between dance and drone. Normally, this would seem like too much, or like a band trying to show off, but instead, it works as a potential culmination of the styles for which the band is known. They're at home with softer, more introspective songs that feel like poetry set to music, but they can also veer into experimental use of noise. Only after this is the album's first single presented, and having heard "I Might" first, it's an excellent set-up.

When "I Might" was released, it felt like a throwback to 1999's Summerteeth, a catchy, hard-rock jam that allows the contributions of everyone in the band to be heard, a far cry from the arc and technical flourishes of "Art Of Almost." Going by "I Might" alone, one wouldn't have been faulted for assuming that Wilco would revisiting their early sounds. Taking the songs alone, this is true, but having the stunning lead-in only leads to more intrigue. After two drastically different openers, the listener becomes more curious as to what follows. Most importantly, The Whole Love doesn't start off feeling like a "best-of" collection, but rather a reminder of how their previous works have evolved. It's also a nice reinforcement of the concept of the album, rather than a "concept album;" the openers feel strategically placed for this purpose. Again, there's nothing particularly inventive about Jeff Tweedy's lyrics on these songs, which emphasizes everyone else's contributions.

Afterward, the album maintains a continually strong effort. The lyrics end up coming into focus, especially on "Sunloathe" and "Born Alone," the latter containing pieces that rank right up with some of Tweedy's most evocative words, with many potential avenues of interpretation. Unlike the opening tracks, it becomes a better blend of music and lyrics, and also another example of The Whole Love's multiplicities. Sometimes, even the most somber lyrics are presented in the album's more up-tempo songs.

I am the driver at the wheel of the order, marching circles at the gate/
My eyes have seen the flurry, so flattered by fate

For all the mention of Tweedy, the album does feel like one of their better collaborative efforts. Nels Cline's guitar playing always works amazingly well in two ways, featured and as part of the combination, and Pat Sansone has a hand in the album's production. Even though Tweedy's troubles with the late Jay Bennett have been heavily documented, with each passing Wilco album, there's a definite feeling of mutual creativity. While Tweedy is still their face and primary songwriter, there seems to be much more cohesion and input from everyone.

There is only one real critique of The Whole Love: it seems to be the least "album-like" of any of their previous works. For all of the unity of both the band members and the variations on the sounds, it does feel like a collection of (very good) songs, rather than a piece that has any real connection as a whole. However, given their unsteady nature as of late, this can be easily overlooked and forgiven. This is easily their best album in the last seven years, and their independence seems to have made them flourish. I hope that the future brings even more experimental work with their sounds. It's rare to hear a work, or a band, that manages to slip between minimalism, all-out experimentation, and just plain classic rock songs. So in a sense, The Whole Love truly is a Wilco album: they haven't fallen, and there are still new areas of creativity to explore as their years go on. Their identity is the album's theme.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...