Hi Ho

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When I first visited Richard Lester to try to talk him into giving an interview, we exchanged a few words about the generally regrettable state of Hollywood cinema and recent flops. “But THE LONE RANGER is coming!” he added, with gleeful irony.

It came, it flopped, and now as with JOHN CARTER people are starting to say, Hey, that wasn’t so bad. A little different.

(I strongly recommend Scout Tafoya’s video essay on LONE RANGER, comparing it to HEAVEN’S GATE. Really! It makes sense.)

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JOHN CARTER had some unwearable costumes and bland characters, but was also fun, spectacular and had a really good ending. LONE RANGER is beautifully designed and shot, and the characters certainly aren’t bland, but tonally it must be admitted there’s something haywire. I think someone felt that some humour was needed to make it commercial, but the goofy humour and broad slapstick selected are a little too far from the darker stuff, the genocide and cannibalism. It’s hard to conceive of a film that could contain that breadth of material and attitude without rupturing itself. I guess the rabid rabbits are an attempt at finding something that’s as goofy as slapstick and as creepy as cannibalism, but they don’t work.

How else to describe the film’s problem? Well, on the one hand it borrows from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST almost as extravagantly as the same director’s RANGO swiped from CHINATOWN, and also from LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GENERAL, THE WILD BUNCH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But it also seems to reference NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (see above), PLANET TERROR (one-legged woman with a gun for a prosthesis) and there’s a bit of DEAD MAN thrown in. That indicates either a very ambitious film, one whose scope might not fit within the requirements of a summer blockbuster, or else someone has been drinking loco water.

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I think tonal uncertainty is a key thing that makes audiences reject something. I mean, when we don’t know how to react to moments in David Lynch’s work, it’s clear enough that he’s put in a lot of work to make us feel that our conflicted response is OK. To give one example in LONE RANGER, the hero is mercilessly dumped on by the writers, and his Dudley Doright stuffiness allows quite a bit of fun to be poked. But when they try to make us laugh at his concern for his dead brother’s kidnapped wife, it’s rather awkward — because the last time we saw her, it looked as if she’d been shot in the head. Too soon?

Then there’s the film’s approach to race, which I think is well-intentioned but still troublesome. The casual shooting of innocent black and Chinese characters seems intended to make a point about the evils of the times, and a valid one, but in a feel-good action film shouldn’t there be something positive for the non-white audience to take away? Otherwise it feels like an unintended point is being made about the evils of modern Hollywood blockbusters, where the minorities can be laid waste but it’s still a happy ending because the important white folks were saved. (Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s point, expressed in Breakfast of Champions, that stories where there are important versus unimportant characters are a part of our major social problem.) And it’s true that the film’s ending is quite a bit less heartening than is usual in these things — his arc is one of gradual disillusionment with all of western civilisation, and he doesn’t even get the girl. But they’re still trying to make us laugh…

But it’s quite possible to enjoy most of the film on one level or another, if you treat it as a series of scenes rather than as a coherent whole — it’s only the tone that fragments it. The plot, on the other hand (by PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN scribes Elliott & Rossio, plus Justin Haythe whose big credit is, weirdly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), is perfectly serviceable, with enough reverses and surprises and logic and motivation to scrape by.. In particular, Tonto’s back story is cleverly prepared for, and quite moving when delivered. And fans of beautiful imagery certainly wouldn’t be able to watch this and then claim that they hadn’t seen a great deal of beautiful imagery. Some of it original. Verbinski can do shots which are epic, shots which are poetic, and shots that are funny, actual comic compositions which do support the film’s ambition to bow down to Buster Keaton.

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22 Responses to “Hi Ho”

  1. I have to say that I gave up on the film soon after the locomotive chase, and have been meaning to revisit it. Your remarks are in line with what I’ve read from other critics I respect, but I didn’t get to any ot the monument valley stuff, which generally makes a film worth watching all by itself (McKenna’s Gold, anyone?). John Carter, on the other hand, is a film I feel is egregiously maligned. I like a good deal more about it than the ending, though I like that, too. I felt that Tayler Kitsch was at least as good as he needed to be, and Lynne Collins quite fetching (you’re right about the costumes). I felt at the time, and still feel, that it’s the most enjoyable film of its kind since the first (’77) Star Wars.

  2. “How else to describe the film’s problem?” Johnny Depp?

  3. Depp is funny sometimes. Sometimes when he shouldn’t be. I didn’t mind him here, but I sometimes minded very much what he was given to do.

    Verbinski seems to be trying to summarise his entire career, with the slapstick from Mousehunt (and two villainous brothers), the desert antics from Rango, the Depp from PoC, and the nightmare stuff from Ring.

    John Carter WAS fun. But the only “human” character whose company I truly enjoyed was James Purefoy. And he barely even had a reason to be there.

  4. Purefoy fell to the editing room floor, I suspect, like the rest of the 45 minutes that John Carter needs (and probably had at one point or another) to fully succeed in narrative terms. Like you, I enjoyed him very much, and why hasn’t he been put to better use in films? “The Following” is an embarrassment for all involved, even though the cast approaches this unmentionable drek like pros. Depp needs to take a long holiday. He’s gone from being one of the most promising actors of his generation to one of its most pitiable sellouts.

  5. It was nice an hour and a half in to finally meet someone sneaky. My main problem with John Carter is the blue team were redder than the red team and then there were blue people who were neither red nor blue. That’s the problem with orange and teal.

  6. How did we reach the point where each time Depp is announced as working with Burton or Verbinski, we kind of groan rather than being interested? If he worked with John Waters again, however, I might be enthused.

  7. Purefoy’s guy isn’t just sneaky, he’s flippant. Which means he’s not painfully earnest, which is a HUGE breath of fresh Martian air in that story.

  8. The last shot of The Lone Ranger – Depp walking off into the distance – made me cry like a baby, and for me made the entire film worthwhile (even though I’d more or less enjoyed it up till then).

    Depp’s new film – Black Mass – looks interesting. In the trailer, he is still hamming fit to bust (I prefer him when he’s a straight man surrounded by other people doing the hamming, as in The Ninth Gate, Donnie Brasco, The Rum Diary and Sleepy Hollow, in which he’s comprehensively out-hammed by a supporting cast of Great Character Actors) but it looks as though, for once, his role might warrant that approach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFnLruQRG6I

  9. oh sorry, for heaven’s sake switch that trailer off the MOMENT it finishes, or you’ll be assailed by some idiot reviewing it. Sorry about that.

  10. Enjoyed this. Might now be tempted to watch The Lone Ranger one rainy afternoon.

  11. Just watched that trailer Anne. I’m in! For once he doesn’t seem to be asleep at the wheel or a big slab of pork.

  12. My issue with LONE RANGER involves loyalty to the source material. A product created for radio, the Ranger still had a definite core: a lone man, choosing to live without an identity, trying to bring community as well as law and order to the anarchy of the west. Part of the silver bullet mythology was to underscore the value of human life (although MAD had him sending Tonto to retrieve the slugs that missed their mark). A very establishment message to be sure, but it defined him.

    The TV series, a direct outgrowth, emphasized the Ranger versus outlaws who benefited from the lack of order, as well as swindlers, corrupt officials and bullying local land barons. Episodes often emphasized the people he helped (or set straight) as much or more than the villains. The recurrent message was to stand up for yourself AND for your neighbors.

    You didn’t have the masterminds or powerful forces necessary for a Big Summer Movie (in contrast to Zorro, an actual rebel against the colonial government). For the original Lone Ranger, law and order was nearly always an unironic good thing.

    The two movies based on the TV show are rife with sometimes boggling 50s attitudes (raising your small daughter to be a cowgirl instead of to wear a dress and play with dollies is villainous), but at the same time present racism (anti-Indian, anyway) as an evil. Tonto is almost lynched in the first; the locals reject a bigoted sheriff in the second. Menaces are local.

    The infamous LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER plays like a parody of Big Summer Movies, specifically SUPERMAN’s rendering a familiar origin story in epic, near-biblical terms (which, by the way, showed how to have fun with an upright hero without mocking him). Cavendish is now a would-be fascist dictator with an army and a plan to highjack a train loaded with the President and a mob of famous western heroes (all of whom were marketed as action figures despite their fleeting presence in the movie). The ambush where the rangers are killed is more like a battle from a war movie. There are even a few characters who are just marking time until the presumed sequel.

    The new LONE RANGER doubled down on nearly all of LEGEND’s story points; the difference being everything was at least better acted and produced. Cavendish is an outlaw again, a genuine savage opposed to civilization. But he’s a tool of a railroad baron with dreams of conquest, intent on imposing his own crushing law and order. With the heroes fighting against both anarchy and dictatorship, it was hard to give a sense of what they were fighting FOR.

    And like many Big Summer Movies, the scale was too damn big. The Ranger is properly dealing with people on a vast, mostly uninhabited landscape, not bringing down Bond-sized industrial installations.

    And that’s my rant for the week.

  13. That seems cogent and apt. It also accounts for the strange sense of defeat that haunts the movie. It’s partly because the Ranger doesn’t really save the day in a social sense, rescuing a woman and child and killing some bad guys but doing no wider good and failing to save the Indians. And partly because he has nothing left to fight FOR at the end, he’ll merely be against bad stuff.

  14. Black Mass looks compelling. It’s a good trailer. He seems to be channelling Christopher Walken mixed with a bit of Liotta this time. Sleepy Hollow was Roddy McDowall + a soupcon of Angela Lansbury.

  15. I’m glad to see you making a supportive revisit to this film, David. We watched it with our ten year old son and were entertained, amused and, in the chase scenes towards the end, exhilarated by it. I really couldn’t see why it was so thoroughly loathed by critics on its release. It’s terrific fun.

    Oh, and we loved Rango too. It’s always a joy to see illustrator Crash McCreery’s work given free reign.

  16. If not too scary (a definite risk), I can certainly see this delighting uncynical kids. And the more unsettling narrative elements are a useful introduction to the kinds of more knotty stories kids should get into later. We have to be trained to accept not-perfectly-happy endings.

  17. The trouble with John Carter was the title. It should have been called John Carter of Mars. But the idiots at Disney decided Mars was traif because their Mars Needs Moms flopped. John Carter is a totally generic name with no resonance whatsoever. it tells us nothing about the film — which is quite interesting.

    As for The Lone Ranger the mistake was making it about Tonto. I like Johnny Depp, but making the sidekick the lead was a major error. Besides I like Armey Hammer enormously. He was a perfect Clyde in Clint’s J. Edgar.

    And now, as Jackie Gleason would say “A little travelling music Giacomo !”

  18. I think the incoming heads of Disney deliberately torched John Carter because it was their predecessor’s project. The stockholders should have lynched them for that.

    The split focus between Tonto and TLR seems typical of Rossio-Elliott screenplays. In Mask of Zorro, old Zorro is more interesting than young Zorro, and in the PotC films Depp was always more compelling than Orblando.

  19. Randy Cook Says:

    Love the shot of the horses on the outcropping. Loved it in THE SEARCHERS, too, of course—but maybe I’m just being bitchy.

  20. This is a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve — and even the sleeve looks familiar.

  21. henryholland666 Says:

    Ah, Monument Valley, where John Ford would set movies that were supposed to be taking place in Texas (see: “The Searchers”). I finally saw Ford’s “Stagecoach” last night –my Dad was rightly appalled that I’d not seen it before– and there’s some gorgeous shots of Monument Valley in it.

    I liked it a lot, but I was just laughing during the sequence where the stagecoach is fighting off those nasty Apaches. John Wayne’s character would have been thrown off the stagecoach after about ten seconds of riding on top of it and there must have been three or four shots of him shooting a bullet and it taking out *two* Apaches, who seemingly were about the worst shots in the entire history of the Indian Wars. I also laughed when the cavalry literally rode to the rescue. Good stuff…..

  22. Ford was asked “Why didn’t the Indians just shoot the horses?” and replied “Because the movie would be over,” but later he reflected that horses were pretty valuable.

    The Lone Ranger is also set in Texas, of course…

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