Friday, October 28, 2011

The Rum Diary Review

With Bruce Robinson’s new film “The Rum Diary” being based on an early book by famed gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, it’s hard not to compare it to Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaption of Thompson’s later book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

The two share similarities. They both have protagonists who are looking for something and escaping from something else. Also, there’s plenty of partying and drugged out adventures. There are fewer drugs in “The Rum Diary” (mostly just rum) compared to the smorgasbord of narcotics in “Fear and Loathing,” but plenty of partying nonetheless. Partying that’s entertaining but repetitive.

However, “The Rum Diary” isn’t nearly as incoherent and messy as “Fear and Loathing.” It’s still a weird fantasy but it stays on track instead of meandering around (for a while anyway). To put it another way, it’s not just one big drug induced haze.

The film is set in 1960’s San Juan Puerto Rico, which by the way, looks beautiful. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski brings out the sparkling, sunny beaches and the old deteriorating buildings of the city. While Chris Seagers’ production design along with Christopher Young’s swingy, jazzy score gives the film an authentic 60’s look and feel.

 Paul Kemp, played by Johnny Depp (who is basically Hunter Thompson) is a freelance reporter who is looking for his writing voice and trying to get away from all the chaos of America. He takes a job at a struggling newspaper, The San Juan Star, in hopes to cover the Puerto Rican culture, but since Puerto Rico is a U.S territory, it is essentially controlled by Americans. So naturally his somewhat corrupt American editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, fantastic as always but underused) wants him to cover the light stuff.

Depp is no stranger to playing bizarre characters, or Thompson personas for that matter (he played Raoul Duke in “Fear and Loathing”). Depp plays Paul twitchy, jittery and slightly paranoid. He isn’t nearly as animated as Duke, or many of the other characters Depp has played but that isn’t a bad thing. Paul does drink…a lot, but he does it nonchalantly with his slicked back hair and thick dark shades covering his bloodshot eyes as a result of a drinking binge the night before.

Overall, the central theme in “The Rum Diary” is the whole issue of class. The rich and the poor. The natives are the poor and dirty grunts, while the Americans are the rich greedy, clean ones. Smoking their cigars and driving their fast cars. Not surprising, coming from Thompson. There are even some shots at Nixon.

 This is where the other plot comes in. Paul runs into the smooth, arrogant and corrupt businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who, along with a few other arrogant and corrupt businessmen, wants to exploit a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico by building a chain of fancy resorts and they want Paul to write the brochures.

Though, the picture isn’t preachy by any means. Hunter doesn’t shove all this political stuff down your throat. It’s still a wacky adventure and it shouldn’t be taken as anything more. The script, by Robinson, is filled with a number of clever one-liners, such as “Don’t confuse love with lust and judgment with drunkenness.”

 Eventually the film loses its footing, tripping and staggering all over the place. The fancy resort story gets built up fairly well but then it’s just abruptly abandoned and the film goes to back to the newspaper plot. The picture gets side tracked on numerous occasions and goes off on crazy tangents. Like when the paper gets shut down and the staff decides to print one last issue of the paper to expose the truth of everything. But first they have to get money so Paul and his friend Sala (Michael Rispoli) go to a cockfight, but before they can do that they have to take their chicken to a kooky witch doctor to get it blessed. Plus there were a few extended sequences throughout that slowed it down tremendously, like when Paul and Sala trip out on a drug you take in through your eyes.

 The good thing about adapting a Hunter S Thompson book is that you know you’ll get a unique story and “The Rum Diary” isn’t your average adventure film. Yes, it’s a little unfocused but it’s still wildly entertaining and amusing.  And Johnny Depp in his element is always fun to watch.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Paranormal Activity review

What’s scarier? A horror film that makes you scream like a little girl while watching it? Or a horror movie that comes back to haunt you long after you’ve finished it and you’re alone in your dark room trying to get to sleep?

I ask this question because this is the issue I’ve had with “Paranormal Activity.” A film that fits in the “found footage” horror sub-genre that’s been widely overused in the past few years.

Its fatal flaw is lasting appeal. As good as it is at building up suspense and terror, it can’t sustain multiple viewings because its scare tactics are so simple that they become stale after one seeing. This is the problem the first movie had, it’s the problem the sequel had and, I fear, it’s the problem this new installment will have.

“Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, is a prequel to the supernatural events that took place in first two movies. With prequels it’s usually good and bad. Good, because we get to see the origin of the ghost…or demon…or whatever it is that tormented the two sisters, Katie (Kaite Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) from the first two (Katie in the first, Kristi in the second). But bad because we ultimately know where it’s going. We know what happens to the sisters, so the ending, while still surprising isn’t too surprising. Also (and this is the problem I had with the second film) there’s not a lot of difference in the way the story’s told. The same basic structure of gradual tension buildup is still here.

“PA3” takes us back to 1988, when Katie and Kristi are young, living with their mom Julie (Lauren Bitter) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). One day, after an earthquake, the family starts to experience spooky things. So Dennis decides to put a bunch of cameras all around the house to catch the invisible entities in the act because…you know…otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

The ghostly activity starts off slow. A couple creaks and moans. A few fake outs. The long, drawn out night sequences, in which we see most of the spookiness as well as some creepy sleepwalking. Then things start to heat up. Objects and people get thrown around and beaten up. During the day, the characters take time to watch, talk and argue about the new footage. There’s a brief scene where we learn about some historical occult ritual involving young girls that will show up later in the movie.

It’s also good to mention that a couple clich├ęs from other ghost movies sneak their way in. Kristi spends a lot of time talking to her imaginary friend Toby (who is actually the ghost). There’s even a scene where the poor babysitter gets tormented.

Now, all of this is hit and miss. There were a few jumpy and clever scenes here and there. Scenes I can’t go into detail about in this review because, really, that’s all this movie has going for it. Let’s just say a game of Bloody Mary goes horribly wrong. But for a majority of the scares you could kind of anticipate when they were going to happen; as a result the movie was sometimes boring. And as for the ending, while shocking, it was a little underwhelming.

To be fair Joost and Shulman deserve some credit. The directors behind last year’s mysterious Facebook documentary (?) “Cat Fish,” do a fine job of making the movie look authentic, adding a bit of wear to the footage, since it’s from the 80’s. Also, all the actors are perfectly convincing (particularly the two girls who play the young Katie and Kristi). Their reactions to the paranormal phenomena don’t feel staged. They reacted like any person aware of ghosts would act.

After watching three of these movies I’ve come to learn that none of them are really scary, or at least not in the same way a movie like “The Shining” is, but more like the kind of fright you experience when you ride a rollercoaster. At the preview screening I attended, every time the audience would scream, laughter would immediately follow. “Paranormal Activity” is the kind of movie you go to see with your friends at the midnight showing to have a fun time, and “PA3” should get the job done. But no need to sleep with the lights on.