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The Lone Ranger (2013)
My review of THE LONE RANGER
Negative snark before anyone even saw the movie came in two kinds: Those who thought it racist to cast Johnny Depp as Tonto, and those who thought it a bad idea to make the movie at all.
Johnny Depp having some Native American blood and being proud of that part of his ancestry in interviews going back twenty-five years counted for nothing. The film production courting the Commanche community and Depp being made an honorary member of the tribe didn't matter. The biggest movie star on the planet wanted to play Tonto; was the only reason the movie got greenlit at all, but you don't understand: He lacks the requisite genetic bona fides. He's no Jay Silverheels.
Yeah, about that. Jay Silverheels played Tonto on The Lone Ranger TV series of the 1950s. To some people, Silverheels' performance is better and worthier than Johnny Depp's could ever be because you know, he was a full blooded Mohawk. But have you watched episodes of The Lone Ranger lately? Silverheels did the best anyone could with what is a total nothing part. Tonto is there only to serve his white kemosabe. The fact they got a real Native American to play that nonsense doesn't mean we should accord it more praise than it deserves.
Ideally the complainers wanted someone like Adam Beach or Lou Diamond Phillips to be cast. They mean well, but that line of thinking is creatively limited and leads to hewing too close to crappy tradition. I've seen Depp's performance criticized variously as being a racist cliché and as being nothing more than Jack Sparrow in the Wild (Wild) West. It can't be both, so which is it?
Actually? It's neither.
Depp famously took Rolling Stone Keith Richards as inspiration for his career defining role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. Once it was pointed out, it was obvious: He seems permanently intoxicated, is always slightly slurring his words, he dresses a bit like a gypsy, and his body language is loose and fluid like the rum he clamors for.
Depp's Tonto is miles away from that. He's quiet and determined where Sparrow was flamboyant and dissolute. He moves with smooth precision while all around him is chaos. He's a planner not a schemer --the definition being that a planner focuses on how to solve a problem, while a schemer's focus is on manipulating someone else in solving it.
In short: Depp plays Tonto as Buster Keaton, "the Great Stone Face" of silent film comedy, with a left turn at the Jay Silverheels. You can see it in the deadpan facial expressions (the white warpaint helps with this tremendously and more about that later), the body language, and if you still don't get it: The finale is an extended tribute to the two train chase in Keaton's THE GENERAL.
What Depp takes from Silverheels are his speech patterns. It's a nice nod because to millions of people, that what Tonto sounds like. Depp's turn is a more interesting conversationalist though. It builds to subversive effect when the Lone Ranger meets some Commanche elders and none of them talk like Tonto. In fact, they think he's a bit touched in the head. They're saying, we know our ways are strange to you, white man, but Tonto is an eccentric weirdo even by our standards.
Here Tonto's given a backstory and motivation of his own ala Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. He's a man without a tribe, separated from his people and society because of a tragedy he feels responsible for. He's given --dare I say it-- a personality.
Which is refreshing. Tonto is for once shown to be more than just his race, more than just the Lone Ranger's trusty Indian companion. Not being a full blooded Native American himself, Depp doesn't see the character as a spokesperson for Native Americans everywhere. Which frees him to do what real artists always do: Take inspiration and use it to create something new.
Complainers singled out Tonto's strange look, saying it wasn't in accordance with any tribal tradition; but they missed the whole point. Like the Lone Ranger, this Tonto has his own mask. It's one he wears for his own reasons and never takes off. If you doubt what I'm saying, just look at the advertising logo and tell me whose eyes those are behind the mask.
Which brings us to the Lone Ranger himself, played by Armie Hammer. I've heard criticism about how the movie treats the character, saying it's not respectful. If you go back to TV and radio show though, you see the Ranger was never cool. He didn't shoot to kill - ever. Didn't drink, smoke, cuss, or show an interest in the ladies. He's the man who'd go into the toughest saloon in town and order a glass of milk.
Despite what you've heard, the movie doesn't ridicule the character. What it does is stay true to the "straight arrow" children's hero created by Fran Striker in 1933. The twist is everyone else (including Tonto) react to it the way people actually would. Which is funny. In the end, he still wins against the bad guys on his own terms --which is even better.
What else? The movie tells the story of how John Reid became the Lone Ranger, famous from both radio and TV. The cinematography is beautiful and shows off Monument Valley better than anyone since John Ford. It has an old fashioned sense of storytelling informed not just by Ford but by Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Also: Not an overabundance of CGI. Those are real trains and horses, people.
The movie runs a bit long, but it's a feast for all that. There's adventure, humor, a touch of the gruesome, some intense action, and heart and spirit to spare here.
Jack Reacher (2012)
JACK REACHER: Action movie-making done right!
Saw JACK REACHER on Monday night at an advance screening. Here's some of my thoughts. There are no spoilers.
First off, I'd say I agree with the general critical reception: 4/5 stars. To me that means it's a solid movie that delivers at the high end of its genre. JACK REACHER isn't trying to be anything revolutionary, it's more the kind of action thriller audiences haven't seen for a while.
This isn't MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or even James Bond. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie takes his inspiration from action movies of the late 60s/early 70s like DIRTY HARRY (which has been name checked in a couple reviews already), BULLITT (for the car chase); and maybe another Don Siegel movie, CHARLEY VARRICK. The excitement here doesn't come from over the top stunts or huge explosions. Like the action movies just referenced, you thrill to watching a strongly defined protagonist outsmart, outfight and outmaneuver the bad guys.
Which brings me to the character of Jack Reacher and the casting of Tom Cruise. In the series of novels by Lee Child this movie is based on, Jack Reacher is an ex-MP detective. After a lifetime spent on military bases overseas, he lives as a drifter in the United States who adheres to a life of zero commitments: No house, no job, no car, no possessions, no family. Oh, and he stands 6'5" and weighs 250 lbs.
Clearly Tom Cruise doesn't match that physical description. What makes Reacher such a great character in Child's books though has far less to do with his exterior than it does with his intellect. If you've read the series as I have, it's a little strange at first. As the film played out however, I got more relaxed and more into it. This was definitely a movie about Lee Child's hero Jack Reacher, physical differences be damned.
Would I have preferred an unknown actor closer to Child's description to play Reacher on screen? Yes, of course. But I could say that about virtually any character, and often do. I generally want unknowns for everything.
Which is where Cruise's casting comes in handy a bit. Because his casting sort of guarantees a certain amount of box office, it means the filmmakers can take more chances. Like crafting an action movie that's longer on character and occasional brutal violence and short on mindless action and impossible nonsense.
JACK REACHER was a very satisfying action thriller for me. I felt it captured what I love about Lee Child's thrillers and Jack Reacher in particular. I'd definitely recommend it, and I'm going to see it in the theater again. That's for damn sure.
John Carter (2012)
I have been to Barsoom!
I am a man of obsessions. For months, a movie I hadn't seen was the thing. Not Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT, not Joss Whedon's THE AVENGERS, not even the upcoming Sam Mendes directed James Bond movie SKYFALL (which I'm excited about but it hasn't really sunk its hooks into me yet)...
No, it was Andrew Stanton's JOHN CARTER.
My excitement was not the universal feeling. Disney advertising had dropped the ball and the trailers seemed lackluster to most. Yet something within directed me toward it like a compass points to True North. There was something special about it, something just out of view in the trailers that wouldn't let me go. I trust my obsessions, always, but at some point I got to feeling a bit exhausted and just wanted to know if I was right or maybe a total loon.
I've now been to two advance screenings of JOHN CARTER.
And? Holy Living Thark! The bar on science fiction and fantasy movies has Officially Been Raised.
JOHN CARTER is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars --a novel first published a century ago. I expected to come out of the movie with my head full of comparisons to all the things Burroughs' imagination inspired: STAR WARS, AVATAR, FLASH GORDON, etc. Understandably so, as I'm much more familiar with all of them. That didn't happen. Put simply, if STAR WARS is a kids' science fiction movie franchise that adults enjoy (and it is), then JOHN CARTER is an adult science fiction movie that kids will enjoy.
CARTER is such an immersing experience. Every moment reveals something new about Mars; about the exotic alien races and cultures that call it home, or about their individual characters. James Cameron's AVATAR showed us a world we've never seen before and it was wondrous to behold, but Andrew Stanton's JOHN CARTER is a movie so rich with detail that it left me feeling like I had been somewhere. JOHN CARTER feels like nothing so much than as if David Lean had made a science fiction epic of love and war set on Mars.
This movie has a confidence to it you won't be expecting. It's unafraid to linger over the characters, and give them time to breathe and reveal themselves. My favorite decade for movies is the 1960s, and JOHN CARTER has some of the epic adventure movies of that time running through it like a seam of gold. There's a bit of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in there as I alluded to before, and perhaps a touch of ZULU and SPARTACUS is mixed in with the Martian airships and predator cities. Old fashioned storytelling magic and 21st century movie sorcery have combined into a film that's a pulp sci-fi masterpiece.
To the ERB faithful: please relax. Yes, there are changes from the novel; no, they are not the arbitrary changes made in inferior movie adaptations where the filmmaker just wants to do his/her own ideas. Every change is made to tell Burroughs' story or reveal some aspect of Burroughs' characters in a way more befitting a movie instead of a novel.
Going into this, I had absurdly high expectations. A friend of mine told me he was worried the movie wouldn't live up to them and that frankly I was starting to sound a little crazy. Well, the movie went and exceeded my expectations. I love it, and give it a 10/10. I'm definitely going to see it at least six times in the theater, and will finally buy a Blu-Ray player just to watch it at home.
I realize this review sounds over the top. That's just how excited I am about the movie. Perhaps in a previous life I was an ancient Greek by the name of Hyperboles? Anyway, see the movie. I guarantee that even if you don't like it as much as I did, you'll see where I was coming from with this gushing review.