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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Rango; Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall his Past Lives.


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.

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 reptilicus personae. The actual boss gunslinger is the fearsome Rattlesnake Jake (voice courtesy of  the ace 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, and he wants a bust.

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

Rango may have its prehensile tongue in its 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 — witty and brimming with playful, perverse imagination. 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). That movie was 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 Cavalry Western appearances.)

Song of the Prairie, which I love, is a lyrical, hypnotic work, both funny and dreamlike. And Rango (though I don’t know if Verbinski and company have ever seen any Trnka), is a kind of epic magnification of the wistful, pop-poetic mood Trnka created in that joyous little classic. It’s the movie 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”)

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)

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 visual consultat Roger 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 Rango score takes 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. It’s 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.  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. Extras: Filmmakers’ Commentary; Alternate Ending; Deleted scenes; Featurettes.

*Note: “Song of the Prairie” is available on DVD, along with other great 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.“)


Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Three and a Half Stars)
Thailand; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010
      “Call me Joe,”  Apichatpong Weerasethakul told me when I met him at a dinner at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and I couldn’t have guessed then that, within a few years, this trail-blazing, friendly young Thai filmmaker would have won the Cannes Palme d’Or — as he did this year with Uncle Boonmee… I’m happy for Thailand, and I’m happy for Joe, who’s now made the kind of international breakthrough Akira Kurosawa once made for Japanese cinema, Satyajit Ray made for India, Zhang Yimou for China, and Tran Anh Hung for Vietnam. He’s put his country on the cinematic map.

         “Uncle Boonmee” is a beautiful little film about what it means to die, or to watch a family member die. The central character, Boonmee (Yukantorn Mingmongkan) is a farmer in the Thai countryside, slowly failing from kidney disease. His family gathers around him. So do his ghosts, including the spirit of his dead wife and his son, who has become a “monkey ghost.” No one is too shocked or unsettled by the appearance of these spooks; they’re just another part of the family. And death, the film says quietly and touchingly, is just another part of life.

     Much of “Uncle Boonmee…” is shot at night, in the gentle enveloping dark, or in the day, in the hazy green brightness of daylight, or in a cave where the family wanders, or the church where Boonmee gets his last farewell. Before he dies, he tries to make peace with everyone, even worrying about “all the Communists” he killed for the government. Then he’s gone. So will we all pass on, and all those we love or hate or simply know.

       I don’t know that I would have voted for Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives  the Palme d‘Or.  Joe’s visual style is a little rough and hazy for me, though maybe that’s Thailand. But Joe is a devotee of the American underground (Andy Warhol, Bruce Baillie) and he’s not trying for the visual sophistication of either American mainstream movies or of a Kurosawa, a Ray, a Zhang, or even of a Tran Anh Hung. He’s trying for something simpler, purer. He’s telling his story, a Thai family’s story, a tale of life and death and how they interpenetrate each other. And as we watch, a world opens up. This is life, this is cinema. (In Thai and French, with English subtitles.) 

Extras: Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe); Deleted scenes; Trailers.

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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