Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Catching up for 2010: Film

I have fallen woefully behind in my writing, for a number of reasons. Attempts to write run into writer's block or distractions that take me away from my desk long enough that I lose the thread of what I am doing. As a result, I have a backlog of things that need discussion, and the only way I can really handle it all is to combine things into a few posts. If something seems interesting or requires further explanation, let me know and I can devote more space to it. Here's hoping I handle the beginning of 2011 better than I have the end of 2010….

TRON: Legacy

A lot of people I've talked to make reference to how slowly the original TRON was, but I don't have a recollection of that so much as the (for the time) awe-inspiring computer animation. If I remember my cinematic history correctly, TRON was the first film to use CGI and look where we've come in the nearly three decades since. At any rate, I did not find TRON: Legacy to be slow at all, just a little predictable. The special effects are quite lovely, and as you would expect, much more seamless than the original movie. And apparently they've evolved on the Grid as well, as light-cycles now are capable of moving in curves instead of straight lines only. The clothes on the characters are much more effective as well, not threatening to wash out the rest of the screen with their lightness.

As for the plot's predictability, one only needs to be moderately familiar with most action movies to guess where things are going. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has grown up without his father who disappeared a little more than 20 years ago. In the meantime, the company that the elder Flynn (Jeff Bridges) started has prospered, becoming an alternate Earth Microsoft—greedy and not at all interested in Flynn's goals, to make computing fast and accessible to everyone, a force for equality rather than further segregation. After sabotaging the release of the company's latest operating system release, San is informed by old family friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) that he has received a page from his father's old arcade, which has been closed nearly as long as his father has been missing. Sam goes to find out what's going on and is sucked into the Grid, the cyber-reality of TRON. Sadly such a move requires a bit of stupidity on the part of the part of a character who is otherwise brilliant…one should never sit directly in front of what appears to be a laser. Once on the Grid, the plot becomes first a search for the elder Flynn and then a race to return to our reality before the evil forces that Flynn has unwittingly released find their way to Earth.

The result is a pretty film, but thin on plot, especially in regards to what exactly Cora (Olivia Wilde) is, other than eye candy. To be honest, a lot more time is spent in exposition than one might like, but what else can the characters do while they are being transported across the terrain of the Grid? To liven up the story a little, the writers liberally borrowed from the breadth of the history of Hollywood, throwing in references and homages to great moments in film history. Casablanca shows up, as does Star Wars and probably a dozen more. Another highlight is Michael Sheen chewing the scenery as club owner Castor; until the credits, I was convinced it was actually David Tennant.

As I say, the scenery makes up for the simplistic plot, but there are a couple of missteps that are a little distracting. The first is the CGI-formulated Clu, an inhabitant of the Grid who is based on Jeff Bridges's Flynn as a young man. While Flynn has aged in the Grid, Clu has not, and the crew used CGI to "de-age" Bridges, making him appear as a young man. Unfortunately, the CGI work is not real good, and Clu comes across as plastic from the neck up. Especially notable is that his cheeks and forehead do not move appropriately, especially when Clu is talking. Given the CGI work of Avatar, this could perhaps have been avoided, but one grows used to the spooky result. Fortunately, the crew appears to have noticed the deficiency and we don't see much of Clu up close without his helmet on.

The other unfortunate piece belongs to Bridges himself; he appears to not have watched his own performance in TRON and instead of channeling an older Flynn, he instead channels an older Dude from The Big Lebowski. While it's easy to imagine that the lone human in the Grid for decades may take to meditation due to a lack of companionship, I don't think he would become a surfer dude. And so when Bridges is forced to exposition, he punctuates it with surfer-talk, and ruins any sort of seriousness his character is supposed to have.

But as I say, it's a beautiful movie, even in 2-D. I have been told by folks who have seen TRON: Legacy in 3-D that it is probably not worth the cost.

Black Swan

While this movie is, on its surface, about ballet, the dance really is a plot tool that allows to look at an extremely broken character, Natalie Portman's Nina Sayers. Nina is a remarkable dancer, technically strong but with no apparent passion. This lack of passion is mirrored in her daily life, which we are given to see consists of the routine one would expect of professionals whose career is based on making their body do amazing things. But we also get hints that Nina has some secrets, minor acts of rebellion—minor in that they generally affect no one but herself, kleptomania and bulimia among them. Nina shares an apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey) who at first appears doting but who we eventually see as a monstrous dominating personality. It's a question for the viewer which is the cause and effect, whether Nina's minor acts lead to her mother's dominance or vice versa, because Mother Sayers is not so easy to pigeonhole as similar characters.

Nina's Ballet company's director (Vincent Cassel) decides to take his company in a new direction, first by choosing Nina to be his lead and then by attempting to breathe new life into a standard of ballet, Swan Lake. But Swan Lake requires its star to play two characters, the Swan Queen—virginal and precise—and the Black Swan—a creature of passion. This dichotomy eludes Nina since she has repressed her passionate side for whatever reasons, and she begins a strange relationship with the company's newest dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis)—a dancer who appears to be consumed by passion.

What follows is a descent into madness as stranger and stranger events happen to and around Nina. The viewer has no choice but to follow the madness, and the revelation of the reality is as shocking to the audience as it is to Nina. Through it all, Nina maintains that all she wants is to be perfect, which is easily construed to its usual meaning: without flaw. But the strange events forces the audience to realize that Nina really wants to be made whole, melding the severe and restricted personality with the passionate one that reveals itself in mirrors and in the Black Swan, literally (perhaps) clawing its way out of Nina's skin.

There are moments of violence in Black Swan that make me flinch, and the final scenes between Nina and her mother are just chilling in their emotion. But I could not predict where this film ends up and was pleased to be swept away by Nina's madness and her ragged attempts to integrate. Director Darren Aronofsky appears to have a pattern of making films about obsessed characters, characters broken in their devotion to being the best at what they do, whether it be the mathematician in Pi or the old warrior in The Wrestler. His films are beautiful in their cruel portrayal of those obsessions and their results. Black Swan may be the most beautiful of them all and the most cruel.

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