For the week of December 17th, Walt Disney Home Entertainment will be bringing the controversial summer blockbuster The Lone Ranger to Blu-ray. The story of the fifth Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski collaboration is filled with woe; after Disney shelved the picture for budgetary reasons - the studio estimated that earlier versions of the script, which had the Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting werewolves, would cost over $250 million - production eventually began on a slightly streamlined ($215 million), werewolf-less iteration that still ended up going $10-$35 million over budget, depending on which source you believe. The end result barely made back its production costs, severed producer Jerry Bruckheimer's relationship with Disney, and killed any hopes Depp and Verbinski might have had for scoring another breakout movie franchise - The Lone Ranger would not replicate the success of their Pirates of the Caribbean series. It would be one thing if the movie deserved the hate (like, say, this summer's similarly overpriced, underperforming R.I.P.D.), but the reality is that taken on its own merits, The Lone Ranger is an imaginative, exciting romp that merits consideration because, in a lot of ways, it is the antithesis of a traditional studio franchise. Yes, Verbinski loads the film with beautiful cinematography (by Bojan Bazelli) and rollicking adventure (Depp's Tonto and Armie Hammer's guileless title character make an engaging buddy pair, and the climactic battle is the year's wittiest action setpiece, a shootout/chase on two moving trains that takes inspiration from both Buster Keaton and Looney Tunes), but it's also deliberately, defiantly strange, with details like a villain (William Fichtner) who eats human hearts, a revolving parade of physical grotesques that recalls a Terry Gilliam movie, and a pack of bloodthirsty rabbits who wouldn't have felt out-of-place in Depp and Verbinski's surrealistic CGI comedy Rango.
Furthermore, The Lone Ranger is a big-budget Western at a time when no one really makes big-budget Westerns anymore; Verbinski tries to reference every important oater from the past hundred years, including - but not limited to - Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, A Man Called Horse, the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott pictures of the late 1950s, The Searchers, with healthy dollops of Sam Peckinpah's bleak frontier revisionism and Clint Eastwood's self-referential mediations on the nature of celebrity and violence, just for color (and Verbinski even stocks the cast with Deadwood and Justified veterans like W. Earl Brown, Leon Rippy, Stephen Root, Damon Herriman, and Lew Temple to show he's up on the best contemporary TV Westerns as well). Its biggest risk/indulgence? A framing device (borrowed from Little Big Man, naturally) that works in such a way as to prevent the film from having any sequels, a blockbuster no-no if I've ever seen one. There's a cheerfully perverse quality to the whole affair, as if Depp and Verbinski were getting away with murder on the studio's dime, and while not all of their excesses work - The Lone Ranger is easily three or four subplots too long, and Verbinski's sporadic attempts to place slapstick comedy alongside sober depictions of anti-Indian atrocities are at best unsuccessful and at worst tasteless - the film is a rarity in four-quadrant, studio filmmaking: an uncompromising, singular vision that is defiantly itself, damn the consequences.
In his Blu-ray review, Kenneth Brown wrote that "westerns have become a risk studios aren't often willing to take. Action comedies had a good run in the '90s, but have floundered in recent years with far more flops than hits. And remakes and reboots... well, tricky business all around. So why oh why would a studio in its prime, having just acquired both the Marvel Movie Universe and a certain galaxy far, far away, devote $250 million-plus to an action-comedy western remake/reboot (pick your poison) of one of the most iconic American film serials and TV series? A (relative) box office bomb that grossed a mere $90 million domestically and eked out just $260 million worldwide? Five words: Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski. Or perhaps just four: Pirates of the Caribbean. The hope - or, in hindsight, the delusion - being that Bruckheimer and Verbinski could strike box office gold yet again with another franchise in the making; one that just so happened to star Pirates frontman Johnny Depp. No, The Lone Ranger isn't as terrible as you might have heard. It isn't the worst movie of the year, or even the most disappointing. It's more of a train wreck than it believes, though, and throws a tremendous amount of money at the screen for what turns out to be a shipment of damaged goods."
Speaking of Justified, its brilliant fourth season hits Blu-ray this week, courtesy of Sony Home Entertainment. Had Justified just stuck to the template of its three previous years, I think it would have satisfied its fans: the interplay, both physical and verbal, between laconic U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (created on the page by the late, great Elmore Leonard, and brought to life on-screen by Timothy Olyphant) and the rogue's gallery of misfits he has to take down is so sharp that it would have been enough for him to square off against another Big Bad (M.C. Gainey in Season One, Margo Martindale in Season Two, and Neal McDonough in Season Three). Instead, showrunner Graham Yost and his staff switched up the formula, crafting a season-long mystery that forced Raylan to outsmart the rest of Harlan County's undesirables in the search for an infamous drug smuggler. The shift to a long-form narrative proved invigorating to the often-episodic program, with the increased forward momentum coming to a head in Season Four's terrific "Decoy" episode, a forty-two-minute stretch of television that ranks as some of the best action-movie filmmaking of 2013. But as always, none of this would work as well as it does if not for Raylan's interactions with the characters around him. It's here you see the Dutch Leonard touch, as long, florid conversations get all the spark and intrigue that usually go to conventional violence, and Yost lets this material linger, whether it's pairing Raylan off with recurring cast-members like Walton Goggins, Joelle Carter, Nick Searcy, Jim Beaver, Raymond J. Barry, and Jacob Pitts or allowing series newcomers Mike O'Malley, Joe Mazzello, Gerald McRaney, and especially Patton Oswalt time to shine.
This is the week for Westerns, what with The Lone Ranger, Justified, and now IFC's Ain't Them Bodies Saints streeting on Blu-ray, and Ain't Them Bodies Saints certainly deserves favorable comparisons with the aforementioned titles. What Ain't Them Bodies Saints does is to pare the ambiguity of '70s cinema (think McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Badlands) with classic Western archetypes - it's the story of the forces that separate a sensitive outlaw (Casey Affleck) from his beloved (Rooney Mara), and the gentle, decent lawman (Ben Foster) who finds himself drawn into their orbit. There are gunfights and chases (albeit ones using modern cars and weapons), and Keith Carradine cuts an imposing figure as a key figure in Mara and Affleck's lives, but there are also tenderness and a yearning atypical to the genre: Affleck, Mara, and Foster (who deserves some kind of award recognition for his performance here - he's that good) all portray characters who are hopeful enough to think they can escape their predetermined fates but smart enough to suspect otherwise. Writer/director David Lowery has already distinguished himself in the indie-film world (he also edited this year's unsettling, nervy Upstream Color), but if there's any justice, Ain't Them Bodies Saints should take him to a whole different level. This measured, assured work feels like the effort of a seasoned filmmaker. Visually, it's got the hazy, magic-hour patina of a Terrence Malick film, but Lowery's dialogue is flintier, more earthbound, and that clash between ethereal aesthetics and plainspoken grit makes for a striking combination: at times, Ain't Them Bodies Saints has the pull and force of a classic fable, as these doomed lovers wend their way to an inexorable confrontation. This is one of the year's finest films.
Casey Broadwater called "Ain't Them Bodies Saints...a film that clearly romanticizes the past - from the folky title to the simple rural existence of the characters to the period automobiles and quaint houses - and Lowry seems equally enamored with bygone U.S. cinema. Specifically, the New Hollywood that briefly encouraged American auteurs and produced films like Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and The Last Picture Show, all of which Ain't Them Bodies Saints recalls in one way or another. If not entirely original, Lowery's directing is confident and graceful. He stages some impressively tense violence late in the film, but he's best with small, quiet dramatic scenes, where shades of emotion and motivation change from one expression to the next. It helps that he's assembled such a stellar cast. Rooney Mara, mousier and softer here than in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, still carries a fierce independence, and Casey Affleck is perfectly idealistic and delusional as Bob, who's sure of himself but shouldn't be. The most compelling performance, though, is from Ben Foster, whose sensitive, gentlemanly Officer Wheeler can't catch a break. The heart wants what it wants, Ain't Them Bodies Saints seems to say, in this case preferring outlaw passion over 9-to-5 stability."
Almost as good is Warner Home Entertainment's Prisoners. On its surface, Prisoners is a tense drama centering on Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a devoted father and husband whose young daughter goes missing one Thanksgiving; unsatisfied with how the lead police investigator (Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives his character bold shadings that probably weren't there on the page) is handling the case, Keller takes matters into his own hands and sets off after his daughter's abductor. The thriller mechanics are top-notch, as Jackman and Gyllenhaal square off as much against each other as they do the different roadblocks in their respective investigations (and Roger Deakins' moody, atmospheric cinematography makes the proceedings so much creepier than they might otherwise be), but it's the human touch that director Denis Villeneuve brings that really galvanizes Prisoners. As in his Academy Award-nominated Incendies, Villeneuve is fascinated by the psychic cost of revenge, and he lets the abduction scar the absurdly talented cast (besides Jackman and Gyllenhaal, the film stars Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo). Whether it's the tattoos and odd mannerisms that suggest an inner well of pain inside Gyllenhaal's tough cop, or the horrible things Jackman does that put his own soul at hazard, the "justified" retribution that certain people seek proves just as deadly as the calculated acts of evil. For its first two hours, Villeneuve's masterful combination of raw emotion with pulp fiction works like gangbusters, and Prisoners seems well on its way to entering the pantheon of serial-killer procedurals such as Seven, Silence of the Lambs, and Zodiac...until the last half hour, when Prisoners quietly flies off the rails. There's nothing new in the ending, and that's the problem: screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski exchanges the human insight and simmering dread of the first 120 minutes for clichés that wouldn't be out of place in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. We get a red herring, a race against time, and a third-act reveal that won't surprise anyone familiar with Roger Ebert's famed "Law of Economy of Characters." All of this familiar material is well done enough, but it comprises a conventional finish to a movie that seemed to want to be anything but.
Kenneth Brown's Blu-ray review noted that "had Prisoners just been another home-brewed vigilante drama, though -- another ordinary-husband-and-father-pushed-to-his-limits thriller -- there wouldn't be much to it beyond the impeccably cast actors, other than Roger Deakins' bleak but breathtaking cinematography. It's the moral and ethical ambiguity that makes the film so intensely watchable, gripping even, and leaves room for forgiveness on the few occasions Villenevue and Guzikowski overplay their hand (After an unbearably distressing opening act and riveting middle stretch, the film takes a slow right turn down a very familiar genre road, with one twist too many). Villenevue's unflinching confidence and command of the material leaves little room for predictability or relief, and beneath Keller's rage and anguish lies an endless stream of impossible-to-answer questions. Parents, myself included, take comfort in thinking we know exactly how we'd handle a similar situation. In these dark hypotheticals we talk about late at night, we fancy ourselves closet vigilantes. In reality, the fear that our involvement would only lead to the further endangerment of our child would surpass any belief that we would do any good by intervening. Interestingly, Villenevue and Guzikowski are willing and more than eager to entertain the possibility that Keller's involvement only make things worse, if he accomplishes anything at all."
Finally, Sony Pictures' Elysium is making its HD debut on the small-screen. Elysium is Sony and Neill Blomkamp's attempt to replicate the success of Blomkamp's 2009 surprise hit District 9; though crudely made and thematically obvious (it doesn't worry about you missing its parallels to apartheid because it never stops beating you over the head with them), District 9 has a sloppy, enjoyable power - and terrific special effects, given its low budget - that overcomes the limitations of its script and concept. It's a great B-movie, through and through, which is exactly the issue with Elysium: the new film wants to be so much bigger and better than it actually is. Star Matt Damon is wonderful, as he is oft to be, and Blomkamp's filmmaking chops have certainly improved - he makes his $100-million budget look like three times as much, creating a persuasive vision of a dystopian, ruined Earth (he shot most of the film in Mexico City and Vancouver) living under the orbit of the titular floating paradise. But in almost every other way, this is practically the same film as District 9 with a different coat of paint. Same splattery violence (most of it due to Sharlto Copley's histrionic villain), same blunt application of a social message (if District 9 yelled "People shouldn't discriminate based on race," here it's, "the 99% deserve equal opportunities as the 1%"), same melodramatic screenwriting contrivances. That last part is most galling, as Blomkamp can't even let Elysium function as a pulse-pounding actioner - he has to bog the plot down with Jodie Foster's amoral corporate stooge and cloying detours to Damon's childhood love (Alice Braga, serving the same function here as she did in I Am Legend, and no, that is not a compliment). If Blomkamp wants to be the next John Carpenter, and there are vast swaths of Elysium that suggest that very ambition, he's going to need to learn that it's not just scrappy management of one's finances that wins you genre love - you need to let the message emerge organically from the action, and not the other way around.
Martin Liebman had a different perspective on Elysium, calling the film "probably the most politically charged movie of 2013. It deals in everything from illegal immigration to wealth inequality, from universal health care to the police state. In the film, the privileged class enjoys access to free and immediate health care and luxurious living. Illegal immigrants attempt to escape to their world, often in search of medical treatment, only to be destroyed en route. In the film, the working class on Earth is left to live in the cesspool of the world that was while suffering under the boot of a robotic police force that cannot understand basic human emotion, verbal or physical intent, or basic human rights, punishing those who dare question the system, often with violence. They're also subject to the whims of cold 'off worlders' who use them as an expendable labor force meant only to work the lines, not make a living and a life. Director Neill Blomkamp has himself said of the movie that it's not a predictive work but rather a reflection of today's society. The film does what good science fiction does, which is replicate the issues of today in the guise of a future setting, dressing it up in a form of entertainment rather than tackle it head-on and really open eyes to the issues, though in Blomkamp's defense that falls more under the purview of the documentary and less the mass entertainer. Still, agree with Blomkamp's take on the issues or not, the film is sure to stir the political pot more than it simply entertains with gunfire and fisticuffs. But the gunfire and fisticuffs are nevertheless done very well, as is all of the other glitz and glamour and production values the film has to offer. Elysium is careful not to allow its action to overwhelm the plot. Instead, every gunfight and every action scene flows naturally from the story, a consequence of the drama rather than its driving force. It's very well staged and expertly executed with a precision but also a rawness that together give the movie an edge and compliment the bloody, gritty reality of the world and story, not to mention the mechanical add-ons that superficially aid and shape the characters but not nearly as much as does their underlying humanity, or lack thereof."
I looked at the screenshots for "Lone Ranger" and must say that Tonto's makeup looks like ... makeup. One screenshot also has a train running through Monument Valley. I haven't been there recently, but don't remember any railroad tracks. I suppose I'm thinking that the artificiality would take me out of the movie, if I were to see it.
I've not seen Disney's The Lone Ranger but the trailer looked fascinating. Must have been the best moments strung together... lol. As an emerging screenwriter I often think outside the box: some people hail this as originality, others take it and run for the hills calling it risk-taking. I'll go forward and accept The Lone Ranger with the grain of salt it so richly deserves. If I happen not to like it I'll put it down to experience through others and quietly move on.
Oh boy! I can't wait to receive my One Direction 3D pre-order!!!! NOT! In all seriousness though, probably going to sit this week out. I will wait for the Individual Indiana Jones releases to drop in price, and pick those up eventually. I am interested if the 2D version of the film included with Predator 3D will be a different remaster than the original release, or the ultimate hunter edition which was horribly scrubbed of any film-like quality whatsoever. If so, it might be worth picking up.