Turned out to be quite the week for Jeff Bridges. Following Criterion's release of America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, a package that includes Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), featuring Bridges in his first major role (he was all of 22 when it premiered and his performance scored him an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), the first round of reviews of Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, opening December 22, began appearing on Wednesday. Then, late on Friday, Disney lifted the embargo on Tron: Legacy reviews. That one's out on December 17. By the way, before we go any further, check out Bridges's own pages for both new films: Tron: Legacy and True Grit. Update: It's been pointed out to me that today also happens to be Bridges's birthday — happy 61st, wherever you are.
"It's hard to imagine bigger boots to fill than the ones that earned John Wayne his Oscar in True Grit, and yet Jeff Bridges handily reinvents the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers' back-to-the-book remake," writes Peter Debruge in Variety. "Rather than a case of the Dude doing the Duke, Bridges's irascible old cuss is a genuine original who feels larger than the familiar saga that contains him."
In the original True Grit, Wayne played Cogburn as "a growling, boozing, trigger-happy deputy marshal who grudgingly helps a young lady track down her father's killer in Indian country in the 1870s," writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. "[T]he 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis's wonderful novel exuded amiable relaxed charm under the direction of veteran Western director Henry Hathaway. Two obvious fixes the Coens tended to at once were restoring the proper age of the female lead (Kim Darby was 20 when the first film was shot) and casting a strong actor to play the Texas Ranger who uncomfortably accompanies Rooster and little Mattie Ross into a land filled with fugitive outlaws and no-accounts. These represent major plusses for the new film, as screen newcomer Hailee Steinfeld makes an excellent Mattie and Matt Damon, from the moment of his laconic boots-on-a-porch rail entrance designed to recall Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, puts any thoughts of Glen Campbell immediately to rest."
Michael Cieply has a fun piece in today's New York Times on Wayne's Oscar: "His selection fiercely split those who felt justice was thus served from those who viewed this original True Grit, released in June 1969, as the last gasp of a Hollywood stuck in its own past.... The best picture of 1969 was Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger's X-rated study of Manhattan street life. Both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight received best-actor nominations for their roles in the film. It was also the year of countercultural statements like Easy Rider, Medium Cool, Alice's Restaurant, The Sterile Cuckoo and If; the European flair of Stolen Kisses and Z; and the retro sophistication of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Wild Bunch and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In the face of all that, Paramount made what many saw as a clumsy attempt to position True Grit as part of the revolution. One program for an early studio screening, now preserved at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, called it a 'Brand New Brand of American Frontier Story.'... Promoting the premiere of True Grit on a studio-sponsored antique-train ride from Denver to Salt Lake City, Wayne — the Duke — drank freely while holding court with reporters. By the time a band of Indians staged a prearranged ambush, 'he was loaded,' recalled the producer Robert Rehme, who was then an advertising and publicity manager for Paramount. Hollywood ate it up."
The new True Grit "is one of the most crowd-pleasing films I think the Coens have ever made, accessible and simple and mythic and beautiful, and like the best Westerns, it contains a sadness that is innate to the period," writes Drew McWeeney at HitFix.
"With its wide vistas, simple narrative and focus on character dynamics (as well as a handful of unrefined horse-back riding effects shots), it's fair to say it bears more of a resemblance to the work of Anthony Mann, John Ford and Budd Boetticher than it does that of the Coens," writes Kristopher Tapley at In Contention. "The film isn't focused on being as tight and complete as most of their films... But that lack of artistic intrusion is ultimately the film's virtue. This is a throwback, and a reminder that the western need not necessarily function as progressive storytelling (a notion that would have delighted late author Robert Parker). It's very much about time, place and character, and all else need defer to that and fade."
More from Erik Davis (Cinematical), Eric Eisenberg (Cinema Blend), Devin Faraci (Badass Digest), Steve Pond (The Wrap), Sasha Stone (Awards Daily) and Anne Thompson (indieWIRE).
Update, 12/8: True Grit will open the Berlinale on February 10.
Updates, 12/10: "Some of us have revered Jeff Bridges for decades," writes David Thomson in the Guardian: "since his good-natured young studs and chumps: Duane in The Last Picture Show; the boxer who keeps getting knocked out in Fat City; and, with Barry Brown, as drifters and small-time thieves in Bad Company. It was said that Bridges was a natural, the closest we had to a second Robert Mitchum — a world-weary, handsome presence, who declined to fall for the lofty values thrown around in American stories. It was important to Bridges that he didn't seek important parts. He was seldom caught acting or breaking a sweat. He was happy to play off situations and other characters. The films were not all good or demanding, but Bridges was building a consistency all the more admirable in that not many of his films were hits."
Krista Smith profiles Hailee Steinfeld for Vanity Fair and David Carr talks with the Coens for the New York Times: "At Bubby's restaurant in TriBeCa recently the brothers momentarily resisted the notion that they made what some might see as a feel-good movie, but finally admitted it. Sort of."
Updates, 12/12: In the NYT Magazine, Carlo Rotella notes that "there are passionate readers, among them the literary maestro Jonathan Lethem, the crime writer George Pelecanos and Ron Rosenbaum, that obsessive reporter on our obsessions, who regard Portis as a major figure in his own right: possessor of an original American literary voice comparable to Mark Twain's."
The Playlist has four clips.
Update, 12/13: "The Coens' True Grit isn't as momentous an event as you might hope, but once you adjust to its deliberate rhythms (it starts slowly), it's a charming, deadpan Western comedy," writes New York's David Edelstein. "It's true that 'charming' is an odd description for a picture with so much death and ghoulish imagery. But the Coens rarely get worked up about such things. Their gaze is steady, serene. Roger Deakins's cinematography is beautifully deep-toned and austere; the compositions are clean even when the settings and characters are muddy. Hathaway shot the same old Arizona–New Mexico buttes we know from other John Wayne movies, but this True Grit is where it belongs, in high deserts and forests denuded by winter. Carter Burwell's elegiac score is built on Christian spirituals, with a hint of Joplin's piano rags to come. It's all played straight — except when it comes to the actors."
Updates, 12/17: "The triumph is that the [Coens have] hewed close to the source material while still making an unmistakable Coen brothers movie," argues David Fear in Time Out New York, where Joshua Rothkopf interviews Bridges. "The tongue-twisting banter between teen heroine Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) and a Texas ranger (Damon) would make both Edwina McDunnough and Tom Reagan proud; you expect kid-kicking, one-eyed sumbitch lawman Rooster Cogburn (Bridges, who now owns the role) to ask 'What's the rumpus?' The directors' propensity for verbiage and ironic violence fits the story like a fringed suede glove. Welcome to the first stoic screwball Western."
The Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth agrees: "Take Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou? — all films with giant nods to filmmakers of yore, yet each imbued with the Coens' own distinctive thematic obsessions: this all continues with True Grit. Wickedly funny, undeniably compelling and yes, touched with a less cynical heart than some of their most recent efforts (though hardly 'sentimental' as some critics have suggested) the picture finds the Coens pushing all their usual techniques to the fore, while at the same time keeping them constrained by the genre they're working within and for most part, it works wonderfully."
"It's a family film that older girls and boys alike will enjoy, but far from a Disneyfied one, more akin to a PG-13 Deadwood," notes Jennifer Boulden at Wonders in the Dark.
For indieWIRE's Eric Kohn, this is "a visually scrumptious western with little to offer beyond the acceptable ingredients of a classic western."
"A $170 million budget. State-of-the-art 3D visual effects. A three-year marketing campaign. An extensive line of related toys, clothes, jewelry and electronics. A spinoff television show. Theme park tie-ins. Overt hopes for a sequel. Pressure? Just a little." Brooks Barnes profiles Joseph Kosinski, who's making his debut as a feature director with Tron: Legacy, and outlines the challenges: "The first Tron, released by Disney in 1982, was a box office disappointment (as was Blade Runner that same year), but its computer-generated effects and story line — a hacker is pulled inside a computer and forced to play space-age gladiator games — deeply influenced a generation of techies. 'It's a science-fiction story that actually came true: inside a computer is a world where you, or a version of you, can go and live,' said Steven Lisberger, who wrote and directed Tron and served as a producer on the sequel. 'I'm assuming you've heard of Facebook?' Another now-quaint notion: Tron was banned from the Oscar race for visual effects because using a computer was considered cheating. So the basic challenge for Tron: Legacy is twofold. It must be as cutting-edge as Mr Lisberger's movie, or the core fan base will crucify it. At the same time it must be accessible enough — warm enough despite all of the chilly white and blue neon — to attract rank-and-file moviegoers, particularly older ones."
"Kids who caught the original at 12 when it came out are 40 now and may recall it through a fog of uncritical nostalgia, which may help account for Disney's wise decision to delay the release of a spruced-up Blu-Ray edition until early next year," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. "The mildly surprising news, then, is that there are aspects of Tron: Legacy that are actually rather cool. Granted, these mostly fall within the realms of architecture, interior design and advanced motor racing techniques, but they are blessed compensations nevertheless. The fact that you get two (or three, depending upon how you count) incarnations of Jeff Bridges isn't a bad deal either, although it all ends up being a half-hour too much of a just okay thing.... [T]he recent film Tron: Legacy most resembles — in its lustful embrace of high technology, the combat-game format, corporate control angle, enduring father-son allegiance and fundamental silliness — is the Wachowskis' Speed Racer. To be fair, the premise of the current film is more intriguing, as it's built around a rescue mission in which, to retrieve Dad, the son must venture into the grid designed by his father but subsequently taken over by 'programs' led by his old man's doppleganger."
"As written by Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis, two former staff writers for Lost, Tron: Legacy carries a lot of the same so-smart-it's-dumb mythology [as the original], and especially the sort of superficial multitudes that made their previous gig such an indelible (and often equally contentious) viewing experience." Todd Gilchrist for Cinematical: "Expanding on core concepts introduced in the original film, Kitsis and Horowitz employ a Terminator 2 attack strategy with their story, building the Tron universe outward in terms of scope and vision while retaining a recognizable lexicon of structure, imagery and ideas." And: "In a fairly stunning if not-quite-successful experiment using the performance-capture technology that made the cat people of Avatar possible, Jeff Bridges not only plays himself in the film at his current age, but also delivers a performance as his 80s-era self, complete with digitally-designed facial features that make him look more like he just shot Starman than Crazy Heart."
Peter Debruge in Variety: "If Tron: Legacy's primary raison d'etre was to relaunch Lisberger's world in such a way that it could support not only movies but also games, merch and themepark attractions, then Kosinski more than satisfies the job requirement. Building on blueprints from that first film (including such classic vehicles as the Recognizers and the Solar Sailer), Kosinski creates a world we'd love to explore for ourselves, using the 3D to enhance the immersive experience: Light Cycles literally materialize out of thin air, while the action spills not only 'off the grid' but off the screen as well."
"Daft Punk might have been put on Earth specifically in order to record a soundtrack for a sequel to Tron," writes Alexis Petridis in the Guardian: "their 80s retro-futurist aesthetic is clearly indebted to the original, which variously features primitive electronic graphics, the soft rock of Journey, a plot in which a programmer becomes part of a neon-glowing computer mainframe after being shot with a laser, and the Scarecrow from Scarecrow and Mrs King." Their soundtrack "might all work brilliantly in the cinema, allied to Tron: Legacy's 3D visuals. If it does, it wouldn't be the first Daft Punk album to be reconsidered over time: people certainly revised their opinion of Human After All after seeing its tracks performed live. For now, however, it's hard not to feel a bit disappointed. As is so often the case with sci-fi, the future hasn't turned out quite as you might have hoped."
Updates, 12/5: 3 out of 5 stars from Tom Huddleston at Time Out London: "Appropriately, the sequel suffers from almost the same problems as the original: while it's visually dazzling (particularly in 3D), thematically intriguing and fronted by the single coolest man in the universe, it's also empty, derivative and rather directionless."
3 out of 5 stars, too, from the Guardian's Steve Rose, who writes that "visually, Tron Legacy is sleek, polished and thrillingly state of the art; storywise, it's bonkers.... It all tips into parody when Michael Sheen turns in an abysmal cameo as an androgynous nightclub owner. He's supposed to be a cyber-Aladdin Sane (the David Bowie character), but he comes on like Tony Blair doing Rocky Horror.... And the silliness somehow adds to the enjoyment rather than detracting from it. It's the best kind of bonkers."
Updates, 12/6: Tribute talks with costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark about "creating the revolutionary skin-tight suits" and "lighting them up."
"Here's the thing," writes Kristopher Tapley at In Contention. "The new film has plenty of issues, but I doubt I've had a better time in a movie theater all year. Expectations couldn't have been lower, which played to the film's advantage I imagine, but I was strapped in and game from the opening text."
Updates, 12/7: The Los Angeles Times is posting bits of this and that on the two Trons every day up to and through December 17.
Vulture has the video for Daft Punk's "Derezzed," featuring Olivia Wilde.
Update, 12/8: "Does Tron Legacy make any sense?" asks Drew Taylor at the Playlist. "Well, no. But thankfully no prior knowledge to the original movie (which, it should be said, is quite boring) is needed to appreciate the amazing audio/visual overload that the film provides. It's a wild ride, for sure, aided largely by Daft Punk's EPCOT Center-at-night score and the crazy-cool visuals cooked up by Kosinski and his team of artists. It's just a shame that, on a narrative level, the movie isn't as impressive in the least."
Updates, 12/9: "Staying true to the look and feel of its then-groundbreaking predecessor while updating and expanding it in imaginative ways, TRON: Legacy delivers an Orwellian virtual-reality fantasia that — visually speaking, and especially when blown up to 70-foot IMAX proportions — can be decidedly nerdgasmic." Nick Schager for Slant (2.5 out of 4 stars): "However, to a similar, if somewhat lesser, extent than last year's VR fairy tale Avatar, Kosinski's film... dazzles the eye far more than it stirs the mind or heart."
Marc Lee talks with Bridges for the Telegraph.
Update, 12/10: Ed Cumming lists the "Top 10 computers in the movies" for the Telegraph.
Update, 12/13: "With a million times more computing power at its disposal than its 1982 predecessor, Tron: Legacy still looks like Disco Night at the jai alai fronton," notes New York's David Edelstein.
There's a nice batch of short takes on a few books of interest in this week's New York Times Book Review (which, as you may recall, has already listed its "100 Notable Books of 2010" and "10 Best Books of 2010."
"With They Live, the first volume in the new Deep Focus series of film books, the novelist and occasional critic Jonathan Lethem pulls apart the threads of John Carpenter's 1988 science fiction film of the same title, to entertaining and illuminating effect," writes Dave Kehr. "Down on his hands and knees — or armed, at least, with that astonishing instrument for close textual analysis that is the DVD player — Lethem combs the carpet for stray bread crumbs and cat hairs, finding traces of both high art and low, trash television and political philosophy, personal expression and unfiltered cliché." The Wall Street Journal runs an excerpt and Salon has Lethem writing up notes for a slide show.
Dana Stevens: "In Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made, the humorist Roy Blount Jr takes on Duck Soup, not as a film critic or as a culture pundit or even as a comedy writer, but as a passionate amateur fan. To call this 144-page essay informal would be a Groucho-esque understatement. Blount, by his own admission, opens up the movie in a window on his computer and, in essence, 'live blogs' it, free-associating in the raggedly discursive style proper to that form. Blount is no more bothered by the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action than were the brothers themselves." More from Larry Miller in the Wall Street Journal.
"Frank: The Voice takes more than 700 pages to tell half the story," writes James Gavin: "that of Sinatra's rise, his late-1940s career crash and his phoenix-like rebirth in 1954, when he claimed an Oscar for best supporting actor in From Here to Eternity. ([Author James] Kaplan is now at work on Volume 2.) There's scarcely a fresh tidbit here; the source notes list fewer than 20 original interviews, while the bibliography contains about 125 books.... The good news is that Kaplan can tell a story. His passion for Sinatra keeps the narrative flowing; he's equally fascinated by his subject's seamy and artistic sides; and he evokes period atmosphere well. While adding nothing new to our understanding of Sinatra's singing, he offers a fair synthesis of what's already been said." But there's evidently much more to say; earlier this month, Frank: The Voice sparked a terrific email conversation at Slate between Jody Rosen and Ann Powers.
Michael Caine "has three things you want in a memoirist — an eye for detail, a knack for storytelling, and a sense of humor about himself — and they all come out to play in The Elephant to Hollywood." Stephanie Zacharek: "He writes of the rejuvenating qualities of working with younger stars like Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson and Jude Law (in whom, he says, he sees something of himself, partly because Law is, as he was, 'a bit of a jack-the-lad'). He expresses his gratitude at being cast in a Graham Greene adaptation that's actually worthy of the book it was based on (Phillip Noyce's 2002 version of The Quiet American). And he virtually beams with respect and admiration for Christopher Nolan, who helped reignite his career by casting him in both of his Batman pictures, as well as in The Prestige and Inception." More from Vadim Rizov at the AV Club; in September, Nigel Farndale spoke with Caine about the book for the Telegraph.
"In The Noël Coward Reader, Barry Day, the editor of The Letters of Noël Coward, has given himself the formidable task of ordering and justly representing a peripatetic and outpouring talent," writes Brad Leithauser. "This is an outsize book — over 500 pages of selections — and while it is marred by too many anecdotal repetitions, even Coward aficionados should find unexpected pleasures, including rare photographs."
Caroline Weber on Tom Payne's Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity: "Moving seamlessly between yesterday's great literature — Greek, Roman, early Christian, Enlightenment and Romantic — and today's trashy tabloids, Payne advances a persuasive, if disturbing, definition of what fame is now, and what it has ever been. Above all else, it is 'a systematic cycle of celebration, consecration and sacrifice,' in which cultures create gods and goddesses in order to kill them." More from Mary Beard (Observer), Matthew Bell (Independent), Harry de Quetteville (Telegraph) and Christopher Hart (Sunday Times). Related: Alex Prescott-Couch in the Berlin Review of Books on Fred Inglis's A Short History of Celebrity.
For Star Wars: Visions, George Lucas "invited 'a select group of great contemporary artists... to create interpretations' of the Star Wars saga, he explains [in his preface]," notes Nick Owchar in the Los Angeles Times. "More than 25 artists are included here, and each carries on the story — much like novelizations, video games and Dark Horse comics series have been doing — in his or her own signature style. The book includes scenes from the trenches of the Clone Wars, quiet moments in the life of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the wookiees of Kashyyyk, aliens and droids aplenty (a few of these artists have a definite thing for blue alien slave girls), in styles reminiscent of Picasso, Turner, Titian and Andy Warhol."
Also in the LAT, Richard Rayner: "Film both mimics our dreams and provokes our fantasies. The idea that an individual's relationship with it might be a narcotic, a heady mood or attitude, an atmosphere that changes speed and temperature but can never be escaped is central to David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, an ongoing work that first appeared in the mid-1970s. Now in its fifth edition, almost 1,100 pages and with 130 new entries, this mad and magnificent opus finds cinema's Dr Johnson disenchanted, wondering if anybody cares about film history anymore and even if the medium will continue to command a backward survey.... With the so-called death of cinema really part of a wider technological revolution, what Thomson fondly thinks of as 'Hollywood' may be dying, but film is just morphing. One hopes he'll never stop buttonholing us about it." More from Saul Austerlitz (San Francisco Chronicle) and Jim Emerson.