Rango may be the latest entry in an exceedingly long line of animated flicks featuring anthropomorphized animals but it’s anything but ordinary. The long-gestating brainchild of Gore Verbinski director of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and the first animated feature from Industrial Light & Magic George Lucas’ visual effects firm Rango staunchly defies many of the conventions of current mass-marketed cartoon fare. It's not in 3D; it's a family film that borrows heavily from such adult works as Chinatown and the post-modern westerns of Peckinpah and Leone; its oddball comic sensibility includes references to prostate exams and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well as the more tried-and-true potty humor; and its cast of unsightly critters isn’t likely to inspire any bestselling children’s costumes come Halloween. It's an unusual strategy but it works: Rango makes for a delightfully strange if somewhat inconsistent experience.
Much of the inspiration for Rango’s skewed spirit comes from its famously skewed star Johnny Depp who voices the title character a domesticated chameleon cast by fate into the desert to find his true identity. He eventually lands in Dirt a decrepit frontier town that’s literally dying of thirst. The townsfolk of Dirt desperately need a hero and Rango a wannabe stage actor ingratiates himself with them by bluffing his way into a job as town sheriff. But Rango is something of a coward at heart and when a real threat emerges in the form of a terrifying outlaw named Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) his lifelong habit of hiding behind false identities and just "blending in" is suddenly and devastatingly exposed.
The film's narrative is a bit jagged structured loosely around a mystery involving the sudden disappearance of Dirt's water supply and the shady machinations of the town's corrupt mayor voiced by Ned Beatty. An overabundance of characters makes matters confusing at times and some of the action set pieces including a sprawling chase scene set to Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" (a la Apocalypse Now) are breathtaking to watch but do little to advance the storyline. The jaw-droppingly vivid animation is magnificently evocative of the frontier towns of the classic westerns: its dusty distressed aesthetic dominated by brown and beige hues will make you feel grimy -- and not a little bit parched. Verbinski does tremendous work with atmospherics in Rango manipulating space and light and shadow to create an experience more immersive than even some of the better 3D-animated films.
If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.
For waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) life is pie—but that’s strictly in culinary terms not metaphorical. In fact life is anything but easy or exciting for her: She spends every day working for a boss (Lew Temple) she hates before going home to a husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) she hates even more. The lone highlight of Jenna’s day—besides seeing her only two friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) at work—comes when assembling naming and baking her town-renowned daily pie; today it’s the self-explanatory “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby” pie. To her having a baby would put on hold her dreams of winning an upcoming $25 000 pie contest which would enable her to leave Earl. Alas she finds out she is pregnant with Earl’s baby but something good comes out her trip to the OB/GYN—her new young doc from Connecticut Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). He’s different and his attitude is alien to this Southern town but he makes Jenna feel like she matters and it’s not long before she reciprocates. As her due date nears and their secretive affair progresses her confusion only grows but she finds clarity from the most unexpected source. Russell is a long way from Felicity the TV show that launched her career but sometimes escaping the pigeonhole of a character as popular as Felicity Porter takes more than mere time. It often takes a left-of-center role like this one and if Russell’s sole intention was to leave her past in the dust she succeeds—and then some. As Jenna she arouses everything from sadness to joy to tears of both leaving out the forced drama that made her a teen favorite years ago. And yet she maintains an undeniable air of well cuteness that enables her to play younger than she is in reality. Equally refreshing perpetual up-and-comer Fillion (Serenity) does a great job of making his relationship with Russell seem an unlikely one. He also displays great comedic skills which we last saw in ‘05’s Slither. Frankly there’s no good reason he’s not a leading man. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Hines about the last actress you’d pick to play a Southern waitress gives her best movie performance to date even if only by proving doubters like myself wrong. Indie vets Shelly (Factotum) and Sisto (Six Feet Under) are also impressive in their comedic and somewhat villainous roles respectively. And Andy Griffith even stops by for some memorable lines! Beneath this syrupy sweet tale of pleasantness lies a pitch-black back story: Waitress writer/director/costar Adrienne Shelly was murdered in New York City towards the end of completing her movie. The shame of that in movie terms lies not only in the fact that she will obviously never see what is her best and most accessible directing effort but also that she clearly possessed massive talent and we’ll never know where she might’ve taken it. With Waitress Shelly created a warm fuzzy and vaguely nostalgic Southern dramedy with much less emphasis on the drama. And while her characters might not be completely honest representations of the South Shelly at least steers clear of offensive stereotypes that seem to saturate today’s movies opting to make Jenna’s plight the true conflict instead of choosing the proverbial “Southern climate.” Elsewhere Shelly does virtually no wrong. Waitress is exclusively about the female point of view which is quite refreshing. Shelly’s long takes of quirky dialogue between female characters—think G-rated Tarantino—are nothing short of hilarious and although the proceedings tend to take a conventional turn you’re always caught by surprise. As the tearjerker female-empowerment ending unfolds you can’t help but wipe the smile from your face and wish Shelly were still around; film could sure use a positive shot in the arm like her right about now.
Happily N'Ever After centers on what would happen if the classic fairytales we all love didn’t have happy endings if the villains actually won out in the end. When the wizard (George Carlin)—who maintains the age-old balance between good and evil in Fairy Tale Land—goes on vacation his incompetent assistants (Andy Dick Wallace Shawn) make a mess of things opening up an opportunity for Cinderella’s evil stepmother Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) to take control and call in all the bad guys. Meanwhile Cinderella aka Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tries to get her beloved Prince Charming (Patrick Warburton) to save the day—except he is a nincompoop too. Actually the real hero is the Prince’s dishwasher Rick (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who secretly loves Ella. Not too hard to figure out how this ever after will end. Gellar and Prinze Jr. are as bland in voice as they are on screen playing the two potential lovebirds with very little enthusiasm while the “hilarious sidekicks” Dick and Shawn totally overdo it as the bumbling wizard assistants even if Dick does have a few laugh-out-loud moments. Warburton does he’s usual dumb guy routine and Carlin is completely wasted. The only one who seems to tap into her character succinctly is Weaver as the wicked Frieda. Of course playing someone evil is always more fun—especially a fairytale villainess CGI-created as a cross between Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Madonna. Weaver certainly works the look. Last year’s Hoodwinked—which took the Little Red Riding Hood tale and turned it into a CSI meets Rashomon—tried to satirize and modernize the fairytale genre. Now we have Happily N'Ever After. While their premises are indeed clever and the CGI animation crisp they fail to deliver a strong story to back up the initial idea. Happily just feels slapped together for the kiddies’ sakes with a few dull attempts at adult references. It’s not a good sign when even your kid sitting next to you starts to zone out halfway through the movie. Also the fact there are about six different animation houses and production companies attached to the project doesn’t bode well. I think it’s probably just best to keep the fairy tale spoofs to the Shrek professionals.