Friday, March 4, 2011

Gore Verbinski's RANGO

Hey there, pardner, there be SPOILERS ahead.  Fair notice.  

An homage has to be done just right these days; we've seen so many of them that after a while the lines become blurred between pop culture references (I'm looking at YOU, Dreamworks, for the most part) and it becomes more about that than about telling a good story and with engaging characters.  Rango has that... but that is and isn't why the film is so incredible and original in its presentation.  Indeed I'm not sure if it is "original" except in how the filmmakers- co-writer/director Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and head wretr John Logan- treat the material.  Right from the title it's a play on the spaghetti western near-classic Django, though how many kids in the audience seeing that trailer that's played for the past year (the one where the lizard tries to hide in the desert and evade being lunch for the hawk) is hard to say.  Probably not many, at all.

I hoped for a fun romp with Johnny Depp leading the way with some of his usual eccentricities and charisma as a performer.  What I did not expect at all was to be thrown into a comedy take-off on westerns that have jokes and characters speaking dialog that is, arguably, more geared towards adults than kids.  This is not to say kids can't enjoy it, and its PG rating is there for such a reason that it never has anything *too* profane, or anything so violent past its Loony Tunes influence (and please take that last part as a sincere compliment in comparison).  But all of its jokes are intelligent and with an eye and ear for the sublimely ridiculous.  

There's a scene where Rango- which the lizard dubs himself as he wanders into a Western-town called 'Dirt' inhabited by fellow anthropomorphic beings after being flung out from his owner's car- goes into a bar and gets himself a drink.  He talks a big game as this 'Rango' feller for killing seven gunslingers, with ONE bullet, but is given a look-down by a mean-gunslinging rodent that walks into the bar and sits next to Rango.  What does the lizard do?  Why take the cigar the rodent's smoking on, you know, to be all "manly" as a lizard, swallow it, take the cactus-juice (or, rather, alcohol) and drink it down so as to breathe fire on the mangy beast.  Then he throws more cactus juice on to the critter.  Oops.

Verbinski's film is loaded with great physical jokes like that, and others too that I was surprised to see in a movie presented by Nickelodeon movies (where else since the days of Ren & Stimpy would I find a prostate-inspired joke, with that term specifically used?)  What's further amazing is how he is wise to the way that not only the Western genre works, and also comedy and thrillers involving land barons previously played by John Huston (does "The future, Mr. Rango, the future!" ring a bell), but how screen-writing and storytelling itself plays a role into it.  When we first see Rango he's in his little tank, though we don't know that quite yet.  He mentions how he needs conflict, something to propel him forward on to his "hero" journey, this being spoken to an orange wind-up fish and a headless toy.  I was grinning ear to ear at this, how knowing Verbinski was of his audience to trust with a self-conscious gag, and make it work into the rest of the film.  

To be sure the story he's telling is one of a typical "hero's" story: a stranger without any real identity stumbles upon a chance to be somebody- Sheriff in this case for "Dirt"- and help out solve a conniving mystery involving the water supply in town, up against a nefarious turtle-Mayor (Ned Beatty, who else) and a conspiracy that later involves some mole-rats.  What matters is not what's typical, and I think Verbinski and Logan know that well enough to take the beats further along.   Since we know the words, what about the music?  Rango is loaded with the kind of verbal and behavioral jokes that would be more commonplace in a Robert Altman film than a new blockbuster animated adventure aimed at families.  

For some it may appear even within its typical narrative to be all over the place with its comedy.  For me, I could not get enough of the inspired direction and imagination, which veered from, again, Loony Tunes-esque mania to take-offs on Westerns, and little jokes for those who can look careful-like enough (maybe even a Raising Arizona reference, just noticeable enough during a chase with a yodel singing on the soundtrack?)  There's even a surprise cameo which I would dare not mention here except... well, I still won't spoil anything! Suffice to say he's not listed in the credits, but he gives a voice in a turning point that is critical for Rango, and made my jaw drop with glee at his mere REAL appearance.

Aside from the visual virtuosity of the film, with its animation bringing out the characters vividly to look almost photo-real while still sticking to its animation (in other words, not mo-Cap, but better than usual CGI animation outside of Pixar), there's the voice acting.  While Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Timothy Olyphant deserve some high praise, it's Johnny Depp who makes it his show, and Dog bless him.  He's been hit or miss with his performances since he became super-duper-world-wide sensation Jack Sparrow from Verbinski's films, however here he's more than comfortable: he makes a fear of comic and (occasionally) dramatic daring-do with this character, a plucky upstart who is a wonderful fake who just loves playing this role of Sheriff of Dirt and really gets into it, even wooing the eccentric Miss Beans.  It's energetic, fun, and with a little of that insanity that makes Depp so wonderful as an actor.

I would love to revisit the film again just to take in how fast and loose the filmmakers play with genre and conventions, and slip some outrageous jokes right under the wire.  It's mainstream filmmaking with expert craftsmanship - there were little moments, here and there, I almost forgot I was watching an animated movie - and some subversive edge, the kind that brings out the promise seen in the perfect-surreal ten-minute set piece in POTC: At Worlds End when Jack Sparrow is in Davy Jones' Locker.  Rango is surprising and hip, and is smart but doesn't think it's smarter than its audience - rather, it hopes that everyone can keep up to point where it is as creative comedy and action.  And if kids can gravitate towards it ala the first Shrek (minus the franchise opportunities) all the better.  

PS: One spoiler, to give an idea where the film is at: there is a Hunter S. Thompson reference, very much so that you can't miss it, early on.  

PPS: As a sign of how out-of-the-box Verbinski was working with Rango in its usual construction, here is a still from the behind-the-scenes work: the cast performs in full costume on a stage!  Only Wes Anderson when he made Fantastic Mr. Fox did something this odd but fun.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Walter Hill's WILD BILL

"This town reminds me of something from the Bible."
"Which part?"
"The part right before God gets angry." 

I finally came around to Walter Hill's little seen (or, in other terms, flop) Wild Bill not simply due to its star being Jeff Bridges, which should in all reasonable estimation be enough reason to see any film, but because of Bridges' precent star turn as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  I needed another fix of a gorram gunslinging bastard done right by Bridges, and in that small respect Hill's film from a decade and a half before didn't disappoint.  Another factor in common is the use of that iconic song 'Leaning, Leaning, Leaning on the everlasting arm' that is used in True Grit (or, for you classic film people, Night of the Hunter).  Aside from these two factors, and a good deal of dead people, the two films have little else in common.  Certainly that the recent Coen brothers film is far and away the superior film.

But is Hill's film worth seeing?  That depends - on if you're a big fan of Westerns, forgiving of Hill's pretentions with the genre this time around (and he would continue again, homaging Red Harvest and Yojimbo for Last Man Standing a year later), and just enjoy seeing Bridges killing the living fuck out of anyone who crosses his path.  This isn't to say this treatment of Wild Bill Hickock makes him particularly brutal... that is unless someone tries to pick a fight, to which Bill always comes out on top. 

 What I liked, at least at first, was that for all the people Bill kills (ho-ho), he really doesn't go out of his way to do it.  He has so many people picking fights and making challenges that it becomes like an annoyance.  And, sometimes, to his detriment when he kills the deputy by accident, one a handful of times he really regrets his killing (that is to say he pauses and tears a bit... and then goes on his way).

He carries a legend, and it is something of a burden; when he arrives in Deadwood (some relation to the show of the same name, though not at the same time, save for the dirty-hell feeling to the town) he gets into opium... a lot.  So much that his few friends- Calamaty Jane, John Hurt's beleaguered Englishman, James Gammon's long-time companion with so much grit as to be made of wood- barely see him as he goes off to the Chinese part of town to get his smoke on.  But there's also the weirdly-awkward David Arquette (both in character and performance) who has a bone to pick with Wild Bill as he killed the man who could've been his new-daddy with his Mom (all-too-little seen Diane Lane), whom Bill had an affair with as well.  

Hill's technique in the film, the reason I mention pretensions before, is that he's not content to make just a straightforward western.  This should be commendable and perhaps is, but it just didn't come off well for me.  It's a style akin to what one might see years later (or in 2009) with Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, but in reverse: here the film is shot with good, clean 35mm film, and then flashbacks are shot with (intentionally) shoddy video, black and white, and with angles that look like a film school student getting his hands on a camcorder after watching a shitload of dutch angles.  

We're meant to be taken into a time and place from Bill's past that is jarring, hallucinatory, but it felt fake and trying too hard to be "artful", when in reality the film works best when it just sticks to its figurative guns and is a Western in the way that Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns was: traditional, fun, and knowing its genre and audience.  When he tries to be all Jim Jarmusch it's just unconvincing, despite some initial interest with an Indian tribe talking to Bill.

I'm also mixed on the performances.  Of course Bridges is the reason, if nothing else, to see the film as he makes this dour and rather nasty character, albeit with a whole lotta demons inside of his very human and broken self (both by doing so much killing and by his glaucoma), that he's compulsively watchable.  I loved his look, his mannerisms, his big moustache, and how he has some moments of dark humor like when he suddenly springs up a gun in Arquette's face when he tries to make a move on Bill during one of his opium binges.  

But with Ellen Barkin I felt like she was misscast; perhaps she was great in auditions or even rehearsals, yet in front of the camera she tries to hard to be a bad-ass (certainly not as bad as Sharon Stone, but close).  And while I mentioned Arquette before I can't stress enough how warped his delivery is, as if he's play-acting a cowboy; he turned out much better in Scream as a sheriff since that was sorta a comedy.  Hurt and Gammon do alright in their roles, but unfortunately so little time is given to the great Bruce Dern, James Remar and Keith Carradine it's hard to give them a fair shake.  Christina Applegate is... what the fuck's she doing here?

Wild Bill is perhaps not as bad as you've heard, but then again I'm not sure what you have heard (it does have a negative Rotten-Tomatoes average, something like a 37%, so there's that against it).  It was never boring, had some (in FILM) good cinematography and there was a strange tension that builds when Arquette's character gets his posse- all far more bad-ass than him- when they have Bill surrounded in a bar, everyone else in town out on a gold hunt, and don't kill him right away but toy with the expectation of death.  And the shoot-outs, sometimes fast and frenetic in speed if not shooting and editing (though sometimes so) are fun to watch.  

I wish Hill had a better grasp of his flashback scenes, and letting some of the casting get away from his better senses.  It's best seen as an entertaining curio, something that passes the time pretty fast at 92 minutes on a weeknight, and another showcase for Bridges to show his 'Grit' as a bad-ass.

But I don't need to remind you which place I'm 'Leaning'.  Ho-ho.  

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ten thoughts on Oscars now that I'm home from the party (but not yet in my PJ's)

So... sipping on a beer and contemplating what I just watch, yet another presentation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual Self-Blow-Job.  But hey, at least they usually pick good-to-great films for awards right?  Eh?

1) This year the big winners were pretty much what I expected... pretty much in that the irrational part of me wanted two particular wins for the evening as preferences- David Fincher for Director of The Social Network, and Mike Leigh for Screenplay for Another Year (if only because it was my 2nd favorite film of 2010) - and they didn't materialize.  Leigh of course was just a preference, much the same way was Roger Deakins for True Grit's cinematography, albeit that leans more towards being just an outright snub in my opinion (as he's always been for all of his nominations, instead it went to the decent but bland cinematography by Wally Pfister for Christopher Nolan's Inception, which mostly picked up technical awards in sound vfx).

But for Fincher I was really pulling for him, this despite the fact that Tom Hooper got the DGA award and almost always the DGA winner gets the Oscar.  It's not that Hooper's direction was even bad, indeed it was elegant and carried some emotional heft.  But more than Fincher?  Or Aronofsky or the Coens or even David O. Russell for that matter?  It was a safe pick amongst other safe picks, the bulk of which were predictable.

2) Kirk Douglas... STILL THE MAN!

3) A minor note, but they should have grouped all of the songs for Best Song together to be done at once.  Was it such a rush for commercials?  They could have actually condensed some times (if bled a few extra eardrums - sorry, Gwyneth) if they just had all four songs back to back and given Randy Newman his "perk up your sad panda face" award.

4) As much as I do genuinely love Pixar's last four films, and of course others as well, the Academy needs to just give them a Lifetime Oscar award and never nominate them again.  Only in the following year is there the chance they might possibly, maybe, not be nominated and as it's for Cars 2 (the original Cars didn't win in 2006, so why the fuck for Cars 2?), and another animated film of the likes of the wonderful How to Train Your Dragon and The Illusionist (or the not nominated Tangled) have a shot.

5) James Franco had a lot of charm and had some genuinely awesome facial expressions, kind of like a piece of performance art unto itself.  Though at times he also seemed tired, which is understandable as he is an insomniac who is going for three Masters degrees, acting his ass off in movies and General Hospital, and possibly is directing and performing humanitarian work on Mars as well.  Anne Hathaway, as a result, seemed to carry more of the traditional host duties, while Franco was the shaggy comic relief.

6) The academy missed out on giving the award to Banksy/Exit through the Gift Shop.  Inside Job was deserved, a fantastic doc, but it was still expected, safe.  Giving it to Bansky would have upped the ante of excitement.

7) I didn't really register it while watching it- it seemed decent if a little too little and also too much at once- but the tribute segments to old movies and Oscar history were random and haphazard this year.  I was caught unawares that it was a Gone with the Wind tribute until the soft-meandering orchestral music directed me to it and Tom Hanks read off the film's (obvious?) credentials.  And then also for the first Oscar history and Bob Hope tribute, they were both just... weak, I dunno.  Maybe there wasn't much that could have been done with them, except to, you know, cut them, or do a different tribute to movies in general instead of just focusing on Gone with the Fucking Wind.

8) Other strange musical choices - the Celine Dion song during the usual Obit-ceremony (also, one significant name left out: Eric Rohmer - why mention Claude Chabrol but not Rohmer?  The guy has been NOMINATED before for Oscars! whatever).  It was, as with the previous year when they had Queen Latifah singing, distracting.  Just have some sad music or something.  No, better yet, transfer over the Beethoven's 7th music (one of the best things ever recorded... yet also the most over-played as well, though not overrated, makes everything automatically dramatic and them some) and make that the mourning music instead of the music over yet ANOTHER montage of Best Pic Nominees when there was already a wonderful montage near the start of the awards show.

9) The Kids at the End of the Show... up until then I was actually really digging the show on the whole: some good presenters, fun banter between the likes of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, and a fine Billy Crystal cameo... but this?  Why not just END THE FUCKING SHOW!?  It's how it always go: Best Picture wins, that's the end of the show.  What's with the kids (who may be all well and good singers for little kids) singing "Over the Rainbow" and then, THEN, having the audacity to have all of the winners of the show come on stage with the kids and... I dunno, sing with them(?)  Maybe I was just looking at Melissa Leo, who might have still been on her (well deserved) high from winning for Mother Ward in The Fighter.  If I were one of the nominees who didn't win, I'd be kind of flabbergasted- and just offended and sickened- by the last minute dose of cute sentimentality on display at the end.  Where's the bar when you need it?

Oh yeah, it's Hollywood for ya.

10) Now that the Lifetime Achievement awards are from now on(?) at the Governor's Ball ceremony, we don't get a big speech from a Master or Titan of cinema; now we just get a brief montage of what happened (and unless you follow shit like I do on IMDb, where they posted the video from the Governor's ball from speeches given for Kevin Brownlow, Eli Wallach, Jean-Luc Godard and Francis-Ford Coppola, you wouldn't see what they had to say or what other said about them).  Kids who might watch the Oscars just for Toy Story 3 or Inception could have gotten a decent speech from Coppola upon his winning the Thalberg award.  But nay, he's just brought on stage to get some applause, and yep, that's it.

BONUS THOUGHT: It's been somewhat toned down from the past couple of years, but the Oscars need to cut out two things: first, the actors need to stop having their asses extra-kissed.  The first year they did this in 2009 it was the worst, as actors would individually come on stage and give a long spiel about each of the five nominees before handing out the award - FOR ALL OF THE ACTING NOMINEES (not just leads but supporting).  Bullshit.  Just show a clip, that's it.  Pictures speak more than words, and in this case you're showing the clips that speak to what was special (or at least notable) about a performance.  The Oscars have enough kiss-ass going on without this malarkey.  Last year they kept it to just the lead actors, and this year it was just a couple of sentences given to each of the acting nominees... but it's still annoying, and it also now feeds into a conspiracy theory I have that the real reason Hailee Steinfeld wasn't nominated for Best Actress (and don't give me that crap cause she's a protagonist) is because Jeff Bridges, as the one presenting the award, would have had to give his main co-star the extra kissing-of-the-toosh.  Grr.

Secondly the 10 nominees, which was done in theory because of the snub of The Dark Knight for best picture (and I say to you now, dear readers, wahh), need to be brought back to five.  In the 1930's and 40's there were 10, but then it was a different time when also black people weren't allowed at the front of the bus and people found Bob Hope funny.  It was a savage time.  Now we're in an era where we've had the five nominees and, frankly, looking at the list this year and last, it's always very clear which of the nominess would be there if there were just the five.  On top of this- perhaps a life lesson in the style of George Carlin though I imagine not intentionally- there are a few winners, A WHOLE LOT MORE LOSERS.  Looking especially at this year, there were four nominees for picture that went home with nothing.  Zero.  Zilch.  At least if it was five nominees then the rest would just be content with losing the other awards.  One look at the Coen brothers faces- whose great film was up for ten awards tonight, joining a pantheon of the likes of The Thin Red Line and Gangs of New York for most nominations without a win- and they looked bored out of their minds.

So yeah.... Kirk Douglas:

And this is what the kids should have been singing in a righteous world: