Sunday, March 6, 2011

With March upon us, the winter "take out the trash" season is mostly in the past and it's time to get back into the groove. I saw three new movies this weekend, all of which are worth talking about.


Our story begins with a four-bird mariachi band (!!!!) and their hilariously on-the-nose lyrics which give us a series of signposts through the story. Johnny Depp gives voice to a lizard who's spent his whole life in a dry aquarium, his only friends a plastic fish and a naked Barbie doll with no head or legs. He keeps himself amused by staging theatricals, but he seems completely unaware that his tank is in the back of a pickup truck and that said truck is moving him and the rest of his owner's belongings to presumably a new home. One severe bump in the road, however, and the tank goes flying. Soon our not-yet-Rango is taking advice from a run-over armadillo and heading out across the desert to a town called Dirt, where he is told he can find water.

What follows reminded me quite a bit of The Three Amigos, actually. Rango is a character whose entire life has revolved around making things up to keep himself amused. He's an excellent improvisor, which comes in handy in the beginning, but he hasn't had the opportunity for real life lessons, and he certainly has never been put to any kind of test as far as his bravery or moral code might be concerned.

This movie is an utter delight, with some really unique-looking and photo-real animation. It's probably not what you're expecting, and that's a very good thing. It's a western, plain and simple, and the look is very much The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (especially the creatures who are all pretty salty characters). It isn't the least bit cutesy, as you could probably tell from the ads, but what you might not know is that there's a sauciness that will sail over kids' heads and hit adults in their giggle spots. Just to give you an idea of the kind of thing the movie gets away with, in the first scene of the film, our hero makes a breast implant joke. Oh yes. This has the audacity and nudge-nudge-wink-wink that the original Shrek had, only it goes a bit farther.

Voice talent is really exceptional here, and the best part is that, except for Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy, whose voices you could not mistake if you tried, you can't really tell who's who. These aren't characters built on a particular actor's gifts, these are original characters played by actors who don't want you to know who's behind the microphone. One of the most impressive moments for me was the appearance of The Spirit of the West, which you would swear up and down is the voice of exactly who it looks like on screen but is in actuality Justified's Timothy Olyphant.

I really loved this, and I think it would appeal to most moviegoers, but especially those of you who like westerns.

The Adjustment Bureau

This was much better than I expected, mostly because of how great Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are. The concept is interesting and very sci-fi - what if our lives were designed to follow a certain plan and there were people whose job it was to make sure we stayed on that plan? Damon Lindelof (formerly of LOST fame) recently compared it to the Desmond/Penny storyline on LOST, and that's pretty accurate. I don't want to give too much away. If you've seen the trailer and the ads you know enough about the premise.

It seems weird to talk about this as if it's something revolutionary, but it was refreshing to see a movie with some actual characterization, with people in it that you care about. This is not a movie that expects us to root for people just because they're played by pretty actors and, well, we're just supposed to care. David and Elise feel like real people with real issues, and I loved that. I also loved that there was some thought behind not just *why* everyone in the "bureau" was so desperate to keep them apart, but what it was about each of them that, when put together, was bad for the other person (in the eyes of the Plan).

Some of the philosophizing was a bit ponderous at times, such as the whole speech about what happened on the two occasions that the organization stepped back and let people make their own decisions, without any adjustments. (Not to mention the fact that the premise starts to fall apart if you think about it too much.) Actor-wise, I was also disappointed by Anthony Mackie, whose heart didn't seem to be in this movie. I hope all this doesn't sound like I hated the movie, because I definitely didn't. It works very well as a romance and mostly well as a sci-fi story. Above all, it's an engaging and entertaining movie, anchored by two good performances. I was also glad to discover that there was a reason for Matt Damon to be wearing that hat in all the trailers. :P

On a more trivial note, there are loads of cameos in this from political/news figures, like Jon Stewart and Mayor Bloomberg.

I Saw the Devil

Expectations were pretty high going into this, after hearing one critic compare it to The Silence of the Lambs. Disappointment, therefore, was inevitable. This is straight up horror, and certainly not the kind most of you reading this would be into. It's even a bit too much for me, but there were elements that I did like.

Basic story. A young woman is waiting for a tow truck when she is beaten nearly to death, kidnapped, then brutally murdered by a maniac who proceeds to chop her into pieces, despite her pleas for her life and the life of her unborn child. And that's just the first ten minutes. Bad luck for our murderer that his latest victim was the daughter of a retired and venerated police chief and the fiancee of a secret agent (though not that secret, since several people in the film seem to know what he does). Secret Agent Man vows revenge, but can't bring himself to strike a fatal blow. So he catches up to the killer repeatedly, inflicts painful wounds, and repeatedly lets the killer go, swearing that he's going to keep coming and that the attacks are going to get worse.

Over the course of the story, we're supposed to be getting the impression that Secret Agent Man is becoming a monster just like the man he's hunting. But I'm afraid I just could not get behind that idea. The killer is so disgusting and abominable that I was cheering for Secret Agent Man throughout. There are some interesting notions, I suppose, about how useful revenge is and who really comes out the winner in this scenario. There's also something to be said here about the illogical nature of engaging oneself in a battle of wills with a soulless maniac who can hurt you far more effectively than you can hurt him. But the movie doesn't lean on either of those ideas as much as it does the "who's the real monster" thing. And the movie's biggest problem for me is that this question is not nearly as ambiguous as the movie would like it to be. Spoiler Alert - the serial killer is the monster. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

This movie sort of piggybacks on Chan-Wook Park's vengeance trilogy (the killer is even played by the star of Park's Oldboy), but doesn't explore the idea of revenge quite as thoughtfully, in my opinion. And while the camera work, music, and acting are all top notch, there are some things I found incredibly difficult to watch, and not in a good way. There's a "dinner" scene in particular that exploits the horror of cannibalism beyond the bounds of decency, even for shock cinema. I never thought I'd find myself longing for the delicate sensibilities of Serbian cinema.

Next week brings us another good cinematic haul - notably Jane Eyre (!), Battle: Los Angeles, and Red Riding Hood.

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