Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Aug 10, 2007


It’s a tough week for the homebound film fan. Unless you can get out and hit a Cineplex, or find the opportunity to enjoy an out of the way arthouse offering, the choices churned up buy the pay cable channels are “challenging”, to put it mildly. Two are clearly not worth your time, and another follows the familiar strains of the “go team” genre to a “T”. As a matter of fact, you could probably use your experience within this particular entertainment dynamic and just fudge to your friends about how this ‘football as faith healer’ work turns out. Indeed, some will look at SE&L’s selection, quite ‘controversial’ to say the least, and believe we’ve slipped a few aesthetic cogs. While horror is frequently marginalized as the bottom feeder of the film arena, many consider what Eli ‘wrought’ to be degradation at its most decadent. Of course, you can always wander down the page and pick out something suggested from the Indie or Outsider section. In any case, there should be something to reward your entertainment intentions comes 11 August, beginning with:


Premiere Pick
Hostel


Eli Roth took a lot of grief for delivering what many consider the opening volley in a new, sick cinematic genre – torture porn. But his ‘gorno’ leanings aside, this film remains one of nu-horror’s defining moments. Disregard its ugly American undercurrent, its obvious swipes at male-pattern sexism, and the notion of Eastern Europe as an enclave of ‘anything for a buck’ opportunists, but this benchmark movie will, in the future, stand as something significant. It works as both satire and scarefest, walking effortlessly between its bravado and body parts. Some will accuse the filmmaker of lowering the level of motion picture macabre, but such a staunch criticism is missing the point. Hostel functions as the opening salvo in the latest example of post post-modern genre tweaking. It may not always be pleasant to look at, but it’s obviously unable to be dismissed outright. Otherwise, why would we still be talking about it so long after its release? Time will only add to its tripwire tension. (11 August, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Man of the Year


Robin Williams tries desperately to reinvigorate his failing serious satire status by once again teaming with his Good Morning, Vietnam co-hort, Barry Levinson. The results, however, are far from ribtickling. Indeed, most critics were caught off guard by the movie’s second act switch into political conspiracy theorizing, more or less vacating the “Everyman as President” plot. This is definitely not Dave, nor is it a return to form for the fading funnyman. (11 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning


If Hostel represents the future of fright (at least, during this recent renaissance), then this horrid, unnecessary prequel to the otherwise decent Michael Bay produced remake begins the death knell. Nauseating in its desire to undermine one of the more important franchises in all of horror, we wind up with an origin story that focuses more on R. Lee Emery’s “Sheriff” Hoyt than how the iconic Leatherface got his groove on.  (11 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Gridiron Gang


What former wunderkind Phil Joanou is doing helming this formulaic sports film is a mystery only mainstream Hollywood could solve. Granted, he does the moments of athleticism exceptionally well, but the rest of this pointless feel good fodder is just the same old clichés collected and metered out in the standard stereotypical way. Props also go to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for his excellent turn as a parole officer hoping football will straighten out his juvenile charges. He overcomes what should have overwhelmed. (11 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Gosord Park


While he was noted for jumping around genres, Robert Altman and the British drawing room whodunit seemed like the absolute oddest of cinematic pairings. Known for his complicated, interconnected takes on modern life (usually set within an unusual or telling situational backdrop), the twee aspects of such a film should have flown directly into the face of the antsy artist. But leave it to the man behind such brilliant, baffling works as 3 Women and Short Cuts to find the familiar humanism inside all the misplaced manners. With the fireworks generated by his A-list cast (no matter the project, Altman always worked with the best) and his attention to narrative detail, he lifted the standard murder mystery to shockingly sublime heights. As his definitive post-millennial effort, Gosford Park remains a delightful tangent for an otherwise very modern moviemaker. Aficionados of the auteur – and anyone else who likes quality cinema – should definitely check it out.  (15 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Acacia


Korea continues to differentiate itself from the typical J-Horror histrionics (the Japanese do prefer their spirits and superstitions) with efforts like this – a 2003 creepfest that focuses on a childless family and the unusual child they adopt. Things seem desperate for the Kim family, until little Mi-sook comes into their life. At first, he’s fine. Then the couple discovers that they are finally going to have a child of their own. Guess who doesn’t take the news all that well. (12 August, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle


For some reason, Alan Rudolph can’t break into the mainstream. His movies have always been viewed with a mostly favorable eye by critics, but audiences are turned off by his insular, obtuse take on cinema. A perfect example is this otherwise excellent look at the famous writer and her snide cohorts of the notorious Algonquin Round Table. It’s the perfect subject for a witty, biting comedy, and Rudolph gathered a primo cast. Audiences still ignored it. (12 August, IFC, 6:45PM EST)

C.R.A.Z.Y.


It’s a standard family drama with a unique allegorical twist. It’s a tired take on interpersonal relationships dolled up with unnecessary quirk. It’s energetic. It’s exasperating. It’s a 2005 Canadian effort that many have praised passionately, while others have dismissed as whimsy gone wonky. Thanks to the programmers at Sundance, you can make up your own mind. Will you come away a convert, or will you sit and stare in startled disbelief over how anything this hamfisted became so celebrated? (12 August, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dreamchild


Before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, Dennis Potter was famous for creating one of British television’s considered classics – 1986’s masterpiece The Singing Detective. But the year before, he developed a fantasy biography of the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson (also known to literary fans worldwide as Lewis Carroll), incorporating the fall out for the real life Alice with some sour, almost sinister views of the world beyond the rabbit hole and outside the looking glass. The intention was to infer as much as explain, using the religious figure’s too familiar obsession with the pre-pubescent child as a metaphor for the meaning inside of Wonderland’s surreal situations. When juxtaposed together – scenes of young Alice interacting with Dodgson, an older woman begrudgingly celebrating the infamous tome, animatronic character from the classic looking shabby and sounding seedy – we wind up with an intriguing interpretation of both the book and the man who made it. (15 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

Additional Choices
Price Night


It’s the Summer Under the Stars (or something like that) over at TCM, and in celebration of one of films foremost macabre maestros, the network will uncork a collection of Vincent Price standards. Highlights include The Tingler, The Last Man on Earth, and The Masque of the Red Death. While a few of the featured titles will test even the most ardent fan, the actor remains the golden standard of b-movie schlock. A marathon not to be missed. (10 August, Turner Classic Movies, 11AM – 6AM EST)

Don’t Knock the Rock


Parents in the ‘50s had it all figured out. Their kids were turning into juvenile delinquents not as an act of rebellion or white flight restlessness, but because of that demonic music known as rock and roll. Hollywood tapped into the medium’s notoriety by releasing talent-heavy quickies which used the boss new sound as the foundation for standard morality tales. This one features DJ Alan Freed and the proto-punk Bill Haley and the Comets. (14 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Aliens


James Cameron really had his work cut out for him when he landed the gig to follow-up Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial “haunted house in space” saga. His artistic decision was a brilliant one – instead of going for more fright, he’d make a John Wayne war movie and set it on a planet overrun by a plague of the title characters. The results are one of the ‘80s best films, a whiz bang actioner that’s visionary and vibrant. (15 August, ActionMax, 5:40PM EST)

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 9, 2007


Chris Tucker is smart as Hell. Don’t believe it? Well, can you name another actor earning $25 million for doing the same thing he’s done for the last nine years – the EXACT same thing, mind you. In 1998, the African American comic moved from minor supporting roles in films like Jackie Brown and Dead Presidents to a starring stint alongside then hot Hong Kong action icon Jackie Chan. The movie, Rush Hour, directed by novice filmmaker Brett Ratner, went on to be a massive hit, spawning a sequel and a whole new career for the newly minted megastar. After Rush Hour 2 did similar boffo box office, Tucker’s professional path was clear: do nothing; wait around until the audience demands another dose of Detective James Carter; maximize the upfront money. It didn’t matter if Rush Hour 3 was a derivative take on the previous cross culture buddy pic. It would be time, once again, to give the people what they want.


And you know what – he’s worth it. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Rush Hour 3 is junk – witless, uncomplicated, consisting of disposable vignettes of vaudeville like burlesque followed by borderline racist returns to the days of Mantan Moreland. That last analogy is rather appropriate – Tucker’s Carter isn’t a clever or confident police officer. He’s a prop, sent into each and every scene as a low brow Greek chorus waiting to make with the urban smart-ass spiel. Instead of bugging his eyes and mangling the language like those outrageous and despicable portrayals of minorities past, he’s a post-modern pawn screaming his shrill one-liners about Michael Jackson and booty with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He’s not an actor – he’s the Corbin-screeching character from The Fifth Element refitted with some styling clothes and a hip-hop swagger. And the audience just eats it up.


If there is any rationale for his outsized payday, it’s the fact that Tucker knows his demo. He’s not playing to suburbia, or the critics who seem to find nothing but fault in his donkey bray bravado. No, he’s directly connected to the hardworking, hope-driven people who, after paying their carefully controlled disposable income, merely want to sit back and have a good time. When he channels James Brown via the King of Pop during an opening setpiece underscored by Prince’s “Do Me Baby”, it’s not meant to have narrative or aesthetic significance. It’s a stand-up shout out to the people paying to see him. Similarly, he gets another onscreen song and dance when he tries to save a suspected informant by crooning Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You”. Tucker knows these crowdpleasing vanity fairs leave the fanbase reeling. This means that Rush Hour 3 as a thriller or other cinematic genre has to do very little to get by.


For those interested in the backdrop to all this buffoonery, Tucker and Chan reteam when an Asian ambassador to the World Criminal Court (???) is gunned down by an assassin. Turns out this hitman is working for the Triad, whose goal is to protect the identity of someone or something called the ‘Shao Shin’. All leads point toward France, and so our slightly ditzy duo is off to Paris to procure the mysterious item. There, they meet a sadistic police chief (a weird cameo from Roman Polanski), an American-hating cabby, and the standard array of misplaced Hong Kong killers. After a few dust-ups and a completely gratuitous car chase, our heroes end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they must take on gun totting hoods, rescue the kidnapped daughter of the now hospitalized diplomat, and find an efficient way of tying all the loose ends together from their sloppy, shoestring plot.


Now, some will sneer and say that us ‘haters’ shouldn’t be so dismissive. After all, this is just some mindless fun fostered by a couple of likable screen gems. That being said, success breeds imitation, and if the studios ever figure out how to create another martial arts/mismatched personality pariah like this (watch out, Jet Li), we could find ourselves back in 1986. Indeed, much of Rush Hour 3 feels like a throwback to the days when lazy scriptwriters cooked up half-assed premises so that otherwise talented men and women could walk away with an easy paycheck and a bit of bankability on their resume. While the post-millennial versions are really no better (the Ocean’s films, for one), this trending back to the days of Gordon Gecko only works when you have something novel (Live Free or Die Hard) or naughty (Superbad) to say. 


Besides, the inherent value in this long delayed tre-quel could be summed up by the proverbial statement, ‘absence (in this case, from the Cineplex) makes the heart grow fonder’. Since Tucker chooses to stay outside the cultural fray until one of these immaculate paydays come along, he gets the benefit of perspective and popularity. Had he been making movie after movie, honing his craft and redefining his skills, his fans would be angry with such a treading water workout. But since they’ve had to wait nearly a decade to see their favorite funnyman act the fool, they’re willing to leave the lack of context at the turnstile. It’s the same, more or less, with Chan. After the mediocre combo of Shanghai Knights and The Medallion, he went back to Asia and continued his A-list career. Rush Hour 3 his first Hollywood film since the incredibly lax Around the World in 80 Days remake from 2004.


Even more disconcerting, the man has gotten OLD. Gone are the days when the genial Asian action hero looked like a bewildered little boy. The last decade seems to have dragged the majority of vitality out of his persona, replacing it with a quiet resolve that, if exploited properly, could lead to a late in life resurrection as a character actor. Yet people want to see him stunt it up, and time has apparently mandated the need for the heretofore verboten double. It’s obvious during the opening act car chase through LA (especially when “Chan” is crossing a busy freeway), and as part of the last act fight at the top of the Eiffel Tower. There is no begrudging the 53 year old a little help – he’s been a more than impressive daredevil for far too long. But it doesn’t bode well that Chan is in the last phase of his signature stage. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.


So, in what appears to be a case of either studio shrewdness or luck-induced synchronicity, New Line seems to be striking while the iron is as hot as its going to get. Besides, since they are fully aware of the film’s inherent silliness (it could be subtitled Abbot and Costello-san Meet the Chinese Mafia) and lack of sophistication, they are banking on the frequently potent paradigm known as “the lowest common denominator” to see them through. Success will not be based on the wit – after all, do audiences still find old white ladies talking jive and oily loser lotharios funny? – nor will it be founded on the hackneyed whodunit - see if you can’t guess the secret bad guy before the initial credits are complete. No, Rush Hour 3 will earn its scratch on the carefully controlled commerciality of Chris Tucker. Just don’t be surprised when, eight years and $30 million dollars from now, he comes crawling out of the woodwork for another anemic encore. It’s apparently all he, and this franchise, seem good at.


 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 8, 2007

Elizabeth Taylor in Dahomey, West Africa, 1967


The Comedians (1967)
Dir: Peter Glenville


The Burtons, after a string of colossal flops, (Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper), were basking in the success of their bold collaboration with Mike Nichols—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and were looking for another piece of daring, unconventional source material for their next project. The left-wing political maelstrom of Vietnam America may have motivated them to cast their eye onto a story of the horrors of Third World dictatorship. Graham Greene’s stories of flawed, convictionless British anti-heroes discovering their humanity in turbulent countries (The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana) seemed to be a recipe for art-house success; in any case, they provided actors with memorable character roles and crackling, ironic dialogue. Torrid love amidst political unrest in the tropics was a formula that had been popular in Hollywood since Casablanca, only in Greene’s love affairs no one ever came out a hero. 


“The Comedians:”: Smith (Paul Ford), Jones (Alec Guinness), and Brown (Richard Burton)


Greene’s The Comedians tells of self-indulgent British and American expatriates emotionally going to pieces during the nightmarish regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1960s Haiti. It blended the aching bitterness of The End of the Affair with the postcolonial anxiety and malaise of The Heart of the Matter. Greene noticed that in times of utter hopelessness, people coped through humor and self-delusion. The comedians of the title are two Brits, Brown (Richard Burton) and Jones (Alec Guinness), and an American, Smith (Paul Ford).  The deliberate banality of their names echoes some bad men’s room joke (“Three men, Jones, Brown, and Smith, walk into a bar…”).  Their neurotic personalities, amidst the tragic scale of death and murder in Haiti, are meaningless, and their identities, are essentially interchangeable.


Brown has just returned from New York in a failed effort to sell the depilated hotel he inherited from his late mother. His real reason for coming back to Port-au-Prince is to resume his affair with the Brazilian Ambassador’s German wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor).  Smith is a do-gooding American politician, an ex-presidential candidate of ’48, who has come to Haiti to set up a school and health center devoted to vegetarianism in the slums. He and his wife, played by the extraordinary silent-film actress Lilian Gish, were Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, whose ordeal in Mississippi, they believe, has prepared them for anything.  Jones is an amateur arms dealer who has come to supply American weapons to the Tontons Macoutes (Papa Doc’s sunglassed secret police). Unfortunately, his business partner in Miami has absconded the cash advance and fled, leaving Jones at the mercy of cold blooded criminals.  Jones is the catalyst of the story, and his attempted escape from the Tontons, is the farce that unseemingly unleashes a domino effect of mistaken murders and thwarted relationships.


Peter Glenville directing the voodoo ceremony scene


The director of the film was a talented veteran of British theatre, Peter Glenville. His 1965 film, Beckett, also starting Burton, and Peter O’Toole, made him a popular, “classy” filmmaker at the time.  But The Comedians would wind up finishing his career.  The movie was such a critical and financial failure, that Glenville would never work in Hollywood again. This is one of those unfortunate incidents where history is against an ambitious project. The Comedians opened in the wake of the Black Panther Movement of the late ‘60s, and the memory of the Civil Rights riots was still fresh.  Scenes of menacing black men in sunglasses assaulting white women, murdering people in broad daylight, were unsettling for American audiences—a reminder of latent dangers at home. 


The film’s lukewarm reception and the audience’s disappointment (most moviegoers were misled by the title, expecting to see the Burtons in romantic comedy of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson mold) caused it to be largely forgotten until the a recent box set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s films for Warner Brothers. In hindsight, The Comedians was a daring picture for its time. The crew was, naturally banned from Haiti, and had to film in Dahomey, West Africa, where the blistering white heat and humidity can be sensed in nearly ever scene.  Greene’s screenplay is the taut, slyly ironic suspense-thriller he mastered writing, as with The Third Man.  The movie boasts an early, graceful performance from the young James Earl Jones, as a surgeon moonlighting as a rebel leader.  Actor-raconteur, Peter Ustinov, brings disarming pathos and tenderness to the relatively one-dimensional role of Taylor’s cuckolded husband.


The real star turn of the movie, however, does not come from the Burtons. They both give rather mediocre performances here (Burton is relentlessly gloomy, while Taylor is inauthentic and passive). No, it arrives in the form of Alec Guinness in the role of the hapless arms-dealer.  Jones was based on Greene’s former accountant, who embezzled thousands of pounds worth of Greene’s royalties and fled to South America.  A charismatic inveterate fraud, he was intended to come off as a sort of memento mori, a reminder to us of our own selfishness, of how we are willing to value liars and cheats so long as they entertain us.  Guinness adds a fey, music-hall insouciance to the role of Jones, a man who fabricates stories about being an exalted officer in WWII in order to win sympathy and trust from his clients; he’s the antithesis of his dutiful, hard-headed Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai.  Jones is the weasel to Nicholson’s wounded lion.  Mendacious in part for survival, and in part, for pleasure, he’s only truly alive when he’s acting. It’s the kind of subtle comic performance that’s influenced a generation of British character actors, from John Hurt to Geoffrey Rush to Bill Nighy.  Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Jones’ undoing; the scene where Brown and the rebel leader/surgeon trap Jones into leading a guerrilla revolt over a game of gin rummy at the ambassador’s mansion is priceless in its mordant black humor.



It’s a shame that The Comedians is not more widely seen and appreciated.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it’s a brave one in it’s own way.  Today’s audience may easily find it patronizing and colonial: a hot jungle hell of black magic and political corruption that serves as the backdrop for a group of prominent whites. But certain scenes stay with you: the unsettling young men in dark sunglasses who vandalize the funeral hearse of a dissident, small schoolchildren in starched white uniforms being led to watch a public execution, a crowded, smoke-filled voodoo ceremony where a live chicken is decapitated and the priest brandishes the blade in the air to point it to a sacrificial inductee.



If anyone has the balls to taunt a Third World tyrant, it would be a best-selling author and a celebrity power couple. Imagine Christopher Hitchens and ‘Brangelina’ collaborating on a movie about Kim Jong-ill. The Burtons-Greene partnership opened the world’s eyes to Haiti, made them take notice of the abuse of power and trust that was going on in this small island country.  Together they gave it color through a host of colorful characters, and their depiction of the nation—its poverty, its fetid jungles, its colonial French legacy, intoxicating voodoo rituals, the terrifying blackouts and nighttime raids of the Tontons Macoutes, gave an urgency to the country’s turmoil; The Comedians brought the horrors of Third World dictatorship to life for a complacent late 60s audience. At the time, sadly, few cared.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 7, 2007


When it comes right down to it, 1971 was mired in chaos. The Beatles had disbanded, the Kennedys were either dead or hip deep in career cleansing scandal, and the civil rights movement had been usurped by a basic human need among the minority classes simply to stay alive. America took weaponry against itself, as armed youths killed their “educated” alter egos at Kent State while the “silent majority” propagandized a steadfast “love it or leave it” mentality for all to conform to. The anti-war revolution had long gone Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with rebels as well known as their targets of distrust and frustration. There was still a belief that power in the people via politics could cure the country of its present ills, even as more vital men were sent off to meet their end in the rice fields and jungles of Asia.


Years later, Tinseltown just loves to explore the extremes of both sides of the peace sign path. Artists like Oliver Stone have made entire careers out of milking the militant juices from both philosophies for all their cinematic gold. But they never seem to spend time in the middle, in the eye of this ideological storm, preferring to skirt around the outside. Only one work dared to describe the psychic shift circa 1971, to try and condense the wounded spirit of a befouled generation into words and stories. Many thought it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The fact that, 36 years later, it is championed as a work of rare insight and power speaks for the willingness for self-examination that existed in the early ‘70s.


So it’s not surprising that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reverberates as strongly as it does, even some three and a half decades down the hash pipe. In its stream of altered consciousness exploration of the US landscape it defines the turbulent moment when conservative society, backed by a paranoid President, stood its ground and decided to take back the nation from the creative and the crazy, one radical or hippie life at a time. It’s the action verb linking the Summer of Love to the My Lai massacre. Like the last remnants of an emotional oil spill washing up on the tired and poor shores of a nation under siege, it’s the socio-political hangover that resulted when the last of the Weathermen went home to crash on their laurels. It’s when drugs stopped being recreational and began requiring rehabilitation. But mostly it’s about loss. The loss of innocence and the replacing of optimism with instant gratification. The loss of idealism for the sake of conformity. And the loss of hope, the hope that, one day, those far too confrontational principles of peace, love, and understanding would somehow be accepted as valid.


One can spend a lifetime trying to decipher the visual and literary imagery used by author Hunter S. Thompson, the swipes at flower power and the resignation of a movement undermined by its own excesses, but, frankly, there is nothing unusual or secretive about his symbols. It is not by accident that the first person Duke and Gonzo meet on their road trip to Hell is one of the great unwashed, a member of the youth movement so lost in his own personal space that mere words undo him. For Thompson, this generation represents the new reluctant enemy. They are the targets of his growing cynicism, placing him in the uncomfortable position of having to side with authority, the one true bane of his tormented existence. Fear and Loathing is about spiritual shift as a continental divide, of a planet removed from its wild gesturing and personal exploration and repositioned back before the Age of Aquarius, to a time when men wore tight shirts and stiff collars and ladies piled their hair like pillows of protection from the harmful rays of rationality pouring off the educated and the elite. From its obvious ridicule of law enforcement to the gradual realization that the healing power of narcotics may, indeed, be a back alley placebo, Fear and Loathing is about the discovery of the bitter man behind the curtain, even as the Great Oz speaks of cabbages and kings.


In Terry Gilliam’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal work of gonzo journalism, we find the road map for the future, the ground rules for Watergate mixed into the no holds barred ‘I double dare you’ attitude of our new century. Tackling one of the holy trinity of unfilmable books, like William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (of which David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version only captures the merest indirect inkling of) and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (its state of paper and ink opiate almost impossible to capture), Gilliam opts for an unusual cinematic technique. He, in essence, fails to create a film. What he does instead is ply his camera like a time machine, placing the events of the novel in some manner of linear format and then shooting the surrealism out of what results. The main narrative thread is easy to comprehend - Raoul Duke, famed journalist, is sent by a magazine to cover the Mint 400, a popular motorcycle race that occurs every year in Las Vegas. He invites his best friend, civil rights attorney Dr. Gonzo, along for the adventure. What happens beyond this set-up has formed the basis of a hundred literary myths, and has sparked the imaginations of a million wannabe writers.


But for Gilliam, this is first and foremost a journey of the eye (including the third). Characterization is initially all visual: Duke’s cigarette holder, Gonzo’s slovenly gut, the suitcase full of drugs, the pair’s demon eyes behind dark shades and furrowed brows. Only as the movie progresses do we learn true inner details. We hear the voices, the choice of vocabulary, the vomiting of philosophy like the purging of bad mescaline. Gilliam’s filmmaking is at once completely without direction and at the same time more controlled than other projects he has dominated. He allows some scenes to meander wildly out of control, while others are focused to maximum emotional effect. So this is really not a film. It’s more like a fraud foisted upon a recreation. Call it a con artist junkie’s last vision of the Promised Land. Call it a docudream. But it’s hardly a big bucket of popcorn fodder.


Obviously, one of the biggest challenges faced by Gilliam with bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is finding the right actors to populate Thompson’s larger than literary life personas. Like trying to cast Jesus or figuring out who would properly fill Ignatius J. Reilly’s sweaty sneakers, finding these uneasy riders, this angry Abbott and crazed Costello required a stroke of genius in combination with an equal onset of luck. Thankfully, the perfect cosmic casting occurred when Johnny Deep and “Oscar” winner Benicio Del Toro stepped in to essay the roles of Duke and Gonzo, respectively. Both were born to play the characters they literally inhabit, and yet both had to physically change themselves to take on the proper outer shell. Depp shaves his head for a perfect modern monk look while Del Toro piles on the pounds, De Niro style, to completely transform his lithe structure into the heft menace carried by Thompson friend Oscar Zeta Acosta.


Each actor uses his muse to infuse their depiction of drug use and abuse with wonderful, wired aplomb. Both turn broad, gross caricatures into real people and back again, creating and reshaping their personalities into that rarity in the pantheon of acting, the certifiable eccentric. Thanks to Depp, Thompson’s weird ways, the spastic mannerisms and his unbridled flash, become understandable manifestations of who he is. And in Del Toro, the famous Brown Buffalo finds a man capable of the passion, the rage, and the fire that caused this force of nature to burn so brightly that he eventually exploded, disappearing like a whisper off the ears of the planet. Both actors give amazing performances.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also filled with details of delirious brilliance: The ether walk into Bazooka Circus, all silent comedy slapstick; Depp’s descent into Adrenalchrome, madness complete with babbling incoherence and Thompson’s trademark banshee wail; the opening rampage down the endless Western highways of folklore; the pop art pretense of old Vegas. But probably the best moment and one of the greatest scenes that Gilliam has put on screen for that matter, is the now infamous “wave” speech, the cornerstone message of Thompson’s messy manuscript. Set to the near lullaby strains of the Youngblood’s “Let’s Get Together” (with its subtle guitar signature like the distant cry of an ambulance) and consisting of Depp reacting to his own voice-over, this one piece of writing sums up the entire aftermath, the comet flameout that occurred once Bobby Kennedy died and the ‘60s were officially declared a no-win situation. From the innocent vibrations of Woodstock to the pool of blood at Altamonte, the “wave speech” is that official final word, the coroner’s inquest into that stillborn promise of peace and love. And like an actual wave, the scene hits and then retreats, dragging the melancholy back out to sea. It’s strange to have a story’s emotional climax so early in the tale—there is more than half of the movie still to go. But just like the decade itself, Fear and Loathing mocks convention and shoots its wad way too fast. We’ve had the epiphany. It’s time to pay the ferryman his evil penance.


There are other great sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, times where the cinematic flash calms down and the wicked wit of the novel unravels front and center. Anyone wondering where the ridiculous war on drugs got its twisted dogma needs look no further than in the puffy faces and closed off necks of the participants at the anti-narcotic District Attorney’s convention. Part cautionary note, mostly caustic character assassination, Gilliam and Thompson get to make their points loud and clear: drugs may be bad, but just look at the kind of man who’s keeping ‘em that way. It’s a shame that this point has not fallen on more willing ears. Fear and Loathing has to be one of the most unsuccessful cult movies of all time. When it was first released, it was met with a universal yawn. Over the years it is constantly referred to as Gilliam’s one true bomb, a grand misstep for the once great director. Many have chalked its failure up to the lack of character one can “like” or “root” for. Others find its mixed messages about the ‘60s and its values old fashioned or blasphemy. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Thompson’s own words, most of the audience was looking “with the wrong kind of eyes.” Only those who had lived through it first hand responded to it right from the start. Others had become too jaded or brainwashed.


But the truth is that now is the true time of fear and loathing. After a decade of prosperity, of global openness and a new sense of community (even if it is online), we seen the nation, again, divided. On one side are the same good old forces at work. Now is the corrosion toward conformity, fostered by horrendous acts of homeland terrorism and a multi-colored rating system of said to exaggerate the sense of terror to new, immobilizing heights. We no longer worry about the domino effect. We are more concerned with the sealing properties of duct tape. On the other side are the easily deluded, the ones who believe that a hit single or a television spot circumvents money to actually purchase happiness. They live for and through the medium of popular culture, lining up to shame themselves for the sake of a sound bite. So the question becomes, where are the truly free? Where are the thinkers and the radicals and those questing for tranquility? Well, inside our newfound quasi-socialism, they are silent. Theirs is the opinion of the discontented, of the traitorous and ungrateful. Their beliefs aid and comfort the enemy and spit readily on our fighting men and women overseas. Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is more than an obituary to the summer of love. It’s the death knell to the power of individualism and thought and a warning for the sinister shape of things to come.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 6, 2007


Here’s a warning, well in advance. According to those on the inside, the Fourth Quarter of 2007, the three months leading up and through Christmas, are promising to be one of the biggest ever in terms of DVD product. Not just standard releases of the Summer’s biggest hits, mind you, but epic box sets for long awaited Holy Grails like Blade Runner and 2001. Apparently, packaging is the new marketing tactic, with elaborate presentations and add-ons taking the place of standard audience interest. So start saving those important pennies now. You don’t want to be the only one on your block without a Hogwart’s School Trunk loaded with the first five Harry Potter films, do you? Actually, you need to manage all your money wisely, especially with the blockbuster season about to end. The studios are gearing up with more and more first run releases, meaning you’ll need to figure how to deal those dollars effectively, beginning with SE&L’s selection of 07 August:


Disturbia


Who would have thought that an adolescent Rear Window would be Spring 2007’s surprise sleeper hit? After all, star Shia La Beouf wasn’t (at the time) a major league star and director DJ Caruso was a TV mostly moviemaker with a few unimpressive feature films. Yet somehow, the combination of knack and novelty worked, resulting in a Generation Next take on the old school thriller. In fact, most critics point to the effective pacing, genial characterization, and drum tight narrative as reasons for its success. Granted, not everything here is Hitchcock flawless. The “is he or isn’t he” angle on the suspected serial killer is pretty obvious, and the ‘misunderstood teen’ material can grow grating at times. Still, for some good old fashioned goosebumps accentuated with lots of post-millennial tech tweaks, you could do a lot worse. In fact, if this effort leads more young people to the works of the true Master of Suspense, it will all be worth it.

Other Titles of Interest


Bubba Ho-Tep: The King’s Jumpsuit Edition


Bruce Campbell deserved an Oscar nomination (no, seriously) for his sensational turn as an aging Elvis in this brilliant Don Coscarelli genre-bender. Bloated, ornery, and a clear casualty of his unwieldy fame, he’s so amazing that we want more of his fried peanut butter and banana sandwich sloth. Long available on DVD, this unnecessary double dip changes nothing about the previous special edition, and adds a mock King jumpsuit as packaging. Great film. Needless rerelease.

Crime Story


Right before he made it big in America with 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx, fans of Hong Kong action were praising Jackie Chan’s work in this standard Asian police actioner. While some will point to his Police Story films as better examples of the man’s amazing stunt skills and physical acumen, there are enough death defying fireworks here to warrant attention. While you may find the lack of laughs a little disconcerting (this is one of Chan’s more serious roles), it’s still a great ride.

The First Films of Sam Fuller


If a film fan was looking for a literal, visual translation of the term ‘maverick’, a portrait of Sam Fuller would do quite nicely. As a young journalist, he covered the European theater during World War II, and he used that experience as the basis for much of his moviemaking aesthetic. Working in the standard machismo mannerisms – westerns, crime – he developed a determined cult following. Here, Criterion’s Eclipse series celebrates three of his earliest efforts.

I Think I Love My Wife


Chris Rock is an inherently funny guy. Give him a subject and he can riff away with devastating abandon. So why has his onscreen work been so mediocre, including this unnecessary remake of Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon (yes, you read that right). Maybe it has something to do with trying to wedge an acerbic social satirist into the role of nerdy nebbish. Could be the lack of motivational insight. Whatever the case, don’t waste your time on this derivative mess.

TMNT


The rumors seemed too good to be true. Hong Kong action master John Woo was considering bringing the famed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back to the big screen in a serious, inspired by the original comics, CGI spectacle. Dork universe wet themselves. Turned out, the reports were false. The computer generated angle was all that remained once the newly minted TMNT arrived. Fans found it decent. Others just ignored it. DVD will let you decide.


And Now for Something Completely Different
The Film Crew: Killers from Space


It’s enough to make fans of the brazen television treat Mystery Science Theater 3000 stand up and cheer. After years without new in-theater riffing from Mike Nelson and his robot pals, Legend Films and Shout Factory! have decided to team up and produce some MST inspired mayhem. Recruiting Nelson and his automaton’s human counterparts – Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – a new spoof situation was created. They are renamed The Film Crew, and work for an insane CEO who wants every movie ever made – no matter how crappy – to have a commentary track. Last time out, Rue McClanahan’s stripper epic Hollywood After Dark was the target. Now, it’s grade-Z schlock stuff Killers from Space. Maintaining their deft comic touch, these new direct to DVD installments remind one of the delirious days on the Satellite of Love. While it may never match the original quip-fests frenzied funny business, this is a fine substitute.

 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.