I spent the past several days enjoying a vacation halfway across the country, and am consequently getting my reviews written a few days later than usual. In terms of reviewing the animated Rango, though, I'm quite grateful for the delay, because I so rarely get the chance to write about movies that I love after I've seen them a second time. Had the vacation lasted longer, I might've even gone for a third.
Since Rango is (a) yet another animated release (b) by a studio other than Pixar that (c) boasted a mostly irritating trailer showcasing all manner of (d) wisecracking animals, I'll admit that my hopes weren't terribly high from the outset. But it didn't take more than the opening image and sounds of the film's avian mariachi band (and de facto Greek chorus) to get me grinning at director Gore Verbinski's Western-flavored comic adventure. And by the time the closing credits rolled some 100 minutes later, I was less impressed than utterly flabbergasted by what a smart, hilarious, inventive, and visually and thematically rich entertainment Rango actually is.
Our titular protagonist is a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who, in the film's opening minutes, is accidentally ejected from his safe yet lonely terrarium confines and thrown into the blistering heat of the Mojave desert. Through the aid of a tenacious, Mexican-accented armadillo (Alfred Molina) and a feisty, shotgun-toting fellow lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), he arrives in Dirt, a dusty ghost town with a suspicious populace and a severe shortage of water. Self-trained in the art of improvisation, the fumbling, mild-mannered Rango convinces the animal, reptile, and amphibian townsfolk that he is, in reality, a dangerous gunslinger from out West ("the fa-a-ar West"), and as he spins his tall tales of violent escapades and that time he killed a septet of brothers with only one bullet ... .
And that's all the plot you're going to get from me, because one of the many joys of Rango - on a first viewing, at any rate - lies in how imaginatively screenwriter John Logan blends storylines, character types, and narrative conceits from so many genre classics, everything from Western mainstays such as High Noon and A Fistful of Dollars to Roman Polanski's underworld thriller Chinatown. (In one especially, if bizarrely, gratifying action sequence, an Apocalypse Now tribute segues directly into a nod to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In basic form, Rango is an archetypal good-versus-evil oater, from the play of light and shadow in the ramshackle saloon to the wide-eyed little girl (mouse) with braids who plaintively asks our hero, "Yer gonna git the water back, ain't ya?" Yet Logan - the Gladiator screenwriter whose credits aren't exactly filled with lighthearted works - has such a good time playing around with his sources of inspiration that even if you think you know where events are leading, you're routinely, delightfully confounded. (It's not long before that sweet little urchin whips out her own pair of six-shooters.)
As for the rest of Rango's joys, they should easily prove ticklish no matter how many times you see the movie. His Pirates of the Caribbeans and the underrated slapstick MouseHunt have proved that Verbinski's action-comedy staging can be wizardly, and unencumbered by three-dimensional settings and people, the director tops his previous highs with several set pieces here; Rango's two tussles with a hungry hawk and the canyon-diving bat attack are only the most memorable of the film's gloriously anarchic feats of choreography. The spectacular, occasionally horrific detail employed for the denizens of Dirt - nearly all of whom are missing an eye, an ear, a tail, or some other body part - allows you to enjoy the fascinating beauty of the characters' ugliness. And the vocal performances could hardly be bettered. Though unseen, Depp comes through with his sweetest and most unexpectedly poignant portrayal in years, but the film also boasts wonderfully eccentric, committed turns by Fisher, Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Ned Beatty (nearly as much of a bastard here as he was as Toy Story 3's hateful teddy bear Lotso), Abigail Breslin, Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton, and, in a genius-level bit, Timothy Olyphant. The actor's channeling of Clint Eastwood is so uncanny that I left my first Rango viewing convinced that I heard the genuine article.
Meanwhile, and for all the outstanding visual gags on display in the movie, it's taken considerable effort to get through this review without spoiling the best verbal jokes - especially the one involving the word "mammogram" that I can't believe the filmmakers got away with. (The movie's PG rating, I should mention, is most definitely earned, what with the violence and the frequent blurts of "hell" and "damn" and the surprise cameo by Hunter S. Thompson.) Just know that there are dozens of throwaway lines here that Woody Allen himself would've been proud to pen - many of them, such as Rango's "I'm actually one of the few males with a maiden name," sound just like lines you've heard Woody Allen characters say - and that you really haven't laughed until you've listened to the film's appendage-deprived misfits one-upping one another around a campfire. ("One time, I coughed up a whole dalmatian." "I found a human spinal cord in my fecal matter once.") Rango is a thrill to watch, but the movie may be an even bigger pleasure to listen to; it's the fall-down-funniest animated feature I've seen since 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox - maybe even 2007's The Simpsons Movie - and friends should be warned that I'll probably be quoting from it for weeks.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
The previews for The Adjustment Bureau led me to expect a quasi-sci-fi thriller in the mold of the Jason Bourne flicks, what with all those quick edits and shots of Matt Damon and a pretty woman running really, really fast. Who knew, though, that the movie was actually a quasi-sci-fi thriller in the mold of a door-slamming bedroom farce?
Based (apparently, quite loosely) on a short story by renowned author Philip K. Dick, George Nolfi's directorial debut finds Damon and Emily Blunt meeting cute (in a men's room!) and immediately falling for one another while a team of fedora-sporting angels, for unclear reasons, attempt to keep them apart, and it's about as silly as that description suggests. For the mechanics of the narrative to work, the film's heavenly messengers (among them the terrific John Slattery and Anthony Mackie) are forced to be both obtuse and inept - the plot is set in motion when Mackie falls asleep at an inopportune moment - and several details, such as the angels' inability to locate humans when they're surrounded by water, feel too convenient by half. Beyond which, Blunt's character is rather offensively drawn. Twice, the film's Fated Love is interrupted by Damon's hotshot politician either being unable or (ostensibly for her own good) refusing to contact Blunt's professional ballerina. Um ... he's a famous congressman, so what exactly is keeping this confident, forthright woman from picking up a phone and calling him?
Yet for all of its failings, the movie mostly works; it's fast-paced and breezy and of agreeably minor consequence. (Terence Stamp's sinister Head Angel warns Damon that if he doesn't stay away from Blunt, her dreams of international fame will be sacrificed for a life spent teaching ballet to six-year-olds. Horrors!) And best of all, The Adjustment Bureau's stars are absolutely magical together. From their first shared scene, Damon and Blunt banter and flirt with such happy speed and electricity that all of their dialogue sounds wholly improvised, and their matching smiles and laughs - combined with the penetrating ardor of their stares - convince you that theirs really is a pairing for the ages. By the time the two are running in and out of doorways, instantly traveling from downtown New York to the Yankee Stadium outfield to the foot of the Statue of Liberty, you might find yourself almost ridiculously caught up in whether the leads will escape their goofy predicament; how rare and welcome to land on a sci-fi work where it isn't the whiz-bang effects, but rather the stars, that take your breath away.
Director Daniel Barnz's Beastly, as you may have gleaned, is a teen-romance take on Beauty & the Beast, and you're advised to ignore the embarrassingly contrived rationale for this film's Beauty (Vanessa Hudgens) winding up a prisoner in the upscale Manhattan apartment of her Beast (Alex Pettyfer). You're also advised to ignore the almost insultingly broad opening 10 minutes, and the montages of Pettyfer sulking while sad-bastard music drones on the soundtrack. You're also advised to ignore, if you can, Pettyfer himself, who again suggests - so soon after his leading-man duties in I Am Number Four - that he might currently be Hollywood's best-looking terrible actor. (In the film, Hudgens refers to the guy as "a shot of life," and that's exactly what Alex Pettyfer isn't.) If you can endure all of that, though, you might find Beastly remarkably easy to sit through. The movie is totally inconsequential, of course, but it's fun (in a Cruel Intentions-y kind of way) to watch this classic story play out in modern locales, Hudgens proves to a be a warm, ingratiating performer even when out of her High School Musical garb, and there's some lovely supporting work by Lisa Gay Hamilton and Neil Patrick Harris, who, for those more familiar with Disney than Cocteau, basically play the talking candlestick and teapot. Plus, we're treated to an enjoyably wicked and insinuating performance by Mary-Kate Olsen as the goth witch who turns hunky Pettyfer into a scar- and boil-laden monster, but who's at least merciful enough to let him keep his six-pack abs, earning the gratitude of 12-year-old girls everywhere.