Sunday 25 August 2013

The Lone Ranger: A Profound Misunderstanding

I'm not hugely fond of movie critics. I think in many ways they are the least qualified people to write about movies. Certainly their wrongheadedness — or mendacity — is often more spectacular than the blockbusters they're writing about. 

And if any filmgoer is innocent enough to follow their recommendations they're likely to  miss out on some splendidly entertaining movies and waste money — and time, a lot of time— on dreadful, grisly, pretentious junk. (Norwegian Wood and Melancholia, I'm looking at you here.)

Consequently I take great delight in pointing out when the critics get it wrong. For example, in the current wave of summer popcorn flicks, the received wisdom that RED 2 or The Wolverine are duds is just plain wrong. RED 2 was delightful, brisk, non-stop entertainment and often hilarious, while The Wolverine was a classy and intelligent comic book thriller. More on The Wolverine in a posting near you.

I was hoping I could offer a similar against-the-tide defence of The Lone Ranger. And for maybe the first hour and a half of this long (149 minute) film I thought I would. Johnny Depp is immensely entertaining, the film is frequently very funny, Hans Zimmer provides a notably effective score and it is really beautifully shot. I've admired the work of director Gore Verbinski since Mouse Hunt, and he does a beautiful job here. All of the acting is of a very high standard (Ruth Wilson is particularly affecting as a widow and mother).

Unfortunately, not since Thunderbirds has a film so profoundly misunderstood the basic appeal of its subject matter. Thunderbirds was a movie about an international rescue team which involved (almost) no international rescues. The Lone Ranger is a movie about a courageous masked law enforcer who does (virtually) no courageous masked law enforcing.

Tonto gets to behave heroically. The Lone Ranger's brother gets to behave heroically. The Lone Ranger's brother's wife gets to behave heroically. Even Helena Bonham Carter as a one-legged procuress gets to behave heroically. But the Lone Ranger himself is a patsy, stooge and fall guy for virtually the entire length of the film.

The basic mistake made here is that the script sets out to rebalance the relationship of Tonto and the Ranger. By way of striking a blow for Native Americans, they depict Tonto as savvy and sussed while the Ranger is a hapless chump. And this is hilarious. Right up to the point where it fatally sabotages the film.

At last, about two hours into the movie, poor Armie Hammer is finally allowed to behave like a hero. He comes thundering in on his white horse with the full William Tell Overture blaring away magnificently. It's a great, stirring moment. But much too late.

Other problems with the film: To reinforce the Native-rights message there is a really shocking and inappropriate scene of Indian braves being slaughtered wholesale by a Gatling gun. This belongs in an entirely different movie, and does serious damage to the tone of this one.

Then there's the way the story can't decide if it has a supernatural element or not. It begins to move in that direction (carnivorous rabbits — a delightful scene) but then loses its nerve.

Finally, even on a simple action-movie level, the script falls down. It begins with a spectacular chase scene on a train. And it ends with... another spectacular chase scene on a train. I mean, come on guys. I know it's the Old West, but what about river boats, paddle wheel steamers, hot air balloons, buffalo stampedes, wagon trains...? There are other cliches to explore when looking for action material.

(Image credits: The poster with the badge on it is from Films Index. The Helena Bonham Carter poster is from Disney Dreaming. The poster of Carter, Hammer and Depp is from Roger Ebert. The posters of Ruth Wilson and Depp are both from the excellent and useful Imp Awards. The picture of Johnny Depp in his Tonto makeup and the Kirby Sattler painting ('I am Crow') on which it was based are both from Gawker.)

Sunday 11 August 2013

Screenwriters: Scott Frank and The Wolverine

These Marvel comic movies continue to surprise me. Their great strength is the quality of the writing. After years of fairly so-so films they started hiring  some superlative screenwriters who were perfect for the task. First we had Joss Whedon's outstanding Avengers, then Shane Black's Iron Man 3  (which I wrote about here) and now The Wolverine.

I had low expectations of The Wolverine. The uninspired UK poster is a dull grey creation which features a Hugh Jackman who looks like he's in acute gastric distress (see below). I only went to the movie to kill time. But I discovered that it was tight, engaging and very smartly written. And at the end, as the credits rolled, I discovered why.

The script was by Scott Frank (co-credited with Mark Bomback). Scott Frank is responsible for some of my favourite movies of all time, notably the best ever Elmore Leonard adaptations the delightful Out of Sight and Get Shorty.

Obviously other talents helped turn The Wolverine into an intelligent thriller which exceeded all expectations. James Mangold is an interesting and talented director. But I can't help thinking that the decisive contribution was the writing of the canny, resourceful Scott Frank. If you're not familiar with his work, try the Elmore Leonard movies I mentioned, plus the interesting low budget thriller The Lookout, which Frank also directed.

Three dimensional footnote: I found the 3D effects mediocre in The Wolverine (were they retrofitted to the movie?). They don't particularly lend anything to the experience, so I suggest you save some money and see it in 2D.

(Image credits: The "gastric distress" poster is from Forbes. The superior samurai-in-the-rain image (actually an animated campaign) is from Orange Co. The cute, sword wielding Rila Fukushima is from Sci-Fi Now. The Out of Sight poster is from Roger Ebert.)

Sunday 4 August 2013

Screenwriters: Shane Black & Iron Man 3

It's a bit late to comment on this particular summer blockbuster, but it's too good a film to be allowed to slip away unremarked.

I'm not a huge fan of comic book adaptations, so I sank into my seat at Iron Man 3 without high expectations. I had no idea who'd written the film, because the credits were lurking at the end of the picture. But by the time Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) advises a young boy who has been abandoned by his father, "Don't be a pussy. Fathers leave. Get over it," I knew I was in the hands of a master screenwriter.

And from there the movie gets even better. Certainly it delivered on the action set-piece front, but it was also wildly funny. Notably in the confrontation with Ben Kingsley, who plays master villain the Mandarin (renamed "the Man Darin" in the Chinese release print so as not to offend local audiences). The Kingsley sequences are priceless, but I can't tell you more without giving the game away.

Iron Man 3 is a little too long, and a little too laden with action, as is the wont of these blockbusters, but it's also terrific fun and one of the best films of the summer.

And the reason why was revealed at the end, when it turned out to be written by Shane Black (in collaboration with Drew Pearce). It was also directed by Mr Black.

Shane Black is one of the best writers in Hollywood. Originally an actor, he turned to screenplays with huge success, earning millions for scripts like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. But if you want to check out his work I recommend The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed).

Besides his Chandleresque sensibility (as evidenced by the title of Long Kiss), Shane Black's trademarks are great dialogue, violent action, strong characterisation, wild humour and truly creative use of profanity. On the subject of  great dialogue — and profanity — in the Long Kiss Goodnight the private eye Mitch (Samuel L. Jackson) chides the foul mouthed heroine Samantha (Geena Davis) on her sudden penchant for swearing: 'When we first met, you were all like "Oh phooey, I burned the darn muffins." Now, you go into a bar, ten minutes later, sailors come runnin' out."

Or this exchange, from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang where our hero small time crook Harry meets homosexual LA private detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer). Harry: "You still gay?" Gay Perry: "No, I'm hip-deep in pussy. I just liked the name so much I couldn't change it."

It's worth catching Iron Man 3 on the big screen. It's one of the few recent 3D pictures where the gimmick was effective. But even on DVD or Blu-ray, the excellent and often hilarious writing will shine through.

(Proud personal footnote. The Iron Man suit was co-built by my buddy FX wizard Lindsay MacGowan, with whom I worked on Doctor Who, back in the day.)

(Image credits: The poster featuring Downey and Paltrow is from GeekRest. The Paltrow poster is from the LA Times Hero Complex. The Ben Kingsley posters is from Flicks And Bits. The Long Kiss Goodnight is from DVD Release Dates. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is from Imp Awards. The photograph of Downey and the suit is from Buzz Feed.)