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Column Fri Jul 05 2013

The Lone Ranger, Despicable Me 2, The Way, Way Back, I'm So Excited, A Hijacking & The Wall


The Lone Ranger

First thing's first: just because a particular character is the one telling the story in flashback — namely Johnny Depp's version of Tonto — doesn't mean that the story is actually being told from that character's point of view. Most times, it does mean that, but not always. Case in point, the framing device of this overlong, overstuffed, overblown version of The Lone Ranger story is an elderly Tonto (who looks a little too much like Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man) relaying the birth of the Ranger-Tonto partnership during a time when railroads were cutting through pristine lands and opening up America in ways that could never be reversed.

But I find it difficult to believe that the way Depp, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and director Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Rango) would choose to honor Tonto and portray him more accurately as an equal partner with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger is to turn the Native American into a clown. Tonto is nothing more than The Lone Ranger's comic relief, and Depp is essentially swapping out black face for red face, making the sum total of his performance a series of bug eyes, exaggerated grimaces, and limp jokes that would be better suited for the Catskills than the open desert of Monument Valley. The Lone Ranger has elements that work better than others, but Depp's choices with Tonto must be chalked up as a rare example of when his instincts about creating unique and memorable characters have failed him.

I wasn't particularly thrilled with the reworking of the Lone Ranger legend, making the masked man begin life as district attorney John Reid, who returns to his hometown where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and brother's wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and son Danny (Bryant Prince) still live. Reid was in love with Rebecca and having her seem to give Dan her attentions caused him to leave. My natural instincts concerning love interests in action movies is to question their necessity, and Ruth and Danny's importance to the story does eventually reveal itself. The more overt villain of The Lone Ranger is Butch Cavendish (an almost unrecognizable William Fichtner, one of the film's few bright spots), whose scarred face and generally dirty appearance make it pretty clear we're supposed to hate him.

Perhaps only slightly less obviously as a bad guy is Tom Wilkinson's Cole, the man in charge of the railroad's construction and does what he can to protect the railroad from attack from bandits, Indian raiding parties, and the like. His big scheme is to use Cavendish and his gang to stage fake Indian raiding parties, which in turn will lead to the US Cavalry (led by Barry Pepper) to be called in to wipe out the innocent Native population, leaving Cole the freedom steer his railroads through Indian territory. Wilkinson is always a joy to watch, but even he has a tough time selling this tedious and convoluted plan.

Perhaps the least important member of the cast is Helena Bonham Carter as brothel madame Red Harrington, who possesses an artificial leg that converts to a rifle. Look, I enjoy a little Helena now and again, but her character adds so little to this film that you could literally excise every frame she's in, make slight storytelling adjustments, and a have a long film (about 2.5 hours) cut by about 20 minutes. It wouldn't take away Depp's miserable work here, but at least we'd have to endure it for slightly less time.

Verbinski's control of his shot compositions is spectacular, even if the story is a mess. His big action set pieces seem paced exactly right, and reject the laws of physics just enough to keep things interesting. Strong among the cast is Fichtner; and I maintain that a film with him is better than a film without him, in every case. His Cavendish is so supremely nasty that we are left constantly wondering what horrible deed he will commit or word he will utter. There are even hints that he and his gang also happen to be cannibals. Oh my.

Once he puts on the mask and leaves it on, Hammer's Lone Ranger is one of the last remaining pure screen heroes we have in our popular culture. As much as the screenwriters attempt to inject angst-ridden back story to both the Ranger and Tonto, Hammer maintains the deep-voice and perfect jaw line of a classic hero. He even knows best how to react to Depp's wacky portrayal of Tonto, wearing a dead bird on this head (he's still attempts to feed it), and if that isn't a mark of true friendship, I don't know what is. Tonto's flashback within a flashback about his childhood trauma that made him a bit off is going to anger true fans of these characters, but it mainly angered me because it was just plain stupid.

But Tonto's ill-conceived backstory is just one of The Lone Ranger's many big problems. There's a lengthy final chase sequence/shoot out that involves two trains speeding along parallel tracks toward certain doom. It's set to an extended version of The William Tell Overture, and it's the only section that film that made my heart race even slightly. The two hours leading up to that are largely joy free, surprisingly violent (remember how I mentioned cannibalism?), and just a succession of poor decisions by the filmmakers, of which Depp is clearly a contributor to the bad-idea pool.

It's rare that I ever watch a movie feeling embarrassment on behalf of those that made a film, but I bowed my head in shame on their behalf. I couldn't believe how immediately and definitively The Lone Ranger lets us know how bad it's going to be for so much of its ridiculously long running time. Unless you're into torture and self-mutilation, save your time and your dignity; go see pretty much anything but The Lone Ranger this holiday weekend.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with The Lone Ranger target="_blank">director Gore Verbinski and star Armie Hammer.

Despicable Me 2

Even the title of Despicable Me 2 doesn't make any sense. Remember how in the first film, the title referred to the villainous doings of its lead character Gru (voiced by Steve Carell)? By the end of that movie, he learned that being a bad guy wasn't so good, and he changed his evil ways and adopted three little girls... as one does. But as Despicable Me 2 opens, Gru is the epitome of domestic bliss, minus a lady friend, which is actually one of the main plot points of the film. But not only is Gru no longer despicable, he actually helps out an organization called the Anti-Villain League to help them catch a particularly nasty baddie whose identity has yet to be uncovered. Gru knows bad, so they ask him for a little assist.

Putting my issue with the title aside, Despicable Me 2 has made a few other adjustments, the biggest of which is pushing as many minions (most of whom are voiced by the film's directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, who also did the first film) as possible to the front and center. If I'm not mistaken, the little capsule shaped creatures have their own movie coming out next year, so this makes some sense, since they are weirdly entertaining and always find ways to make me giggle. And it's a good thing too, because the rest of the film is whole-heartedly average.

One of the biggest surprises/letdowns for me is how little newcomer (to the franchise) Kristen Wiig is given to do. She plays Lucy, the AVL agent assigned to help Gru find the faceless villain, who the agency believes is hiding in plain site, running a business at a shopping mall; they just don't know which one, and the film follows Gru and Lucy as they go store by store, looking for villainous clues. Gru fixates on Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), who runs a Mexican restaurant and Gru believes was once the notorious masked bad guy El Macho. Of course, his suspicions may be warped since Eduardo's suave son Antonio (Moises Arias) is making love eyes at Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the oldest of Gru's daughters. Also a suspect is hairpiece salesman Floyd (Ken Jeong). My money was on Gru's recently departed partner in crime, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), who quits at the beginning of the film because he misses doing bad.

Despicable Me 2 is certainly harmless enough and seems even more geared toward younger viewers than the first film, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There is some strong voice work by the likes of Steve Coogan, Kristen Schaal, Nasim Pedrad, and others, but outside of some outrageous behavior by the minions, the film lacks any real edge or big laughs. The one bright spot in the film comes in the final act when the minions are dosed with a serum that turns the little yellow guys into raging purple monsters that seem to eat everything and cause mayhem.

Certainly the film isn't as actively awful as this week's other big release, The Lone Ranger, and Carell knows how to deliver his accented vaguely Eastern European drawl with a certain deadpan quality that I've always liked. But I sat through Despicable Me 2 with a free-floating sense of missed opportunities everywhere I looked — the biggest being having Wiig be a part of this and no give her something to do beyond being Gru's sidekick/love interest. Did the filmmakers really need it to be her to pull off such a thankless role? Probably not. This is the mildest of recommendations, but the minions won me over just enough for me to say that your kids are probably going to drag you to it anyway, so you might as well go in knowing it's not the worst you could see this holiday weekend.

The Way, Way Back

Destined to be one of my favorite films of the summer, The Way, Way Back is one of those summertime offerings that fits the mold of a film that people will revisit every year when the world gets warmer, bathing suits become outerwear, and coming of age seems like the thing that the kids do. Although set in the present day, the film has visual cues and an overall vibe that make it feel like something made in the 1980s. Much as they did with their Oscar-winning script for The Descendants, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon have fashioned an original story that is the perfect blend of laughs, heartbreak and growing pains.

The film is told through the eyes of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is spending the summer with divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) at Trent's summer home on the beach somewhere in the Northeast. The ride up sets the tone for the whole vacation: Trent is judging Duncan for not be outgoing and sets a goal for him to make new friends and branch out. The advice is worthy but his delivery and methods are monstrous at times. Pam ignores Trent's behavior for the most part, because she's slightly desperate.

Upon their arrival, Duncan meets an army of new people, most of which want little to do with him, including next-door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), her pretty daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, who Duncan immediately takes a liking to), and nearby fellow partiers Kip and Joan (Rob Corddrey and Amanda Peet). The drunken behavior of the adults drives Duncan from the house, while the indifference of Steph and her friends (including Susanna) keep him off the beach. Out of sheer frustration, he takes a bike from the garage and peddles to a nearby, slightly rundown water park, run by the slacker-ish Owen (Sam Rockwell, in full Meatballs-era Bill Murray mode, which is a rare treat). Taking pity on Duncan, Owen hires the kid for the summer to do grunt work, and Duncan couldn't be happier, especially since no one there knows him and it's a chance to somewhat reinvent himself and build some much-needed confidence.

Feeling like part of a family at the water park boosts Duncan enough to confront a few things back home, and he starts to call Trent on his abundance of bullshit. The supporting players at the park include Maya Rudoph, as well as the filmmakers Rash and Faxon, all of whom do such solid work here and play off Rockwell's swagger. Rockwell is the life mentor we wish we all had; he's protective while also exposing Duncan to just enough bad behavior and responsibility shirking to make him more of a lazy but fun big brother than a father figure. And although he makes it looks easy, almost like he's not even trying, Rockwell turns in one of my absolute favorite performances in a career loaded with great work. He's the reason to buy this ticket, folks.

But at the center of The Way, Way Back is a kid trying to find his place in both his mother's life and the world. He feels betrayed by her for taking Trent's side. But this is also a teenager in love for the first time, and all of the awkward, hilarious fumbling and stumbling that goes along with that. No matter what your life has been like up this point, you will find someone in this movie to connect with — and more than likely, you'll find more than one.

While I don't want to seem like I'm overselling The Way, Way Back, I've seen it twice now and I find it kind of perfect. It's not too long, the pacing and tone is flawless, and the performances are across-the-board wonderful. Janney is at her screechy, inappropriate best; Peet is a nasty, manipulative weasel; Rudolph is the perfect mother hen for the water park; and Corddrey is perfectly laid back and clueless. Most importantly, Rash and Faxon are smart not to make Duncan whiney or pathetic; he's just socially awkward but not permanently broken as a good person. And by the end of the film, he has grown, if not fully flowered, but he's got a better chance at life than he did on the car ride there, and that's saying a lot. I adored this little movie, and I have complete confidence you will as well. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

I'm So Excited

I'm such a fan of the works of writer-director Pedro Almodovar that some might call me an apologist. But even I must acknowledge that his latest film I'm So Excited is feather-light, sub-par stuff for this Spanish master of heightened emotions, sexual openness, and expressive characters. Even a handful of cameras of Almodovar vets like Antonio Bandaras, Penelope Cruz and Paz Vega do little to make the film any more engaging; if anything, their presence here reminds us of far better work from a man who has spend decades making colorful films with wild abandon.

Most of I'm So Excited takes place on a plane going from Spain to Mexico City, with the most lax security I've ever seen. Passengers and crew members alike walk in and out of the cockpit like its Grand Central Station. A title card at the beginning of the film tells us that the movie is well aware that in real life such access would be impossible, but it takes you right out of the film every time someone steps in to engage the pilots. Over the course of the movie, we get to learn about the lives of some of the passengers and the crew, all of whom go into full confessional mode when its discovered that the plane's landing gear won't engage.

Apparently, the way to relax the passengers is either drug them (the entire coach section of the plane is asleep for the whole film) or entertain them cabaret-style, which the openly gay flight attendants and steward do for the first-class cabin. The more people begin to realize their peril, the more they spill their secrets and have every kind of sex in their seats. Oh, Pedro! Even in some of his more uproarious works, Almodovar manages to find the humanity and soul of his characters, and gives us something to latch onto and care about. But I didn't get that about any character in I'm So Excited, which is a shame because the potential was there. Everyone on the plane seems eternally judgmental and mean, and just because they learn to behave better by the end of the film doesn't make the experience of watching them any for enjoyable.

Although the film includes the flight attendants doing a lip-synching choreographed routine to the Pointer Sisters titular song, the movie feels like its lacking that certain Almodovar spark. Even the extremely frank sexual discussions seem uninspired and pointless. I'm sure the director will strike again with a much better film before too long, but I'm So Excited didn't do much to stir my feelings, mind or loins. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Hijacking

If you're in the mood to spend this holiday weekend being about as tense and claustrophobic as you possibly can for 100 minutes, might I recommend the fantastic Danish film A Hijacking? This no-nonsense telling of a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean hijacked by Somali pirates from writer-director Tobias Lindholm (co-writer of the upcoming The Hunt and director/co-writer of the 2010 film R) drags you through every possible emotion as we see this event from all sides, from the terrified crew to the shipping company's buttoned-down CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), who believes he can handle the ransom negotiations with the pirates without letting his emotions get the better or him or threats against the crew affect him personally.

We endure the crew's hardships through the eyes of its cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek, known to Americans from his role in the last season of Showtime's "The Borgias"), who has a wife and young daughter waiting and worried back home. He ends up forming the best relationship with the pirates' negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who is usually calm, collected and kind to the small crew of seven, but but can convey a bloodthirsty persona when he feels things aren't going his way or that he's being talked down to by Peter.

Days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months in this standoff, and the crew becomes more desperate, believing the penny-pinching company is dragging things out unnecessarily. Food and water run short, and the ship becomes a nasty, unlivable mess before too long. Lindholm does a remarkable job of creating not just a sense of dread, but a thick, almost unbreathable at atmosphere in the cramped quarters the filth-encrusted crew is forced to stay in. The few scenes where the pirates let them out into the open air are as much a relief for us as it is for them.

One of the most surprisingly complex characters is CEO Peter, who is so impressed with his own business negotiating tactics (as we see in an opening scene involving a deal with Japanese businessman), that he lets his ego get the best of him, against the advice of Connor, a hired expert in creating a dialogue with the pirates (Gary Skjoldmose Porter). In an American version of this story, Peter would be played as a cold, calculating robot of a man who cares more about being outplayed than the safety of his crew. But Peter isn't that man. There's a real pulse there behind his shrewd business sense, and when he's brought face to face with the families of the crew members, he shows real compassion. Mikkel may be the heart and soul of A Hijacking, but Peter is the one you can't take your eyes off because of his many complexities.

Also unlike a Hollywood take on this material (perhaps like the upcoming Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips), there are few surprises, which isn't a bad thing. Although not based on one particular incident, A Hijacking feels like it takes place in the real world; there are no heroes fighting the pirates. The crew just want to survive, and in a not-so-strange way, they even begin to work with the pirates to end this ordeal. There's a truly celebratory moment when Mikkel catches a massive fish and briefly alleviates everyone's hunger. Director Lindholm goes to extraordinary measures to make everything feel authentic on all sides of this dilemma, and the result is a true nailbiter that will leave you with a case of nervous exhaustion when all is said and done. This is a welcome rarity when a film with this level of suspense also succeeds as a character study. If you can handle the tension, A Hijacking will impress you mightily. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Wall

Unfolding as more of a contemplative parable than science fiction, the Austrian-German co-production The Wall is an almost dialogue-free (although there's an abundance of English-language narration) work about a woman (Martina Gedeck from The Lives of Others) who goes to spend a getaway in a remote hunting cabin in the Austrian mountains, and after her first night, she discovers that there is an invisible wall surrounding the property, cutting her off from all other people in the area. The few people she can see from her side of the wall seem frozen in time, unable to hear her.

The only companions she has on her side of things are a dog, a couple of cats and a cow, plus a fully-stocked cabin (since the owners gave her a full ration of supplies and fire wood before her arrival). Gedeck stays calm as she contemplates her situation and begins to take stock in her survival skills and physical strength. Nature is both her friend and her enemy as the seasons begin to change, and winter sets in. Gedeck teaches herself to be a solid hunter, but begins to feel the crush of isolation weighing down on her.

The story of The Wall is told mostly in flashback as Gedeck begins to chronicle her ordeal, afraid that the details of all that has happened to her will fade before too long. If I had one complaint about the film, it's that the narration is often unnecessary and a tad overloaded with details we can see for ourselves. Directed and adapted by Julian Roman Pölsler (from a novel by Marlen Haushofer), The Wall features an incredible, gut-wrenching performance from Gedeck, whose face wears her solitude more than her words. I wouldn't exactly call the film light summer viewing, but if you're feeling like you'd like to take a walk into the woods to get away from civilization and the idiots that run it (as we all do from time to time), this is a powerful experience toward those ends. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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