Film review – Rango (2011)

10 March 2011
Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp)

Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp)

At the heart of Rango is a search for identity and the authenticity that comes with finding your place in the world. The Lizard with No Name (who adopts the moniker Rango) is a chameleon whose gift is supposed the ability to blend in. However, Rango appears to have never done much in the way of blending in since he seems to have spent his entire life rehearsing for an unspecified role in an unspecified adventure story. When his small aquarium, which is presumably his entire universe up to this point, is thrown from a car and leaves him stranded in the desert, Rango finally gets to live the drama he has dreamed about. After stumbling upon the dying animal-occupied town of Dirt, Rango adopts the persona of a great gun-slinging hero despite his complete lack of all the qualities that this requires.

Rango is essentially a western that adopts all the recognisable iconography, themes and characters from the distinctive genre and yet functions more as a sophisticated homage rather than the sort of self-aware parody that usually characterises computer-animated films aimed at family audiences. In fact, the non-stop references to classic Hollywood westerns and spaghetti westerns (especially the films of Sergio Leone) plus the dark and absurdist shades of humour will likely earn Rango more appreciative nods from adults rather than appealing to children, although they are also looked after with plenty of slapstick and sight gags. Despite all the familiar references to both specific films and generic western conventions, there is something refreshingly unfamiliar about the look, tone and style of Rango that lifts it above the majority of other non-Pixar computer-animated feature films.

Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp)For a start, the production design, lighting and cinematography are extraordinary. The detail found in every frame of Rango is often not even seen in many live action films and the results are gorgeous. Director Gore Verbinski has previously revealed his fascination with surreal landscapes in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and The Ring remake but in Rango he really gets to flex his imagination. Just the very idea of a desert animal Wild West town on the edge of contemporary human civilisation is curious enough but Verbinski adds some truly inventive touches to two sequences where Rango’s physical journeys evocatively reflect his psychological quest for some sort of self realisation.

Johnny Depp voices Rango and is a perfect fit for this odd and mysterious lizard with no past that the audience are nevertheless required to identify with. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, creating havoc wherever he goes and prone to manic bursts of delusional ranting, Rango resembles a more innocent and hapless version of Hunter S. Thompson as portrayed by Depp in Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp’s performance is the final ingredient to what makes Rango such an impressive and wonderfully strange film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Red Hill (2010)

5 December 2010
Red Hill: Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten)

Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten)

Starting a new job is always tough but on his first day on the local force in a small country town, police officer Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) has to contend with his hostile boss Old Bill (Steve Bisley) and the imminent arrival of a very angry and very well armed escaped convict.

Red Hill is an Australian action indebted to the films of spaghetti western maestro Sergio Leone and writer/director Patrick Hughes has done a marvellous job adapting the iconography of the western to a rural Australian setting. Casting The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith lead actor Tom E. Lewis as the avenging outlaw is an interesting choice that allows Hughes to touch on issues concerning crimes against Indigenous people.

Tonally Red Hill sometimes slips awkwardly between gritty revenge thriller and something a little more self-consciously comedic with one unnecessary element that appears late in the film feeling very out of place. While the early action scenes are extremely tense and exciting, Red Hill does eventually become a slightly generic series of scenes featuring people getting blown away. Nevertheless, this is a fun film that introduces Hughes as a director to look out for.

Listen to Thomas Caldwell’s interview with writer/director Patrick Hughes.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 368, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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An interview with Sergio Leone biographer, Sir Christopher Frayling

1 December 2009

Once Upon a Time in the West

Sir Christopher Frayling is a globally renowned writer and film historian. In 2001 he was knighted for “Services to Art and Design Education”. One area of cinema that Sir Frayling has dedicated a significant amount of time to is the Italian-made spaghetti westerns of the mid-1960s and in particular the films of Sergio Leone who made classics such as The Good, The Bad and They Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Sir Christopher has provided the commentary on many DVD releases of Leone’s films plus he wrote Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death, a book that many regard as the definitive biography of Sergio Leone.

On Saturday 28 November 2009 I recorded the following interview with Sir Frayling, which was played on The Casting Couch later that day in conjunction with the re-release of Once Upon a Time in the West at The Astor Theatre.

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Film review – The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

3 October 2009
Park Do-won, the Good (Jung Woo-sung), Yoon Tae-goo, the Weird (Song Kang-ho) and Park Chang-yi, the Bad (Lee Byung-hun)

Park Do-won, the Good (Jung Woo-sung), Yoon Tae-goo, the Weird (Song Kang-ho) and Park Chang-yi, the Bad (Lee Byung-hun)

The Italian director Sergio Leone, best known for ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, has inspired many directors to pay homage to his highly kinetic style of filmmaking. Some of these directors have included Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, Shane Meadows and Tsui Hark. Now the South Korean director Kim Ji-woon (A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters) has paid tribute with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a film that obviously derives it title from Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Kim’s film is one of the most successful films to capture the spirit of Leone’s cinema and it is also one of the most enjoyable.

As with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in The Good, the Bad, the Weird there are three protagonists all after the same goal – buried treasure hidden in the Manchurian desert. Set in the 1930s shortly after Manchuria was occupied by Japan, the trio not only have to contend with each other and their respective cohorts but there are also a gang of bandits and the Imperial Japanese Army who are after the treasure too.

Key Image_Gunman shooting from train_300dpiFrom the exhilarating train hijacking at the start of the film right through to the all out horse/motorbike/car chase across the desert before the final showdown, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a cinematic rush of adrenalin. Kim beautifully replicates Leone’s aesthetics of contrasting extreme close-ups with wide shots, depicting violence in a way that is both brutal and poetic, and establishing an overall tone that is frequently funny and self-conscious without ever being camp. As well as taking inspiration from various Leone films, Kim has also borrowed a few ideas here and there from Mad Max 2 and to a lesser degree Raiders of the Lost Arc. While contemporary action films are increasingly becoming a blur of quick edits, Kim has the confidence and logistical skills to set up complex action sequences and then film them in continuous shots. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a very technical and modern film but it is also a return to the old-school discipline of simply presenting movement on screen in the most exciting way possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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5 reasons why Cinema Autopsy loves Clint Eastwood

4 February 2009

With two new films playing in Australian cinemas it seems only right that Cinema Autopsy should dedicate an entire post to the iconic actor and great filmmaker that is Clint Eastwood.


1. He is The Man With No Name

The Italian director Sergio Leone, famous for his “Spaghetti Westerns”, made six truly great films and three of those stared Eastwood as The Man With No Name character. The first of these was A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961). A Fistful of Dollars established Eastwood’s steely gaze, witty one-liners and capacity to burst into action at any moment. His seductive, unpredictable capacity for sudden violence means that you can’t take your eyes off him. Eastwood dominates the screen and continued to do so in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and then The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), the film that leaves no doubt about the greatness of Eastwood and director Sergio Leone.

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