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Rango -- There's No Western Like It
I realize a review is supposed to talk about the movie, but indulge me for a moment.
I enjoy Westerns. But, that wasn't always the case. My mother of all people turned me on to the virtues and value found in "Bonanza", "Cimarron Strip", "The Big Valley", and "The Virginian". Later, I would discover what made everyone from Sergio Leone to Clint Eastwood cool. I came to respect the romance and intrigue inherent in the genre; rarely was I turned off.
It's that much more pleasing when the genre is taken in a different direction. We have an excellent example this year! It starts with a neurotic pet chameleon (Johnny Depp), naturally well-versed in drama and portrayal. Cruel fate sees him stranded in the wasteland, literally guided by voices, as he spends an amusing opening trying to survive. A chance meeting with strong-willed rancher lizard Beans (Isla Fisher) gets him a ride from the sewer to the toilet, a last-legs town, appropriately called "Dirt". There are water problems as well as outlaws aplenty. Mr. Neurotic lays eyes on a label in a saloon, spins a few tall tales, and Rango is born! After more dumb luck sees him nail a hawk and run toughie Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) and his gang off, Rango becomes a name in the community.
But, can he figure out what's behind the water shortage? He's on a clock, since to said outlaws, a sheriff's star may as well be a bulls-eye.
Prior to rushing out to see this, I heard a couple of pre-cog complaints about ugly character designs. That's easily answered, along with many other stigma you true believers may be having. First, if you are into clean, perfect, "attractive" character design and execution as displayed through the rose-colored, 3-D VR helmets borne of the PIXAR/DreamWorks debate, stay away from this film. That goes triple for you parents looking for the next animated film before which to plop your kids down, where any animated film will do. Don't do it. Save money and gas...go see "Toy Story 3" for the twelfth time.
None of that here. Just as men are men and women are women in the Old West, "Rango" is it's own film. More "Shane" than "Shrek". More "Foreign Correspondent" than "Finding Nemo". It's gritty. Raw. Filthy. Surreal. Disturbingly violent at times. But with just the right amount of well-placed humor to break it up. Gore Verbinski's trademark pacing, put to increasingly awkward use in the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" franchise, works surprisingly well here. Equal attention must be paid to animation director Hal Hickel and the ever-improving staff at ILM, as they trade firm handshakes with art director John Bell and production designer Mark McCreery in the successful effort to craft stunning, unforgettable visuals, accented by outstanding lighting, which puts the fruit of the current 3-D, hi-def craze to shame. The not-so-original, yet solid story receives further grand support from a sweeping score by the winning Hans Zimmer and the further contributions of co-producers such as Mark Bakshi. (Yes, he's related to that Bakshi. Those in the know need not hear anything further. The rest of you, get to Googling.) Everything about the film cries "unorthodox", including the performance of a highly capable cast, who actually performed their scenes on sound stage, near-to-unheard of in animation procedure. Keep eyes peeled for humorous set pieces and important cameos. This is well worth your repeat viewings.
So, head on west. But leave the kids at home to wrestle with PIXAR, DreamWorks, and the other juveniles of the terrarium.
Pop Culture goes *pop*
This is an engaging mockumentary about Leonard Zelig (writer/director Woody Allen), the undisputed medical phenomenon of 1929. So serious is his neurological condition, that he will assimilate the physical, mental, and even cultural attributes of whomever with he spends significant time. That's right--around fat people, he gets fat. Around black people, he becomes black. He'll develop a beard and orthodox learning before your eyes if he's around rabbis. The only one who understands, and consequently, fights for him, is the long-suffering Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher (Mia Farrow), determined to find the cure.
It's just a shame that this film didn't win more awards than it actually did, and a near perfect crime that it's not discussed more often than it is. For one thing, it's far and away among Allen's VERY BEST. The textbook subjects that he confronts so well, such as disease and physical yearnings, are present, but are righteously treated as window dressing for the presentation of the story. The insertion of Allen, Farrow, and a cast of their pals (all of whom perform to a T) to the pre-war era is eye-popping, to say the least. As said before, it's a mockumentary executed so nicely that it could make Christopher Guest turn stone with envy. The highly improbable plot is considerably well-handled, leading us to the inevitable comparison that follows.
Now, if you run around praising "Forrest Gump" (and I KNOW you do), and you haven't seen this, you're really missing it. As fun and briefly interesting as "Gump" was, this classic edges past it, for the simple reason that it knows better than to take itself seriously. This is a comedy, start to finish. The gags are gags, and never manipulate. When we feel for Zelig, Eudora, or both, it's real. After all, who HASN'T tried to fit in somewhere? Finally, the ever-changing way in which the public views/treats Zelig through the whole ordeal that was his "career" exposes the fickle nature of pop culture, showing it for the joke that it is. This was truly Woody at his finest, in a work that definitely should have a little more admiration.
"Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"
It is...a most interesting version of 1985. Nixon has been president for FAR too long, the Soviet Union struggles with the West over control of Afghanistan, and crime and social upheaval are at an all time high.
And, oh yeah, superheroes exist.
However, superheroes have problems, just like anyone else. The most notable of super teams, the Minute Men, had long passed their glory days and handed the torch to the next generation, whose problems were so severe that they wound up disbanded.
But now, the murder of a veteran member causes these new Watchmen to unite again, with the purpose of solving said murder, and perhaps, saving the world once again.
As different as the source material upon which this movie was based proved to be, I never really liked it. I knew very little of the mysterious writer Alan Moore at the time that I read it (somewhere between high school and college), but he would go on to write works that I enjoyed much more. I gained an appreciation for the dark themes and the social mirrors he explores. But after two readings, I found this particular story somewhat abrupt and naive.
Now, a movie comes along. Surprise, surprise, it proves effective.
Don't go expecting the typical comic book nonsense (aside from Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, and a scant few other examples, that is) to which we've been exposed up to this point. In fact, it's most effective if you attend with no expectations at all. This prompts me to wave a BIG flag before parents--it's rated R for a reason. In fact, there are many reasons.
Some solid performances abound in a cast of actual character actors rather than stars. In particular, talking head followers should enjoy the fine actors portraying The MacLaughlin Group and Ted Koppel. The musical choices pull you in to the narrative, reflecting the troubled era well. (Who would have thought that a Bob Dylan tune would be such a powerful intro?) The film is faithful to the source material to no grammatical fault.
This is one problem critics have had with the film already. One such critic, whose review I thought was rather good otherwise, put forth that the photo-play is so faithful to the novel, that it lacks any spirit of its own. I don't necessarily argue with that, but I do differ with the idea that the story is irrelevant due to the passage of time. (Since there's no Soviet Union, etc.) It's the reason for my title. Some will recognize the classic Chicago Transit Authority tune: "Does anybody really care? And so I can't imagine why, we've all got time enough to die..." (Kinda surprised they didn't add that one.) If anything, the social and cultural connotations of a story like this are MORE relevant today than ever.
In a world facing problems like economic downturn, increasing social upheaval, and families being ruined by a whole lot more than just war, perhaps it is the right time to revisit The Watchmen.
Nothing like the Moon
Henry Selick again brings a tour-de-force by way of fascinating innovation in "puppetmation".
The story, adapted from a fine Neil Gaiman work, features feisty 'tween Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), fresh from Michigan and taking up residence with her independent journalist parents in "The Pink Palace", a landmark on the edge of nowhere. The only other kid for miles, Wybie (Robbie Bailey), is a rambling nerd with a strange pet cat, her mother (Teri Hatcher) is absorbed in meeting her deadline, her father (John Hodgman) is, well, simply absorbed, and her neighbors are elderly oddities, especially Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane, in a role that suits him), a former acrobat from Russia with an appreciation for stinky cheese. Things aren't necessarily bad, just weird and dull.
That is, until Coraline unlocks a door in the house far too small for most humans, and discovers another world, where another family awaits, similar to the first family, but with everything Coraline misses. All too soon, the lines between fantasy and reality blur, and Coraline is forced into making a decision that will either change her life or end it.
The usual nitpicks may rear their ugly heads when comparing the film to the novel, but in general, this is a great adaptation, in that it captures the essence of the story. Reality and fantasy blur as quickly for the viewers as they do for Coraline, which helps to plunge us into the urgency. The flowing animation, some of the best I've seen for stop-motion OR go-motion, rivals the best CGI; even surpasses it in digital! Details are well-pronounced, from Coraline's wardrobe (as well as the other characters'), to the evolving garden outside, to the near ever-present moon, which plays a peculiar role in marking time and stretching the suspense. Again, the film is best experienced in digital, and a worthwhile experience in 3-D, if you can plunk down the extra cash.
While the pace may drift in a few places, that is certainly a minor gripe. If you like a good suspense story, there's really no reason to stay away from the Pink Palace, unless of course, Grandma tells you to.
The Cable Guy (1996)
Perhaps it hits a little too close to home...
Steven M. Kovacks (Matthew Broderick) is in transition time. At work, his boss is using the current account he's working on as a daily Sword of Damocles, as girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) reacts to his marriage proposal by kicking him out (a true romance killer). Buddy Rick (Jack Black) suggests that, as part of moving in to his own place, he slips whatever cable guy shows up an extra $50 to snag the premium channels for free. Steven repeats this to the Cable Guy (Jim Carrey) that DOES show up to install his cable.
Oh, yeah, all this takes place against the backdrop of the trial of angry, disgruntled former child star Sam Sweet (director Ben Stiller), an event being celebrated as if it were the Super Bowl.
I'd like to get the contemporaries of the film out of the way first. It's the kind of casting that only Stiller could concoct, which is one of the trademarks of his films. You can see performances of members of Stiller's own "inner circle"--Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and even charter member Owen Wilson, as well as Black and his "Tenacious D" cohort, Kyle Gass, Kathy Griffin, Sean Whalen, "Mr. Show" masterminds David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, and a truly priceless cameo by Eric Roberts, easily one of Hollywood's greatest sports. Set pieces and scenes are mini-stories in themselves, played for laughs, as you might expect. The atmosphere is classic Greek tragedy by the way of Saturday Night Live and Madison Avenue, with just the slightest dash of Mark Twain. (I'd offer a ransom to hear what Mark Twain might say about television.) Which brings me to the point--a lot of what I hear about this film courts terms such as "underrated" and "overlooked". I have a theory about why that is. First, know that at its heart, "The Cable Guy" is satire, a second-home genre to Stiller. Satire normally doesn't do very well at the box office, because it is usually an honest attempt to hold a high-definition mirror up to society. This perpetuates truth, something, according to history, humans hate. The worst effects of television on society are on display in this film, and they're funny because they're truth. It's extremely fair to say that it's not a comedy--possibly more accurate to say that it's not JUST a comedy. It's easy to dismiss a film like this while we gallop right back into the arms of "Will & Grace", "Ultimate Fighting Championship", "Survivor", "The O.C.", "TMZ", or the ruling distraction of the moment. The darkness, whether in Carrey's performance, or the resulting interplay (say what you will of Broderick, but doing the straight man ain't no piece of cake), is validated by everything else.
Again, it's funny BECAUSE it's true. Take for granted that if you have even a little TV in your home, you have a little "Chip Douglas" in you. Yes, even you.
Sisters Sarah and Erin hop the bigger pond, landing in Tokyo to film a documentary about global warming (though God knows why). In the midst of their interview with the Environmental Minister, havoc strikes. At first, it's assumed to be another earthquake. When military presence intensifies, terrorism is suspected. But all too soon, it's revealed to be...something else. Sounds a bit familiar, no? Just to get it out of the way, whether or not it's an unhappy accident of conflicting release dates, there's no getting around that this is "Cloverfield"-lite, with a few (very few) deviations. This is evident--from the distant explosion that marks the start of the action, to the overall concept, to splattering the camera with blood at least once. The monsters even roar as if they were separated at birth. To be fair, this film does have a few things on Cloverfield. The fish-out-of-water angle, namely placing the protagonists in an unfamiliar culture, was a great idea. It's difficult enough to survive disaster when most everyone speaks your language, but when they don't, the challenge is increased quite a bit. While the presentation of the global warming message is..."crunchy" at best, the not-so-subtle hint that global warming itself awakened the creature is another juicy notion. Honestly, there's no better place on earth to set your disaster than Tokyo, the world's capital of disasters! The biggest thing for me personally would have to be the logic of the beast itself. In this film, it seemed to cut its paths of destruction through heavily populated areas, as I believe an angry beast would, rather than conveniently following four scrawny twenty-somethings around, and even directly snacking on one of them, as New York's monster did.
Now that that's out of the way, even if Cloverfield never existed, this would still be pretty poor. The creature, a giant squid presumably, isn't actually seen doing very much to constitute a threat. Perhaps it could have actually picked up someone or smashed something, but all we're treated to is many angles of large, waving tentacles. One thing it makes you appreciate is how difficult disaster is to write. It seems that it's very easy to get so wrapped up in the turmoil of your story that you forget how people actually talk, particularly in the midst of emergency. Sarah and Erin (their actual first names, by the way; a bright-and-shining sign of non-actors) appear to struggle on the initiative to keep many of David Michael Latt's throw-away lines out of the production, but enough of them sneak in to become distracting. "I feel like we were meant to be here...", "It's so important to document this..." Sure. I realize they would have to invent reasons for our heroines to lug around an industrial-grade camera, but there must have been another way. Call me shallow, but I believe I'd find it difficult to think of what progeny will see someday when flaming debris is exploding all around me, and the street is caving in underneath my feet.
An additional note about the cast--in truth, considering the script, there's really no reason to have anyone American in it. The Japanese actors (and their characters) are FAR better than the American ones; particularly the high-schooler who lives with her half-crazed dad (and dad seems to know something of the angry creature) and the young doctor who just wants to get across town and make sure his son is okay. I wished the film were about THEM, or someone like them. Were I in Erik Estenberg and company's shoes, I'm sure I would have shot the entire thing with an entirely Japanese cast and subtitles. Couldn't the Japanese document their own disasters? They've had lots of practice.
So, maybe it's not so much a ripoff as it is just not good. Of course, consider that trailer for another Asylum treat, "AVH". As in, "Alien Vs. Hunter". As in intergalactic hunters with advanced camouflage fighting slimy aliens with elongated heads and teeth. Can't wait for that one, can ya? What? You've seen it? Of course you have...
An animated chick-flick? PIXAR breaks new ground again...
WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) is the last of a series of machines left to clean up humanity's mess. But this is a sponsored mess, courtesy of friendly-neighborhood planet-seizing corporate titan "Buy 'N Large", whose corporate logo nearly covers the waste-ridden landscape. WALL-E rather cheerfully goes about his "directive" to the tune of his favorite film, 1969 Technicolor bombast "Hello, Dolly!". His well-developed personality combined with repeat viewings of the musical practically set the stage for the entrance of EVE(an "Environmental Vegetation Evaluator", maybe?), who literally blasts her way into his environment, looking for signs of organic life. When WALL-E presents his houseplant to her, EVE hits a mission accomplished mode, and the road to fireworks is paved.
Your circuit board's dead if you don't get a spark from this one. As effective as the somewhat chilling views of the ravaged earth are, along with what the long space-borne human race has become, adventure and intrigue take a firm back seat to romance. Chick-flick? Sure it is. Proof? PIXAR has truly managed to forge new territory in getting women and teenage girls, like the ones in my showing, to weep over a couple of machines. I admit, this central love story is heart-felt, as even the survival of our species is less important to us than whether EVE and WALL-E will end up together. And will they? You'll just have to go see it. This is a very good time at your theater.
As much fun as the movie is, the opening short may very well be even better! Check out "Presto!" and find out why Alec the Bunny is my new most favorite PIXAR character.
When you're not looking...
The fantastic legend of that other world called Narnia continues with a second act that, again, does fine justice to the masterpieces of C.S. Lewis. A year after the first adventure, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) find themselves being shipped away again, this time to school. As the doldrums of the coming excursion rear their heads before they can even leave the station, the Deep Magic strikes again, and the Pevensies are whisked away to Narnia a second time. However, a millennium and a half has passed there. Cair Paravel is a ruin, Aslan is nowhere to be found, and the last vestiges of the Narnian citizenry are under threat from the new ruling class, the Telmarines, with the influence of their ruthless regent, Miraz (Sergio Castellito). A new army is needed, and one is haphazardly gathered under the banner of fugitive ruler, Caspian X (young stage veteran Ben Barnes). But before he can take the throne, Caspian must overcome political treachery, and face the terrible truth about his family. This is a grand afternoon at the movies. Once again, Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus meet the challenge of serving a story that needed no service. Sharp accents, neat touches, and slick dialogue abound, but the powerful script is a clear step up from the wardrobe. It's said that part of God's way of doing things is selecting the most unlikely personnel to do a task. Narnia is surely all about that. Appealing characters come to life again, well-cast, with Peter Dinklage outstanding as the disillusioned Trumpkin and voice-master Eddie Izzard stealing scenes as the cavalier Reepicheep. I rein in from saying any more, to sustain the surprise, but the wonder of Narnia is fully realized once again, in a more mature, hard-hitting adventure. The kind that leaps out at you, when you're not looking...
Bee Movie (2007)
Stung A Little...
Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld), a bee fresh out of college, becomes increasingly unsure about a future enveloped wholly in making honey. He embraces a chance to examine life outside the hive and, once he seizes the chance, runs headlong into the shocking discovery that bees are being exploited, en masse, for their full-time honey creation. With help from college buddy Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick) and human florist Vanessa Bloome (Renee Zellweger), he takes the human race to court in an attempt to win back what belongs to the bees.
A fun notion, one someone would expect from Seinfeld in truth, proves not to be quite enough, coming across as rather a children's book splashed with clever celebrity cameos. This is the sort of formula that I had hoped Dreamworks would stray from. The placement of plot points seems somewhat out of order as well, with not quite enough time spent on Vanessa's jealous boyfriend Ken (hilarious Patrick Warburton), and too much time on rushing toward a difficult-to-accept resolution. The film really asks you to entertain many stretches of logic and physics, a few more than the typical animated movie would, while attempting to be cerebral at the same time. That's a tricky order to say the least, and I'm led to think it was a little too much for this particular crew.
It's not a total downer, though. The aforementioned cameos are fun and appropriate, and the voice acting is top-notch, with a cast wisely stocked with veterans in the voice-over game. The actual court case is probably the best part of the film. The stunning visuals that come with Barry and company's flights around the city and through traffic are a sight to behold, and design and rendering are nice and tight. Even the honey itself is golden and gorgeous, although you may cut down your intake of it after seeing this one.
A fun diversion, it is, but perhaps not worth a first-run viewing.
Well, it ain't "Animal Farm"...
This guilty pleasure could stand a little more pleasure and a little less guilt.
Ben (Sam Elliot), a male cow (hang on, I'll get to that), has devoted everything to protecting the farm he calls home from threats outside the fence, prime among them being Dag the Coyote (David Koechner). All the animals trust him, since he has proved himself repeatedly, but the only one in line to take up the mantle from Ben is Otis (Kevin James), the very image of a party animal.
This is merely one of those anarchic films of which we probably have memories that are too positive. "Animal House", "Bachelor Party", "Meatballs", "Caddyshack", the list goes on. This one just happens to be animated, and put frankly, it's no less fun. The film shines when the stunts are pulled, and while the party's on. It has the patented Steve Oedekerk look and feel, sporting the same stark colors and bouncy character design seen in "Jimmy Neutron". Everything, right down to the environments, seems to have been created for comedy. Of course, this is where the project somewhat falls in upon itself. Things rather sour when any sort of drama is attempted, damaging the execution of a capable enough script. It's hard to accept a tender moment from characters who have just engaged in hill-surfing, chicken-launching, human-taunting, or "boy tipping". The misplaced anatomy is a minor consideration compared to narrative misfire, albeit well-cast, comical misfire. Bottom line, it's not about story or heart, and you won't receive any spiritual or intellectual advancement, but that didn't stop you from watching the like of the aforementioned films. It's mindless fun, and that's all there is to be expected.