Monday, January 03, 2011

Tron Legacy, The King's Speech, True Grit, The Town

Jeff Bridges as a Zen master in Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy

What does it say about a movie that even the pans that put it down seem dull and uninspired? "Great visuals, lousy story, great visuals, lousy story." Say it aloud; rinse, repeat.

Tron: Legacy steals from a lot of films (Blade Runner; 2001) but arguably most unforgivable of all is how much the movie blatantly steals from itself, without improving much on the imagery (well, there's this 3-D gimmick...). Deadly frisbee halos; gleaming turbo-cycles that leave a deadly trail; those big hover-things that are meant to be menacing but come off looking more like oversized stapler bullets--we saw all this in the first Tron (which I didn't much like either); do we need to take away precious screen time to show 'em again, in case the audience doesn't realize this is a sequel?

We get some kind of story--son seeks out father, who turns out to be a Zen master, whose sagest advice is "do nothing." "The portal closed!" daddy tells his son over and over again, his official excuse for being a deadbeat. Nothing really comes out of this; son never really gets angry at his father's long absence, and father remains affectionate and unselfish despite the unapologetically lame excuse (I'd love to have seen the Jeff Bridges of American Heart deal with this young punk--twist him into a pretzel without batting an eyelash). 

If the movie had concentrated on its escape plot the way the original did, it would be some kind of weightless, affectless masterpiece (take the effects from the original, make 'em darker, more shaded, more substantial-looking); as is, the attempts at emotional profundity seem half-hearted, and not a little silly. Tron himself--yes, the character is back, though you would never really notice unless you pay close attention--seems like a lot of effort to very little result (think of how much drama and pathos Stanley Kubrick wrung out of just a camera lens singing a song in 2001: A Space Odyssey--"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true"). 

"Forget it, it's just a movie," defenders might say. I have to agree, it's only too easy to forget this picture; you just have to clear your mind of all expectations, slacken your jaw, let the saliva accumulate on your lap. Wanna see the true legacy of this movie? Watch all the people coming out of the theaters with two hours of their lives snipped out, not a single new thought or idea having formed in their heads during that time period. Yes, watching this movie you experience no worries; you experience no growth, either. Keep on droning, fans.

The King's Speech

Tom Hooper's The King's Speech might seem like yet another comfortably likeable comedy about those crazy British royals; it bends too far backwards in its attempt to ignore all the important figures and dramatic occurrences that surrounded King George VI's reign, the better to emphasize his triumph (King Edward VIII's abdication in favor of a divorced woman, for instance; and Winston Churchill's far better-known (and far more crucial) role in bolstering British morale ("We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets"). It offers an ultimately benign view of the Royal Family (arguably Britain's--and the world's--longest running reality series) and, as such, presents few valid reasons for existing at all, other than as entertainment one might label "Mostly Harmless."

But there's more, thankfully; the film's heart can be found in the sessions between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his Australian therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Hooper stages these as largely chamber pieces, a duet between two actors on chairs in a room, and little else (the pattern is repeated in Westminister Abbey--actors, chairs, and little else--to an even more dramatically stark effect).

It's in these moments that the picture's best reason for being emerges: not because George VI was crucial to victory against the Nazis, but because he wasn't. The story isn't so much a nationwide triumph for the British as it is a personal one for Bertie (affectionate nickname for George VI), the poor, left-handed, knock-kneed child of George V (the intimidating Michael Gambon, whose very presence and booming voice makes the son's stammer understandable, if not inevitable). If someone so physically and spiritually timid can overcome his limitations, the movie seems to say, then so can we--the real reason, I suspect, the movie has resonated with so many viewers.  

True Grit

The Coen Brothers' True Grit is yet another crowd-pleaser in the No Country for Old Men mode; unlike that movie, I think this is a better fit--no ostensibly profound message meant, no pall of doom hovering over the characters, or at least no pall heavier than what you find in Westerns nowadays.

I like the Coens when they do period; they tend to come off as being warmer, more stylized, and it gives their chilly sense of humor a considerably more human aspect, as if they feel more indulgent viewing the follies of humans past than they do the follies of humans present (the two notable exceptions to this being Fargo (which had Mrs. Joel Coen in a lead role--make of that what you will), and the aforementioned No Country (a Western by default, not to mention a Cormac McCarthy novel)).

But the Coens do this one straight, with perhaps the most consistent Coen twist being that practically every character suffers from an apparently irresistible need to talk to each other to death. This isn't an unpleasant thing no; it's actually a pleasure to hear, oh, Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld try outlast each other verbally, their cadences working up and down the scale as if the words were being read from the King James Bible (which as a matter of fact a good chunk of them are).

I love it that the film is cut to an older rhythm, that of Ford and Hawks (or at least Eastwood); that the promise of a Wide, Wild West shot by Roger Deakins is left largely frustrated--the story takes place in woody, hilly Arkansas--except for a few glorious shots of Cogburn riding across the horizon (their snow scenes, however, are softly, hauntingly rendered). I love it that the final ride has the fairy-tale qualities of Charles Laughton's great Night of the Hunter--as in that film, half-asleep children race against death across a dreamlike landscape that is both tender and menacing. 

The Town

Ben Affleck's The Town is a heist film, or at least a Boston crime film. It's not a great crime film--it doesn't have the magisterial clarity of Michael Mann's Heat, it doesn't have the mercurial intensity and humor of Scorsese's The Departed, it doesn't have (if we're talking great here) the geometric precision and ruthlessness of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing

What it does have, however, is a deeply rooted sense of place, and community, of a people Affleck has known and lived with all his life.

He gives himself the lead role here, and in that he may have been a touch too self-indulgent--Affleck heroic is Affleck at his most conventional; when he directs his brother (as he did in Gone Baby Gone) he's free to give the protagonist all the ambivalent shadings the character can bear; here he is in full-on heroic mode, and the lines of morality, of right and wrong, are a touch too clearly drawn to achieve true ambiguity. The film, in effect, is a requiem, when it should really be an anatomy--a breaking apart and laying out and cold-hearted analysis of a tragedy. Too bad, nice try, looking forward to seeing his next work.

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