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.

Munich

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A haunting, harrowing exploration of heroes and homelands, expertly directed and perfectly executed.

Review:  Tackling a piece of complex cinema is like trying to eat an elephant.  You have to start somewhere, and it will be awkward.  For Spielberg’s 2005 film ‘Munich’, I’ve chosen to broach the subject by philosophizing my impatience.  There is an artistic relationship between a film’s length and its subject. Like a piece of music that requires time and space to build and create emotional resonance, a film in excess of two hours often is so because of reasons beyond plot intricacies.   ‘Munich’ is a paradox of pacing and running time.  It waxes long but plays with the requisite immediacy one expects from a film so firmly grounded in the documentary style.  The meaning of its length is found in the film’s philosophical heart, which, in his introduction on the DVD, he simply relates as (if I recall correctly) “the artist’s intent”. That is, empathy, extended in every direction.

I know a thing about politics, and the film knows a thing or two, so of course I could look at it from that angle.  However, that would, I feel, miss the grander scheme.  ‘Munich’ is to my mind a meditation on heroes.  The film opens with a brilliant montage crosscutting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre with the subjective reactions of the concerned parties, Arabs, Jews, etc. watching their televisions.  The handheld, highly dynamic camera and the overlapping actions and dialog set up a potent sense of realism and empathy for all sides.  As the film’s plot gathers steam, complicates and finally untangles, the filmmakers never stop being lavishly empathic.  The brutal nature of real-world espionage shatters our illusions of heroic, sexy, mentally balanced spies protecting our interests abroad.  It is not so much that heroes do not exist, but that villains share the same faces.  All anyone wants is home.  What they do to get it is another matter.

What I love about Spielberg is how his films come alive.  While, inescapably, the artifice came through, ‘Munich’ tempted me to believe what I was seeing was real.  This is obviously damn good filmmaking.  How he accomplishes this is surprisingly obvious as well.  It’s also enormously complex.  Cinematographically, ‘Munich’ is not a representation cut into pieces.  It is not a million little shots of plot-worthy or atmospheric details, ala the ‘Bourne’ films.  It is expertly staged, with a great deal of depth in most of the shots.  Layers of actions and sounds cross over each other, fighting for attention.  This is a common feature of all Spielberg’s films, but with Janusz Kaminiski’s docu-style cinematography, the effect amplifies.  The film’s texture, partly because of the production design, feels very much like a ’70s era movie.  I can compare it to ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Godfather’.

The production design is worth praising a little more.  I appreciate their effort to defy convention and strive for accuracy on weapons and their messy effects.   The bombs, for example, even have delayed sound.  Silenced weapons don’t have the laser-ish sound effect heard in so many thrillers.  Instead, they sound like suppressed gunshots, which makes so much sense it’s painful we still have to put up with everybody’s weird idea of what they should sound like.

There’s a lot to praise, and it’s too easy.  It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.  In the end, ‘Munich’ is proof that Spielberg is still a formidable, flexible filmmaker, perfectly capable of handling the most harrowing issues with a steady hand and a philosopher’s soul.  This is cinema’s mirror directed at the souls of heroes and the homes they protect.  What they reflect back is not easy to see.  It is haunting.

Classic Review: A Clockwork Orange

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Cruel, vulgar, prophetic, ugly, and yet strangely beautiful at the same time.

Review: A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s follow up to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and it is every bit that film’s antithesis. ‘2001’ was fantastic and altruistic; ‘Clockwork’ is gritty and bleak. ‘2001’ shows the human race’s potential, ‘Clockwork’ shows its reality. It’s a study of the ever present savagery and barbarism in our world; a strange, sad film, lacking in any obvious optimism. Thanks to Kubrick’s master craft, though, it’s also one of the best films of its time.

The movie takes place in a totalitarian England. Sort of totalitarian at least. That facet of the narrative isn’t really developed until the last act, but it’s worth mentioning. Anyways, though, this is a despotic world of “ultra-violence”: savage gangs of young men roam the streets at night, beating, robbing, and raping. One of the leaders of these gangs is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the most twisted and despicable of them all. Long before Heath Ledger’s Joker terrorized for the sake of terror, Alex was causing his own self-satisfying chaos. He shows no remorse; laughing as he maims the defenseless, singing as he rapes women, and grinning malevolently as he even abuses his own gang members (“droogs” as they are called in the film). He’s truly an awful, awful human being. And yet, there’s this other side to him.

You see, Alex loves Beethoven. He absolutely adores his music, particularly Beethoven’s 9th symphony (the music of which is used for much of the film’s score) and listens to it frequently. In general, he also has a great appreciation for art. That and he’s a gifted speaker. His voiceover narrations throughout the film are given in Nasdat, an unorthodox English-dialect that is surprisingly eloquent, even as it describes his vulgar pass times. In Alex is a strange paradox: For as absolutely savage as he is, he seems equally cultured.

Eventually the law catches up to Alex and he is sent to prison, where he volunteers for an experimental new treatment for rehabilitating prisoners, a treatment that will cut his sentence short considerably. This turns out very disturbing, as Alex is conditioned to become painfully ill at even the thought of committing violence to others. As an unexpected side effect, he also becomes painfully ill whenever he hears Beethoven’s 9th. As the price of losing his savagery, he has also lost much of his culture. He returns to face a world that’s as cruel as he used to be, only now he cannot defend himself due to his treatment. In a bizarre twist, we find ourselves pitying him as he becomes the victim in life.

At its core, this film is a parable on choice. As a priest directly points out in the film, Alex has been denied free will through his treatment. He is compelled to do good only to avoid pain, not because he sees the evil inherent in his old ways. It’s left him weak and vulnerable and has cost him his humanity. He’s also lost his precious Beethoven in the process, and he no longer speaks in Nasdat as often. Taking away his choice has, in effect, killed the beauty along with the beast.

Kubrick’s message is clear: Those who are incapable of doing real evil are also incapable of doing real good. Free will ultimately means that there will always be evil in this world. It’s sad but it’s true. So long as free will exists there will be war and poverty and violence and rape starvation. But without free will, there is also no beauty, no love, no sacrifice, no charity, and most importantly, no hope. In short, there is no good. Alex’s old life was hateful and ugly, but his new one is something much worse, it is hopeless and despairing. So too are we without free choice.

Lightning struck many times for Stanley Kubrick, but I don’t think it ever did so quite as enigmatically as it did for this film. It’s a wonderfully stylistic picture with a very powerful message, and for this reason it rivals ‘2001’ as his most prolific work. However, this film isn’t for everyone. It’s practically saturated with violence and nudity. It has to be. But for that reason this isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s mature subject matter for mature minds. For those who can handle the intensity, it’s a riveting and stimulating picture that offers a bold message to the viewer. It’s one of the best films Kubrick ever made, and in my opinion, one of the best films of all time. If you think you can handle it, it’s worth your time.

Let The Right One In

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A true masterpiece of postmodern horror, with heartrending emotional realism.

Review:  No matter who you are, when you’re a kid, bullying always seems to find you.  For some of us, it’s the moment when we realize that the world isn’t a friendly place.  Many are deeply scarred by their experiences and they may become dysfunctional.  Others adapt.   ‘Let The Right One In’ explores the most tragic response to childhood bullying; turning into a bully yourself.  The boy at the story’s heart sees it as the only way out.  Then the little girl shows up.  She’s not like any kid that Oskar has ever known.  She tells him his instincts are correct.  With Oskar right on the cusp of puberty, the mysterious Eli is magnetic, and in due time he gets close enough to discover the terrible truth: She’s a vampire.

This is a meditation on all aspects of abuse, which is what makes ‘Let The Right One In’ a prime example of the horror genre.  There’s nothing scarier than the bitter truth.  The title comes from a rule, mentioned occasionally in vampire legends, that prevents a vampire from entering a place uninvited.  As Oskar discovers, casual evil is indiscriminate, but the most insidious things ask for permission.  As we know, bullying doesn’t disappear when we grow up; it just becomes more devious.  An abuser needs victims for their sense of self to survive.  There’s an obvious parallel with vampirism.

Eli is a vampire’s victim, and tragically, she can only survive by embracing this new identity and the habitual murder that comes with it.  The character isn’t a villain or an object of horror.  She’s a believable, sympathetic person.  Oskar, for his part, just wants his anger to mean something.  Eli catches him early on stabbing a tree and practicing taunts.  When I was young and angry, sometimes my parents told me to go punch a pillow; but it didn’t matter, really, whether I punched a pillow or a brick wall.  We all want our fantasies to manifest.  Some of us have wise guardians who prevent us from taking vengeance and destroying ourselves.  Oskar isn’t so lucky.  Eli becomes his protector, but she’s also the ultimate bully.  Her feelings for Oskar are genuine, but she’s also the worst thing for him.

The film is technically well executed.  There’s no shaky handheld camera, jump cuts, or cheap scares.  The pristine wintry scenery is breathtaking and deceptively serene.  Johan Söderqvist’s score is incredibly beautiful, and if you need proof, just take a listen here.  The standout scene of the entire film is, fittingly, the ending.  I’ll probably never look at a swimming pool the same way again.

‘Let The Right One In’ will be considered among the 21st Century’s first masterpieces, even if it is under-appreciated by the public.  It’s a cinematic opus, a story that director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist should be terribly proud of.

Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead II

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: An awesome, fun dark comedy.

Review:  Around the time in ‘Evil Dead II’ that Ash strapped a chainsaw to his arm and, in the most awesome close-up of all time, uttered “groovy”, I realized that I wasn’t really watching a horror film.  But, being honest, I didn’t really mind; I was having too much fun.

All kinds of dark ridiculousness go on in this remake/sequel to 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) must again face the evil forces of the Book of the Dead in an over-the-top display of special effects, shotguns, the aforementioned chainsaws, carnage, one-liners, and all the campy goodness you could ask for.  That’s what I like about this movie: It’s so delightfully silly, and that’s what makes it work.  If director Sam Raimi had tried to make a film more like the first ‘Evil Dead’, I think it would have seemed trite and much less entertaining by comparison.

I’d also like to mention that Bruce Campbell puts on one of the best performances of his career in this film.  Campbell is essentially the Marlon Brando of modern cult film-making, and, unfortunately, he may also be the most under-appreciated actor of his generation.  Anyways though, he does an absolutely terrific job in this picture.  He subtly makes his character go from dead serious to terrified to borderline-insane in a matter of moments as he encounters truly crazy supernatural phenomena, and he manages to do it all without making it frightening; on the contrary, it’s simply entertaining.  It’s the highlight of the film.

‘Evil Dead II’ is a well-done, funny, and very enjoyable film, as far as dark comedies go that is. For anyone into cult films, this is a must-see. As Bruce Campbell would say, this picture is simply “groovy”.