The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinski

The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinksi

Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

What really interested me in seeing The Lone Ranger was reading the Native Appropriations blog, which has been very vocal about the film’s cinematic misrepresentation of Native Americans. I have felt similar dissatisfaction with Chinese misrepresentation in Hollywood films in the past. This is not my fight, and my opinion probably wouldn’t matter much in this regard because I am not Native American. This is not something for me to be offended by or to tell other people that they should be offended by it or not. I do, however, believe that misrepresenting somebody’s culture in a medium as wide-spreading as film can be damaging by building a false misleading impression. So I wanted to be a witness while this discussion was ongoing.  So here goes…

The film is way too long. Mostly because of the Lone Ranger character is set up antithetically to what the audience wants to see – a triumphant hero. Armie Hammer, as proven in other films, is a capable actor. But this clumsy, nerdy, somewhat unlikable version of John Reid just doesn’t justify the running time. The intended arc for John Reid was that he starts off believing wholeheartedly in the law, the belief is then shattered and then he learns that to give justice, he must provide the justice himself. Verbinski spends way too long at phase one and it takes two hours before we arrive to phase two. In between that time the audience is just waiting for John Reid, a very inactive character, to change.

Johnny Depp has said that in playing Tonto, he hopes to change the past cultural misrepresentations of Native Americans on film. This hasn’t been brought up, but Johnny Depp previously played a Native American in a film he directed called The Brave ( I wonder what Native Americans thought of that film). The Brave actually was closer to accomplishing this very goal by presenting present-day Native Americans that were living in harsh conditions and it told a story about a father trying to help his family to escape said conditions. Marlon Brando, who has also been trying to make a film about the Native American condition for years, makes a cameo in it. So how can Depp, who previously made a film that was considerate to the Native American condition make an aesthetic choice that would further mystify and misrepresent their image? It’s inconsistent with his intended goal.

Depp’s Tonto performance, however, is fun to watch and drives the whole movie. Depp brings his usual tricks to comedy, namely a lot of mugging and facial reactions. This is why I think people are saying he’s doing Captain Jack Sparrow again. Comparatively, Tonto is a darker, more introverted character and more prone to solving his problems with violence than deception.

The Tonto costume looks cool but I am of two minds about it. On one hand, I wish this costume was really authentically Native American so there’s no political problem. But on the other hand, it is not difficult to design a cool looking costume with actual Native American attire. The filmmakers probably should have done the latter and dodged a bullet. The concept comes from a painting that was drawn by a Caucasian artist that wasn’t referring to anything authentically Native American. In the painting, a crow soars over the Native American warrior’s head, which Depp has taken literally, making the crow a headdress for Tonto. The film justifies this by establishing that Tonto is an outcast, and therefore is able to make up his own set of beliefs with the white face paint and crow headdress. I honestly do not know how to feel about that but Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the most entertaining part of The Lone Ranger. I enjoyed it, but it feels like I shouldn’t be enjoying it.

The production design is impressive; you can see literally where the budget went. The choice to shoot anamorphic was a great one; it transports the audience into the beautiful landscapes of the Old West. I read an article that argued how Westerns always underperform in the American box office, I don’t know why that’s the case. After all, Westerns are distinctly an American film genre.

The two major action set pieces, one in the opening and one at the film’s climax, is where Gore Verbinski fares best. The William Tell Overture kicks in and completely energizes these action scenes. I completely dropped thinking about misrepresentation, and just went along with it. They are heavily designed in a way that evokes Verbinski’s previous film MousetrapThe set pieces are an exhilarating thrill ride, and I wish the film would have just focused on delivering the fun.

For every goal The Lone Ranger tries to achieve with the material, the filmmakers have set up something antithetical going against it. The idea of making a commercial summer blockbuster movie out of an ugly part of American history is a noble one and I applaud it. There are scenes that show what has happened to the Natives that was genuinely tragic. The final result does fall short from balancing such a heavy subject with its fun factor. Verbinski shouldn’t be blamed completely as it looks like the studio’s marketing team checking boxes as well. It doesn’t accomplish the goal of changing how Native Americans are perceived in the media, perhaps the best thing is it’s gotten people talking about the subject.

In the end, the beginning and the end of The Lone Ranger is a lot of fun, but a lot of fat could have been trimmed from the middle. Even the bookending device with an aged Tonto telling the story to a boy is extraneous and adds a post-modern layer onto the film that continually takes you out of the story. I have no problem with downplaying the Lone Ranger to make Tonto a more central character, but it’s overdone. The Lone Ranger is just not an interesting protagonist, and the central story is about John Reid. It’s like the filmmakers got confused with that and couldn’t handle the material with discipline. I imagine if I saw it as a child, I’d just fast-forward through the fun parts.

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World War Z by Marc Forster

World War Z by Marc Forster

Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie pandemic.

I haven’t read the original novel going into World War Z. There have been some complaints that this film departs heavily  from the novel, but apparently the novel reads like a series of personal accounts. If that’s the case, it’s probably more effective to experience the story through a first-person perspective for a film. On with the review…

The PG-13 rating has always been an interesting constraint for horror movies as it cancels the use of gore and forces more ingenuity in creating the scares. Marc Forster creates a constant frantic sense of jeopardy and properly raises the stakes. Even though it’s possible to outsmart and escape from these running zombies, we fear that the characters will eventually fatigue and lose from being outnumbered. The opening set piece was shot too shaky and cut too fast and it seemed like Marc Forster didn’t learn anything from the action in Quantum of Solace. But the set pieces improve as the film progresses.

By the finale, I was fully immersed into this world, alert of everything that can startle the fast-running zombies and looking out for every possible human mistake. I was cringing at every door squeak and wished a can of WD-40 would just fall out of the sky on their laps. That said, the characters don’t make typical stupid horror movie mistakes. Even in times of risk and with the occasional accidental mistake, they take the proper precautions and do the most sensical thing.

Zombie films typically are set in a town or city. What makes World War Z an unique experience is its international scope, we get to see the entire world react to the zombie outbreak. It gives a political and cultural cross-section of how different countries would react to such a catastrophic event. It holds a mirror to our current world. This was the most interesting part of it for personally as it sets itself apart from George Romero films or The Walking Dead.

The most valuable Brad Pitt brings to the film besides his star power is the big-budget production values itself. The cast performs fine but it’s by no means a performance-driven film. The studio has decided to produce a sequel, as the war in the novel lasts for a decade. And it will probably continue to draw from the U.N reports in the novel. Depending if Brad Pitt returns to the role or if the story unfolds with a new protagonist, the story can go either which way. I’ll probably see it then but for now, the epilogue doesn’t tease me that much.

Iron Man 3 by Shane Black

Iron Man 3 by Shane Black

When Tony Stark’s world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution.

Iron Man 3 follows in the vein of  The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall in which a hero is broken apart entirely and has to put himself back together. I personally like this story of a hero falling, rebuilding himself and rising again. The similarities in story for both Rises and Skyfall didn’t bother me because both films individualized the story specifically towards its hero.

Unfortunately, this is where Iron Man 3 drops the ball. The event that causes Tony Stark’s fall does not make much sense. What happened to Stark’s friend wouldn’t lead to what happened, let’s just leave it at that. The rebuilding of Tony Stark is the strongest portion and was something new. They do a good job breaking Tony Stark apart and putting him in a place where has to work without his armor. But Iron Man 3 makes its biggest sin in its third act when Tony Stark resurges – they forget and forego the essence of Tony Stark.

The story events that are affecting the characters never seem to match logically. Why is Tony Stark stressed about the New York incident in The Avengers? He didn’t cause the incident. Is it post-traumatic stress? It didn’t seem so, but it was not clear. Shouldn’t his guilt be centered upon his past as a weapons arm dealer and his continuing journey to right his past mistakes?

What they choose to do with The Mandarin was disappointing. He is a plot device, he’s not a character. Ben Kingsley is just collecting a cheque and selling some self-parody. I’m not even going into Guy Pearce’s villain except to say his character motivations were underwritten and his abilities are ridiculous.

Shane Black is one of my favorite screenwriters (The Last Boyscout and the first two Lethal Weapon films) and I am a big fan of his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was nice how they were a Christmas theme running through the film, like in all the other Shane Black screenplays. I’d like to believe the finished product was not the film he wanted to make. In fact, I bet a year or two from now we’ll be hearing a statement from Shane Black about how he did not have creative control or had a better draft of the script that was heavily changed. Or he could have dropped the ball. Who knows? Seriously, the script seems written by a marketing committee, checklisting certain plot points from successful examples such as Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises, and forcibly inserting them into the script.

I remember years ago reading a quote from Shane Black saying how the producers on The Last Boyscout bought his script based on his ability to write sharp witty one-liners, not on account of the story or anything creative he was trying to achieve. That complaint is talismanic of the problem with the use of humor in Iron Man 3. There were way too many silly jokes that didn’t add to the story and it kept distracting from the seriousness of what was happening. It’s a poor unnecessary attempt to make things family friendly.

Let me make something clear, I do not equate these criticisms against the film having to follow The Avengers. It was a good choice to not include S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury and the other Avengers, and set it as a solo Tony Stark story. But the place they go with the character totally nullifies the entire essence of Tony Stark. It would have been like Batman using a time machine to stop the death of his own parents, so he can stop being Batman. First of all, that would be okay if this was the last Iron Man movie. But it isn’t, this is the beginning of Marvel Phase 2. Secondly, having the hero removing his very own essence without fighting through a conflict is just plain cheating.

As I’ve said with my Avengers review, Marvel doesn’t need to make more solo movies if they don’t have legitimate stories to tell, they can just make more Avengers movies at this point. They’ve already upped the ante and we’re naturally expecting more.

I like Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and they’ll move on to do better things. But this sadly wasn’t one of them. It’s the weakest of the three.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

The Grey

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

A man who has lost the will to live must save a group of men after a plane crash in the midst of Alaska. That is a compelling premise.

If you lost the will to live, is there any value in human life? How do you value someone else’s life? Is there even any point in running away when you are in the face of death?

The Grey asks these existential questions but doesn’t get bogged down by the weight of them. It externalizes these ideas into something entertaining: a survival film. And more importantly, the film doesn’t leave these questions unanswered. It manages to answer them from the point of view of Liam Nesson’s character, John Ottway. And if there’s one thing that Liam Nesson does really well, it is bringing gravitas to a role and a story, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be (i.e. in Taken where he singlehandedly takes on Paris. Or heck, even the scene in The A-Team where the team in a tank falling from the sky and he orders the team to maneuver the tank through firing out of its cannon).

The structure of the story is that of a philosophy thesis. These characters exist as viewpoints. Survival arguments between the characters are disguised existential arguments. One noteworthy scene is where all the men sit around in a campfire and share their personal stories, it works both as character development and on a thematic level establishes what they all have to live for as existential discussion. As for the wolves, I know nothing about wolves and their social behavior. I don’t know if they make sounds like a Tyrannosaur Rex or sneak up on people like ninjas as they’re portrayed in The Grey. And you know what? It does not matter one single bit. These are not real wolves. These are thematic existential wolves. Yes, they exist as an idea and they work like that of a movie monster metaphor.

As for the set pieces, they are brutal. They reportedly shot in -40 degree weather and it looks it. We feel the pain of these deaths. The balance between the philosophical and the survival film tropes make it a thrilling experience.

The A-Team and Smoking Aces was both fun fluff, but The Grey is levels higher and it shows maturity and improvement on the filmmaker’s behalf. This is the best Joe Carnahan film has made yet.

I’m all for not hurting animals, but there’s something really badass about watching Liam Nesson punching a wolf. The Grey is aware of its popcorn movie layer though despite of that has much higher ambitions than to simply entertain, it chooses to say something deep instead. And it succeeds. Or else they could have just named the movie – Liam Nesson: Wolf Puncher.