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THE LONE RANGER (2013), OR, THE CONTINUING PARODY THAT IS JOHNNY DEPP

Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies—as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Bogart did not try to defend his own contribution to slipshod productions: “I have made more lousy movies than actor in history.” That statement was a slight exaggeration, but at least Bogart did not go the route of Johnny Depp’s recent insinuation that there is a critical conspiracy to see The Lone Ranger (2013) fail. For the producers’ sake Depp should indeed promote such an expensive endeavor, even if he himself does not like the finished product. However, Depp’s aggressive defense against the overwhelming critical consensus is an incredulous and depressing parody by an artist long dead.

Depp was indeed an artist once, careful about the roles he appeared in. His body of work revealed an actor whose choices were guided by love of challenge and exploration, as opposed to box office appeal. His collaboration with the young  seemed an ideal pairing of two pop revolutionaries. Unfortunately, that ideal climaxed with Ed Wood (1994). Since then, both Burton and Depp have come to personify the Hollywood Sell-Out. Both were ruined by their work with the imposter company now claiming to be Disney Studios. Depp, it seems, can no longer distinguish a good script from a bad script; or, most likely, he no longer cares. He has gone the opposite route of an actor like Burt Lancaster. Once Lancaster achieved a degree of mainstream success, he began to seek out roles that transformed his late body of work into something approaching incandescence. In sharp contrast, Depp has become increasingly vapid. Tellingly, Depp’s “other” big collaboration is with a Disney director (Gore Verbinski) who birthed an entire franchise from a theme park ride. For the studio, that is a steep decline from classics as innovative as Pinocchio (1940), artistically risky as Fantasia (1940), or as exquisitely organic as Dumbo (1941). For Depp, this amounts to the polyurethane varnish on the caricature he has become. In place of Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan, William Blake, Raoul Duke or Cesar, we are witness to a fossilized Depp encased in his own career avarice. While he has certainly surpassed his monetary goals, that success will prove to be the derailing of a once admirable oeuvre. Depp’s fan base, naturally, remains in denial.

The Lone Ranger (2013) is yet another example of cinematic postmodern arrogance. Of course, we need not put a B level pulp character that was probably most interesting during the days of radio on a pedestal. A few of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels movies and TV shows were moderately entertaining, albeit as products of their time. Yet, Verbinski, Depp and the film’s plethora of screenwriters serve up a thoroughly unentertaining mess. Erroneously thinking themselves clever and hip deconstructionists of naïve filmmakers past, their idea of entertainment amounts to an early heart-eating scene, and the protagonist being dragged through a pile of horse excrement. Amazingly, it goes downhill from there.

Still from The Lone Ranger (2013)True to postmodern tenets, the film borrows from virtually everything and never finds its own identity. It makes the classic “haven’t we learned yet?” mistake of casting a white man in the role of a Native American. It’s akin to Al Jolson slapping on blackface. Predictably, the filmmakers take the PC route of making the white man look dumb, while a white man is passing for an Indian. This is merely one of the movie’s numerous hypocrisies.

The movie weaves Anti-American sentiment throughout, manifested in the portrayal of silver-hoarding executives of the train company. It could have played out as a well-deserved sentiment if the film itself had not echoed the gluttonous white shareholders. Dumbed-down crude jokes and loud explosions saturate the excessive second half.

Oh, and I did forget to mention Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger himself? That’s rather easy to do, since he has no charisma. Worse, he has no chemistry with Depp’s Tonto. Predictably, Tonto is the main character, which is problematic when he is nothing more than an eccentric buffoon. Alas, there is not a single, likable character. The Lone Ranger himself is reduced to a clueless representative of naïve patriotism, shorn of morals (he only saves Tonto’s life because he needs the Indian’s assistance). His “creed” is a law book, which he attempts to adhere to in the face of surrounding ignorant religiosity (Western Christianity and Native American spirituality are treated with equal contempt).  (Mrs. Tim Burton) shows up for a cameo, which should have been (and is) a bad omen. She is a whore with a gun hidden in a peg leg, but still manages to make the character dull. Only the horse, Silver, has an iota of personality, but even he is not spared belching jokes.

By the time we hear Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” we are too numb and too tired to care. The movie opens and ends (2 and a half hours later!) with a Little Big Man (1970) rip-off. It was the first and last item from the kitchen sink.

In my review of Man of Steel (2013) I referred to that movie as postmodernism at its worst. I stand corrected.

SUPERMAN ON SCREEN, AND MAN OF STEEL (2013)

Superman should have kept his underwear on.

Despite his status as the oldest, most iconic comic book character, few seem to be able to do Superman justice when it comes to the big screen. Internet buzz among the DC fan base revealed a high level of anticipation for Man of Steel (2013). It had disaster written all over it before the project even started. It would seem obvious to anyone except film executives: co-writer and producer  has a reputation for excruciatingly complicated narrative, which promised to be a case of oil meets water for a very simple, very old, and very well-known story. This was the first bad sign. The second, even more predictable omen of failure was in the choice of hack director . His one-dimensional 300 (2007) was a new, crude lesson in soulless, video game stylized juvenilia. Sucker Punch (2011) actually strove to be even worse and, incredibly enough, succeeded.

Still from Man of Steel (2013)There have been only two solid cinematic treatments of this solemn American myth: Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and Superman II (1980). Superman and the Mole Men depicted Superman in exactly the way he is supposed to be, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He’s a barrel-chested, steadfast believer and proponent of Truth, Justice and the American Way even in the face of social bigotries. (Though he had a lighter side, too; Superman was probably at his zaniest, funniest and most surreal in Jack Kirby’s spinoff “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen”). It works, despite the film’s being undeniably dated, and despite the threadbare budget which resulted in clunky makeup and special effects (such as a souped up vacuum cleaner subbing for a ray gun). It is in Superman’s very first feature film that the filmmakers (a ragtag team of assignment types, including director Lee Shalom, who went onto work in television) captured the rudimentary essence of a decidedly unpretentious character. Preceding the Man of Steel’s first feature were the art deco Fleischer Brothers animated shorts (1941-1943), the noirish radio show “The Adventures of Superman” (1940-1951, starring Bud Collyer as the voice of Superman) and two 1950 theatrical serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (both starring Kirk Alyn). All of these productions were true in spirit to the original “Superman magazine.”

The first season of the televisions series “The Adventures of Superman” (1953-1958) continued the edgy noir flavor of the radio show from which it took its name. Like Superman and the Mole Men, the series starred George Reeves as the quintessential Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as the equally quintessential, feisty Lois Lane. Possessing virtuous fire, Coates’ Lane still has not been surpassed. Unfortunately, the show’s producers, believing virtuousness was not compatible with fire, decided the way to make the show more “kid friendly” was to replace Coates with the hopelessly “Leave it to Beaver”-styled virgin Noel Neill. That wasn’t the only change. While the second season did have a few good episodes, the Continue reading SUPERMAN ON SCREEN, AND MAN OF STEEL (2013)

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Johnny Depp, the head of , , voices of Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee

PLOT:  About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].

Still from Alice in Wonderland (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.

COMMENTSAlice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting.  The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads.  Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious.  But the story—ouch!  Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever.  In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day.  The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy.  But who cares about such details?  They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”).  We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords.  Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls.  Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale.  Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar.  The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party.  But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues.  It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle.  I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash.  Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario.  It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget.  Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.

To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations.  Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story.  His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did.  The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles.  If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…neither is [Burton’s] Alice, sad to report, in the least bit lysergic. On the contrary, the movie is positively sober in its positive image projection and concern with itself as a business model. Like more than one recent movie, Alice seems a trailer for a Wonderland computer game—and it is. The final battle is clearly designed for gaming.”–J. Hobermann, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

DIRECTED BY:  George Miller, George Ogilvie

FEATURING: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner

PLOT:  Loner and reluctant hero Mad Max wanders out of the desert and into a crossroads of post-apocalyptic vice known as Bartertown, and later discovers a colony of innocent children in a peaceful oasis who believe him to be a messiah.

Still from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If costuming alone could earn a film a place on the list of the 366 weirdest films of all time, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s raggedy punk centurions and Tina Turner’s post-aerobic post-apocalyptic fashions would easily qualify it.  Thunderdome is also the weirdest of the Mad Max series because of its emphasis on new post-civilization rituals: for example, the bizarre legal system of Bartertown, administered by a philosophical hunchback Magistrate of Ceremonies, where tort disputes are resolved by gladiatorial battles and a breach of contract results in a random punishment spun from a wheel of fortune.  But, even though Thunderdome is the oddest of the trilogy, it’s still basically just a creative Western dressed up with sci-fi trappings; it’s weird by summer blockbuster standards, but fails to sneak across the mass appeal genre-piece border.

COMMENTS:  The “Mad Max” series was the most inventive sci-fi/action hybrid of the 1980s, one which sparked a brief but fun post-apocalyptic cycle (which produced a few genuinely weird low-budget Mad Max knockoffs).  Each Mad Max film inhabited the same fascinating universe, a world of scarce resources, shaky alliances, and dying machines held together with spit and twine, but each was very different in tone.  All are recommended.  The original Mad Max was a dark, character-driven revenge drama that gained a cult following.  Mad Max 2, more commonly known as The Road Warrior, was a rollicking action piece that caught lightning in a bottle and inspired Hollywood to pump money into a sequel.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was… well, it was what happens when the series gets a big head and tries to be a summer blockbuster.  The Tina Turner pop song that plays over the opening credits is shamelessly anachronistic and completely inappropriate for a Max movie, but it sets the tone of confused priorities that defines Thunderdome.  The movie flits uncomfortably between the exaggerated, radioactive Casablanca of Bartertown and the brave new Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan world of the children’s tribe.  It’s also a movie that recycles and steals from other movies.  Popular elements from the Road Warrior are reused here.  The feral child has been transformed into an horde of tribal ragamuffins, Bruce Spence from Warrior reappears as a pilot (the character may be the same one from the previous movie; it’s never explained), and the finale is a shameless remake of Warrior‘s climax with a train substituting for the tanker.  There are also blatant references to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and the children’s mangled language (“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”) is reminiscent of the made-up nasdat cant of A Clockwork Orange.  Maybe this reusing of old bits and pieces is appropriate in a movie about an emerging society being built on the ruins of another.  The overall effect is a movie that’s jumbled and uncentered, more than a bit loopy, but still lots of fun.  That overall goofiness, combined with the unique ramshackle look of the punk-barbarian world nearly, but not quite, tilts Thunderdome into the weird zone.

Rumors of a fourth Max movie have been circulating for over twenty years now, and continue as strong as ever.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE LAND OF THE LOST (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny McBride

PLOT:  Obnoxious scientist Rick Marshall discovers a way to go “sideways” in time to a world of dinosaurs, ape men, and lizard-like sleestaks in this science fantasy comedy.

landofthelost
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s quite a challenge to adapt a 1970s television show about a family lost in a world of dinosaurs and alien creatures and not make it come off as too weird for mainstream audiences, but Brad Siberling managed this feat.  Other than a narcotic-induced group hallucination involving an exploding crab, the only truly weird thing about this critical flop is that the producers chose to reimagine a crazy cult kids’ show as a standard comedy to accommodate the talents of star Will Ferrell, thereby thumbing their noses at the potentially lucrative nostalgia market.

COMMENTSThe Land of the Lost is a sloppily crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment.  The jokes, frequently involving dinosaur pee and poop, are unimaginative and clearly aimed at middle school boys.  The plot is too episodic, with the stranded travelers wandering from set piece to set piece instead of creating tension and forward momentum in their quest to find the lost “tachyon amplifier” and return to their own world.  The script is awful, with minimal regard for logic or internal consistency: we get a doctoral candidate who is inexplicably able to translate alien ape tongues simply because it’s easier than thinking up a clever way to communicate by pantomime.  Antagonists disappear, without being dispatched, when they’re no longer needed.  It’s lazy screenwriting that screams “Will Ferrell’s signed, we’ve already made a fortune off this thing.  Let’s just grind out five acceptable punchlines for the trailer, knock off early and get this check deposited.”  The supporting characters are bland, but the biggest problem with the movie is with Will Ferrell’s Dr. Marshall.  He’s arrogant, dim, easily annoyed, weak-willed and vindictive, and there’s no reason for the audience to root for him.  Of course, by the middle of the film he undergoes standard-issue “character growth,” consisting of a speech on how he’s decided to mend his ways.  Now, we are now supposed to approve when he gets the girl, even though he’s still the same jerk he always was.  Yet, despite all these faults, Land of the Lost is actually not an irredeemably terrible movie.  It’s tolerable, in that insidious way Hollywood has of taking mediocre ingredients and making them palatable by pumping up the pace, throwing in a little spectacle, and focusing on pretty faces roaming around in pretty places.  The sets are imaginative and interesting, often consisting of stray junk (like an ice cream truck and a filled motel pool) that’s been sucked through a wormhole and plopped into the wilderness.  The action sequences are kinetic, if nonsensical at times.  Ferrell’s character and the script’s disregard for logic are annoying—the movie seems to taunt you with its lack of craftsmanship—but Land of the Lost is never boring, and it will play fine for its intended audience of tween boys.

Going in to the movie, I knew it would be bad; I was hoping it would be a delightfully huge bomb, which can make for a fun time, rather than the forgettable attempt it turned out to be.  By design, summer blockbusters marketed to mass audiences have little weird potential, but I felt obliged to check it out due to sprinkled quotes like the one from Eric Snider (below) and these others: “surprisingly bizarre” (N.V. Cooper, “E” Online), “[a]lways weird” (Todd Maurstad, The Dallas Morning News), “[t]his is one very weird movie” (Joanna Langfield),  “aggressively weird” (Brian Juergens), “incredibly strange experience” (Edward Douglas),  “too damn bizarre to hate” (Luke Thompson).  That sounds like a lot of votes for weird, but to put things in perspective, out of dozens and dozens of reviews, about the same number of critics thought the film was “funny.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oh, what a weird movie this is… a wildly bizarre and frequently hilarious adventure that appears to be whacked-out by design, not out of sloppiness.”–Eric D. Snider, Film.com