Sunday, December 19, 2010

Neon eye candy is sole strength of 'Tron: Legacy'

By Steve Crum

First, foremost, and out front literally and figuratively, Tron: Legacy is in 3-D. Without this in your face effect, Tron: Legacy would hardly be worth one’s time. Well, to be fair, the neon-like images are spectacular, as neon tends to be. Stars Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund play second or third fiddle to the glitz, so place your movie ticket bet on vibrant reds and blues that reach out of the screen to be the main attraction here. It’s all in the eye candy.

What first strikes one about this sequel to the first Tron movie, coincidentally called Tron and released in 1982, is that it was even considered box office worthy enough for a repeat try. That is because the first film, also starring Jeff Bridges, was only a minor monetary success. Maybe that’s why it took 28 years to come back? Actually, Tron: Legacy has been “re-imagined” by director Joseph Kosinski and his team of eight (count ‘em) screenwriters. Included are digital tech advances, CGI effects, and a dash of 3-D. (The 3-D here is used sparsely, and seldom noticeable.) On the plus side, there was and has remained a cult following for the original Tron movie. In 1982, its hand drawn special effects and unusual story line were cutting edge.

All this discussion presents what appears to be a major roadblock toward Tron: Legacy’s success. That is, what about today’s younger audience who has never seen the first Tron? Seeing the first movie would definitely help explain why Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn character is still missing from the real world, and living inside a computer grid. Sure there is a flashback of Kevin telling his son goodbye, as he ventures off two decades past. Warp speed forward to the present, and 27 year-old Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is at last determined to track down his MIA papa. This means a trip to dad’s old computer warehouse haunt, and a plug-in trip zapping him small enough to fit on a mini-chip. Once inside the neon laced kingdom, he continues his search.

Tron: Legacy is technically a stand-alone film, so you can come to this movie clean and enjoy it, and the story will hold up for what it is.” So says the film’s producer, Sean Bailey. Again, I beg to differ. Certainly one who has never seen the first flick will catch on to what is transpiring in this second “imagining,” at least in a general way. However, one also needs to understand Kevin Flynn’s trials, tribulations, and obsessive drive that led him to discovering and carrying through with his original journey inside computer-land. All that is in 1982’s Tron. Not that either movie is that deep or layered. Rephrase Bailey’s statement to include, “...And enjoy it to a degree....”

Really, there are three reasons to appreciate Tron: Legacy. First is the incredible CGI effect of duplicating the Jeff Bridges of nearly 30 years ago in face and body. A nearby fellow critic asked me if these scenes were pulled from the original Tron. They were not. The “youthful” Bridges is seen both in flashback and as a clone within the cyber grid. There is also the present day, somewhat aged Bridges depicted (no CGI for this).

Secondly, the neon-graced highways, buildings, weapons, vehicles, and human types within the computer are dazzling. Lastly, the races between illuminated Lightcyles and airplanes are delightful. That goes for the numerous stand-offs between the gladiators as they whirl their life discs at each other, shattering opponents upon contact.

But the biggest complaint about Tron: Legacy is its script, particularly the weak plot line. It makes one wonder about Kosinski’s next project, a “re-imagining” of the Disney flop of 1979, The Black Hole. If at first one does not succeed...?

GRADE: On an A to F Scale: C-
Take the neon tour with the trailer to TRON: LEGACY:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ballet mixes with psychotic terror in edgy 'Black Swan'

By Steve Crum

It takes only 20 minutes into Black Swan for its familiarity to surface. Somewhere we have seen this troubled central character, Nina, before. Her paranoid, driven personality has been a fascinating, and always disturbing, fixture in a number of motion pictures. For one, Humphrey Bogart’s Fred. C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre comes to mind. But Black Swan really has the stylized, frenetic look and feel of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, in particular. Like The Tenant, Black Swan digs under one’s skin in creepy ways.

Aptly called a “psycho, sexual thriller” by National Public Radio, Black Swan is a story told from the Nina’s point of view. Knowing this before seeing the movie is a spoiler edge, so I apologize. Realize, however, it is nearly impossible to critique the film without this reference tab. Here we have Nina, brilliantly played by Natalie Portman in an Oscar worthy performance. Portman succeeds in both credibly acting the tortured, tormented ballerina, as well as playing out the dancing sequences quite incredibly. Portman obviously desired this part to the max through six months of ballet training so she would look the part without using a double. It was worth it. Black Swan is the high point of Portman’s acting career thus far.

As relentlessly as Portman  trained for her role, her Nina Sayers character is even more obsessed with dance perfectionism. Director Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, released a year ago, dealt with a similar theme of an athlete (a wrestler) driven to perfection at risk of body and mind. Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin fashioned Black Swan around a ballerina on the verge of stardom via her casting as the lead in Swan Lake.

She is one of two understudies being considered to replace reluctantly outgoing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) in the upcoming Swan Lake production. As if Nina herself is not already driven over the proverbial top in her strive, she has to deal with both the dance director’s incessant criticisms regarding her perceived faults and her stage mother’s overindulgence in her life and career in the apartment they share. Her mother Erica is played with cold reserve by Barbara Hershey, who at first glance resembles Geraldine Chaplin. Added to these pressures, along with Nina’s self doubts and stresses, is Nina’s understudy rival, Lily (Mila Kunis).

It is apropos that Swan Lake is the featured ballet since it traditionally features the prima ballerina portraying both the white and black swans, which represents Nina’s split, and corrupted, personality. “I want to be perfect,” says Nina early on. Her perfectionist desire drives the story.

The film includes images of sex acts, bloody murder, and creature transformations. But are we witnessing reality or illusion, and why? (Again, I cannot divulge too much.) Just realize the setting of Black Swan is the world of ballet, an art which explores love and death through the symbolism of music and dance. Mix in a ballerina with extreme self esteem issues, and you get a fascinating, edgy film.

GRADE: On an A to F Scale: A-