Thursday, 17 November 2011

(500) Words Review: The Rum Diary

For those perturbed by the dysfunctional nature of The Rum Diary, the clue lies in the title. The original book itself is a fictional serialisation by Hunter S Thompson of his stint at the San Juan Star in 1960, in between unabashed hedonism. If you seek a coherent story, look elsewhere.

But here’s the irony: it’s not incoherent. Not nearly enough. Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp consumes 161 miniatures from the mini bar, necks 470 proof alcohol and takes a haunting trip (‘Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet’), but the madness is tame. And the alcohol seems diluted.

Already the film has tanked in the US, indicating a growing weariness with Depp’s career path the past decade. It’s also a symptom of not countenancing atypical storytelling, courtesy of Withnail and I writer and director Bruce Robinson’s return to cinema. The clash of cultures doesn’t appease the sensitive souls across the Atlantic – this is Robinson’s first film since 1992’s Jennifer Eight – an experience he found so horrific that he swore never to direct again. A promise he held for 17 years before accepting Depp’s offer to return to the chair.

Robinson admitted that he used just two lines from the novel and preferred to imbue the screenplay with his own surrogate imagination of Thompson’s. As a task, he succeeds, however rather than utilise a discombobulating Gonzo-inspired narrative, the film’s intentions become muddled. Various tones are meshed to such arid proportions that all the steam on the Thompson Express is spent within the first hour.

And again Depp’s Pirates shtick re-emerges in what is becoming laziness on his behalf. It backfired spectacularly in Alice in Wonderland and here the monotony to which audiences have grown accustomed to fails once more. He awakes in his trashed hotel room, hungover and eyes bloodshot, but his enviably toned torso and floppy hair obliterates the shock factor. In fact, he has rarely looked more like his in Cry-Baby (1990) greaser.

The support is insufficient too. Amber Heard’s vivacious eye candy is just that whilst Aaron Eckhart, still attracted to crooked roles, has also succumbed to the boredom that Depp invariably induces. Michael Rispoli (Sala) and Giovanni Ribisi (Moburg) energise proceedings and understand the Thompson ethos as Kemp’s debauched cohorts yet Richard Jenkins, a gifted comic actor, is utterly miscast.

Easy targets such as the American Dream, although an interesting subject matter when handled deftly, act as a redundant cliché taking up too much of the running time. Possibly a comment on the modern state of journalism and its ostensible impotence, it is nevertheless an incongruous inclusion.

Sharp dialogue and raucous set-pieces lift the 16mm retro image of Puerto Rico, but the rum has been spiked with pretentiousness.

Friday, 4 November 2011

(500) Words Review: The Adventures of Tintin

The last time audiences flocked to a Steven Spielberg-directed flick, they trudged out disconsolate at the soul-shattering shambles that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Although occupied with producing commitments, he hasn’t been this profligate since a well-deserved four-year sojourn after 1993’s Schindler’s List. Maybe he was soul-searching.

But as the old adage goes, form is temporary and class is permanent. Spielberg began shooting The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn two-and-a-half-years ago, which possibly illustrates his determination to settle back into the director’s chair. And in the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of Hergé’s roving Belgian reporter (Spielberg purchased the rights 18 years ago), the hallmarks have returned, but all too blatantly.

An amalgamation of the tales The Crab with the Golden Claws and the two-parter The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin (Jamie Bell) and faithful dog Snowy investigate Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig)’s fascination with a model of the Unicorn ship. Swiftly embroiled in danger, the intrepid duo collaborate with the quaffed and grizzled Haddock (Andy Serkis) to unravel the mystique and mystery behind the 17th century vessel.

Hergé commented before his death in 1983 that Spielberg was the only director who could do justice to his comic creation. Evidently citing Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), that film is a recurring presence in a motion-capture adventure 30 years later. An escape sequence on a tramp steamer and a chase through African territory, although enjoyable, are animated rehashes benefitting from Michael Kahn’s rip-roaring editing.

Significantly, the latter two acts never hit the heights of the opening half hour. The noirish lighting, in what is assumed to be Brussels, sprinkles an element of danger upon proceedings as the story gathers momentum with balance and dexterity. But this isn’t matched by the globe-trotting travails in the continental heat, further handicapped by imbalanced recollections of Haddock’s ancestor.

One caveat with the motion-capture gimmick is that it is devoid of emotion-capture. And it is no coincidence that the sole actor who excels at this is the seasoned Serkis. Craig adopts a menacing tone as Sakharine but his nefariousness is limited to a couple of obligatory gestures that are deliberate prerequisites at the behest of 3-D; which is superfluous.

Serkis is the chief humourist too in comparison to the dry Tintin. Despite eponymous billing, the quiff plays second fiddle to Haddock, who showcases swash and buckle. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are supposed to be funny as bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson but are anything but. They even look uncomfortable behind their unrecognisable facet.

Visually, it is not the treat one would expect its creators to provide (Peter Jackson supervised and will direct the sequel) when they have both pushed the cinematic boundaries time and again. Although Super 8 was an antidote was retro chic, it was a spiritual remake of ET, and now Tintin flirts with donning a fedora. Influences are essential and homages are nostalgic, providing you’re Quentin Tarantino. Not if you’re Steven Spielberg.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

George Lucas is still ruining our childhood

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… a scriptwriter defined the childhood of a generation of beguiled youths with his planetary World War II-inspired saga that revolutionised the sci-fi genre. The original Star Wars trilogy shot George Lucas into the A list stratosphere after respectable indie efforts THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973), but then he came crashing back down to Earth.

For children of the second Star Wars generation, it’s not been as happy an intergalactic childhood. In 1999 the first of the prequels, The Phantom Menace, shattered the hopes of adults returning to the theatre in giddy anticipation and baffled their kids who had been schooled on one of film’s most beloved franchises.

Proving that Yazz weren’t always right, along then came Episode II: Attack of the Clones. As wooden as a Trojan Horse and beset with wretched dialogue that made Phantom Menace a work of Harold Pinter, something was afoot. Fans and critics still extended an invite for redemption after the first episode’s flaws (Jar Jar Binks) but as Oscar Wilde may have said, ‘To script one bad film would be an accident. To script two would seem like carelessness.’

Despite improvement with the series’ finale Revenge of the Sith, it was another lacklustre addition to one of pop culture’s biggest phenomenon's. Lucas had actually ended the original trilogy on a whimper with Return of the Jedi’s ‘Muppets in Space’ premise as a plethora of teddy bears toppled a nefarious empire. So although there was a 16-year gap between number six and number one, was it that shocking that Lucas had exhibited more hopeless storytelling?

An imaginative visionary he may be, but the evidence is damning, and he should not be allowed to inflict more misery on passionate film-goers. Yet three years on from the underwhelming end to Star Wars came Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and this time yours truly could gauge how the 80s Star Wars aficionados felt when trudging out from Phantom Menace.

In one foul swoop, another much-loved John Williams theme would be tainted with nightmarish visions, this time of Shia LaBeouf swinging from trees with monkeys. Now the Indiana Jones films are a case of two good, two bad after the dull MacGuffin (a plot element that drives the plot), shrieking incessancy of Kate Capshaw and irritating kid sidekick Short Round in 1984s Temple of Doom. But soon the bad might outweigh the good.

Steven Spielberg, who has directed all four instalments, confirmed recently that Lucas was working on the script for a fifth outing. The worldwide ambivalence veers from demanding a fitting finale to compensate for the KOTCS catastrophe to dreading another 21st century Lucas film, with a side order of LaBeouf.

Justly, Spielberg is largely immune from criticism over Indy’s two failed excursions. His desire to delight new generations with their own Jaws or ET or Raiders of the Lost Ark seals his faith with fans, and his back catalogue ensures he is cut a thick slice of slack rather than the wafer thin wedge placed on Lucas’ plate. Heartening too were his recent comments over Lucas and KOTCS.

‘George is in charge of breaking the stories. He's done it on all four movies. Whether I like the stories or not, George has broken all the stories,’ he said in Empire. That’s both a compliment (Raiders and The Last Crusade) but most tellingly, a criticism of his best friend. And the friendship appears to be the problem.

‘George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn't want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings,’ he added. ‘But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in - even if I don't believe in it - I'm going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it.’

That’s arguably a blotch on Spielberg’s copybook because the audience should be of paramount importance in the process of movie-making. If he and Lucas aren’t pulling in the same direction, even two of cinema’s 70s sensations can cook up a bona fide disaster and will consequently lose trust in the audience.

LaBeouf, although reviled by the fedora following, was candid enough to share his discomfort with the finished product: ‘I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished. Harrison (Ford) wasn’t happy with it either.’ Ford however dubbed his castmate a ‘fucking idiot’ for his retrospective comments, another example of blinded loyalty within the Lucas circle.

Even with a lucrative project brimming with a talented ensemble Lucas causes chaos before, during and after. The recent release of Star Wars on Blu-ray has angered many disenchanted with the digitalised tinkering that betrays the ethos of why the films were originally made. An undeniably creative filmmaker, Lucas' stubbornness over his babies needs another step-parent so that another bastard isn’t born.