Monday, December 27, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy is quite possibly the coolest movie I have ever seen.

Mind you, I'm not some die-hard Tron fanboy, and I came into this sequel with low expectations.  I tried watching the original when I was a kid, but I just found it terribly boring. Coming to it recently as a more cultured adult, I found it still boring, and furthermore ridiculous, but I could at least appreciate that it was unique, at the time new, and unlike anything else people had ever seen before.

Like its predecessor, Tron: Legacy too is something new and unique. But it also looks good and is entertaining. Indeed, I think the new world of Tron: Legacy is what Tron was supposed to have looked like all along, only the technological constraints of the time having distorted the vision. It creates a world wholly and deliberately unreal, yet makes it as convincing as it is attractive. Yes, it is somehow, paradoxically, convincingly unreal. Credit must be given, of course, to the original Tron, whose basic design laid the groundwork for the sequel. Whenever, God forbid, I should imagine what it is like to exist inside a computer, the image shall hereafter forever be informed by both movies. But, whereas everyone remembers the original as a technical marvel, I don't imagine that Tron: Legacy is the result of considerably more supercomputers at work than any other current special effects-laden flick. Rather, the singular aesthetic of the movie is, first and foremost, a work of art that sets it quite apart from any other blockbuster.

Equally essential, if not more so, is the film score by Daft Punk. Even before the film transitions to the virtual world, the urgent soundtrack takes hold and has you surrendering your emotions to the groove. The hypnotic score remains in the foreground throughout, and the otherworldly visuals later seem almost more an illustration of the movie's sound. The sublime marriage of audio and visuals is truly what makes Tron: Legacy, nearly a feature-length music video.

Writing is also improved over the original, although the story is definitely a sequel, and depends heavily on the first film's. All the ridiculous explanations from the first movie remain in effect, but they seem less ridiculous this time, mainly because the sequel doesn't even bother explaining how flesh-and-blood humans are able to enter the realm of digital data. Tron: Legacy also doesn't tell viewers much about who Kevin Flynn and Tron were, though both characters return, the latter being more welcome than the former.

On that note, I should make mention of the special effects used to make Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner appear young again, whether because they appear in flashbacks or because data isn't supposed to show wrinkles. By some accounts, the digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges is the one blemish on an otherwise visually impeccable film. To be honest, I wasn't much bothered by it. Rather, when I watched the original Tron just a few months ago, I was startled by the genuine image of the young Jeff Bridges, since I had only ever really known him from his work as a much older man. So, perhaps because any young Jeff Bridges is, by its nature, a strange sight to me, I did not regard his CG mask as itself deficient in Tron: Legacy.

It is somewhat the opposite case with Bruce Boxleitner. Playing Tron would be the highlight of his career, so for most people, having not watched him age through his later roles, he has remained frozen in that image of him as a young man in Tron. So when I saw him as the young Tron again in Tron: Legacy, it seemed right (and, in this case, I have met little disagreement), whereas it was the scenes featuring the old Bruce Boxleitner's real face that kind of unsettled.

At the risk of spoiling things, I will say that Tron's role in the movie is brief, and his face shown only from a distance and through some distortion filter for most of it. So maybe the filmmakers themselves did not have complete confidence in their tech to do justice to the series's coolest and most beloved character. It makes me wonder about the possibility for future sequels. Without both CG assistance and shrewd editing, Bruce Boxleitner is already too old, not only in body but in voice, to convincingly play the same character from thirty years ago. I'd wager that limiting that character's minutes in Tron: Legacy was simply a practical necessity. But, going forward, would a Tron movie without any Tron at all even be worth making? Well, I suppose as technology advances, the Tron character may yet endure, and now truly as just data.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Last Unicorn

"And where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you? How dare you come to me now, when I am this?"

The Last Unicorn was not so vivid in my memory as Robin Hood. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of it before, let alone seen it. But there was something vaguely resonant about the title and DVD cover art, and as I read the synopsis, I felt certain that this was the very movie I had been searching for for years.

It was back when I was a kindergartener. At my elementary school, I remember, at the end of the last Friday of every month, all the kindergarteners would gather into one classroom to watch a movie (usually a Disney animated classic—Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, etc.).

To be honest, I didn’t really like “movie day,” mainly on account of the fact that it was always hosted in the other kindergarten class, where I would have to sit on the floor and be surrounded by strange kids I didn’t normally see. Looking back, I also wonder why we even had a movie day. What educational value was there to be had from watching Disney movies during class time? As heavily criticized as California’s under-budgeted education system is nowadays, I suppose it’s easy to be cynical in retrospect and imagine that the underpaid teachers were just idling the day away any way they could.

But, no, I really did like my kindergarten teacher, and though I can’t remember much of the day-to-day in her class, everything I can remember tells me that she had the students’ best interests at heart. It is neither easy nor profitable being a teacher, especially for the very young kids. I have to believe that anyone who would take on that job would do so from the heart (though that speaks unfortunately little of their qualifications). And maybe, for us young kids, movie time existed for the same reason as nap time—we could only handle so much and needed periods to unwind.

But I’ve no expertise to comment on such matters of education, and, anyway, I digress. The Last Unicorn was not even screened on movie day, but rather came presumably from our teacher’s personal collection. Near the end of the school year, she would end every day by playing a bit of the movie. I don’t remember her introducing it in any way or even discussing it at all. When the work was done for the day, she would just turn the lights down, pop in the tape, and have us watch quietly until the bell rang.

Trying to sort through the memories now, it’s hard to make sense of the math. I feel like we must have watched The Last Unicorn for at least a week, but, in that case, we must have only been watching for a few minutes at a time, because it was not a very long movie after all. Yet each viewing must have been long enough for me to become quite engrossed, as I definitely recall being the case. But what I mainly remember is that the school year ended before we could finish the movie (and, yes, we were still watching it up to the final bell of the final class day).

I was, at the time, still quite new to this “school” thing, so I didn’t really appreciate what “summer break” meant, even though my older brother seemed very excited for it. I gathered quickly enough that it was a long break from school. But, to be honest, through that whole enjoyable summer, there was a small part of me that was still anxious to find out how The Last Unicorn was going to end, and, in my naivete, I actually believed that, once school started up again, we would pick up right where we left off. Once first grade did start, it did not take me long to realize how stupid I’d been to think that I’d be resuming The Last Unicorn with a different class and different teacher. But I was still a tad disappointed.

For years after that, I continued to wonder how the movie was supposed to end. I might have just asked my parents to buy the movie for me, except that I actually couldn't remember the title of it. And in those pre-Internet days, it was not easy to look up and identify a movie based on some recollected description. Over time, I would forget almost entirely what the movie itself was about. I would only remember, now and again, that there was some animated fantasy movie that I had watched in kindergarten, which I did not get to see the end of.

I might have asked my kindergarten teacher, except that she left the school after my year. I was told that she had moved away with her husband, who was nothing less than a Harlem Globetrotter. I knew that athletes had to do a lot of traveling, so I supposed that she also had to move around a lot to be with him. Only much later in life did I do some digging and find out that her husband was actually David “Smokey” Gaines, a former Globetrotter, who was already long past his performing days by the time I was in his wife’s kindergarten class. He had become a basketball coach, and he had received an offer in another state, so that was why they had moved.

To be honest, I actually managed to track down Mr. Gaines’s current office, and I almost considered giving him a call just to ask how his wife was now. Of course, I didn’t know if they were still married, or if she was even still alive . . . . But, even in the best-case scenario, I seriously doubt she would remember me, just as I can no longer remember much about her. And what would I even say to her?

Hello, Mrs. Gaines, I was in your kindergarten class some twenty years ago. Chinese kid. Kind of quiet. You asked me once how I would feel about being selected for a “good citizenship” award, and I told you to “let me think about it.” You laughed and said okay, but later you gave me the award anyway without ever asking for my answer. Thank you for that. And how are you these days?

Yeah, it probably wouldn’t go down like that . . . .

Anyway, I digress again.

As for the movie itself? Well, I actually bought the DVD about three years ago, but, even though I'd already waited twenty years to see the end of it, I kept putting off watching it until yesterday. Or maybe, precisely because it had been that long, I was afraid to watch it, for fear that it could not possibly live up to my childhood feelings about it, those feelings being about all that I could remember, in lieu of any details about the movie itself.

Well, now having seen the whole thing finally, I don't think it's a particularly great movie, worthy of all that I've invested in it over these more than twenty years. But there is a certain haunting beauty and an earnestness to it that is seldom found nowadays in children's pictures. I would say that the filmmakers grasped rightly that a child can more deeply feel than think. Truly, there is little of sense to the movie, but the characters' ever guileless (and seemingly always unprovoked) expressions of love, longing, frustration, sadness, and dread would have been keenly resonant to younger audiences, children being all emotion before reason. Or perhaps I speak only of my own younger self.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Robin Hood

While shopping the other day, I happened by the movies section of the electronics store at the mall. And, for whatever reason, I quickly gravitated toward the animated shelf. Perhaps I was looking for some comforting reminder of my childhood, back when I could watch a movie more earnestly, even if it happened to star talking cartoon animals. I passed by a number of older titles that I could remember liking—An American Tail, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound—though I could not otherwise remember anything about them, so long had it been since I’d seen them.

One that caught my eye was Disney’s version of Robin Hood. It had been a particular favorite of mine growing up, though again I cannot remember it well enough now to determine where it would stack up against more recent pictures. But I remember, back when my parents, who used to work days and nights, would drop me off at the daycare, Robin Hood was one of the handful of VHS tapes on hand to entertain the kids.

I probably watched Robin Hood at least a dozen times there, yet somehow the twelfth time was as engaging as the first. I suppose, being a child, maybe I was just easily diverted. It has now been many years since I last saw it, but there is still one scene that I can vividly recall.

I believe it came near the end of the movie. I don’t even remember the exact context, but Robin Hood was attempting to flee Prince John’s burning castle. All avenues of escape were cut off, however, and he was forced to turn from one dead end to another, meanwhile having to evade relentless guards and arrows fired from all directions. Although Robin Hood had been a charismatic and cocksure hero up to that point, the panic and desperation were now clearly drawn on his expression, as though he were for the first time confronting a situation he wasn’t sure he could get out of. And as his seemingly futile escape attempt stretched on for interminable minutes, it became all the more agonizing to watch him get boxed in, his options shrinking along with his chances, until he was driven to flee deeper inward and upward into the castle (which, in my five-year-old experience, was never a good idea).

The climax came when finally Robin Hood dove (or fell) into the moat. He sank beneath the surface of the water almost upon landing, a hail of arrows following immediately behind, while both Prince John and Robin Hood’s own merry band looking on waited expectantly for him to rise again. But there was no stirring in the water, and as the bubbles stopped floating up to the surface, what followed was only his hat, an arrow running through it. Prince John was exultant, while Robin Hood’s friends were in disbelief, then pained resignation, the depth of their grief itself, more than anything else, serving as seeming proof of the cruel fate handed upon their heroic leader.

Of course that wasn’t the end of the movie, and Robin Hood did survive, and there was much rejoicing as good triumphed over evil. Yet somehow that whole sequence was, every time I saw it, as vital to me as though I were seeing it for the first time. Even though I knew he would make it out okay—in fact, I probably knew that even the first time I watched it—somehow it was still terrifying for me every time Robin Hood sank beneath the water. Somehow I got anxious every time waiting for him to surface. And the anguish of his friends, as they believed him perished, especially tore me up inside every time.

Anyway, that was Robin Hood to me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Maybe for charity

You know how they sometimes have Celebrity Jeopardy!, Celebrity Apprentice, etc.?

Well, maybe they should do a "Celebrity" edition of Dancing with the Stars.




You know, just to shake things up for a season.