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12/16/10 2:30pm

Tron: Legacy
Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Tron (1982) was Disney’s attempt to recreate the blockbuster success of sci-fi spectaculars Star Wars and Star Trek. Though it wasn’t exactly a flop (grossing $33 million on a budget half the size), it fell short of industry expectations and the studio abandoned plans for a franchise. It’s sometimes referred to as a cult favorite, but Tron hasn’t really enjoyed much of a die-hard fan base. Its groundbreaking computer animation dated quickly —as did its affinity for first-generation home computers and early 8-bit arcade games —but the elements that made Tron truly inane are timeless: the nonsensical internal mythology, the embarrassingly canned dialogue, the line readings that somehow made it worse.

But Tron has lived on in popular imagination thanks to shows like The Simpsons and South Park. Its instantly identifiable style (Cartesian-graph landscapes populated by primitive CG objects and day-glow-costumed characters) became a free-floating cultural reference, ironically embraced as kitschy retro-futurism. And all for the better, really. Tron works as a vaguely recollected nostalgia item much more than a feature-length experience (which presumably is why the upcoming Blu-ray restoration won’t be released until sometime next year).

Tron: Legacy, helmed by first-time director Joseph Kosinski, is both a 3D remake and narrative sequel. It replays the structure and set pieces of the original while working in a new plotline that connects the films across the (literalized) generational divide. Our hero is Sean Flynn (life-sized Ken doll Garrett Hedlund), the only child of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role), the slacker-hacker who first zapped into a computer three decades ago. Legacy picks up a few years later, with Kevin as a work-obsessed widower and oddball CEO given to Stewart Brand-style utopianism. (“A digital frontier will reshape the human condition!”) But one night he disappears, mysteriously and without a trace.

Skip ahead twenty years. Sean has become an unfulfilled rich kid, pulling practical jokes on daddy’s company (hacking and pirating a next-generation software program on the night of its high-profile launch) while refusing to assume the power his majority-stockholder status entitles him. A mysterious message from his father’s past (delivered via beeper page!) leads Sean to Kevin’s dust-choked video arcade. One secret staircase later, Sean is clicking through DOS screens on an old-school workstation when he too gets laser-pixilated.

It’s not until this point that the 3D kicks into gear. (Woaaah. wormhole!) Sean lands inside the computer’s techno-gothic metropolis, a neon-lit dystopia without a sun (yet somehow lots of fog) and completely devoid of organic matter (except when it’s randomly not). Legacy is technically better executed than Tron, of course, but conceptually it’s a lot less interesting. The original universe soldered together hard-drive materiality (microchip buildings, electric-circuit streets, motherboard cityscapes) with pop-software algorithms (Pong transformed into a gladiatorial arena). Legacy‘s digital universe is a mix between Joel Schumacher’s Gotham and an Apple store.

There are several sequences where sheer visual spectacle and Daft Punk’s electronic score lockstep to awesome cinematic effect. The iconic light-cycle arena of the original, where motor-racing contestants erect mazes of walls in their wake, attempting to trap and force-crash their opponents, is here re-imagined as a multilevel complex with crystal clear on-ramps. The set-piece kicks off with a slow-motion mid-air leap in which Kevin’s light cycle self-assembles, articulating a 3D schematic that rapidly materializes into a fully detailed bike. The technical details are flawlessly rendered. But for all the digital razzle-dazzle, the action scenes sometimes stumble over basic elements of craft: the failure to visually distinguish foot soldiers from key players, or to clearly establish the rules of engagement and laws of physics governing the action. When two characters wipe out and crash in identical ways, why does one quickly recover while the other literally goes to pieces, pixilated to death? It makes the whole game feel rigged. I mean, obviously it’s rigged (a scripted and storyboarded fiction) but our suspension of disbelief requires the progressive unfolding of the action to obey its own rules.

But though Kosinski has some trouble orchestrating movement, he has a richly architectural sense of space that makes seamless, expressive use of dimensional depth. He deploys 3D neither as an ostentatious gimmick (stuff flying at your face!) or a meaningless afterthought. He designs one of the film’s major settings as a mountain-retreat version of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion; its smooth, planar surfaces (plate glass windows, reflecting pools), minimalist furnishings (right down to van der Rohe’s iconic white leather chair and ottoman) and interpenetration of inside and outside space looked so real in Imax 3D that I felt I could have stepped right in.

Kosinski comes fresh from a career in advertising (the highlight of which was a series of funny, ironically lyrical TV spots for Gears of War). He brings with him a predilection for slick, hermetically sealed imagery: polished materials, clean lines, monochromatic effects with carefully placed accents (here, either antifreeze blue or magnum orange-red). But the cumulative effect of Legacy‘s visual style is too unified. Every scene looks more or less the same, icy and antiseptic, like a two-hour breath-mint commercial. There’s no sense of modulation or variation across scenes, of discrete worlds within a world. There are exactly two scenes where the colors red, green or yellow appear (in a banquet spread and a cocktail bar) and they look ostentatiously out of place —the film has become that straight-jacketed in its own style. Kosinski has a talent for composition and a facility with 3D technology (or a really great technical team), but he needs to adapt his short-form aesthetic for the demands of feature-length filmmaking: planning out an entire film and not just polishing the details.

If I’ve avoided discussing the story in Legacy, that’s because it’s a stupid mess of clich éd characters, confused and confusing narrative trajectories, and wordily overwrought exposition that makes little sense. There are four classes of beings in this universe: users (humans), programs (pieces of computer code that look and act just like humans), ISOs (isomorphic algorithms: programs that were not created by a user but spontaneously came into being, acting and looking just like everyone else) and “CLU” (a program doppelganger of the young Kevin Flynn, brought to life as a young Jeff Bridges through creepy computer animation). What this metaphysical genealogy means is totally obscure, despite many nonsense asides about its mind-blowing profundity. “The conditions were right and they came into being! Don’t you know what that means?!” I sure as shit don’t. But never mind philosophical resonance, I’d settle for a clearer understanding of the adventure-film plot. The characters’ short-term goals, overarching motives and deepest fears seem to shift arbitrarily from one scene to the next. At one point an ISO asks Sean, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m a user,” he answers. “I’ll improvise.”

That must have been the screenwriters’ maxim. This tissue of nonsense is the mythological foundation for what will someday become a billion-dollar franchise? (A Disney channel cartoon series and theme-park attraction are already under way.) It makes you wonder how well Disney learned the lessons of the original Tron.

Opens December 17

07/22/10 2:30pm

Salt
Directed by Phillip Noyce

“Dad” is an Olympic wrestler and all-around Slavic superman. “Mom” is a chess grandmaster with icy-hot self-possession. Their “kids” are an elite unit of Soviet-era orphans with the brains, brawn and covert-ops training needed to infiltrate the CIA. And the only thing nuclear about this family are the warheads they’re planning to detonate.

Now doesn’t that sound like a promisingly stupid premise for a schlocky summer escape? The Cold War clichés in Salt might have made for a great throwback to high-80s Action, a simpler cinematic era when the Weapons were Lethal, the villains Died Hard, and the heroes weren’t afraid to go Over The Top. Salt is certainly dumb enough to make the grade, but it lacks the nonstop absurdities and exploitation indulgences that make for truly enjoyable trash. Everything about this Angelina Jolie vehicle feels so staid and self-serious you’d think she were baiting Oscars with Rwandan genocide or some shit.

I’d mercifully spoil the plot for you but it stops making sense once you get past the set-up. Super spy Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is one of the now adult double-agents deep undercover in the American intelligence community. Or is she? When one of the taskmasters from kiddy boot-camp defects to Washington and fingers Salt as his mole, it’s unclear whether he’s just blown her cover or part of a conspiracy to neutralize the tactical threat she represents. When her husband goes missing and her superiors start in with the suspicious questions, Salt takes off without explanation—either to clear her name or to kick off World War 3.

The hanging question of Salt’s true motives was pretty much the only thing that got me through the first fifty minutes of flat-footed chase scenes and across-the-board comatose performances, each one as colorless as the grey-scaled set designs. But by the film’s midpoint, the plot twists and turns double back on themselves in such logically impossible ways that you know the puzzle will never resolve itself satisfyingly. And then, dear god, there are another fifty minutes. Not until the final scene, unsure whether Salt was setting itself up for a sequel or about to unspool another act, did I experience anything resembling narrative tension.

Director Phillip Noyce’s style is of the kind that critics reliably describe as “craftsmanlike,” which is a nice way of saying that it has zero personality. I love the kinetic kick of a well-constructed action scene as much as any formalist or fan boy, but Salt‘s high-stakes pursuits and shoot-it-out confrontations are so pro forma and perfunctory that they’re really pretty tedious. There is a relentless linearity to Noyce’s set pieces; it’s as if he were improvising each uninspired shot as he went along, unable to set up and pay off anything of enjoyably involved intricacy. A chase that culminates at a highway intersection had all the elements required for a killer showstopper: a complex but clearly defined architecture (looping on-ramps and grade-separated junctions) and multiple vectors moving through space (pursuer, pursued and a whole mess of automobiles). But the opportunity is wasted. The cutting has no unifying tempo, the geography is simplified yet confused. In a later scene that precedes an assassination attempt, the Secret Service agent overseeing security remarks to Salt’s former partner, “If your girl tries anything here, it would have to be pretty amazing.” Surprise! It’s not.

Most of Salt‘s audience will be drawn in by the promise of Angelina’s pouty-lipped smile and Amazonian authority. Though Jolie has proven herself a capable action heroine (from her roles in the Tomb Raider films to Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the physicality of her performance is a lot less convincing here. When she straps on a backpack and runs down the street, arms pumping away, she’s made to look like a middle-aged mom on her early morning power walk. But what’s most surprising is that Salt makes so little use of Jolie’s sex-kitten wiles. The only scene with any erotic charge occurs in a North Korean prison where Salt is chained to a dirty cellar floor in her panties—not really my thing, but maybe you’re into it.

The question of Salt’s true identity at first draws you in, but each successive revelation makes her character seem less, not more complex. And here one of Salt‘s few clever details—a nesting Russian doll that puns visually on the heroine’s layered personas—ultimately ends up backfiring on the film. For every empty shell of an assumed identity that the plot cracks open, the character revealed beneath seems at once basically the same and yet progressively less substantial.

Though the producers no doubt intended Evelyn Salt to become the distaff Jason Bourne, the latter’s effortless awesomeness makes Salt look as bad-ass as Harriet the Spy. The film is worse than bad: it’s bland, approaching blah. Is this really going to become the next big franchise? I couldn’t take another pinch of Salt, never mind a whole trilogy.

Opens July 23

05/07/10 4:02pm

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Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, which screens at midnight tonight and tomorrow at the IFC Center’s Nicolas Cage series, is a conspiracy-driven police procedural about official corruption, friendship and fidelity, private and public morality⎯except not really. Mostly it’s a movie about movies, a film in which personal motivations and interpersonal relationships are subordinated to the structural imperatives of self-reflexive spectacle. De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible) start out with a real potboiler of a premise: the Secretary of Defense is assassinated during a heavyweight title match and a crooked Atlantic City cop (Cage) must lock down the entire arena and unmask the conspirators via the video surveillance systems and “14,000 eyewitnesses.” The plot⎯as structurally overdetermined as an acrostic poem or a crossword puzzle⎯is self-consciously “by-the-numbers”: “The redhead [who] you followed is the one who told Tyler to throw the fight. She’s One. The shooter’s Two. Tyler’s Three. The drunk who shouted the signal is Four. And whoever was on the other end of that radio is Five. Five people make a conspiracy!” As anyone familiar with the work of Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Body Double) might have guessed, this scenario is another launching point for the director’s pop-ontological investigation of cinema itself.

“Our eyes see very little and very badly,” the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov wrote in a 1926 manifesto to his “Kino-Eye” collaborators, a movement which Snake Eyes invokes in a jokingly literal-minded way. “And so man dreamed up… the movie camera to penetrate more deeply into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.” This meta-narrative of deconstruction/reconstruction is the real core of the film. If it lacks the philosophical resonance of, say, Rear Window, there’s still something undeniably artful about De Palma’s analytical precision in manipulating point of view and range of knowledge, from the film’s famous opening⎯an elaborately choreographed and apparently (there are several well-hidden edits) uninterrupted twelve-minute Steadicam shot⎯through the series of narrated flashbacks and video-feed replays (“Punch up camera three!…Rewind!…Zoom In!”).

During these sequences De Palma has style to burn. That opening shot, unfolding with the motorized precision and kinetic kick of a Rube Goldberg machine, is a self-consciously virtuosic setpiece meant to one-up similar camera moves in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Robert Altman’s The Player. A lot of critics have dismissed this kind of overt stylistic play as self-indulgent, even “masturbatory.” To which I can only respond: duh! When directors start fetishizing the length of their Steadicam sequences with the competitive pride of porn stars measuring their endowments, we are obviously in the realm of gratuitous exhibitionism. And what’s wrong with that? If you’re game for the kind of showboating set pieces, empty in-jokes and meta-cinematic mechanics that make people love-hate the whole “movie brat” generation, Snake Eyes offers forty (non-consecutive) minutes of eye-popping, button-pushing, ego-stroking playfulness.

The problem in Snake Eyes is that you have to sit through the rest of the film. As soon as that gunshot goes off it’s like De Palma blows his load—the levels of energy and interest abruptly drop—and he just takes too long to recuperate: laboriously maneuvering the characters into position for the next showstopper, plodding through some exceptionally tedious exposition, investigating the remarkably forgettable cast of supporting players. The film picks up again in the reconstructive flashbacks while never really recovering that frisson of the opening sequence. But where Snake Eyes founders in the second act, it just drowns in the last, awash in the bathos of an implausible moral redemption and an unearned romantic reunion, and capped with the worst end-credits song I’ve ever heard (“Sin City” by Meredith Brooks).

This is the kind of movie I can recommend in good faith only to preadolescent boys and postgraduate film students. Everyone else will probably find themselves checking their watches.

01/08/10 12:30pm

Base Instincts: Verhoeven in the USA
Weekend midnights at the IFC Center, January 8-February 20

The intergalactic military epic Starship Troopers may be the most analytically exacting critique of Fascist aesthetics this side of Susan Sontag, but for director Paul Verhoeven “the essence of the movie is really young kids fighting giant bugs.” It’s a characteristically smartass description of his slyly subversive blockbuster, but what makes the gloss so funny is that it’s also perfectly sincere. Buzzing with armies of CG insects and enough high-school drama for an outer-space spin off of The O.C., Starship Troopers is at once an anti-imperialist allegory and a mindlessly satisfying piece of schlock.

And therein lies the brilliance of Paul Verhoeven, the bastard son of Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertolt Brecht. By the time he came stateside in the mid-80s, the Dutch-born director had become the most infamous auteur in Netherlands history, a reputation that began with the box-office bonanza of Turkish Delight (a character-driven study of amour fou cum hardcore fucking) and built steadily to his international breakthrough The Fourth Man (an overheated symbolist psychodrama about a hard-drinking, bisexual novelist whose new girlfriend may—or may not—be a husband-slaying sociopath). Graphically sexual, aggressively irreverent and politically incorrect, Verhoeven’s films managed to piss off pundits from across the European political spectrum while attracting enthusiastic audiences in droves. And though the American works would abandon his signature stylized naturalism in favor of an ironic deconstruction of Hollywood clichés, his bad-boy provocations would whip up more outrage and excitement than ever.

Since crossing the Atlantic, Verhoeven has worked within extremely commercial genres: a medieval swordplay epic (Flesh+Blood), a neo-noir police procedural (Basic Instinct), a star-is-born showbiz drama (Showgirls) and four science-fiction films (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man). For viewers weaned on the family-friendly storylines of the Lucas-Spielberg school of fantasy filmmaking, the most distinctive aspect of Verhoeven’s unusually adult fables are their outrageous shock effects:

The ritualistic gangland murder in Robocop. The mutant prostitute with three tits in Total Recall. The flash of Sharon Stone’s snatch in Basic Instinct. The entire 131 minutes of Showgirls. In one unforgettable scene of Flesh+Blood, a mercenary soldier (Rutger Hauer) attempts to rape his former employer’s daughter-in-law (Jennifer Jason Leigh); but refusing to play the part of helpless victim, the young girl matches his sexual aggression, takes control of the erotic encounter and somehow manages to effectively rape him. It’s the most jaw-dropping “meet cute” in the history of movies. Could it be a coincidence that the style of blocky, concrete architecture so pervasive in Verhoeven’s science-fiction works is called Brutalism?

Though such moments were reflexively dismissed as gratuitous in the mainstream press, the sex and violence in Verhoeven’s films is always integral to the narrative. When Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas enjoy the “fuck of the century” in Basic Instinct, the pornographic pleasures of the scene are also a function of character development (the power dynamics of being on top) and plot (is she about to stab him with an ice pick?). And while Verhoeven’s theater of cruelty may be more explicit than Americans are used to, what really offends the traditionalists is that he routinely portrays sex without love and violence without honor. The reassuring sentimentality and heroic righteousness of Hollywood entertainment is implicitly critiqued in Verhoeven’s morally ambivalent universe, obsessed as it is with the Jungian shadows that can never be fully exorcised.

12/23/09 4:00am

The Great Dictator (1940)
Directed by Charles Chaplin

The 1940 release of Charlie Chaplin’s absurdist Nazi satire The Great Dictator was a cinematic event like no other: an influential work of anti-isolationist agitprop, a mythical embodiment of the culture war between democracy and Fascism, and a deeply personal grudge match between Chaplin and Hitler.

Hollywood films of the 1930s had largely avoided the political situation in Europe. America had not yet entered the war and the Production code officially forbade antagonizing “friendly” nations. With a bare-knuckled Nazi-baiting scenario no studio would touch, The Great Dictator was bankrolled by Chaplin himself. That the budget ballooned to over two million dollars is one not-so-small measure of how deeply invested he was in the subject. Nazi censors had banned his last two films and attacked the director in the infamous Der ewige Jude, a rogues gallery of the world’s most dangerous Jews. That Chaplin was actually a gentile was beside the point: in the eyes of an Aryan nationalist, the comedian’s cosmopolitanism and identification with the downtrodden were the essence of Semitic subversion. Having been called a parasite on society, Chaplin was eager to return the compliment.

In what was his very first speaking performance, Chaplin plays dual roles: a guileless but gutsy Jewish barber and “der Phooey” Adenoid Hynkel, the Great Dictator himself. In the parallel stories of the Everyman and Übermensch, the film oscillates between a heart-tugging celebration of common goodness and a ruthless evisceration of elitist folly. The tonal shifts are abrupt and, yes, not always successful. The film is often dismissed as “uneven,“ which in some ways it is. On at least one level, the production is a textbook example of auteurist excess: by my calculations the film cost more money, minute for minute, than Gone With the Wind, which is shocking when one considers how little of the palatial production design actually registers. Chaplin was no Leni Riefenstahl and his visualization of Fascism was somewhat less than fascinating. And yes, Chaplin’s brotherhood-of-man politics are often naïve (you may notice his symbolic displacement of Hebrew with Esperanto in the Jewish ghetto scenes) and his affirmations of humanity are often excessively on the nose (every time the miscast Paulette Goddard raises her eyes to the heavens and launches on some “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all get along?” monologue…). But the film is shot through with moments of unadulterated comic genius that run like veins of gold in a craggy rock face: an absurdly unsuccessful airplane escape; a nonsense-speech satire of the awful German language and Hitler’s convulsive oratorical style; a set piece of absurdly gossamer lyricism in which der Phooey dances around his office with a balloon globe, dreaming of imperial domination (“aut Ceasar, aut nullus”) only to have the world explode in his face—and ours.

Chaplin was perhaps the only pre-war filmmaker to have been embraced by both mass audiences and the avant garde. That this universally adored director would eventually spark a backlash was inevitable, cyclical as the course of art history is, and The Great Dictator is often singled out amongst his masterpieces in order to highlight his directorial shortcomings (a tendency towards bathos, structural sloppiness, technical atavism, etc). But to shrug off the brilliance in The Great Dictator with some nitpicky criticism of its technique or its structure is such a vacuously pedantic response that I’m amazed it still passes for sophistication. It reminds me of a scene in the film where an inventor, donning a full-body silk suit that he believes is bullet proof, hands der Phooey a gun and volunteers to demonstrate. When Chapln shoots the man and he promptly falls dead, he’s so focused on the mechanics of the moment that the human drama before him completely fails to register. “Far from perfect!” he shouts with contempt.

Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good—or for that matter, the Great.

December 25-31 at IFC Center

12/09/09 4:00am


The Lovely Bones

Directed by Peter Jackson

The most remarkable aspect of Alice Sebold’s surprise bestseller The Lovely Bones isn’t its metaphysical conceit (in which murdered fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon observes her bereaved family and serial-killer neighbor from beyond the unmarked grave) but its improbably life-affirming sentimentality. Though ultimately cloying, Sebold’s suburban Gothic allegory intermittently transcends middlebrow meh by virtue of its descriptive precision and its unflinchingly candid portraits of long-percolating emotional traumas.

Neither of these saving graces have survived Peter Jackson’s nebulously frenetic and euphemistically kid-friendly adaptation. Shuttling between several potential storylines (police procedural, Hitchcockian thriller, otherworldly fantasy) like so many unpromising leads, the mechanically structured screenplay leans heavily on relentlessly signposted plot points in the absence of any organic narrative propulsion.

Eliding enough adult material to secure a PG-13 rating might not have been a mortal cut, but the embarrassingly underwritten characterizations are fatal. Stanley Tucci’s performance as the serial killer (a comb-over grotesque with a pervy mustache and predilection for hard candies) manages to be less dimensional than Susan Sarandon’s comic relief role as Susie’s (Saoirse Ronan) wacky alcoholic grandmother. Come to think of it, glammy Grandma Lynn is probably the most complex character in the whole film, which should tell you everything you need to know about the dramaturgy.

Visually, Bones pastiches iconic Americana with outrageously kitschy visions of Susie’s tailor-made heaven, an aesthetic which suggests Norman Rockwell by way of Lisa Frank. And if that sounds like the most garishly ugly thing you can imagine: yes, yes it is.


Opens December 11