Tempest Tron Yogi Fighter (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week, and other things.

Tron: Legacy. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The only title I saw on this movie was the word “Tron” lighted up in big letters, but the ads claim it’s called “Tron: Legacy,” so there you go. Having a definitive title is a so pre-digital.

“Tron: Legacy” is, of course, the sequel to a 1982 film that wasn’t a blockbuster at the time but has been a cult fave for years. “Tron” has become a “Gone With the Wind” for nerds, a sweeping technical spectacle that pointed the way toward the digital age we live in now. The original movie reeks of the era of Space Invaders and quadraphonic speakers, an idea the new movie has some fun with. We are told that Kevin Flynn, the man who established himself as the alternate-universe blend of Bill Gates and Indiana Jones in “Tron,” vanished a few years after the events of that movie.

Flynn (played then as now by Jeff Bridges) actually got himself temporarily digitized in the first film, so we can be forgiven for suspecting that he might have spent the last couple of decades whizzing around inside a mainframe somewhere. And that’s what his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) learns when he goes poking around his father’s hidden underground computer lair.

“Tron: Legacy” takes its time; the early scenes, meant to be seen in two dimensions, eventually give way to Sam’s journey inside the computerized, 3-D world of the compu-verse. It’s extremely dark in there, but then it was extremely dark on the outside, too.

A very thin plot ensues, but that was true of the corny “Tron” as well. The visual dazzle is the whole show, and the film is full of swooshing lines of light and translucent structures seen against a pitch-black background. There’s also the effect of Jeff Bridges, seen as both his real-time self and his youthful avatar, Clu. The digital creation of his young face isn’t completely convincing, but it’s not bad, and we can forgive the Botox-like strangeness of it because we’re inside a computer, anyway.

Which brings me to my main stumbling block with both “Tron” films. These human beings are digitized—all right, I’ll go along with that—and then when they’re inside the computer they move around like pieces of code or something—uh huh—and sometimes if they fall a few stories they bounce back, and sometimes they shatter in pieces. But then they duel and race motorcycles and, in the case of the elder Flynn, eat roast pork dinner. And sometimes the big battles come down to a fistfight. A fistfight? What are we watching, exactly?

These questions do not seem to bother first-time director Joseph Kosinski, who concentrates on making things look totally rad. And there are some visions in it, especially the great space tramway that the Flynns try to escape on. (Original director Steven Lisberger is on board as producer this time out.) Curiously, the blackness of all the backgrounds makes the 3-D less necessary than it was in “Avatar” (and barely noticeable much of the time). As for the human element, Hedlund is a bland hero, Michael Sheen and Olivia Wilde add character parts, and Bruce Boxleitner returns to his role from the first “Tron.”

And then there’s Jeff Bridges—in his robes and beard, his character suggests that “Tron: Legacy” might be the second version of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” opening this weekend. He swans about his digital island, spouting computer mumbo-jumbo and the occasional “Big Lebowski” one-liner—a walking, talking vote for humans over technology.

The Tempest. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Shakespeare has gotten the switcheroo many times in movies, from wacky updatings (“10 Things I Hate About You” was “The Taming of the Shrew” in high school) to casting stunts—Kenneth Branagh always seems to find room for the likes of Robin Williams or Billy Crystal or Keanu Reeves in his Bard adaptations.

And “The Tempest” was given imaginative re-thinking when it turned into “Forbidden Planet,” that classic Fifties sci-fi film starring the late Leslie Nielsen.

So at this point the central device of Julie Taymor’s new version of “The Tempest” feels almost tired. The male role of Prospero, the conjurer-lord of his own island, is taken by Helen Mirren, a decidedly non-male actor. Aside from some dialogue-tweaking, this change does surprisingly little to affect the experience of the play, outside of the curiosity of seeing Mirren tackle the role. As it turns out, she doesn’t so much tackle it as cozy up to it gradually.

Prospera, as she is called here, has lived for twelve years on the island after being exiled there because of the political machinations of her wicked brother (Chris Cooper). She’s been brewing up supernatural powers with her now-adult daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and two slaves: the spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw, from “I’m Not There”) and the wretched creature Caliban (Djimon Hounsou).

As the story opens, Prospera causes a passing ship to wreck on her island’s rocks, thus bringing her brother and his cohorts ashore. Before settling the old score, she will see her daughter take up with the dewy son (Reeve Carney) of the King of Naples, Alsonso (David Strathairn), as they have also been washed up.

The construction of the play is rock-solid, and the language contains some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful passages. You would not necessarily know this from the movie, which has a curious stop-and-start rhythm as well as its share of fumbled line readings. (One of Ariel’s great moments, the stanza that begins, “Full fathom five thy father lies,” is almost over by the time you realize it’s being sung on the soundtrack.)

The casting of Alfred Molina and comedian Russell Brand works nicely, as two bumbling survivors of the wreck; they manage to work up some energy that the other players lack. And an old pro, Tom Conti, does a bit of scene-stealing as the King’s counselor.

Taymor is known for her visual invention (currently being tested with the accident-prone Broadway musical of “Spider-Man” she’s directing), and there are some cool-looking costumes and landscapes. Yet despite the Hawaiian locations and some well-designed sets, the movie feels underdeveloped. Even the toolbox of computer effects—which ought to hold some wonders for anybody making “The Tempest”—isn’t well handled. The decision to make Ariel a digital sprite is especially poor, and even the storms are unconvincing. When you can’t get a good wind going in something called “The Tempest,” there’s trouble.

How Do You Know. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

James L. Brooks is such a dawdler, he creates expectations. He’s written and directed five films since 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” so if one of them comes out merely a nice little movie, it seems like a noticeable under-achievement.

His new one, the first since 2003’s “Spanglish,” is “How Do You Know.” It’s a nice little movie.

In the spirit of the film, let us quietly elaborate. Reese Witherspoon plays an Olympics-level softball player whose dedicated career is, at age 31, winding down. She’s thrown by the sudden re-adjustment of her life, and wonders how she fits into the world: “I don’t know if I have what it takes for the regular plan.”

She’s got the distraction of her goofy new boyfriend, a pitcher (Owen Wilson) for the Washington Nationals. But his charm comes in equal measure to his irresponsibility. Meanwhile, she’s also been noticed by a guy (Paul Rudd) who works for his father’s business, which I guess is a bank, or some other kind of financial place where they push money around.

Dad is played by none other than Jack Nicholson (who won two previous Oscars under Brooks’s eye, in “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets”), which gives the role a certain oomph it doesn’t really have on the page. Rudd turns his puppydog gaze on Witherspoon, and in true screwball-comedy fashion, they find excuses not to get together. The financial subplot keeps coming up as a mechanical device for working things out eventually.

Even if you didn’t know Brooks spends years on his projects, you’d probably sense that “How Do You Know” has a labored-over quality, especially if you compare it to snappier dialogue-driven films that came out this year, such as “The Kids Are All Right” and “Please Give.” The movie doesn’t so much flow as creak from one scene to another.

But some of those scenes are pretty great. Kathryn Hahn, as Rudd’s pregnant secretary, shares a handful of exchanges with him that generate energy much of the rest of the film lacks. Witherspoon’s interplay with Wilson is tepid, maybe because he’s the only character in the movie who doesn’t worry over every little thing. Brooks seems happiest when his people are engaged in extended, neurotic soul-searching.

Because Rudd and Witherspoon are good at that, and because Brooks has some funny situations in his pocket (especially a scene in a hospital maternity room, where Nicholson unleashes a few priceless reactions), “How Do You Know” gets by on its own terms. By the time it reaches its ending, a pleasant glow has settled in—and you find yourself wishing Brooks didn’t spend so long on his odd, hand-wringing projects.

The Fighter. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Certain movies are exactly what they’re cracked up to be, and “The Fighter” is a prime example. No better or worse than what you’d expect, this is a boxing saga based on a true story with a reasonable level of human interest.

The one wrinkle here is that director David O. Russell and star-producer Mark Wahlberg have kept the actual fight scenes to a bare minimum—only the climax of the film, a championship bout, gets the full-on rock ’em sock ’em treatment.

Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, a welterweight from Lowell, Massachusetts, who managed to scrap his way to the top of his class by the end of the 1990s. But the movie is less focused on Ward’s pugilistic career than it is on the complicated ties of family and neighborhood. The lion’s share of the attention goes to Micky’s older half-brother Dicky, played by Christian Bale. A once-promising fighter himself, Dicky lives off the memory of having once decked Sugar Ray Leonard in a match, and has slouched his way into a serious drug addiction.

The tortured relations between the brothers form the central axis of the story, but Micky’s also got a domineering mother (Melissa Leo) and a no-nonsense girlfriend (Amy Adams) to contend with. There’s also a nest of sisters and half-sisters, each one with a more fearsome hairdo than the last.

The fight scenes are deliberately shot in the style of an HBO videocast, and Wahlberg seems convincing enough in them. In the rest of the film, he appears content to let everybody else do the showier acting—he’s like a slightly detached host presiding over a series of main-event acts.

Showiest of all is Christian Bale’s busy performance as the brother. The actor has once again starved himself to achieve a gaunt junkie’s look, and he creates some choice moments in this portrait of the neighborhood hero who tries too hard, laughs too loud, and stays too ready for a fight (not the kind in the boxing ring).

The double-edged sword of family closeness is brought to life in Russell’s restless directing style. He directed Wahlberg in “I (Heart) Huckabees,” and was a late addition to this long-developing project, which may be why “The Fighter” doesn’t play as distinctively as Russell’s “Three Kings” or “Flirting with Disaster.”

The location shooting adds flavor; seeing these particular houses and street corners provides not just a backdrop but an entire, mostly depressed, way of living. It’s effective, yet none of film’s qualities give the reason we should be watching this particular boxing story at this particular time. In the end, the movie is as straightforward as its title.

Yogi Bear. “Enough environmental activism to warm Al Gore’s heart.”

I Love You Phillip Morris. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Jim Carrey sails into new heights—and for him, that’s really saying something—in “I Love You Phillip Morris,” a cracked tale based on a true story. A very odd true story.

Carrey plays Steven Russell, whose seemingly ordinary life masks a bunch of problems, not least of which is his secretly gay identity. A brush with death leaves Steven with the conviction that he can’t live a lie anymore, so he leaves his wife (Leslie Mann) and embarks on life outside the closet. Funny thing about Steven, though; he can’t seem to live without pretending.

Being a full-time con man will put him in jail, which is where he meets a mild-mannered Southerner named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor, in a very precise performance). The love story that ensues is, safe to say, not quite like any other in movie history: a series of prison breaks and complicated impersonations and occasional domestic idylls.

The film is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who worked on the script of “Bad Santa.” Shaping a true story into a three-act screenplay is tricky, and the movie has a slightly wobbly shape because of that. But it’s got some funny ideas, plus an unabashed embrace of its leads being, as Steven puts it, “Gay gay gay gay gay.” I think if the material had a first-rate director (this is a debut directing job for Ficarra and Requa), it could have been remarkable rather than workmanlike.

As it is, the film’s got some giddy sequences. There’s one forced separation between the two jailbird lovebirds that is staged with all the sweep of a 1940s Hollywood musical—it’s both funny and sweet. And Carrey has some supercharged early sequences as he attempts to find his biological mother—leading to an awkward encounter on the lady’s front porch, as Carrey goes through some heroic physical and vocal contortions.

In fact, Jim Carrey is in his element throughout the film, tearing it up when he needs to (his character has a “Catch Me If You Can” quality, and the ability to pass himself off as a variety of different people) but dialing it down in the quieter moments.

If a respectable actor were playing the part, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon, it would likely receive some awards notice. But Jim Carrey is not a respectable actor—he does comedy, right?—so this crazily inspired work will probably not get the attention it deserves. But it’s a world away from Ace Ventura.

Queen of the Lot. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In one revealing scene in “Queen of the Lot,” the main character, a Hollywood actress named Maggie Chase, explains that she is obsessed with Googling her name, counting her hits, and reading reviews of herself. Maggie is horrified that Ty Burr, film critic of the Boston Globe, wrote that she gave “the most irritating performance of the year.”

This tells us something about Maggie’s needy, self-absorbed personality, but it also has another ripple. That review by Ty Burr is real, but it doesn’t refer to the fictional Maggie—it describes the actress playing her, Tanna Frederick, in her previous incarnation as the same character in the 2007 film “Hollywood Dreams.”

Confused? Don’t be. It’s all part of the casually self-referential world of Henry Jaglom’s films, which make little observations about life, love, and showbiz in L.A. He’s been cranking out his movies (which he finances) since 1971—in fact his first film, “A Safe Place,” is included in a brand-new new DVD box set devoted to the production company that made “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.”

Frederick is the latest in the line of Jaglom’s protégées, and her performance in “Hollywood Dreams” was indeed notable for its shrillness and lack of restraint. Yes, we must cut her some slack, since her character was a real handful—but still.

That character craved Hollywood fame; in “Queen of the Lot,” she’s found it, albeit in unexpected ways. She’s the star of a series of action comedy films (“Red Wrecker III” is the newest), she’s linked in the tabloids to a supposed Hollywood hunk (Christopher Rydell), and she’s just received her second DUI notice. The drunk-driving bust has gotten her an ankle bracelet and a month under house arrest, which she decides to spend at the home of her managers (Zack Norman and David Proval, two Jaglom regulars).

Some mild Hollywood satire is followed by a couple of roundabout plot developments. It all hangs together loosely, as per Jaglom’s usual style, but the most notable thread involves Maggie’s boyfriend’s brother (Noah Wyle, of “ER”), a downcast type who of course falls for Maggie’s craziness. A late-night interlude in which she chews cookies and ice cream and then spits them into a bowl without swallowing joins the list of unlikely movie romance scenes.

A weird selection of Hollywood types shuffle through the storyline, including Peter Bogdanovich (as a filmmaker invited to remake the Lubitsch classic “Trouble in Paradise”), Bing Crosby’s wife and daughter Kathryn and Mary, and Paul Sand, a comedian who was a fixture in movies and TV in the 1960s and 70s.

Jaglom’s method is to roll his camera (he still shoots on film rather than video, to his credit) and let his actors improvise their way through scenes. Actors can sometimes make something charming out of this, but such moments are extremely rare in “Queen of the Lot.”

Even though Jaglom’s films usually set my teeth on edge, at this point I find myself weirdly fascinated to see what he’ll come up with next. Won’t have to wait long: his new film, again starring Tanna Frederick, is due to arrive next year.

All Good Things. “Gravitational pull toward aristocracy and power.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I spend an hour with Steve Scher and Fred Hopkins sifting through the tradition of dark-Christmas movies, exemplified by Rare Exports. Archived here.

Tonight on the Seattle Channel’s Art Zone with Nancy Guppy, I drop by the Rat Pack interior of Vito’s to recommend Mid-August Lunch to our host. The show bows Friday night at 8 on the Seattle Channel and Sunday night at 11 on KCTS-9 (and will be visible to watch online thereafter).

Today’s Eighties movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria.

And thanks to all who made last night’s “Critics Wrap” a scintillating event at the Frye Art Museum, notably panelists Jim Emerson, Kathleen Murphy, and Andrew Wright. Our ten best lists are posted here.

Mid-August Persian Cats (Weekly Links)

Yeah, so the last two Best-of-Year lists (1941 and 2000) were supposed to publish in consecutive weeks, not on the same day, as they did last Sunday. These things happen when you go away for a week, even though I swear I got the scheduling thing right. I was giving some film talks on a cruise ship that traveled from New Jersey to Bermuda. Maybe you already knew this, but Bermuda is very, very nice. Anyway, movies I reviewed for the Herald for the 4/30 week:

Mid-August Lunch. “Charming. Winsome. Adorable, even.”

No One Knows About Persian Cats. “A rough, unfinished quality, which suits the subject.”

Soundtrack for a Revolution. “Nothing beats the power of the archival footage.”

And one of those summer preview things.

Movie Diary 4/19/2010

The Losers (Sylvain White, 2010). Someone says, “Don’t start none, won’t be none,” but somebody always starts one, at least in this movie. You thought Kick-Ass was amoral? And this thing’s got a PG-13 rating. (full review 4/23)

Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946). Decent version of this from Criterion, a raw multi-episode film that refuses to round off its stories into neat parables, even when they seem to do so. When Ingrid Bergman saw it she was moved to write a letter of admiration to the director, thus setting off Hollywood’s greatest scandal. Location shooting in bombed-out locations is always evocatively right, from the streets of Rome to a seaside hideout at night.

Mid-August Lunch (Gianni di Gregorio, 2008). Directed by and starring one of the writers of Gomorrah – and beyond that, I don’t know what to say about the provenance of this slim, completely charming, seemingly one-of-a-kind picture, except that it might have been made by Jim Jarmusch if Jim Jarmusch had been born in Rome. (full review 4/30)

Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani, 2009). Criss-crossing storytelling about miserable situations in Jaffa, shot in the streets with all too much authenticity. (full review 4/23)

Stage Door (Gregory LaCava, 1937). Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers lead the show as two differing showbiz wannabes, although Lucille Ball steals her scenes and Andrea Leeds drags things down as the suffering serious actress who can’t buy a gig.