Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TRON: Legacy (2010, Kosinski)

Rating: **

As noisy, disjointed and tone-deaf as it is, TRON: Legacy is at least enjoyable as a footnote of sorts to this year’s most celebrated movie, The Social Network (2010). Should the Joseph Kosinski’s 3-D behemoth be called TRON: The Grid, the connection would have been even more pronounced.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is obsessed with creating a democratic cyber-Utopia, with the word “sharing” for a constitution and the “users” for a self-guarding army. And since there’s no business like share business these days (case in point: Mark Zuckerberg), small wonder that his innocuous impulse ends up as a huge corporation, Encom (case in point: Facebook etc.).

Early on in the movie the executive board of Encom is shown and – in an amusing and perceptive touch – 99% of its members are not a day over 25 (they wear morbid-chic Twilight attire). Youth without youth is avenged by… you guessed it: youth. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), Kevin’s admirably sane heir, is the main shareholder in Encom, but he’s cool enough to sabotage his own company (in a Peter Parker-like opening stunt).

The movie is mostly gibberish: rarely entertaining, always numbing and inconsistent throughout. Its absolute nadir comes with the appearance of Michael Sheen as Castor, the sub-Joel Grey M.C. of the surprisingly commonplace cyber-joint “The End of the Line” (a nod to Gaspar Noé’s “Rectum”, as depicted in Irreversible [2004], perhaps…?). Sheen is desperately camping things up: all giggly, he prances around, brandishing a stupid neon-cane (with top hat inexplicably missing), and finally belting out what might have been the movie’s wishful motto: “This is going to be quite a ride!”.

(It’s an embarrassing performance, but it doesn’t top some of the lines others were given to chew on. Sam, when asked to convey what sun is like, comes up with this nugget of B-movie descriptive flair: “Warm. Radiant. Beautiful”).

The movie not only eschews the visual elegance of its 1982 predecessor (which I happen to like), but is not above devouring Stanley Kubrick’s white Beyond-Infinity-Chamber from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In Kosinski, the dish being served in this venerable setting is a roasted pig and the wine (?) is toxic-waste-green. Classy.

Just like Avatar (2009) a year ago, TRON: Legacy delivers a metaphor for our own experience of viewing it. There’s a sequence midway through that shows “The Games”: a gladiator-like struggle suspended in mid-air, performed for the roaring crowds down below. The roaring multitudes, though heard in head-splitting outbursts, are nowhere in sight: they’re bathed in shadows. They’re us: all “users”, relevant only for the sake of having “logged in”, but not for the sake of being there or feeling anything at all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Worlds Apart: The Best Movies of 2010

Whatever you make of it, the fact is that the best movies of 2010 focused on tiny, private and/or completely artificially constructed worlds that can be examined but are not easily ruptured. Be it the wacko-fundamentalist family unit in Dogtooth, its ultra-loose opposite in Daddy Longlegs, the enormous Catholic sanctuary in Lourdes, or the beach house in About Elly – not to mention the total confinement of one’s own computer screen in The Social Network – 201o was fascinated with insularity. (I haven't seen Tron: Legacy yet, but I'm guessing it would make another case in point.) Only one movie on the list that follows has a true epic scale and employs an international setting, thus not only defying fragmentation itself, but reaffirming the functional unity of our world as such. That the hero of the movie is a terrorist (Carlos), is another matter.

Here’s my Top 10 for the year 2010:

1. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Lanthimos’ small-scale homey prison-camp family fable is not only the most stunningly executed movie I’ve seen this year; it’s also the wittiest and most horrific variation on the perils of insularity since Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004). Emulating a number of seemingly contradictory influences – ranging from Pasolini to Rocky (1976) – Lanthimos created a haunting vision of human culture as a psychotic parlor game erupting in violence, that is both difficult to match and impossible to shrug off. (See my full review here).

2. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
Read my review here.

3. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Read my review here.

4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
A movie that needs to be seen in its 330-minute version or not at all, Assayas’ mammoth yet slick actioner goes down like a shot of vodka (OK, a series of shots). In its multilingual and geographical grandeur, the movie achieves something that should be flaunted in the ads as Globe-O-Vision. In its intermittent employment of action movie kicks and analytical recoil, Assayas’s film offers an unparalleled glimpse into modern history without a hair of sermonizing, and with a good deal of excitement (and horror).

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
It wasn’t until the second viewing that I appreciated Baumbach’s quietly accomplished feat of throwing an über-jerk onto us and then pairing him with the most happily autistic screen presence this side of  Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton (courtesy of the indelible Greta Gerwig).

6. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
Read my review here.

7. Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman)
Everything was set for a commonplace doomed-love story. By virtue of his precise (sometimes scarily so) direction, Tabakman eschewed the limitations of the material and gave us the most devastating account of desire warring with culture that hit the screen in 2010. I’d choose the scene in which a passing bus is suddenly revealing the crowd of hostile on-lookers as the single most potent shot I’ve seen this year.

8. The Social Network (David Fincher)
A virtual steamroller of energy and verbal zest, The Social Network has the distinction of surpassing its own perilous topicality and adding a great new character to the venerable lineage of American folk heroes, without stooping to making him cute or even likable.

9. Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed)
Read my review here.

10. Daddy Longlegs (Ben & Josh Safdie)
Read my review here.

Runners-up: Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy); Amer (Cattet, Forzani); Boxing Gym (Wiseman); Father of My Children (Hansen-Løve); Let it Rain (Jaoui); Bluebeard (Breillat); Enter the Void (Noe).

Plus my annual personal awards:

Best Director: Olivier Assayas (Carlos)
Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Best Actress: Mirela Oprisor (Tuesday, After Christmas)

Worst movie of the year: The A-Team (Joe Carnahan)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Undertow (2009, Fuentes-León)

Rating: ***1/2


Brokeback Mountain (2005) meets Ghost (1990)…? While Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow is prone to such shorthand (and even gently mocking) descriptions, in fact it’s a wonderfully accomplished love story that flirts with despair as often as it does with cuteness.

The story centers on Miguel (Cristian Mercado), a Peruvian worker from a tiny fishing village. About to become a father, he is seen in the very first scene affectionately kissing his wife’s pregnant belly. A couple of scenes later, an equal – if not greater – affection is showered by Miguel on his male lover, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), and the film’s seemingly commonplace dramatic conflict is set in motion.

The kicker comes some 20 minutes in: after Santiago is killed in a swimming accident, his (very carnal and sexually quite active) ghost keeps paying visits to Miguel and will continue until his body is not found and properly buried in the sea. What follows could turn into a savage satirical farce, and yet Fuentes-León resists the temptation, opting for a gentle (almost fey) sense of humor and a genuine heartbreak of a relationship made impossible less by death than by social convention.

There’s a remarkable moment mid-way through the movie: anxious Miguel is persuaded by the ghost of Santiago to walk hand in hand down a village street. Miguel – gay, yet homophobic to the point of self-denial – never even admitted his identity to himself, much less flaunted it in front of other people. And yet, in an instance, he gives his hand to Santiago and the two stroll together, in perfect bliss made possible only because of the ghost’s invisibility to everyone but Miguel. It’s a lovely movie-Utopia of a scene, made poignant and painful by the fact that it fulfils itself solely on a fantasy level.

The movie has its shortcomings: the economic conditions of Miguel’s life seem fake, all sex is prettified, and the movie pussyfoots around the question of Miguel’s lack of sexual feeling for his wife (the movie suggests he’s gay, not bisexual – and yet it doesn’t confront the question of unsatisfying straight sex Miguel is forced to be having; it merely shrugs it off by suggesting that he “thinks of Santiago” each time).

Still, Undertow is a beautifully executed, socially relevant and emotionally compelling gay fable, in which love defies death, but society defies the individual, in turn.