The Rear-View Mirror: Rango (2011)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Gore Verbinski has a lot to answer for.

Rango
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Taking the blood out of the barbershop

After last week’s instalment turned out quite a bit longer than expected (a bit like the wait for Max Payne 3, in fact), here is a shorter tidbit – which, apparently, should be spelled “titbit”, but that sounds too much like a snack or breakfast cereal for sex-obsessed psychopaths to me. I’ll be on holiday next week, so I’ve got a good excuse for the next post to be a couple of weeks away, but in the meantime…

I used to consider myself a Tim Burton fan. Around the time when the man made Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, his goth-romantic style clicked with me, so much so that I considered his second Batman instalment one of my favourite films. (I still have a great fondness for the movie, but I’m more aware of its flaws at this point.) Then came Mars Attacks!, a perfectly okay half-hour comedy stretched into a feature film, and Sleepy Hollow, which looked like the most gorgeous Tim Burton film ever but felt, well, hollow. Planet of the Apes didn’t have much going for it beyond the make-up and Big Fish angers me with its twee, needy sentimentalism that would give Steven Spielberg a toothache.

Fast-forward to Sweeney Todd. I am not all that much into musicals and had heard of Sondheim but didn’t know him at all. The trailer and stills for Sweeney Todd looked like Sleepy Hollow all over – more so, in fact, with the film’s production design being so Tim Burton, it felt like someone had taken his earlier films, boiled them into a thick, black ooze and used this to paint the sets. When I saw the film at the cinema, mostly for old time’s sake, I was surprised that despite the ultra-Burton look the direction felt… more adult, I’d have to call it. Less of the cartoon exaggeration that Burton had fallen to (and would return to in later films). Even Johnny Depp looked like he was acting rather than simply doing his Depp/Burton spiel.

I’ve just recently rewatched Sweeney Todd, after catching it on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I still consider it to be one of the better of Burton’s recent films, perhaps even the best – yet it is held back by the director’s visual style. Sondheim’s play, for want of a better word, has a certain meatiness. There is a charnelhouse vitality to it, yet in spite of the gallons of gore Burton’s visuals are bloodless. They are designed within an inch of their life. More than that, they make Todd and his accomplice-paramour Mrs. Lovett one of a kind, a sort of Goth His’n’Hers, which hurts especially the pie maker’s characterisation. It’s a shame, really: while I think that Sweeney Todd is proof that Burton still has talent and doesn’t just imitate himself, he also keeps the film from being as good as it could be. And, frankly, while I used to love the typical Burton look, by now it feels less like a style and more like a brand. Predictable, safe, and not a little boring.

P.S.: You know who’d make a very effective Sweeney Todd? Mark Strong. Unfortunately the poor man is typecast and only plays sweet, loveable good guys.

P.P.S.: YouTube is acting up, so instead I went to Vimeo, not expecting to find anything much… except it looks like someone uploaded the entirety of Tim Burton’s film, with Spanish subtitles. Weird, huh? And probably more than just a little legally iffy… Still, while it’s up it’s up, eh?

http://vimeo.com/26811104

You know, for kids!

Alice in Wonderland (and its sort-of-sequel, Through the Looking Glass) is an odd book, and my memory of it is just as odd. I can remember liking it, but when I try to remember the book, what comes to mind is John Tenniel’s illustrations, images from the Disney movie, scenes from Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist dream/nightmare – or, more recently, American McGee’s Alice with its twisted, dark Wonderland and music by Chris Vrenna.

Anything, but not the actual Alice in Wonderland. The original has become a sort of collection of memes: the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Jabberwocky. It’s a hypotext whose influence throughout literature, cinema, comic books, video games etc. is strong, but Alice itself has become distorted and murky behind all the copies, pastiches and parodies.

Tim Burton’s most recent film is called Alice in Wonderland, but it’s less of a direct adaptation than a hodgepodge of half-digested ideas and images from over 100 years of Aliceology. Like most of Burton’s films, it looks gorgeous, but like too many of his recent movies it feels like warmed-over Burton, down to the Danny Elfman score. The visuals are admittedly cool (and I have to admit that I watched the film on a BA transatlantic flight – small, fuzzy screens aren’t the best way to appreciate a Tim Burton film), with some fantastic character design, but the plot is predictable, the dialogues leaden and most of the acting vanishes behind the CGI. It’s as if Burton was given a beautifully surreal world but basically decided to tell Generic Fantasy Story X in this world. Despotic ruler, check. Chosen one, check. Needs to discover her powers and believe in herself, check. Special blade, check.

It’s a shame that such a creative, talented cast and crew could have come up with something that combines Lewis Carroll’s original story and Tim Burton’s sensitivities in weird and wonderful ways – but Burton’s sensitivities at this point seem to be a pale shadow of his earlier creativity. Worst of all, the man seems to have gotten old the way that Steven Spielberg has gotten old, meaning that in creating something that should burst with childlike energy and wonder, he’s come up with something that feels like a director in a midlife-crisis trying to pander to what he thinks is youthful and energetic. The worst example of this is the dreadful dance the Mad Hatter does towards the end of the film: even Johnny Depp with his considerable talent and charm can’t make it into anything other than an awkward attempt by the film to be ‘cool’ and contemporary.

Anyway, enough about Alice in Wonderland. I may get back to my 12 hours of blurry free films at a later date, but for now I want to leave you with this strange, strange video telling the Complete History of the Soviet Union through the lens of Tetris:

A hellish slice of throat for the gentleman?

It’s been a while since I really liked a Tim Burton movie. Sleepy Hollow looked great, but I felt that the romantic subplot between Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci was tacked on, and largely as a result the film felt mean-spirited to me. Mars Attacks! was half an hour of great over-the-top black comedy padded to an indecent extent with boring SFX bits and cameos. Planet of the Apes was, well, Planet of the Apes. Big Fish annoyed me more than most movies I’ve seen in the past few years; it was aggressively sentimental and the old guy simply angered me with his chronic need to be the centre of attention. (If I’d been the Billy Crudup character, I would have suffocated Daddy Dearest with a pillow ten minutes into the movie.) Corpse Bride was okay and nicely done, but it was no Nightmare before Christmas – the characters were flatter, the music less memorable, and the bits that were best felt like rehashed bits of Halloween Town.

 As I wrote recently, I enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory quite a bit, but it’s not the sort of film that I’d need to see more than once. All in all, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sweeney Todd, since I’d heard mixed things. I’m not the greatest fan of musicals (even though I keep finding myself wanting to rewatch “Once More, With Feelings”), and I wasn’t sure whether anything new or interesting would come out of Tim Burton working with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter yet again.

They’re my friends…!

We sat in the very front row at the cinema, since all the other seats were already taken. Not the best starting point for an enjoyable evening at the cinema (and I’d rather not tell you about the Mexican restaurant beforehand… I may very well have woken tonight, screaming the lyrics of that horrible Latin-y Happy Birthday song they played at top volume).

I think I was riveted about two minutes into the film. Like Sleepy Hollow, the atmosphere was great – the film was one of those that you should be able to frame and hang on the wall. But unlike that throat-wounding movie, this one had better writing and, accordingly, better, more believable characters. While the film was visibly artificial, it didn’t feel fake like many of Burton’s worlds tend to do. And the emotions on the screen felt more… well, more grown up, for want of a better term. There’s something very child-like (sometimes indeed childish) to many of Burton’s works, and in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood it works quite well, but it was getting tired and stale. By comparison, this film felt like Jacobean revenge tragedy – bloody, passionate, alive and raw.

P.S.: It’s a shame that Anthony Head (yes, I squeaked “It’s Giles!” at the cinema) didn’t get to do more on screen. Apparently he recorded some songs, but they didn’t make it into the final version of the film.

P.P.S.: For the first time, in this movie I saw why some people think Neil Gaiman and Alan Rickman look alike. When the latter doesn’t do his patented “Where are ze fucking detonators?” sneer, he does look and even sound a bit like Mr. Sandman.

Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.