Rango

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.

True Grit (2010)

Fill your hand!

When writing an allegedly impartial piece, one should refrain from making such claims as “The Brothers Coen are the most prolific filmmakers working today.”  Omitting any cliche’ I could dig up to justify this sort of claim, I’ll avoid stating it altogether and simply take a look at the recent record.  Joel and Ethan Coen have released a film every year since winning Best Picture for 2007’s No Country For Old Men, and even prior to the McCarthy adaptation, they were turning out films of great variety and substance near-annually.  From dark, violent, atmospheric breath-stealers (Fargo; Blood Simple; Miller’s Crossing) to screwball comedies (Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy) to thoughtful, dialogue-laden adventures with colorful characters (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to cult favorites with no defining label (The Big Lebowski), the Coens have tried their four respective hands in plenty of territory.

With True Grit, the brothers continue to surprise.  This film is their first true genre exercise: an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  While the film is a second adaptation of the book and not a remake of the 1969 film with John Wayne, it does share plenty of similarities, right down to some scenes being carbon copies dialogue-wise.  What sets this film apart, among other things, is the cinematography.   Not only do we have a vintage Coen Brothers film that manages to be dark, serious and (I guess I have to use the word) gritty, but also a story that remembers its origins: where James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa began to pave the way and both almost succeeded, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has restored the true spirit of the Western to modern American cinema.

For those who have been asleep since the late sixties, the story follows Mattie Ross (formerly played by the spunky Kim Darby, now played by Hailee Steinfeld, a young newcomer) a fourteen year-old girl looking for revenge against a drifter who killed her father.  She seeks the help of a rough, homely old U.S. Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role John Wayne played in the original), who is seldom caught sober and who apparently doesn’t take many prisoners.  Joining them out of personal interest is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (a moustached Matt Damon in the role formerly occupied by Glenn Campbell).  The adventure centers largely around these characters, and the antagonists are only talked about, never seen, until the final fourth of the movie.  However short a time they are given on screen, they are played to full effectiveness by Josh Brolin (as Tom Chaney, the object of the quest) and Barry Pepper ( as Lucky Ned, the leader of a dangerous gang with whom Chaney has fallen in).

The cast works together as a dysfunctional machine.  This film is Steinfeld’s first shot at a leading role, yet we never get the sense that she is being buffered by the grizzled Bridges and the experienced Damon – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  As Mattie is the main protagonist, she narrates the story, controls the main action, and commands every scene in which she appears.  She is a strong presence and an incredible gift to young actresses (it’s okay to have an unknown thirteen year-old girl as the lead character in a movie that has Bridges, Damon and Brolin!).  Bridges is wonderful as Cogburn, making the role his own and never looking back at John Wayne, yet paying as great a homage to the rugged Duke as anyone ever has.  The Coens wisely keep the iconic buildup to the four-on-one gunfight, and when Cogburn shouts his famous lines at Lucky Ned, it’s difficult to not only suppress a cheer, but to avoid seeing John Wayne on that horse for just a moment.  In addition to being a weathered old anti-hero, however, Bridges’ Cogburn has his lovable moments, particularly when traveling alone with Mattie and relating the events of his life.  On the other end, Damon is great as La Boeuf, the character whose alignment is constantly in question (the “problem character,” if you will), and you’ll never once think “that’s Matt Damon” when watching him.  Brolin plays a pure villain with whom even the toughest gang in the West wants nothing to do, and Pepper plays Ned as a woolly-chapped gang boss who, while completely sure of himself, knows he’s an outlaw and a ruffian, and avoids being a blowhard Western baddie.  Domhnall Gleeson also appears as the ill-fated Moon, in a role once played by a young, pony-tailed Dennis Hopper.  The “Your partner’s killed ya” exchange is preserved and wonderful.

The Coens make good decisions with the supporting cast as well.  The characters we liked from the novel and the old movie return and are given a bit more to do, such as Harold Parmalee (Bruce Green), the “simple-minded” member of Ned’s gang who communicates only by making farm-animal noises.  They eliminate the character of Mexican Bob altogether, and they severely reduce the appearance of Mr. Lee (Peter Leung), the Chinese grocer with whom Cogburn lives.

I am concerned about a certain scene, however.  During the hanging at Fort Smith, the prisoners are given last words before taking the plunge.  But as the Native American prisoner begins to speak, a bag is shoved over his head immediately.  This drew laughter from the audience.  It isn’t supposed to.  This is a person being treated as a second-class citizen on his own land.  The land belonging to the “injuns” is called “unsettled territory.”  It isn’t a joke.  It’s a small gripe, but I haven’t decided whether it’s a gripe against the filmmakers or the rabble.

The film has beautiful locations and ambient music by Carter Burwell that knows when to take center stage and when to back up.  There are a few editing errors here and there, but having worked on a film myself recently, I know they happen and I know why they happen, especially when deadlines come into play.

The Coens continue to push their own limits with film.  Did True Grit need to be remade?  No.  The original is an adventure that has held up to this day.  However, the Coens’ version stands apart as its own film, and has the most likable trio of protagonists in recent memory.  By the end of the film, I wished I could have spent more time with the young Mattie and old Cogburn before the epilogue.  But hey, maybe in fifty years, someone will remake Rio Bravo…again.

True Grit (2010); written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

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