Rango


Rango

Rango and posse mount some roadrunners in search of Wile E. Coyote.

(2011) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Charles Fleischer, Claudia Black. Directed by Gore Verbinski

We all want to find ourselves. Our entire life journey is all about that – discovering who we are and what we’re meant to be. The journey isn’t always an easy one and the answers are rarely obvious – at first. But the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier the path becomes.

Rango (Depp) is a lizard. No, that’s not quite right – he’s a chameleon, but he’s lived in a terrarium all his life. He wants to be a thespian; not the kind that can get him shot in Arizona. No, the kind that recites Shakespeare and waits tables while they go on auditions. However, his audience is kind of limited, especially with a company that includes a plastic palm tree, a wind-up fish toy and a dead cockroach. Someone really needs to clean out the terrarium.

However, things are about to change. A bump in the road literally finds Rango stranded in the desert. A somewhat squashed armadillo (Molina) steers Rango to a small town named Dirt. A young farmer’s daughter (no cracks!) named Beans (Fisher) rescues Rango and gives him a ride into town. There his tales of heroic acts he never actually did win the admiration of the townies, including a doe-eyed badger named Priscilla (Breslin).

The mayor (Beatty), an aging turtle who might remind older viewers of John Huston’s character in Chinatown and younger ones of Mr. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. deputizes…um, sheriffizes…oh Hell, anoints Rango Sheriff. He is charged with protecting the town’s most precious asset – water. The town’s supply is dwindling and their longtime source seems to be drying up. When Balthazar (Stanton), a grizzled mole steals the town’s remaining supply, things get ugly in a hurry.

This is one of the most offbeat movies you’re ever likely to see, a wild mash-up of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, with a very heavy nod to the desert of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons from Warner Brothers. I’m pretty certain mescaline was involved with the writing of this movie. Then again, Verbinski – auteur of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that also starred Depp, is behind the camera so that explains a lot.

It’s a great looking movie. The desert is bleak and beautiful, stark and hostile. The town is a hodgepodge of found items (a discarded mailbox is the Post Office) that looks familiar and rundown at once. It doesn’t look so much lived in as it does inhabited. The animals are rendered beautifully, anthropomorphic but never cartoonish. Ironically, Rango is the most cartoon-like of all the characters; the rest look like something out of a Salvador Dali painting if Dali had embraced photorealism.

Depp is terrific as the titular character, but then it really isn’t much of a stretch. I thought it brilliant they made him a chameleon who wants to be an actor – how much more ironic can you get than that? Rango is all bluster and bravado but he isn’t really a bad sort; he’s just trying to survive without any real survival skills.

There are some very interesting supporting roles here. Nighy plays Rattlesnake Jake, a mean little sidewinder who carries a Gatling gun on his rattle and may be the most villainous gunslinger ever. There is a late cameo for someone playing the Spirit of the West that’s perfectly done; the person depicted isn’t the actor you actually hear speaking but you’d never know it, but it is so right you instantly smile and nod.

Some parents may be thinking of bringing their kids to see this just because it’s animated and I would urge them strongly to think hard about it. There are some pretty scary moments here, some choice words and it is not as kid-friendly as other animated features are. If your kids are five or six, I’d probably send you over to Mars Needs Moms first; some of the images might give ‘em nightmares. Then again, Mars Needs Moms might give you nightmares.

The story is a bit on the adult side as well, and while some of the characters might well generate some kid-attraction, they are far from cute and cuddly here. In fact, I suspect this movie was geared to adults first and kids second. Too much of the weirdness may go sailing over the heads of the Nickelodeon generation, like the Greek chorus of Mexican mariachis who keep promising that Rango is going to die. If you can’t trust a mariachi, who can you trust?

With animated movies so generally mediocre last year, the first two I’ve seen this year (this one and Gnomeo and Juliet) have been surprisingly good. Both took some chances with their stories and wound up hitting if not home runs, solid ground rule doubles. Rango gets a slight nod because the animation is so much better than the other, but hopefully this is a sign that we might see better overall quality in the animation genre this year.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is simply amazing. The story is a bit more adult than the average animated feature. Anything that has the potential for resurrecting the Western is fine by me.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the imagery, particularly those centering around Rattlesnake Jack, may be too intense for the little ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some images of smoking, a little bit of action and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was done by noted effects company Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: A Map of the World

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day


The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

The McManus clan prays for an audience to show up this time.

(2009) Action (Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Connolly, Julie Benz, Clifton Collins, Peter Fonda, Judd Nelson, Brian Mahoney. Directed by Troy Duffy

Once upon a time writer/director Troy Duffy wrote a script called Boondock Saints that became the subject of a heated bidding war among studios both major and otherwise. Miramax won that war and wheels were set in motion to get the movie made.

Unfortunately all the press and all the accolades went to Duffy’s head and his ego began to reign unchecked. All of this was captured in a documentary about the making of the movie called Overnight. When the movie finally came out, it did anemic box office on an extremely limited run and the documentary got better ratings than the film it chronicled did. It looked like Duffy’s career was over before it began.

A funny thing happened then; the movie took off in home video rentals and sales. In fact, it made enough to warrant a sequel, albeit ten years later. Despite the critical shellacking it took, people began to discover that Boondock Saints actually wasn’t a bad movie especially if you’re into Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.

So how does the new movie rate? Well, it picks up about a decade after the first one left off. The McManus boys Connor (Flanery) and Murphy (Reedus) have been living quietly in Ireland on their dad Noah’s (Connolly) farm. Then news comes in that a beloved priest in Boston was murdered and pennies left on his eyes, a McManus brother’s trademark. It seems someone is sending a message; not only do they want the McManus boys back in the States they also want the authorities to think they are already.

Not being ones to back down from anything, they hop on a freighter and sneak into Boston. Aided by Romeo (Collins), a fan of their work and also a pretty good driver, they begin digging into the murder to try and find out who’s behind it and take them out before either the authorities or the murderers find the brothers. And by digging, I mean shooting everybody who gets within range and looks like they might have anything to do with it.

Doggedly on their tail is Eunice (Benz), a super-hot FBI agent who has inherited the case from Agent Smecker (a cameo by Willem Dafoe, who played the role in the original) who may be the one agent who can handle the boys and who has an agenda of her own to do so. And when things look bad, dear old Da comes in from Ireland to set things right.

The plot is pretty simple and the execution of it much better this time around. The body count is certainly higher and there is a bit more humor than there was before. One of the secrets to the movie’s charm is that the McManus brothers come off as guys you wouldn’t mind having a drink or ten with at the pub, and certainly guys you’d want in your corner if there was a fight at said pub. After the fight, you no doubt would want to go back to the pub with them to celebrate. Ah, to be Irish!

Reedus and Flanery step back into their roles as if no time has passed at all. Although the parts are a little bit less clearly written than they were in the first movie, they still hold the center of the movie together and put the Irish back into action anti-hero. Connolly is one of those actors who illuminates everything he’s in, and with his leonine mane and ridiculous amount of on-screen charisma, he is more of a force of nature than an actor here. He literally dominates every scene he’s in.

Benz, fresh off of “Dexter,” is scorching hot, something she didn’t particularly explore either in “Dexter” or in her new family show on ABC, “No Ordinary Family”. Not that it’s something she wants or even needs to pursue, but if she wanted to go the sex kitten route in her career, she’s certainly got the ability to go there.

Duffy knows what to do with violence in his action films, and some of the sequences here get superior marks for their execution, particularly the climactic gun battle and another involving a forklift in a factory. The movie has a phenomenal pace, and leaves no time for boredom.

Duffy and company set up the potential for a third movie and to be honest, I’d be interested to see it. That’s what you want to do with any sequel, and by that standard, mission accomplished. Hopefully we’ll get the chance before 2019.

WHY RENT THIS: The McManus boys are well-written and the film has the feel of a bunch of hell raising guys in a pub going out to blow off some steam. I’d walk a mile to see anything with Billy Connolly in it, and a mile more to see Julie Benz pulling off the sex kitten/FBI agent role. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie breaks no original ground and seems to coast on its own momentum in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of violence and foul language as well as a little bit of nudity; definitely for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequel made more money in its opening weekend than the first film made in its entire theatrical run.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with Connolly and Duffy gives some insight into their working relationship, and there is also some manic footage from the cast’s appearance at the San Diego Comic Con with extra-special guest ex-porn star Ron Jeremy(!).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.6 on a production budget of $8M; the movie didn’t quite make back its production and marketing costs.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ponyo

Sukiyaki Western Django


Sukiyaki Western Django

Six-shooters are for pussies.

(First Look) Hideaki Ito, Koishi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Quentin Tarantino, Masanobu Ando, Takaaki Ishibashi, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa. Directed by Takashi Miike

Some movies go beyond description. Any attempt to do so is to invite failure for these movies are so innovative, so out there that no description of the plot or the film can really do it justice.

Sukiyaki Western Django is just such a film. Japanese director Miike, one of the most prolific and crazed directors of the last decade, does his take on the Italian western of Sergio Leone and his ilk and filters it through the eyes of…well, I’m not really sure.

To try and summarize the plot is pointless. Let’s just say that it is loosely based on the 1966 Sergio Corbucci movie Django but also on the Japanese historical epic novel “The Tale of Heike,” whose warring factions are used here – the Red (Heike) and the White (Genji) clans. They are both seeking a treasure in the hills of Nevada, which look suspiciously Japanese in a mining town that is entirely populated by Japanese and has a striking architectural mix of Old West saloons and pagodas.

In the middle of all this is a mysterious gunslinger (Ito) whose participation would tip the balance in favor of one clan or the other, so he is vigorously pursued by both. Tarantino shows up as a legendary gunslinger (mostly in old age make-up to the point where he’s barely recognizable) who appreciates a fine dish of sukiyaki as long as its not too sweet.

There are shoot-outs – a ton of them – and plenty of blood, with a sense of the whimsical. In the first post-prologue scene, one of the nameless thugs gets a hole blown in his stomach, and while he stares at the gaping wound in astonishment an arrow is shot through the hole to impale another thug sitting on a horse behind the first thug.

Miike has an impressive visual style and he lets it go wild here. The prologue takes place on what is obviously a set with a stylized backdrop that recalls Japanese anime as it might have been done on the backdrop of a saloon stage. Flowers give bloom to…fetuses. An eight-armed animated gunslinger turns up from time to time.

The action is frenetic. Miike wisely avoids dwelling too much on the finer points of the plot and instead concentrates on the mayhem. Now, keep in mind that twenty minutes were cut out of the Japanese version which I haven’t seen; it’s possible that there may have been more emphasis on the story there. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it without my head exploding.

The cast, who mostly don’t speak a word of English, deliver their lines in phonetically learned English, making for odd pronunciations and emphases. Think of it as on-set dubbing; while the dialogue matches the actors mouth movements, it contributes to the overall surreality of the movie.

If I were to tell you that this would be a dangerous movie to watch while on acid, that would first off imply that I would have first-hand knowledge of acid, which I do not. Secondly, that would be as close to a one-sentence description as I can possibly come to this movie and in all likelihood the fairest and most accurate description of it. Those who love movies that are visceral and have a complete absence of intellectual properties are going to find this their kind of meal. Those who don’t like roller coaster rides on their DVD player should probably give this a miss.

WHY RENT THIS: This samurai spaghetti Western is so over-the-top that all you can do is admire it. Fans of Tarantino’s best should flock to this one.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit of a mish-mash and can be hard to follow from time to time. The thick Japanese accents are nearly indecipherable for some of the cast.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of gunfights, much slow motion blood and a rape. Definitely not family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look closely at the arm of the mechanical wheelchair that Tarantino is using, the duck hood ornament from Deathproof which he directed is visible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard making-of stuff, except that it’s in Japanese with subtitles. In any case, any opportunity to get into the mind of Miike is well worth the visit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: CSA: The Confederate States of America

Inglourious Basterds


If you're a Nazi, these gentlemen would like a word with you.

If you're a Nazi, these gentlemen would like a word with you.

(Weinstein) Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Samm Levine, B.J. Novak, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Mike Myers, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, a rural dairy farm is visited by Colonel Hans Landa (Waltz), the notorious “Jew Hunter.” The SS officer is notorious for his ability to capture those who had escaped the round-up of Jews in France but had been unable to escape Nazi territory. The farmer LaPadite (Menochet) nervously smokes his pipe and answers general questions about Jewish farmers living in the district. Waltz is charming and polite; he insists on speaking English, which he knows LaPadite speaks fluently and is better than his French. The longer the interrogation goes on, the more nervous LaPadite gets until at last he gives up the Jewish family hiding below the floorboards. Still speaking English and aware that the family below doesn’t speak the language Landa orders his men to fire their machine guns into the floor. The entire family is massacred with the exception of the teenaged daughter Shoshanna (Laurent) who manages to flee into the nearby forest, the derisive cries of “Au revoir, Shoshanna” that Landa calls out pleasantly at the running girl echoing in her ears.

So starts the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, and it is everything you would expect from the acclaimed director. Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) is in charge of eight Jewish-American soldiers who have been parachuted into Vichy France ahead of the invasion at Normandy to strike fear and terror into the hearts of the Nazi occupiers. Raine’s orders are to kill Nazi soldiers as brutally as possible; to take their scalps and essentially act as the boogeyman, the stuff of nightmares to the German troops. Of particular note are his Basterds Donnie Donowitz (Roth) a.k.a. The Jew Bear, known for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat and Hugo Stiglitz (Schweiger), a German soldier who had murdered several Gestapo officers and was set to be sent to Berlin to be executed before the Basterds rescued him.

Shoshanna in the meantime has made it to Paris, and is going by the name Mimieux, the owner of a small cinema. She attracts the attention of Fredrick Zoller (Bruhl), a sniper who had become a hero to the Fatherland for killing over 200 American soldiers in Italy. Joseph Goebbels (Groth) has become enamored of the handsome young soldier and has produced a film about Zoller called A Nation’s Pride with Zoller cast as himself. Goebbels has plans for a gala premiere in Paris, but Zoller insists on having the premiere at Shoshanna’s cinema. After a private screening, Goebbels agrees. Shoshanna realizes that the entire hierarchy of the Nazi party will be in her theater at one time, and makes plans to burn the place to the ground with the Nazis inside it.

The Basterds, as Raine’s troupe are called, are also aware of the premiere and Allied command, anxious to strike a death blow to the Nazi regime, fly in a British officer named Archie Hicox (Fassbender) to infiltrate the premiere and plant explosive devices. Their contact is the famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Kruger) who meets them in the cellar of a French tavern but their cover is blown and a shootout ensues, killing almost everyone in the tavern. Now, Raine has to think of a means of getting in and blowing up the theater, and with Landa sniffing on their heels, the task won’t be an easy one but they’re the Basterds and easy isn’t part of the job description.

First things first; this is to war films what Pulp Fiction is to crime movies. Tarantino may be the best writer in movies right now, and once again he comes up with a thoroughly entertaining script filled with fascinating characters. In fact, Landa may be the best movie villain to come along since Auric Goldfinger (sorry to all you Joker fans from The Dark Knight but Landa is far more complex, believable and consequently more terrifying than Heath Ledger’s Joker). Waltz will almost certainly be up for Oscar consideration come next spring; his performance is by far one of the year’s best.

Pitt, surprisingly, really isn’t the main character. He’s onscreen plenty, sure but Waltz, Kruger and Laurent are onscreen as much if not more. This, like most Tarantino movies, is definitely an ensemble piece and as usual, Tarantino has put together a hell of an ensemble. Every role is cast perfectly, with unknowns or lesser known names. Even Rod Taylor, long retired, came out for a two-line role as Winston Churchill.

As usual, there are plenty of B-movie references, enough to keep pimple-faced fanboys (and girls) positively giddy while they dredge IMDB for every name and reference. I won’t say that there isn’t a certain amount of amusement in those kinds of things, but for me I’ve gotta say I prefer the movie to the research. The movie is well plotted and a roller coaster ride, with excessive violence and a sly sense of humor.

That really is the rub. It’s a typical Tarantino film in that sense, but because of Hans Landa, it’s elevated. Landa is the most vicious yet charming villain Tarantino has ever written; Waltz elevates the role so that it dominates the movie, more so than any other role has dominated any other Tarantino movie. Waltz’s performance is the main reason to plunk down the ten bucks to see this, although any Tarantino movie is worth the price of admission, even his less successful films (like Jackie Brown).

This is a loud, brash war movie that turns all war movie conventions on their ear, re-writing history and cinematic rules as it goes along. Those who are sticklers for history shouldn’t see this – or if you do, think of this as taking place in a parallel universe. You can almost hear Tarantino chuckling to himself as he directs this. In any case, this is the kind of movie that is why you go to the movies in the first place; a fun ride that takes your mind off of your problems for a couple of hours, and then is the subject of discussion with your friends and family for days afterwards. It’s also the kind of movie that you’ll want to see again and again, and it will get better every time you see it. That’s truly the mark of a great movie.

REASONS TO GO: The performance of Christoph Waltz is Oscar-worthy and one of the best villainous portrayals ever. Hey, it’s a Tarantino movie – what more do you need to know?

REASONS TO STAY: There’s a whole lot of violence, some of it truly sickening. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be aghast.

FAMILY VALUES: Brutal, sickening violence and rough language – this is a movie meant for adults. Get a sitter for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was their first time working together, Brad Pitt co-starred in True Romance, one of the first movies to be penned by Tarantino.

HOME OR THEATER: You won’t want to wait for it to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray to see this.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Mutant Chronicles