Tag Archives: 2008 Reviews

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 12, 2008)

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

Knight and the City: The Dark Knight ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 26, 2008)

[dark_knight.jpg]

I love this dirty town.

Psst…Have you heard? There’s this new Batman movie out this summer. Rumor has it that it might have legs. Personally, I think the whole thing sounds a little iffy. I hope that the film studio will be able to recoup its modest $100 million promotion expenditure. Furthermore, I…oops, hang on; someone is sending me a text message. Ah-it’s from one of my inside sources. It says: “$155,000,000 opening weekend.” What a relief (whew!).

Some leading critics are hailing The Dark Knight as the best “superhero” movie of all time. I can’t weigh in on that angle, because it’s not one of my favorite genres (although I was pleasantly surprised by Iron Man). One thing I can tell you with assurance about Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is this: it is one of the best contemporary film noirs I’ve seen since Michael Mann’s Heat.

Giving you a detailed synopsis would be moot; suffice it to say that crime-ridden Gotham City still enjoys the nocturnal protection of the Batman (Christian Bale), the masked vigilante/alter-ego of wealthy industrialist playboy (corporate fascist?) Bruce Wayne.

He continues his uneasy alliance with the stalwart Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) an Elliot Ness-type lawman who has vowed to round up all the bad guys in Gotham and outfit them in striped PJs. In this outing, they are joined by “incorruptible” D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

A spanner in the works arrives in the person of The Joker (the late Heath Ledger) a vile criminal mastermind who has formed an uneasy alliance of his own with an assortment of Gotham’s most unsavory recidivists, like the city’s mob boss (Eric Roberts).

However, the Joker’s increasingly twisted, nihilistic acts of mayhem even begin to repulse his underworld cohorts. He is the embodiment of purely soulless anarchy, which brings us to Ledger’s performance, which is what lies at the very (dark) heart of this film.

This is one part of the  hype surrounding the film that is justified; Ledger is mesmerizing in every  frame he inhabits. This definitely isn’t your father’s Joker (Cesar Romero’s vaudevillian cackler in Batman ’66) or even Jack’s Joker (Nicholson’s hammy turn in Batman ‘89).

Ledger plays his Joker like a psychotic mash-up of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Tim Curry’s evil clown in Stephen King’s It, with maybe some occasional sampling from Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Gene Simmons on crack.

He’s John Wayne Gacy, coming for your children with a paring knife, and in the clown costume. I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Ledger went to in order to find his character, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

While there is no shortage of the requisite budget-busting action sequences that one expects in a summer crowd-pleaser, it’s the surprisingly complex morality tale simmering just beneath the Biff! Pow! Bam! in Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay that is unexpectedly engaging; it even verges on being thought-provoking.

Nolan is no stranger to the noir sensibility; previous films like Insomnia, Memento, and Following bear that out. When I watch those films, I get a sense he has studied the masters; in fact the bank robbery that opens The Dark Knight is obvious homage to the heist scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

There are a lot of classic noir themes at work here, in particularly the hard-boiled notion that no one is incorruptible; everyone has their price. This idea informs the nexus between the “heroes” and “villains” of the piece; nearly everyone eventually crosses the line to get what they want (even if it’s “justice”).

That is what is most frightening about this particular incarnation of the Joker; his sole raison d’etre is to orchestrate a scenario of fear and anarchy-and then sit back and enjoy the show. “I am an agent of chaos,” he states at one point, and you believe him.

I wouldn’t recommend bringing the kids (or the squeamish) to this film, it’s the most brutally violent installment of the franchise. The violence feels very “real”; and I think that is what makes it disturbing.

Despite the fact that it is, after all, a super hero fantasy, the film carries an overall tone of gritty realism that is unique for the genre. One scene in particular, set in an interrogation room of a police station and involving Batman and his nemesis, begins to reek uncomfortably of Eau de Jack Bauer (Holy Gitmo, Batman!).

I have a couple of other issues, but they don’t sink the film. Superb actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cillian Murphy feel under-utilized in their underwritten parts.

I also felt there were a few too many false endings; as a consequence, some subplots, like the transition of a principal “good guy” into a signature Batman nemesis, seem to get short shrift.

Undoubtedly, these loose ends were primarily tacked on as sequel bait, which I suppose is par for the course. Still, you still might want to catch the The Dark Knight on a slow night… if only for experiencing Ledger’s unique contribution to the screen villain hall of fame.