The Lone Ranger and the Trouble With Reboots

The-Lone-Ranger-International-Character-Movie-PosterSo. We know I take a long time to get to movies. I will go to a movie theater maybe three, four times a year; I like to engage on my own terms. Some movies I know will lose very little impact by waiting a while and watching when I want, not by making an appointment with it. There are some movies, admittedly, that I will strive to see in their natural setting (no matter how degraded that setting has become), but let’s face it: there is much more fare I know can wait. I knew The Lone Ranger was going to be such a movie before the first negative press was ever unleashed.

Yeah, I’m old. I remember watching the Clayton Moore TV series when I was a kid, somehow never realizing he was wearing tights, not jeans. There was a Lone Ranger cartoon in the good old bad old days of violent Saturday morning cartoons that was cheap but thoroughly bizarre, inflected with its prime time contemporary, The Wild Wild West (there was a later, Filmation cartoon that was typically sanitized and useless). In the pulp movie revival fueled by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there came Legend of the Lone Ranger, which I have never seen.

0Our old pulp heroes have a built-in problem, being creatures of the pop culture of their time, and that is the not terribly-enlightened handling of sidekicks of any color but white. Mandrake the Magician would probably make a decent movie character, being so visually oriented, but the muscle-bound, leopard-skin wearing, be-fezzed Lothar would have to be re-booted several times before he could even begin to be acceptable. More on sidekickery later.

Despite this, Disney still went ahead with The Lone Ranger. Casting a white actor, Johnny Depp, as the traditional “faithful Indian companion, Tonto” is really the least of its problems. America has a particularly shameful history in its dealings with the native population, and most modern Westerns have at least a small portion of their running time devoted to this. The Lone Ranger has at least two instances of genocidal imagery, and in a better-structured movie, either of them might have mattered. But here, it simply becomes part of the white noise that slowly engulfs the story (and no matter what anyone else says, Depp is doing a superb Jay Silverheels imitation). some judicious editing and – I know this is heretical, but what the hell – another run of the script through the writing mill, unhampered by focus groups, this might have been a much tighter movie at only two hours, and possibly a kickass, exciting one at 90-100 minutes. This is a problem I have with Gore Verbinski movies in general, and the major reason I never got past the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I don’t mind a meandering path in a movie, as long as it builds to its set pieces and provides what I came to an action movie to see: action, preferably of the cathartic kind. But chances are, if you took Verbinski or Depp out of the mix, this movie would not have gotten made.

Now, the Lone Ranger story is such an antique, we did need the origin story retold (I suppose), especially since we’re taking a few liberties with it to give our new version of the character his Hero’s Journey. This time, John Reid is a hastily-deputized Texas Ranger, who follows his brother in a posse tracking escaped outlaw Butch Cavendish, who is now a cannibal (just in case he wasn’t villainous enough before). Surviving the ambush, John is chosen by a “spirit horse” to be the “Spirit Walker”, the man who cannot be killed, at least according to Tonto. Then again, we will also later be told that Tonto was driven insane by causing the death of his tribe by leading two white men to the silver mine that will be the McGuffin for our plot.

THE LONE RANGERI counted three separate instances where the movie’s plot had obviously entered its end game, but the script then undercut that and decided to keep going for an hour or so. The bizarre egregiousness of some of the story problems has no better example than Helena Bonham Carter’s character, Red Harrington (some junior executive took a three-martini lunch and the rest of the day off after coming up with that name), a whorehouse madam with an ivory prosthetic leg that conceals a shotgun. To justify her prominence in the advertising materials, the plot will then twist itself into a few more topologically improbable shapes to accommodate her part in the complex end sequence.

DF-16553-R-jpg_183232Armie Hammer does everything he is asked to as John Reid. Sadly, what he is told to do is often some pretty stupid stuff. There are times when the template seems to be lifted from The Green Hornet movie, where Britt Reid (yes, notice the last name, Warren Ellis fans) is the comic doofus and Kato (again, your mandatory sidekick of color) is the competent one. And more than once The Lone Ranger reminded me of another ill-starred Western reboot, Wild Wild West, especially about the time we go to Red Harrington’s whorehouse, so reminiscent of Fat Can Candy’s that I kept expecting to see Kevin Kline in drag.

There are borrowings from other movies, tributes that I can accept: the use of Monument Valley (though I don’t remember it being in Texas), and a complicated love triangle with two brothers and one’s wife straight out of The Searchers. Three locomotives are wrecked in this movie, one named The Jupiter, in deference to Buster Keaton’s train-centric The General (and Depp’s love for the comedian is indulged in several of the action set pieces). I’m okay with that.

John-Carter-1-680Disney had a similar failure with John Carter, the difference being that John Carter was a much more solidly-constructed  movie and deserved better (it also hedged its bets, as its indigenous noble savages were aliens). The Lone Ranger, though, is a morass of story ideas that are often in the wrong order, and the viewer simply waits, tapping its foot and checking its watch, to get to the action sequences, which are gorgeously shot, exciting, and expensive.

I do get why some people don’t like the movie, and it has a lot to do with what I’ve outlined above. What I don’t get is the hate directed toward it. I’m pretty sure there’s a “worst movie ever made” review or three thousand out there, and my response is always going to be, “You don’t watch near enough movies.” Yes, despite all my bitching, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger. Not enough to watch it again, but I had a fairly pleasant time.

I’ve said it before, I will say it again: my relationship with a movie is very simple. I ask that it entertain me, and I will allow myself to be entertained. It’s not that hard, but a lot of movies manage to fail that simple deed.

And I really feel that sometimes, what is missing from many people’s approach is that, simply, they will not allow themselves to be entertained. Like a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie desperately seeking their one version of God when evidence of God is all around them, a lot of movie-goers demand that rush, that tingle they got the first time the star destroyer rushed overhead and kept rushing, or Indy ran from the boulder. And when that rush does not come, the movie is obviously worse than the heat death of the universe. People. You’re not always going to get that. And if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re going to miss what is offered to you. Permit yourself to have some fun, for God’s sake. And I absolutely, honest-to-God do not understand the concept of “hate-watching”. What the hell. There is a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on that life-wasting nonsense.

the_lone_ranger_trailer_fullHaving said that, I am now going to undercut myself, because that’s another takeaway from Wild Wild West: undercutting and demeaning your source. At the end of WWW, as was traditional in the TV series, when they had some time to fill or a plot point cheat that needed explanation, Artie would ask West, “Mind if I ask you a question?” They did this in the movie, but Will Smith’s answer was a dismissory, “Actually, I would mind.” In The Lone Ranger, Reid finally, finally, rears up on that gorgeous white horse and belts out, “Hiyo Silver! Away!” to which Tonto says, “Never do that again!” It’s supposed to be a laugh line, but we’ve been waiting for that a long time. We have, in fact, been waiting the entire movie to hear that trademark line. And that is probably the reason why “Fuck you, movie!” is the last thing anyone remembers about The Lone Ranger.

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The Summertime Blues

It had been a week since I watched a movie. That’s a long time for me, and it’s a sign of a serious funk. So sorry, folks who come here for acerbic remarks or amateur musings on classic films, all I have to talk about this week is me, so you might not find this interesting at all. I don’t blame you. See you next week.

Then like a lot of things I put up here, that was an untruth. Yesterday – Father’s Day – I actually found myself doing something I NEVER do, which is turn on the TV and flip through the channels. We long ago determined cable was an unfunded mandate, and said goodbye to it with few regrets (mainly Turner Classic Movies and Mythbusters). Lo and behold, a couple of those newfangled digital channels coughed up stuff I would actually watch, even with commercial interruptions – one being David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, which is still superb (and unavailable on domestic blu-ray, grumble gripe bitch complain), and the Danish kaiju flick, Reptilicus, which has somehow gotten even worse. (All you Godzilla 2014 haters go watch this, then get back to me on how bad the modern flick is)

I’ve been put on a mild anti-depressant to help with my sleep problems, which it has, to a degree. I’m not sure if my current tendency toward rumination and self-examination is due to being a bit more rested or a bit less depressed. Anxiety levels are about the same, because little pills do nothing about stressors.

A major cause for pondering was Father’s Day. I’m lucky, my parents are still alive, so I can call the old codger and we can kill some cell phone minutes not talking to each other. But I’m no spring chicken myself, and notes from my mother telling me they’ve paid for their funerals and recently went to see their headstones have my head in a really weird place. Really weird.

As you know, I’m a father myself. That wasn’t something I had really planned for, but my wife, Lisa, having been an excellent, involved teacher and therefore second mother to a lot of children, wanted nothing more than a child of her own, so that had to become one of my priorities, and if I can claim nothing else in my life, I at least did that right. It was a long trip, full of tears and loss, but we finally produced a son, and now we get to worry how he’s going to get to college.

But. That wasn’t what I was pondering. I took stock of the people I hang with, and the number of fathers there is shockingly low. What is shocking about that, though, is the fact that I now regard fatherhood as the default, rather than the extraordinary circumstance. There is nothing profound or life-changing in that realization, as the very fact of fatherhood itself is profound and life-changing enough.

Of course my son has hit his teens, and they’re not as terrible as I had anticipated (and that’s the sort of  statement that will surely come back to haunt me); I guess I’m fairly lucky. He usually only comes out of his pit of a room to ask if dinner is ready yet, then returns to his Xbox. I’d be the same way, except I’m usually the one cooking dinner. I do have my own pit of a room, after all.

I guess I may be in the throes of a slow-motion mid-life crisis, one that crops up every few years like a persistent case of acne. As we all know (because I bitch about it constantly), I work three and often four part-time jobs. Weekends are a foreign concept to me, but then, I was trained as an actor, and for them there is no such thing, anyway.

I’ve been involved with one of those murder mystery dinner theaters for years. I’m going to be saying those lines during my funeral. The money is pretty good, I shouldn’t complain. But there is physical labor involved: loading and unloading the van because it’s a gypsy outfit and we can’t leave any of our stuff up longer than a couple of days. The characters are all human cartoons, and sometimes that gets pretty physical, to the detriment of my bad knee, my asthma and general decrepitude. A lot of the audience have no idea whatsoever what is involved in live theater (and this is loosely categorized as live theater, I guess), have no idea how to behave, and Jesus H. Christ, I hate trying to perform for drunks.

So here we have one of the classic symptoms of what led up to those famous Post Office shootings – remember them? Before they spread out into the community at large? Bad working conditions were coupled with a dependency on the job they hated – the salary, the benefits. I’m not going to go on a murderous rampage, but good God, I’m so tired of it. But the “day job” barely takes care of the utilities – the weekend shows pay for groceries and gas.

Somebody out there is thinking that I should be thankful for what I’ve got. I am. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be reaching for more, for something better.

So tonight I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years. I’m going to an audition at my old theater.

Things have improved since I left for the better financial rewards of dinner theater.  The pay is much better – in fact, it would be almost commensurate with what I’m earning, although the work is spread over several days instead of just two. But there is the bonus of A) portraying an actual human being for a change, and B) doing it for an audience that actually wants to be there, where I’m not perceived as standing in the way of the salad service, or actively attempting to corrupt the frail sensibilities of churchfolk.

This is going to introduce more conflict into my life, if I’m cast. Finding people to replace me at one of the nighttime jobs. A shuffling of cast at the dinner theater. My son won’t be able to work the dinner theater, either, which he does for spending money.

But that might be the sort of thing to shake me out my current doldrums. And then I can complain about not having any time to watch movies, a return to business as usual.

The 39 Steps (1935)

39-3It usually surprises people that I’m not a big Hitchcock fan. Oh, it’s not like I hate his movies. I love Psycho, enjoy Rope (flawed experiment though it may be) and the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he himself directed. But I didn’t care for VertigoThe Birds just sort of leaves me cold, and… well, you get the picture.

I’m spending a lot of Act Three of my life watching movies and often re-appraising how I relate to them. Given that a lot of my opposition to Hitchcock’s work was due to Contrarianism on my part (ask me how long I went refusing to buy any Beatles albums), it’s only fair that I give him another shot every now and then, so why not that most Hitchcockian of Hitchcock movies, The 39 Steps?

knife in the backRichard Hannay (Robert Donat) has his evening at the Music Hall interrupted by a scuffle between drunken ruffians and police, which is itself interrupted by two gunshots. He helps a woman (Lucie Mannheim) out through the crush of panicked people, and she surprises him by asking to go home with him. Being a smooth operator, Hanny complies, and finds she is far more intriguing than he suspected: she fired those two shots to get away from two men who are pursuing her. She is, in fact,  a spy trying to intercept some secret aircraft plans that have been stolen and are destined to smuggled out of England to some unnamed foreign power. She asks for a map of Scotland, and promises to tell Hannay just what the heck “the 39 steps” she mentioned is all about in the morning, if he is still interested.

Well, except the next morning, she has a knife in her back and collapses on the sleeping Hannay, a map of Scotland with a village’s name circled in red clutched in her hand.

donat_and_carroll_handcuffed_39_stepsHannay, presuming the police will not believe him, sneaks out past the two spies watching the front of his building and heads for Scotland, ensuring that the police will think he murdered the lady in his apartment. Thus begins a series of chases and hairsbreadth escapes, as Hannay tries to find out what “The 39 Steps” is, where the plans are, and what he can do to stop the plot without going to jail for murder. Eventually he winds up handcuffed to the lovely Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who has turned him in twice, but the enemy agents assume she knows too much, and once she eventually finds out Hannay is telling the truth, falls in love with him. Which still leaves the problem of the police, the plans, the spies, and just what the heck the 39 Step are anyway.

Hitchcock was on a bit of a roll at this point in his early career; the year before had seen The Man Who Knew Too Much, featuring an exciting young actor from Germany named Peter Lorre, and the next few years would produce Sabotage, Secret Agent, and The Lady Vanishes, before Hitchcock dashed off Jamaica Inn to fulfill his contractual obligations and then split to America and the bigger toybox offered by David O. Selznick.

39-StepsHere, you can see a lot of the elements that Hitchcock would repeat throughout his career: the man wrongfully accused and pursued by both the authorities and the bad guys (I think it’s this trope that causes me to avoid Hitchcock movies, it speaks to a persecution complex on my part), the shadowy McGuffin that drives the plot (and which pales in importance compared to the plot it sets in motion), the spunky blonde heroine who suffers all sorts of abuse. And it is all managed with such panache, perfect pacing and underlying jet black humor that it’s no surprise it was a huge hit. Donat and Carroll are absolutely perfect, but you can say this about any role in this movie. It is just so damn well-made.

For some reason, I had thought that Hitchcock remade The 39 Steps later in his career; though there are two remakes, Hitchcock didn’t direct either one.  I can be forgiven for thinking this, as Hitchcock did remake several of his earlier pictures, and if you get right down to it, he did remake The 39 Steps – he just called it North by Northwest. Which, yeah, is another movie I need to give a second chance. I do recall enjoying it a half a century ago.

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The Questionable Joys of 1963

Something that’s kind of odd, but not even that surprising: Usually WordPress intercepts 30-40 spambot comments on this blog in any given day. In the days since I published my piece on the death of my beloved pug-dog Mavis, that has dropped to three or less a day. Even the bots realize there’s little return in inserting your online casino ads under a sad story. I didn’t know they paid that much attention.

But now I’m imagining a bunch of sad spambots sitting around morosely, playing mumbledy-peg or solitaire to fill in their idle hours. I guess I really should give them something to try to post under.

NattvardsgästernaAfter the hell of that week, when I finally elected to watch a movie, I was of two minds: escapist fare, or something that had been on my Watchlist forever, and was one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light,  which is the exact opposite of “light escapist fare”. Also, by “forever” I mean “since I watched The Seventh Seal last year and decided to fall in love with Gunnar Björnstrand, who played the squire, Jöns.

Björnstrand here plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a Lutheran church in a small fishing town. As the movie opens, Ericsson is presiding over a service for a congregation of eight, including a deacon, the hunchbacked sexton, and Ericsson’s former mistress, who is an atheist. Only five of the eight take communion.

BergmWintlight1This is going to be a rough day for Ericsson. He is coming down with a cold – his fever is increasing, and he still has to fill in for communion at another church later that afternoon. His mistress is pressuring him to get married, and two of the people at the sparse service, the Perssons, a fisherman (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Gunnel Lindblom) visit him afterwards. Persson has been consumed of late with fear after reading about the Red Chinese developing nuclear capabilities. The sensationalist article he read stated that the Chinese are raised from infancy to know nothing but hate, and he is crushed by knowledge of sure, ultimate doom.

The former mistress, Marta (Ingrid Thulin) flits in and out of the morning, fussing over Ericsson’s health. While waiting for Persson to return for a private conversation, Ericsson reads a letter Marta wrote him, and here we have but one of many reasons Bergman was considered a master: the letter is not delivered to us as a voiceover, but a single close-up, nearly six minutes long, of Thulin speaking the contents of the letter directly to the camera. Like Ericsson, we are trapped in the room with it, and Thulin’s delivery (and needless to say, Bergman’s writing) is so good our minds never wander, as Marta details what went wrong with their relationship, their mutual complicity in its dissolution, and why they should get married and take care of each other. Drained, Ericsson falls into a fitful sleep at his desk until Persson arrives.

3150738673_bb1767d8fcEricsson gets right down to matters. “How long have you thought about killing yourself?” But as the conferences goes on, the pastor finds his own spiritual gas tank long exhausted, and he can find no comfort to offer the fisherman, only his own misgivings about the very existence of God, a disjoint that began when he was unable to reconcile things he saw during the Spanish Civil War with his concept of the Almighty. Persson, discomforted by this outburst from a clergyman, excuses himself and leaves.

Marta is still waiting for him in the sanctuary. “Now I’m free,” he tells her, but Marta’s relief that he finally agrees with her views on God is cut short by another member of that wan congregation arriving to tell Ericsson that Persson has blown his brains out down by the river.

winter-lightThe day is far from finished with Ericsson. He will sit with Persson’s body until the morgue arrives to claim it. He will deliver the sad news to Persson’s pregnant widow and three children. He will, once and for all, tell Marta how he feels about their relationship, the bookend to her earlier letter, but delivered face-to-face; and he will preside over that evening communion, a service for the only person in the church- Marta the atheist, praying for the ability to understand and somehow get through to Ericsson.

So yeah, Winter Light can be used as Exhibit A in the cultural cliché that “Swedish movies are depressing”.

The film’s title in its native Swedish, Nattvardgästerna, translates to “The Communicants”, a clever title of double meanings; not only are our main characters involved in one of the loneliest sacraments ever performed, but each has their own problems with communication, a very common thread in Bergman films, alongside another: a protagonist so obsessed with finding proof of his own personal version of God, he is blind to every other possibility of God’s nature and existence.

3150738027_0757f99d03The English title, Winter Light, is also brilliantly multi-faceted. The lush detail of Bergman’s earlier movies is here stripped away, and Sven Nykvist, behind the camera of what I think is only his third Bergman film, emphasizes the isolation and bleakness of life under the gray winter skies. There is one literally radiant moment, after Persson takes his leave of the distraught pastor, and in the window behind Ericsson, the sun very briefly breaks through the clouds as the clergyman has a moment of clarity about his relationship to a God that may not even be there. This leads to the “I’m free” moment, but the clouds close again, the news of Persson’s suicide is delivered, and uncertainty again takes hold.

If there is any shred of optimism to be found in Winter Light, it is in the person of the sexton, Algot, played by Allan Edwall. As Ericsson ponders whether or not to hold the Communion service in a nearly-deserted church, Algot asks him about his reading of the Gospels, and how he feels the emphasis on Jesus’ physical suffering is misguided, as he himself has suffered physical pain all his life and is no saint. Algot feels that Christ’s keener suffering must have been the fear that his teachings were misunderstood, that he was truly forsaken. “He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

image.aspThese are words that must touch Ericsson, and touch him deeply. He makes the decision to hold the service, because no matter what, there must be Communion. There must be duty.

So I say watch the movie, but be prepared for what it is: a stark portrait that may serve as a mirror when you least expect it.

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So after such an effervescent, frothy confection, you’d think I’d go for a comedy or a movie where things go boom, but no, I still had a commitment to quality in May (oh, I had such plans for the month!), so my next stop was Akira Kurosawa’s  High and Low.

220px-HIGH_AND_LOW_JP_I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s samurai flicks – hell, The Seven Samurai was the movie that drew me into my love for film, at 13 or 14 years of age. But those are such a small part of the man’s output, I’m doing him a great disservice. Perhaps I started at the top with Ikiru, but I still have a long trail to walk. There are worse problems.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful executive who, on the verge of a risky corporate takeover, is plunged into a dilemma: a kidnapper, attempting to abduct his son, has instead gotten his chauffeur’s child. The kidnapper doesn’t care, he still demands thirty million yen for the boy’s release. The dilemma is that Gondo is mortgaged to the hilt for the takeover, and if he uses that money for the ransom, instead of the controlling stock of the shoe company where he works, he will be ruined financially.

That is the moral quandry that drives the first act of High and Low, and the phrase “first act” has never been more appropriate. Shot almost entirely in Gondo’s spacious living room, with a hilltop vista of Yokohama, Kurosawa rather famously rehearsed and blocked this segment like a stage play, and shot it in long takes. It’s fascinating to watch how this allows Kurosawa to manipulate the negative space around the embattled businessman as he steadfastly refuses to be destroyed for a child that is not even his own. His bubble of isolation expands and contracts, it is violated by his wife and the poor, bereft chauffeur. Eventually, he decides to do the right thing and pay the ransom, and the bubble collapses.

highandlowThe second act lets us out into the world, as Gondo performs a complicated drop of two briefcases stuffed with money, and the police do what they can to identify the people involved. Settle in for the third act, which is a very good police procedural – the cops trying to recover the money before Gondo defaults on his loans, and falls from the grace of his hilltop house.

High and Low is based one of the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, aka the prolific Evan Hunter, King’s Ransom. I enjoy those novels, and the source material shows through in the characterization of the cops. Tatsuya Nakadai makes for a cracking Steve Carella analog as the leader of the task force trying to help Gondo. The police are thoroughly professional and prepared; they arrive dressed as delivery men in case Gondo’s house is being watched, and it is. In fact, when the kidnapper calls to ask why Gondo’s curtains are closed, the cop immediately dive to the floor and behind furniture so the curtains can be opened.

high-and-lowSo yeah, I like watching Dragnet re-runs, I like the 87th Precinct novels, and the closest I get to binge watching are the Investigate Discovery murder investigation shows on Netflix. Some folks find this part of High and Low boring; I find it compelling.

High and Low definitely lives up to its title, starting at Gondo’s spacious house and descending slowly into the slums of Yokohama and finally a hellish venue the cops only call “Drug Alley”. It also charts the similar fall of Gondo, who loses his house and worldly possessions, yes, but also begins to rise again. The kidnapper, a medical student living in a slum, whose window has a direct line-of-sight to the Gondo house, seems to have no motivation outside humiliating Gondo – which ultimately fails, because the court of public opinion has found great sympathy for the executive, leaving the young nihilist with nothing but a scream of rage and fear as he is taken away to be executed.

jszptgI can sure pick the uplifting movies, can’t I?

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