‘The Lone Ranger’ – Hi-yo Silver, What the Heck?

Like so many, I grew up watching “The Lone Ranger” on television and listening to the old-time radio show as well. John Reid, whether he was wearing a mask or not, was a paragon of justice, and seeing him and his faithful sidekick Tonto defeat the bad guys was always deeply satisfying. I was reminded of how much I liked this character while watching Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” because I kept asking myself, who is this buffoon that has no business being around a horse during this movie?

Hollywood has had little luck in getting a respectful version of “The Lone Ranger” up on the silver screen, and this supposed 2013 summer blockbuster is the latest example. At two and a half hours, this film is a bloated mess which could have easily been shortened. It sticks its talented cast with a bland story, an uninteresting villain, and it can never seem to figure out if it wants to be a lighthearted adventure or a deadly serious film. Sadly, it is not until the last half hour when this “Lone Ranger” finally comes to life.

This “Lone Ranger” is yet another origin story about how this iconic character and Tonto first met and joined forces to bring justice to the American Old West. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a lawyer and former Texas Ranger who joins up with his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to recapture the ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who has just escaped. In the process of tracking Butch down, John and Dan are ambushed by him and his law-breaking friends, and he mercilessly takes Dan’s life as well as another part of his body from him. John is assumed to be dead, but Tonto (Johnny Depp) finds his body and nurses him back to health so they can avenge Dan’s life and defeat Butch before he does more harm.

Look, I try to enjoy movies for what they are as opposed to what I want them to be, but I found myself wanting to see a much different version of “The Lone Ranger” because the iconic character is not given the respect he deserves here. I came out of this film feeling sorry for Hammer who is a very good actor and was terrific as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” but he is forced to portray John Reid as a buffoon and wimp who has no business trying to bring any bad guys to justice. Hammer has some funny moments, but the screenplay by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio robs his character of many of the heroic qualities we love the Lone Ranger for having.

Come on, this is a movie about the Lone Ranger, so why not make it about the character we know him to be? Just like “The Green Hornet” which Seth Rogen and company really messed up, this is a film that blatantly forgets what makes its well-known characters so special. Regardless of the current controversies Hammer is currently enduring, his acting career has fared much better than Klinton Spilsbury’s did after he starred in ill-fated “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.”

As expected, Johnny Depp gets top billing even though he is playing the sidekick in this film because, well, he’s Johnny Depp. While he may be the best thing about “The Lone Ranger,” his performance is a bit problematic. Depp said he chose to play Tonto so he could right the wrongs of the past in terms of how Native Americans are portrayed in the media. While I really want to say he succeeded, I’m not sure he did. He is clearly having a lot of fun playing Tonto, but the character threatens to come off as a comical caricature than a believable Indian. I have no doubt that Depp has Native American blood in him, but it would have made much more sense to get a full-blooded Native American to play Tonto instead.

But in the midst of such comical mischief between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, we get to learn about Tonto’s backstory which involves tragedy and Native American genocide. It is at this point when the movie’s tone becomes completely erratic as it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be funny or serious. While I would never dare to gloss over the damage we did to Native Americans, this grim history belongs in another movie and not this.

“The Lone Ranger” also starts off with another side story which has a young boy named Will (Mason Cook) visiting a San Francisco county fair where he runs into an elderly Tonto who proceeds to tell him about his adventures. The movie keeps coming back to these two time and time again, and this ends up slowing its already sluggish pace down to a grinding halt. These scenes could easily been cut out of the film because they really serve no good purpose and only make us wish this was much shorter.

William Fichtner remains one of the most dependable character actors working today, but he is unfortunately saddled with portraying a bore of a villain in Butch Cavendish. The character’s makeup basically spells out how this is one very bad dude who never visits the dentist, and it’s almost like Fichtner is letting the makeup do all the work. There’s really not much to this character other than he’s just another evil outlaw, and this gives Fichtner no real opportunities to make him the least bit interesting.

As for the other actors, Ruth Wilson gets to play Dan Reid’s obligatory love interest, Rebecca, and she is given little to do other than be in constant danger. Tom Wilkinson is a welcome presence as railroad tycoon Latham Cole, but it’s no surprise to see what his character ends up becoming. And while it is cool to see Barry Pepper as U.S. Calvary Officer Jay Fuller, his character is just another one of those clichéd corrupt military characters who is just asking to get beaten up. As for Helena Bonham Carter, she is wasted in a bit part as brothel madam Red Harrington. While I love seeing Carter pop up in one role after another, this movie does not deserve her.

Verbinski runs into many of the same problems which undid “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” as it goes on for far too long, contains characters we never fully care about, and it doesn’t take long for us to give up on trying to understand the plot. While he is indeed a talented filmmaker, and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie really was fantastic entertainment, I thought after “At World’s End” he would rein things in more than he tried previously. That he did not accomplish this makes this cinematic experience all the more frustrating.  

Regardless, I have to admit that I loved the movie’s last half hour where Verbinski executes a number of brilliantly staged action sequences. Once the “William Tell Overture” music started blasting through the speakers, I found myself being immensely entertained. This was “The Lone Ranger” movie I wanted to see, the one where I was genuinely thrilled by this masked man’s crime fighting ways. This proved to be so much fun, but while this spectacle went on, I could not help but ask myself why the rest of this motion picture could not be this entertaining.

“The Lone Ranger” was not the worst movie of 2013, but it was still pretty close to being the biggest stinker of all. While it was not as boring as “The Great Gatsby” nor as abysmally bad as “The Hangover Part III,” this should have delivered far more bang for the buck. Westerns have taken a big hit over the years with poorly received duds like “Wild Wild West” and “Jonah Hex,” and this film is not going to help matters any. This was the first Lone Ranger movie in over 30 years, and now it looks like we’ll have to wait twice than long for the next one to be made.

Hi-Yo, Silver! Away from Hollywood!

* * out of * * * *

Selma

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Had “Selma” been released a number of years ago, people would probably just see it as another movie which chronicles a historical moment which has long since passed us by. But with all the upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri where violence against people of color is increasing substantially and the Voting Rights Act having taken a very unnecessary hit, this movie could not be timelier. What we see in “Selma” now feels like prologue as the fight for equal rights continues on to this very day. By now we should very well know we’re not living in a post-racial society.

“Selma” takes us back to the year 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and several others led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to obtain equal voting rights for African Americans. It was tough times indeed as Dr. King faces an uphill battle with everyone including President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who is not quick to pass a Voting Rights Act as he is still dealing with civil unrest in the South which he is desperately trying to get under control. But King knows this is not an issue that can wait much longer to be addressed.

I have got to start off by saying David Oyelowo is a powerhouse in his portrayal of Dr. King, and he holds our attention completely from the very first moment he appears onscreen. It should be noted how Oyelowo campaigned for this role for seven years and managed to keep it even after the original director, Lee Daniels, departed the project. I have seen Oyelowo do memorable work in movies like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Lincoln” and “A Most Violent Year,” but I couldn’t find a trace of him in “Selma.” It felt like I was really watching Martin Luther King Jr. resurrected and walking among us again. Not once does Oyelowo succumb to doing a mere impersonation of the man who had a dream we still want to see become a reality. There’s a saying that in the theater you play a character and in film you are the character, and Oyelowo is definitely the man here.

The other big star of “Selma” is its director Ava DuVernay who brings this ever so important story to life so vividly. Granted, in some ways her presentation of the 60’s feels a little routine, and some scenes feel one-sided when they shouldn’t. Her portrayal of the marches, however, is appropriately devastating as she makes you feel ever blow inflicted by those afraid of change. These scenes do not leave the mind easily. King and his supporters are determined to protest in a non-violent way, and it’s hard not to feel for them when their supporters are being beaten senselessly. Deep down you want to see them fight back against the brutality even though we’re aware to do so will be giving the opposition far more ammunition than they deserve.

“Selma” also features a wealth of great performances from actors like Oprah Winfrey who channels her inner Sofia (the character she played in “The Color Purple”) for her role as Annie Lee Cooper who, at the movie’s start, is cruelly denied the opportunity to register to vote. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson as he adds layers to the former President which the screenplay doesn’t always give him. Tim Roth also turns in a strong performance as George Wallace, the always welcome Wendell Pierce is excellent as Hosea Williams, and Dylan Baker is ever so effective as J. Edgar Hoover to where I ended up trying to remember the actor’s name while watching this film.

Another performance worth giving special note to is Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo played this role previously in the 2011 movie “Boycott.” She and Oyelowo have a great scene together when she questions him about his alleged infidelity, and no music score is needed to empower it as DuVernay wisely focuses on the actors for all they are worth. Watching these actors here makes for one of the most compelling scenes I have seen in any 2014 movie.

Is “Selma” accurate to what actually happened in history? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All that matters to me is that it is true to the spirit of the facts more than anything else. We are beyond the point where we should expect movies “based on a true story” to be completely accurate to what actually occurred because dramatic considerations have to be taken into effect. While some argue Johnson was more open to King’s request for voting rights than he was shown to be here, there’s no denying the one most passionate about this issue was King himself. Whether or not this movie fails on a historical accuracy level, it does succeed on a dramatic one.

Having said all this, I kind of wished “Selma” didn’t paint a number of its character in such broad strokes. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which observed its characters, regardless of color or nationality, with a lot more thoughtfulness and dimension. The fact that “Selma” doesn’t quite succeed in doing this is a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the powerful effect the movie will have on those who take the time to see it.

“Selma” doesn’t just take us back to an important period in history; it reminds us of the things we as Americans should be fighting for. The movie shows many people of different races and religions joining Dr. King in this fight for an equality no one should have to fight for in this country. But here we are years later, and it turns out the fight is far from over. Once again, we have a lot to learn from history.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Recount

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Memories of hanging chads and confusing ballots permeate our consciousness years after the heavily contested 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. We saw this played out on the networks with all their furious coverage, but with “Recount” we get a look at what went on in the campaign offices while this election fight went on to get a picture of what they each felt was fair and just.

How you view “Recount” may depend on what side of the political spectrum you have placed yourself on. I’m not sure how accurate this movie is to the real events, but I imagine it is pretty close. Coming out of it, you may feel it values one candidate over the other. But in the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about the fight to get candidates elected as it is about the fight for democracy. It is a fight for all the voters to be heard, and also a scary tale of how the fate of the Presidency can end up in the hands of a powerful few instead of America as a whole. Hopefully, this is something that we all collectively hope we never have to live through again.

“Recount” was directed by Jay Roach, best known as the director of the “Austin Powers” movies. Here, he directs a large cast of superlative actors who take the roles of many people we know well from the 2000 election and gives us a strong case of why many still thank Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency. Both Gore and Bush are basically supporting players here, and we only see them from the backs of their heads or in news footage of them during the campaign. The movie is more interested in what went on behind the scenes of the election and of the different fights made to get to the truth of who won the Florida electoral votes.

Even though we all know how this ended up and who got elected, the movie is still riveting in the same way “Apollo 13” was. The filmmakers are not so much interested in the general way things happened as they are in the specifics of the election. We see brilliantly shot examples of how chads in ballots could not be broken off as they were designed to. The opening shot of the movie shows how easily confused some Florida residents are when they are trying to vote, and yet it is not altogether clear how to vote for Gore so that you don’t accidentally vote for Pat Buchannan. The moment where one of Gore’s campaign workers rushes up to him before he is about to make his concession speech on the night of the election is scary as we all feel like we are running alongside him. Even after all these years, we have a strong emotional reaction to the thought of Gore conceding the election.

At the head of this star-studded cast is Kevin Spacey who gives one of his best performances as Ron Klain, Gore’s legal advisor on the campaign trail. The day before the election, it is presumed Gore is going to win, and Klain is offered a job in Gore’s new administration. Klain ends up turning it down as he feels it is not the way he wants to spend the next eight years of his life. But when it becomes clear there are clear inconsistencies in the voting in certain Florida counties, Klain goes right into action to make sure all the votes are recounted, as the margin of victory is only off by just over a thousand votes. Klain is aided by a large team of political strategists from Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) to Warren Christopher (John Hurt).

Spacey makes it clear from the start that Klain is an idealist more than anything else about the way the political system works. What he does throughout the movie is not motivated by his desire to see Gore become President, as he even admits he is not even sure he likes Gore, as it is by the desire to see all the votes counted and to not have any of them thrown out for different reasons like those rejected ones which contain the similar names of convicted felons. Because the election was so close, we can see in Spacey’s eyes how this election is much too important for anyone’s vote to be cast aside.

We also get great performances from actors like Ed Begley Jr. who plays David Boes who passionately fought for the recount to continue when testifying at the Supreme Court. Another great one comes from the always reliable Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) who plays James Baker who fights on behalf of George W. Bush to turn the election his way. Wilkinson plays Baker as being idealistic in his own way, and he is almost as idealistic as Klain is for the democrats. Bruce McGill is also great here as Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich who is brought in to persuade Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to stop the recount.

Speaking of Katherine Harris, who by the way wanted nothing to do with “Recount,” she is played here in a brilliant performance by Laura Dern. With makeup, which brings up harsh memories of Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” Dern gives us a Katherine Harris who is not dumb, but who is oblivious to what is going on around her. Harris says she is following the law, but never really questions those around her as to what their true motives are. Dern is one of the best actresses working today, and this movie is a good reminder of this fact.

The other thing to note about “Recount” is how the actors do a great job of inhabiting their roles as opposed to impersonating people we have become all too familiar with. The trap of playing real life people is many actors end up playing them from the outside in instead of the inside out. It takes a group of well-trained actors to play these roles, and who are not mere impressionists or mimics. Mimicry is a cool art, but it doesn’t work in a movie like this one.

Roach does a great job of putting us back in the year 2000, and he makes you a witness to all the events to where even though you know how this race ended, you still hope and pray for a different outcome. He also shows how each candidate has to be grateful for the dozens of people and hundreds of supporters who helped them get to where they ended up. The truth is we haven’t had many movies recently which have looked at the people who work so hard for the politicians they support, and these people need to be thanked for all they do. They can’t stay behind the scenes forever. They need to be seen for who they are.

In the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about how Gore got screwed out of an election he won the popular vote on. It’s not even about if Gore lost the election. It is about how democracy was lost in the 2000 election, and of how many voices were rendered irrelevant for reasons which were not altogether justified. The final scene of the warehouse where all those uncounted votes is haunting, and it  feels like an outtake of the scene from “Raiders of The Lost Ark” where the Ark of the Covenant got stored in a factory holding hundreds of boxes which all look alike. The real victim of this election was all the voters were not heard, and this left a shadow over George W. Bush’s presidency which will never be erased.

It also serves as an important document of this moment in history which we can never forget. We need to remember what happened so it never happens again.

* * * * out of * * * *