(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I approached a much-belated second viewing of Tron with some apprehension. While I remember being awed at the first one sometime in the mid-eighties (not to mention being aware of much of the promotional material upon the film’s release), I feared that the hype and subsequent cult-following would be detrimental to the movie. As steeped in then cutting-edge special effects, would Tron have aged gracefully? As it turns out … it’s not as bad as I had feared. Tron definitely has its rough edges. Never mind the special effects: just the script itself is full of clunky dialogue, badly-integrated elements, a tone that can’t quite figure out whether it’s addressing kids or adults, and insignificant tangents. The plot structure is a mess with characters being introduced (or removed/ignored) at odd times. It feels messy rather than complex, and the silly dialogue will make anyone itch for just one more script rewrite. Fortunately, plot is among Tron’s least important qualities. It’s far more interesting to talk about its visual design, relationship to socio-technological history and fantasy world-building. Tron has aged rather well as a special-effects showcase: While technology has evolved far beyond the simple CGI available at the time, Tron does have its own style and works best when it exploits the limits of this style. Reading about the film’s production history explains why the colour scheme is inconsistent (basically: they changed it during production), but much of it still impresses even thirty-five years later. Unfortunately, the world-building is inconsistent: while it’s really good in setting the story in 1982 and occasionally in creating a society within the computer, it quickly turns embarrassing in some of the ways it tries to develop the cyber-world aspects: Part of it is due to writing a cutting-edge film for young audiences, but part of it is also due to viewers’ greater familiarity with computing technology that would have seemed magical in 1982. For amateur techno-historians, Tron is a fascinating look at how society viewed computers early in the consumer electronics era, with a suspicion that there was more under the hood than we suspected. (Ah, if they only knew! Nowadays, computers can host rivalling bots, in-between automated update agents, organized crime botnet clients and intelligence agency backdoors…) I’ve got a vague idea in my mind for a retro-computing mini-film festival featuring Wargames, Tron and Superman III… [Oh wow, I’m only thirty-three years late to this grouping] Still, getting back to Tron itself, it has aged more gracefully than I expected. Style and audaciousness can help forgive plot and structure, then as now. It helps that Jeff Bridges had a charismatic screen presence, but even he would probably admit that Tron has enduring cult appeal not based on his looks as much as the fantastic images around him.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) Adapting a novel to the big screen is tough enough, but adapting a non-fiction book as a movie seems even tougher—it’s about jettisoning the informative material and building up the story, even if it means adding more to it. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood (which I read between seeing the movie and writing this capsule review) is a compulsively readable account of a forty-something man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, occasionally alongside an old friend who’s even less in shape than he is. In doing so, Bryson gets to talk about the state of American natural preserves, the environmental collapse of some tree species, the nature of the Appalachian trail, what kind of person voluntarily hikes 3000 miles in a few months, and assorted topics that come to mind while walking a few miles every day for weeks on end. The film elides the details, although a surprising amount of top-level information still finds its way in the dramatization. As a movie, A Walk in the Woods wisely focuses on the difficult relationship between the two hikers, and the various incidents that can take place along the trail. Much of the film’s first half sticks impressively close to the book—but both diverge later on as the book itself becomes less storyable and the film feels the need to build everything to a dramatic conclusion. Robert Redford is very likable as Bryson, given his weathered features and sympathetic persona. Playing opposite him, Jeff Bridges makes for a capable foil as “Stephen Katz”, an out-of-shape screw-up who tags along for the hike. A few name actors pop up in amusing small roles (Emma Thompson as an understanding wife, Kirsten Shaal as an intolerable hiker, Nick Offerman as a hiking gear salesman) but the focus here is on Redford, Bridges and the trail itself. The dramatic climax doesn’t quite work (it feels shot in a studio, far too engineered to feel natural, and on-the-nose as to what the characters learn from it) but the rest of the film has a warm feel to it—kind of an extraordinary adventure achievable by ordinary people. Some of the scenery is spectacular enough to kindle a diffuse desire to walk the trail, but in this case please do read the book—better than vicarious adventure, it’s detailed enough to make anyone reconsider ever walking the Appalachian Trail.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) It says much about today’s Hollywood that we’ve come to crave solid crime thrillers as an alternative to the usually undistinguishable dreck that has come to dominate multiplexes. Hell or High Water is a throwback to the time when this kind of crime drama, solidly acted, put together with skill, eschewing formula and taking on social issues, was a fixture rather than an exception. Here, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers trying to stop a bank’s takeover of their family farm by robbing branches of that very same bank. The populist anger runs raw in this film, which only heightens the drama when an affable veteran policeman (Jeff Bridges, gritty as ever) chases them across the state. The result is very much like a modern western, with SUVs replacing horses as our antiheroes go rob banks in small cities. It’s a solid script by Taylor Sheridan (who’s improving from movie to movie), and David Mackenzie’s direction effectively manages to portray East Texas in a credible fashion. It’s also, refreshingly, a movie that cares for even its minor characters: There are two waitress characters in the film, for instance, and both of them (Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman) get a few memorable moments well beyond the usual “here’s your food, sweetheart”. There are no clear good or bad guys here, as viewers’ loyalties are tested and the film refuses a conventionally uplifting resolution. This being said, Hell or High Water does ends leaving a sense of satisfaction at the way the story is wrapped up, having taken us on a ride unlike most other big-budget movies out there. As a standalone movie, it’s crunchy good viewing. As an antidote to the current Hollywood orthodoxy, though, it’s nothing short of delicious.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) There are many things I don’t like about stupid humour, and one of them is the way it curdles the older its practitioners are. Watching Jim Carrey and Jeff Bridges goof off in 1994 when they were in their thirties is bad enough, but seeing them act like big doofuses in 2014 when they’re in their fifties is adding a substantial layer of melancholy on something that’s already pretty sad. It gets worse considering how Dumb and Dumber To tries to bring in issues of fatherhood (flirting far too long with the stomach-churning idea of a character having designs on the other one’s daughter) in-between wasting one’s life on dumb jokes. The film starts badly, builds setpieces that aren’t as funny as the screenwriters think and sort of peters out at some point before the end. There are a few high notes, although one of them (the brief return of the iconic dog van) is notable in how quickly it speeds by. As in the original, dumb humour abounds, but very little of it has the kind of panache that made the first film so memorable and grudgingly funny. It doesn’t help that, in twenty years, the comedy zeitgeist has moved away from the original’s model. Carrey can’t very well return to the same kind of humour he did twenty years ago without looking ridiculous in unintended ways, while Bridges doesn’t completely abase himself. In that chaos of dumb taste, only Kathleen Turner emerges gracefully, although having one of the most level-headed characters in the film helps a lot. After so many modest efforts and all-out misfires, you’d think that the Farrelly Brothers would stop making movies at some point, but clearly the box office results show that I’m wrong and my opinions on the matter don’t mean anything. In the meantime, Dumb and Dumber To exists, and you only have yourself the blame if you end up watching it.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, May 2016) I didn’t have very good memories of Dumb & Dumber, and a revisit twenty-some years later only highlights why: I don’t react well to deliberately dumb humour, and this film has enough of it to fill a trilogy. I spent the film’s first half-hour in an increasing state of self-loathing, wondering why I was re-watching it and feeling my IQ dropping every minute. Eventually (specifically during the diner scene where a seasoned criminal unsuccessfully try to kill the protagonists), I reached an equilibrium of sorts, and the film finally started feeling funny. Not exceptionally funny, but funny enough to coast until the end. Jim Carrey does deliver a remarkable performance (alongside Ace Ventura and The Mask, it’s part of his astonishing 1994 breakout year), and seeing Jeff Bridges abase himself so low does have an interest of its own. The humour is dumb enough that it’s easy to forget that two skilled comedians (the Farrelly Brothers) wrote this stuff, but some of the film’s more outlandish moments (such as the fantasy sequences, or the living-large segment) do show some invention going beyond the dumb humour. I’m not going to claim that I was seduced by the results, but Dumb & Dumber does become good enough to escape the confines of its chosen dumb-jokes subgenre, and it’s that kind of success that highlights a better-than-average effort. This being said, I’m more than OK with the thought that I may not have to watch this again for another twenty years.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) As much as I like being surprised by good low-budget films, bad expensive box-office failures have an attraction of their own as well. When it comes to movie-watching, big money is compelling, especially if you can see it on the screen: even when the story is hum-drum and the actors are sleepwalking through the plot, it can be moderately amusing (for schadenfreude-heavy values of “amusing”) to be swept along by what’s made possible by a big-enough budget. So it is that in Seventh Son, we get Jeff Bridges reprising his persona from True Grit and R.I.P.D. (speaking of expensive disappointments…), a curiously alluring Julianne Moore vamping it up as an evil witch, sweeping camera shots, an epic fantasy setting and slick CGI creatures. Unfortunately, we also have to suffer through a dull-as-dirt story, clichés by the barrel, barely repressed misogyny and grotesque secondary characters. Seventh Son is not fun, not thrilling, not even interesting to contemplate on a plot level: it’s far better to watch it for the visuals, the unintended laughter or the way it somehow manages to make its male protagonists exterminate the female antagonists without quite realizing how awfully misogynistic it is. Director Sergei Bodrov does put together a few interesting moments with the means to his disposal—too bad it’s in service of such an easily forgotten result. The decade-long glut of fantasy films lazily adapted from rote source material in an attempt to replicate the success of The Lord of the Rings is not helping the genre gain any ground. In the meantime, we can only watch in amusement and marvel at the colossal waste of money it is.
(In French, on Cable TV, November 2015) Some movies are made before their time, and I really wonder if Arlington Road would have been a more unnerving film had it been released three (or more) years later. There is, of course, a definite mid-nineties vibe to the proceedings, drawing from the Oklahoma City bombing to Ruby Ridge and Waco in setting up an anti-government domestic terrorism rationale: Three years later, the American national paranoia would be obsessed about foreign-driven terrorism. Adding foreign involvement to Arlington Road would have muddled an already preposterous plot that draws equally upon unlikely coincidences, comically evil plans, superhuman levels of deception by the antagonist and plans that would have a near-impossible chance to succeed if this wasn’t a movie. There’s emotional manipulation nearly everywhere, and at times it’s hard to believe that anyone in the cast, even Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, can keep a straight face pushing the story forward. On the other hand, well-executed ludicrousness has a believability of its own, and so Arlington Road has the decency to remain interesting on a pure “OK, what will happen next?” level, egging us on to the next unlikely plot point. I’m not sure that it helps that the film is so determined to get its downbeat ending: you can forgive a lot more silliness if it’s all neatly wrapped with a happy bow. It makes for a more-memorable-than-average thriller, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better one.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Poor Ryan Reynolds. He’s a very likable actor with a string of good performances in smaller movies (Waiting, Adventureland, Buried, Safe House) but who seems unable to get a role in a high-budget franchise film good enough to make him a superstar. Blade 3, Wolverine, Green Lantern and now R.I.P.D.: he just can’t catch a break. His latest effort is clumsier than most: While R.I.P.D.‘s “undead policemen” premise almost self-consciously attempts to ape high-concept SF comedy such as Men in Black, it never manages to transform a few interesting images into anything close to the potential of its premise. The first act has some potential and amply demonstrates that it’s a big-budget production. Afterwards, though, it seems to become steadily less ambitious and increasingly inept at what it does attempt: The hunt-the-deados rationale lacks urgency compared to the entire “undead policemen” premise, while the overarching plot about a magical artifact seems far too rote to be interesting. It really doesn’t help that the film’s sense of humor is so… odd. Not bad, just odd in ways that seem more bizarre than amusing. (Often, you can tell that someone thought a details would be funny, even though it’s not, in itself, funny.) Many of the script’s conceptual laughs fall flat on-screen –which may simply betray sub-par directing and deficient special effects more than anything else: the idea of “mismatched avatars”, for instance, is cause for more frustration than laughs when it’s used so inconsistently. But the more questions you ask about this film, the more frustrated you’ll get. (Never mind the uncomfortable theological questions raised by the premise, then wilfully ignored by the rest of the film.) The few bright spots include a few early special-effects sequences, Reynold’s aw-sucks performance and a relatively good turn by Jeff Bridges who seems to be reprising his True Grit frontier-lawman persona with panache. R.I.P.D. remarkably degenerates the longer it goes on, suggesting that it, too, is a dead film that doesn’t quite understand how not-alive it is. Hopefully Ryan Reynolds will take notice of the parallels with his career before it’s too late.
(In theaters, December 2010) The Coen Brothers never do anything in a straightforward fashion, and so it is that if their homage to the classic True Grit may be as dirty and unforgiving as we imagine the West to have been, it’s also surprisingly entertaining and even, yes, amusing. The repartee between rivals Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is one of the film’s finest points, and the film often acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise. But for all of its tension-defusing laughs, the film isn’t a comedy: the drama plays without ironic distancing, the characters aren’t completely softened for Hollywood effect, and the finale doesn’t pull any stops in punishing characters for going so deep in the wild. While Bridges is magnificent as the one-eyed marshal “Rooster” that becomes the film’s true hero, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who makes the strongest impression as the 14-year-old heroine of the film capable of mouthing the Coens’ typically dense dialogue. This leads us to the film’s main weakness in theaters: The often thick accents duelling on-screen. Home-video viewers will have the advantage of captions: movie theatre viewers will have to tough it out on their own. At a time where filmed Westerns are most often anachronistic genre recreations, it’s a bit surprising to find True Grit to be such a true-pedigree Western, spiced but not overwhelmed by comedy. It’s an old-fashioned film worth watching and savouring.
(In theaters, December 2010) Given the impact of the original Tron over the generation that went on to build the Internet, it’s a wonder that it took so long for a sequel to arrive. It’s not much of a surprise, however, to find out that the follow-up is best appreciated as a visual-arts piece than a narrative film: special effects have advanced enormously since 1982’s original, and the impact of all-computerized imagery isn’t what it used to be. On the other hand, Tron: Legacy puts most of its budget on-screen, and it’s the visuals of the action pieces that hold them together more than the narrative tension. Never mind the tedious many-against-one videogame battles: just enjoy the swooping lines and cubic destruction. The plot, merely serviceable, is just an excuse to keep together an exercise in nerd nostalgia. While that occasionally works (there’s something retro-cyberpunkish in contemplating late-1980s technology creating fully-virtual worlds), it’s not quite enough to offset the tedium of the film’s neon-on-black visuals in which the character’s faces literally fade to dark. Ironically, perhaps Tron: Legacy’s most achieved visual effects is the way Jeff Bridges manages to play two roles, including one with the face he had almost thirty years ago. Also worth noticing: Daft Punk’s distinctive electro-synth soundtrack. Otherwise, this sequel suffers from an overstuffed plot (only explained if you get the graphic novel and the video game), hazily-motivated character actions (let’s hope they understand why they’re doing things, because we don’t), dull dialogue and a merely-satisfactory effort in sketching out the virtual world and why we should care about its liberation. Tron: Legacy certainly adds up to something interesting, but not in the conventional sense: it’s a film to be stared at rather than enjoyed, and while that’s good enough for a casual viewing, it may not be what’s required to ignite nerd audiences as much as the original did.
(In theatres, February 2010) Yet another entry in the “Film I wouldn’t see if it wasn’t for their Oscar nominations” category. Would I willingly go see the story of a past-his-prime country music singer who learns to deal with his alcoholism while romancing a single mom half his age? Gee, Oscar, you really make things difficult for me this year, don’t you? Cheap shots aside, there’s a little bit to like in Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges is great in the title role, and the various details about life as an ex country music star are fascinating. Maggie Gyllenhaal is as cute as she can be (which is a lot) as the single mom, whereas Colin Farrell has a small and perfect supporting role and Robert Duvall is up for another kind bartender role. This is not a fast film, and it’s definitely aimed at a quiet Midwestern audience. Bits and pieces of the film are trite and obvious (who couldn’t see the whole “missing child” moment coming?), and the overall arc of the film seems copied from VH1 specials. Still, for a movie that has practically no guns, explosions, comedy, one-liners, car chases, giant robots or anything designed to get me in the theatre, it’s a bit more bearable that I expected. But I’m as far from Crazy Heart’s target audience as I could be, so never mind me and go read a review from someone who cares more about the film.