Wednesday 12 February 2014

Letterboxd: THE LONE RANGER (2013); ROOM 237 (2013); ELYSIUM (2013)

Wednesday 12 February 2014
★★★½ (out of five)

The PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN "dream team" reassemble for another attempt to transform iffy source material into box-office gold, despite most modern Westerns not clicking with mass audiences.

Many of POTC's ingredients are present and correct, because this film shares a director (Gore Verbinski), producer (Jerry Bruckheimer), studio (Disney), writers (Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio), and a leading actor (Johnny Depp). It has a similar energy and dark sense of humour, too, particularly in the inspired set-pieces, while Depp again tries to steal the spotlight as "sidekick" (which, lest we forget, is broadly what Captain Sparrow was intended as).

Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed THE LONE RANGER (bloated and all) because it succeeded in turning an archaic radio/TV series into something thrilling and witty, at times, it's also clear where its many shortcomings lie.

I thought the fact it's based on a franchise nobody cares about would do the film egregious harm, but it was more a problem for the marketing department. The way THE LONE RANGER is updated and tweaked to appeal to 21st-century movie-goers is very well done, although I wonder if the makers regret not emphasising the film's loose supernatural element (which dissolves, like all superstitions, when reason comes into play)? POTC rejuvenated the "pirate movie" by merging swashbuckling with spooks, so maybe audiences would have responded better with a similar high-concept hook (getting them past the antiquated feelings a "masked cowboy and his Indian sidekick" inspire).

It's also true that THE LONE RANGER's romantic angle is a complete non-starter, as Ruth Wilson (LUTHER) has a strangely limited role and doesn't even share the screen with Armie Hammer's Ranger very much—whose character, in turn, doesn't like the idea of becoming romantically entangled with her anyway, because she's his brother's widow. It was a brave move to cast an actress like Wilson and to craft a platonic dynamic of in-laws, but would audiences have preferred a more traditional situation? An Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley kind of deal? Probably.

The villain also became an issue; because hair-lipped cannibal Butch Cavendish, played by the fantastic William Fichtner (HEAT), is introduced in a novel way, earns his bad guy stripes with aplomb, then gains a sense of creepy mystery because Tonto believes he's a 'Wendigo' spirit... but then, rather bizarrely, other factors ruin him. Butch loses his mystique halfway through, and the excitement of the Ranger's quest to arrest the man who murdered his sibling just dissipates.

Maybe that's the biggest annoyance with THE LONE RANGER: for every genuinely rousing, clever and amusing idea, there's something else sucking the life out of things down the track. It ends up being a movie of missed opportunities, but at least it's one with memorable action set-pieces (Verbinski's a maestro when it comes to orchestrating grand havoc like clockwork), and an appreciable level of grotesqueness (heart-eating, a transvestite bandit, a one-legged whore, a framing device with a decrepit Tonto as a 1933 carnival attraction).

Overall, I can understand why THE LONE RANGER didn't connect with audiences from a promotional angle, but it's the kind of movie that will likely develop a cult following through word-of-mouth; even if said word is of the somewhat patronising "it's not as bad as you think" variety.

I'm actually a little sad there won't be another adventure for the do-gooder Lone Ranger and saturnine Tonto (feeding a dead crow stuck to his head), but considering how the POTC movies declined after the first one became a smash-hit, maybe it's for the best to leave LONE RANGER as a crazy misfire with merits.

★ (out of five)

I expected a documentary that opened intellectual doors on one of my favourite films, THE SHINING, and instead I got 1 hour 38 minutes of frankly embarrassing theories and, to be frank, utter bollocks. There's no doubt that Stanley Kubrick was a genius, and THE SHINING is certainly a movie that has subtext and perhaps some hidden themes (a few of which are touched upon, like its omnipresent Native Indian symbolism), but the people who expound on the film in ROOM 237 are for the most part insane. It's perhaps intentional they're never identified beyond names, as it wouldn't surprise me to be told they're lunatics operating on the fringes of film criticism.

Jack Nicholson's hairline resembles Hitler's moustache in a photograph. The silhouette of a skier on a poster looks like a Minotaur (it doesn't). The number 237 is a reference to the distance from the Earth to the Moon (um, it's actually 229,000 miles). There's an "impossible window" that clearly can't be a production gaffe, oh no. Mr Ullman's letter tray briefly looks like an erect penis when he stands to shake Jack Nicholson's hand. Kubrick superimposed his own face into some clouds (not that I can see). You get the idea. This might have been a hilarious documentary about how obsessive fans "see what they want to see", but the frightening thing is I have a feeling it's being serious. So it becomes monumentally dull and actually quite insulting after about 40 minutes.

Sure, there are a few observations that made me think – like exactly why Jack Nicholson's reading Playgirl magazine in one scene, or how the Overlook Hotel's carpet design changes during the scene where Danny is rolled a ball by an unseen presence. But, you know what, Jack was probably just being mischievous that day of shooting, and Kubrick made a mistake in editing with the carpeting. That's actually more likely than the ridiculous leaps of thinking ROOM 237's contributors make.

This film actually made me angry, because THE SHINING is definitely a film open to some deep analysis, but all ROOM 237 delivers is the insane dribble of people too scared to actually appear on camera, or let us know what their professional background is. Why should I even listen to what these people have to say? Their arguments are unconvincing and ludicrous to hear.

★★ (out of five)

Neill Blomkamp's DISTRICT 9 was a breathe of fresh air, but his overdue follow-up ELYSIUM suggests he only has one creative puff in his lungs. I'm sure that's not going to be proven true over time; so perhaps Blomkamp just needed an early misfire like this, in order to ensure it never happens again.

It doesn't help that ELYSIUM revolves around a hoary science-fiction concept; of the haves and have-nots. It's 2154 and the Earth's wealthiest people have abandoned the overpopulated planet to create an idyllic space-station known as Elysium. It's a gorgeous spinning wheel of swimming pools and green lawns, where everyone pretentiously speaks French (sometimes), while enjoying free health care in special high-tech booths that can eradicate cancer, fix broken bones, and reconstruct facial disfigurements. Down on Earth, it looks a lot like the shanty-town districts of Johannesburg from DISTRICT 9; all ageing future-tech, squalid ghettos, and MAD MAX vehicles.

Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, a parolee working in an L.A assembly line, who finds himself given five days to live after an industrial accident. Now with nothing to lose, compelled by a childhood dream to visit Elysium (also a nun told him he'd be "special"), Max gets himself implanted with an exoskeleton (to even the odds against law-enforcing robots that control the human workforce), and attempts to sneak aboard Elysium to cure his condition.

Superficially, ELYSIUM is a treat for the eyes—and yet it's so close to the aesthetic of DISTRICT 9 that it actually feels a little regressive. It's fine for directors to have a particular eye, but I hope everything Blomkamp delivers isn't going to variations on this HALO-esque begrimed future. Unfortunately, fantastic visual effects only keep you interested for awhile, as the storyline quickly grows tiresome because it's something we've seen a thousand times before in various guises. You know exactly how this thing's going to play out from beginning to end, and the script unfortunately spends it times whacking you over the head with unsubtle allusions to "our world" (homeland security, border patrols, national health services, etc.) Science fiction's at its best when it's commenting on real issues, of course, but DISTRICT 9 managed to do so in a far more interesting manner. ELYSIUM is just too blunt.

It doesn't help that Damon leaves no real impression as the protagonist, his relationship with Freya (Alice Braga) sits inert, the exoskeleton Max is equipped with is largely irrelevant (also underused), and actors like Sharlto Copley and Jodie Foster are apparently engaged in a secret 'who can do the most irritating accent?' competition (which Foster wins, because Copley has the advantage of it being genuinely his own).
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