Joseph Kosinski’s Tron Legacy

I took a revisit trip to the world of Tron Legacy this weekend and it’s just… even better than I remembered it, and I was already blown away when I saw it in theatres way back when. Front and centre you have all of this ridiculously beautiful technicolor eye candy in the online world of a The Grid, stunning cyberpunk costume design, dazzling ballets of movement all set to the thundering, glorious, hellbent, super sonic galaxy of sound provided by Daft Punk’s unbelievable original score. But beneath that there’s also an incredibly clever, very poignant and intuitive script full of ideas, themes and nuance that I suppose can get lost in the sound and fury of surface level spectacle or just flew over my head (I was only 16 when this came out) at the time, but make no mistake: this film is anything but style over substance. I would almost compare this to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 in the sense that director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) takes a beloved, dusty old analog classic from the 80’s and not only revamps it in terms of style and technical innovation but blasts open the pod bay doors of world building, thematics and expands on the lore exponentially. Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn has been stuck in the digital matrix of his own making for decades after trying to pioneer it as a new frontier, leaving his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) a troubled orphan and his Vancouver based Encom company in the hands of ruthless number crunchers with former friend and board member Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) powerless to do anything. Sam is eventually propelled into the hypnotic world of the grid to join forces with rogue program Cora (Olivia Wilde) and reunite with his father (Bridges) to fight against his tulpa Clu (a CGI Bridges) who plans to launch an attack on the real world and escape through the one remaining portal with a legion program army. There is an entire universe of visual design, colour scheme and motion on display here as Sam competes in the deadly bike races, lethal ultimate frisbee matches and darts all over the grid’s map from Clu’s thunderous gladiatorial stadium to the dark, mysterious outlands where his father hides out in a tranquil, purgatorial abode high atop a digital cliff. It goes without saying that Daft Punk’s score is some of the most spellbinding, beautiful electronic music ever laid over a film and gives it much of it’s personality. But something I missed before is the sheer imagination, poignancy in the father sun relationship and the immersive nature of this world, not just a kaleidoscopic realm of flash and dazzle, but one with rhyme, reason and genuine inspiration put into the inspired idea of ‘Isomorphic Algorithms ‘, basically anomalous, sentient programs birthed of organic energy independent of human creation, both a ghost in the machine and new race of beings sprung forth from the depths of infinite server space. This concept resonated greatly with me and apparently with Jeff Bridges too, because his line delivery, charisma and energy when describing this miraculous discovery is up there with the best work he has ever done, so too is the character progression from fledgling, prodigious programmer in the 80’s Tron to godlike, pseudo hippie, compassionate father we see here. Tron Legacy is truly a magnificent film on every level, on all fronts and one that shows true artistic inspiration and thematic resonance in striving to pioneer new frontiers and discover new life, put together in one iridescent SciFi action opus that has aged gorgeously and only gotten better with time.

-Nate Hill

Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy

What’s the first R rated film you ever saw in theatres? For me it was Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, a gorgeous piece that has since stuck with me not just for the fact that it left a vivid, bloody impression on my young psyche but also because it’s quality filmmaking, no matter what anyone might tell you. Never mind the fact that Brad Pitt doesn’t quite fit the old world aesthetic or is out-acted by almost everyone in the film including the host of classically trained professionals he’s surrounded by. There is a lot to love here, starting with a narrative that is kind of not so common in big budget Hollywood; there are no real good guys or bad guys here, just people making decisions that lead to war. We witness compassion on both sides of the army, and cruelty too, but there are no clear cut heroes or tyrants, it’s all politics or emotion. This makes it pesky choosing who to root for but so much more fascinating once the swords start swinging and you have stock on either side.

Pitt may not have the accent down as mythical warrior Achilles but he sure gets a striking look going, streamlined physicality, epic spear throws and concise, satisfying sword fight choreography that he obviously put a lot of work into. Eric Bana is just as impressive as Trojan prince Hector, a rational, anti-war guy who resents his younger brother Paris (Orlando Bloom, wooden as ever) for basically screwing things up as badly as you possibly could. The romance between him and Helen (Diane Kruger, radiant) never feels authentic and definitely is not developed enough to start a war of this magnitude, but their relationships aren’t where we place out investment here anyways. It’s Hector, his princess (Saffron Burrows will break your heart) and their infant son as well as Achilles’s protectiveness over his cousin Patrocles (Garett Hedlund) that win over our emotions and make us care.

The siege on the beach of Troy is a nervous spectacle set up with anticipation in the air as a single bell rings out, signalling ships on the horizon. As spectacular as the war is cinematically I found myself wishing it wasn’t happening just because of the suffering inflicted on either side. It’s not a pleasant or glorious set of battles and no one really wins but rather comes to a collective bitter end, which is another unique factor here. Look at this cast they’ve assembled too, with bold turns from Sean Bean as Odysseus, Peter O’Toole as King Priam of Troy, Brendan Gleeson as the petulant king of Sparta and a loathsome, fantastic Brian Cox as the greedy warlord Agamemnon. Rose Byrne is soulful as the young Trojan priestess who serves as concubine to Achilles until he actually catches feels, and watch for James Cosmo, Tyler Mane, Julian Glover, Nigel Terry, Vincent Reagan and a quick cameo from the great Julie Christie, still beautiful as ever.

Petersen mounts an impressive production here, full of horses, ships, elaborate sets and gorgeous costumes, brought alive by James Horner’s restless, melancholy score. The set pieces are fantastic too, the best of which involves Pitt and Bana in a ruthless one on one fight to the death, each angry and lunging with sword and spear while their people look on, its well staged and genuinely suspenseful thanks to the hour plus of character building before. I couldn’t give a shit whether this is either historically accurate or follows the literature closely at all, that’s not the point for me in going into something like this. I want to see immersive, brutal battle scenes that thrill and I want an overarching story that makes me care about said battle, so every spear throw and image of carnage holds some weight beyond itself. Actors like Pitt, Bana, O’Toole, Reagan and especially Burrows sold me on it and had me legit worrying what will happen to them so that when the dust settles and the very tragic, depressing outcome is apparent, you are haunted by it after. It sure had that effect on me at age eleven or whenever. Great film.

-Nate Hill

William Monahan’s Mojave

William Monahan‘s Mojave is garbage dressed up in hopeful noir tropes, a flick that could go either way when you see the promising trailer, but ultimately ends up as the little movie that tried, and failed pretty darn bad. What works, or at least helps it limp through its extremely violent final act, is a performance from Oscar Isaac that’s a lot of fun, if never exposited very well. It’s like The Shining by way of The Dark Half but with less King and more paradoxically muddled pseudo supernatural desert pulp, which admittedly sounds great when I write it like that but really is just repetitive and frustrating. Garrett Hedlund does a moody turn as a morally twisted Hollywood screenwriter who is ready to punch his own ticket. On a spontaneous solo trip out into the desert, he meets a mysterious, sinister weirdo (Isaac) who causes nothing but trouble and chaos from the moment he enters the narrative. Latching onto Hedlund, he follows him back to the city, makes his life hell and they slowly play a circular game of cat and mouse that the filmmakers don’t quite realize is only their own narrative circling the drain from being too exhausted and deliberately oblique. Walton Goggins shows up as a sleazy Hollywood figure and Mark Wahlberg has an amusing cameo as a producer, but it’s mostly Isaac growling out dark, nonsensical platitudes and not making much sense, despite being pretty entertaining in his efforts and putting in good villain work. Parts of this seem to have come from a better movie where… I dunno, where things actually make sense, but the way everything is organized and presented here is one big shitty head scratcher, and misses the dartboard overall. Pass.

-Nate Hill



It has been over 30 years since Tron (1982) was released in theaters. Made on the cusp of the home computer revolution, the film was a simple good vs. evil parable that saw a disgraced computer programmer hack into the network of the corporation that fired him only to be zapped into cyberspace where he got to see how the other half lived. Tron was a modest success at the box office and resoundly trashed by critics. It seemed destined to become merely a footnote in cinematic history as one of the earliest examples of computer graphics in a Hollywood film. Over the years, it developed a decent cult following who dreamed of a sequel some day. That time finally came.

Hoping for a lucrative franchise that doesn’t involve pirates, Disney ponied up a considerable amount of money so that the filmmakers of Tron: Legacy (2010) were able to utilize the same kind of 3D digital cameras that were used to make Avatar (2009) and the CGI technology used to age Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). And, in keeping with the original filmmakers hiring cutting edge composer Wendy Carlos, Tron: Legacy features an atmospheric score by hip electronica music duo Daft Punk. The end result is a stunning assault on the senses.

In 1989, hotshot programmer and CEO of Encom Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared, leaving his young son Sam with his grandparents and no indication as to why he left. Since the death of his wife four years before, Flynn’s behavior had become increasingly erratic and he had become obsessed about a brave new world, a digital frontier that he had experienced in Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund) grows up to become a rebellious chip off the old block as he breaks into Encom just so he can publicly embarrass the company’s current CEO. Since Flynn’s absence, Encom has returned to its old, soulless ways much to the chagrin of his long-time friend and current board member Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). He informs Sam that he got a page from his father at the office in his old arcade.

Long shuttered and collecting dust, it is a cemetery for classic arcade games. Sam uncovers his father’s personal computer and before he knows it, he’s zapped into the computer world. Flynn’s prized program Clu (also Bridges) has taken over and rules the computer world with a fascist, iron fist. Flynn has become a fugitive and it’s up to Sam, with the help of a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), to make things right again.

Rather fittingly, the real world footage is shot in 2D but once we enter cyberspace, the film comes vividly to life with cutting edge 3D technology. Much of the iconography from the first film is present – the disc battle, light cycles, etc. – but amped up with The Matrix-like action sequences and three-dimensionalized. If there was ever a film would that begged to be given the 3D treatment it is this one. However, these effects aren’t that apparent or as frequent as one would hope which begs the question why even do it in the first place? Short answer: money. The filmmakers have basically taken the imagery of Tron and cranked it up to 11 – pure, unadulterated eye candy with things like dialogue and characterization taking a backseat. The attention paid to production and art design is phenomenal with all kinds of neon-drenched landscapes full of ambient sounds that will keep architecture buffs busy for years. That being said, the CG to recreate a younger version of Jeff Bridges, circa 1982, is distracting with its waxy, stiff look and dead, lifeless eyes, which, I guess, is appropriate for what is basically an evil clone of the real deal within the film.

Say what you will about the original Tron and its flaws but at least it was anchored by a playful and charismatic performance by Jeff Bridges who acted as the audience surrogate into a strange, new world. This time around, Garrett Hedlund takes on that role with limited success. The uninspired screenplay doesn’t do him any favors and so he does the best with what he was to work with, which admittedly isn’t all that much. Bridges plays a grizzled, burnt out version of his original character and with his beard and long hair it almost seems like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) was zapped into the computer world. As if sensing this, Bridges even lets out a few Dudeisms at certain key moments in the film, which at least livens up the forgettable script.

Noted British actor Michael Sheen even shows up channeling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona as Castor, a preening, flamboyant host of a nightclub where Daft Punk have a cameo as DJs. Using these musicians to do the score for Tron: Legacy was a masterstroke and they seem like the logical evolutionary step from Wendy Carlos. However, those fans expecting them to recreate their trademark dance music might be disappointed as they opt for a more orchestral score that at times is reminiscent of early 1980s John Carpenter, in particular Escape from New York (1981), while also referencing Vangelis, Maurice Jarre and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight (2008). Their finest moment comes during a battle at Castor’s club where Daft Punk gets to really show off their musical chops as they segue from ambient music to pulsating dance music to bombastic beats that accompany with the action. Along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network (2010), theirs was one of the best soundtracks of that year.

maxresdefaultTron: Legacy replaces the “information just wants to be free” message of its predecessor with a “sins of the father” theme as Flynn attempts to stop Clu, his Frankensteinian creation, and repair the damage done between him and Sam. Tron: Legacy manages to make this world and its characters accessible to those not familiar with the first film by basically rehashing its plot, blow-by-blow, which may disappoint fans. However, it does feel like a continuation of the first film with all kinds of references to things that happened in it. There is also a rather nifty cameo by a notable character actor that hints at a possible villain for the next film, if this one makes enough money. Of course, there is the usual criticism that the dialogue is weak, the story is formulaic and there is a real lack of characterization – all issues critics had with the original film. Tron: Legacy certainly lacks in these areas also, but like the first film, the visuals are so impressive, so captivating in the way they immerse you in the computer world, that you tend to ignore the flaws, relax and enjoy the ride.

James Wan’s Death Sentence: A Review by Nate Hill 

Charles Bronson ain’t got nothing on the level of grit seen in this revenge story. James Wan’s Death Sentence is obviously inspired by the endless Death Wish films, which by their end had gone from classy exploitation (sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me, it’s a thing) to lazy spoofs. This one goes back to the gritty roots, as well as udating the setting to our present time and laying on the gloomy, oppresively violent atmosphere so thick you’ll want a shower and some cartoons after. Kevin Bacon is Nick Hume, a mild mannered advertisement executive living an idyllic life with his wife (Kelly Preston) and two young sons. All that changes one night when one of his boys is murdered in cold blood by some punk in the midst of a gas station robbery. The thug gets released on a technicality, and Nick gets shafted of both justice and peace of mine right at the start of his grieving process. Making one of those penultimate crossroad decisions that alter both his life and the fate of the film’s narrative, he takes it upon himself to murder the perpetrator in a grisly display of vigilante justice. Only problem is, that ain’t where it stops. The murderer has a brother who makes him seem like tweety bird, a terrifying urban scumbag named Joe Darley (Garrett Hedlund) who puts Nick and his family directly in the crosshairs of revenge. Nick is forced to become a one man army to protect his family and eradicate the evil that has entered hiss life once and for all, assisted by a wicked arsenal of nasty weapons provided by sleazeball arms dealer Bones Darley (John Goodman). If you look up ‘scene stealer’ in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of Goodman’s jolly visage grinning back at you. No matter who he plays, he’s the life of the party, and his Bones is a fast talking gutter-snipe who jacks up every scene he’s in with scuzzy dialogue. He plays an integral part in Nick’s brutal and often disturbing quest for justice, a hard R urban bloodbath that pulls no punches and aims to shock. Bacon often plays morally questionable pricks, walking a fine line between upright heroes and corrupt nasties. In one character arc he gets to traverse that whole spectrum here, a regular guy who is pushed to criminal extremes until he’s barely recognizable, even to himself. Intense stuff that heads down a dark alley of human unpleasantness. 



For years, Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road had been considered unfilmable. That hasn’t stopped people from trying ever since it was published in 1957 with Kerouac himself sending a letter to Marlon Brando asking the actor to star opposite him in a film version. It isn’t the style or the structure that makes the novel difficult to adapt but rather its iconic status as one of the signature books of the 1950s. Even more daunting is its status as a book that millions of people grew up reading, like The Catcher in the Rye. As a result, it has become a much beloved and cherished book for generations of readers. Anyone attempting to adapt Kerouac’s novel into a film faces the intimidating task of living up to the impossible expectations of legions of fans, not to mention somehow making people forget the equally iconic people the characters are based on – Kerouac and his famous friends, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

The path to an On the Road film has been littered with failed attempts from the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Joel Schumacher, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup, Colin Farrell, and Gus Van Sant, who were all attached at one time or another. Of all the people linked to the project, it was Coppola who has remained a constant over the years. He bought the rights in 1979 and has managed to steer it clear of Hollywood interference, finally picking Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) to direct. He saw it through a turbulent period where financing fell through and actors dropped out. He finally made and released the final product in 2012 with up-and-coming actors Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, and, oh yeah, a young actress you might have heard of – Kristen Stewart. On the Road debuted to a lackluster reception at the Cannes Film Festival prompting Salles to cut 13 minutes from the film in an effort to tighten things up and focus more on the two main characters – Sal Paradise (Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Hedlund).

On the Road
is a fictionalized account of Kerouac’s numerous journeys across the United States between 1947 and 1950 when he met Neal Cassady, who would become the mythical character Dean Moriarty in the book. The film begins, literally, on the road with a shot of Sal Paradise’s feet walking on several different roads both during the day and at night. Rather interestingly, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera’s angle with their adaptation is the theme of absent fathers and Sal and Dean’s yearning for theirs. Sal’s father dies before he first meets Dean and Dean’s elusive father is a semi-famous hobo in Denver who abandoned his family when his son was very young. So, the two men bond over a common missing element in their lives. This is established early on with Sal’s opening voiceover narration that quotes Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript before it was edited into the book most of us know and love: “I first met Dean not long after my father died. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death, my awful feeling that everything was dead.” By choosing to quote the scroll instead of the novel, Salles and Rivera are letting fans know that they’ve done their homework and understand the source material.

Sal meets Dean and his beautiful young wife Marylou (Stewart) as the dynamic couple land in New York City to meet a mutual friend. Sal is captivated by Dean’s infectious energy and considerable charisma. Garrett Hedlund does a fantastic job of conveying Dean’s insatiable hunger for learning and for experience. He’s willing to try almost anything once if only for the experience. The actor captures the mischievous glint in Dean’s eye. You can see why he is so initially attractive to people with his dynamic and fascinating personality. However, there are hints early on that he may not be all he’s cracked up to be, like how he glosses over breaking up with Marylou, which was so bad that she called the cops on him.

I will admit that when I first heard of Hedlund being cast as Dean I wasn’t sold on the idea, but after seeing him in the wildly uneven Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Country Strong (2010), I could imagine him in the role. He was by and far the best thing in that film, bringing a natural charisma that made you want to watch him every time he came on screen. He brings that quality to Dean in On the Road.

Once I got past the fact that none of the actors in the film look like their real-life counterparts, I was able to settle in and enjoy the experience. Salles wisely did not try to go for people who resembled Kerouac and his friends (an impossible task) but rather actors that were able to capture the spirit of the characters in the book. Sam Riley, who was so good as Ian Curtis in Control (2007), is fine as Sal but plays him a little too passively than he comes across in the book. This is due in large part to the fact that Riley is often overshadowed by the more dynamic Hedlund.

For those worried about the presence of Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, you have nothing to fear. Given the strong material and an equally strong director guiding her, the actress sheds her trademark acting tics and affectations and disappears into her character. Freed from not having to carry a massive cinematic franchise, Stewart allows herself to have fun with the role. She is cast wonderfully against type as the sexually hungry Marylou. Despite her movie star status, Stewart only has a supporting role but she makes the most of it and one hopes that a part like this is a sign of things to come for the talented young actress.

While the film is mostly about Sal and Dean, a few of the supporting characters get their moments, chief among them is Carlo Marx a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) and a memorable extended cameo by Old Bull Lee a.k.a. William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen). A perfectly cast Viggo Mortensen eerily channels Burroughs’ distinctive voice including his trademark drawl as he dispenses pearls of paranoid wisdom to Sal and Dean while Amy Adams grunges herself down as Bull Lee’s equally cryptic wife Jane. They play well off each other and leave us wanting to see more of this odd couple.

To say that On the Road plays like a collection of highlights from the book is not a criticism as the source material is episodic in nature. That being said, Salles’ film is made by and for fans of Kerouac’s novel, possibly alienating the uninitiated. For fans of the novel, your enjoyment of the film will probably be based on how many of your favorite passages made it into the final version as the ones that do are translated quite faithfully with significant chunks of Kerouac’s prose spoken verbatim in the frequent voiceover narration.

For me, it was great to see some of my favorite passages from Kerouac’s novel realized in the film, like Sal’s ride to Denver on a flatbed truck with a hobo by the name of Mississippi Gene and a hitchhiker named Montana Slim that is pretty much the way I imagined it, right down to Gene singing that great little blues song with everyone joining in all photographed during dusk by cinematographer Eric Gautier. None of these characters are identified in the film but fans of the book will recognize them immediately. This scene shows the camaraderie among fellow travelers. Another favorite bit is a brief scene that demonstrates Dean’s amazing ability to park cars on a dime while living in New York. Salles also manages to capture the energy and vitality of be-bop jazz in a sequence early on where Sal and Dean go see a jazz saxophone player in action (Terrence Howard) and we see Dean lost in the music, lost in the beat.

Salles’ film accurately depicts the initial rush of excitement that most of the characters experience with Dean and how this eventually gives way to anger and disappointment when he invariably lets them down in some way. For Sal, it’s disillusionment as Dean turns out not to be the mythic Western hero figure he had imagined but an irresponsible man who does what he wants, oblivious of how it might affect those around him and yet he still loves him like a brother because of the intense bond they developed on their adventures crisscrossing the country. Jose Rivera’s screenplay doesn’t shy away from showing Dean’s poor treatment of women, like how he neglects his wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and baby for trivial “kicks,” going out to a jazz club with Sal. The film also shows how he repeatedly cheats on her with Marylou and vice versa, eventually abandoning both. On his path for the ultimate thrill, he leaves a path of failed marriages and destroyed friendships. For Dean, nothing must get in the way of his voracious appetite – be it drink, drugs, women or the open road. He is the quintessential free spirit, a restless soul that burns like the roman candles Sal compares him to.

As far as films directly about the Beat Generation go, On the Road is best one to date. That’s not saying much when its competition consists mostly of failed efforts like Heart Beat (1980), The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997) and Neal Cassady (2008), which were made by people who understood little about the Beats. Sure, there have been the rare exceptions that got it right, like Naked Lunch (1991) and Howl (2010), but I’ve always felt that the two best unofficial Beat Generation films were Robert Rossen’s adaptation of The Hustler (1961) and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). The former managed to capture the run down, “beat” feeling that is often conveyed in Kerouac’s novels, while the latter brilliantly captures the allure of the open road and the search for a missing parental figure, in this case a mother. At that point in their respective careers, Rossen and Van Sant would have been ideal directors to tackle On the Road.

The attention to period detail is fantastic, from recreating 1940s New York City to the famous ’49 Hudson that Sal and Dean drive across the country. Right from the get-go, Salles immerses us in this time period with the help of jazz music from the likes of Slim Gaillard, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. The sets, locations, outfits and music all work together to provide us with a glimpse of that time as seen through Kerouac’s eyes. Rather interestingly, Salles and Rivera don’t shy away from the sex in On the Road as we see Dean with a variety of sexual partners over the course of film as does Sal, which includes his brief relationship with Terry, (Alice Braga), a beautiful Mexican woman he meets in California. The Beat writers were very passionate people and this included their sex lives.

The care and detail applied to every scene clearly demonstrates that this was a passion project for everyone involved. On the Road is not some sterile, impersonal studio film, but rather one made by people with a real affinity for the source material. Salles’ film captures the energy and excitement of Kerouac and his friends who shared a passion for literature and jazz. They lived for the moment, giving into their wildest urges as one sometimes does at that young age where you have your whole life in front of you and feel indestructible. They are the “mad ones” as Kerouac calls them in his book. This is certainly not a film for everyone and rightly so. What it does is perfectly capture the essence and spirit of the novel. It does this so faithfully that it may alienate the uninitiated but so be it. At least Salles has the conviction to pick a specific angle and go for it, making definite choices along the way instead of playing it safe.