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.

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

 

Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire who was imprisoned in a coffin but is unearthed and makes his way back to his mansion now inhabited by his dysfunctional descendants. He soon runs into trouble revitalising the family’s canned fish business, as his jealous ex-flame and imprisoner Angelique Bouchard, runs the rival company.

A screenwriting teacher of mine used to stipulate that for each scene you write in a screenplay, you must ask yourself, “What is the goal of this scene? How do I want the audience to feel in this instance?” For Dark Shadows, I imagine it would be a difficult question for the screenwriter to answer and he would end up thinking for a long time the right combination of words to describe the specific feeling.

The story structure of Dark Shadows is an issue common amongst TV-to-Film adaptations. It reminded of Andrew Lau’s 2005 cinematic adaptation of the Japanese anime Initial D, where they tried to cram the first season into one cinematic film experience. Dark Shadows has a meandering TV show-like storyline where it plants several subplots that it doesn’t have enough time to develop within the span of a theatrical film. There is a delayed sense of driving action in this enclosed world. For instance, considered that all the evil things she has done to him, Barnabas has a lot of patience with Angelique. It would have made complete sense if Barnabas set out to kill her on a quest of revenge right after he is unearthed in the 70’s. They stylistically choose not to do that, which explains this heavy sense of TV pacing in this movie.

The ephemeral tone is what really drives the movie. It’s tongue-in-cheek at times with the 70s, there are fish-out-of-water jokes and people are murdered at the drop of a hat. There is a very “anything goes” tone and the weirdness of it all kept me entranced, anticipating where it was going to go. It was very funny, but not in a laugh out loud sort of way, but in a cerebral way. It’s hard to describe but there is structure in its chaos and it’s existence alone is something to be marveled at.

The cast and performances were noteworthy, mainly because of how specific they were to building the tone of the film. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas completely straight, much to many of the movie’s fish-out-of-water gags. Maybe because he looked so much like Nosferatu in his appearance and in some of his physicality (notice how he wraps his arms), if they ever made another post-modern silent movie like The Artist, Depp would fare well in a silent film performance.  I really liked the amount of humanity Eva Green was able to inject into Angelique Bouchard. She finds a human center to such an evil character and we see the motivation behind her irredeemable actions. I’ve complimented her performances three times now and she’s slowly becoming a favorite. Lastly, it was nice seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in a film again.

I do wonder what people who have seen the original series would have said about this movie. I’m too young to know. Personally I  had no prior knowledge of the original television series and for anybody who aren’t ready to put in the effort and fill the gaps mentally, they will probably be disappointed by the film adapation. It’s a very odd film operating on an obscure frequency and it wouldn’t have been made without the prior financial success of Burton-Depp collaborations. In a sense, they’re both getting weirder together.

If Tim Burton’s goal was to adapt the original Dark Shadows tone to film, then he accomplished it. Is that a worthy justifiable goal? Does it justify the TV-like tone? I can’t say but I would rather see Burton experiment with something than just slapping the usual “Tim Burton Brand” onto something.

The film worked on me, but I honestly cannot say I’d watch it again. As a movie about a vampire, it might not have longevity.

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

Confession: I have a very big soft spot for buddy cop movies and have seen way too many that is considered healthy for a normal bloke by civilized society. I like the setups, the witty banter, the themes of overcoming differences and looking inside the friendships and brotherhood between men. Some noteworthy examples of mine are The Hard Way, The Last Boyscout, Curry and Pepper (with Stephen Chow and Jacky Cheung), the Lethal Weapon series, Tsui Hark’s Double Team (no cops but it technically counts),  Die Hard with a Vengeance, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang… the list goes on. Even though it was probably for the better how things turned out, I was really rooting for Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon 5 script to be filmed. Yes, see what I mean?

Now with my bias established, on with the review…

First off,  I’m unfamiliar with the original show, all I know is how much Johnny Depp hated being on the show but it was where he did his 10,000 hours of honing his craft. The idea of cops going undercover as students seems like such a far-fetched and out-dated idea that it would only seem to work as a comedy. So the question is… does it work?

Suffice to say, it really does. I laughed a lot more than I expected with 21 Jump Street. In many ways this is what Cop Out failed to do. 21 Jump Street does do  the genre convention gags and references movies but unlike Cop Out does not focus the entire movie on them. The convention gags (I am not going to spoil any of them here.) are handled well with balance. It never goes overboard with its meta sensibilities and still manages to deliver surprises.

Jenko (played by Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) are two believably stupid characters. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. Jenko and Schmidt start off as classmates, one is a jock and the other is a geek who both end up befriending each other in police school when they need each other’s strengths. That bromance story is something that I never really get tired of. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. There is a decently written plot and it provides some nice twists and turns that genuinely surprised me. I’m going to spend the rest of the review mainly talking about the comedy writing

The time change between the present and the 1990’s is also addressed and 21 Jump Street does it in an interesting way: it addresses the idea of popularity and how it has changed since the 90s. Nerds (specifically hipsters) have become cool and jocks are out. It becomes the best gag in the entire movie and is the source of many of the best jokes. When the reversal of popularity dawns on Channing Tatum’s Jenko, he’s suddenly become the social outcast.

This is proof that you should never ever write anybody off because chances are they will find their niche and surprise you. This is the Channing Tatum’s greatest role yet and probably the best thing I have ever seen him in since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Tatum is doing a parody of himself and plays it absolutely straight to a cheeky level. He’s the good looking straight man hero, he knows it and the film knows it. As he gets more mad at being ostracized and left out by his nerd friend Schmidt, we laugh harder at him struggling and attempting to process that anger. A funny noteworthy scene is where Jenko enters a room and starts beating Schmidt with stuffed toys and humping him as he is on the phone with the love interest Molly (played by Brie Larson). There’s no dialogue, it seems like a friend messing with another friend but we get totally why Jenko is beating him. The fact that Schmidt is unaware makes it totally funny. 

There’s a trend of lazy writing going in comedies these days with the Judd Apatow movie trend, where he turns on the the camera and lets his actors improvise too often. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but overall he relies on it too much. I’ve read a draft of the Funny People screenplay and it was clear that they just wrote down the gist of the scenes and improvised their way through shooting. I bring this up because it came very apparent to me that 21 Jump Street seemed it was really written by writers who stayed up late at night on expressos chiseling the right zingers.

The issue with improvised lines is that they draw a lot of attention to themselves because often the audience instinctually feels that the camera is lingering for something that’s not moving the story forward. Many of the comedic zingers in 21 Jump Street were throwaway lines and there is something very artful about them. Jokes come and just past by. You have to catch them or many of them will zip by. It was a more engaging experience that way and I found myself finding new funny lines on a second viewing.

I laughed throughout the entire movie (last movie where this happened for me was 2010’s Morning Glory) and still am currently quoting lines with friends. It was equally enjoyable on a second viewing and I actually noticed new things that made me laugh. I would recommend this to anybody but especially for anybody is a fan of the buddy copy genre.

Please sign me up for the sequel!

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.