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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Flm Review - TRON: LEGACY

It will come as a surprise to precious few that Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski has an extensive background in architecture. A mere glimpse at the expansive blackened cyber-city known as the Grid reveals an almost fanatical attention to detail. Thickly populated with intricately designed jagged towers, sleek, shiny platforms, glass-walled gladiator arenas and cavernous hallways, Kosinski and his team create an almost oppressive sense of machine-tooled exactitude. Even the smaller interiors are gorgeous. Take one step into Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin Flynn’s abode and you’ll bear witness to the most charmingly antiseptic futuristic Zen palace this side of the Matrix. And that’s just the sets, never mind the fantastic-looking light cycles, planes and 4-wheel runners. Forget Xzibit, if I ever need my room or ride pimped, I’m calling Kosinski and his crew of design dynamos.

Indeed, as a honkin’ piece of big-with-a-capital-B blockbuster filmmaking, Tron: Legacy sure is mighty pretty to look at. So persuasive are the picture’s eye-popping visuals and glossy production work that we almost don’t notice that most of the inspiration seems to have stopped at the design stage. Like Avatar, this is another hyper-costly blast of musty storytelling gussied up in all the shiniest CG bows and ribbons.

Which, of course, isn’t to imply that Tron: Legacy is devoid of fun. The first hour of the film plays like a truncated remake of the original 1982 cult hit, full of disc battles featuring daredevil choreography and a multi-layer light cycle race that amps up the velocity and danger factor. There are also nifty moments involving a quartet of simultaneous-stepping babe-bots in fetish gear and a virtual saloon overseen by a foaming-at-the-mouth Michael Sheen, playing an underground contact with all the subtlety of Willy Wonka on trucker speed.

Unfortunately. none of these highlights really play a prominent role in the by-the-numbers main storyline, which follows rich whiz-kid Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), who has been on his own since his father vanished off the face of the earth in 1989. Now residing in a storage container with his camera-savvy dog, Sam lives off his shares from ENCOM, the tech firm father Flynn once worked for, conducting vigilante-style annual sabotage pranks on the heartless company. He’s basically Bruce Wayne without the motivation to accomplish much beyond irritating boring old dudes (and a nerdified Cillian Murphy) in business suits.

Things take a turn for the technological, however, when Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Flynn Sr.’s old Grid buddy, tells Sam that a beeper call has been made from Kevin’s dusty old office at Flynn’s Arcade. After all-too-easily finding the top secret subterranean lair (Where “Sweet Dreams” apparently plays on a never-ending loop), Sam is zapped via laser beam into the Grid, which is now ruled with a silicon fist by Clu, a Polar Express-ian young doppelganger of dear ol’ dad. Sentenced to partake in deadly games against warrior programs in futuristic motorcycle gear, Sam is rescued by wide-eyed ass-kicker Quorra (Olivia Wilde – officially replacing Speed Racer’s Christina Ricci as the fantasy girl for anime “enthusiasts” everywhere). She’s been sent by her creator – *drum roll* – Kevin Flynn, who decided eons ago that the best way to combat Clu was to just hang out, man. Now a grizzled cyber-hippie, Flynn Sr. is much sought by the sinister digital twin for his light disc, which contains every secret necessary for Grid – and perhaps world – domination.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wrapping high concept ideas around a tried-and-true formula, Tron: Legacy too often feels like it’s following a checklist. The story doesn’t flow so much as leap mechanically from one beat to the next. It’s stated early on that, to return home, Sam et al. must reach a portal on the other side of the Grid. Since the portal is apparently only open for a short span of time, why is there no sense of rising tension as our heroes race bravely towards it? There’s a classic ticking clock set-up, but Kosinski and writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz fail to exploit it. Similarly, Sam has to break into Clu’s headquarters to retrieve a valuable item. To say that he meets very little opposition in his mission would be an understatement. Like too much of the film, it feels like the filmmakers are going through the motions, hitting the required genre tropes without comprehending why they’re crucial to building pace and excitement.

The slapdash screenwriting also extends to two of the film’s plot twists. There is a key character reveal, and a change of heart, which is dealt with so haphazardly that it’s positively baffling. Although Tron fans steeped in the mythology of the property may be able to fill in the gaps, non-converts are likely to greet the intended crowd-pleasing moment with ambivalent shrugs. Also frustrating is Kosinski’s bungling of Kevin Flynn’s immense scientific breakthrough, which has led to the creation of new life-forms called ISOs. They’ll revolutionize science, religion and medicine, he declares. An intriguing concept, for sure, but no one involved with the script deemed it necessary to develop this idea much beyond a single line of dialogue.

These story deficiencies could have been softened had the actors been given three-dimensional characters or intelligent dialogue. Jeff Bridges is characteristically warm and charming - and drops a few amusing Lebowski-isms – but isn’t given a whole lot to do beyond act reluctant, provide exposition and share some emotion-free father/son moments with Hedlund. His motion-captured performance as Clu is serviceable but lacks spark – the character is sunk by spotty animation and an utter absence of villainous charisma. Hedlund and Wilde manage to mine what they can from their clich├ęd roles, but ultimately fail to make much of an impact. They do, however, get the privilege of engaging in perhaps the most groan-inducing romantic exchange since George Lucas waxed poetic about sand.

By the time the Star Wars-inspired climax and dramatic denouement arrive, the picture feels like its spinning its wheels creatively – not a good sign for a supposed franchise re-starter. It is a mite frustrating to see hundreds of millions of dollars worth of dazzling art direction, costumes and computer programming working overtime to compensate for a screenplay that could have been easily (and inexpensively) retooled to provide a sturdy backbone for the impressive fireworks. Tron: Legacy is harmless and forgettable, a 1.0 blockbuster trying to operate in a 2.0 world.

2.5 out of 5

P.S.: How to Train Your Dragon remains unbeaten as the best 3D presentation of 2010. Legacy's muted use of the technology is a true disappointment and something of an insult when taking into account the $4 ticket surcharge.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Film Review - BLACK SWAN

Black Swan is such an overpowering cinematic experience that attempting to recall it after the fact is akin to trying to remember the specifics of a bravura on-stage performance. Rather than a coherent whole, we’re left with a series of fractured images and sensations of hypnotic splendour connected to one another by a relentless jolt of adrenalized awe. To simply call it a movie is missing the point; the joy of Darren Aronofsky’s twisted tribute to Swan Lake is that it is so engrossing and spontaneous that we feel as if we’re the opening night audience to a thrillingly dangerous new stage show. We don’t know what to expect next but the crackling energy in the room tells us it’s going to be unforgettable.

Occupying centre stage is Natalie Portman, playing the role of Nina Sayers, a gifted young ballerina whose fierce determination is counterbalanced by a nearly stifling innocence. Technically, she’s a worthy candidate to win the lead in her company’s eagerly anticipated new adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, but lusty director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, reliably skeezy) has some misgivings. While Nina may be ideal to play the White Swan, he’s unsure she has the seductive abandon to tackle the Black Swan. Perhaps if she was a little more like mysterious new arrival Lily (Mila Kunis), the rough-around-the-edges dancer with a dangerous erotic streak and a penchant for recklessness and moody black attire...

But wait, does Lily really exist or is she merely a figment of Nina’s increasingly fevered psyche? The answer remains elusive to the troubled dancer even after she wins the coveted job. As she begins her rigorous, unconventional training under the demanding Leroy, and her obsessive mother Erica (a scary Barbara Hershey) battles to maintain control over her life, Nina becomes more and more consumed - both physically and mentally - by Lily and her starmaking role. Soon, she's spiralling into the unknown and undergoing the early effects of a metamorphosis. What could be waiting for Nina on the other side of this transformation? And why won’t those strange scarlet scratches marking her back ever heal?

Aronofsky, an established master at balancing disparate story elements, has fashioned himself a gritty and unsettling homage to the paranoia-soaked horror classics of the late 60s and 70s. Although the presentation is intentionally grimier (cinematography Matthew Libatique’s intentionally unflattering, grainy camera work is the perfect mixture of ugliness and beauty), Black Swan could just as easily be a great lost film from Roman Polanski’s heyday. And, like its brilliant influences, this picture will consistently make you cringe and shift uneasily in your seat. No one mines involuntary shudders from scenes involving hangnails and fingernail trimming quite like Aronofsky.

Yet, despite its numerous cinematic references, Black Swan is wholly an Aronofsky film, continuing many of the themes and visual quirks of his previous efforts. The director adores doggedly determined protagonists who, like auteurs, delve headlong into their passions in order to create their ideal world. Similar to The Wrestler’s Randy the Ram, Nina is driven by the unflagging desire to achieve glory on the theatrical stage. Aronofsky frequently shoots her just as he did Rourke’s character, from behind with a handheld camera, as she navigates her way throughout the ballet company’s rehearsal space and lower bowels. There’s an immersive fly on the wall quality to the picture that captures the day-to-day sweat and toil of the industry. Black Swan also boasts a strong element of body horror when depicting Nina's physical makeover. The spreading raw back scratches bear a distinct resemblance to the festering injection wounds from Requiem from a Dream – gradually deteriorating external injuries mirroring intensifying internal turmoil.

Aronofsky may be the true star of Black Swan but Natalie Portman runs a very close second. Gaunt and vulnerable, with a toned professional’s physique, the actress ventures into previously unexplored territory, playing a naive shrinking violet at the mercy of the dominant personalities around her. Not only utterly convincing as a career dancer, Portman commands the screen every second she’s on-screen (Which is roughly 90% of the film). Certainly her visceral and nightmarish descents into madness are the most attention-grabbing, but it’s her charged interactions with the supporting cast that are the real showstoppers. There’s one scene, wherein Cassel teaches her character about seduction, which is as icky-sexy mesmerizing as Naomi Watt’s big audition in Mulholland Drive. It also bears mentioning that Portman and Hershey form the most destructively dysfunctional mother/daughter combo since Carrie. Although I’m not yet sure I’d call Portman’s work here the best performance by an actress this year, it’s undoubtedly the bravest.

If Black Swan has a shortcoming, it’s that Aronofsky’s lack of subtlety with the material has a tendency to dull the tragedy of Nina’s arc. Like ballet or theatre, the emotions are broad, sweeping and melodramatic – a necessity in those venues for communicating with attendees seated both near and far – but as a film it tends to hold us at a cool distance. We’re invested in Nina’s journey, but never quite locked in on a deeper personal level.

However, the picture is so confidently well-crafted, and ends on such a triumphant, spine-tingling high note, that it’s extremely easy to pardon the director for his slight shortfalls. It’s a miracle worth celebrating that a film as unabashedly weird and risky as Black Swan managed to come to fruition in the current filmmaking climate. Ultimately, Aronofksy’s latest looms large over the majority of 2010’s cinematic offerings and is worthy of not only your attendance but a standing ovation as well.

4.5 out of 5

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Film Review - THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA - THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER

As I sat watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the latest chapter in the spotty Chronicles of Narnia film franchise and the first produced by 20th Century Fox, I began to wonder why I felt no sense of emotional attachment to the lush, miraculous world on-screen. After all, with its emerald green hills, towering castles and cliff faces, dreamy, tranquil blue seas and colorful population of imaginative creatures, it should be the stuff of daydreams; a gorgeous, sprawling cinematic vista to escape for a few hours. Yet, instead everything feels flat and remote, an amalgamation of visual ideas from better fantasy films with more exciting tales to tell.

The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the source material – C.S. Lewis’ beloved universe has no shortage of sparkling invention – but rather the increasingly problematic disconnect between the episodic films. I’ve made two previous pilgrimages to Narnia, with the previous Walt Disney-produced films The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005 and Prince Caspian in 2008, and have yet to be given a cohesive layout of the land. Unlike The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series, there’s been no attempt to establish a strong, unified cinematic Narnia. We jump haphazardly from new location to new location without a strong idea of where we’re going or how one place relates to another. Why is the brave King Caspian (Ben Barnes) sailing the open ocean at the beginning of Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Doesn’t he have a kingdom to run back, um, somewhere or other?

While I’m sure hardcore Narnia fans have no problem filling in the gaps, the rest of us are left confused and disoriented, treading water like Edmund and not-so-little-anymore Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) near the beginning of Dawn Treader. Pulled back into the magical land through a painting, the two plucky WWII-era teenage Brits are reunited with Caspian and swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (now voiced by Simon Pegg, taking over from Eddie Izzard) and embark on a perilous ocean quest to collect seven enchanted swords which have the power to stop a sinister green mist that has been consuming Narnians. To complicate matters, the two siblings have accidentally brought along their snivelling, aptly named cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), who has never met anyone (audience members included) he can't aggravate.

Unlike the pleasant first entry and the dire second, Dawn Treader seems more intent on pleasing the young folk in the crowd, maintaining a determined, brisk pace that focuses on special effects and action and often leaves character and story development by the wayside. Each of our three Earthly protagonists are given a single trait to conquer (Lucy wants to be beautiful like her sister Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund lacks confidence in his masculinity and Eustace needs to stop being a selfish twerp) and overcome them all too easily. Barnes’ Caspian – who has dropped the annoying accent from the last film – is more or less just along for the ride, occasionally required to swing a sword or provide exposition.

Dawn Treader’s script, by returning series scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is chock-a-block full of allegedly important events and characters that are ultimately glossed over in the service of holding attention spans. There are no less than three key figures who are introduced to great fanfare and then unceremoniously scuttled off-screen once they’ve delivered their key piece of dialogue. If you’re able to keep track of any names beyond those of the lead protagonists my (feathered) hat is off to you. Make no mistake, I’m not arguing in favor of the overindulgent bloat that dragged down Prince Caspian, but new director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine have gone too far in the opposite direction, stripping their movie of nuance and soul. This Narnia adventure is efficient and pretty, but not particularly engaging.

However, there are still a handful of wonders to behold. The introduction of a not-so-sinister fire-breathing dragon to the story manages, improbably, to inspire a few moments of gentle warmth while Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the franchise’s trusty Jesus Lion, has a moving third act scene holding court on a gorgeous white sand island. There’s also a thrilling sea battle against a ravenous serpent beast and nice little bits featuring a living star (Laura Brent, a breathtaking spectre of otherworldly beauty), as well as transparent mermaids (who resemble more fully-formed relatives of the water tentacle from The Abyss) that splash and dive freely alongside the Dawn Treader. These dazzling moments operate as very welcome diversions in a feature film that too often feels sadly light on amazement.

Despite being three films in, this series just isn’t hitting the crucial audience-pleasing notes required to warrant its continued existence. Although The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is perfectly inoffensive – and will provide suitably harmless entertainment for kids with free time over the holidays – it lacks the sweep, majesty and overpowering sense of awe necessary to reach the hearts and imagination of its audience. During the film’s closing it’s implied the time has come for Lucy and Edmund to leave Narnia behind and move on with their lives. The franchise’s filmmakers should probably consider following suit.

2.5 out of 5