Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Chameleon Kid (Rango)

Why, you ask, would a self-promoted animation agnostic opt to see Rango? Needing a light-hearted and colorful palette-cleanser between Netflix viewings of Taxi Driver and The Warriors compels a man to resort to desperate measures, though in truth Gore Verbinski's foray into Pixar territory has more in common with that kind of adult fare than one might expect. An oddball Polanski-Leone mashup, Rango chronicles a journey of self-actualization for a day-dreaming lizard protagonist (voiced by Johnny Depp, but you already knew that) who becomes the sheriff of a Western town occupied by assorted creepy-crawlies in the midst of a deadly drought. It's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Chinatown, with a menagerie of desert critters (possums, bats, armadillos) less engagingly repulsive than the likes of Tuco or Noah Cross, yet generally amusing enough to hold your attention.

Or, at least, the attention-span of adults. Rango is a good illustration of how disaster-proof Hollywood fare has become: the last time an alleged kiddie movie ended up being so kid-unfriendly, it went by the name of Babe: Pig in the City and was a megaton bomb. Movie marketing is too savvy to allow that sort of thing to happen anymore. Rango's been hyped as a "Johnny Depp movie" (to the point where reviewers are giving the impression that he's actually in the film), with trailers suggesting quite the bouncy entertainment. The bounce is there, all right, but it just barely propels the narrative over a surprising amount of visual grotesqueries (talking road-kill) and out-of-place scatological humor (a mammogram joke in an animated movie is, I think, a first). A disgusted mother taking her young son out of the theater afterward said, "Thank God we didn't pay full price for that!" Still, they'd been enticed enough to come.

The second-half of the movie was more involving than the first -- maybe because its free-associative spirit settles into something more substantial, or maybe because I finally moved a few rows down from the teenage couple necking in the disabled section directly behind me. (From the looks of it, they were fully mobile.) Rango doesn't have the dizzying highs of Babe: Pig in the City; Verbinski's not a crackpot visionary like George Miller. At his best, he's an able showman with a flair for viual slapstick: the action set-piece halfway into the picture echoes Apocalypse Now (with a banjo cover of Ride of the Valkyries), the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the climactic pursuit from Miller's The Road Warrior. Verbinski also brings in a dash of emotional heft when Rango encounters The Spirit of the West, a.k.a. Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name (well-voiced by Timothy Olyphant). The scene is a standard movie trope -- the hero's encounter with a sage during a point of crisis -- yet The Spirit's suggestion that we are what we do is fairly profound. So is his alluring description of heaven, which apparently has something to do with Kim Novak and Pop-Tarts.

Rango occupies a welcome middle-ground between Pixar's manic blandness and David Lynch's strenuous eccentricity. If you're going to reference pop-culture, the references in Rango are just unexpected enough to work. (The only missed opportunity was a Polanski-voiced cameo for a knife-wielding midget: "You're a nosy fella, ain't ya?" could have been easily included without breaking the mood.) All the same, I am growing weary of movies that flatter our knowledge of other movies; it's moved to the opposite extreme of American cinema from a generation ago, where film characters usually spoke about films they'd seen in vague generalities. ("I liked that character." "Well, I liked the other character"....) I'm not asking for a return to hermetically-sealed cinema. An original idea or two, though, might be a nice change of pace.


Steven Santos said...

I haven't seen this movie, but your last paragraph probably gets at why it still doesn't quite interest me. I also think you're probably raising a bigger issue about 21st century cinema than possibly the overuse of the ShakyCam.

That is, how often are today's films trading in on nostalgia to make us recall greater films made by superior directors (in this case, Leone and Polanski)? I sometimes think filmmakers are not trying to make great films, as much as convince us that they love the same great films we do.

Craig said...

The constant, self-feeding tribute-parody-imitation cycle (which Matt has also raised as it applies to television) does raise some thorny questions about the state of cinema and where it can possibly go from here. I'm sure Leone and Polanski (and Hitchcock and Kubrick) had their influences too; and we can argue -- and have argued -- whether De Palma and Tarantino are ripping off their predecessors or engaged in a dialogue with them; but lesser filmmakers have taken us beyond any of them into a pop-cultural oversaturation that has become positively numbing. Watching Winter's Bone again the other night, it was a relief to see a movie whose frame of reference is nothing but itself. Countless A-list filmmakers with 100 times the budget of Debra Granik's movie (Gore Verbinski being one of them) appear incapable of creating their own worlds (an objective that should be basic Cinema 101 by this point in history) without grafting their film onto another, and I think that spells trouble for the industry.

I'm curious how you and others feel about this piece, written two years ago by Paul Schrader for The Guardian which has lately received some more attention. Schrader argues that moviegoers have become overly familiar with storylines and are thus suffering from "narrative exhaustion," making the lives of screenwriters more difficult. It's a compelling point, but if that's the case, then why are those same moviegoers more likely to see a movie that offers comforting familiarity rather than take a chance on a film that offers something new?

One more thing I'll say about Rango: The scene with "The Spirit of the West" is moving, surprisingly so, and one reason why it works so well is it depends on our knowledge of Eastwood's iconography. (In other words, it's a scene that's having a dialogue with what it's referencing, rather than just lazily shoehorning it in.) It's not a great movie by any means, but any animated film that raises parental hackles (the same folks who regularly don't take their kids to see Duma or Fly Away Home or other perfectly suitable family-fare movies that stir the imagination as well) has some value in my book.

Steven Santos said...

(1 of 2)

I think Schrader's piece does make important points about how there are only so many narratives. However, I do think how the story is told and who is telling the story becomes important. It's what they teach you in any writing class. It's about the voice.

In the case of "Winter's Bone", I would actually say it does reference other movies because I always considered the film a detective story. But Granik filters this through this world she's depicting that it doesn't feel like a tribute to those films.

On the other hand, we have a director like, say, Edgar Wright, who is smart, talented and I've liked the 2 films I've seen so far (haven't seen Scott Pilgrim yet). Though I like "Shaun" and "Hot Fuzz", I can't jump on the bandwagon calling him a genius because his movies never seem to rise above commenting or paying tribute to other movies.

Steven Santos said...

(2 of 2)

Perhaps, it may be wrong to expect someone's films to offer insight into the filmmaker's view of the world. But I think that's the key to engaging my mind. Otherwise, my main perception of Wright is a skilled visualist who probably owns an awesome DVD collection. Whatever he has to say about life or the world around him hasn't registered in any way yet.

I would also add I think the Coen Brothers' career showed a shift from commenting on genre films to using genre stories to get at bigger ideas. It's why I found them to be be a rare instance of an auteur evolving throughout their career.

Craig said...

You're right about Winter's Bone being a detective story -- or an "Ozark noir," a term I love -- and as such part of the fun is how it plays off our expectations of a typically masculine genre. A female lead creates a completely different "voice," as you would say, compared to a traditional male protagonist; and the fact that the violence is administered by women comes as a real shock.

Chinatown's through-line to classic noir is more direct, in part because it's based on an original script rather than adapted from a novel. But neither Polanski nor Towne felt the need to elbow us in the ribs to let us know how much they like The Big Sleep or Kiss Me Deadly. (Just like Leone never announced, "Man, I love Bud Boetticher!") Their film (and Winter's Bone) illustrates the difference between making a genuine contribution to the genre and simply paying homage to it.

Scott Pilgrim is a trickier case: It may be the first instance of a filmmaker paying homage to medium rather than a specific movie or genre. Actually, it's multiple mediums (videogames, comic books, etc.) that Wright filters through his lens, and while the results are debatable (several of my favorite critics/bloggers love it; I didn't) at least it's trying a fresh way to tell a familiar story. Your comparison to the Coens is apt; Wright strikes me as a filmmaker who, like them, has the potential to evolve into a major artist.