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Column Fri Dec 17 2010
I have to admit, I have very little to say about this decades-in-the-making sequel to arguably one of the most influential films in the last 50 years. Notice, I said "most influential" and not "greatest" films. Animators, computer gurus and other creative types have all named Tron as the inspiration to choosing their career paths and passions. Having rewatched Tron recently, I can confirm the movie isn't that good. That being said, seeing it with fresh eyes actually made me remember what it was about the movie that I loved so much as a youth. I didn't understand computers, let alone own one, so for all I knew the idea of programs with human faces talking to each other, competing against each other, etc., was exactly how the electronic world worked. Plus, I loved the hell out of the Tron arcade game. I'd never seen a film that looked liked Tron or even existed in the same universe, so I was hypnotized in a way. So much so, that I ignored the overacting and cringe-worthy dialogue. Still, I never forgot this Disney production and anytime a sequel rumor surfaced, I got a charge.
The version of Tron: Legacy I saw recently could not have looked more beautiful. IMAX 3D was built for movies like this, from the striking visuals to the pumping Daft Punk score. The film starts out strong. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of Kevin Flynn (once the world's greatest videogame developer, played by Jeff Bridges), is still fighting his father's good fight to make software free to the masses. He breaks into ENCOM (a company the younger Flynn still has controlling interest in) and steals a soon-to-be-released operating system so that he can distribute it for free online. The board of directors isn't happy about this, but there's not much they can do. When the elder Flynn's best friend Alan Bradley (still played by Bruce Boxleitner) shows up at Sam's place, he brings word of a page received from Kevin's office at his long-closed arcade. Sam goes to investigate and is zapped into The Grid.
Before we get too deep into the Grid part of the story, let me back up. During a ENCOM board meeting, we discover that one of the board members is someone named Edward Dillinger, played by Batman Begins' Cillian Murphy. That's a fairly big actor to bury in an uncredited cameo playing a character with that kind of name recognition (Ed Dillinger being the baddie played by David Warner in the original Tron). And, no, he doesn't show up at all later in the film. So why include the character at all? I'll let you figure that out, but it's something that truly annoyed me about Tron: Legacy.
There's no getting past the fact that the new look of The Grid will melt your eyes in astonishment. The crafts, vehicles, characters, buildings, all look phenomenal. And for a while, the look of the film was enough to carry me through until the story kicked in. But guess what? The story never really kicks in. Is it cool that Kevin Flynn's virtual avatar Klu still looks like a young Jeff Bridges? Of course. Is it great to see the present-day Bridges playing a kind of guru version of Kevin, who meditates while staring out of the world he has created, while his young apprentice/sidekick/arm candy Quorra (Olivia Wilde) sits at his side and does his bidding? Naturally. Wilde is so distractingly beautiful that I could have done with just two hours of watching her in a variety of vinyl outfits.
But none of these elements make up an actual story. Klu seems to want to kill the Flynns, even though he already runs the show on The Grid. I'm not sure what he would gain from doing so. Then there's the utterly bizarre performance by Michael Sheen as Zuse, who runs a club in The Grid. Why so many science fiction films feel they need a carnival barker-style character is beyond me, but Tron: Legacy certainly isn't the first to have an over-the-top huckster in its midst. Perhaps he's on hand to add to the never-ending parade of exposition. There isn't a character in this movie who isn't saddled with the task of churning out exposition to Sam (and, thereby, the audience). So much time is spent doing this that there's very little time to actually move the story forward. And in a film mounted on such stunning visuals, you'd figure that the idea of "show, don't tell" would be the order of the day.
I've heard some other critics truly bury Tron: Legacy, and I don't think it's film worthy of such a complete panning. There's good stuff here, but it gets lost in so much talk. There was an enthusiasm and loose feeling to the first film that is utterly drained out of this sequel, and that's the biggest shame. And if this entire film is merely a set up for another sequel — as a certain cameo might indicate — then Disney has wasted our time setting us up for something that will likely be bigger and possibly better. Whatever the reasons or motivations, the sad fact is that Tron: Legacy is a disappointment, but one I'd be willing to see again in theaters just to see it once more with lowered expectations.
How Do You Know
Don't you dare discount this latest work from writer-director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets, Terms of Endearment) simply because the trailer makes it look like a paint-by-number romantic comedy. Brooks is the master of the tragi-comedy, and while I doubt there's anything in How Do You Know that will make your eyes well up, there is a great deal of unexpectedly strong material here well worth your time and money.
Brooks has done something brave with his latest work (his first since 2004's Spanglish): he's hired three lead actors you would not necessarily expect this kind of depth from, despite them all being highly capable performers. Owen Wilson takes his laid-back, surfer-dude persona and tweaked it just slightly to play Matty, a major league baseball pitcher who never had trouble getting the ladies. He falls madly in love with Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a Olympic-grade softball player who was recently forced off her team so her coach could hire younger players. She's a woman who has been defined by her ability to perform on the field, and with that out of her life, she's a bit lost as to what to do next. She's also the kind of woman who has no idea how attractive she is, and Witherspoon actually convinced me she possesses that level of self-unawareness.
What makes Matty so fascinating is that he's aware of his shortcomings when it comes to relationships and he's willing to put the kind of conviction he gives to his game into his becoming a better boyfriend. He fails so completely at times, and even when he moderately succeeds, he demands credit for his ability to change. Wilson is a riot in this part, and he performs the role of a layered dope quite believably. How Do You Know is absolutely ruled by Witherspoon, who has certainly proved herself on the dramatic and comedic fronts before, but what she's doing here is so much more. She's a woman in transition, whose future is as up in the air as it has ever been, and it scares her. She cares for Matty, but since she's only dated athletes all her life, she's fairly certain there's more out there off the field.
Out of nowhere comes a call from a stranger named George (Paul Rudd), who was given Lisa's number by a mutual friend to set up a blind date. The initial call is to say that he's sorry about the mix-up, but he's seeing somebody. But after George's girlfriend dumps him when he is saddled with a federal investigation tied to his financial dealings, he calls Lisa again to actually try a date. George knows he didn't do anything illegal, but the evidence is piling up, courtesy of his less-than-honorable father (Jack Nicholson), who runs the company George works for. With the burden of his father and federal prosecutors on his head, George walks into his first date with Lisa and the results are catastrophic and hilarious.
The back half of How Do You Know is a little tougher to explain, and that's a good thing. Brooks isn't trying to give us something totally conventional here (although a smattering of underwhelming Garry Marshall-esque jokes appear here and there). Despite his desire to make us laugh throughout the film, Brooks also wants to present us with three characters whose lives are at turning points. Of course, the film still comes down to which man Lisa will choose (and whether or not George will go to jail), but by the time we get to that point, Brooks has earned this romantic-comedy trapping by steering us clear of so many other such trappings on the way to the finale. Brooks also wisely takes his time letting us get to know his characters and seeing them interact with each other in straight-up conversation. There are a couple of sequences in George's new apartment, where he and Lisa just sit and talk, that are so charming that I couldn't help just smiling while watching them. The world cannot deny that Rudd makes us laugh, but it's been a while since he gave us a character who also made us care and feel for him. He somehow manages to not only have chemistry with Witherspoon, but also with his audience.
How Do You Know isn't a movie loaded with music montages, shopping sprees, or any of the other familiar romantic-comedy sins against humanity. This is a movie about adults whose lives are changing at a time in their lives when they probably thought such changes were a thing of the past. If I had one true problem with the film (and I can't believe I'm going to say this), it's that Nicholson doesn't seem as invested in his character as he normally does. He's not quite phoning it in, but he's doesn't seem as committed as I'm used to seeing him. Still, a scene between Rudd and him, where a decision has to be made about which of the two is going to jail, is kind of perfect as Nicholson tries to sweet talk his son into taking one for the team. How Do You Know is a keeper, and like most characters in Brooks' films, I want to know how these folks turn out 5 or 10 years down the road. That's about the highest compliment I can pay a filmmaker.
The King's Speech
Director Tom Hooper has a real gift for telling historical dramas, whether he's diving back a couple of centuries for mini-series like Elizabeth I or John Adams, or more recent history with films such as Longford or The Damned United. Hooper has a no-frills approach that I fully appreciate and love because he concentrates on the inherent drama of life being lived. But there is something quite unusual and uniquely transcendent about the life being lived in The King's Speech, the story of the current Queen of England's father, King George VI (played with the perfect blend of anger and frustration by Colin Firth), whose life in the public eye was a constant source of torment for him because of his crippling stutter.
After a particularly embarrassing public address in front of thousands of subjects, then-Prince Albert (nicknamed Bertie by only his family) went into seclusion, brought out only after his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) found unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The prince and Logue don't get along at their first meeting, mostly because Logue refuses to treat the prince like royalty. For example, the therapist won't make a house call; the prince must secretly come to him. Taking one out of their setting is big with Logue. He also insists on first names only. But eventually the prince makes it back to the office, and their sessions are the stuff of legend, consisting of methods I won't ruin here.
Still, the content of the sessions and the deepening of the patient-therapist relationship probably wouldn't have been the subject of a film without two very important outside influences taking place at the same time: a pending war with Germany on the verge of erupting, and the death of the current monarch, King George V (Michael Gambon), leaving the Prince of Wales/King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) in charge. With Edward eventually abdicating the thrown because of a scandal in his personal life involving his engagement to a twice-divorced American, Prince Albert was suddenly made King of England, and speech making was about to become a regular part of his life.
The speech referred to in the film's title refers to the announcement to the British people that England was now at war with Germany. It is regarded as the single most important speech of King George VI's reign, and to see the circumstances under which it was rehearsed and given is extraordinary. Between his coronation and this landmark speech, there were attempts by those close to the king to remove Logue from his life by attacking his credentials and results, but the need for an eloquent monarch seems to have trumped all else. I was especially moved by the scenes with Albert and his family (including a brief look at the childhood version of the current Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret), but it's the scenes in which people actually yell at Albert to "spit it out" that are especially heartbreaking.
But The King's Speech best moments are, not surprisingly, the therapy lessons, which are as entertaining as they are educational, eye opening and inspiring. I'm a big fan of the buttoned-up Firth, where he plays someone who needs to loosen up just a bit to make his world a little easier. And when Albert does open up to Logue, it's like watching the birth of a life-long friendship (which is what it turned into, with Logue nearby at every major speech the king gave). There's a comforting feeling that goes along with watching their relationship take shape, and both of these great actors are doing some of their best work here. I was especially excited to see Rush putting forth a fully realized character again. I've missed that version of him. I also enjoyed seeing Bonham Carter play a role much like she did in the early part of her career. Yes, she's playing a wife, but she is truly the strength behind this man. As I mentioned, director Hooper tells the story straight and true, but that's necessary because the truth of this story has more twists and turns than most writers would attempt to create in a work of fiction. The King's Speech is an exceptional work, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
For the most part, I'm a big fan of what director Julie Taymor does on both screen and stage. I don't care what the nay-sayers spout, I really want to see her Spider-Man musical. And although I wasn't a fan of Across the Universe, I have liked her other works, Frida and Titus. Now returning to the world of Shakespeare, Taymor gives us The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren in the usually male role of Prospero (renamed Prospera), a magician who enjoys playing with the lives of those she feels have wronged her in the past.
I don't think Mirren elevates her portrayal of the character to the heights that John Gielgud did in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, but she still does great work here. Prospera creates a storm that destroys a ship offshore, but she allows the crew to all make it to her island unharmed, forcing them to wander the enchanted/haunted place while she torments them with her magic. Aided by a freedom-seeking spirit named Ariel (Ben Whishaw) she is also battling a creature named Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), who fights her for control of the island.
Among those stranded on the island are characters played by David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming and Chris Cooper, as well as the stumbling, fumbling fools Stephano and Trinculo, played wonderfully by Alfred Molina and Russell Brand. There's a love story between Prospera's daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and a member of the crew, and as you can probably tell from the names I've just unloaded upon you, there is no shortage of great actors on hand. There's also a great deal of the imaginative costuming (from the great Sandy Powell) and special effects trickery that we've come to expect from Taymor.
But perhaps what is most interesting about her approach is that Taymor doesn't go totally overboard with the visuals, instead focusing on making one of Shakespeare's most interesting and dense stories easy to understand. The Tempest is a grim story, uplifted occasionally by comic punctuation from Brand and Molina and the somewhat cheery love story. But since the bulk of the plot emerges from Prospera's anger at the crew, which includes a brother who banished her years earlier, there are quite a few bad deeds to sift through to get the more light-hearted parts. More than anything, the film is a showcase for some truly great acting, an interesting yet modest visual palette, and one of my favorite Shakespeare stories told exactly right. It's a creepy, exciting creation from a true artist. The Tempest opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
I have to thank The Onion for putting my thoughts into words as I watched this new version of Yogi Bear:
The only thing I have to add to this article is "Fuck this movie." There isn't a thing here to like, and I feel especially sad and confused by Anna Faris' involvement with this film. She's actually got talent, and uses none of it in her performance here. I'm do disgusted and upset to write anymore. Hopefully next week's Little Fockers will brighten my week.