Saturday, March 19, 2011

Two Recent Movies: Rango and The Adjustment Bureau

Rango is a delightful psychedelic comic western that plays with genre tropes creatively and successfully.  Johnny Depp somehow comes to embody his digital alter ego completely, creating one of the most distinctive vocal performances from identifiable star since Robin Williams in Aladdin.  The movie manages to reference dozens of other film classics--from Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy to High Noon to The Searchers to Star Wars to Apocalypse Now to Chinatown--yet it remains its own distinct beast.  Its references and parodies are more classic and creative than the pop culture jokes of the average Dreamworks movie, so it feels less bound to one time and place and more timeless--like Blazing Saddles rather than Scary Movie.  (A scene involving gophers flying on bats through a desert canyon to the heric strains of Ride of the Valkyries played on banjos is a highlight.)  The colors and textures and details are all beautifully done, and the action scenes are absurdly complicated and exciting, reminiscent of director Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  In fact, the whole film clearly displays the same sensibility that made that trilogy so off-the-wall hilarious and exhilarating, but without the overly long and convoluted plots that started to make those go stale.  Rango may lack a little bit itself in the pacing/structure departments--it could use a bit more logic and character development in order to increase our emotional connection with it all--but it makes up for it by doing so many things we haven't seen before.  An excellent film for the whole family.

Rating: 8/10 stars

The Adjustment Bureau is a light, clever, exciting thriller that satisfies in both the entertainment and the emotion departments.  The plot follows Matt Damon, a rising star politician, as he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman, but is then pulled apart from her by mysterious forces who claim to control every aspect of the world, keeping everything on plan behind the scenes.  This premise may seem similar to The Matrix, 12 Monkeys, and Dark City, and it is, but the way it plays out is original enough that these similarities cease to matter.  This conceptual hook has many potential philosophical implications, but the movie doesn't really want to get into these.  It throws a couple ideas out there, but mostly it just wants to define its world well enough for the plot to work, and if we judge them only by this, the ideas work quite well.  Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau doesn't try to engage with murky ambiguities in the way of other Dick adaptations such as Blade Runner, and because of this is always seems a bit too pat and easy, but it's probably a good thing first-time director George Nolfi didn't try to make the film do too much.  Spielberg attempted both thrills and philosophy with another Dick adaptation, Minority Report, and ended up with an uneven film which couldn't really deliver either.  There is only one point when The Adjustment Bureau really seems to insult our intelligence:  When one of the higher-ups at the Bureau describes their interventions in history, and reveals the screenwriter's utter ignorance of anything outside Western history and willingness to impose general morals onto entire historical eras in completely silly ways that made me roll my eyes and grumble.  Fortunately his lecture was over soon.

The rest of the film works surprisingly well, and proves to have quite a script (also by Nolfi, who previously wrote The Bourne Ultimatum).  It moves quickly, but is also willing to take surprising risks in its narrative, leaping ahead periods of months and years more than once.  The film has a pleasing retro style, filled with fedoras and trench coats, but playing out mostly in the day in downtown Manhattan, with plenty of shiny surfaces and good-looking people.  Nolfi also knows how to construct a chase scene, and there are several here which are just darned fun, especially with the clever ways Damon has to go about dodging the supernaturally gifted Bureau members.  Indeed, much of the film's fun is watching as Damon sets out to outsmart them, figuring out their rules and exploiting loopholes ot get back to his girl.  Ultimately, though, it all comes down to the fact that I liked both Damon and Emily Blunt, and wanted them to end up together.  There cause was worthwhile in my mind, and because of that I was willing to go along for the ride and be satisfied with the ending.

Rating: 7/10 stars

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