MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

WILMINGTON ON MOVIES: Rango, The Adjustment Bureau, Take Me Home Tonight

Rango (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2011

Rango is a fast, funny, gorgeous-looking cartoon feature by director Gore Verbinski that sends up movie westerns as they’ve rarely been sent up — and does it with style, wit, and lots of playful, if occasionally perverse, imagination.

In this puppet-ish spoof — in which Johnny Depp plays (or voices) a gabby chameleon masquerading as a deadly gunslinger named Rango, and Ned Beatty plays the crooked tortoise town mayor of Dirt, who hires Depp as sheriff — Verbinski and his screenwriter, John Logan, and their all-animated, all-reptile cast, have fun with movie Westerns from John Ford to Sergio Leone, from Shane to The Wild Bunch and from High Noon to Clint Eastwood.

The setting is the desert, a Monument Valleyish sort of sun-baked wasteland off the highway somewhere, a sandy land where water is precious and reptiles of all kinds make up the dramatis personae. The actual boss gunslinger is the fearsome Rattlesnake Jake (voice courtesy of  matchless Bill Nighy) who has a Wild Bunch style Gatling Gun where his rattles should be. The love interest, a looker prone to what seem epileptic freeze-ups, is a lizard lass named Beans (Isla Fisher). And there’s Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) and Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton, by God), and the Castenada-spouting run-over armadillo Road Kill (Alfred Molina).

And there’s the mayor of course, voiced by Beatty with the throaty purrs and left-handed eloquence of John Huston in Chinatown — the mayor, who hires Rango to be the town sheriff because he knows he‘s a phony.

The plot? Somebody is cheating these reptiles out of their water. That someone will pay.

Rango may have prehensile tongue in scaly cheek form start to finish, but it’s obviously a movie made by people who know and love Westerns, and that’s what makes it fun. It‘s as entertaining a movie Western as I’ve seen in years — not as good as the Coen Brothers’ grimly poetic, classically structured True Grit, but definitely funnier. Rango — whose name probably comes from the cult Spaghetti Western Django, in which gunman Franco Nero wandered the West with a coffin – is another cartoon feature done with the style and smarts that our adult movies too often miss.

I had a great time watching it, and I‘m sure I would have liked it as a kid as well, though I might have been startled at this movie’s violence and scatological humor. (One character announces that he once found a spinal column in his fecal matter, which I‘m sure is a feature cartoon first.)

So it should perhaps be emphasized that this is a movie as much for adults as children, in fact probably more for adults than children. That was already the case, of course, with some of the recent Pixar movies (Wall-E, Up), and I suspect it’s a trend that will continue, as long as these moviemakers are sharp enough to keep broadening their appeal, while the makers of “adult” movies keep dumbing their movies down.

There have been plenty of great cartoon features and lots of great movie Westerns. But, up until Rango, I can’t think of many great cartoon Westerns, other than the Czech puppet animator Jiri Trnka‘s little masterpiece Song of the Prairie (1949). It’s an intoxicating little gem and a Western-lover‘s delight: Trnka took almost all the plot and imagery and jokes for Song of the Prairie from Ford‘s 1939 Stagecoach, though he added a romantic singing Gene Autry-style cowboy hero of a kind Ford never used. (The songs in Ford’s Westerns — and there were some Mexican ballads in Stagecoach — were usually confined to the Sons of the Pioneers and their occasional ballad-warbling cavalry Western appearances.)

Song of the Prairie, which I love, is a lyrical, hypnotic work, both funny and dreamlike. And Rango in away, is a kind of epic magnification of the wistful, pop-poetic mood Trnka created in that joyous little classic. “Wistful“ may seem a strange word to apply to Rango, but it certainly applies to Depp‘s performance and the fragile-looking little chameleon he plays. (Though Rango is far spindlier and more grotesque-looking, he reminded me a bit of the little gecko in the Geico Insurance TV commercials, maybe the only classic TV ad character out there right now.)

It’s Rango’s contrasts between delicate fantasy and gruesome horror, between gentle humor and bloody havoc that make it so memorable, as well as its multi-cultural fluency. (At one point there’s an aerial assault modeled on Apocalypse Now, complete with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”)

But that contrast is often a key part of popular animation. In many classic movie cartoons, both long and short, a small but feisty character — a mouse, a bunny, toys, a baby elephant, a tweety-bird — is often pitted against a larger, more intimidating-looking foe, reminiscent of the way the short of stature Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were often matched against outlandish giants like Mack Swain in their comedies. These worm-turning triumphs are almost always satisfying, especially to kids. (Verbinski own 1997 Mouse Hunt is a variation on the theme.)

The violence in Rango is more extreme than we’re used to in most cartoons, and the characters, modeled on real reptiles, look more vulnerable. I suspect that’s why the movie has gotten a few “tsk-tsk” reviews from critics worried that Rango is too harsh, violent or grotesque for susceptible children.

That may be true, but then so, in a way, are the Brothers Grimm, Disney’s early feature cartoons and many other children‘s tales we consider classics or classics to be — including the Harry Potter books and movies. Mouse Hunt to the contrary, there’s not that much in the Verbinski or Logan filmographies to brand them as children‘s movie specialists, or to suggest they won’t be going for adults as well. (Logan‘s list includes Gladiator, The Aviator and Any Given Sunday)

Listed as Rango‘s visual consultant is the Coen Brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot True Grit and the modern Western neo-noir No Country for Old Men for the Coens. This is the kind of dangerous beauty and frontier grandeur many of us like to see in Westerns, and there’s a lot of it in the cartoon imagery of Rango as well.

I think we should be glad, to see this kind of visual virtuosity, playful creativity, weird beauty and intense love of movies, saturating the computerized but old-fashioned looking, wonderful 2D flat images Verbinski creates with production designer Mark “Crash” McCreary and Deakins. These images of desert vistas, sun scorched cliffs and the ramshackle little town Dirt, are all modeled on Leone‘s Western look (just as Hans Zimmer’s score takes many of its cues from Ennio Morricone‘s Leone scores) and they turn out to much more beautiful — incredibly gorgeous in some cases — than the fuzzier, darker 3D stuff that that’s become the feature cartoon movie norm.

This movie also has a superb cast — including Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, co-story writer and storyboard artist James Ward Byrkit (in seven roles) and Timothy Olyphant, in a dead-on Eastwood impersonation as The Spirit of the West. All of them were more involved with each other than cartoon voice actors, working in studios with mikes, usually are. Using a method he calls “emotion capture” (recalling Robert Zemeckis’ “motion capture” in The Polar Express), Verbinski shot a live action movie of his actors on actual sets, which he then used to help design the character animation for the movie. Whatever the method, it‘s produced one of the liveliest, most memorable cartoon ensembles in years.

Headed by Johnny Depp. Working for both children and adult sesnibilities is hardly new to him; it’s the method of those Tim Burton specials Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands. There‘s even a childlike quality in a movie that’s certainly not for children: Burton‘s Sweeney Todd (also written by Logan).

In Rango, we can see the real Depp behind both the voice and the movements of the little chameleon, the accident-prone clown, lovable humbug, accidental hero and cock-eyed legend. Like Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, he‘s a play-acting hero who becomes a real one because he doesn’t want to let his audience down. And he doesn’t. The movie doesn‘t either.

*”Song of the Prairie” is available on DVD, along with other Jiri Trnka works like “The Hand,” “Story of the Bass Cello” and ”The Emperor’s Nightingale“ on Image’s “The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka.“)



The Adjustment Bureau (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: George Nolfi, 2011

A rising young liberal congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon), running for the U.S. Senate and on a fast track to the White House, blows his chance when The New York Post publishes photos of his butt-bearing college high jinks days. At the concession, irrepressible David goes to the posh men’s restroom and runs into a sexy ballerina, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), who’s hiding in a stall. Soon he’s making out with her, in fact, falling in love with her. But “others” don’t want them together.

This sounds like the beginning of a fairly entertaining political romantic comedy about a left-wing phenom, prime presidential timber, who can’t keep his pants zipped (Did I hear someone whisper “Bill Clinton?”), and who is either going to ignore his handlers and marry the girl. (Yay!). Or give her up for the good of the country. (Sob.)

Unfortunately, the “others” who are messing with David’s life aren’t just the usual political buttinskys. They’re a group of seemingly supernatural beings called “adjustors” (from the Adjustment Bureau, natch) in matching ’50s suits and fedoras who basically run the world, who can travel all over New York City at lightning speeds through dimensional wormholes, whom David sees “readjusting” one of his co-workers when they think he isn’t looking, and who are bent on reorganizing David’s life, and keeping him away from Elise, precisely because he is prime presidential timber and his eventual election and successful presidency is fervently desired by someone (God?) who is running this shebang.

There’s a double catch, all explained to David by friendly adjustors Richardson (John Slattery of Mad Men) and Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). One: David has to give up Elise, who apparently will ruin his chances somehow. (Why? Is she prejudiced against Presidents? Did the New York Post have a man hiding in the john that first night snapping photos of their make-out session?) And if he ever tells anybody about the Adjustment Bureau, his memory will be scrubbed.

To guarantee his cooperation, high-ranking adjustment Bureau exec Mr. Thompson (Terence Stamp) will soon take over.

What will Dave do? Justify the lofty future predicted for him in this movie by Michael Bloomberg, Jon Stewart and whoever runs the Adjustment Bureau? I’ll never tell. But remember, my memory may have been scrubbed.

All this has been scripted and directed, with considerable craft and movie-making intelligence, by newcomer George Nolfi, the scenarist of two other Matt Damon movies, Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. And it is supposedly based on a story by the great science fiction writer and chronicler of paranoia-gone-real Philip K. Dick. I say “supposedly,” because the original story “Adjustment Team” is in Volume Two of the Complete Dick short stories, and, thanks maybe to adjustors, I only Have Volumes One, Three and Four.

But I have to say that, while this script is a perfectly nice, competent, good-hearted job, and I would probably be happy to vote for Nolfi for the U.S. Congress, even if the New York Post has compromising photos of him, this movie just doesn’t say Dick to me. (I still insist that moviemakers should be adapting his novels, like The Man in the High Castle and Martian Time Slip and Ubik and Eye in the Sky and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Time Out of Joint and not repeatedly taking his early short stories and sometimes throwing most of them away. After all, it was Blade Runner, based on one of Dick’s best novels, that started the whole Dick deluge.)

When Dick is cooking, he doesn’t just make you root for two attractive lovers, in a Wings of Desire world. He makes you feel that the world is about to blow up in your face, that we’re in some alternative universe where everything is the reverse of what it seemed or should not seem, and that it may all be a nightmare but may be not, and that even the flies buzzing in the room may be part of a plot.

Manohla Dargis, who read “Adjustment Team,” says it has a scene where the main character opens a door and sees that the world has turned to ash. That sounds like Philip K. Dick.

This movie is a sometimes sort of thrilling but (SPOILER ALERT) basically a really nice love story, (END OF SPOILER) and though I don’t want to be a spoilsport, or even a spoiler-alertsport, there’s something sort of awry in its fantasy. Namely, why can’t beings with this kind of power, beings who can just sneak all around Manhattan, take over office rooms, and reprogram people and lobotomize them, just whisk Elise off to Patagonia? Or why can’t they hire out as special effects men and make huge political donations to David’s campaign? Or why can’t they be like Republicans and just buy the election?

Also, to be unkind, these adjustors, including Stamp, don’t really do their job very well, despite having lots of men on the schedule and despite having magical fedoras to get them around town. If we’re really counting on them to save us from the next Ice Age, we may be screwed.

It’s a nice movie though. Well shot. Manhattan looks great. Damon and Blunt are a keen couple, Stamp an icy villain. Boo. Yay. I don’t mean to be negative. I’ll go back to Volume Three of the complete Dick and read “The Days of Perky Pat“ or “If There Were No Benny Cemoli,“ or “Oh, To Be a Blobel!“ Great stories! It’s just that…I just heard a knock. I just opened the door to the hallway. There was no hallway any more. And there are these guys out there, in fedoras, raking ashes…

Take Me Home Tonight (Two Stars)
U.S.; Michael Dowse, 2011

Hyphenates of the world, arise! Topher Grace has just executive produced a movie, directed by Michael Dowse (FUBAR) from a story Topher Grace co-wrote, in which Topher Grace plays Matt Franklin, a 1984 L. A. underachiever who works at Suncoast Video, and dreams of being a character in a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe movie.

One fine day Topher, excuse me Matt (what a charmer), sees his all-time high school dream girl supercrush, Tori Frederking (sexy Aussie Teresa Palmer, what a babe). (She was Number Six). Wow! Tori, or “The Frederking” as Topher/Matt calls her when he wants to sound cool, is now in banking and she suggests they meet at a cool party, so he lies and tells her he works for Goldman, Sachs.

Then Matt and his eccentric/comic best buddy, wild and crazy goofball-in-a-suit Barry Nathan (Dan Fogler of Fanboys and that Spelling Bee play), heist a cool car, and go to the party with Matt’s prodigy sister Wendy (Anna Faris), who’s dating a jerk named Kyle, what a loser (Chris Pratt). And there was coke in the stolen car, so the guys do coke and sneeze coke and get coke thrown all over themselves when a car-bag inappropriately opens. And, oh yeah, people fall into swimming pools. (People always fall into swimming pools.) And everybody wants to get laid, and nearly everybody does get laid, and the guys are arrested by Matt’s dad the cop (Michael Biehn), which is the scene you saw in the trailer.

Topher, excuse me Matt, finally shows what a mensch he really is by…Wait a minute. I’ve got some notes scribbled here, but I can’t believe what I’m reading. Holy shit! That’s how the movie ended? Really? Somebody wrote that? Somebodt shot that? No. Way. No, that must have been in some other Phil Dick alternative world. Not this one.

One problem about movies like this. Take Me Home Tonight acts like these are sort of underprivileged kids because Topher/Matt — a guy who went to college and whose sister is going to college, paid for by their policeman father — works at Suncoast and isn’t an investment banker. Hey, I don‘t care how many copies of Sixteen Candles he can’t sell, or how many racks of videos Dan Fogler knocks over while ineptly trying to get a date, or how hard it is to get the phone number of The Frederking, Teresa Palmer (what a babe), these are not underprivileged kids. Not remotely.

And, by the way, one problem about nostalgia for the ’80s. The ’80s sucked. The ‘80s blew. The ‘80s were horrible. Despite John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, despite The Breakfast Club and Say Anything, despite Brazil and Fanny and Alexander and Raging Bull, most of those ‘80s movies, let me tell you, were Dreck City. Dreckerino. Dreck cubed. Dreck to the fifteenth power of Dreck. Trust me. I don’t care how young you were, or how much coke was in the glove compartment.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. “Take Me Home Tonight?” Not on your life.

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2 Responses to “WILMINGTON ON MOVIES: Rango, The Adjustment Bureau, Take Me Home Tonight”

  1. Jeremy says:

    I actually spent a summer recently trying to prove to myself that the 80s didn’t suck, and it turned out that I was semi-right. I can’t write off the 80s as a lousy decade for movies. Not the decade that gave us Raging Bull, Ordinary People, Sixteen Candles, Amadeus, The Verdict, Blade Runner, Witness, Tootsie, A Fish Called Wanda, Die Hard, Do the Right Thing, Woody Allen’s masterpieces Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, Broadcast News, Moonstruck, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tender Mercies, Atlantic City, John Huston’s late masterpieces Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, After Hours, Airplane!, Missing, Ghostbusters, Trading Places, The Terminator and Back to the Future. We’d be lucky if this year two of those movies were of that caliber.

    I think the reason that we look back on the 80s as being a horrible decade is the fact that what was really popular back then has dated horrendously. From Reaganomics to Top Gun, most of the things that were popular in the 80s make us look back in terror. If that’s the way we look back at the stuff that was popular thirty years ago, think about what future generations will say when they watch Transformers.

  2. Stiggs says:

    If your summation of an entire decade’s worth of films can be condensed into the phrase “the 80’s sucked” then you probably should not be reviewing movies for a living.

    — “What you just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things that I’ve eve heard. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it”.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon