Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2011

A fistful of awesome

Gore Verbinski's masterful 'Rango' has brains, wit, charm and imagination to spare

Paramount Pictures
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: John Logan
Starring: The voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone and Timothy Olyphant
Rated PG / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Opened March 4, 2011
(out of four)

If I find myself walking out of a theatre asking myself with incredulity, "How did that movie even get made?" - chances are someone is doing something right. But that was my precise reaction after Gore Verbinski's astonishing Rango - a surrealist Spaghetti Western with an existential frame and a Chinatown plot that was neither toned down nor forced to undergo a 3D conversion cash grab.

If you're wondering how, in 2011, a 2D, surrealist Spaghetti Western with an existentialist frame and a Chinatown plot can get produced, I'm as stumped as you are - but Paramount deserves major kudos for letting it happen.

Rango is one of the most stunning animated films I've seen in, say, 15 years or so - a virtuoso display of immaculate design and history-literate cinematic sophistication, filled with the kinds of unique peculiarities that inform us this is a work of creative passion rather than focus testing.

How else would one be able to explain a film that opens with its protagonist self-reflexively pondering his own identity in the midst of a Dali-inspired, surrealist tableau before journeying into the desert to find himself, and which eventually turns into a Sergio Leone-by-way-of-noir setup in which a mysterious stranger arrives in a one-horse town to inadvertently wage battle with forces of corruption and oppression?

Rango is the rare film brimming with a specific and dynamic creative vision that manages to follow it through to the end, joyfully piling on one great detail or wrinkle after another. While Paramount surely expected to get a bit of bang for its buck when it green-lit a colorful animated film with the likes of Johnny Depp on board, it may not have expected the final result to be something sure to be appreciated better by adults than children. And appreciated even more by the cinephiles (like myself) who will take great pleasure in, for instance, the ironic wit of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference, as our protagonist chameleon (voiced by Depp) comes face to face with Raoul Duke, Dr. Gonzo and The Great Red Shark for a fleeting and hilarious moment.

But it's just that kind of careful consideration and wit and ingenuity that defines every frame of this movie. The animation department practically deserves its own Oscar for the work it put in on this movie. Just look at each character and setting and marvel at the pure visual dexterity on display - the unique and brilliant design of each and every character; the meticulous level of detail and color.

In a world dominated by the consistently great Pixar, I don't say what I'm about to say lightly - but Rango has taken animation to another level of artistry.

How many animated films have we seen lately where characters all have more or less the same look? Not here. The sheer level of effort and creative force it must have taken to make this film is mind-boggling to me. Even the more familiar ideas work well. For example, Rango attempts the same Apocalypse Now reference that every other movie does - you know, the whole Ride of the Valkyries thing - but does it in such clever fashion and with such style that it never feels gratuitous.

All this and I've barely scratched the surface of what Rango accomplishes with its story, and how that goes so perfectly hand-in-hand with the film's varying genre influences and stylistic proclivities. Our hero's existential crisis leads him to a town simply (and fittingly) named Dirt, way out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. What he sees is not just a depressed Old West town suffering the pains of a long and extended drought (or so it seems . . .), but a new beginning for himself. A chance to create his own identity. His own legend. Myth, even.

And so he takes the name of Rango, the reputation of a hardened gunfighter who once killed seven men with one bullet, and the status of local hero - and does such a convincing job of it that he's almost immediately coronated as the town's new sheriff by the blatantly odious Mayor Tortoise John (voiced by Ned Beatty).

The townsfolk have almost unflappable faith in the belief that the drought will soon come to an end - that the water will finally come to turn their daily sorrows into renewed hope. In fact, the citizens of Dirt literally worship at the feet of a towering faucet on the edge of town, believing - knowing - that on this day, finally, the flood gates will open.

But day after day, the drought continues.

Only, how does one explain the water that - according to one character, at least - is being dumped in the middle of the desert? Or the corpse found deep in the desert that was not shot, nor stabbed, nor exhausted, but drowned? (Yes, Chinatown fans, you have permission to jump out of your seat in glee, as I did. And just wait until you hear, "The future, Mr. Rango, the future!" If you weren't already, by that point you'll be head over heels in love with this movie.)

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about the rebirth of the Western - and that talk has merit, considering the last few years have given us The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, True Grit, No Country for Old Men and 3:10 to Yuma.

Well, we can add Rango to that list. Far from using the Western aesthetic as a mere backdrop, the film fully explores all the nooks and crannies of the genre, injecting its own ironic sensibilities into the Spaghetti style while at the same time utilizing it for all its dramatic force. It's positively Tarantinian.

There's so much to savor in Rango that it's hard to know where to begin or end. The dialogue ("We're experiencing a paradigm shift!" . . . "Someone's got a bad valve!"), the animation, the Lee Van Cleef-inspired Rattlesnake Jake character (voiced by Bill Nighy) . . . well, just all of it, really.

To be honest, I don't know quite where this Gore Verbinski has been. Sure, he gave us the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie . . . but then again, he also gave us the third one. A few years back he did fantastic work on the vastly overlooked and underrated The Weather Man, so I knew he had the chops. Still, I was left unprepared for the pure virtuosity on display in Rango. If all movies had even one-twentieth the imagination of this film and its creators, Hollywood would be in much better shape.

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