Friday, December 31, 2010

Jeff Bridges in duplicate - or is it triplicate?

There may be no greater measure of an actor's heat than that he appears in two of the most anticipated movies of the same holiday season.

For Jeff Bridges, that's Tron: Legacy and True Grit, alphabetized consecutively and released five days apart.

Last night, I saw them both.

Now, I'm not usually big on giving themes to my theatrical double features -- you know, where you pay for the first and sneak into the second. In fact, the more incongruous, the better. On the one hand, these two films are pretty incongruous -- one is futuristic while the other is steeped in the past. (Perhaps the two would meet in Cowboys vs. Aliens, whose trailer I saw before Tron.) However, they do both star Bridges, so that's a theme if I've ever heard one. And since he actually plays two characters in Tron, it was a triple dose of Bridges, rather than a double.

So I thought I'd take you into the experience of watching four straight hours of Jeff Bridges, accompanied by the smattering of atmospheric details you know and love me for (ha ha).

For starters, these were both movies I had expected to see before now. My wife and I had brainstormed a Tron screening for before Christmas, but scrapped the plan when we heard it wasn't great, deciding we'd be better off using our precious babysitting time to get dinner. And I actually went up to a friend's house on the night before our dinner date, expecting to watch True Grit, but was foiled when his screener copy wouldn't play in his player. So I thought I'd take care of both in one fell swoop last night.

It was going to be a tight squeeze. Tron: Legacy in 3D began at 8:10 and was supposed to run for 125 minutes. Exactly 125 minutes later, True Grit would start at 10:15. If Tron started late or had an excessive number of ads and trailers -- which it did -- it would definitely start to cut into True Grit. On the other hand, the less time between films meant the less time to twiddle my thumbs, and the sooner I'd get home to bed, which already figured to be a ways past midnight on a school night. (I'd heard enough bad about Tron that I had resigned myself to not seeing it in 3D, but it was the 3D screening whose times matched up with True Grit.)

My Jeff Bridges double feature got off to an appropriate start when I heard his voice in an ad I saw on TV about 15 minutes before leaving. What is Bridges advertising these days? Hyundai?

Having done a couple shushes of the baby, I started to get myself ready. With double features it's important to stock up on snacks, both to fend off hunger and to help keep you occupied if sleep threatens to overtake you. So I grabbed a fleece with an inner lining perfectly suited for contraband food, and filled that lining with a miniature can of Coke, a Red Bull, a bag of Planters trail mix (with nuts, raisins and M&Ms), and a small box of Toy Story tart candy I'd gotten in my stocking. I had plans for everything -- the Coke with my popcorn during Tron, then the trail mix and Red Bull in True Grit, followed by the Toy Story candy (if necessary) and the box of Altoids I always carry with me (if really necessary). Now the only issue was smuggling them in, a task that usually involves a backpack that the ticket takers never question. Relying only on the fleece, I thought I looked a little lumpy, but no one batted an eye. Which is lucky, because a guy next to me was denied when he tried to openly bring in outside food.

Tron: Legacy did not start until almost 8:30. With each new trailer that started, I became a bit more agitated, a bit more certain that I'd miss a minute or two of True Grit. But when it did start, my agitation turned quickly into exhilaration.

Simply put, the first 45 minutes to an hour of Tron is enthralling. If that's been lost in the negative press about Tron, it shouldn't be. Pretty much the whole "real world" portion that occurs before Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) enters the Grid is fun to watch, and the first introductions to the Grid simply floored me -- first the transports floating back and forth, then the exciting disc matches, then the light cycles. The light cycle sequence kicked in right as my favorite song from the Daft Punk soundtrack kicked in, and let's just say I was in a state of exquisite bliss about the whole experience of Tron -- and loving the fact that I'd decided to go 3D, which I thought was looking damn good (contrary to what I'd heard).

One of the things I thought was so cool about it (at that point) was how violent it was allowed to be, for a Disney movie. Because these were computer programs and not real "humans," they could be smashed, sliced, and obliterated into digital oblivion, without it qualifying as violence in the traditional sense of blood and guts. But they were still viscerally affecting kills, exciting and full of danger -- which seemed like Disney really pushing its own envelope in a surprising way.

Then ... well, then the second half of Tron: Legacy takes over. Convoluted plots. Unclear character motivations. Cheesy dialogue reflective of a highly uneven tone. Every sin of narrative filmmaking you want, you can find in the second half of Tron. The film is an unquestionable visual triumph -- even the digital Clu character, modeled after a young version of Bridges, is a reasonably special effect. But the visuals are not enough to sustain things when they get wacky and unfocused in the second half. Novice director Joseph Kosinski, who has a visual effects background, knows how to create this world, but not how to populate it. His direction of the actors, especially Hedlund, is amateurish to indifferent, and it leaves the movie surprisingly low on stakes. After awhile you just forget who is going where, and why.

So I was pretty eager to beat feet out of there as soon as the first end credit appeared. I'd normally stay through the credits, especially since they were likely to be handled with style in a film like this. But I could just feel True Grit beginning in the theater two doors down, so I made a hasty exit.

I do double features at this theater because you only have to get past one ticket taker, then you're free to roam wherever you want. It was the return of the 3D glasses that I thought might compromise my attempt to see the second film. If I had to go all the way back out to the ticket taker, he'd then expect me to leave. So I thought I'd just leave my 3D glasses on the seat. The watchful eyes of an usher made me think twice about that, so I scooped them back up and figured it was time to improvise. Fortunately, I didn't have to, as a trio of ushers were positioned to take back the glasses directly outside the theater. Once I'd returned mine, they no longer had interest in me, and I barely even needed to slip into the bathroom to throw them off my scent. So I spent about five seconds in the bathroom and quickly scurried into True Grit.

The timing was perfect. Assuming there was no action prior to the credits, I didn't miss a moment.

But then the problem became that I was getting pretty tired, and had already made quite a dent in my supplies. Needing help to keep from falling asleep in Tron's second half, I'd made an early entry into the trail mix and taken a sizeable chunk out of it. (Once I got the taste, it was like opening a bag of irresistible potato chips.) Less than 30 minutes into True Grit I'd finished it, and the Red Bull didn't sustain me as long as I'd hoped it would. The Toy Story candy was probably gone with at least 45 minutes still remaining.

And so predictably, I had a tough time staying awake during True Grit. I'd like to think that if I were really into it, this wouldn't have been an issue. But I wasn't really into it, and I think that's an assessment I could make independent of my current state of exhaustion. I just wasn't very interested by the characters or the plot of True Grit. I didn't know entirely what to expect, having never seen the original, but I figured it would probably be in the same dark territory as the Coens' sort-of western No Country for Old Men. I could have used some of that darkness in True Grit. A lot more scenes than I expected were played for humor, and I wasn't getting the revisionist western vibe of a film like Unforgiven (my favorite western of all time), in which the whole system of revenge and violence is called into question.

To be fair, it was hardest to stay awake during the quiet moments. For example, there was a scene by a campfire in which it seems that Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) all bear their souls in a way that might have invested me more in their characters. But I was having particular trouble staying awake during that scene, try as I might to slap some vigor into myself. Someone who saw this movie on a full tank, please tell me -- did I miss something? Or is it just not that interesting, all told?

I think the movie did have some of Unforgiven's revisionist tendencies -- for example, we first "meet" Rooster when Mattie introduces herself to him while he's sitting on the can in an outhouse. Then there's the fact that Josh Brolin's character, introduced very late in the film, isn't the menacing personification of evil you're meant to believe he is -- just a regular old good-for-nothing loser. If we were meant to see this as a film in which everything is life-sized and underwhelming, as a very specific critique of Hollywood's method of portraying heroes and villains, it was not clear enough to me that this was the intention. Therefore, it just seemed like a sort of pale version of a Hollywood western. Then again, I am on record having concerns with the Coens in some of their recent films, most notably Burn After Reading.

I was disgorged from the second movie thinking I had lost probably no more than five minutes all told to sleep, but they were five key minutes dispersed at unfortunate times, which kept me from ever getting into True Grit's groove.

It's funny because only just the day before, I was having a discussion with a friend about how our appreciation of movies is very dependent on the circumstances under which we see them. The topic came up in the context of The Fighter, which is what we watched at my friend's house last week when the True Grit screener wouldn't play. We started it at nearly 10, and the pull of sleep was undoubtedly a factor in my underwhelming opinion of that film. So it may be the same with True Grit -- maybe if I saw it under better circumstances I'd feel more fondly toward it. Unfortunately, I may not prioritize that second viewing, and True Grit could just end up being a missed opportunity for me.

Oh well. I had to do it for the Bridges double (triple) feature. And because it's so rare, in the baby era, that I can carve out theater time, getting in two at once not only maximizes my money, but also my time.

And what did I think of Bridges overall? As I said, I thought the Clu character was a pretty advanced creation -- you could tell it wasn't a real human, but they're getting better and better at these things. His vocal work was certainly good in the role. As the human Flynn trapped in the Grid, Bridges was a bit more disinterested -- it was hard to really sympathize with him. Plus, there were times when he seemed to be inexplicably sinister, which didn't really make sense. As Rooster Cogburn, he's fine, doing his drunken pot-shotting and marble-mouthed old-westing. But nothing special. About what I would expect.

Then again, I wasn't much of a fan of Crazy Heart, either -- the role that catapulted Bridges back into the prominence that allowed me to see him twice in the theater last night.

Or, three times.

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