“Rango,” is sure to be remembered for the Oscars next year, at least in the Animated Film Category, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it sneaks into Best Picture. It’s almost as good at referencing the classic western genre as “Wall-E”, was at referencing classic Sci-Fi, but both films manage to tease out of adornment and not out of cynicism and simultaneously create films that are as good or as the best film in their genres. “Rango,” is as good as any western, and probably more visual and funny than most.
The story involves a lonely pet chameleon (Johnny Depp), who crosses the road and ends up in the town of Dirt, which is suffering from an unbelievable drought, and through a series of exaggerated claims and ironically lucky incidents, he becomes the new Sheriff of the town, promising to end the water shortage. The rest of the characters, are mostly western archetypes, but they’re well performed and wonderfully animated. Verbinski used kind of an unusual form of, well it's not exactly motion-capture but it's similar. Here, he gets the actors on a regular stage instead of a voiceover booth, and has them act out the entire film recording the sound, and then he use the taped footage of the actors as a reference for the animating of the footage, which was done by George Lucas’s “Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)" special effects company. It’s LMI’s first time doing a fully animated film, and it’s an impressive one. “Rango,” is filled with amazingly visual bright colors and amazing animation, and the best part, it's not in 3-D! I’d recommend the movie just at how well they got a vulture to look like Harry Dean Stanton, but the whole movie is amazing.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2011) Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
I don’t quite know if I understand what the hell happened in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” but I kind of got swept away by it anyway. Probably not since David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” have I felt like this watching a movie, where I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, and what was real, what was a figment of imagination, why does the son look like a gorilla, or is the son a ghost, or whatever was with the catfish that does something with a characters, that’s a little unusual for a catfish to do, as far as I know. Frankly, like “Mulholland Drive,” asking for an explanation is missing the point, it’s the journey that’s most important, in this case, the journey that’s ending for Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar). He’s a Thai farmer, who’s quickly dying of kidney disease. He’s being taken care of by his family and a nurse, and this is when his relatives come, some may be living, some may be ghosts, others may be spirits reincarnated as many things, including a catfish. The movie was the surprise winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year, and it’s basically split critics and audiences ever since. This is s spiritual movie, and once you stop asking questions of logic, you’ll start to, if not understand, you’ll accept that these metaphysical beings and the real world simply exist together. Sometimes, we don’t realize it, and other times, when we’re more susceptible to listening to such voices, like when Uncle Boonmee is dying, we might just listen a little more carefully. I’m not gonna pretend I understood everything, but I certainly understood enough to know I couldn’t wait to see this movie a second and third time to try and find out more. It's a beautiful and spiritually-enlightening film.
TRON (1982) Director: Steven Lisburger
I’m not quite sure why I missed “Tron,” growing up, apparently it was a big deal, ‘cause they made a sequel recently called “Tron: Legacy”. (And according to imdb.com, there's just been a greenlight on a third film) . Apparently the movie has a legacy, so I thought it might be worth watching. Considering when the movie was released, it might have been worth watching for the technical achievement it is. While I think most of it now looks like an early eighties music video for “The Cars,” it’s still impressive. My bigger problem though, and many might consider it a strength, but frankly the movie was very tunnel-vision and insular about the world of computer hacking, and this strange world that is created inside this computer, where either people getting, I don’t know if "sucked in" is the right word, they actually kinda get phased into this bizarre world, where you’re in the computer, or you’re the avatar of your gamer or something, but it’s really you, I was very confused by the entire actual sociological structure of this computer world. It might make some form of sense but I was lost by it. Most of the movie takes place in this world, and it is about the special effect, and there’s plot about a video game creator (Jeff Bridges) whose plans were stolen through this grand master computer, but I could just barely follow it, but even doing so, I couldn’t care about it. The effects are certainly amazing and memorable, but that’s about all the movie really is. It’s impressive, even today, but its not enough for a film, it's more of an interesting curiosity instead.
“A Passage to India,” eventually became David Lean’s final film, and while the film got 12 Oscar nominations, and won two, including a Supporting Actress win for Peggy Ashcroft, I’m not going to lie, I had trouble getting through this film. It’s not particularly unusual with David Lean, most of his movies are really long epics, but they also can be great epics that are some of the best films ever made. I normally pride myself on going through, about two movies a day on average, but with “A Passage to India,” it took me a few days to force way through it. Lean’s best movies are “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Great Expectations,” and “Brief Encounter.” (The latter isn’t one of his epics) “A Passage to India,” faithfully adapted from the E.M. Forster novel, is a good film, but it’s in the second tier of Lean’s work. It takes place around the time when India is about to try to regain its country from England. Adela (Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashvroft) are the ones on the passage and they the two India’s the English which is filled with typical upper class aristocracy, and the India of the Aziz (Victor Banerjee) who’s a doctor and eventually becomes a well-trusted tour guide. Eventually taking them by train to some famous nearby mountains and caverns (There’s some great scenes where Victor is hanging along the side of the moving train along the edge of a mountain, that are quite stunning, reminded me of some old Harold Lloyd films) This takes a while to set-up, and for Lean, it’s unusually slow-moving up to this point, but finally there’s an unseen incident in the mountains, and Aziz is accused, by Adela of rape, and the country is soon divided over the incident and the impending trial. I haven’t read the novel, but a lot of these scenes I found confusing; I wasn’t sure whether this incident and trial were some kind of symbolism the moving state of India-England relations, or it was simply a trial involving these particular people, and it just happen to stir up conflict and create mass public interest. It's not so much that I wasn’t completely sure, but I got the sense that Lean wasn’t completely sure, either, so it feels like a combination of both, and neither was chosen. It's certainly a good film though, and no director could show us amazing landscapes of faraway worlds the way Lean can. It’s not his best, but it’s a more than suitable last film, just be aware that you might need some extra coffee to get through it.
HAMBURGER HILL (1987) Director: John Irvin
“Hamburger Hill,” was the second movie about Vietnam made in “The Philippines,” in a two-year span. (The first being “Platoon”) and the second most noteworthy of 1987 (After “Full Metal Jacket”), and it really is mostly a movie deserving of those distinctions, it’s not as good as the other movies, well, at least not as memorable anyway. The movie’s title comes from the nickname soldiers gave a particularly had to survive hill, noted for being so much gunfire that soldiers turn into ground-up hamburger. (I wonder if the soldiers who fought there would like “Sweeney Todd”?) Strangely, the movie feels for much of it anyway, like a slice-of-life type film, almost like “The Big Chill,” or something along those lines. The soldiers go through regular drills and such, but there’s a lot of talking, bullshitting with each other, remembering, telling stories, or such. That’s probably why the movie isn’t the most memorable of the Vietnam movie, it doesn’t had audaciousness like “Apocalypse Now,” absurdity like “Full Metal Jacket,” or any metaphorical allegory like “Platoon.” It might actually be a great movie if the contrast with the battle scenes were comparable to those films, unfortunately while they’re good, they’re not as well-shot or as memorable as those aforementioned others. Outside of the war, the movie has kind of a interesting day-to-day, kind of ordinariness, that’s actually realistic to some extent, and surprising for a war movie. I’m not familiar with most of John Irvin’s filmography, so I don’t have anything to compare with it on that basis, but while this film’s flawed, it’s strangely interesting for all the kind of odd throwaway parts of the movie that he keeps in and focuses on, and not-as-much so, the war stuff however.
You ever watch a film and think its okay, but if somebody else directed it, it might be better? (Okay, you can all stop naming random Brian De Palma films now; I’m trying to make a point.) While watching Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair,” I was having that thought, but specifically I kept thinking about what Atom Egoyan might have done with this material. His work involves not simply an adult perspective on both nudity and erotica, but his films often involve playing with the linear storytelling structure, and he’s made some of my favorite films like this. (His films include, “Exotica,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Chloe,” and “Where the Truth Lies,” among many others.) That not to say that Neil Jordan is a bad filmmaker, in fact he’s quite good, most famously known for “The Crying Game,” but he’s directed numerous movies, like “Breakfast on Pluto,” “Mona Lisa,” “Michael Collins,” and most recently, “Ondine.” (Plus he’s current Emmy-nominee for “The Borgias”.) He’s made good and bad films, as has Egoyan, but his movies are best at having more linear storytelling, and his most interesting tales involving sex, usually concern sexual identity. “The End of the Affair,” begins with Henry (Stephen Rea), fearing his wife Sarah (Julianne Moore) is having an affair, and asks his writer friend Maurice (Ralph Fiennes) for advice involving hiring a private detective to follow her. Little does he know, Maurice had once been having an affair with Sarah. For a while, and it was right under Henry’s nose. Maurice thought it was love, but now, he’ s just as betrayed, if not moreso than her husband. Julianne Moore got an Oscar-nomination for her performance, and it’s a worthy nomination, she gives a strong erotic performance, but the movie itself, while there is all the nudity and sex, and WWII breaking out, and then suddenly the church comes into it at the end, can be surprisingly boring. It’s based on a famous Graham Greene novel, I haven’t read it, but I have a feeling it’s somewhat literally adapted here, which might not have been a good idea if it’s really told mostly from Maurice’s 1st person, perspective and continually jumps recalls flashback memories, the scenes are there, they’re actually shot well, but they’re almost completely lacking in context except as being retold from Maurice, either as memory or as something he’s writing in his “Diary of Hate”, as Maurice puts it. I think Egoyan would’ve known that “to hate,” usually means “to desire”.
The Italian (2007) Director: Andrey Kravchuk
“The Italian,” is a Russian film about an Italian orphan, who goes on a long journey to find his birth mother, right as he’s about to find new parents of his own. It was Russia’s entry into the Academy’s Foreign Language Oscar a couple years back and I can see why, it’s a powerful little tale, that’s not too far away from “Oliver Twist.” Kolya Spiridonov plays the kid named Vanya, and at first he’s happy at the possibility of finally getting adopted, but right after one of his friend’s found a family, his mother suddenly arrived at the orphanage looking for him. She was a little too late, and now Vanya wonders about the whereabouts of his own mother, and who she even is. It takes a while; he first has to learn to read enough so he can read his file, and then find a way to get a hold of the file which is under, guard, lock and key. From there, he hits the trains, while the people who run the orphanage begin trying to follow his tracks. He gets some help along the way, and occasionally runs into some less than reputable fellows, like I said, this is a particularly new narrative, but still a very good old narrative to follow, and it’s effective. There’s somewhat of an open-ending as to Vanya ultimate fate, but we hope he’ll be all right, and either way, he’s finally got/going to get the answers he’s looking for. Well made, well directed, well acted, and it also shows you a lot of Russia, very good film.