Rapid Response: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I won’t pretend I had any idea what was going on throughout “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The film is based on Hunter S. Thompson’s famous novel of the same name, and with Terry Gilliam’s psychedelic drug trip filmmaking and Johnny Depp’s off the wall Thompson imitation, the film has become a cult classic.

For two hours, the film is a hodgepodge of hallucinogenic madness created by all the many drugs Thompson himself was addicted to back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Gilliam’s camera wavers and wobbles as much as the completely doped up characters played by Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and his striking canted angles create for arguably the closest thing to recreating a bad drug trip on film. A good number of critics cited this mess of a movie as an aimless, pointless, repetitive and meaningless disaster, and although I can find just as little of a purpose to it all, the film does cast a considerable spell.

The film is remarkably well made, and performed. For all the Tim Burton fans who marvel at how quirky and weird Johnny Depp’s performances consistently are, they have not seen him here in what is his strangest performance next to Ed Wood. Depp’s mastery of the props like the cigarette holder he’s constantly biting on and simply over his body itself is astounding. A strangely comical moment comes when Depp is whacked out on ether and he loses control over his spinal column. He owns the scene.

I also noted how many other known actors and performers can be found in this 1998 film, including Cameron Diaz, Cristina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Lyle Lovett, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin and by far in the weirdest role of his career, a young but not entirely different looking Jon Hamm as an uncredited hotel clerk.

There’s a cute College Humor video that’s been pulled from their site called “Rango and Loathing in Las Vegas,” in which lines from the “Fear and Loathing” trailer were dubbed over scenes from “Rango,” Johnny Depp’s new animated trip fest, although watching the movie now, the two are hardly comparable.

Rapid Response: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I chose to watch “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” because of Elizabeth Taylor’s recent death, but I probably would have given any reason to watch a Paul Newman movie. Newman is one of my favorite actors, and he along with Taylor give some of the first great performances of their career in this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play.

The story follows the Pollitt family throughout the one day of Big Daddy Pollitt’s (Burl Ives) birthday party. He’s arriving home on his 65th birthday from the doctor, who did tests to find if Big Daddy has cancer. The doctor lied and told him he would be fine, but he confides in secret to Big Daddy’s son Brick (Newman) that he will in fact die, and soon. Brick has become an alcoholic and he’s fallen out of love with his wife Maggie (Taylor) following the death of his best friend. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law have five annoying children, who Maggie constantly refers to as “No-Neck Monsters,” and they are trying to secure their proper inheritance.

The film is a stirring family drama that considers from each character their love of the others. Brick has grown annoyed with Maggie, Big Daddy seems to have never loved anyone, and the sister-in-law Mae seems only interested in earning her family fortune. The news of Big Daddy’s illness shakes this family from head to toe, and we truly see these characters grow and change over the course of the day.

The dialogue feels authentic and the performances are rich throughout. Only Newman and Taylor were nominated for Oscars, but the entire supporting cast is just as strong. The film was also nominated for best color cinematography, and while it’s not exactly a visually striking film, there’s something about the way the color camera can reveal Liz Taylor’s remarkable beauty.

Rapid Response: Leaving Las Vegas

There are lots of movies about alcoholics and about prostitutes with a heart of gold. There are even more love stories, and there are many that take place in Las Vegas. “Leaving Las Vegas” is a film about so much more, and it is so devastating and shockingly unreal, it becomes really one of the most moving and heartbreaking tragic romances ever made.

The film follows Nicolas Cage in his Oscar winning performance as Ben Sanderson, a notorious drunkard unlike any ever seen on camera. Cage’s work even within the first 10 minutes of the film before the title credits roll defines him as the epitome of all drunk performances. He is so preposterously absent minded and immersed in his performance that every time he’s on screen we are in awe of this monstrosity, sometimes to comic effect.

After losing his job, he uproots his life and escapes to Las Vegas where he intends to “drink himself to death.” When he meets Sera, played equally brilliantly by Elisabeth Shue, he imagines her to be his angel, someone with whom he wants to do nothing more but be with. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Leaving Las Vegas”

Rapid Response: My Neighbor Totoro

After doing an article on animation in the art world and popular culture for my student publication the IDS WEEKEND, I gained a real appreciation for how impossibly difficult animation is. Hand drawn cel animation demands a level of mastery amongst its animators, and it becomes such a shame when the film put in front of it is so ordinary and drab. “My Neighbor Totoro” is by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and many consider this film to be his masterpiece.

Thousands have seen this film from 1988 following Disney’s re-release of the film in America with English dubbed voices done by Dakota and Elle Fanning, and they’ve responded so highly because it is a charming family film where everything is beautiful, happy and perfectly imperfect, no one is evil and everything is rich with color, imagination and joy.

Watching it, I found myself with a grin from cheek to cheek throughout its 86 minute run, and while it is rich with a carefree comedy, it’s also wonderfully bright and detailed in its animation of the surrounding world.

For those who have seen a Miyazaki film (and those that have often revere him with cult status) know his admiration for the fantastical and the appreciation for the environmental. “My Neighbor Totoro” does have supernatural elements, but it does not immerse you in them immediately the way “Spirited Away,” his other masterpiece, does, and nor does it hammer home with the green message the way it does in “Princess Mononoke,” also a brilliant film.

It makes “My Neighbor Totoro” the perfect film to show when introducing them to anime, to Miyazaki and possibly even to film itself.

The Adjustment Bureau

“The Adjustment Bureau” is silly and light but thrives on its chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt… and fedoras.

The argumentative fallacy known as insufficient cause asserts the distance between a given cause and effect in a situation. This logic can be applied in “The Adjustment Bureau,” as in, because Matt Damon did not spill coffee on his shirt one morning, he may have prevented a third golden age in civilization.

There is considerable distance between that cause and effect, but man, Matt Damon looks good in a fedora.

“The Adjustment Bureau” hinges on that balance between a plot that ranges from odd to preposterous and the unfettered silliness of it all, not to mention the charming chemistry between Damon and co-star Emily Blunt.

Damon as an actor can range from stoic action badass in the Bourne movies to suave comic foil in everything from “Ocean’s 11,” “The Informant!” and “30 Rock.” Director and screenwriter George Nolfi has written for Damon in both “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s 12,” and he gives Damon free range to act, sticking him in 90 percent of the scenes and encouraging him to casually roll with the screenplay’s absurd punches. Thankfully, Damon capitalizes on every minute, and throughout “The Adjustment Bureau,” his David Norris remains a likable and confident leading man.

At the beginning of the film, David is a 24-year-old senate candidate for New York, famous as a youthful, yet authentic and loose cannon of a politician. Following a scandal at his college reunion, Norris loses the election but meets Elise (Blunt) in of all places, the men’s room as he rehearses his concession speech. The pair hit it off perfectly, notably from the performers and less the script, and that connection carries us throughout the rest of the film.

Thank goodness, because it is at this point that things get weird and silly. Continue reading “The Adjustment Bureau”

Psycho (1960)

If “North By Northwest” has not aged well, it is because Alfred Hitchcock’s large scale, big budget chases are not and were never his strongest suit. Hitchcock made “Psycho” a year later in black and white with a fraction of “North By Northwest’s” budget and no special effects or extravagant chases to think of. Yet “Psycho” has not aged one bit.

“Psycho” is a masterpiece. It is one of the greatest films ever made and beyond that, one of the most influential. I could spend a thousand words discussing the film’s legacy and place in cinema history and never actually talk about the film or the masterful craft that went into it.

But the reason “Psycho” has not aged a day whereas “North by Northwest,” one of his most popular and well known films has, is because “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s expression of “pure cinema,” a term countless critics, and Hitch himself, have thrown around when talking about the film. To make the film, he ditched the crew he used for “Northwest” and enlisted the one that produced his television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” They built the set of the Bates Motel on the still standing soundstage at Universal Studios and did not use any on location shooting. Their budget was a grand total of $800,000. Cary Grant received over $400,000 alone for shooting “North by Northwest.” Continue reading “Psycho (1960)”

Source Code

Certain films beg comparison of others. “Source Code” screams out to be a hybrid of “12 Monkeys,” “Vantage Point,” “Eternal Sunshine,” “Unstoppable” and of all things, “Groundhog Day.” But Duncan Jones directs the film with such flair and vigor that it supersedes all comparisons.

On paper, the story begins to show its flaws, and the science of the Source Code apparatus that governs the events of the film fails to indicate how complex first time screenwriter Ben Ripley’s work is. Continue reading “Source Code”

TV and movies living in the past still make mark on the future

Leave it to the blogosphere to blow yet another writer’s attention grabbing conversation starter of an article way out of proportion.

Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon wrote a fairly well reasoned piece entitled “Will future generations understand ‘The Simpsons’?” and many writers that he later quoted in a follow-up post made equally valid arguments that he was either correct with an asterisk or simply wrong.

Most people were particularly shocked that he chose to target such a legacy show like “The Simpsons” and an episode of the show, “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” known to be one of their finest (it made my list of 20 last week). But he picked a single joke and failed in analyzing its immense level of pop cultural depth to his young child, which prompted him to question how anyone under 25 could possibly appreciate how in-tuned with the time period the episode was.

One of Zoller Seitz’s bullet points included that it is impossible to re-live certain moments in pop culture history, like to know how big a deal it was to see Johnny Carson leaving, or how it is whenever someone mentions Charlie Sheen now.

And while some of Zoller Seitz’s critics were a bit snarky at his initial column, their arguments were just as pointed. For instance, “The Simpsons” and many other shows are not for kids like the one he was watching with, comedies should not all strive to be timeless at the risk of sacrificing comedy now, absolutely everything begins to date itself, the best pop culture gags have something else going for them, and most obscure references can be understood with Google anyway.

There are only so many TV shows dated enough to test this theory (“Seinfeld” and a lack of the Internet, smart phones and text messaging is a fantastic example though). But movies as it turns out can be just as much relics of popular culture that found their prime in their day but hold up just as well today.

Movies may not share the super timely quality of scripted TV, nor the serial programming that can enough create footnote television across episodes and seasons, but they capture moments in history just as well.

If only Zoller Sietz was writing back when the Marx Brothers were around. A number of Groucho’s one-liners are an exercise in obscurity. In “A Night at the Opera” during the famous contract scene, the dialogue between Groucho and Chico goes, “Don’t you know what duplicates are? Sure, those five kids in Canada.” Type that line into Google and you’ll get the page for the Dionne quintuplets, a group of babies once famous in 1934 but no longer. But the line of dialogue still works because the Marx Brothers deliver it with such perfect timing and charm.

There’s also Cary Grant thinking the character Bruce in “His Girl Friday” looks a lot like Ralph Bellamy, Preston Sturges parodying all of Hollywood in “Sullivan’s Travels,” Woody Allen trotting out Marshall Mcluhan from behind that stand-up in “Annie Hall,” the religious pamphlet distributors in “Airplane,” the entire ‘80s music landscape in “This is Spinal Tap” and Paul Rudd calling Seth Rogen gay for liking Coldplay in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”

I don’t intend to harp on Zoller Seitz’s very strong points about “The Simpsons” any more than any other writer, but it’s a scary thought believing that the shows and movies we love today may fly over the heads of future generations.

With any luck, some 2011 parody video will show people 20 years from now exactly how much we hate Rebecca Black today.

Rapid Response: The Inglorious Bastards

Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film bares nothing in common to “The Inglorious Bastards” except it’s similarly spelled title, but this is still a movie worth watching if nothing else.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see why QT would respond so highly to it. Like the Spaghetti Westerns of which he is such a fan, “The Inglorious Bastards” is a “macaroni combat” film. It has an entirely American (or also German) cast and yet an Italian director and writing team.

It’s also a very well made B-movie cult film, loaded with violent, yet PG-13 rated action and very little overarching plot. Four American soldiers set to be court marshaled, a renegade lieutenant and a stranded German soldier all try and make their way to the Switzerland border before they are enlisted for a secret mission after killing the original team responsible for the mission.

Watching it, I was impressed by just how good the action scenes were. Sparing are the shot/reverse shot action scenes that dominate so many war movies, instead replaced by combat that is constantly in full view, and what’s more is often stealthy and creative rather than just macho and violent.

And yet the film is ridiculous enough to be a barrel of fun. One character is the trouble-making thief and forger, and when another soldier asks him how long he’s been in military jail, he takes off his helmet to reveal hair going down to his shoulders. And that’s later topped when a group of naked German women bathing and playing in a river end up grabbing machine guns and shooting at the Bastards when they see the black guy in their team.

No, it’s not “killin’ natzees,” but it is just good old killing nazis.


There is no market in the movie theater for short animated films today. That market has moved online, only to be discovered in viral form. Such short films are hardly rigid in their aim to “amuse” the way modern animated kids movies are, yet they are experimental, revolutionary and captivating in their own ways. Like those classic shorts, segments of “Rango” exist purely irreverently, in a trippy void of comedy and drama that doesn’t cease to challenge. Continue reading “Rango”