Rango | The King’s Speech

Cinema reviews for March 10
Rango
Rating:

Directed by Gore Verbinski. With the voices of Johnny Depp, Timothy Olyphant, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Ned Beatty, Claudia Black, Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Ryan Hurst, Harry Dean Stanton. Written by John Logan and Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit.


Despite a family-friendly rating and the presence of quirky animated characters, including a titular chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp, Gore Verbinski´s Rango isn´t really for kids. It´s not wholly inappropriate for them, either, but this oddball Western satire, which lifts its plot from Chinatown and directly references a multitude of other films from Apocalypse Now to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, will be most appreciated by cinema-friendly older audiences.

And for us, it´s a real treat: this is a gloriously strange trip, and a rare studio animated film that reflects a true vision as opposed to a sanitized, carefully packaged product. Rango continues 2010´s boon in mainstream animation, and it´s my favorite piece of studio animation since Pixar´s Wall-E (including non-studio fare, though, that honor would go to Sylvain Chomet´s The Illusionist or Paul and Sandra Fierlinger´s My Dog Tulip.)

Rango is a pet chameleon used to the easy life, living in the beach-like confines of his terrarium and acting out plays amongst his (inanimate) friends, which include half a Barbie doll torso, a dead insect, and a windup toy fish named Mr. Timms. But when a near-accident on a stretch of Nevada desert highway sends the lizard flying from his (un)natural habitat, he´s forced to enter the real world for the first time.

The “real” world, which Rango discovers after taking a trek suggested by a roadkill armadillo (voiced by Alfred Molina), turns out to be Dirt, a stereotypical Western town inhabited by a friendly landowning lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), a greedy turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty) who´s buying up all the land during a drought, a group of mole bandits lead by Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton), and the menacing Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), amongst other Old West eccentrics.

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The anthropomorphic characters get along, to some degree, but the film doesn´t ignore real-life predator-prey relationships, either; a deadly hawk attempts to catch (and eat) Rango and the other residents, and numerous off-screen deaths occur. To compensate for the generally predictable plot, there´s the always-present existential notion that the entire film may be taking place inside the main character´s head. This ain´t your usual studio animation.

The film is strikingly, beautifully animated; it looks fantastic, despite the often-bizarre character design that sometimes threatens to alienate the audience. Rango is the first animated feature produced by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, and instantly ranks the company within the realm of Pixar.

Director Verbinski has never been short on style, from Mouse Hunt to The Mexican and his Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, but his slick, cartoonish approach has often distanced himself from the material; he´s found a perfect match in the animated realm of Rango. Working with a A-list team of collaborators, including cinematography consultant Roger Deakins and Hans Zimmer, who provides a twangy Spaghetti Western score, hasn´t hurt, either.

Bonus: bucking recent trends, this bright, vibrant piece of eye candy is presented in 2D (and only 2D); its gorgeous 2.35:1 visuals put most 3D animated fare to shame.

Note: Rango is playing in a Czech-dubbed version in most Prague cinemas, but you can catch it in English at CineStar Anděl and Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům & Nový Smíchov.

***

Rango | The King's Speech

 

The King’s Speech
Rating:

Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Claire Bloom, Andrew Havill, Jennifer Ehle, Eve Best, Roger Hammond, Anthony Andrews, Roger Parrott, Jake Hathaway. Written by David Seidler.

A sigh of relief: The King´s Speech lives up to its pedigree. Despite a potentially stuffy subject, an inexperienced director, and months of over-exposure being touted as an Oscar favorite – before finally taking home the Best Picture award, among others, last week – this is truly an excellent film.

Before he ascended to the throne, George VI aka ‘Bertie´ (Colin Firth) could hardly stand before a crowd; a debilitating stutter rendered even the shortest sentences he spoke awkward and embarrassing. With the help of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he´s gone through numerous therapists and techniques, to little avail. One last hope: unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who must first break down the barriers of royalty before he can treat his patient.

Parallel to this story is the surrounding political climate: it´s late 1930s Britain, with Hitler´s Germany about to force the the country into war. King George V (Michael Gambon) is ill, and potential successor Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) is about to give up the throne in order to marry the woman he loves. That leaves George VI and his uncontrollable stammer at the head of the country. His most important task: delivering a radio-broadcast speech that can rally his countrymen as they head into WWII

This is a great story, and like many great stories, it´s (mostly) true. The script, by David Seidler, is flawless: the story of the King and his stutter is carefully woven into its historical context, without a single word wasted. Seidler deservedly won an Oscar for his work; this was clearly a project of passion for someone who had himself overcome a stutter (he also delivered one of the more memorable acceptance speeches in recent memory).

Firth is excellent in the lead, and took home a Best Actor Oscar; his stammer is so convincing that we almost lose hope that he can overcome it (it helps that we see a natural progression here, rather than an instant turnaround for the final speech). Rush is nearly as good as the therapist, and Bonham Carter and (especially) Pearce offer solid support. Other familiar faces include Derek Jacobi as Archbishop Lang, Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, and Claire Bloom as Queen Mary.

The production, on an incredible $15 million budget, is absolutely first-rate; cinematography by Danny Cohen impeccably frames the characters, editing by Tariq Anwar keeps things constantly moving.

Director Tom Hooper worked in UK TV for a number of years, making his feature debut with the little-seen 2004 Hilary Swank-Chiwetel Ejiofor drama Red Dust before achieving some measure of success with the HBO miniseries John Adams in ‘08 and the football (soccer) biopic The Damned United in ‘09. Still, this came out of nowhere; while I´m not sure Hooper deserved the Best Director Oscar over The Social Network´s David Fincher, The King´s Speech is a remarkably well-handled and tightly-controlled film that belies the young director´s inexperience.

Is The King´s Speech a better film than Fincher´s The Social Network? One is tightly-scripted, old-fashioned and possibly more obvious entertainment that works wonderfully on more traditional levels, the other is a complex and almost omniscient masterwork that is likely to age better. I know this: they´re both great. I wouldn´t necessarily feature either among my personal favorites of 2010, however, which include the blockbuster Inception, Oscar also-rans Black Swan and The Fighter, Olivier Assayas´ Carlos and Chomet´s The Illusionist.

***

Also opening: Battle: Los Angeles (IMDb), which I haven´t (yet) had a chance to catch. Check back next week for a review.


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