Johnny Depp goes gonzo, Richard Gere sees double and rockers become fathers in this week's round-up of indie offerings.
The Rum Diary
When exactly did the film industry designate October as prequel season? Already this month, we've been treated to the prequelizations The Thing and Paranormal Activity 3 and now here comes The Rum Diary, an adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name that acts as a forerunner of sorts to Terry Gilliam's movie version of the gonzo journalist's seminal 1972 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Granted, The Rum Diary doesn't overtly reference Fear and Loathing, but the two films do share the same star (Johnny Depp, a close friend of the deceased author) playing Thompson's lightly fictionalized stand-in (who goes by the name Raoul Duke in Gilliam's film and Paul Kemp here), as well as an episodic structure, a motley crew of eccentric supporting characters and the copious onscreen consumption of mind-altering substances. Beyond those similarities, this film's primary narrative arc concerns the Thompson character's transformation from an ordinary hedonist to the rebellious, socially conscious hedonist that would go on to write some of the most celebrated and controversial books and articles about the '70s political scene in America. Honestly, the filmmakers could easily have released The Rum Diary under the title Hunter S. Thompson Begins and not been accused of false advertising.
Thompson originally wrote the The Rum Diary in the early '60s, inspired by his experiences as a stringer for a financially unstable English-language newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico (the novel didn't actually see the light of day until the late '90s when, as the production notes claim, Depp himself discovered the manuscript while visiting Thompson's house and convinced him to publish it). Like his creator, Kemp is a perpetually soused writer that dreams of penning great literature, but in the meantime, just needs an easy gig to pay the bills. Arriving in the San Juan offices of The Daily News, the New York refugee befriends the rag's garrulous photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) as well as its resident weirdo Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi, perfectly cast), a shambling wreck of a man who has a penchant for Nazi paraphernalia. He also gets involved with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a wealthy American businessman who wants Kemp's help in laying the groundwork for a major -- and only slightly illegal -- real estate deal. Kemp's primary motivation for hanging out with this sleazeball isn't the cold hard cash Sanderson's paying him for his way with the printed word (although that doesn't hurt); it's to spend more time with the golden boy's stunning girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), whose favorite pastimes include skinny dipping, wearing see-through nightgowns at breakfast and flirting outrageously with drunken journalists.
The Rum Diary is the first film in almost two decades from Bruce Robinson, whose breakthrough feature was another liquor-infused oddball comedy, Withnail and I. Where Gilliam relentlessly pursued a gonzo visual style to match Thompson's gonzo wordplay, Robinson's vision is far more sedate, which makes sense since he's essentially painting a portrait of the author as a young man, before the hard drugs and the Hell's Angels and the cabin in Woody Creek. Once again, Depp handily slips into Thompson's skin, managing to make Kemp a distinct character from Drake, yet still handily laying the groundwork for that eventual transformation. (He also somehow looks younger here than he did a decade ago in Fear and Loathing. Credit good genes and a great makeup team.) Among the supporting players, Rispoli makes for a good comic foil and, as on the recently cancelled Playboy Club, Heard is the walking embodiment of late '50s/early '60s glamour (though her acting skills remain mostly skin deep). But despite the cast's best efforts and the lovely Puerto Rican locations, the material never really sparks to life. Robinson's script is too diffuse and the various episodes aren't consistently dramatic or funny enough to build to a memorable payoff. Love it or hate it, Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing has a go-for-broke quality that reflects its subject's distinct voice. The Rum Diary is too timid by comparison, recounting Thompson's words, but never really providing us with any insight into his mind.
In the new thriller The Double, Richard Gere plays retired CIA agent Paul Shepherdson, who is actually a Soviet assassin nicknamed Cassius that quit the killing business many years ago, using his American alter ego to kill off his Russian self. Don't worry, that's not really a spoiler. Writers Michael Brandt (who also directed) and Derek Haas blatantly telegraph this "twist" within the first twenty minutes and reveal the character's true identity at the half-hour mark. The bulk of the movie involves Shepherdson's attempts to keep his secret under wraps, now that a new series of killings done in the supposedly dead Cassius' style has the Feds buzzing. One rookie FBI agent, Ben Geary (Topher Grace), is particularly obsessed with catching Cassius in the act and attaches himself to Shepherdson's investigation, never suspecting that the killer is actually... his new partner! [Cue the dramatic dun, dun, dun music sting here.]
With its promising narrative hook and better-than-average cast (Martin Sheen, Stana Katic and Stephen Moyer appear in supporting role), The Double should be a thrill-a-minute ride, right? Wrong, I'm sorry to say. Despite following the thriller playbook to the letter -- a ticking clock structure, judiciously timed shoot-outs, a final plot twist designed to make you go "Whoa" -- the movie lacks a strong sense of urgency and tension. Grace and Gere try to compensate by putting on their best serious faces and shouting at each other with conviction, but their admirable efforts don't add much snap to the bland dialogue or semi-implausible situations. Instead of rocketing along like a well-oiled thrill machine, The Double seems to unfold in slow motion.
The Other F Word
Hey, did you know that metalheads can procreate too? That's the too-cutesy-by-half set-up for Andrea Blaugrund Nevins' documentary, which interviews some of the biggest punk rockers of the '80s and '90s -- including the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, Pennywise's Jim Lindberg and Blink-182's Mark Hoppus -- about their other ongoing gig: father (that's the other F-word of the title, in case you were wondering). Opening with a quick recap of the rise of the L.A. punk scene two decades ago, the film than fast-forwards to the present day and presents its subjects playing house with their beatific offspring. Nevins clearly intends for the viewer to marvel at the sight of these guys -- most of whom sport tattoos, piercings and still-impressive, if slightly receding, hairlines -- packing school lunches or bouncing a baby on their knee. But the novelty of those images quickly wears off; fact is, after such reality series as The Osbournes, Run's House and Snoop Dogg's Father Hood, the idea that a supposedly edgy musician could also be a proud papa is no longer much of a shock. And frankly, none of the musicians interviewed here offer any fresh insights into the challenges of being a working parent, even if their job involves thrashing their heads onstage instead of pushing paper at an office. (It's also odd that Nevins apparently declined to interview the guys' wives and girlfriends about what they're like as family men; those voices would have added an extra dimension to the film.)
The Other F Word stumbles upon more interesting ground when it starts exploring the current state of the music business and how the decline in record sales have impacted metal bands in particular. Pennywise, for example, has essentially had to hit the road full-time in order to keep the money flowing in and Lindberg, for one, has grown tired of spending 200-plus days a year on tour, especially since it keeps him from seeing his three daughters on a regular basis. (For a more complete depiction of the lengths to which a middle-aged metal band has to go to stay afloat, check out the great 2008 documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil.) Some of the men also have genuinely touching stories to share about their own troubled upbringing and the personal tragedies that have befallen them; it's hard not to be moved when one musician breaks down when recounting the sudden death of his teenage son in a car crash. That's the sort of material that makes The Other F Word feel like a vital documentary, instead of the pilot for an MTV reality series called Punk Rock Dads Say the Darndest Things.
Check out the expletive-laced, booze-soaked history of The Rum Diary's journey to the screen.
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