Monthly Archives: July 2022

Tron: Legacy (2010)

*. Despite its minor cult status and instant name recognition, I’ve always thought the original Tron a but underwhelming, both at the time and today. Still, given that name recognition a reboot (the name actually has some resonance here) was inevitable. Especially given how completely computers had taken over animation in the intervening thirty years.
*. Tron: Legacy wasn’t well received, with the critical consensus being that the visuals were nice but the story and characters were weak. I agree with this take, and what makes this even more annoying is the fact that this was the exact same problem with the first film. In Legacy they just upped the effects and ran everything back again. Indeed, it’s almost the same story playing back again, with young Flynn on a nearly identical quest to that of his dad in Tron. I realize that the main selling point here was the pinball game, but this struck me as very lazy.

*. So, once more into the machine. This time Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is scanned into the matrix, or what’s called the Grid, while searching for his missing father Kevin (Jeff Bridges). Once inside Sam plays various games that are basically sexier-looking versions of the original, including a team lightcycle race. There’s no corporate baddy at the head of Encom in the real world (the part played by David Warner in the original), but the point is made that Encom is bad anyway, and Sam is the heroic hacker in a t-shirt who likes to ride motorbikes.
*. In computerland things are being run by Clu (played by a young Jeff Bridges). Clu is no longer the cute little icon of the first movie but a power-mad dictator intent on stamping out all noncomformists. So he doesn’t like rebels like the Flynns (père et fils) or the “isomorphic algorithms” he wiped out in a digital genocide many “cycles” earlier, leaving only a sexy gal named Quorra (Olivia stepping into Carrie-Anne Moss’s vinyl pants).

*. All of the characters are types we’ve seen before. I mentioned Carrie-Anne Moss. Michael Sheen plays Joel Grey in Cabaret, a part I couldn’t find any reason for including. Sam is Peter Parker or Luke Skywalker and Kevin is Obi-Wan Kenobi, crossed with the Dude from The Big Lebowski. Really, he could have traded in his Matrix overcoat for a bathrobe and not seemed out of place. Tron has been reprogrammed into Darth Maul. Daft Punk, who did the soundtrack, show up as cameos and don’t seem out of place.
*. It’s hard to think of anything much to say about a movie this unoriginal, which set out to be nothing much more than a live-action video game. The effects are neat, though a bit drab in their reliance on a colourless ground. I found the whole thing weightless and instantly forgettable. There’s been much talk of a third movie, but instead Disney plumped for a fully-animated television series that ran from 2012-2013. Things have been quiet since, but I doubt it’s game over.

Tron (1982)

*. In the forty-plus years since it was released Tron has become a sort of talisman, for some good reasons and others that are distortions of perspective.
*. As an example of the latter, Tron is often touted as one of the first CGI movies, but computer generated animation was quite limited at the time and there’s little of it in the movie. It’s mainly a product of more traditional techniques mixed in with backlit animation that gives everything a warm and fuzzy glow (and makes the actors look like silent film stars). This gives the movie a visual texture that’s very different from any CGI as we know it today. That’s not a bad thing, as I’d rather look at the animation here than at the lightshow at the end of The Abyss, a real CGI milestone from later in the decade. But this is more a movie about computers, or how we imagined their inner lives in 1982, than one made by or on computers, as they are today.
*. In other words, the look of the film is a throwback rather than anything prophetic. Where Tron did open a door on things to come had more to do with its basic premise of someone being sucked into a virtual or alternate reality video game. I don’t think this plot had ever been introduced before (in part because being stuck inside Space Invaders wouldn’t have looked like anything special), but it would go on to be the backbone of such books and films as Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy. And The Matrix franchise would pretty much be the same thing, except reversed, where the virtual reality turns out to be the real one.
*. But it’s a plot that is a throwback too, in that it’s basically a recycling of The Wizard of Oz. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is swept away by a digital-processing tornado and ends up in Oz, where he meets various friends and enemies who are played by the same actors we’ve already met in the real world (Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner, Barnard Hughes) on his way to the Emerald City and the mighty Oz himself, or Master Control Program (MCP). There’s even a cute little non-verbal tagalong creature named Clu to be Flynn’s Toto.
*. At the time it came out I was definitely in the target audience, pounding pocketfuls of quarters into the machines at various downtown arcades, and I remember being keen to see it. I also remember being disappointed by it, though not as disappointed as I’d be by the video game. This wasn’t because the visuals underwhelmed, but because the story was so weak. There was nothing to cheer about, and I think even as a teenager I realized the whole thing was just a flimsy excuse to showcase a lot of hard work being done by the animation team. Sure it looked good, and the design elements here — from the tanks and lightcycles to the uniforms and the modular terrain — were first rate. But none of the characters seemed real, either as people or avatars, and the plot was just the usual weary quest.
*. Sticking with this theme of looking forward and back, here’s how Roger Ebert signed off his review back in 1982: “It’s brilliant at what it does, and in a technical way maybe it’s breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities. All things are possible.” Oh, Roger. Possible? Sure. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Malignant (2021)

*. This could have been so good.
*. In the first place, James Wan was back doing an original horror film after what felt like a dull (if profitable) hiatus directing franchise crap like Aquaman and Furious 7. I’m not a huge fan of the Insidious and Conjuring movies, but they were at least the work of someone who understood suspense, and they were effective entertainments for the most part.
*. Second: the main genre inspiration for Malignant is Italian giallo, and particularly its later decadent phase, which I’m a big fan of. It made me think primarily of Dario Argento’s Trauma, which is the only late Argento movie that I really love. It doesn’t have any of Argento’s sense of style, but the plot captures the wild, over-the-top giallo madness of Trauma. The first full reveal of the Gabriel puppet had me grinning ear to ear, as did the size of the giant hospital on the top of the cliff. Suddenly the fact that Madison was living alone in a mansion that size in Seattle fit (even if it never made sense).
*. But then things started going wrong. Yes, Wan was back, but he didn’t seem interested in being scary. Lights flicker and things go bump in the night, and the usual bag of tricks is drawn from, like a fast-moving figure seen darting across the screen behind someone. But there were no decent set-piece suspense sequences, and finally Wan just went with revealing the victims’ bodies. Nor was there much shock value. Instead, the murders were only gouts of CGI splatter that didn’t do anything for me.
*. Then the giallo aspects were overtaken by what can only be described as a case of superheroitis. The bloodbath in the police station was ridiculous and over-the-top to be sure, but in a stupid way. And the adult Gabriel just isn’t very convincing, only seeming like a rather stiff mask. Some more thought needed to go into the design here, and less on choreographing fight scenes with lots of cable work.
*. Perhaps the whole thing was meant less as an homage than as a joke. In either case I felt it to be a waste. The basic premise is great. Annabelle Wallis is well cast as the woman past the edge of a nervous breakdown. The plot point that gives us the first big twist (the crash through the ceiling) was terrific, and took me totally by surprise. But then everything just went to hell. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Othello (1951)

*. There’s an always been an issue with Othello relating to how much Iago should be allowed to take over the proceedings. This is because (1) villains are more interesting than heroes; (2) Iago is actually a bigger role, with more lines than Othello; (3) Iago is more relatable than the heroic but alien Moor; and (4) Iago’s the one directing the whole show, the guy who makes everything happen.
*. But Iago taking over isn’t an issue with this production. Iago is still Iago (and played well by Micheál MacLiammóir, a stage actor making his first film appearance), but he’s a diminished thing. To take only the most obvious example, there’s no entry point for inquiring into his motives for hating Othello since he has no soliloquies! This is a radical pruning and re-imagining of the text, signaling a major shift in how we experience the play.
*. Of course Shakespeare almost always has to be cut when being put on screen. He was actually being cut back in the days when Will himself was helping to run the Globe. A “full text” version of Hamlet would run close to four hours in performance (Branagh did it in less, but only by running at a crazy pace). This Othello comes in at 90 minutes, and there’s a lot of time for mood-setting extras (like the pre-title sequence, which goes on for nearly five minutes). So obviously some lines were going to be dropped.
*. Having made that obvious point, however, I think the cuts here mean that while this is a great movie it’s not great Shakespeare. On the Criterion DVD commentary Peter Bogdanovich calls it “the most cinematic Shakespearean adaptation that had ever been made, the truest to the spirit if not the letter of Shakespeare.” I could get on board with the first part of this, but not the second. The spirit if not the letter of Shakespeare?

*. The visuals, and in particular the use of architecture and framing, is the real star. The sound (the “letter,” or lines) is a secondary consideration. Now what I’m not commenting on here is the terrible dubbing, which was remarked upon by contemporary reviewers and has been criticized ever since. The lines as they are delivered aren’t synchronized either in terms of timing or to the actors’ delivery. We barely see someone’s lips move as a line is being shouted or bellowed. Welles just went with what he thought were the best readings and plugged them in. Sometimes the lines were recorded years later, and the actors didn’t even have a chance to see the film. That is, when they were the same actors. That isn’t Suzanne Cloutier’s voice. All of her lines were dubbed.
*. Just sticking with this aside for a moment, David Thomson remarks on how the sound in Welles’s Chimes at Midnight and Macbeth was “hideously postsynched . . . but the blurring assists the dreamy ambience of his Shakespeare.” That’s a nice try, but no. Sometimes messy sound just sounds messy. It doesn’t add dreary ambience.
*. Instead of commenting on the sound, what I am saying is pretty much the opposite of what Myron Meisel says in his DVD commentary, that “when the time comes to respect Shakespeare’s language and when Welles decides to employ it specifically, he adjusts his camera style to give the maximum impact to the lyricism of Shakespeare’s words.”
*. This doesn’t strike me as being true. To take just one example, when Othello delivers his dramatic line “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” we can barely see or hear him because he’s just a dot on a distant balcony of an imposing ducal façade and the reading is faint.

*. Meisel also draws attention to the scene where Othello first calls Iago “honest” in a shot where no figures are seen at all. Meisel says this is done so as to make us feel that Othello is “addressing a man with no independent personality whatsoever.” This strikes me as a very strange reading of the scene, not least because I don’t see how any production of Othello could present Iago as being a character without any personality. That could not have been Welles’s intention, and I don’t think the shot implies it. Instead, I get the sense that Welles just liked the shot and didn’t care much about how the line fit with it.
*. A quick correction to something else Meisel says on the commentary. Iago does not have the most lines in Shakespeare. Meisel says he has more lines than even Hamlet, but this isn’t true. Hamlet has the most, followed by Richard III. Henry V and Falstaff would have the most if you counted all their appearances spread out over three plays.
*. A final note on Meisel’s commentary. He really goes to town on interpreting the visuals of the film as having sexual significance. Every spear is a phallus and every narrow window or slat is a vulva. This is then taken as representative of the underlying motivation of Iago, which Meisel takes to be his impotence. I think much of this is a stretch, and if Welles had wanted to play up that angle he could have done it far more effectively.
*. I mean, you could see a spear as being phallic, but the thing is Welles really had a thing for them. I think he used them in all of his Shakespeare films. At least I remember them being featured prominently in Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. We seem them again here. They may have been drawn from Renaissance art, where they were a staple going back at least to Giotto’s Betrayal of Christ.

*. Probably the most remarkable aspect of the film’s look is the editing. Apparently there are significantly more shots in Othello than in any other film by Welles (and four times as many as in Citizen Kane). This was due mainly to the way it was made: over a period of three years and shot on widely separated locations. But necessity led to something amazing, as the editing lends a tremendous energy to the proceedings. At times, however, it is disorienting, as characters seem to transport to different spots instantaneously.
*. The longest single take is a minute and a half. It’s in the famous scene where Iago infects Othello with jealousy, and given how well-known this scene is I think Welles had to try and do it as one shot. He must have known that’s what would have been expected. But even so it’s only part of the seduction scene, not the whole thing.
*. Given the incredible difficulties in its production I think this has to be seen as a stunning achievement. It makes me think of other directors pursuing seemingly doomed and self-destructive foreign adventures in films like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcaralldo. That these movies ever were completed is amazing. That they were classics tells you everything you need to know about the men behind them.

Colossal (2016)

*. Ouch! Without getting moralistic, there are some subjects that just don’t work as comedy. One of these is men beating on women.
*. This is especially the case when the abuse is, in context, not meant to be played for laughs or in comic-book fashion but is presented realistically, as the culmination of a building threat of physical violence.
*. To backtrack: Colossal tells the story of a young woman named Gloria (Anne Hathaway, in a truly godawful haircut) who returns to her small-town hometown after drinking herself out of a job and a boyfriend in NYC. She immediately gets reacquainted with a fellow named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) she used to know as a kid who apparently still has a creepy crush on her. Oscar hires her to work as a waitress at his bar and it’s clear to everyone, though possibly not Gloria, that he figures they’re going to hook-up. Meanwhile, she’s ready to fall into bed with a young stud (Austin Stowell) and has no interest in Oscar at all.
*. Oscar is understandably miffed at this, and tries to leverage the fact that he’s Gloria’s boss and that he can do things for her into a relationship. He becomes increasingly nasty, and things finally get rough.
*. Does this sound like a rom-com plot? Well, there’s another angle introduced where Gloria is controlling a giant lizard monster in Seoul, and Oscar a giant robot. I take it this was meant as a metaphor, with the kaiju elements standing in for the collateral damage that people like Gloria and Oscar cause (through her alcoholism and his brutality). To my eye it made no sense at all and I couldn’t begin to understand why they bothered with it. I should also say that it isn’t funny either.
*. The movie I kept thinking of while watching Colossal was The Cable Guy, another very dark comedy that alienated a lot of people when it came out but that has gone on to become a bit of a cult favourite. It’s a movie that’s grown in my estimation too, though I still find it hard to watch. But Colossal is just hard to watch, with no redeeming features that I can identify.
*. Yes, Hathaway and Sudeikis are good, but their characters are dense and unrelatable. It’s not just that they have no attraction to each other, but they seem not to be able to see this for themselves. Then the supporting characters, of which there are only a few, are just as mystifying. Stowell is so passive he might as well be holding a camera. Gloria’s ex-boyfriend is such an upper-class twit he even has a British accent. Plus he’s a total jerk. You’re not in a good place watching a movie and wondering how soon you can get away from these people.
*. Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, whose debut was the excellent Timecrimes. His name made me wonder if “Nacho” is a real Spanish name. Who would name their kid after a fried tortilla chip? But I asked an expert and he told me that Nacho is short for Ignacio. I didn’t know that.
*. That matter settled, I had the sense that Vigalondo was trying to do something different here and that it just wasn’t working. None of the pieces fit together. This is a shame because if he’d wanted to make a serious movie about this kind of situation it had the potential to be something special. Even Sudeikis, cast way against type, might have worked as the heavy. But instead there’s a giant lizard fighting a giant robot and a gesture toward female empowerment, all interspersed with awkward attempts at humour. Not just a bad movie but a painful experience all around.

Caddyshack (1980)

*. Even at the time (not while it was in theatres, but on VHS a few years later) I didn’t “get” Caddyshack. A lot of my peers did, and they watched it endlessly while memorizing half the script. But I can’t remember finding anything about it funny then and today it plays even worse. And yet it’s fondly remembered by many, a book was even written about its production, and it was named by ESPN as “perhaps the funniest sports movie ever made.” I think that “perhaps” is being asked to do a lot of work.
*. There’s no real plot, but rather just some shenanigans at a posh golf club. The basic framework is stooge comedy, of the kind writer-director Harold Ramis would specialize in. He’d written Animal House and Meatballs, and this would be his directorial debut, before having a hand in Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Ghostbusters. Along with some recurring playmates like Bill Murray, these movies were all based on the idea of snobs vs. slobs (a tag-line from the ads for Caddyshack). Spoiler alert: the slobs win. Things really are that simple.

*. So the regular kid Danny (Michael O’Keefe) is a caddy wanting to get ahead in the world by kissing the asses of rich old people. But, and this is important, snobs and slobs aren’t defined by their wealth because we have Rodney Dangerfield as a super-rich party crasher and Chevy Chase as more of what we’d recognize today as a cool rich dude. Poor Ted Knight has to carry the banner for Old Money elites, and he is seriously mocked and degraded. A slob sinks his yacht. A slob sleeps with his niece. A slob hits him in the nuts with a wayward drive. This latter insult was the only time I laughed in the whole movie, which tells you how unfunny the rest of it is and also reinforces that I think this kind of thing is hilarious.

*. Bill Murray plays Elmer Fudd chasing a gopher that is digging up the fairways. It’s a truly awful performance, though he does have one good line about receiving a blessing from the Dalai Lama. Rodney Dangerfield steals all there is to steal of a show with his usual shtick (which wasn’t that well known at the time). Chevy Chase is weirdly subdued and frankly hard to read.
*. As per usual for films of this type and at this time there’s drug humour, and scatological humour (a chocolate bar dropped in a pool is mistaken for a turd, or “doody”), and gratuitous nudity. So gratuitous that Cindy Morgan objected to it, but the producer told her she had to do it or she’d never work again.
*. I know I’m getting grumpier as I get older, which is why I started off by saying that I didn’t think there was anything funny about Caddyshack even when I was a teenager. The fact that it hasn’t dated well while it’s stature as a comedy classic has only grown can I think be attributed mainly to nostalgia among those who grew up with it. They don’t make movies like this anymore, and that’s something that some people regret. I don’t see it as good or bad, but only dismiss Caddyshack as being the kind of thing that was really popular once. That popularity now only seems a historical curiosity. The slobs won and became the new snobs. Then they got old.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

*. In terms of its formula Thor: Ragnarok is just like every other Marvel movie, but to give it its due, its better in most regards. That means that while I could appreciate and even enjoy it, I’m sure I’ll never want to see it again and only a day after watching it there were big parts that I could no longer remember.
*. What’s the same this time out? The sprawling plot that draws in a crowded cast of extra characters played by big stars. The villain with an army of disposable mooks who wants to, yes, open another portal to Earth (here it’s the Bifröst Bridge) so that they can . . . I don’t know. Either kill everyone or else sit on a throne lording it over them. Motivation for these baddies always seems kind of vague.
*. As far as the story arc goes, it follows the tried-tested-and-true pattern of every pro wrestling match. The hero starts out strong, then gets taken by surprise and is humbled/loses his power. He has to spend some time on the outs, getting his mojo back/powering up so that he’s ready for the re-match, wherein he kicks ass and re-establishes the proper order of things.
*. Would these movies be better if they were a little more focused? Did we need to have Doctor Strange drop in here? Or the Hulk? The whole subplot where Thor is whisked off to a game-show planet where he fights as a gladiator has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, though seeing Jeff Goldblum do his shtick was fun, and made me wonder when Nicolas Cage might be coming back to Marvel. Was Ghost Rider that big a set-back?

*. As it is, the story didn’t need all these extras. It already has Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bickering as per usual with Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And there are other Asgardians like Heimdall (Idris Elba), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Skurge (Karl Urban). Anthony Hopkins as Odin passes the torch with some flabby words of wisdom. Plus there’s Cate Blanchett as Hela, another distinguished actor that Marvel squeezes into spandex but doesn’t give much to do but strike various poses. She seems bored by power. Hela, that is.
*. There’s little to add at this point. Director Taika Waititi, who also provides the voice of Korg, was going for something more comic, and he got it. Though the humour is still very much in the Marvel vein: dry wise-cracking in the face of danger, or just taking a poke at the sheer portentous ridiculousness of everything that’s going on. It’s a self-aware sort of humour, with the hero as a self-deprecating figure until he has to get serious for a bit, before going back to cracking jokes.
*. In sum, it’s a fun bit of cotton candy. Hemsworth looks impossibly buff. Thompson and Goldblum stand out in a solid cast. The use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is inspired. So both more of the same and as good as it gets. I can’t be more, or less, enthusiastic than that.

King Lear (1909)

*. I believe this is the oldest surviving film adaptation of King Lear that we have, and it gives a pretty good idea of what early filmmakers were up against. Lear is a messy play in terms of its action and characters. and in ten minutes it’s kind of hard to make a version that’s comprehensible. As it’s presented here, I don’t think anyone unfamiliar with the play would have the faintest idea what was going on, even with the aid of the title cards.
*. So best to stick with the big moments, which come down to three: the opening scene where the three daughters are called upon to profess their love, then Lear on the heath, and finally Lear dying over Cordelia. Also the image of Kent in the stocks is usually thrown in for visual effect, though in most cases he’s in and out of them in a trice.
*. The first and the last of the big scenes are handled in an adequate if perfunctory way. But the storm on the heath is actually pretty impressive, with lightning being produced by scratching the film itself. No, it’s obviously not a man out in a storm, but compared to how the scene was played in the 1910 Italian version it’s a tempest.
*. What this film in particular is often called out for is trying to do too much. The 1910 film that I mentioned did a radical pruning but here they seemed to want to get everything in. This results in chaos, with the action of Edgar turning into Poor Tom and then coming back to kill Edmund all rushed through at rapid speed. You even get to see Edgar hiding in the hollow tree, which is something he only describes having done in the play. In other words, there’s actually stuff here that you wouldn’t likely see in any stage production.
*. The costumes, sets and backdrops are nice. I like the hollow tree. I also like the cliffs of Dover and Stonehenge showing up. Poor Tom makes a wreath of hay in the hovel that looks a bit like a crown of thorns. And you can’t deny it’s lively enough throughout. Appreciation can’t go much beyond this, however, and any deep analysis is impossible.