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Punch, Drunk, Love

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From top, How Do You Know, Tron: Legacy, True Grit.  

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. 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.

Bridges’s Rooster is half-hidden behind unruly facial hair, his cheeks reddened by burst blood vessels, his one unpatched eye bleary. The actor has lowered his voice, dropped it down into a pool of tobacco juice and phlegm, and the words that come out are only semi-recognizable. It takes a while to warm up to this anti-Duke, but the nice thing about Bridges is that he can wait. He catches you off guard with great Portis lines that Wayne threw away, like: “Your partner’s killed you, and I’ve done for him.” Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LaBoeuf is a wonderful foil, with his ostentatious jangling spurs and fringed jacket and ridiculous pipe. He’s a preener, a kid playing dress-up, but damned if he doesn’t live up to his inflated self-image. Steinfeld is their straight man, and I came to like her prim little unsmiling face and Gatling-gun delivery. It must have been hard to keep from laughing in the scene when Mattie finally comes face to face with her father’s murderer, played by Josh Brolin as a bewildered troglodyte. What the hell is Brolin doing? I think I know. By this point in the film, he has to out-grotesque an army of grotesqueries to make Joel and Ethan laugh.

Although it falls off precipitously, it’s better to have Julie Taymor’s The Tempest than not: The first half-hour is nearly as unfettered as Shakespeare’s language. Shooting on Hawaii’s Lanai, where cliffs of volcanic rock border rainforest bordering desert, Taymor suits the landscape to the words. Whenever the wizard Prospero—or, as played by Helen Mirren, Prospera—summons her enslaved spirit Ariel, the screen goes electric with FX. Ben Whishaw is the genie of one’s dreams: semi-transparent, his chiseled visage shifting in an instant from mischievousness to melancholy. He soars into the air leaving coils of himself in his wake, then serenades the tempest-tossed (in songs set by Elliot Goldenthal) in an ethereal tenor. To think what Taymor might do with Puck or the three witches!

Even in those early scenes, though, there are signs of trouble. The landscape is so remarkable it’s hard to credit Prospera with stage-managing the shipwrecked party’s illusory ordeals. And Mirren is small-scaled, snippy, without much variety or vocal power. Changing Prospero’s sex has its ups and downs. Her brother’s usurpation of her dukedom becomes an injustice against her womanhood, which works fine. What doesn’t is that this raging feminist would go on to use her magic to orchestrate the marriage of her naïve daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones), to Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney). Wouldn’t she want Miranda to exercise free will? I would—but I’m biased. Jones is a dish and can speak the verse, while Carney, though pretty, swallows his words and sings off-key. Miranda could do better.

The Tempest is the most plotless of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, and even the best productions have a hard time establishing a credible threat to Prospero’s authority. The African-born Djimon Hounsou makes a grand entrance as Caliban, rising nearly naked from the earth with patches of cracked soil in place of skin, but he’s stuck bellowing all his lines at the most misdirected troupe of comic-relief plotters (among them Russell Brand and Alfred Molina) in the annals of Shakespeare films. The drama is so muddled that Shakespeare seems to be getting in the way of Taymor’s spectacle, the magic long gone by the time Prospera hurls her staff off into the sea.

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. Twenty- eight years later, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the son of the original’s Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), gets sucked into digital space, where he’s menaced by his father’s fascist digital double and spirited away by a gorgeous, cat-eyed femme (Olivia Wilde) with a Louise Brooks ’do in a neon-outlined black bodysuit. (“Patience, Sam Flynn—all your questions will be answered soon.”) Given the strain of staring at this dim blue digital screen, it’s no hyperbole to say that Wilde is a sight for sore eyes.


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