JULY 4th MOVIE REVIEW SPECIAL: THE LONE RANGER and THE WAY, WAY BACK
While air temperatures may be cooling down a tad for this 4th of July weekend, things are heating up at the movie theatre as some long awaited blockbusters, THE LONE RANGER and DESPICABLE ME 2, join an already crowded field of popcorn goodness which currently heralds MONSTERS UNIVERSITY with the beloved Mike and Sulley; THE HEAT - Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy hit the streets of Boston in what can easily be called a mash-up of The-Next-Chapter of “Miss Congeniality” meets “Tango & Cash” but with McCarthy winning the award as most congenial instead of the expected Bullock; and the exhilarating, action-packed, non-stop WHITE HOUSE DOWN - which once again shows us how much Roland Emmerich (the man behind “Independence Day”) likes blowing up the White House, how much he likes jokes and visuals that reference his prior works, and how someone can take yet again the entire “Die Hard” franchise and rework it into a movie that puts the White House, the President and the country in jeopardy. But let’s take an up close and personal look at THE LONE RANGER and a film that is easily one of my picks as the “Feel Good Coming-of-Age Family Film of the Year”, THE WAY, WAY BACK.
THE LONE RANGER
“Hi-Yo, Silver, Away!” And sadly, that’s what you may be doing - going away - before reaching the 2 hour 17 minute mark (plus credits) of the latest Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp vehicle, THE LONE RANGER. Over-directed by Verbinski, over-mugged by Depp and just over-the-top by Bruckheimer, Disney should have stuck to its guns when it first pulled the plug due to the film’s over-exaggerated budget.
THE LONE RANGER is a beloved part of American radio and television and by extension, the mythic history of the American Old West. John Ford would have loved making a movie about THE LONE RANGER, and should have. (Oh wait, in a way he did - “How the West Was Won”, “Stagecoach”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and the list goes on and on.) Typically, when one thinks of THE LONE RANGER, they think TV’s Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels or going farther back in time, Brace Beemer, John Todd or Roland Parker on the radio. One thinks of silver bullets, horses Silver and Scout, a masked man (“Who was that masked man?”), Kemo Sahbee, and the William Tell Overture. One does not think of THE LONE RANGER as being an at times buffoonish simp (as Verbinski has made Armie Hammer appear) or Tonto a Native American whose accent vacillates between possible Native American and a Bulgarian Count Vlad.
Written by Justin Hathye together with those “Pirates of the Caribbean” scribes, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, THE LONE RANGER is a mash-up of the worst parts of the “Pirates” franchise now set in the desert - in Utah - with Texas Rangers - and really, really, really, ugly-looking, dirt-covered, bearded folk (Personally, I think the only person in the film who knows how to bathe is Helena Bonham Carter’s madam, Red Harrington.), yet filled with some of the most beauteous cinematography to hit the big screen thanks to Bojan Bazelli and some of the most stunning natural locations in the United States - Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Rio Puerco, Fossil Point and Dead Horse Point - and hard-to-be-believed, jaw-dropping action sequences with horses, trains, cliffs, mountains, water, cavalry - you name it, it’s there!
Thankfully, Verbinski and company start with the basic premise of the Lone Ranger myth but with a little tweaking. Outlaw Bruce “Butch” Cavendish is the meanest, baddest man in the west. Wanted by every lawman across the country, Cavendish and his men ambush an eight man team of Texas Rangers hot on his trail. (Original radio serial has it a 6 man team but you’ll understand the difference with the film.) One of them, Sheriff Dan Reid, has allowed his brother John, the county’s new District Attorney, to ride along as Cavendish was his prisoner who escaped in a train-break and let’s face it, John looks a bit foolish at letting the prisoner escape a moving train.
Leaving them all for dead after the canyon shoot-out, Cavendish and his men move on. Later that night, Tonto, a Comanche Indian imprisoned on the train with Cavendish but who helped save Reid and vice-versa, stumbles onto the dead Rangers. But imagine his surprise when one, tenderfoot John Reid, is not dead. A shining white stallion (uh, Verbinski used a mare) stands vigil by his body, a sign to Tonto that this man is a Spirit Warrior - he cannot be killed. Nursing Reid back to health, it is clear to Tonto where the future for these two men lies. They must seek justice on Cavendish not only for the death of Reid’s brother (whose heart Cavendish cuts out and eats), but for what is happening to the West with the railroad, the cavalry, the Comanche and something that haunts Tonto from his past. Fashioning a black mask for the presumed dead Reid from his brother’s vest, the masked man and Tonto set out to find, and bring to justice, those that have wronged them.
As the story progresses, the plot thickens and Verbinski’s literary license and changing of history unfolds, centering around the building of the Transcontinental Railroad (an event that took place in Utah, a thousand miles away from Texas and the Rangers) and the power of brotherhood, be it by genetics, brothers in arms or as blood brothers. It is the latter plot device that gives some substance to the storyline but is never brought to the forefront, as the film instead falls to mugging and jokes that garner perhaps a snicker but never a belly laugh, and never finds a tonal balance within the story or the characters.
Moments of the film, such as the Comanche massacre, are beautifully yet brutally lensed, warranting respect for the Native American but which instead has brisk edits to a light comedic moment between Hammer’s Reid and Depp’s Tonto with dead Comanche bodies floating behind them. Tasteless? There is also much historical reference which is then tossed to the wind and then excessive cuts to Depp’s winking, grimacing, best sober Captain Jack impersonation ever. Is this a film about the beginnings of THE LONE RANGER or “Tonto’s Story”? And again, Verbinski never finds even tonal footing.
A wonderful plot device, however, is telling this story as a narrative from a very old Tonto. Now appearing as a 1933 sideshow attraction in a traveling carnival, Tonto attracts the attention of a little boy dressed as “The Masked Man” who, on appearing at “The Native Savage” exhibit sparks a questioning “Kemo Sabe?” from the believed to be Indian statue. Intercuts throughout the film of a wide-eyed wondering child are endearing and give hope that the legend of THE LONE RANGER and the Old West will live on.
As Tonto, Depp is Depp. Been there. Done that. Seen that. Phone it in. Armie Hammer’s talents as John Reid/THE LONE RANGER are vastly underused, misused but for his clear cut skills as a horseman. And yes folks, in the seminal “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!” moment, that IS Hammer rearing back in the air on Silver. A real surprise is Ruth Wilson who delivers a warm strong performance as Dan Reid’s widow (and the love of John Reid’s life), Rebecca. Scene-stealing is the unrecognizable William Fichtner, exuding evil from every pore as Butch Cavendish. Tom Wilkinson gives a respectable, albeit seemingly disgruntled, turn as greedy railroader Latham Cole. Show-stopping is an under-stated, subtle and stunning Helena Bonham Carter as the scrimshawed, peg-legged Red Harrington.
Some of the most intricately choreographed and executed action sequences I have ever witnessed on film bookend the film with palpable energy and excitement as does the signature William Tell Overture which is complimented by Hans Zimmer’s easy hand. Where no expense or detail was spared is with the stunts, horse wrangling, costuming, firearms and props. Authentic, down to the last lacing, last feather, and last silver bullet. Kudos to stunt coordinator Tommy Harper for his work, Harry Lu for his firearms techniques and costumer Penny Rose whose name I would start bandying about for Oscar consideration (along with cinematographer Bazelli). One of the real gems in this production, however, is the work of Special Effects Coordinator John Frazier and train coordinators Jim Clark, Jason Lamb and Luke Johnson who built two full size 250-pound trains and tracks leading to action that defies the laws of physics. A herculean effort that led to the best pay-offs and most fun in the film.
Will THE LONE RANGER ride again? Or just ride into the box office sunset? This weekend will tell.
THE WAY, WAY BACK
Oscar-winning screenwriters for “The Descendants”, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash now bring us the delightful and warm coming-of-age family film, THE WAY, WAY BACK. Co-written by this dynamic duo, who make their feature directing debut, Faxon and Rash head back to the beach but this time it’s the East Coast and summer vacation. Clapboarded, weathered, shingled ocean-front homes, sand and gravel, high dunes and tall sea grass. The indelible smell of the Atlantic Ocean fresh sea air, clambakes on the beach, starry nights and wooden trellis bridges from the mainland to little pockets of bayside sandy beach. So richly textured in the ambient nature of an East Coast seaside summer, one can almost smell the salt air and feel the sand and pebbles under their flip-flops or bicycle tires. Who wouldn’t want to spend the summer living this? 14-year old Duncan, that’s who.
Duncan’s divorced mom Pam is looking for love in all the wrong places, at least in Duncan’s eyes. All wide-eyed and puppy-dogged in love with Trent, Pam has agreed that she and Duncan will spend the summer with Trent and Steph, his teenage daughter from his first marriage, at Trent’s summer home on the beach. At odds with Trent from the get-go, Trent’s form of unwelcome parenting comes in the form of belittling Duncan at every turn, including forcing him to sit in the “way, way back” of his vintage station wagon, and defining everyone on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being best and 1 worst. Trent deems Duncan a 3. Wanting nothing but to escape from Trent’s over-zealous almost Nazi rule, from Day One, Duncan sets out exploring looking for breathing room but finding something even better - Water Wizz.
Run by the wise-cracking, still hasn’t grown up himself, Owen, Duncan immediately feels at home at Water Wizz. Luckily for him, Owen sees some of younger self in Duncan and takes him under his wing, giving him a job, giving him a chance at life, giving him a chance to discover himself, and maybe, just maybe, Owen can grow up a little bit, too. But let’s not overlook the rest of the Water Wizz staff who are the perfect mix of goofballs from manager Caitlyn to insecure germaphobe Lewis to girl-ogling Roddy.
Joining in the summer fun is Trent’s next door neighbor, motor mouth Betty. Never without a drink in her hand, Betty knows all, tells all and talks all the time. Immediately wanting to befriend Pam, Betty has her own two kids with whom she doesn’t connect but clearly loves - the eye-patched Peter and teenaged Susanna who, while one of the “Mean Girl” types like Steph, isn’t so underneath and takes a liking and curious interest in Duncan.
There is not a bad casting apple in the barrel with this bunch of actors, starting with the wonderful Liam James as Duncan. He has depth, texture, yet this wonderful naïve innocent coming of age that soars when showcased with AnnaSophia Robb’s Susanna and/or Sam Rockwell’s Owen. THIS is how coming of age should be - a few bumps along the way, but a good friend, some mentors and both a good and bad environment to teach one the difference between the two and to instill appreciation and eye-opening when you have something that's really, really good. And THE WAY, WAY BACK is beyond really, really good.
As Susanna, AnnaSophia Robb is darling, adorable, and sweet. You know that the 'attitude' she has when Trent and company arrive at the beach house is fake. The camera loves Robb and she knows how to use a glance, a tilt of the head to convey volumes - and does. Then put her together with Liam James and you've got summer magic. And when can anyone not love Allison Janney? As Betty, she is beyond HYSTERICAL. Where one would normally expect Toni Collette or Steve Carell to be the comedy standard bearers, Faxon and Rash change things up and hand the reins to Janney to brilliant comedic result.
Nobody can make you hate them the way Steve Carell can and as Trent, boy do you hate him. But, in order to make the story work and create the incredible bond and bridge the generations through Duncan and Rockwell's Owen, you need this harsh tone from Carell, and it works. Then toss in the insecure but loving mother, Pam, with a rock solid performance by Toni Collette and a brilliant performance from Sam Rockwell and joy and laughter and heart leap off the screen.
But talk about Rockwell. In what is one of the best performances of his career, as Owen, he is the adult who will never grow up. Owen is also the adult who knows the pain and angst of being a teenager, who remembers what it's like to want to cut mom's apron strings, who has never gotten over the first pitty pat of his heart beating for a girl or the fun of being "one of the guys", not to mention, what it feels like to laugh, smile and have fun. Kids love him. Other adults envy him - and yes, get annoyed by him and his youthful exuberance and effervescence and lack of responsibility. Every adult should have a piece of Owen in themselves. And after seeing Rockwell's performance, I can't see anyone else in the role. Rockwell delivers an emotional growth that we visibly see and feel as Owen grows up with Duncan. It's a perfect dynamic, written with truth and innocence.
This is the feel good movie of the year, casting the glow and warmth of the summer sun all year long! While formulaic and nothing we haven't seen before story-wise, what sets THE WAY, WAY BACK apart from the pack is its warmth and genuineness. There is not a false word or line of dialogue in the film. Characters are so real, so engaging that you feel like you're hanging with them, watching, listening, learning, laughing, smiling and even hurting. You hear the spokes on the bicycle as the gears turn when Duncan pedals. So honest in its creation and execution that you can't help but feel yourself riding along with him. Similarly, you feel the same disdain at sitting down to eat, hanging with adults who are getting plastered and who are behaving like they think kids behave. The emotional touchstones of each character, each scenario are all there, they are all real.
Everyone, everywhere needs to find their way back - THE WAY, WAY BACK - to youth, to fun, to carefree days gone by, to the agony and ecstasy of growing up no matter what your age, to the coming of age, to the warmth of summer sun, summer fun and summer love.