MMM: No Arizona For Old Lebowski

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three pieces from the Coen brothers’ longstanding collaboration with composer Carter Burwell, representing Burwell’s musical range in conjunction with the Coen’s flexible command of the cinematic language.


‘No Country For Old Men’ is so brutally present that the filmmakers kept the score very minimalist. Only during the end credits do they find occasion to lean on Burwell’s scary, evocative theme.


Ah, ‘Raising Arizona’. Downright joyful.


Of all the colorful villains in the Coen brothers’ canon, the German Nihilists from ‘The Big Lebowski’ are probably the most hilariously pathetic. This fake krautrock-esque piece is Burwell’s diegetic compliment to their characterization, heard on a boombox during the “fight scene” in the bowling alley parking lot.

True Grit (2010)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A classic Western story told with refreshing perspective.

Review: I grew up with classic Westerns, mostly of the television variety. ‘Bonanza’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Rifleman’, among others, helped shape my sense for storytelling, first through innocent admiration, and then through critical distance and deconstruction.  The Wild West is quintessential American mythology and so overused.  The Western genre long ago went stale to my taste, with only a few stories cleansing my palate and proving its enduring potency.  Among these have been films like ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Unforgiven’, the remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and now the Coen Brothers’ rendition of ‘True Grit’.

‘True Grit’ looks and feels like a movie out of time.  It’s appropriately gritty and realistic, but lacks the revisionist cynicism often associated with Westerns of the past few decades, allowing it to keep the ethics and themes of the source novel without repentance.  If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be “classic”.  Like most of the Coen Brothers’ output, it seems destined for that appraisal in posterity.  In style and substance, the film far exceeds genre expectations, lending humanity and thus complexity to every character, realism to the violence, a nigh-surreal level of beauty and variety to the settings, spitfire dialog loaded with archaic phraseology, etc., etc., etc.  The Coens are masters of character development, and it shows, even within the simple archetypical roles at play.

Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original film and here inhabited by Jeff Bridges, is in this film closer to the real gunslingers of the old West than the kind of folks Wayne played in his career.  He’s simultaneously cowardly and heroic, an object of pity and admiration, a man with a bloody reputation that doesn’t exceed believability.  He’s sought out by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by a two-bit villain named Tom Chaney, and she wants the Marshal to aid her in her quest for justice.  Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who brings Mattie to life, is better than most established thespians.  Not only can she deliver the complex, straight-from-the-novel dialog with the best of them, she makes you believe that a young girl of her intelligence and spunk might just accomplish her goal.  Since the film’s related entirely from her perspective, we experience the familiar Western imagery and scenarios through fresh eyes.  I make special mention of these two, but the other characters and the actors that play them, down to the smallest role, crackle with the fires of life.

It’s often said that reality is unrealistic, and ‘True Grit’, by hewing close to real-world consequences, has a sense of unfamiliar unpredictability that is entirely refreshing.  We may scoff and declare that the violence on show is the stuff of Hollywood, but stranger things have happened, and ‘True Grit’ is a reminder of this fact.  Details that are often scuffed over in cinema, such as the particulars and limits of firearms, get embraced here.  My favorite moment of realism is when a man stands on top of a hill, viewed from afar, and when he fires his pistol in the air, there is delay to allow the sound to reach our ears.  I recall saying “Wow!”, since even something as simple as sound delay is a rarity in Hollywood films.

Of course, all these trappings are meaningless without a strong story with resonant themes.  The narrative thrust is the stuff of classic Westerns: A murder sparks a manhunt, based on nothing more than the bereaved’s wish for vengeance, and the law looks high and low for the villain, a journey culminating in a bloody firefight.  As I mentioned before, the refreshing factor is Mattie Ross’ naivety, which shatters her illusions of simple retribution and exposes her to the terrible results of such an adventure.  It’s a brutally truthful coming-of-age story.  Often revelations of the harsh, dangerous world mark childhood’s end.  The only way to overcome it is with other people, even people we despise, though as Mattie learns, our efforts may still yield bittersweet endings.  This reality requires true grit.

This film is a total pleasure to watch.  Exciting, funny, scary, and sad, it’s a classic Western adventure, and best of all it’s actually quite accessible, despite all the things I said about its requisite grit.  I look forward to seeing ‘True Grit’ again.

Tron: Legacy

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A successful, slick, satisfying sequel, creatively and thematically progressive.

Review: What good does a cinematic sequel do, besides line filmmaker pockets? A good sequel moves the story forward, finds the meaning in the original’s premise and expounds on it, taking it that one step further that would’ve been too much for the first installment. It should find new extremes. It should dare to alter the status quo.

‘Tron: Legacy’ is a fun and fantastic sequel because it does all of those things.  ‘Tron’ let the CGI cat out of the bag, in terms of world design and action, while its sequel shows us how far that cat can run, and the tiger doesn’t show signs of wearying.  To simply call ‘Tron: Legacy’ a feast for the eyes would be saying too little, but it’s awfully hard to do justice to the extent of cinematographic innovation on show here.  There’s an exhilarating solidity to this world.  The action sequences are full of surprises, which hit hard and fast and demand repeat viewings.  The downside of this level of visual innovation is that it may occasionally be too dizzying for some audience members.  It’s almost too fresh.  ‘Tron: Legacy’ is designed as immersive as possible, and as a result, we share the character’s disorientation with gravity changes, high-speed lightcycle races, and digital dogfights.  It showcases the best of postmodern style while skillfully avoiding problematic techniques like “intensified continuity”, that is, cinematography and editing akin to the ‘Bourne’ pictures.  Like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, the camera is free to fly through virtual space and take us anywhere.

The story is surprisingly good, even an improvement on the original ‘Tron’, taking it several natural steps forward.  While ‘Tron’ had the villainous MCP, whose motives were purely power-lust, ‘Tron: Legacy’ has CLU, the mirror image of his creator, who believes so strongly in his purpose — to make the virtual world perfect — that he rebels against his user to this end.  Kevin Flynn’s quest to create the perfect world was a mistake.    Continuing a train of thought from the original, Flynn accidentally creates a new life-form, an aberration in the Grid’s programming called ISOs, and this “perfect imperfection” provokes CLU’s revolt. Humans, Flynn comes to realize, have no idea what perfection really is, and by putting this yoke on his creation he caused his own downfall.  He’s trapped in the digital world and separated from his son.

Sam Flynn, in his father’s absence, grows up just as reckless as Kevin in the original ‘Tron’, and arguably does not share his father’s illusions.  His quest isn’t for perfection, but for the relationship he lost.  A key thematic component is Kevin’s insistence that his beloved son is perfect, despite all moral evidence to the contrary, and this ties into the ISOs; life is beyond logic, beyond control, and beyond measurement.

To CLU, the ISOs are a critical flaw, and so he commits genocide and kills them all, save one rescued by Kevin, a girl named Quorra.  She demonstrates an intense curiosity about the physical world, reading whatever books that Kevin transported into the Grid, hoping one day to see the real sun.  To her, our world is just as awe-inspiring and transformative as the virtual world is to us.  Her character is positively endearing.

Perhaps the only eyebrow-raising story component is the use of the Tron character, who was basically a plot device in the first film and here plays a minor role as CLU’s champion gladiator, having been converted against his will in the coup.  His arc is short, but satisfying still.  The ‘Tron’ series has, ironically, never been about Tron.  It’s Flynn’s movie.

I’d be loathe not to mention the marvelous score by Daft Punk.  Here, listen to this. End of line.

‘Tron: Legacy’ checked all the boxes on my list of things I’d like to see in a ‘Tron’ sequel.  As if I had such a thing.  It’s a satisfying trip that does far more than drill for nostalgia fuel.  It succeeds where most other long-awaited sequels fail, even entries in noted franchises like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Terminator’.  Despite its title, it’s not overly concerned with ‘Tron’s legacy, but rather telling a good story well.

Cult Classic: Tron

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An innovative milestone and the father of many philosophical tangents, ‘Tron’ is valuable, aesthetically intriguing science fiction.

 

Review:  Science fiction is at its best when it permits us to review — literally, “see again” — the real world.  It’s not always about illuminating philosophy.  Sometimes it’s about challenging us to believe, just as long as we may, that there is an unseen world that coexists with our own.  It’s not necessarily that this supposed world is supernatural, but by contrast it seems incredible.  For Disney’s bomb-turned-classic ‘Tron’, the tagline sums up this conceit magnanimously: “A world inside the computer, where man has never been — never before now.”  Chalk that up as one of my favorite taglines in cinema history, just as provocative as “You will believe a man can fly”.  Does the movie measure up to it?

To my delight, yes.  It is a successful example of intelligent conceptualization and world-building.  The best word I can use to describe ‘Tron’ is iconic.  It revels in its imagery, visual and conceptual, to the plot’s degradation.  The story is good, but it meanders, if only to allow the audience the privilege of seeing all the CGI that 1982 could muster.  Yes, today, the film looks dated, but this isn’t a bad thing.  It adds a layer of nostalgia to the cake.  What’s great about the primitive CGI, in itself, is that it lets us see the naked architecture.  Lines are all-important in ‘Tron’s aesthetic.  This is, after all, “The Grid”, the combat zone of arcade games of yore.  There’s a distinctive spirit to vintage arcades, and ‘Tron’ may be its definitive cinematic incarnation.

I said the story is good, and not just because it complicates and untangles satisfactorily.  ‘Tron’ is philosophically complex, yet it doesn’t explore every question raised, sparking mental tangents which I’m sure have contributed to the film’s growing popularity.  The world of ‘Tron’ is populated by programs, each of whom has a relationship with its human user, which the programs perceive from afar as gods.  This has sobering implications in real life, with computer technology evolving at an incredible rate, and a growing number of scientists assuring us that true artificial intelligence, nay, artificial life is just around the proverbial corner.  How will we respond to a thinking being that recognizes us as its life-giver?  ‘Tron’ doesn’t answer this question.  Raising it may be enough.  But I digress.  In ‘Tron’, programs are created in the user’s image, literally.  They act as the user’s avatar, yet think of themselves as distinct persons, perhaps unaware of their resemblance to the humans they idolize.  The film’s plot centers on the Master Control Program, or MCP, who rebels against his user and seeks to extend his control beyond his system.  To this end, the MCP cuts off all contact between programs and users, calling the vital relationship an obsolete superstition.  He even goes so far as to pit rebel programs against each other in gladiatorial combat.  Jeff Bridges’ character, user Kevin Flynn, tries to confront the MCP and gets digitized into the computer world for his trouble.  He is now a user incarnated as a program, and indistinguishable from any other except in his power to manipulate data.  He fights to defeat the MCP and restore the programs to their users.  The film is, quite obviously, heedlessly unsubtle in its use of religious concepts.

‘Tron’ is an exciting, bizarre, surreal and innovate piece of celluloid.  It’s a milestone in CGI development and our popular conception of cyberspace.  It may have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, ahead of the game in its first release, but it’s plain to see that ‘Tron’ is not just another pleasant diversion.  It helps us review our world.  That’s why we go to the movies.

Iron Man

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  A fantastic and dramatically credible way to set up Marvel’s ironclad hero.

Review:  The superhero genre on film seems to be in the middle of a Renaissance.  Rival companies Marvel and DC, both plagued by bad renditions of their characters, seem to be trying harder and mustering greater creative forces to realize their iconography on screen.  ‘Iron Man’ could be considered, after a mixed third ‘Spider-Man’ and two disliked ‘X-Men’ installments, to be Marvel’s comeback.  It has invigorated mainstream interest into Marvel’s great selection of “unknown” characters, and is the first in a series of films to set up 2012’s destruction of the world via Joss Whedon crossover extravaganza ‘The Avengers’.

So here’s why it works.  The heart of it is a redemption story.  Billionaire genius Tony Stark, played with originality by Robert Downey, Jr. in a comeback role, is a real jerkass who follows a mythic story arc into a modern hell — a cave in Afghanistan — where he is confronted with the knowledge that his company’s weapons are being used by terrorists.  They try to force him to build them a WMD, but he instead builds himself a suit of armor and escapes with extreme prejudice.  Because of his ordeal, he is being kept alive by a power core, which is analogous to his new heart.  His new appreciation for life and sense of responsibility clash with his company’s double-dealing.  The classic path into hell and subsequent rebirth is a story as old as humanity.  A confrontation with suffering, one’s own sins, and a need for empathy is setup for a successful hero, both in fiction and in true life.  The film never loses steam, per se, but the strength of the picture is in Stark’s metaphorical resurrection as a hero, and when it diverts from this in the second and third acts it loses some of its punch.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, the film works brilliantly because it taps into the redemptive relationship between God and man.  Contrary to popular and misguided opinion in Christian circles, the point of the faith is not to escape hell, but to confront it directly.  The human race is inexorably tied into an ontological relationship with Christ.  By this I mean, where He goes, we ought to go.  This is what Christians (should) mean when they say salvation is in Christ.  It’s not only in His name, like “Here’s your membership card with Christ’s signature on it”, but directly united with His specific actions.  Namely, death and resurrection.  Through and after his ordeal, Tony Stark acts as, in the best sense of the word, a Christian.  Like the Christ.  That’s not to say he’s a perfect character — that was never the question.  The question was whether he would go through hell and emerge a different man.  In a broad sense, we all go through the fire, and we all have a choice: Refuse it and be destroyed, or accept it and change it into a vehicle of metamorphosis.

A great film with a few weak points.  Here’s to Marvel’s Renaissance.