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Saturday, January 8, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW - Tron Legacy

“The Grid.” Says the brilliant Jeff Bridges, “A digital frontier.” It’s almost like the beginning of a Star Trek episode. It forewarns something mysterious and unknown coming our way. In a way this monologue is still an advertisement for the movie. After two years of waiting and a rumored $120 million spent on advertising alone, Tron Legacy’s hype ended under the dim lights of the multiplex. Is it bad I’m starting this review with the film’s absurd hype?

For those who haven’t seen the original Tron, you need not bother. One of the sequels great strengths is that you need virtually no understanding of the first. Right out of the blocks we’re introduced to younger versions of the main characters, Kevin Flynn (Bridges) and his son Sam. After Flynn’s unexplained disappearance it takes twenty years for Sam to find his father in “The Grid.”

I find it odd that there’s no mention of Sam’s mother, but maybe that’s asking too much. Should we care? Director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t bother too much with those petty details. Oh, but why should he? He has a world built on lights, glass and sexy motorcycles to worry about. If anything, Tron Legacy is a magnificent technical achievement. The costumes, sets and special effects are so beautifully realized it’s like watching a ballet of lights. Dare I risk heresy and say it was more enchanting than Avatar.

But above the aesthetics are flaws that have plagued far too many blockbusters in the last decade. The film’s pace screeches to a painful halt when Kevin Flynn explains a novel’s worth of back story. This voice-over exposition is so long-winded that I can’t help but wonder if it might have made a more interesting movie.

Even Clu, Flynn’s alter ego, gets a flashback worth cutting from the film. Although the scene’s attempt to humanize the antagonist failed, I must admit, watching the young Jeff Bridges is mesmerizing. I can’t say Bridges' face, digitally enhanced to look young, is a slam-dunk; but despite the flaws I’m more impressed with how close it looked. It wasn’t as impressive as Schwarzenegger’s face in Terminator Salvation, but to keep up the look for a whole movie must have been taxing. I'm interested to see how far this technology goes in the future.

In a sense the effects behind Clu’s face represents Tron Legacy well. After all, much of the movie’s pseudo-philosophic banter is about the merging of technology with man. That’s certainly what’s happening when a very human Sam gets integrated to a “memory-disc.” And you could also say the young, CGI Bridges represents the quality of the film itself: Close, but not quite.

The ultimate problem with Tron Legacy is its inability to build any real excitement. Sure, the universe looks enticing, but, like the original, the ideas are more promising than the presentation. There’s no awe to this “digital frontier” and by the time the movie climaxes you wonder if you missed a segment of build up. Still, it’s those ideas that kept me watching. While I’m probably rating this film to leniently, I can’t shake how cool Tron Legacy seems. It’d be nice to see how cool it could be one day.

**½ out of ****

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW - Harry Potter and the Deathly-Hallows Part I

Praising the Harry Potter film franchise has become something of a given. Even at its lowest there’s charm to it and at it’s highest they’re some of the best films in the genre. Rebounding from that low point, the sixth movie, David Yates presents us with the most heart pounding chapter in the franchise.

I was one of those who cursed Warner Brothers for the decision to cut the seventh book in half. Obviously they wanted to milk more out of the cow, right? I still stand by that sentiment, but if you’re going to split a storyline in half, you might as well make it count. The Deathly-Hallows may be half a story, but it is most definitely a complete film. This is the Empire Strikes Back of The Harry Potter movies. The chips are down, the heroes are battered and the baddies have the upper hand.

Accompanying the journey with our heroes is the dreaded feeling of abandonment. Harry, Ron and Hermione have no one to turn to, nowhere to hide and running only does so much. The series has finally rammed home just how evil Voldemort is. Following a tense opening sequence that ends with a wonderfully terrified Jason Issacs and a dead Hogwarts teacher, (a.k.a. snake food) Voldemort’s power over the wizarding world becomes air tight. The Ministry has converted to a fascist regime. It’s not just Harry that’s in danger, the end of humans, or “muggles,” is nigh. This is how the Potter universe should feel. We should be weary of every corner the characters turn.

Meanwhile, under the very best performances of Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to date, the heroic trio come to blows over the seemingly futile quest to end Voldemort and… Hermione? Of course Harry has it bad for Ginny, and the film makes no secret about it—Bypassing the cutesy, shoe-tying crap from movie six for Harry zipping up her dress and kissing her like he means it. But with Hermione going all out for her friend, Ron is succumbed to jealousy. Does he mend his relationship with the two later? How triumphant would it be if he redeemed the situation by saving the day. Right?

And yet, it’s the scenes between Harry and Hermione that grab me the most. (Again.) Completely platonic, Harry has nothing to give the young woman in return for all she’s sacrificed. So with the radio pumped up he picks her up and dances with her just to get a smile on her face. These kids may have grown in to action heroes, but they’re still very human.

While the characters, acting and gorgeous cinematography are at a series high, I can’t believe some major events happen off screen. Character deaths and massive shifts in the wizarding world are revealed through word of mouth. While this may have been fine for the book, it leaves me a little baffled. We see Harry's flashes of Voldemort interrogating people; why not see how he took down the Ministry of Magic?

Though it isn’t the epic battle between those in charge and Voldemort that make The Deathly-Hallows. It’s the emotional journey of three characters who have grown up to fight a war they’ve been dragged in to. In some ways this story is reminiscent of what many in today’s world feel like. With a cliffhanger ending that does anything but ease that feeling, the Harry Potter series is set up for one hell of a triumphant finale. I pray the quality of this film carries over.

***½ out of ****

Monday, January 3, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW - The Last Airbender

I’m not entirely certain what is more confusing, this movie or M. Night Shyamalan’s career. The man threw down three of the most entertaining thrillers of my time and now he’s the Brett Favre of cinema. If there’s a trailer for his film, it will read “From the director of The Sixth Sense and Signs.” Nothing he’s done in the last seven years is worth a mention and his resume is now filled with as many blunders as Jimmy Fallon.

And yet my sympathy for the man still runs based on those three early triumphs. It may be that’s why I can’t condemn The Last Airbender as the worst movie of the year. Or maybe I really do believe it’s more worthwhile than say, Copout. Regardless, there’s no refuting The Last Airbender’s gaping void of decent filmmaking.

The Last Airbender
has the story of those classic epics. A dark empire is running over the land and a young, reluctant hero must go on a quest to gain the powers necessary for peace. The difference between this film, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is that the latter two treated their characters like Christ and His Apostles. Instead, the special effects get that respect in The Last Airbender.

Noah Ringer, the lead character Aang, isn’t terrible considering he’s had no prior acting experience. Yet I’m astounded, with all the talent in the world, Shyamalan decided being a black belt in taekwondo is more important than delivering lines. Was there a stunt man strike I wasn’t aware of this year?

Despite having more experience the rest of the cast isn’t any better. It makes you wonder what director Chris Columbus and the casting director of Harry Potter could’ve done. After Last Airbender, I dare anyone who criticized the early performances of Daniel Radcliff and Rupert Grint to tell me it couldn’t have been worse.

And as if having a poor script for poor actors isn’t bad enough, I’ve come to question Shyamalan’s shot choices as well. It was becoming evident in The Happening that his eye for great cinematography was waning. But The Last Airbender has shots that would only make a SyFy channel movie director proud. The director is supposed to make his actors look good. It’s an unwritten rule based on trust and collaboration. M. Night didn’t get the memo. He drenches the adults in even more ridiculous garb than the children and reveals the hokiness of the sets with very wide and puzzling cinematography. The 360 degree stuff worked in The Matrix. It even worked in Godzilla: Final Wars. It doesn’t even begin to work here.

And yet, with all the poor choices made with this movie I seem to have a soft spot for it. Perhaps the word-of-mouth that this was the worst movie of 2010 prepared me for something much worse. The Last Airbender is far from a good film, but it can be fun. Like I said, the story is a classic epic—Pure myth that we can all enjoy and look up too. Maybe that’s not a reason to have sympathy for a film and its director, but I’ll take it over The Happening.

*½ out of ****