Film criticism by Ian Kay.

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“Rango” (2011) and “The Big Year” (2011)

Rango, dir. Gore Verbinski

Rango, the crooked necked chameleon sheriff, in drag, rides a chicken wildly through a ravine. Outlaw moles fly overhead on harnessed bats, unleashing machine gun fire on our hero to the strains of Ride of the Valkyries. Return fire knocks a bat out of the air, which crashes against the ravine wall and explodes like an x-wing fighter attacking the Death Star. And so goes much of this wild and rambunctious Western adventure from director Gore Verbinski.

Voiced with brilliant enthusiasm by Johnny Depp, Rango is the Lizard With No Name. He makes up his name in a moment of panic by glancing at a liquor bottle with the label ‘Durango’.  His story is an all-inclusive derivation of the Western genre, from a silence inducing salon entrance to a shootout at high noon.  It is a bit disappointing that so many animated movies, Pixar’s best notwithstanding, are still handicapped by plots that are little more than send-ups of live action genre cliché. But with an assembly line of visually interesting characters, a few fun twists and a healthy dose of clever comedy, such mundane ideas as original plot are abandoned in the name of fun.

When we meet Rango, he is a pet chameleon in a glass tank, placed haphazardly in the rear of a station wagon. We never see his owner, but we do see how lonely he is: he has resorted to putting on “plays” with his inanimate friends, which include a plastic tree, a windup goldfish and a miniature mannequin torso.  But his safe and secluded world is lost when a car crash throws the tank from the back seat and leaves him stranded in the Mojave Desert.

It is immediately apparent that Depp has been given free rein to play with the character. His opening soliloquy could just as well be an outtake from a Jack Sparrow scene, albeit one with just a touch of self- realization.  We also find that natural selection has for some reason given lizards and armadillos the ability to speak, whereas a furry wart hog is tethered to a wagon like a horse, a dumb pack animal. This holds true throughout: snakes and moles can speak, bats and hawks can’t. Mice can speak but chickens are used like war horses. The only reason this bothers me in this movie is because it is a story about fighting greed and destructive industry, a defense of the “little guy”. And yet they have their fellow desert animals, nearly as small in stature, trussed up like mules and horses. I wonder if even children watching the movie wondered the same thing.  It would have been very simple to alleviate this odd dynamic. Just have one of the war chickens say something. We have seen it before, where the leader of the chickens preps her troops for battle, and they willingly carry the others into the fray.

The joys of astoundingly good animation and excellent voice acting completely dominate the rest of the movie. A lady lizard named Beans finds Rango in the desert and takes him to a town called Dirt. The townspeople in Dirt are in need of water, and a hero to save them. A blend of seemingly white lies and cartoon luck leads them to believe that Rango is just such a hero.  Eager to define himself and impress Beans, Rango uses his acting skills, perfected in his previous life in the tank, to take on the heroic persona. He pledges to find where all the water has gone.

Water is used as a stand-in for money in Dirt. There is a bank that holds the town’s water supply, and each citizen makes deposits when they gather it. And if water is so scarce and valuable that it is kept in a locked vault, then of course someone will try to steal it. Every Wednesday at noon, the citizens gather to collect their water ration for the week. For some reason, they also do a sort of ritualistic rain dance as they walk towards the water tower on the outskirts of Dirt. Rango is startled and confused by their behavior, and we are supposed to see humor in it. Instead, it is a little disquieting. It is too cult-like for the rest of the movie. That bit of strangeness finished, they gather one Wednesday to receive their water and are horrified to discover that the water is all gone.

As Rango investigates the disappearance of the water, it becomes clear that not everyone is as they seem. I will refrain from detailing the rest of the plot. It is, as I said, a typical Western.  Suffice to say that Rango must discover his true Self, and the fate of Dirt lies in his hands.

Perfectly type-cast voice acting includes Ned Beatty as the domineering mayor, Bill Nighy as the creepy Rattlesnake Jake, Ray Winstone as thuggish Bad Bill, Alfred Molina as Roadkill (the mystic armadillo) and Timothy Olyphant in an amusing and well done cameo.

The Big Year, dir. David Frankel

Why did I like The Big Year as much as I did? It is a relatively plotless, meaningless movie about competing bird watchers. And yet the incredibly likeable trio of Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin make it a light, enjoyable romp through the strange world of the ornithological Olympics (a ‘Big Year’ is a competition to see who can spot more species of birds in a calendar year).

Particularly amusing – and refreshing- is that there is no “bad guy”. Sure, we have our protagonists (Black and Martin) and their nemesis (Wilson), but Wilson’s character proves to be a self-destructive obsessive much more than a villain. Near the end there is a bit of a moral to the story (“prioritize your life”?) but it hardly matters, because by the time we hear it, the fun has already come and gone. Instead, we are perfectly happy to have watched a handful of fairly good performances by some of the movies’ most distinctive comedic actors.


Another handful of movies (2011)

Moneyball (2011), dir. Bennett Miller

A wonderful baseball movie that takes more than a few liberties with history but nonetheless tells a solid story. Any fan of baseball will love the winning-streak sequence.

Contagion (2011), dir. Stephen Soderbergh

Realistic, slightly scary and moderately engaging. Fine acting all around but it has the dampened feeling of a Message Movie and I cannot figure out what the message might be. Soderbergh is so much better when he has his tongue in his cheek (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s movies).

50/50 (2011), dir. Jonathan Levine

Though it falls short of the year’s best, I am still impressed with the balance of humor and drama, particularly in Seth Rogen’s work.  Rogen is laugh out loud funny, while the rest of the film has about as much bite as can be expected from a movie about cancer that still wants to sell tickets. 

The Help (2011), dir. Tate Taylor

Chock full of horrendous stereotypes, distasteful melodrama and a Big Message to take home with us. Through all of that, Viola Davis was wonderful and will (rightfully) get some Oscar attention. Oh, and I think that I would smell human feces in my pie before I ate it.

30 Minutes or Less (2011), dir. Ruben Fleischer

College sophomore boys rejoice. This movie was made for you.


“Hugo” (2011), dir. Martin Scorsese

Thank God for Martin Scorsese. Authentic movie magic is a rare event these days, but Scorsese conjures it several times in Hugo. This is the story of a boy who watches through small windows as other people live their lives. It is about the struggles of creative people, of artists, of failures and renewed victories. It is Martin Scorsese’s life, transferred and transformed into a version of Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Paris during the 1930’s. Hugo Cabret is the son of a clock maker (played well but briefly by Jude Law) who dies in a fire. Hugo’s uncle, a drunk and a clock maker himself, takes him in and teaches Hugo how to maintain the clock at a train station in Paris. When the uncle disappears without a word, Hugo continues to take care of the station’s clocks on his own, all the while living within the walls of the train station.

Scorsese and rock-star cinematographer Robert Richardson take 3D and create artful investigations of the train station, the gear infested walls and the streets of Paris, seen from atop the clock tower. Snowflakes fall into our laps as we watch Hugo walk, chilled to the bone, along the frozen sidewalk. We feel the depth of his home within the walls, as we sweep through narrow passages and up and down ladders. My favorite, though, is simply seeing Hugo watch the train inhabitants through the face of a clock. The clock itself is in the foreground, while Hugo’s watchful face is farther back in the depths of his world, the one nobody knows about. The effect of the 3D in this case is an addition to the storytelling, rather than a slick, though impressive, technique.

Two conflicts rule the first part of the film. As a necessary running antagonist, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a heartless Station Inspector who has a sharp eye out for thieving urchins (namely, Hugo) and an equally eager doberman at his side. This is my least favorite part of the movie and I think its weakest. It’s not so much that, early on, Cohen’s antics resemble some of the worst moments of the worst Pink Panther films. Rather, it is that nothing else in the film matches that tone. I’m not sure that Scorsese knows how to handle PG physical comedy. Luckily, the cap is twisted closed on these gags soon enough to preserve the character’s dignity.

The second conflict revolves around an enigmatic shopkeeper who owns a small toy shop in the train station. Besides looking awfully similar to the historical character he plays, Ben Kingsley brings a touch of magic himself. Kingsley’s vibrant, shadowed eyes convey more mystery and depth than most actors’ entire bodies. And Scorsese doesn’t waste a minute of it.

Kingsley’s character, ‘Papa Georges’, catches Hugo attempting to steal a windup toy mouse. We discover that it is not the first thing Hugo has taken from the shop. Not even close. Hugo, it seems, is trying to finish a project that he had begun with his father before he died. His father had found an old automaton, essentially a windup robot, in a museum. The size of a very small child but all metal and gears, the automaton is supposed to be able to write with a pen when wound up. But it has been broken since Hugo’s father found it. The mechanical pieces Hugo needs to fix it can be found in some of the toys of the shop.

In addition to recovering the toy mouse from Hugo, Papa Georges also claims a notebook of the mechanical schematics for the automaton from Hugo’s pockets. We are left to wonder why Georges is so emotional, so cruel, when he discovers this notebook. The answer, of course, if one of the keys to the climax of the film (which I will not reveal in this review). But Hugo’s efforts to retrieve the notebook lead him to meet Isabelle, a girl a little older than himself, who is Georges’ god daughter. Isabelle’s parents are both dead too.

The interaction between Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle is like Harry Potter and Hermione, though one step better. These two young actors have far greater range and maturity than the Potter actors. But the setup is similar: Hugo is unfamiliar with normal life, but is adventurous and has secret talents. Isabelle is book smart and loves telling Hugo things he does not know. The astounding element to their relationship (not found in Potter) is the puppy-love story. These two actors are more honest in their affection towards each other than very nearly any adult versions I have seen this year (the one in J. Edgar was impressive). I chalk this up to great casting, talented young actors and, of course, Scorsese’s guiding hand.

Together, Hugo and Isabelle discover amazing secrets about her Papa Georges. Most importantly, they realize that they must save him from himself and his inexplicable despair. I cannot go into too much detail without giving the rest away. Suffice it to say that the remainder of the film serves as Martin Scorsese’s love letter to old, silent films, and to artists; directors or magicians or whatever they may be. If you love magical children’s movies, old silent films or are a fan of amazing graphics and 3D effects, this movie is for you.


“J. Edgar” (2011), dir. Clint Eastwood

Leonardo DiCaprio, the preeminent actor of the under-40 generation, is stunning in Eastwood’s biopic about the most famous (and important) man in the history of the F.B.I.

DiCaprio of course plays the man himself, J. Edgar Hoover, who we follow from his earliest days at the Bureau until the day he dies.  Hoover’s innovations, like bringing fingerprinting and guns to the Bureau, are astonishing from today’s perspective. Armie Hammer inhabits Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lifeling colleague and lover. Their brutally constricted relationship is one of the more captivating movie love affairs of recent years.

Eastwood and DiCaprio have created a man who we can appreciate, even respect, all the while maintaining an appropriate level of disgust. Writer Dustin Lance Black and Eastwood want us to see that what he did for the F.B.I. was both amazing and terrible. They succeed. The way DiCaprio plays him, it makes me think vaguely of Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. He is the wretched, driven man with genius and grave flaws, loved and hated with equal fervor. The kind of man who makes for a great story.

DiCaprio disappears underneath thick makeup, a gravely, subtle accent and a moderate stoop that all but obliterates the pretty boy from Titanic. Leo is far beyond the other under-40 actors in Hollywood, largely because he has no fear, but even more so because he seems to be insatiably interested in interesting characters.

The historical figures and events that are shown are solidly done and provide the backdrop for the real story, which is Hoover’s struggles with himself, primarily received from a domineering mother and a paralyzing fear of his own homosexuality. What I find most impressive is that when Hoover dies, I do not pity him. But I do not feel that he was a bad man. There was no final judgement rendered in the script or by Eastwood.


The Good, The OK and the Horrible

THE GOOD:

Cedar Rapids (2011), dir. Miguel Arteta – That was Anne Heche?!? Was it just me, or did she look like a younger lookalike of herself? I guess it was the hair. Anyhow, this charming comedy is refreshing in its approach to the old “coming of age” story, bringing a nice shade of gray to all of the characters and staying true to them without pulling any punches. Ed Helms uses his boyishly goofy face to play up his innocence as the fish out of water, but (luckily) shows some bite when he becomes morally indignant – though not in the sour Bible thumper sort of way. Helms’ ‘Tim Lippe’ rides the wave of revelation and disappointment in an amusingly accurate portrayal of the “hotel conference” lifestyle.  John C. Reilly pushes the boundaries of Funny and Too Much, but mostly stays toward Funny as the overbearing but good hearted Dean Ziegler. A light, funny comedy with a story. See it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. II (2011), dir. David Yates – Just as good as Part I. Now that it is all finished, we can look back at all eight films and be amazed at the consistent improvement, in all areas, throughout. Perhaps the best overall adventure series to come out of Hollywood.

Horrible Bosses (2011), dir. Seth Gordon – One of those everybody in the movie is crazy comedies, filled with absurdity, a few mild shocks and quite a few laughs.  The premise of three guys hating their bosses but fearing unemployment would have bewildered audiences a little over ten years ago, who would’ve thought, “Just go get another job!” Of course, these days that’s not so easy, most especially when your boss has blackmail material against you (Jennifer Aniston’s nymphomaniacal dentist) or might show up at your house and kill you (Kevin Spacey’s truly evil Dave Harken, Jason Bateman’s boss).  Nothing much can be said against the film besides the fact that’s it’s fantastically ludicrous, but if you worry about that kind of thing, you just shouldn’t go see this movie at all. It’s funny, unpredictable and avoids trying to include “heart”, which would have been awful and out of place.

THE BAD:
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), dir. Brad Furman – The film is utterly forgettable but just fine while watching it,  and while I cannot say that Matthew McConaughey is a bad dramatic actor, I hope the next time I see him it is in a romantic comedy. And yes, dubbing the movie “fine but forgettable” is my way of saying it is not a good movie. Some sort of legal trickery was involved and the dirty lawyer has a heart and all that good stuff but I didn’t care about and now can’t even remember much of the rest of it.

THE… YEAH, THAT  BAD:

The Dilemma (2011), dir. Ron Howard – Hideously unfunny, brain-foggingly uninteresting and packed with unlikeable characters.  Vince Vaughn, you should have hung it up after Wedding Crashers.

No Strings Attached (2011), dir. Ivan Reitman – Ashton Kutcher is a wash as an actor, in any role. Cliches and predictability are the order of the day here and, lo and behold, two people (who are both so good at heart) who sleep together over and over eventually develop feelings for each other. Voila. And don’t sneeze when the film is done. That disgusted look on your face might freeze like that.


Cotton Candy: “Super 8” (2011), dir. J.J. Abrams

How can I find fault in a fun, innocuous piece of nostalgic filmmaking like Super 8? Well, I’ll pad it by saying that I did have a good time watching most of it. But by so obviously paying homage to 80’s adventure flicks and contributing very little imagination of his own,  J.J. Abrams has given us a smile and a wishful pang for something more.  There exists a long list of Spielberg produced or directed films that offers up a lot of promise and just as much disappointment. These movies have one prominent feature in common: preposterous, sentimental endings that take unearned short cuts to happy endings. Abrams stays true to the formula.

“But what do you expect from a monster movie starring a bunch of kids?” you might ask. Well, while not strictly “monster movies”, the Harry Potter series managed to establish some sort of believable logic for the plot, despite the magic and children involved. The difference is patience,  from both the director and the assumed audience. Would audiences have appreciated an extra twenty minutes of character development, exposition and an extended, more satisfying climax? I would have.

But we’ve seen it all before, and so while a nod to the past can be fun, it can get dull if every event can be foreseen, to the point where the audience could leave the theater halfway through and finish writing the script themselves:  Children, estranged from their parents, become friends and discover a strange creature in their small town. The (evil) military shows up, and it’s up to the children (the only ones who “understand” the monster) to save the day. Without much explanation, the parents realize they love their children, the monster only kills questionable authority figures, and the town (and creature) are saved.

The first third to half of the movie is a lot of fun. Just watching the kids plan and make their movies is classic stuff. And there is a moment when the white truck pulls onto the train tracks (I won’t say what happens next), when Abrams captures the essence of movie thrills: a completely unexpected, mysterious event  that shatters the night, but from a distance that brings a creepy dread, rather than a visceral shock. That tone of mystery pervades the first part of the story. The innocence of the children is a sharp contrast to the huge events happening around them, and for a while it works, like some sections of The Goonies. But after that, it is evident that Abrams made an excellent copy of an 80’s adventure movie, and that’s about it.

There is quite a lot of potential in the child actors.  I won’t be at all surprised if I see the leads (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) growing into stars over the next fifteen years.


Big Time Fun: “Midnight in Paris” (2011), dir. Woody Allen

Gil with Scott and Zelda.

When Woody Allen allows his imagination to run free, he makes the most enjoyable movies you’ll see.  For sheer creativity, his new film Midnight in Paris falls into the same bunch as Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite and Zelig. Yet Midnight has a lighthearted romanticism, even a positivity, that is rarely seen in his other films. This is Woody’s best movie since Match Point, and his most fun since Bullets Over Broadway.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter disillusioned with Hollywood, who visits Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents.  Gil loves Paris, and is in love with its romantic history of writers and artists, particularly the Lost Generation of the 1920’s. Inez, obviously a bad match for him, thinks Paris is “cheesy”, and prefers to live in Malibu. She likes money and the things it can do, and has no interest in Gil’s desire to write a novel.

As their differences – and Inez’s parents – pull them apart, Gil finds himself wandering the streets of Paris alone each night. But he’s not wandering the Paris of 2010; instead, he paints the town red with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali in the 1920’s. At the chime of midnight each night, a 20’s style automobile pulls up and takes Gil to house parties, clubs and bars to hang out with the flappers, drinkers and artists of the era. Woody never declares whether this time travel is supposed to be real or Gil’s imagination, but the charm of the movie calls for such ambiguity.

The theme of the movie is the romantic mindset. Throughout the film, Gil is mocked and belittled for his unrealistic, romantic views of Paris and the era of the 1920’s, which Gil insists was a better time than the present. Not surprisingly for an Allen picture, the antagonists are Paul, a “pedantic pseudo-intellectual”, and Inez’s parents, “right-wing conservative nut jobs”. Both are completely incapable of comprehending Gil’s imagination and romantic feelings. Paul declares that Gil’s longing for the 20’s is a self-defense mechanism “for those who cannot face the troubles of the present”. Inez’s father has Gil followed by a private investigator.

Allen has several self-referencing lines, which feel like they describe his mindset during the writing of the script. Gil, a screenwriter, declares that writing screenplays is easy, but he wants to write “real literature”. He also scolds himself for being too literal, declaring that he needs to be more imaginative. And of course, Woody loves Paris. And the French love him back. The most romantic thing in the film is Woody Allen’s romancing of Paris. Nobody with anything less than a large dose of romanticized affection could make this movie.

The representation of the famous personages of the 1920’s borders on caricature, but in a way that reflects Gil’s opinion of them. If this is Gil’s version of 1920’s Paris, then of course the artists will be the people Gil has pictured them to be, based on their artwork, their biographies and his imagination. Hemingway is gruff and speaks in apocryphal, clipped sentences. Dali is bigger than life and cannot help grandly announcing his name over and over. “I am… Dali! Dali!”

But the most impressive element of the film is Owen Wilson. The whiny numbskull act that sometimes derails his characters is completely absent. His natural voice for comedic timing is dead-on, and the “sad eyes” that Dali observes are a reflection of the defeated tone that Wilson harbors through much of the film. Woody knew he had to cast a lovable… I almost said “loser” here, but that is exactly what he is not. Lovable romantic is more like it, one who marches to his own drummer.  And nobody does that better than Wilson.

As a long time Woody Allen fan, I am extremely and happily surprised at how fun it was to see Midnight in Paris. Whatever caustic thoughts were running through his head over the last few years seems to have taken a back seat while writing this one. And like Mark Twain said,”Write about what you know”. And nobody knows romanticized, wishful thinking more than Woody.