Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Tron: Legacy' Movie Review

“Tron: Legacy”, Joseph Kosinski’s sequel to the 1982 cult fave “Tron”, starts out promisingly enough. Okay, that’s not entirely true, it starts out idiotic, but idiotic in a way you can cope with. Sam Flynn (Garett Hedlund) is an orphan. His father, cyber-visionary/digital freedom fighter Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), disappeared in 1989 immediately after telling his young son about a “miracle” he experienced. In 2010, the elder Flynn’s videogame company, Encom, has transformed into a global technology juggernaut. While Sam has controlling interest in Encom, he prefers to the board of directors run the company, choosing instead to live the life of a bored, motorcycle riding twenty-something that has never worked a day in his life. And he plays yearly pranks his own company, like putting their new operating system on the internet for free, then base jumping off of the Encom Tower.

Through a series of improbable events, and entirely unexplained technology, Sam finds himself sucked into “The Grid”, a three-dimensional world that exists inside a computer, or a chip, or maybe just the “Tron” videogame at ye olde family arcade. In “The Grid” programs take human form, and Sam has to fight for his life against guys in helmets and tight black suits with neon piping, while a bass heavy score by Daft Punk rumbles around.

Sam discovers that the overlord of this world is a guy named CLU, a program his father created in his own image, and charged with building the perfect system. Only CLU has been corrupted, and rules like a fascist dictator, putting on gladiatorial games to appease the masses. Just in time, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a badass rogue warrior program, or something like that, rescues Sam from this high-tech Thunderdome.

Up until this point “Tron: Legacy” is stupid, but in a flashy, entertaining way. There are some decent chase scenes, ample action, and the world of “The Grid”, especially the light cycle sequence, looks pretty awesome. The whole thing is set up like an epic scale videogame, which is exactly what you want it look like. Pace wise the story moves fast enough that you can ignore all of the gaping plot holes and dumb shit, and just gawk at the eye candy. In reality the best parts are little more than updated elements from the original “Tron”, but it is fun to watch.

After Quorra rescues Sam, however, the movie takes a giant crap. Quorra takes Sam to his father, who lives “off the grid”, which basically means out in the wilderness where you need something like a cyber Jeep to get to. Bridges plays Kevin like a watered-down version of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski”. He’s a Zen programmer who meditates, reads philosophy, and says things like, “Dogs are cool, man”. His shtick gets old real quick.

All of the action stops for what feels like an hour, and the movie becomes a series of awkward flashbacks as the script attempts to explain everything that happened in the two decades since Kevin disappeared, and half-hearted emotion between Kevin and Sam. It’s tedious, and kills any momentum there was. Without all of the bells and whistles to prop up the weak ass story, you realize how paper-thin it really is, and “Tron: Legacy” begins a sharp downward spiral that lasts for the rest of the film. What plot there was grinds to a screeching halt, and you get bored for a while. By the time things actually start to happen again, you’re too disinterested to care. And what does happen involves Michael Sheen doing what amounts to an obnoxious, over the top David Bowie impression. In a stupid movie full of stupid shit, this is by far the stupidest.

The overall effect is something like a science fiction soap opera where you’re never quite sure what is at stake. CLU plans to lead some sort of army from “The Grid” into the real world, and apparently that will be bad, but it’s unclear how, or why, or what it will actually entail. “Tron: Legacy” is full of vain attempts to make some obscure point about striving for perfection at the cost destroying the perfect things that are right in front of you, and selflessness and sacrifice. It really, really wants to mean something, anything, but ultimately it has nothing to say.

You can forgive a movie with no story if there are at least characters to latch on to, but there aren’t any of those either. There is no emotional core whatsoever. Sure, Olivia Wilde is nice to look at, but outside of that, don’t expect to care much about anyone since the characters are as empty as the rest of the movie. The only consequential decision Sam makes is to go looking for his father, and then winds up getting sucked into cyber space, which doesn’t seem to surprise him at all. In fact, he takes all of the crazy stuff that happens to him in stride, and accepts things like doing gladiatorial battle in a digital arena as a matter of course. Maybe the life of young Sam Flynn is just so exciting that this is on par with an average Tuesday night. When he tries to explain to Kevin what the world is like now, it is painful. And CLU (as well as the young version of Jeff Bridges that appears in the first scene) is a plasticine, stone-faced CGI representation of, well, a young Jeff Bridges. He looks like a cutting room floor leftover from “The Polar Express”.

If “Tron: Legacy” was 40 shorter it would still be stupid and pointless, but it would at least be pretty to look at. But alas, the damn thing clocks in at an unnecessarily long two plus hours. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but the laughs aren’t intentional. Whenever Kevin says pretty much anything get ready to chuckle. After the first half of the movie, “Tron: Legacy” is dull, to the point of being excruciating. There is one tent pole action sequence later in the movie, but you’ve already scene it, and scene it done better, in “Star Wars”.

Maybe, just maybe, if you can get past the glaring story problems and bland characters, and don’t ask too many questions (like how the hell do these people get sucked into “The Grid”? Where do their bodies go? At least “The Matrix” deals with that.), then you might be able to enjoy “Tron: Legacy”, but don’t count on it. Which is too bad, because the movie started out looking like it might be dumb, but at least entertaining, and wound up completely vanilla and toothless instead. The word disappointment springs readily to mind.

Monday, December 20, 2010

'2012' Movie Review

How has it taken me so long to watch “2012”? It’s like Roland Emmerich made a movie out of what constantly plays in my head when I close my eyes. This is the most amazing movie I’ve ever seen, and that statement is only partial hyperbole.

As the apocalypse hits, John Cusack drives a shit-covered limousine—full of his ex, their two kids, and her new man—through a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper as it topples around them. Not only do the heroes drive away from this cataclysmic earthquake, they fly a twin-engine plane through a city as it collapses, drive and then fly away from a volcano, race a hot cloud of ash in a jumbo jet, and ride a tidal wave to Mt. Everest in a modern day Noah’s Ark.

The funniest movie since “Pearl Harbor”, “2012” is pure, ridiculous insanity. They crammed all of the awesome bits from every disaster movie into a single, incredible cinematic achievement. Do yourself a favor, watch “2012” and feel the circuitry of your brain melt into a steaming ball of flaming wreckage. Life changing and paradigm shifting are phrases that spring readily to mind.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'How Do You Know' Movie Review

Yeah, I love a good romantic comedy, and I’m not too proud to admit that. I’m also secure enough to say that I find Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson quite charming, so throw them all into the same movie, and I’m sold. If you feel otherwise, and I’m willing to bet that if you frequent this site you probably do, you’ll want stop reading now.

Romantic comedies tend to work best with a strong female lead, and in “How Do You Know”, the latest offering from James L. Brooks, you get just that. Witherspoon plays Lisa, a sporty girl pro softball player and lifelong jock. All she knows is the game. All she’s ever known is the game. She is so immersed in the lifestyle that she’s only ever dated athletes, including Matty (Wilson), a hotshot major league pitcher. Matty’s a goofy man-child, bounding around like a big, stupid dog, who also happens to have an adorable penchant for one-night stands. In his penthouse he keeps a closet full of women’s sweat suits in various sizes, and a drawer full of new toothbrushes, both as a courtesy to his temporary sleepover companions. Lisa and Matty’s relationship is based on physical attraction and Lisa’s need for something uncomplicated. George (Rudd) is a high-ranking businessman in his father’s (Jack Nicholson) company. In reality, George is so painfully nice that he, well, has no business being in business. He is sweet, good-natured, gets along with everybody (including the anxious corporate lawyer played by Mark Linn-Baker, better known as Cousin Larry from “Perfect Strangers”), and has an uptight, analytical, math professor girlfriend.

A similar problem arises for both Lisa and George in that both of their lives change suddenly, drastically, and necessarily for the better. Lisa gets cut from her softball team for being .3 seconds slower than she used to be. Now all of her jock friends look at her funny and aren’t sure how to interact with her. Overnight she becomes an outsider in her own world. George is indicted for some vague sort of business fraud that, while not his doing, is ultimately his responsibility. His girlfriend leaves him in his moment of need, though she says she’ll be waiting for him at the end, everyone in his life is legally barred from talking to him, and he has to move into a small apartment above some sort of Balkan deli. Fate, or destiny, or whatever you want to call it, brings Lisa and George together, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart.

“How Do You Know” doesn’t blaze any new trails, not even close. If you’re familiar at all with romantic comedies at all, you know exactly how everything will tie up. The true upside of the film is the cast. Witherspoon manages to be both perky and tough as a woman forced to figure out what she wants out of life. Rudd is charming and amiable as ever (is he capable of playing an asshole?), and he plays George with a Charlie Chaplain kind of slapstick flair.

One unique thing about “How Do You Know” is that there is no typical “bad guy”. Matty isn’t the callous, insensitive jackass that the hero has to rescue the heroine from, like in most films of this ilk. He’s earnest and well meaning, but also completely and utterly clueless. All of the main players are likeable, more or less, even George’s father, who, in typical Nicholson fashion these days, likes to get blustery and yell a lot every time he speaks. He may compel a pregnant woman to take a swing at him, but at the core, he’s not a bad dude and he loves his son.

“How Do You Know” has a definite James L. Brooks feel, though it’s like “As Good As It Gets” light, or “As Good As It Gets” without the character depth and emotional weight. It’s entertaining and watchable, and there are some incredibly funny moments, but in the end, it isn’t anything more than that. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a good time and worth a look, but if not, and I assume that most of you reading this site are not, you’ll probably want to stay away and watch something with explosions, gunfire, or superheroes instead.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

'The Fighter' Movie Review

“The Fighter” is a story of comebacks, in life, love, family, and boxing. Directed by David O. Russell, this what he does best, creating a world full of real, flawed people in a tough situation, and everything that goes along with that. Moments of laughter and levity mix with cruelly painful realizations. Uplifting triumphs are juxtaposed with crushing defeats. At times it can be kind of a mess, where you’re not entirely sure what the real story is, but the strength of the acting carries you through the rough patches.

Mark Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, a real life boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts. A solid fighter with heart for days, Micky has become a stepping stone for younger fighters on their way up, though knows he is more than that. Micky’s older brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), once fought, and knocked down, Sugar Ray Leonard, but that was 14 years ago. Dicky clings to his one shining moment in his past like a drowning man with a life vest, constantly jabbering about it even when no one will listen. An HBO camera crew follows him around, and he tells people they are detailing the story of his comeback, but in reality they are filming a documentary about crack addiction in America.

Dicky was once Micky’s hero, and is supposed to be training his younger brother, but shows up to the gym hours late, strung out from partying all night. At one point the family has track him down at a crack house when everyone is supposed to at the airport on the way to Micky’s next fight. Dicky is a fast-talking charmer who looks like a stressed out ostrich, and his entire family is on his hook. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), coddles him, and clings to the Sugar Ray fight as much her son, turning a blind eye to his obvious problems. There are like 50 sisters, all with giant hair, stretch pants, and crazy ass New England accents, who are basically mini versions of Alice. The sisters are the least real element of “The Fighter”. They’re cartoony and over the top in every way, which would normally be a strike against a film, but they are so damn funny that it is easy to forgive.

When Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a college drop out and bartender, things finally begin to look up for him, and he reevaluates what is really important in his life. For years everything he did was for family. He’s been dragged along in Dicky’s shadow. Alice sets up bad fights for him, just so they can get paid. Dicky makes everything about himself, neglecting Micky’s training, and even slacking off at their day job on a road crew, repaving streets. At every turn Micky plays the dutiful son and the loyal brother, and this devotion blinds him to the crippling dysfunction surrounding him, until Charlene makes him see the harm they cause. She is the first person who ever wants Micky to do what is best for Micky, while his family was content to flush his life down the crapper. While the relationship between Micky and Charlene is well done, there is not quite enough of it to fully believe that he would go against a lifetime of “doing it for the family”. That shift happens to quickly, and the film takes for granted that Micky would automatically side with his new girlfriend against his own people.

End to end the cast of “The Fighter” does an incredible job, and the acting is the real strength of the movie. Bale definitely takes center stage when he’s on the screen. Much like Dicky, he makes himself the center of attention with a nonstop stream of manic chatter. Wahlberg turns in a quiet performance that sneaks really sneaks up on you. At first you think he’s just a mook punching bag, but the scene where the documentary about Dicky airs, and Micky calls his ex, pleading with her not to let their daughter watch her uncle smoke crack on television, is absolutely brutal. Adams, who usually comes off as the cutesy, perky young girl, steps up her game and shows some acting chops as the feisty Charlene, even beating down one of Micky’s sisters on the front porch. She wants Micky to get away from his family, but at the same time, she is in imminent danger of becoming just as controlling and manipulative as they are. Leo is perfect as the harried, delusional mother, full of persecution fantasies.

The focus of “The Fighter” is less on the fighting than the dysfunctional family drama that plays out. In fact, the boxing matches are the weakest element of the film, but for the most part, Russell and writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, keep you out of the ring, except for quick little hits, until later in the film. In their defense, it is hard to tell a sports story without the “big game” moment.

While “The Fighter” is definitely one of the best films of 2010, the acting alone is enough to secure it a spot in the upper echelons, and probably garner a nice collection of award nominations as well, but in the end the story lacks focus that prevents it from being truly great. Is it Micky’s story, Dicky’s story, or the family’s story? It is certainly more of a family drama than a triumphant sports movie, but in the end, it tries to be both. One minute the focus is on Micky’s fight career, the next it’s on Dicky smoking crack. Then you move on to the romance between Micky and Charlene, and after that there is familial tension to deal with. For the majority of the film, this collage effect works fine, but by the end you want there to be a point, you want all of these threads to come together, but they simply don’t quite get there. It’s difficult when dealing with real subjects, because life isn’t always so tidy, but this is a movie that tries to be too many different things, and as a result, isn’t really any of them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'And Soon The Darkness' Review

The first thing you see in writer/director Marcos Efron’s new thriller, “And Soon the Darkness”, a remake of a 1970 British film of the same name, is a young, scantly clad woman, chained to a wall, get electrocuted by some unseen villain. This gives you the immediate impression that the film is going to be another torture porn. So it is a pleasant surprise when “And Soon the Darkness” instead turns out to be a tight, well-executed suspense film. It isn’t exploring any new territory, but for what it is, it is well done.

Stephanie (Amber Heard, who also serves as co-producer) and Ellie (Odette Yustman) are nearing the end of a once-in-a-lifetime bicycle trip through Argentina. Steph is the low key, almost prudish girl, while Ellie is the wild, free-spirited part of the duo. On their last day they come to a remote mountain village, and after a shower, decide to go out for a night on the town. You’ve seen enough horror movies to know that flaunting your sexy Americanness while in a foreign country never ends well. Ellie gets wasted, flirts with a local, and has to be rescued from unwanted sexual advances in the wee hours of the morning by Michael (Karl Urban with some sweet highlights in his hair), a mysterious American who is staying at the same hotel as the girls.

The next morning, Ellie’s raging hangover causes the girls to miss the only bus out of town that day. Since they’re stuck anyway the girls decide to go exploring, but while at a scenic waterfall they have a fight, and Steph leaves Ellie and rides off on her bike. Eventually Steph cools down, but when she returns to the falls to retrieve Ellie, there are signs of a struggle, but no signs of Ellie. The local authorities are no help, and none of the villagers will talk to her, so, desperate and with nowhere else to turn, Steph enlists Michael to help. But Michael has some secretes of his own, and may not everything he seems. As the sheriff tells Steph, “just because he speaks English, doesn’t mean you should trust him.”

You’ve seen this set up before—pretty girls in trouble, picturesque surroundings that hide a sinister underbelly, frustratingly unhelpful provincial police, a helpful stranger who may not be trustworthy, and of course the if-only-they’d-caught-that-bus-everything-would-be-okay moment. The main question is, even though “And Soon the Darkness” is full of standard horror-thriller elements, will the film deliver something unique or compelling? The answer to that is yes, it does.

The story is tense and convincing. You feel Steph’s rising panic as she frantically searches for her kidnapped BFF. The plot has ample twists and turns, taking you in some unexpected directions, but these shifts are never forced, arising instead as a natural part of the narrative, as opposed to jumping out of thin air and trying to shock you. MINOR SPOILER—you’re watching “And Soon the Darkness”, waiting for them to screw everything up with some sort of hideous attempt to blow your mind, like “it was all a dream” or something on par with that, but it never happens. There is no twist ending. Instead of going in for cheap tricks and scares, Efron, and co-writer Jennifer Derwingson, rely on good storytelling to construct an effective, suspenseful movie.

“And Soon the Darkness” also looks great. Sweeping shots of Argentine mountains are scenic and impressive, and add to the isolated tone and atmosphere of the film. The climactic scene takes place in a gray, windswept wasteland that look like the desiccated skeleton of what used to be a luxury resort. It could be an unused location from “Cyborg”, or some other post-apocalyptic tale. Turns out it is actually the ruins of a town that flooded years ago and was abandoned.

While not terribly original, “And Soon the Darkness” is an entertaining film that, within genre confines, delivers exactly what it promises—tension, suspense, and a story that catches and holds your attention throughout. Check it out, it’s worth a look. It is also worth noting that this is Efron’s first time out as a feature director, and if this is any indication, good things will come in the future.

“And Soon the Darkness” opens on December 17th in a limited theatrical run, with the DVD/Blu-ray release to follow shortly on December 28th.

The DVD comes with a collection of deleted scenes, and an excerpt from Efron’s video diary that serves as a behind the scenes feature narrated by the director. A commentary track with Efron, editor Todd Miller, and cinematographer Gabriel Berinstain, has a lot of information about the trials and tribulations of shooting a low-budget, independent movie in a remote, foreign location.