Hear you this Triton of the minnows?

Ralph Fiennes’ modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic Coriolanus is either a masterpiece or a travesty depending upon your level of reading comprehension in high school and college.   When I was working on my theatre minor, this was one of the plays I wished our department would put on (next to George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House), but alas, we were stuck with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that one bit of Shakespeare that’s impossible not to “get.”

Fiennes’ version of the story takes place in “Rome,” though the soldiers wear American army fatigues, and the streets and the protesters occupying them look painfully familiar.  As contemporary as the scenery may be, however, we’re still playing by Rome’s rules, and if you want to be on the same level as the characters when the story begins, a basic understanding of Roman government is necessary.  Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a newly appointed general in the running for consul during the era of popular rule.  He almost gets there, but because of the scheming tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson), the people realize that Martius, a brutal, idealistic military man who believes the people should have no control over the patricians (“allowing crows to peck at the eagles”), may not be the best person to represent them.  The tribunes push Martius over the edge during a heated conversation in front of the entire capital, driving the latter to denounce the government and its people, a crime punished by banishment.  Eventually, Martius, a shell of himself, forms an alliance with his blood enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), concerned with nothing but vengeance against his country.

Fundamental issues already exist in this narrative, including the fact that Martius has a wife, Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain, the most prolific actress working today, as far as I’m concerned), often described as one of Shakespeare’s loveliest female characters (which isn’t saying much, but that’s neither here nor there); an overbearing mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and a young son.  He leaves them behind without a word, also forsaking his friends, including Senator Menenius (Brian Cox).  If Martius loses his self-righteous battle against Rome, can we really see this as a “tragedy?”  He’s a violent maniac, a pathetic husband, and a dangerous political figure.

Performance-wise, Fiennes, Chastain, Redgrave, Cox, and Nesbitt bring their A-games, as one would expect in a film of this type.  Butler, billed as the co-star but playing a character who doesn’t actually appear much, does a competent job looking menacing, but I occasionally got the sense that he memorized the thick Shakespearian dialogue without much thought about its meaning.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the first.  Aside from an extended battle that might make you think you’re watching The Hurt Locker, the film’s first hour is ripe with drama: Martius vs. his mother, Martius vs. his wife, Martius vs. the people, Martius vs. Aufidius, Martius vs. the tribunes.  This is all forgone once he is banished, and the “raid on Rome” is never actually shown, so the desperation of Volumnia and Virgilia to stop him in the climactic confrontation is not completely evident; the scene itself, however, shines.

Additionally, material from the original play is changed and removed, often for incomprehensible reasons.  Why, for example, does screenwriter John Logan choose to have Menenius commit suicide in the latter 3/4 of the film after being unable to convince Martius to halt his advance on Rome?  The danger is not real enough for him to think the entire city is doomed, and his friendship with Martius is never developed enough to make us believe he would be so devastated.  The other unforgivable change is the omission of Aufidius’ final speech in the play, where after seeing to Martius’ death, he expresses not satisfaction despite his lifelong desire to kill the man, but a great sorrow, and orders that Martius be given a noble burial.

Coriolanus is a good film because of its cast.  Fiennes is rarely so fierce, and we’re reminded why Vanessa Redgrave should be leading more ensembles.  I can only assume that the modern combat visuals and bizarre revisions are an attempt to rope in the Call of Duty crowd, but hey, if it gets young people to absorb staples of literary culture (and more so to attempt to understand their construction, flaws, and their racial and gender issues), I support it.

Coriolanus (2011); written by John Logan (adapted from William Shakespeare’s play); directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Gerard Butler.


We form a possum! ….

It’s rare that I find myself at a loss about where to start these things, but I suppose what bears underscoring at the outset of a Rango review is that it’s not so much a “kids’ movie” as it is an interesting animated film for people who love movies.

The most immediately striking aspect of Rango is that it’s in 2D.  It respects the conventions of not only hand-drawn animated films, but also the long-standing rules of classic Westerns.  Yes, you heard correctly: you don’t have to pay an extra five bucks for silly glasses, dim colors, and a headache.

The story involves a nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) who takes on the moniker of “Rango” after being dumped from the back of his owner’s truck in the middle of the Nevada freeway.  We’ve already got our first Western box checked: he’s a man with no name.  Make that two: there’s a Greek chorus of avian mariachis.  He meets an armadillo (Alfred Molina), who acts as a sort of guiding hand in the early going.  Rango ends up in the town of Dirt, run by Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), quickly coming up with tall tales about himself, which the local yokels eat up.  He also meets Beans (Isla Fisher), apparently the only woman in town.  Also appearing are the legendary Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, who takes on the Jack Wilson role – the ruthless, black-hatted gun for hire – and Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, a cockney-talking gila monster.  Once Rango becomes the de facto sheriff of Dirt, he finds himself in a crisis: how to bring back the town’s lost water supply, a task made even worse due to his phony stories about himself, which have caused the residents to believe in him.

The writing in this movie is leaps above most animated features, including last year’s diamonds-in-the-rough, Despicable Me and Toy Story 3, if not only for the fact that it takes risks.  The opening involves Rango doing an exorbitant performance piece with a toy fish, a dead cricket, and the naked torso of a Barbie doll.  Throughout the rest of the film, the dialogue is clever, packed with relevant references to culture that will soar over children’s heads like the hawk that chases Rango in the post-opening sequence.  Screenwriter John Logan outdoes himself in this respect – the writing is much better than it has to be in a movie of this nature.  His knowledge (and more so his love of) classic Westerns is evident, but the screenplay always keeps in mind that the characters are talking animals (with guns and scaled-down bullets, yes, but talking animals nonetheless).  As I said, it’s a good animated film, period, not just a children’s movie.  In fact, children will likely dive under their seats every time Rattlesnake Jake slithers onscreen.

One of the film’s best sequences (and there are a lot of great ones) comes when Rango meets the fabled “Spirit of the West,” played by Timothy Olyphant.  I won’t spoil who the Spirit is, but I’ll say that it will confound anyone who hasn’t seen Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” and will cause those who love Leone’s films (as well as other classics such as Shane, Once Upon the Time in the West, and True Grit) to stifle the urge to stand and cheer.  I’ll also say that Olyphant, who barely alters his voice for this role, sounds just like the guy he’s portraying.  It’s absolutely stunning.

The film, of course, requires suspension of disbelief.  Why are the animals living next to modern Las Vegas living in a makeshift Old West?  How did they get those tiny guns and tiny bullets?  Stuff like that.  The thing that still stands out here, though, more than talking animals fatally shooting and crushing one another, is the one-woman-cast that pervades so many films now.  Even movies aimed at the young ones prevent female heroes from taking center stage.  Fisher’s character in this acts only as the damsel, and Breslin’s acts as the little kid who appears in so many Westerns to cheer the hero on.

Misogyny aside, we have a good film with bright colors and creative use of animated space.  It has good writing, conscious attention to film conventions (particularly the films that influence it), and it abandons (nay, ignores) the 3D nonsense sure to ruin countless upcoming films before the American movie-going public realizes 3D doesn’t work with our brains.  Above all, Gore Verbinski finally made a good movie with Johnny Depp.  There hasn’t been one of those in awhile.

Rango (2011); written by John Logan; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Alfred Molina.