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.

Classic Review: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A flawed masterpiece with an indelible legacy.

Review: It seems that trying to create a sci-fi film with a city as its subject has some sort of curse attached to it. Consider that Fritz Lang’s 1927 ‘Metropolis’, one of the most influential pieces of the genre, as well as its progeny ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Dark City’ all suffered from box office travails, multiple edits and an ensuing effort to restore them to proper form. All have gone on to gain considerable cult success and respect from critics, filmmakers, and genre enthusiasts. ‘Metropolis’ is considered the honored grandfather of all urban (in the literal sense) sci-fi films, but there’s still a necessary effort to restore all the lost footage.  The most complete version is distributed by Kino.  That’s the version I’ve seen, and will now review.

‘Metropolis’ is definitely a landmark film, as I’ve gone out of my way to stress, and it is essential viewing for cinephiles and filmmakers.  Still, it’s a lot more flawed than I expected, and this is not due to the lost footage.  In fact, the restored footage is a mixed blessing, restoring an entire (if unnecessary) subplot and making sense of confusing scenes but also padding it out with superfluity.  Fritz Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction with the film, in fact he called it “silly”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  The silliness isn’t found in the film’s stylization and actions, though the actors overplay it considerably as was the case with most silent films, but rather its basic philosophy, which though not entirely without merit executes unconvincingly.

‘Metropolis’ portrays what amounts to a city-state where the spoiled ruling class separates from the downtrodden working class by the sheer weight of technology.  However this incredibly (in the real sense, as in not credibly) distinct division came about, we don’t know, and it’s arguably implausible.  Who benefits from the machinery?  As in, who buys things?  Hell, who sells them?  ‘Metropolis’ is, as Lang later suggested, a fairy tale, and worst of all its moral is shoddy, and for a fairy tale that’s a death knell.  “The mediator between the Head and the Hands must be the Heart!”, the moral goes, and it’s easy to understand but only truly works in the film’s incredible world.  The upper, middle, and lower classes of the real world’s societies need much more complex, subtle ethical solutions to their problems.  These issues and more were criticisms at the time of the film’s original release, as well, and even the noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells got in the act.  His own review had some interesting thoughts, but he seemed unreasonable and hostile, possibly due to a lack of the memetic evolution concept.  To say it clearer, he seemed to think he was original, but Lang wasn’t, even though they were both drawing from earlier art.  Still, his review is worth a read.

I’d like to reiterate that the film’s basic idea is not without merit.  In fact, there’s a great deal of rich, evocative imagery that the filmmakers drew from the concept, and this is, of course, its true legacy.  Its centerpiece, the robot clone of Maria, is ironically one of its least mined story elements.  The device, like all machines in ‘Metropolis’, is naturally wicked, and there’s no appreciation for all the interesting things it would imply, even in the film’s pretentious quasi-Biblical theology.  The false Maria is sadly neglected, but the image planted a kernel in cinema that would forever color how we portray robots.  In fact, you could view the film as a seed, a necessary step in changing the face of 20th century science fiction.  All its imagery has stayed with us.  It’s grown up and become fruitful.

I suppose that’s the truly beautiful thing about the world of ideas, that nothing is ever truly lost, it’s only finding new forms and getting demonstrably better.  It’s natural that there are millions of mistakes along the way, even blemishes on classics like ‘Metropolis’.  I wonder how, in a hundred years, our genetic and memetic descendants will interpret our artistic marvels and mistakes?  I wonder, in such a different world, which will be which?

NR: The Importance Of Poster Art

James here.

Some of you are aware of the recent commotion over a particularly bad poster for Tom Hooper’s new historical drama ‘The King’s Speech’.  Slashfilm, among others, posted something about it.  My thoughts are not so much about the poster’s obvious badness as they are about the relationship between advertisement and a movie’s narrative, and how critical it is to make the movie live outside the cinema.  I’m about to make a whole bunch of pretentious, arrogant and repetitive statements, so take it as my thought process, written out for your edification.

Bad King's Speech Poster

The above is a bad poster. Why? Because it doesn’t communicate the film’s essence. It looks, as many have said, like an ad for a run-of-the-mill Hallmark movie.  There’s nothing wrong, per se, with putting your stars up front and center.  If you do so, you should use them to get your film’s premise, themes, core emotions, and actions across.   You see, the title says ‘The King’s Speech’ but the photoshopped stars do not.  If I saw this in a theater lobby, I’d glance at it, probably without it registering in any meaningful way, and move on to a more interesting poster.

Sam Smith, a designer of good posters, spent just 30 minutes and came up with something excellent, in my opinion.  It is, by his own admission, rough, but it works.

Note that it makes the title pop and stick in the brain. ‘The King’s Speech’, visualized in such a humorous and bizarre way, now seems a good deal more intriguing. The names of the stars are still prominent. With more time and money invested, you could turn out a detailed poster with, say, Colin Firth’s face reflected in the period-era mic. Weird, yes. Memorable, yes.

Cinema works on the saturation quotient.  Of course, you must have all the right elements, but once you do, you grow them.  A story is a living thing.  A big, populist story — like, say, a movie — should be a very big, unavoidable living thing.  Advertising is not just the way that artists and investors tempt people to come in, pay hard-earned money and sit in the dark for two hours.  Done right, it’s seduction of the best kind.  We want to be seduced.  We want to believe.  The wise advertiser knows not to merely sell the product, but to tell the story, and storytelling is all about raising questions, getting hooks in, creating possibilities.  Film advertising should imply a world.

For the most part, Hollywood gets this.  It’s why viral marketing exists, and works.  Still, I’m frustrated by the overwhelming number of bad posters out there.  Posters are critical.  I think I remember a good poster and a good trailer more than any other aspect of marketing.  Other ads tend to draw from these two, so that’s probably why.  So, if your movie’s poster is as lazy as that of the ‘The King’s Speech’, it’s not a good sign.  Take a page from artists like Sam Smith and find the central, intriguing image(s) that made your movie come together, consciously or unconsciously.  If a movie doesn’t have a discernible compelling image, don’t bother advertising.  Save your money and ours.

Budding filmmakers like myself need to embrace marketing as an artistic challenge.  It’s easy to sell the movie short by making the main event the only thing of substance.  That’s all wrong.  Treat the movie like a bucket of paint and splash it all over the wall.  Make it unforgettable.  Make it a world.

Patrick’s Top Ten Movies Just To Watch For Special Effects

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Let’s get one thing straight: You always should watch films for their story, for a strong narrative that offers some message or at least entertains. Unfortunately, not all films have a good story. Some movies just go for visual appeal, placing CGI, explosions, stunt scenes, or cool creature designs over plot; but occasionally it works. Anyways, if you’re going to watch a film just for the effects, these are the ones to watch.

10. Transformers (2007)


The plot is certainly sketchy. But hey, I do love me some fifty-foot robots waging all out war.

9. Robocop (1987)


It’s like ‘Lethal Weapon’ meets the ‘Terminator’. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but Robocop just looks so darn awesome as he fights criminals with an array of machine guns and explosives.

8. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


I think the word that sums this film up is “boring”. But at least the ships look really good and there’s a cool quasi-psychedelic cloud scene.

7. The Lost World (1997)


The original philosophy and social-commentary that Michael Crichton put into the novel isn’t captured particularly well in its big screen adaptation. The dinosaurs look mighty fine though.

6. Valley of Gwangi (1969)


This film starts out as a crappy western that then decides to rip-off ‘King Kong’ and become a crappy western with stop-motions dinosaurs. But like ‘The Lost World’ it still looks pretty cool, albeit in a very nostalgic way.

5. Independence Day (1996)


Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin specialize in making big budget B-movies, and this was certainly their most riveting. The dialogue and plot are corny and trite as they come, but ‘lots of jet-plane-on-alien-ship dogfights and fun looking aliens make this worthwhile.

4. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)


The moving message of the original ‘First Blood’ gets lost in the explosions and machine-gun fire of the sequel, but you tell me that explosive arrowheads and helicopter fights aren’t still fun to watch.

3. Destroy All Monsters (1968)


I didn’t say the effects had to be good, only that they were the reason to see the movie. The film reeks of cheesy, cheesy camp value, which some love and others shun. But no one can deny the wonderful spectacle of guys in rubber suits beating the crap out of each other, especially when it features the “Who’s Who” of giant monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and many, many more).

2. The Trip (1967)


Lots of strange visuals and music fill this cult-film about a man who takes LSD for the first time. I can only imagine that under the right “influence”, it must be quite an experience.

1. Tron (1982)


Okay, I admit this one actually had a pretty good story, but the real reason you saw this was the ground breaking CGI that brought this arcade/futuristic world to life. Nothing like it was seen before, and in the nearly thirty years since it’s release, its visuals still have a certain charm. If there ever was a movie to see just for special effects, its ‘Tron’.

The Book of Eli

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An example of a genre film elevated by powerful truths.

 

Review:  When I set out to review this film, I inclined to rate it three stars.  I liked it, but there wasn’t that glee that usually comes from watching a really great movie.  However, upon further reflection, ‘The Book of Eli’ clearly deserves the honor of a full four.  I set out to review it, and its tantalizingly subtle greatness got to me.  There are layers here, man.  Caves of treasure to plunder.

At first look, it’s your typical pretentious post-apocalyptic science fiction story, with visuals and production design similar to ‘Mad Max’ and sundry films, all manner of mangas, comic books, and what have you.  Lots of martial arts, guns, car chases, and explosions, all set in a desert wasteland made so by nuclear holocaust.  An old drillbit, if you will, worn down from spinning in the groove too long.  Thankfully, the cast’s more than up for the challenge.  The protagonist, Denzel Washington’s Eli, is a dangerous, solitary journeyman who’s got the world’s last Bible (old King James Version, naturally). Eli wants to take it somewhere safe.  He believes God told him to.  He enters a town in search of water, and crosses swords with Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, the educated de-facto leader who covets the sacred book.  Carnegie wants the book for reason of its influence, which of course he can exploit for his nefarious ends.  Along the way, Eli gradually lets a local girl, the beautiful Mila Kunis’ Solara, in on his secrets.

The action is superb, and while that gets butts in seats (as does Mila Kunis), the religious nature of the film is difficult to swallow.  So, as Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego in ‘Ratatouille’ may suggest, what we need is a little perspective.

Subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic science fiction, can quickly become stale.  Seeing as they’re built upon more specific rules than your typical genre film, it’s the nature of the beast.  How they are properly refreshed is not necessarily by breaking those rules, but by finding what made a subgenre’s core ideas interesting in the first place.   Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t about the end of the world, but its beginnings, the basics of human society.  The idea central to ‘The Book of Eli’ is one often overlooked in the past century’s popular fiction: discipleship.

Discipleship means imitation.  It is the process by which knowledge is properly transmitted, not as information, but as wisdom, and by which the meaning of one life carries on in another.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in our individualistic, depersonalized society to admit, the desire for discipleship is a natural, indeed crucial part of the human psyche.  If you are never someone’s disciple, it’s analogous to having never experienced childhood.  It leaves us out of balance, without a center.  Prior to the media proliferation that we take for granted in our era, it was the chief method of passing on history, the weight of the human experience.  In an unbroken chain of disciples, there is a depth of wisdom that is foreign to the frission-based postmodern world.  If and when our world comes tumbling down, the master-to-learner dynamic will prove essential.  ‘The Book of Eli’ is a bold affirmation of this basic human relationship.

There’s much more here that’s worthy of reflection, such as the dynamics of religion and power, knowledge and violence, education and class division, sex and survival.  The sad thing about films like ‘The Book of Eli’ is that, due to cultural saturation, they get lost somewhere and aren’t appreciated.  This is a gem worth digging for.

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.