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Capsule reviews #2

Well, it’s been awhile since the last podcast, and the movies are starting to pile up at my feet, so it’s time for another round of capsule reviews.

I’m going to do these a little differently this time. I often watch groups of movies that fit together. Sometimes it’ll be a bunch of westerns, or maybe some film noir. This time around, I’m going to talk about three pairs of films: two from the mind of Hunter S. Thompson, two more from Charlie Kaufman, and a couple of sci-fi classics.

… And maybe one more just for kicks.

The Rum Diary (2011) & Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)

Alright, let’s break this down. Both these movies are based on books written by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Both books were fictionalized accounts of Thompson’s actual experiences. And both movie adaptations feature Johnny Depp playing a (sort of) journalist. Still with me? Awesome.

Watching these movies back-to-back was a strange experience. I’d seen Fear And Loathing previously, but I’m just now catching The Rum Diary on DVD. Both films are largely plotless, but while this works well for Fear And Loathing, it really doesn’t for The Rum Diary. Fear And Loathing makes up for its lack of story with oodles of drugged-out insanity as rendered by the demented mind of director Terry Gilliam. You might not like the film, but I defy you to find it boring to watch.

In contrast, The Rum Diary has a much more subdued esthetic. I get it, in a way. It’s set in San Juan in the late fifties. The whole atmosphere should seem sedate in comparison to seventies-era Vegas. But even taking that into account, this movie just feels dull, and there’s really nothing to distract you from the aimlessness of the plotting.

What’s really interesting about these films to me is that while Fear And Loathing is undoubtedly the crazier of the two, it’s also more insightful than The Rum Diary. There’s a particular inspired speech in Fear And Loathing concerning the death of the American dream. Thompson himself considered it some of his best writing, and who am I to disagree?

There’s stuff to like about The Rum Diary. Depp is as good as he can be given what he has to work with. And the supporting cast includes Amber Heard, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi and the criminally underused Mike Rispoli. They’re all great. I just don’t know why you’d make this movie. Fans of Fear And Loathing who are expecting a period version of that film will be disappointed. The same goes for fans of Thompson who might’ve hoped for some insight into his formative years as a journalist. I’ve heard the book is good, so maybe check that out, but otherwise skip The Rum Diary and enjoy the madness that is Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) & Being John Malkovich (1999)

“Hollywood” and “originality” are two words that don’t seem to go together much these days. But few, if any, writer/directors working in Hollywood today are even a tenth as original as Charlie Kaufman. This guy wrinkles my brain every time out.

So where to even begin? A lot of the fun with Kaufman’s movies lies in discovering the quirks of the worlds his characters inhabit. So to be vague, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is about a world where you can erase your memories, and Being John Malkovich is about a world where you can literally enter the brain of John Malkovich via a portal. That really doesn’t begin to do the weirdness justice, but I have to start somewhere.

Of the two films, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is easily my favourite. It’s the world as we know it, but with one change that affects everything. So it’s grounded in reality (more or less). Being John Malkovich is just bizarre, and it seems to be that way for no particular reason. For example, the protagonist of the film, Craig (played by John Cusack), spends his days working on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of an office building (where everyone has to walk around doubled over because the ceilings are four feet high). Just because. His wife Lotte (played by Cameron Diaz in a fright wig), has some sort of obsession with animals that’s never really explained. Those are just two examples, but basically there’s a lot of random, weird, quirky stuff for the sake of random, weird, quirky stuff.

This isn’t to say I don’t like the movie, because I do. I can honestly say I’ve never seen another like it, and that’s a pretty rare experience these days. It’s got some fantastic funny moments and it’s for sure worth seeing. But there’s better stuff from Kaufman out there.

Speaking of which, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. This might be one of my favourite movies of the 2000s… Er… The oughts? The noughties? Whatever we’re calling that decade. I’m talking about 2000 to 2009, here. Anyway, what a great film. It’s got the same wild originality as Being John Malkovich but all the details make sense too. Nothing gets thrown in just for the hell of it.

You’ve got Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as Joel and Clementine, two people who meet on the train one day and begin a rocky relationship. Carrey and Winslet are great, playing both the comedic and dramatic moments in the film (and there are plenty of both) perfectly. The supporting cast is wonderful as well: Kristen Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, etc.

This is probably my favourite performance from Jim Carrey. Sure, it’s fun to see him ham it up and be wacky (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, etc.), but here he’s more subdued. It’s similar to his role in The Truman Show. He’s really just a normal guy caught in a bizarre situation. A lot of the film is just him reacting to Winslet’s Clementine. She’s the impulsive one who’s prone to sudden shifts in demeanour. Even her hair colour is unpredictable. The two have a really interesting dynamic.

And again, the smaller roles are really well done – not just from an acting standpoint, but also in terms of writing. There’s a large portion of the movie where the action keeps cutting away from Joel and Clementine, and it all works because the actors are so likeable. Ruffalo and Wood are funny together. Ruffalo as the well-meaning goof and Wood as his troublemaking friend. But Dunst has the most interesting of the peripheral characters. She starts out seeming businesslike, spends the middle of the movie being kind of cute and funny, and then her character takes another turn and winds up in a bit of a dark place. It all works, and it’s because she’s such a great actress that it does.

Check out Being John Malkovich if you’re in the mood for something really out there and off-the-wall. For something bit more grounded and character based (but still extremely original), I highly recommend Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.

Alien (1979) & Blade Runner (1982)

I’ll try to be brief here, because realistically if you’re any kind of movie fan you’ll already have seen both of these. I had, but not for a long time, so another viewing seemed in order.

One of the interesting things about comparing these two movies is how they both take familiar genres and give them a little sci-fi twist. Alien is basically a haunted house movie, except instead of a ghost in an abandoned mansion, it’s an alien on an abandoned spaceship. Blade Runner is like a detective movie from the forties, except instead of tracking ordinary criminals, the hero is hunting killer robot humanoids.

Both films feature great main characters. In Alien, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is kick-ass, take charge female lead. And in Blade Runner, Harrison Ford’s Deckard is like any good noir hero: a lone wolf with a murky back story.

Of the two films, I like Blade Runner a little more. I’m a huge film noir fan, so I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Don’t get me wrong, Alien is still a damn good movie. Weaver is perfectly cast, and the titular H.R. Geiger-designed Alien is simply badass.

But there’s something about Blade Runner that just fascinates me. I think part of its appeal is its history. It’s been released in a number of different versions, and everyone seems to have their favourite. The original theatrical release had a studio-imposed happy ending, and featured voice-over narration from Harrison Ford. Some people enjoy this version, and I can see the argument for it to some degree. I like the idea behind the narration. It adds to the notion of Blade Runner being a neo-noir. Deckard is essentially Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, just in another time and place. But the actual execution of the idea is not so good. The narration isn’t particularly well-written, nor is it terribly well-delivered by Ford. As for the ending, it feels tacked-on and out of place.

More to the point, whether you like these changes or not, they weren’t what director Ridley Scott envisioned. The 25th anniversary edition of Blade Runner (also called the “Final Cut” edition) solves these issues. Scott got to do exactly what he wanted with it. The narration is gone, and so is the happy ending. Scott restored his original vision, and made numerous other more subtle changes that really bring everything together. This is definitely the version to see.

One of the nice things about these movies is that despite their sci-fi trappings, they’ve aged remarkably well. There was only one moment in each film that felt even remotely off to me. In Alien, it’s a dated effect involving a disembodied head. In Blade Runner it’s a title card that reveals the setting of the film to be Los Angeles in 2019. I’m no tech expert, but I’m guessing flying cars and robots that are virtually indistinguishable from humans are probably more than seven years away.

In the end, these films are musts for any film buff, or any sci-fi fan, or… well, anyone really. These are great movies that still hold up today, so give ‘em a look.

Asylum (1972)

I saved this one for last because I wanted to talk about it in a little more detail. It’s not quite so familiar as some of the other titles I discussed above, and it doesn’t really fit on the podcast because of its genre (as I’ve mentioned before, my co-host and horror movies don’t mix).

Asylum was one of a string of anthology horror movies released by UK production studio Amicus during the sixties and seventies. Let me start by saying I love the idea of anthology movies. They’re particularly well-suited for the horror genre because the individual tales typically require very little setup, and they usually end with some kind of twist or otherwise memorable payoff. Put together four or five such stories and you’ve got something that should keep the viewer’s interest throughout.

Asylum only partially succeeds in this regard. The framing story is a clever one, involving a doctor who’s applying for a job at an asylum. Told the previous person in charge has gone mad, the new applicant is tasked with interviewing four different patients, and determining which one is the former head of the asylum.

The acting is generally okay, and even approaches excellent in places. Peter Cushing makes a memorable appearance in one story, and Charlotte Rampling stars in another (by far my favourite tale of the bunch). I also really enjoyed the music. Asylum leans heavily on classical compositions – specifically the work of Modest Mussorgsky. If you aren’t already familiar with him or his music, I highly recommend checking him out.

Overall though, there’s just not much going on here. Asylum is repetitive, and not particularly scary. To start with, three of the four stories deal with bringing something dead or inanimate to life. By itself, this isn’t a big deal. Lots of movies recycle plot devices this way. Maybe it’s a bit unoriginal, but it’s not the end of the world.

What really kills this movie for me is the effects. Simply put, they are ridiculously cheesy. I’m sorry, but seeing a mannequin or little figurine or severed limb slowly move around isn’t scary, it’s just plain silly.

As I alluded to earlier, there is at least one good story in the batch. It features Charlotte Rampling as a woman with a split personality. She pulls off the best acting in the entire production. Just as importantly, her story is free from the cheeseball elements that hamper the others. No bad effects, no nonsense, just good old-fashioned psychological thrills. In retrospect, it’s hard to tell if it’s actually a good story, or if I just liked it because it was so clearly better than the others. Either way, it’s probably not enough to recommend Asylum as a whole, though genre fans may find the film worth a look.

I’m not much for remakes, but I would really love to see this movie updated. Anthology films have fallen out of favour in recent years, but as 2007’s Trick ‘R Treat proved, they can still be done right. (Although to be fair, doing it right and actually making money while you’re at it are two different things. Warner Brothers sat on Trick ‘R Treat for years, then unceremoniously dumped it to DVD.)

Anyway, I do think Asylum has potential. Like I said, I like the overall concept here. Keep the framing story, update some of the tales in between, and I think you’ve got a winner. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt them to add a little blood in there somewhere. I’m no gore hound, but this is one of the least bloody horror movies I’ve ever seen.

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