The Rum Diary (2011, Bruce Robinson) – It’s much nicer to see Johnny Depp go back to the well of Hunter S. Thompson adaptations than it is watching him sleepwalk through another go at Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s also nice to see director Robinson (The Killing Fields) back behind the camera for his first feature in 19 years. Together Depp, Thompson, and Robinson might lead to some audience members having unrealistically high expectations, but The Rum Diary still manages to be pretty great, working even better on the small screen than it did in theatres.
Depp plays Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp, an alcoholic burn-out reporter with a fake resume who recently arrived in late 1950s Puerto Rico to write bullshit public interest stories and horoscopes. Kemp forms an uneasy alliance with a wealthy land developer searching for good press (Aaron Eckhart), and starts to crush on the man’s main squeeze (Amber Heard). Through this man, Kemp learns how the better half lives in on the island, and how their treatment of the locals makes his job look like a joke.
Depp fits the material well, seeming more engaged and energized than he has been in quite some time, and Robinson’s direction hasn’t missed a step despite the long sabbatical. But this film really belongs to the supporting players, including the excellent Eckart, the sexy and smart Heard, and witty turns from Kemp’s newsroom colleagues played by Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, and a truly unhinged Giovanni Ribisi. The script houses the film’s only wonky bits, with a first half that spends far too much time setting up local colour, before switching to a second half that wants to race to the conclusion. It wraps up far too neatly for a film about a bunch of people with loose morals.
Those flaws are more forgivable at home than in a theatre, with a Blu-ray that really brings out the colours of old Puerto Rico very beautifully. The sound mix isn’t anything special, but this isn’t a movie one exactly buys to impress the neighbours by deafening them. Not much in the special features and no commentary from Robinson. There’s only a few cast and crew interviews, but the film itself is a welcome addition to the collections of Depp and Thompson completists.
The Dead (2011, Howard J. Ford and Jon Ford) – As imperfect as it might be, this zombie horror movie from the Ford brothers feels closer in tone to George A. Romero’s original Night/Dawn/Day trilogy than any of that director’s most recent films. The zombies are as slow as ever and there’s atmosphere to spare, but it also has a more subtle socio-political subtext that’s been missing from the subgenre for quite some time.
The Dead wastes no time getting started as the action is picked up in the middle of an already established zombie outbreak in Western Africa. Following the crash of the last air evacuation of Americans in the area, the plane’s pilot (Rob Freeman) washes back ashore and is forced to fight for his survival in a land now overrun with the undead. Aided by a local soldier searching for his son (Prince David Osei), the unlikely pair find a beat up pick up truck and begin scour the countryside for the boy and any beaten up plane they might be able to use to fly out of harm’s way.
The acting from the leads is passable, but most of the emphasis here is on the filmmaking. The film makes the bold decision to stage large segments of the film without dialogue, and it pays off. The Ford’s seem very intent on letting their visuals tell the story here, and they’re playing to their strong suit. This is a great looking film with some subtle political commentary on the current state of African politics, where the zombies might seem local, but could easily be symbolic of Western and European intervention efforts. The biggest problem with the film would be the almost unconscionable 106 minute running time, which runs out of dramatic steam about 20 minutes before the conclusion, making the audience cognizant of the padding from earlier in the film.
The crisp looking Blu-ray boasts a killer 5.1 sound mix that will catch many people off guard and the contrast really brings out the colours of the African countryside. Not too much in the way of special features; just a brief featurette and a deleted scenes, but fans of the movie will likely get a kick out of the jovial and candid commentary from the directors about the dangers and beauty of filming in Africa.
The Future is Now! (2011, Gary Burns and Jim Brown) – Not quite a documentary and not quite a narrative, the latest film from the makers of the similarly blurred Radiant City – which used actors to create a broader discussion about urbanism – have created an even harder film to peg down. This story about a cynic’s search for optimism through an exploration of art forms that can be seen as some to be “pretentious” falls somewhere between the philosophical musings of a documentary like Surviving Progress and a fictional film like I Heart Huckabees, but somehow less serious and more loose in tone than those films.
Liane Balaban and Paul Ahmarani star as diametrically opposed modern personalities. Balaban, known only as The Woman of Tomorrow, is a journalist investigating people’s fears for the future, when she meets The Man of Today (Ahmarani), a pseudo-Libertarian who hates labels and has absolutely no concerns for the future and has no real reason in his mind to care. Drawn in by his articulate nature and abject pessimism, she eventually gets the man to agree to go on a whirlwind tour talking to artists and academics with optimistic views on the future in hopes to rid him of his apathy. While Balaban and Ahmarani play fictional characters, the subjects they interview are real including talks with Alain de Botton, Richard Dawkins, and the ghost of Jean Paul Sartre. Okay, that last one isn’t real., but he’s still in the film.
The characters are interesting and the performances are winning from the two leads, but the real meat of the film is the well informed and thoughtful interviews. The only real problem comes from the lengthy fictional set-up that manages to be interesting, but actually detracts from the impact the journey has one Ahmarani’s character. Still, this featureless DVD does have more intellectual value than any other film’s released over the past few weeks. It’s like spending time with a good book or public radio show; an entertaining diversion with a greater purpose.
The Sunset Limited (2011, Tommy Lee Jones) – Technically this was a release from last week, but I dropped the ball on it because I thought it was this week. The second film directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones (this one a made for HBO film) still warrants a few words simply because of two great performances from actors at the top of their game and source material written by one of the finest writers of our generation.
Based on the play by writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road), The Sunset Limited is a simple story about two men – one black (Samuel L. Jackson) and one white (Jones) – squaring off in a philosophical battle of wits set in a dingy New York City apartment. Jackson plays a Southerner ex-con saved by the grace of God who tries to talk both faith and sense into a man who just tried to kill himself by jumping in front of a subway train. Jones plays the man Jackson is scared to see leave; a former philosophy professor who seemingly believes in nothing outside of the harsh, cold realities that drove him to try suicide.
HBO and home video are the best places for a film like this, since it’s very much a stage play and not very cinematic. At times it does suffer from the usual teleplay trappings that makes one wish they were actually in the theatre experiencing the play with others instead of just watching it on television, but Jones knows the material from front to back, translating into two excellent performances enhanced by some really great production design on the one room they find themselves locked within.
For a production this simple, it’s of little surprise that there aren’t a ton of special features. There’s a 5-minute behind the scenes featurette, but the real appeal here is an audio commentary with Jones, Jackson, and the usually media shy McCarthy. Then again, anyone who has listened to Jones talk knows to expect long gaps without him saying anything. It’s not the most kinetic commentary in the world, but there are some really great insights here for patient listeners. The real attraction here is still the movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Devil’s Rock (2011, Paul Campion) – Despite a pretty sensationalist DVD cover and the fact this it’s a horror movie about Nazis, the New Zealand horror import The Devil’s Rock takes on the form of a more slow burning character study with numerous surprises and twists all done on a low budget. It’s quite thoughtful and inventive when it could have very easily been standard 70s grade exploitation fare.
A pair of Allied soldiers (Craig Hall and Karlos Drinkwater) are sent on the eve of D-Day in 1944 to the Channel Islands to blow up a large German canon. The pair become distracted by the sounds of a woman screaming from inside the Nazi base. Once inside the pair discover that all but one of the soldiers (with Matthew Sunderland playing the lone survivor) have been eviscerated or are dead from self inflicted gun shot wounds. They have stumbled across a secret Nazi plan to unleash a real life She Devil of the SS: a demon from hell that can change the face of the war.
Campion, who once worked extensively as a matte painter for WETA Digital and who most recently supervised the matte painting for Scorsese’s Hugo, shows his chops as a feature filmmaker with the more cerebral than “balls to the wall” horror film. Campion manages his first big twist after only 18-minutes and following a very low key opening that does wonders for building tension. With a small cast of essentially four principal actors, it’s almost hard to believe the film can sustain even an 86 minute running time, but despite being quite talky, the dialogue and situations within are consistently engaging. The last shot is a slight letdown (mid-credits stinger not withstanding) and Sunderland’s playing a “Valkyrie Nazi” (meaning not even attempting an accent) which might be off putting to some, but there’s nothing all that bad about the film and it’s certainly better than it has any real right to be.
The DVD also comes surprisingly stacked with special features. There’s five in-depth featurettes totalling over an hour in length that take the viewer from preproduction all the way through post, including some really cool looks inside the WETA creature workshop. The featurettes go nicely with Campion’s enthusiastic and thoughtful commentary track. There are also breakdowns of the visual effects, examinations of multiple camera angles used in some sequences, extended takes, and even an outtake reel. The DVD package definitely shows that Campion learned more than a thing or two from WETA head honcho Peter Jackson. It’s not quite as gonzo as Jackson’s early work, but it definitely seems like the kind of film he could get behind.
Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols) – You’re probably wondering why this title is buried at the bottom of this week’s round-up of DVDs. In all honestly, no copies of the DVD or Blu-ray (which I hope looks as amazing as it did on the big screen) were available for review despite its release today. However, being one of the best films of last year and the most unjustly screwed film at the Oscars and Golden Globes, it deserves more than a mere mention in the “Also being released this week” category. Take Shelter holds more power and beauty in ten seconds of film than ten thousand copies of The Help.
Michael Shannon gives a career defining performance as a sand and gravel worker and family man, named Curtis, who begins having visions of an impending apocalyptic storm. Sparked on by his visions, he begins to build a shelter for his wife (Jessica Chastain, in her best performance in a busy 2011 for the young actress) and his deaf daughter. Curtis begins to scare everyone around him and even himself as the visions become more vivid and painful. Is this all in his head and a by-product of family inherited schizophrenia or does he really have something to fear?
One of the best looks at mental illness ever committed to film. Nichols makes the parallels between weather patterns and a clouded mind apparent, but never annoyingly obvious. Nichols and Shannon do a great job making the viewer equally empathize and pull away from Curtis in his darkest hour. Just like the main character, parts of you want Curtis to be wrong and get help, but for all his torment, you almost hope he’s right. This is a must see and hopefully it finds the audience it rightfully deserves on home video.
Also out this week: The highest grossing film in Brazilian history, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, outdoes the original Elite Squad, but it’s just barely more than the average run of the mill corrupt cops films of North America. The thoroughly annoying, off-putting, and inexplicably lauded hipster dramedy Tiny Furniture, about a depressed former student moving back to New York City to live with her successful mother. Oh, and that second Human Centipede movie, which might be the ultimate in just throwing up one’s hands and simply saying “Who gives a shit?”