Thursday, April 28, 2011


It's not often that 10 minutes into an animated kid's movie, you catch a quick glimpse Hunter S. Thompson, tripped out on mescaline, driving straight into bat country while his Samoan attorney wallows in the back seat. But that's exactly what we see--if only for a split second--as Rango, the little green pet lizard unleashed into the wild west, gets flattened onto the drugged up journalist's windshield before being sent flying into the middle of the Mojave desert.

Why not? Johnny Depp, who plays Rango, has always been a big fan of Thompson, playing him in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and narrating his life story in a 2008 documentary.  And few prudes are going to notice or care that someone so un-family friendly made his way into such a brief cameo. Still, the intrusion of Thompson was surprising for a different reason. Never before have I seen such high profile players as Depp and writer-director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Carribean), so consciously throwing practical restraint to the wind for the sake of their own enjoyment (although Depp's irreverent Captain Jack Sparrow was a good start). Rango is what you get when two people with lots of success and nothing to lose decide to have some fun with 135 million dollars.

There's a lot more where that came from. Verbinski and Depp take the opportunity to unleash a dangerous stash of classic film references, well-worn cliches, and general wackiness. The plot, involving stolen water and a town running dry, with Rango trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it, comes straight from Chinatown. Stylistically, the film is pure spaghetti western (well, there's some Ford western, too); more hommage is paid to Leone, Eastwood, and Morricone here than in Tarantino's entire oeuvre. An Apocalypse Now style chase scene set to a hick version of Ride of The Valkyries is just ludicrous enough to be inspired. For added theatrics, Rango continually recites Shakespeare and a quartet of owls provides us with a Mexican-Greek chorus.

This may sound like a recipe for nothing but self conscious semi-cleverness, but there's much that makes Rango more than the sum of its references. For one, it's actually clever. Rango's search for identity is first presented in a meta monologue that would hold up well under careful analysis. The film is also astoundingly beautiful--this is the first time George Lucas's ILM has worked on an animated film--with precise detail given to everything from the parched desert earth to trippy talking cactuses. The story is engrossing, the odd-looking characters either sympathetic and interesting or genuinely scary, and the message (all kiddy movies have one) welcome. Most animated features will follow the "just be yourself" route, but Rango welcomes invention and fabrication. Rango transforms himself from nameless pet lizard to western hero, and despite his fakery (he's not a real hero--just an actor), his imagination, his willingness to create something from a blank slate, is rewarded.

I must admit that I rarely see an animated film that isn't, in some way, juvenile. Rango embraces the scatological humor and sexual innuendo that Pixar tends to avoid. This stuff can alternate between amusing and grating, and some of it, such as a reference to prostate exams, is so direct as to just seem strange. But who wants Pixar all the time? Rango is touching, funny, and considerably weirder than anything else out there. It takes so much delight in its own oddball ingenuity that you can't help but play along.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women, kvinnor, mujeres

Made in Dagenham

If anything, this gently pleasing and inspirational film about female Ford factory workers in Dagenham, England fighting for equal pay made me appreciate The Kings Speech a little more. Like The King's Speech, Dagenham documents important social change by bringing our attention to a small but significant moment in history. It's uplifting and character driven, and Sally Hawkins, as assembly worker and labor representative Rita O'Grady, is as good as any of the oscar nominated cinematic royalty of Firth, Rush, and Bonham Carter. When she makes her speeches, Rita draws even more from the heart than King George. But if we can all agree that women are just as skilled and valuable as their male counterparts, it's just as clear that not all directors deserve equal renumeration. Here, Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) pays it a little too safe with direction that's workman-like and uninspired, no offense to workmen (and women). Made in Dagenham is pleasant but forgettable.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This Swedish film, based off Stieg Larson's eponymous best-seller, is also less memorable than its reputation might suggest. At it's best it's a gripping crime thriller with some tasty Scandinavian flavor. At its worst, it's a pedestrian crime drama, made slightly murkier through all its Swedish gloom. The story, I’m told, is kept mostly in tact in the adaptation from page to screen. This creates more than a little awkwardness when two or three semi-disparate plots are stuck into the 2 ½ hour length and only one of them is fleshed out, or even necessary. The movie manages to alternate between a languorous pace and a rushed one. Still, I don’t think that either the book or the movie do a disservice to the other. The main criminal case, involving a missing girl and lots of Blow Up style photo examinations, advances methodically and provides plenty of intrigue. Michael Nyqvist is very good as the sullen Michael Blomkvist, a reporter enlisted to solve the crime, and so is Noomi Rapace as the mysterious, goth, cyber-crime expert Lisbeth Salander who comes out of nowhere to help him out. Her character, and the world of computer coding and rape that she lets us into, offers a respite from the rather traditional goings everywhere else—she may be the one thing in the book and the movie that we haven’t really seen before. And the infamous rape scenes, while not exceptionally shocking, are one part of the film that really sticks. I should also mention the Swedish title for the book translates to "Men who Hate Women"-- so there's the feminist connection.

David Fincher is set to direct the remake, and despite all the cries of blasphemy (Hollywood, yet again, feels the need the americanize a movie that’s not even a year old), it should be clear that it’s because he thinks he can do better and not because this version is any sort of masterpiece. It’s not an unlikely match either (unlike Spielberg and Oldboy, which thankfully is no longer happening). The cyber-crime stuff is a logical follow-up to The Social Network, and the rest is pure Seven/Zodiac. Time will tell if anything incredible can be pulled out of this story, but for now, I have my doubts.


Les femmes du sixieme ├ętage

A minor success in France, this comedy about a middle-aged businessman undergoing a mid-life crisis should offer inoffensive amusement to moviegoer of a certain age. The "femmes" here are the Spanish maids who work for all the snobby bourgeois families (they've become the latest big thing) and who live above them in cramped sixth floor rooms (that being the top floor in the vertically challenged city of Paris). Enraptured by his pretty new maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who knows how to cook his eggs just right, Jean Louis-Joubert (Fabrice Luccini) falls in love with all things Spanish and eventually stakes out his own place on the sixth, distancing himself from his frigid wife in the process.

The French don't mind poking fun at themselves if they're allowed to keep a bit of distance. This year's Potiche was a light comedy that took on sexism in the 70s. Les femmes du sixieme ├ętage is also set in the 70s, and it challenges the racism and xenophobia of the upper class. This is not very hard to do when your dealing with pretty young Spanish women or jovial matrons. Actually dealing with the current tensions between the French and the arab world would be a good deal more difficult. And it may be a little too self-congratulatory to have the wealthy businessman save the day by hooking all his newfound amigos up with apartments, amenities, and investment opportunities.

Of course, chiding Les femmes for lack of social relevance might be asking for too much (although the ending, for different reasons, is a little questionable). It's a charming movie, relying just enough on caricature to make its point. The wealthy people are lazy, complaining about the difficulty of shopping and beauty salons while their maids bring them extra pillows. We feel a little implicated in their idleness. The Spanish women are lively and convivial; they also bicker alot and have their fair share of troubles. We end up feeling for both classes. And we also realize that the world doesn't have to be such a bad place if a beautiful woman is there to make us perfectly cooked hard boiled eggs every morning.