Friday, December 24, 2010

TRON: Legacy

I caught an IMAX 3D showing of TRON: Legacy at the Bob Bullock theater in Austin, TX, and really enjoyed it.

Some reviewers have griped about the "lack of story" (which is pretty subjective) but the film definitely has something that's been missed from a bunch of the bandwagon pseudo-journalist hater reviews.


In some surprisingly subtle strokes, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is granted a corporate and entrepreneurial legacy, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) is given historical and surrogate weight, and the world of TRON is given a shape -- a texture -- the first movie didn't have.

For me, vehicles largely set the tone for (or at least the believability of) a film's universe. Genndy Tartakovsky's Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series arguably created a richer universe by believably bridging the technology from Episode II, Episode III, and even to the original trilogy, than the new trilogy itself did.

Probably largely due to Lead Vehicle Designer Daniel Simon and Production Designer Darren Gilford, Legacy's vehicles possess a form and function they didn't before. Most people understandably tune into the lightcycles on this front, with the updated look and functionality that technology limited before. But in the opening scenes featuring the contemporary Recognizer (updated by Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Procter), the vehicle shows a form and function that was not only lacking, but broke the fourth wall for me when I saw the original film as a kid ("how do they get in and out of there without dying?").

Thematically, the film does some interesting stuff. There's a lightish poke at the pseudo-digirati, the requisite fear of technology overtaking humanity, and so on.

But what I was surprised by was the exploration of fatherhood from three angles: biological child, adopted child, and orphan -- father as "daddy", "buddy", and "sensei". I'd heard complaints about "the father angle" being "worked" as an emotional hook, and maybe there is some of that. Or maybe it's a topic explored broadly across three viewpoints, and there is only so much time and space to do that in the bounds of a movie, let a long a film who's "hook" is its visual panache.

As far as performances go, I'm a biased Bridges fan, and enjoyed his reprisal of Kevin Flynn. Some of his statements and actions are wonderfully anachronistic -- which they should be, given his "man out of time" predicament.

Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde are solid in their respective roles of Sam Flynn and Quorra (I think Hedlund has the potential to be like Daniel Craig as he matures (and should play his son in the interim), and Wilde is really coming into her own), and Bruce Boxleitner? Wicked cool" (I wanted to be you, Scarecrow.)

The other notable actors in the film -- the digital ones -- are a mixed bag, but trend more on the positive. Virtual young Jeff Bridges treads into the uncanny valley at times, but that's because more often, it's frankly just uncanny. Due to composition and more subtle emotions, the virtual Bridges works quite well, and is an impressive entry into the virtual acting space. It's largely only with the bigger emotions that the acting breaks down a little, but kudos to Disney and director Joseph Kosinski for pushing the envelope, and not waiting for someone else to crack the perfect virtual actor for them. The first TRON was about pushing film technology; it's nice to see the new one do its equivalent.

So, overall, TRON: Legacy is an enjoyable film -- the expected "visual tour-de-force", but with more mythos, acting highlights, and technology showcases than I fear people will give it credit for.

(Footnote -- the DAFT PUNK score for the movie? Wicked tight.)

Monday, May 24, 2010


I just watched Jackie Chan's "Thunderbolt" - an under-the-radar illegal street racing film of his from 1995.

Despite its horrible dub, and it being one of the bigger commercials I've seen since "Mac and Me", it had some surprisingly good stuff.

The stakes are higher in this film than what Western audiences are probably used to seeing in a Chan film. Sure, there are some trademark funny moments, but the tone is, overall, darker, more urgent, than (say) "Rumble in the Bronx" or "Drunken Master".

There is a prison break scene that rivals Western 90s films like the later "Lethal Weapons", and a villainous attack on Chan and his family that is insidiously innovative, and genuinely tough to watch.

My favorite scene may be Chan's destructive rampage through a pachinko parlor. It's not his best choreography, but there is an anger - a wanton, destructive abandon - that's surprising, and pretty compelling.

There are also some nice, quiet moments, like the sweepers prepping a recognized track in the pre-dawn hours. These kinds of things can be common in Eastern films, but but so much the more globally accessible ones.

Overall, I can see why I've missed this flick in the past; but I am glad I finally caught up to it.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Strike Witches

Every Tuesday, the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek theater -- a wonderful full-service bar / restaurant / theater -- shows anime at 7:30 pm, with no admission.

Beer buckets and Japanese cartoons - how great is that?

This week was "Strike Witches", from Funimation / Studio Gonzo.

The entire country of Japan should be angry at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Don't get me wrong - I totally dig Studio Gonzo. The English voice over from Funimation was a bit painful, but not horrendous.

But there is so much amazing Japanese animation out there, I think the Drafthouse is doing the genre a big disservice by showing something so stereotypical, so borderline ecchi, that they're probably turning off a huge number of newcomers to the medium.

For ''Strike Witches", if I made "every time you see a prepubescent girl's panties" a drinking game, I would have been under the table halfway through the first episode.

I know.

Add big eyes, cat ears (and a tail, giving more excuses to see young girls' underwear), school girl uniforms, mecha (machine parts), and lesbian fantasies, and you have everything critics id this style of animation like to trot out.

Now, this also has the stuff I so enjoy about Japanese cartoons.

In the midst of this mud are bright shining moments of commentary about the militarized state, jealousy, and soul-touching moments of familial responsibility and father-daughter loss.

And then another panty shot. At dad's grave.


I think if Drafthouse put some of the great stuff out there - "Grave of the Fireflies", "A Wind Named Amnesia", "Memories", or even the sentimental stuff like Robotech or Votron, they could really further the interest in and excitement for anime as a cultural medium.

Not that it mattered tonight, where there was a sum total of three people in the theater - and me and the guy I talked into coming know anime, and know there's better stuff out there.

Ok, so this is less a review than a cultural accountability statement.

Quick review: Fluid animation, middling voice acting, fun action kept well in check, some highbrow themes, and lots of stereotypical fan service.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


I recently watched all 13 episodes of Mezzo, the anime series from Madman Entertainment and ADV Films (RIP).

It's a great, slick, diverse little series, running the gamut from Gunsmith Cats-esque humor and action to dabbling in deeper issues (say, child abuse) and some really clever dialog (with episode 12 taking the cake there).

Streaming on Netflix, I only had access to the English dubbed version, which is solid, and not all distracting, with Jason Douglas (Harada Tomohisa) the unsung star.

As an aside, maybe it's the US edit, but the series is not at all lecherous, contrary to what its intro sequence might infer.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (3D)

I saw Alice in Wonderland in 3D at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin today. If you haven't seen the film, and want to avoid spoilers, you may want to wait to read this until after you've seen the film the first time, and before you see it the second.

I was impressed with the film's visual style, acting, and -- most of all -- characterization. There are "people" in this film in the most unexpected places. Be sure to watch the dormouse (Barbara Windsor), and listen to the bloodhound, Bayard (Timothy Spall) for some of the more important statements in the film. They are not throw-away.

Of course, it's a Tim Burton film, so of course is it has acting from Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and music from Danny Elfman. And of course they are brilliant (if you like each of them -- which I do -- and I seem to have blessedly moved past my "I'm done with owning everything Danny Elfman phase"), but the film has a panache, an inpretentious importance, and a kind of fantasy fun.

And the film is fun, and strikes a weird balance between importance and diversion. The denouement is soulful, Anne Hathaway's meta-commentary performance on being royalty is subtle brilliance (and not heavy handed), the climax is rallying, and the fallout feels "right".

It's a movie that could be about fighting fatalism, more than a bit about accountability, and a great take on "what could have been", and "what is".

Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Book of Eli

(I'm going to be as vague as I can with any details on this film, but it's hard not to say anything without treading into *spoiler* territory. You have been warned.)

I had no expectations for The Book of Eli, other than I wanted to see it because it starred Denzel Washington, had Gary Oldman, looked to have striking visuals, and was from the guys behind Dead Presidents and Menace II Society.

In essence, the film is an different take on a missionary journey in a post-apocalyptic world. Washington portrays Eli, a drifter (a "walker") with a holy purpose, who is at cross purposes with a barren world; a struggling, devolved society; and the intent of his own mission.

The movie is tough. While not particularly gory, it is at times brutal, and briefly visually (and less briefly, thematically) unsettling.

Eli is front and center in the film, but shares time with the town baron he battles (portrayed by Oldman), a tag-a-long foil (Mila Kunis), the underrated Ray Stevenson (Oldman's lieutenant), and even a pleasant surprise performance from Tom Waits.

The cast is solid, with my only criticism being a meta one for Kunis (would someone that attractive really exist in a post-apocalyptic brothel?).

I'm surprised the film hasn't spun up more controversy on both sides (but maybe I'm just not paying attention). It has the potential to make Judeo-Christians uncomfortable with its portrayal of their faith, and the anti-religious expecting the non-religious post-apocalyptic film it's being marketed as irritated at the content (one couple did walk out muttering during my viewing of the film).

It's a worthwhile film I strongly recommend, if for no other reason than the discussions it could possibly engender (the top-notch acting and cinematography are extra perks).

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I caught a matinee of Daybreakers yesterday at the Alamo Drafthouse Village (avoid the brunch scones), and find it a good, worthwhile film.

It's a newish take on vampire lore (not unique to the film, but not as tired as a lot of genre conceits), stylish and at times gritty, and it did a good job of sucking me in (ahem).

The basic premise is that it's the future, vampires are the dominant population, and humans are facing extinction as they're farmed or hunted for blood. But blood's running out, and unless a substitute is found, vampires face their own extinction as they devolve into brainless animals.

Vampire fandom aside, I'd watch Ethan Hawke or Willem Dafoe just sit and drink coffee, so I was likely to enjoy this movie just because of them. The hard-working Claudia Karvan makes a great muted romantic foil, and I appreciate that she's strong and sexy without being overbearing or slutty (both in-character and in the film).

Despite my enjoying the film, I do have to say it is amazingly uneven -- on pretty much every front (other than the acting, with the possible exception of Sam Neill, who plays up the whole "evil corporate entity"" role way too stereotypically).

By "uneven", I mean from the pacing to the focus on the mythos to the cinematography to the dialog.

Pacing ranged from staid and thoughtful to frantic and music video-like. The film didn't feel like it knew what to do with the mythos -- here was this great take on a modern vampire utopia, complete with the mundane versions of non-vampire living (commuting, getting coffee, etc.), that was at first set up and explored, and then thrown out to focus on serial happenings.

Ironically, this caused the film to lose a bit of its humanity, as it bulleted through plot points, at the expense of the relationships and exploring the societal impacts of this whole system.

The shooting is great, though there are some marquee moments in the film I found jarring, because you can almost see someone working hard to pose the actors and setup the shot, for the sake of it looking "bad-ass", at the expense of authenticity (and frankly, I almost laughed out load when I saw them).

At the same time, there are some great nods to traditional vampire tropes (staking, etc.) that are put in in surprising, fun, and non-obtrusive ways.

Overall, a worthwhile flick, at times unnecessarily gratuitous, but, overall, a good movie to add to your queue.

Tropic Thunder

I had not scene Tropic Thunder. Last night, I fixed that.

It's easy to dismiss films of this genre as low-brow tripe -- and that's partially the fault of how it was marketed -- but it's a good film with solid (and at points amazing) acting.

The cast includes Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Steve Coogan, Bill Hader (SNL), Nick Nolte, Christine Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., and Tom Cruise -- the latter two of which put forth amazing, unexpected character roles. I recognized these two in the role, but a surprising number of people don't.

And for those folks that are in the biz, I think you'll enjoy all of the in-jokes and industry self-effacement.

Lotta fun, lotta great real-world (limited CGI) war effects, and fun DVD "special features".