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.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
As Phone Booth not-so-subtly points out most folks these days spend a great deal of time on the phone--so much so that the compulsion to answer even a random ringing phone is sometimes just too hard to pass up. Such is the fate of one Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) a smooth-talking PR rep who revels in his self-serving unethical existence. He prefers to wheel and deal on his cell phone while pacing the streets of New York but uses a public phone booth for the calls he doesn't want wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) to find out about like the special one he wants to make to Pam (Katie Holmes) a wannabe actress he's trying to get in the sack. Yet on this particular afternoon the pay phone rings--and being the phone junkie he is Stu answers it. Biiiig mistake. The caller turns out to be a serial killer with a sniper rifle who tells Stu he'll be shot dead if he hangs up the phone. Of course Stu thinks it's a sick joke at first but after the sniper kills someone near the booth Stu is suddenly thrust into a hellish game of cat and mouse with the unseen gunman. Eventually the police arrive led by senior officer Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) who first mistake Stu for the crazy shooter. Soon however Ramey his team Kelly and even Pam become ensnared in the sniper's web--and only Stu can save them by digging deep into his soul and coming clean ultimately outwitting the killer at his own game.
That this is pretty much a one-man show is a given--and Farrell bears the weight of it on his shoulders quite well. The Irish actor has a certain reckless-yet-oh-so-vulnerable approach towards his craft which he uses to full benefit in Phone Booth. Stu goes from cocky bravado to gut-wrenching defenselessness in one fell swoop and even though his character's dialogue gets heavy-handed about what a schmuck he has been Farrell manages to make it all believable. As the sniper Kiefer Sutherland is menacing and sardonic as he goads Stu into his confessions but the baddie never comes off as evil as you would like him to be. Of the supporting players only Whitaker stands out as the police captain who is thankfully a lot smarter than he first appears to be. Holmes and Mitchell on the other hand have the tedious tasks of playing "the women" and neither are able to rise above their thankless parts.
Phone Booth had some difficulties making it to the big screen. Originally From Hell's Allan and Albert Hughes were attached to direct with a varying list of A-list actors attached to star at different times including Will Smith and Jim Carrey. Eventually the film fell into director Joel Schumacher's lap in 2000 and (after Carrey dropped out) he cast newcomer Farrell with whom the director had just worked in Tigerland. Twentieth Century Fox at last was able to set a November 2002 release date--but then came the horrifying real-life events last October where two snipers in the Washington D.C. area randomly killed several people and the studio decided to postpone the release due to those sensitive circumstances. Now that the film is finally coming out the wait seems to have paid off since a) Farrell has become a bona-fide star in the meantime with The Recruit and Daredevil under his belt and b) Phone Booth is just as fresh and visually stimulating as if it was made yesterday. Schumacher shot the film in 10 days because he knew he had to pull out all the stops to sell the concept of having the action revolve around one guy standing in a phone booth. The result is an excellent fast-paced film which uses a split-screen style to tell the story--and keep the movie's--and the audience's--adrenaline pumping throughout.