Tuesday, November 29, 2011

RANGO (2011)

Gore Verbinski, director of the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, makes his feature-length animation debut with this visually stylish mash-up of HIGH NOON and CHINATOWN.  The film’s story, however, which he co-wrote with James Ward Byrkit and screenwriter John Logan, fails to match the film’s arresting look.  The writers pack in many iconic western moments, and Verbinski plays myriad visual homage to classic movies, but the film fails to engage beyond Name That Reference.  When our hero, the Lizard With No Name (Johnny Depp), becomes stranded along a desert freeway, a mystic armadillo (Alfred Molina) points him to Dirt, a remote frontier town populated by rats, turtles, snakes, and other desert creatures.  The lizard dons the moniker Rango and presents himself as a peerless gunman who can take out multiple targets with one bullet.  After accidentally killing a hawk that has been terrorizing the town, Rango is made sheriff by the Mayor (Ned Beatty channeling John Huston).  Dirt uses water as currency (it is even stored in a bank) but suffers from drought.  For this reason most landowners have left, leaving the struggling Beans (Isla Fisher) one of the few to remain.  Though Rango’s first task is to protect the dwindling water supply, the bank is robbed.  So the newly minted lawman must lead a posse into the desert to salvage his reputation.  The voiceover work is journeyman, and Fisher’s head-scratching accent often unintelligible.  Beatty comes off best, as does Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, while Bill Nighy barely registers as villainous Rattlesnake Jake.  The confusing lead character, however, is the film’s central problem.  If Rango is essentially a good-hearted oaf in over his head, why does he misrepresent himself to the townsfolk from the outset?  Are we to view him as we would the delusional Inspector Clouseau and laugh at his self-made misfortunes?  If that’s the case, the choice fails to play out.  Rango is so incompetent that the characters around him seem simple-minded in their inability to see through him, leaving no one for whom to root.  In their frantic quest to pay tribute to cinema classics, Verbinski and company have crafted a film that falls far short of the moniker classic.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


In ELECTION (arguably his best film) and CITIZEN RUTH (an overlooked gem) director/co-writer Alexander Payne achieved merciless satire without sacrificing the deeply flawed characters’ humanity.  And while SIDEWAYS lacked a satirical tone, it cut its characters little slack yet remained compassionate.  Following this evolutionary path, Payne’s latest film (adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel by Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) retains its humanistic tendencies but lets its characters off the hook.  George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Honolulu real estate lawyer and absentee husband and father who acts as trustee to his family’s pristine acres on Kauai which must be sold off by law.  As various cousins gather to vote on which developer will purchase the land, Matt gets a wake-up call when his wife Elizabeth lands in a coma after a boating accident.  Because the prognosis is negative and both spouses have a do not resuscitate clause in their living will, Matt must become full-time father to precocious 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and troubled teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) while preparing family and friends for the worst.  So the news that Elizabeth had been having an affair in the months leading up to her accident only adds to Matt’s burden.  His search for the adulterer leads him to Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a realtor who could gain from the sale of the King family land.  The film’s voiceover exposition is off-putting, but Payne soon finds his storytelling rhythm and allows his fine cast breathing room.  Clooney gives a relaxed, understated performance, while Robert Forster makes a welcome return to the big screen as Elizabeth’s gruff father.  Judy Greer is terrific as Speer’s guileless wife, and Woodley shows exceptional nuance in what could have been a single-note role.  Still one can’t help but feel that Payne has given Matt a pass.  Though Matt acknowledges his shortcomings in voiceover, his comatose wife never gets the opportunity to confront him or to defend herself.  And while this allows for a happier ending, the film’s final family portrait does not ring true.  Perhaps Payne has gone soft.  I hope not.  I miss the Payne who practices tough love.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


We first meet defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) on his way to consult with one of his repeat offenders while bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo) pitches Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) as a wealthy potential client who’s been charged with assault.  Money talks to our Mr. Haller.  And though Roulet already has a lawyer (Bob Gunton) and an overprotective mother (Frances Fisher), Haller takes the case, convinced that his new client has been framed despite evidence gathered by prosecutor Ted Minton (Josh Lucas).  But he and investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy) soon discover that Roulet is not as innocent as he claims and may be implicated in a murder that Haller persuaded incarcerated former client Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña) to plead years back.  Further complicating matters, Haller becomes the target of a fresh murder investigation headed by grizzled Detective Lankford (Bryan Cranston).  Marisa Tomei (still underused but better served here than in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.) rounds out the cast as a prosecuting attorney and Haller’s ex-wife.  Michael Connelly’s novel gets a crackerjack adaptation by John Romano, who gives even minor characters rich textures and sharp dialogue to relish.  The plot is smart without being convoluted and never resorts to tired heroics or manipulative melodrama.  Brad Furman’s direction displays a vitality and verve reminiscent of the American film renaissance of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (with able assistance from cinematographer Lukas Ettlin and composer Cliff Martinez).  The casting is near perfect.  Pretty boy Phillippe has never displayed much range, but when used well (as he was in Robert Altman’s superlative GOSFORD PARK) you can forgive much.  Here Phillippe’s inability to act works to the film’s benefit.  McConaughey, on the other hand, has held promise since Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED.  With this performance as a lawyer with his own slippery version of ethics, he has found a film and a role that delivers on that promise.  This sharp, modest thriller will surprise you with its reliance on the old-fashioned virtue of crisp storytelling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SHAME (2011)

Michael Fassbender gives a fearless, riveting performance as Brandon, a sex addict in New York City.  We first meet Brandon between various anonymous sexual encounters as he wanders naked through his fastidious apartment pursued by a recurring female voice on his answering machine.  We initially believe the voice to be a spurned paramour but learn it belongs to his sister Sissy (a marvelous Carey Mulligan), who turns up in his shower uninvited.  Despite clear discomfort at the proposition, Brandon agrees to let her stay on the couch until she finds her own place.  And his workplace provides little solace as Brandon learns his laptop has been taken away to remove a virus.  When he asks out co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and finds he respects her, he is unable to perform sexually because he has never associated sex with respect.  While Brandon uses sex to avoid real intimacy, Sissy mistakes sex for real intimacy and drives away her suitors as effectively as her brother’s detachment.  Brandon’s philandering married boss David (James Badge Dale) seduces Sissy and returns her to the apartment for consummation.  Soon Brandon’s boundaries begin to collapse, leading him on a night of self-destructive debauchery that earns the film its NC-17 rating.  Director Steve McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan do not make judgments, they merely observe.  The only character to make a moral judgment in fact is sleazy boss David when he comments that Brandon’s virus-infested laptop is “filthy.”  Nor do the filmmakers delve into the siblings’ history, though it’s clear their childhood was an emotional train wreck to judge by the toxic codependence.  The writers’ only stumble is in overplaying Brandon’s night of degradation by including an out-of-character homosexual encounter.  Otherwise McQueen’s touch is artful and restrained, and he elicits top-drawer, award-worthy performances from both Fassbender and Mulligan.  One can only hope the more prestigious award organizations see past the strong subject matter to honor two brave, unflinching portrayals.