Nobody would publish the book this film was based on when it was first written. And now, nobody would make this film except for who wrote it.
Reading The Rum Diary, which Hunter S. Thompson pushed into print 38 years after he wrote it, it’s easy to see why it was initially rejected. The various, largely indistinct characters slip in and out of now-familiar Gonzo slogans (“the fat is in the fire,” “I’m getting the fear”). Chenault, the only female character, spends the entire book either wandering around naked or being abused by her boyfriend. And the central concept, of a few slack writers milking a dying paper for booze money in 1950s Puerto Rico, is never enough to hold this sleazy mess together.
But in late 2011, nearly seven years after his death by suicide, Thompson is a counterculture celebrity. His disciple, Johnny Depp, has made a serious fortune from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, leaving him in a unique position to rescue this tale from itself.
No such luck. Rather than a repeat of the fantastic film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we’re left with a convoluted mélange more in-line with the aimless Where the Buffalo Roam. Hell, it may even be worse.
A visit to the Durham Performing Arts Center for the touring production of Rock of Ages yields a number of odd sights. Audience members, mostly people in their 40s and 50s, are wearing suits and evening wear to a play that’s based, in part, on the fashion excesses of 1980s youth culture. They also sip cups of red wine in front of a set labeled “The Bourbon Room.”
And as they trudge along the red-carpeted floors, the sound system blasts the likes of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” How did low-rent entertainment become the subject for a top-dollar production?
Understand, that’s not a dis of 1980s music, something I greatly enjoy and often use as a pick-me-up. But with the 30th anniversary of MTV occurring this year and the excellent new oral history I Want My MTV now in bookstores, it’s fascinating how the 1980s rock culture—those songs and videos that were often mocked even by the artists who created them—became such a massive mainstream force. Big hair, androgynous fashions and lyrics that barely qualified as single entendres represented a force of youthful enthusiasm and exuberance.
This actually offers some potential for a musical premise; the strength of most musicals comes from characters articulating in song what they can’t in mere words. But Rock of Ages suffers from letting the silliness just be silliness.
With a jukebox musical, the audience is likely to already know most of the songs, so there’s a moment of groaning when a character headed out on a date breaks into Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” or the lead-in to a club’s demolition is, yes, Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
Again, there’s some fun you could have with that, particularly as lyrics are recontextualized in different situations, but Chris D’Arienzo’s book is, frankly, not very good. The story concerns Sherrie (Shannon Mullen) and Drew (Dominique Scott), a couple of dreamers who fall for each other at the 1980s Sunset Strip hangout the Bourbon Room and find their plans deferred by fate, misunderstanding and the spoiled rock god Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan). The plot is so thin that narrator Lonny (Justin Colombo, who seems to be channeling Tenacious D-era Jack Black) has to explicate such major points as the fact that the first act coming to an end.
Considering it pits its heroine against a ravenous space alien whose man-eating orifice resembles a vagina dentata, you’d be forgiven for believing The Thing actually contains a thing or two to think about. Or at the very least, something to differentiate itself from John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing (which itself was a remake of the 1951 horror classic, The Thing from Another World).
The 1982 movie, made during the height of Carpenter’s career, benefited from the director’s then-deft suspenseful touch, a terrific cast, Ennio Morricone’s score and Rob Bottin’s cringe-inducing makeup effects. This pointless new film, purportedly a prequel, features direction by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. that’s as cold as its Antarctic setting, as well as unremarkable actors and a soundtrack that’s forgettable except when it incorporates Morricone’s pulsating bass chords. Moreover, gooey prosthetics are replaced by computer effects that, while competent, lack any tactile ickiness.
The plot: Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (well played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by snarky scientist Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) to fly to Antarctica to join a Norwegian scientific team. Given Kate’s thin résumé and Sander’s clear contempt for her, it’s never clear why she was invited. Nevertheless, the expedition’s purpose is to inspect a buried spaceship that crashed to Earth thousands of years ago, as well as the frozen corpse of its alien pilot. You know bad things are bound to happen: The alien revives and turns out to be a carnivore that takes the shape of any life form it consumes.
But like the shape-shifting alien, The Thing absorbs its predecessor and spits out a pale carbon copy; here, the friend-or-foe conceit lacks emotional punch when the humans aren’t particularly interesting to begin with. What’s especially discouraging is that the film’s floundering gets worse on the few occasions it threatens to break away from its predecessor’s moorings. That said, kudos to the filmmakers for making Kate the smartest person in the room and not turning her into a sniveling scream queen. As The Thing demonstrates, if you’re going to make a copycat sci-fi movie, there are far worse ideas than including an imitation Ellen Ripley.
Have you ever been to a poetry reading? You know that awkward time afterward when you're not sure what to do?
The Hinge Poem, a new online feature from the Hinge Literary Center, gives a new model for how to connect with an author's work, perhaps even more deeply than one might at an auditorium or bookstore reading.
Alan Shapiro's lyric poem "Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them" kicks off the program, which will feature a new poet and poem each month. As with a blogpost, readers can start and participate in conversations about the poem by making comments. And Shapiro will hang out in the comments boxes live from 3-5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16 for a highly interactive conversation. The poem is up and ready for comments already, in advance of Shapiro's online time.
"I've never done anything like this before so I don't know what to expect or anticipate," Shapiro, an English and creative writing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, says. He's just as curious as anyone as to how the dialogues might go. "I hope the poem will spark a conversation about the process of writing, how one finds one's way through a poem from the first inklings to the final choices, how one knows when to start writing and when to stop. Something like that, I guess."
When it comes to the portrayal of hillbillies on the big screen, there are usually two archetypes: the dim-witted but sweet-natured yokel or the raving, homicidal psychopath. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil poses the question of what would happen if two yokels were mistaken for psycho killers. As the movie shows, the result would be incredibly stupid yet immensely watchable.
Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are fixing up their new “vacation home” in the woods. Unfortunately, their renovations get interrupted by a group of college kids on an ill-fated camping trip. When one of them (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) injures her head while skinny-dipping, Tucker and Dale rescue her and nurse her back to health.
Their efforts to return her to safety are thwarted by her paranoid friends, who must’ve spent their childhoods watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance and every other hicksploitation film from the ’70s, who are determined not to be the victims of killer hillbillies. Her friends instead spend most of the movie accidentally offing each other.
For his characters’ demises, co-writer/director Eli Craig (aka Sally Field’s son) comes up with the sort of ridiculous Rube Goldberg setups you would usually find in Final Destination movies. More anarchically absurd than cleverly constructed, this silly, blood-soaked farce certainly stretches its one-joke premise as far as it can go. However, this film preaches the credo of not judging a book by its cover. Or a man by his overalls.
For those born to a post-Star Wars world, the Escapism Film Festival’s transformation into a revival house for SF/fantasy films has been a stroll down memory lane, with the likes of Flash Gordon, Enemy Mine and The Last Unicorn available on the big screen at past shows. This year’s lineup of 17 films, all but one of which were released in the 1980s, speaks to cable TV and home video’s influence on a generation—both for better and for ill.
There are plenty of well-known hits at this year’s Escapism, held as always at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, but what’s most notable is just how many were part of the first generation of movies to build their reputation through VHS and cable packages. Indeed, surprise hits at the last two Escapism festivals were Return to Oz and The Legend of Billie Jean, two basic-cable mainstays that flopped on their initial theatrical releases.
There will no doubt be plenty of moviegoers who show up to this year’s Escapism to catch such pop-cultural titans as The Road Warrior, Beetlejuice, Airplane!/The Naked Gun and Stand By Me (the opening cover of the title song on the soundtrack is enough to get my eyes tearing up; River Phoenix walking away at the end is like a swift tug to the nose hairs).
But the majority of the films this year are ones seen more widely on a television screen than on the silver screen. Fletch might rank as one of Chevy Chase’s best movies, but repeat video viewings are what has helped such lines as “You using the whole fist, doc?” maintain their quotability (1999 Onion headline: “Area Insurance Salesman Celebrates 14th Year of Quoting Fletch). Likewise, Bill Murray’s 1988 A Christmas Carol update Scrooged has earned enough of a following from basic cable airings that AMC aired it four nights in a row last November.
Or there’s 1986’s Short Circuit, starring Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy and a robot. Today, what stands out more is the cheesy plot and the offensiveness of Fisher Stevens as a heavily accented Indian scientist. But when I see Short Circuit on the list, the first thing I remember is how my brother loved to rent it from the Video Bar on Lake Boone Trail in Raleigh, and how he grew up to work on robots, and is now doing a graduate program in computer science at N.C. State. Even if he doesn’t recall the adventures of Robot Number 5 with any great vividness, there’s still that sense of association with the past for me.
As it happens, Rosenberg proposes “scientism” as a positive term to describe a worldview that does not contain a supernatural being. It’s a relatively minor point but it’s indicative of the focus of his book, which aims to provide a positive set of beliefs for today’s atheist. For Rosenberg, who has extensive training in the natural sciences—indeed, he began his education intending to go into physics before switching to philosophy—the issue of God’s existence is a question that’s long been settled by science. Instead, what interests him is what science has to tell us about the reality of our existence.
Independent: Is this your first book on atheism?
Rosenberg: It’s my 14th book but it’s my first book on atheism. But it’s not really a book on atheism. It’s a book about what we atheists should believe, about all the other big issues that, as I say in the book, keep us up at night wondering.
The book begins by saying “there is no God, and we believe there is no God because science rules God’s existence out.” And then goes on to answer all the other questions on the basis of science. So in that sense, it’s not another book proving atheism.
I was going to ask you about popular titles like those by Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). Those books were very popular, but you’re saying that you don’t think the project of persuading people there is no God is one worth pursuing?
My book differs from all of them in that it is not another indictment of religion, not another brief on the irrationality of a belief in God, not another analysis of how religion seduces us into belief—those are the aims of three of the most popular books. My book is about what else we should believe now that we believe in atheism.
What would you tell people are the basic things atheists should believe?
The quick and dirty version is on page 3 of my book, where there is list of questions and short answers: “Is there a God?” “No.” “What is the nature of reality?” “What physics says it is”—
—“What is the purpose of the universe?”—
—“there is none.” “What’s the meaning of life?” “Ditto.” “Why am I here?” “Just dumb luck.”
We could go through that list, that’s the short-answer list, and the rest of the book substantiates each of those answers and explains why science dictates each of those answers. But the tour goes like this: I try to explain why the nature of reality is what physics tells us it is and nothing more than what physics says, and then to show that biological phenomena are the result of Darwinian natural selection and that is mandated by physics alone. All you need to believe Darwin is to believe physics because Darwin's theory is a consequence of the operation of purely physical processes. All the adaptation and all the appearance of design in the universe could only happen that way. There’s no room for intelligent design.
Diaphaneity. When was the last time you encountered that word? Perhaps never. But you likely embody it almost at all times.
It's hard to locate the image in each painting as you walk among them. Because of the density of their arrangement, you're too close to make out the human figures without a real effort of attention. Each painting reveals just enough of a figure (asked if the figures were all female, Howard impishly answered "yes-ish") to make you feel like you're alone in an ambivalent crowd, but they're also pictorially indeterminate enough to seem naturally occurring like trees, prompting curious exploration of the space. You have to figure out how to experience this: as individual paintings or as a whole installation.
It’s understandable that modern dance aficionados might have paused when considering the touring version of COME FLY AWAY, choreographer Twyla Tharp’s evening-length tribute to musical legend Frank Sinatra which closes a stand at Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday.
As mentioned in our preview, Tharp had already gone to the well three times with Ol’ Blue Eyes between 1976 and 1983, reconfiguring various groupings of his hits that she’d choreographed into what ultimately became one of her most widely interpreted—and controversial—works, Nine Sinatra Songs. Its seven duets conveyed a range of relationships from elegiac to openly abusive, including an interpretation of “That’s Life” whose depicted violence was so realistic that Mark Morris responded by yelling “No more rape!” before storming out of an American Dance Festival performance of it in 1984.
Others were offended, not by one, but two self-congratulatory recap sections in that piece—one at midwork, the other at the end—that merely reiterated peak gestures from the sequences preceding them. While that sort of self-quotation might not call that much attention to itself in an evening-length ballet, Nine Sinatra Songs lasted all of 28 minutes, victory laps included—both of which were set to (what else?) "My Way."
So the thought did cross my mind: If Tharp was already challenged to fill a half-hour Sinatra tribute in the early 1980s, what awaited audiences in this full-length work which had garnered mostly affirming—but far from unanimous—reviews in New York last year?
As the production unfolded, the gratifying answer soon became obvious: an even stronger show than the one that played Broadway in 2010.
It will no doubt raise some eyebrows that Tharp has fundamentally retooled this show after its New York bow, trimming what was a two-hour, 34-song filibuster into a tight, intermissionless 80-minute touring version. But closer comparison of the two productions reveals that, in excising 12 numbers from the New York production—and adding five new ones to the mix—Tharp has managed to address many of the reservations lodged over the Broadway version.