Monday, December 20, 2010

TRON: Legacy

TRON: Legacy is a sequel to the 28-year-old cult classic, TRON (1982), and it’s bound to become a cult classic in its own right. It’s a visually sophisticated action picture, but while anyone can enjoy the visuals, the plot isn’t very accessible to average viewers. My wife and I re-watched the original TRON an hour before going to see TRON: Legacy, and because of that, I have a feeling that we may have been the only people in the room who understood what the heck was going on. Still, I like the original TRON, and I like this sequel just as much. It’s a fun ride.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was the head of ENCOM, a major corporation, before mysteriously disappearing in 1989. His son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), has long wondered what happened to his father. Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Kevin Flynn’s oldest friend and business partner, encourages Sam to go to his father’s abandoned arcade after Alan receives a page from Flynn’s office. “Alan,” Sam says, “you’re acting like I’m gonna find him sitting there, working.” Sam arrives at his father’s office, and after messing around on his dad’s old computer, Sam gets shot by an energy beam and finds himself inside The Grid, a digital world existing inside a computer system.

In the original TRON, the computerized world within the mainframe was marked by a cutting-edge combination of live action footage, backlit animation, and computer animation. Vast darkness was speckled with bright colors and rudimentary computer graphics; audiences had never seen anything like it. TRON: Legacy may not be as radically new, but its sophisticated design retains the spirit of its predecessor. The Grid is still marked by mostly empty space, and neon lights still shine out of the vast darkness. The light cycles were among the most iconic elements from the original film, and they make a glorious return in TRON: Legacy. These bikes leave trails of solid light behind them and are used in gladiatorial games where players attempt to box each other in using walls of light. The new light cycles look just right; you can see how the original light cycles, left to their own devices in a mainframe for 20 years, would evolve into these newer models.

TRON had a somewhat convoluted plot back in 1982. TRON: Legacy does too, only it’s even more complex, because it assumes you understand the first movie. If you haven’t seen TRON recently, you’ll be in the dark on a few things, including who exactly the character of Tron is. I was surprised by how small a role the character of Tron played this time around (he should have been given far more significance towards the movie’s end), and I was equally surprised by how much was left unexplained for viewers who missed the first film (or were born after its release, for that matter). However, it’s true of both films that the visual experience matters more than the story, and the visuals of TRON: Legacy do not disappoint.

The most controversial visual effect is in the character of CLU, Kevin Flynn’s virtual alter ego. In the original TRON, Jeff Bridges played both Flynn and CLU, as they looked identical. In TRON: Legacy, Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, but being a computer program, CLU hasn’t aged at all. To achieve this, the visual effects team uses CGI to give CLU Jeff Bridges’ younger face from the first movie. All in all, this is a very impressive effect. There are times when he looks absolutely real, and he doesn’t have the infamous “dead eyes” that often plagues CGI depictions of humans. The problem still lies in the mouth. Whenever CLU speaks, you can sense that he’s just not quite real, and it’s a bit off-putting. Still, I can safely say that the effect works overall, and this marks the most impressive of similar attempts to date.

The acting is suitable for the material. Returning actors do well, and Garrett Hedlund performs admirably as Sam. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra, a computer program, and she brings appropriate “PG level” sex appeal with her black bob haircut and tight leather suit. There’s a fun, familiar sci-fi sexiness to almost all of the costumes, really, and most characters (though especially Quorra) would look right at home in the world of The Matrix. The costumes definitely mark a vast improvement over the clunkier suits from the classic TRON.

I would have tweaked the ending, and I’ll say it again: the character of Tron should have played a much bigger part. The movie is called TRON: Legacy, dang it! Still, I had fun, and I think you will, too. It was good to be back on The Grid, and if another sequel rolls around (preferably before 2038), you can count me in.

Note: I saw TRON: Legacy in 3-D, and the effect is very tasteful. Only the portions of the film that transpire inside the computer are 3-D; the rest unfold in a traditional 2-D format. The action sequences look great in 3-D, though when I pulled my 3-D glasses down a few times, I noticed the stark difference in color; 3-D glasses significantly dim bright colors every time (Avatar is the only 3-D movie I’ve ever seen that somehow avoided this). So, if you see it in 3-D, you’ll enjoy the effect, and if you see it in 2-D, you’ll save a few bucks and get the brighter colors; it’s a tradeoff.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language.

The violence isn’t at all graphic; most characters are computer programs, and they simply burst into pixels and disappear when “killed.” Anytime there’s an injury, you see pixels instead of blood or gore. While there are plenty of women wearing skin-tight leather suits, there’s no more sexuality than that. The action gets intense at times, but I think most kids will find it very entertaining. They probably won’t understand the ins and outs of the story, but again, that’s not too important with this movie.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I am a longtime admirer of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and I loved the first two Narnia movies. That being said, I have mixed feelings about this latest film installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Dawn Treader is the least of the movie trilogy, but it’s based on one of the most exciting novels in the series. As far as family-friendly fantasy movies go, Dawn Treader is good, but given the source material, it should have been great.

The novel doesn’t have much of an overarching plot holding it together; it’s more like Homer’s The Odyssey, moving from one action-packed episode to the next. The movie tweaks this structure somewhat with mixed results. Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are stuck spending the summer with their insufferable cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter). One day, a painting of a ship begins pouring water into their bedroom, and the three soon find themselves in a Narnian ocean, being pulled aboard the Dawn Treader by King Caspian (Ben Barnes; you may recall that his character was a prince just one movie ago). Caspian and his crew (which includes the crowd-favorite mouse, Reepicheep, now voiced by Simon Pegg) have set out to discover what happened to the seven lost Lords of Narnia.

That overall description matches the book, but in an effort to make the plot seem more cohesive, the movie throws in a bunch of other stuff. For instance, there’s a strange, green mist threatening to destroy all of Narnia (“some say it’s pure evil”), and the only way to defeat the mist is to lay seven particular magic swords at Aslan’s Table. This isn’t great, as it doesn’t make much sense. In the novel, nearly every adventurous episode has some deep philosophy or theology underneath it, but the film trades a lot of that in for some far more generic “good vs. evil” mumbo jumbo. The movie retains some of the book’s meaning, but far too often the lackluster script just skims the surface.

Acting is fair all around, and returning cast members do well, just as in the previous installments. Will Poulter brings great comedic energy to the character of Eustace and makes for a welcome addition. He’s a solid performer, and there’s a small setup at the end of this movie for The Silver Chair, in which Eustace would be the main character. The films have followed the original publishing order of the books thus far, so I assume that the filmmakers have decided to skip over the daunting task of adapting A Horse and His Boy, which is understandable. If The Silver Chair does get made, Will Poulter has proven that he can carry it.

The visual effects are suitable, though not particularly unique or inspiring, with the exception of the scene in which the children enter Narnia through the painting. Through an impressive, well-executed effect, water fills the bedroom and the children soon find themselves in the ocean. But in most cases, the world of Narnia just doesn’t seem as real this time around as in the previous movies. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then especially in Prince Caspian, the world of Narnia felt lived in. This wasn’t just because of the effects, but because of the sets, the costumes, the lighting, and the pacing. In Dawn Treader the aesthetics should have been imbued with more realism, and the pacing should have been stretched. It’s the shortest of the Narnia movies by thirty minutes, and it could have really used that additional time to deepen the setting, character development, and themes.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ends extremely well, capturing the spirit of the novel in its final minutes. Overall, it’s a fair adventure movie. I did the always dangerous thing of rereading the novel before seeing the movie, so I was all too aware of the film’s unmet potential. It’s the weakest of the movies, but it could have been the strongest. I said in my Prince Caspian review that Dawn Treader should be the last of the Narnia movies, and I still feel that way. From here on out, the stories get stranger and more abstract, and I’m not sure they would translate well to the screen. The Magician’s Nephew could work as a prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I still maintain that the final Narnia story, The Last Battle, is completely unfilmable. Especially because none of the other Narnia stories include the Pevensie children, I think they should call it a trilogy and just walk away.

In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin tells the Pevensies, “You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.” If you enjoyed the first two, you should certainly see this one, but don’t be surprised if you find Narnia a more shallow place than you remember.

Note: I saved a few bucks and saw this film in 2-D, and I was glad for it. 3-D glasses always darken the color palette, and from what I’ve heard, the 3-D effects in Dawn Treader don’t add a whole lot.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.

There’s a lengthy sea serpent attack towards the end that could frighten young children, but overall, the tone is pretty adventurous and light. I reckon most kids would enjoy this movie, and while they can understand it without having seen the first two, I recommend showing your kids the first two if they haven’t seen them yet. Those are better movies anyway.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Classic Ruling Has Been Reversed: Kris Kringle Is Not Santa Claus!

There are several movies that our family watches every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Christmas is my favorite time of year, and annual Christmas movies are a big part of the celebration. One of our annual Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street (1947), though it’s hardly one of my favorites. I think John Payne and Maureen O’Hara are great, and young Natalie Wood is cute as a button, yet with each passing year, I find myself loving It’s A Wonderful Life a little more and loving Miracle a little less.

However, on to the main point. Something interesting came up during this year’s viewing of Miracle that warrants sharing. I realized something within the first five minutes that I had somehow never even considered before; the character of Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus. The movie never states exactly who Kris is, and after some analysis, I’m pretty sure he’s just a crazy old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus. I had always taken Kringle’s identity for granted, but the evidence against his being the real Santa Claus is overwhelming. Yes, I know that more than one character in the movie utters the line, “Faith is believing in things even when common sense tells you not to” (which I personally think is a dreadful definition), but I couldn’t help but find my faith shaken this year.

For starters, I don’t like the idea that Santa Claus is out of touch with reality. This Kris Kringle character openly refers to himself as Santa Claus, unaware of how strange that must seem to everyone around him. He doesn’t grasp that most grown adults don’t believe in a literal Santa Claus. He has no understanding of how his own myth factors into American culture. I know it’s only a matter of opinion, but I like to think that Santa Claus is a bit more competent than that.

Now for the bigger problems: what is Santa Claus doing roaming the streets of New York City one month before Christmas day? Shouldn’t he be in full preparation for the impending holiday? Added to that, why the heck would he accept a job offer from Macy’s department store? I find it highly unlikely that Santa would work a job in New York throughout the Christmas season. On his Macy’s employment card, Kris lists his address as “Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged” in Great Neck, Long Island. It sounds to me like good ol’ Kris wandered out the front door of his old folks’ home and stumbled into the Macy’s Parade.

Then there’s the scene where he strikes Mr. Sawyer on the forehead. Was that really necessary? The ethics of the act can be debated, but the idea of Santa Claus resorting to violence just doesn’t jive with other descriptions of jolly old St. Nick. Then, there’s his bit of vice presidential misinformation. In an effort to prove his intelligence, he asks Doris Walker, “Who was the Vice President under John Quincy Adams? Daniel D. Tompkins, and I’ll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn’t know that!” I’ll bet so, too. In fact, I’ll bet that no one knows that, because it’s wrong. Sorry, “Santa”: the Vice President under John Quincy Adams was John C. Calhoun. In an effort to sound intelligent, Kris Kringle only demonstrates his confusion once again.

But wait a minute, you say: didn’t the United States government declare Kris to be Santa Claus? Kind of, though that’s really just a romantic way of saying that the mailmen dumped all the mail from the dead letter office onto this crazy guy just to free up some space around the office. Nothing is proven either way, and as for his magical act at the film’s end, all he really did was find a colonial house on sale and give Fred and Doris the address. His last act of insanity? He accidentally left his cane in the house. Way to go, Kris. I think it’s time to head back to Brooks’ Memorial (though it may be a difficult journey without your cane).

Yes, I’m being unnecessarily harsh, but I simply can’t allow this impostor to carry on any longer. Kris Kringle is a nice, charming old man who brings joy to many people’s lives, but he’s no more than that. As of this moment, I declare the New York State Court ruling of 1947 overturned; Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus!