107 min., rated PG.
Grade: A -
The folks at Disney and Pixar might be shaking in their boots once they get a load of "Rango." The first animated film from George Lucas's visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic, "Rango" is brightly colored, strikingly animated, cleverly scripted, and offbeat fun.
You might ask, how did it come to Johnny Depp playing a talking pet chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt? But it's not that far-out.
A mariachi band of owls opens the movie as a kind of Greek chorus—"We are gathered here to immortalize in song the life and untimely death of a great legend . . . so sit, back, relax, and enjoy your low-calorie popcorn and assorted confections"—and pop up on occasion to comment on the tale.
When we first meet the chameleon, he's putting on a theatrical tragedy with a headless plastic doll, a toy goldfish, and a palm tree. On the road, Rango's tank goes out the back of a car and shatters, leaving him stranded on the lonely stretch of highway in the mouth-watering Mojave Desert. Sage advice from a road-kill armadillo (voiced by Alfred Molina) directs him on a path to enlightenment. He wanders into the Old West-style desert town of Dirt, which suffers from a severe drought (no agua!), and tries blending in with all the rodents, birds, reptiles, and other critter folk. Upon entering a saloon whose "people" immediately knows he's not from around these parts, he declares himself to be a sheriff and picks the name Rango (from "Durango" on a cactus juice bottle). Struggling to keep his charade up, Dirt's new sheriff must not only fight bandits and the gunslinging, Hell-born Rattlesnake Jake (a reliably snaky Bill Nighy), whom Dirt lives in fear of, but himself as well to discover who he is. Ain't nobody gonna tango with the Rango.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) from a script by John Logan ("Sweeney Todd"), "Rango" has a loopy surrealism and slapstick spirit in referencing the tropes of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and other movies ("Chinatown" and "Star Wars" included), and Depp completists will even chuckle at a great, blink-and-you'll-miss-it in-joke to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Visually, it's beautifully textured and detailed in such a photorealistic manner that you can make out every scale and hair on the animal characters, and the vastness of the desert and Dirt are gorgeously rendered. The witty, surprisingly adult script has hilarious, rapid-fire dialogue. The slapstick action is fast and fluid. Consider a moment where Rango runs afoul of a vicious silver-beaked hawk, tread-milling in an empty bottle across the desert. There's one instance of a bathroom joke, where Rango hides out in an outhouse that's a Pepto Bismol bottle, but it works shrewdly into a chase around town with the hawk. And jokes involving the spoken words "enlarged prostate" and rubber gloves, as well as "Thespians? That's illegal in seven states!", probably weren't intended for children.
The way Verbinski directs this here "Rango" is key to the film's physical energy. Instead of motion-capture, it's "emotion-capture" where the actors perform on a stage and are used as a reference for the animators. Depp can add Rango to his repertoire of idiosyncratic characters. Even though the chameleon is animated, Depp is Rango and Rango is Depp, a lively, enthusiastic original. Isla Fisher is wonderfully spunky and charming as a twangy lizard named Beans, who tries saving her daddy's ranch and freezes in her tracks whenever she gets riled up, calling it a defense mechanism. Abigail Breslin, though underused, is a winning little scene-stealer as the cute cactus mouse Priscilla. In a brief role, Timothy Olyphant does his best Clint Eastwood as The Spirit of the West, the only real human in the film.
Very young kids might not yet be ready for "Rango," but it should make a young adult's day.
Soul Surfer (2011)
106 min., rated PG.
Grade: C +
The true story of 13-year-old surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm to a tiger shark in the Kauai waters of her Hawaiian home, is certainly inspiring that it deserved to be told. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but during the end credits, we see the real Hamilton, and that footage holds more of an emotional impact than the film we've just watched.
"Soul Surfer" waters down what could've been a nuanced and more interesting treatment about faith and determination into a pat, overly simplistic Hollywood feel-gooder.
Bethany Hamilton (portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb) has grown up in Kauai, practically on a surfboard with salt water in her veins. No, she's not a mermaid, but she might as well be. Her faith-based life seems golden—ranked as one of the most accomplished surfers and loved unconditionally by her supportive, home-schooling family—until she goes surfing with her best pal Alana (Lorraine Nicholson, Jack's daughter) and has her arm bitten off by a shark. Most girls would give up on their dream after such an incident, but not Bethany.
Based on the real Hamilton's 2004 autobiography "Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board," the film is too Hollywood to be a docudrama. In fact, a documentary would've been preferred, and it's never too late to capture this amazing story in that more-appropriate medium.
The shark attack isn't very suspenseful or dramatically staged; blink and you'll miss it. However, the digital removal of Bethany's arm is pretty seamless. The real Bethany even performed most of the surfing stunts. John Leonetti's warm, beachy cinematography, like "Blue Crush," makes one want to ride the waves and risk a shark attack like Bethany.
Director Sean McNamara's film might have been more dramatically potent had he believed in subtlety, but the spiritual and Christian platitudes are spoken in such an earnest, obvious way, and thus come off clunky and ineffective. Did you know that "if you have faith, anything is possible" or that "The Lord works in mysterious ways"?
All of the characters are saintly, blandly nice people, except one mean, sneering competitor (Sonya Balmores), who wears all black, until that villainy is turned around into a "golden rule" after-school special.
Robb, who is 6 inches shorter than the real Hamilton, makes for a convincing, optimistic Hamilton, whom herself is a great role model and almost-unbelievably resilient heroine. She's better than any Miley Cyrus, that's for sure. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, who both have fallen off the face of the earth, are athletic and nice as the athletic, nice parents. Country singer Carrie Underwood, in her acting debut, should not quit her day job but merely suffices as youth group leader Sarah.
"Soul Surfer" still remains a watchable, well-meaning piece of Disney Channel-caliber corn made with the best intentions, but life-altering events don't come in easy packages, unless it's in the movies. Cynics beware.
Jumping the Broom (2011)
108 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -
What with the dreadfully sitcommy "Our Family Wedding" and the mood-swing-laden "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too?", quite a few wedding movies have tripped down the aisle in the last year. Considering the competition, "Jumping the Broom" takes the cake.
TV writer-director Salim Akil makes his feature debut, playing the family dynamics and clash of the matriarchs less broad, tonally wild, and melodramatic than a Tyler Perry movie.
Tired of sharing her "cookies" with men that don't even remember her in the morning, up-and-coming corporate lawyer Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) hits handsome Wall Street up-and-comer Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) with her car. Five ("incredible") months later, Jason impulsively proposes to Sabrina. This means getting friends and family to convene for the weekend at Sabrina's uppercrust Martha's Vineyard manor, but just because the lovebirds love each other doesn't mean Sabrina and Jason's mothers have to love each other. Sabrina's cold, uptight mother, Claudine (Angela Bassett), meets Jason's sassy, working-class Brooklyn mother, Pam (Loretta Devine), who insists her son carry on the old slave tradition of the bride and groom jumping the broom—literally jumping over a broom. There will be catty disrepectin', grudge holdin', petty disagreements, and skeletons poppin' out of the closet.
Amiable, breezy, and well-scrubbed, this class-clash romantic comedy has the glossy, elegant big-studio production values of a Nancy Meyers movie (but Nova Scotia standing in for New England). Screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs make sure every relative and friend get their own subplot, but not all of them go anywhere.
Patton is appealing and effervescent, and Alonso charmingly gallant. Loretta Devine and Angela Bassett, both with Tyler Perry movies on their filmographies, offer their fiercest out of rigid diva characterizations with nuances of hurt and hate as the fiery Pam and the icy Claudine. Julie Bowen, the wedding planner and token white woman, gets in her moments of acting frazzled and clueless about black culture, but her moments are forced and not that amusing. Tasha Smith is tart and funny as Pam's best gal pal that tags along to the wedding and ends up having to rebuff the advances of Sabrina's college-aged cousin (all-grown-up singer Romeo Miller). Mike Epps is less annoying than usual, playing Jason's Uncle Willie Earl.
"Preordained formula" as all get out, with too much soapy melodrama slipping through in the middle and a climactic wedding-on-hold complication, but "Jumping the Broom" has enough warmth and amusement, and these people actually behave like real Earthlings.