Monday, April 26, 2010

The Next Voice You Hear... (1950, Wellman)


It’s tempting to take easy shots at The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), William A. Wellman’s literal-minded religious fantasy, in which God adapts to the realities of mass-culture era and broadcasts His message all over the world on the radio.

However, both the material and the way Wellman directed it, are far from banal. James Whitmore’s portrayal of a well-meaning workingman, weary of his daily routine and desperately seeking for comfort of any kind, is in fact very powerful. The source of his angst is his wife’s pregnancy – the dread of lurking labor and possible harm she can suffer is rendered very matter-of-factly. Whitmore’s irregular face is great at expressing confused emotions of his character.

The movie sags when God’s message is cut to a catchphrase-size of a homey “take it easy”. But most of scenes have both rhythm and substance, and there is remarkably little of the condescending tone that pushed the thematically close Red Planet Mars (1952) into the realm of camp, which The Next Voice You Hear… never enters. It’s hard to call this movie a heartfelt piece of work, since the main premise of injecting faith into the hearts of doubters is treated without zeal – but it’s a solid enough movie to keep the viewer from dismissing it as a mere exercise in manipulation.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

TRON (1982, Lisberger)

Rating: ***1/2

Widely dismissed at the time of its original release, TRON (1982) holds up amazingly well. I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether the effect it had on me was inherent to its design or was it merely contextual (resulting from the fact I watched it now, in 2010) – but it hardly matters. The wonder of TRON as it unravels before our CGI-weary eyes is that its artifice doesn’t seem quaint or campy. In fact, the movie may seem more high-concept today than it did at the time it was conceived. We grew so accustomed to the Spielbergian notion of lifelike CGI (set up in the 1993 Jurrasic Park and obeyed by everyone since, James Cameron included), that the overt artifice of TRON seems so much more refreshing. All lines crystal-clear, all contrasts wildly overstated, the visuals mesmerized me and seduced me beyond anything I saw at IMAX those last couple of years.

True, it gets dull every time the animation takes over completely and the fascinating interplay of human figures with the dreamed-up background is lost. But this is a slight deficiency. The movie is still a grand canvas, all covered in garish fluorescent-marker design. It never enters the cozy territories of the eco-friendly Pandora. The visuals in TRON are razor-sharp; we don’t get any of the cloying fuzziness that repeatedly contaminates our current CGI-driven extravaganzas (every figure in those swaying crowds CGI gives us sways the same way, did you notice…?).

Shot against this framework, the black-and-white, slightly flickering human faces are all the more impressive – an effect that Lars Von Trier or Wim Wenders wouldn’t be ashamed of.

Waking up this morning, I didn’t expect that this will become the day I fell in love with TRON, but there you go. I’m even shamed into admitting I’m curious about the remake. If done right, this may be the movie that opens a new frontier for CGI techniques. If done wrong, it can become another Alice in Wonderland (2010). Let’s wait and see.