Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

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TRON: Legacy


TRON: Legacy

Sam is a little irritated that the library wants their books back; Cora is just disappointed.

(2010) Science Fiction (Disney) Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Anis Cheurfa, Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk, Jeffrey Nordling, Dan Joffre, Mi-Jung Lee, Dale Wolfe. Directed by Joseph Kosinski

We are all haunted by the ghosts of our past. In the case of movies, they are haunted by the movies that have come before them, sometimes many of them.

Sam Flynn (Hedlund) has good reason to be angry. His father, eccentric software genius Kevin Flynn (Bridges) deserted him when he was 12, disappearing into a miasma of rumor and innuendo, leaving his giant corporation Encom essentially in the hands of those he despised with only his good friend Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) holding his fingers in the dyke.

Sam expresses his anger by pulling spectacular pranks on his company (like releasing their new operating system software to the Internet so that people can use it for free rather than have to pay exorbitant amounts for it – take that Bill Gates!) that he takes no other interest in. He’s a bit of a spoiled rich kid with plenty of toys but no direction.

Then Bradley gets a page from the arcade that the elder Flynn started out with from a number that’s been disconnected for years. Sam expresses disinterest but at last curiosity wins out and he decides to check out the arcade, which is in marvelous shape despite the nearly 30 years that have passed since people last brought quarters in to play their machines (in a nice nod to the first film, “Separate Ways” by Journey blasts from the jukebox). He discovers a hidden door behind the vintage TRON machine and heads into his father’s secret room where a computer far more advanced than what we even have now sits. Sam had always been entertained about his father’s tales of being  beamed into the grid; is this where his father actually travelled into the electronic frontier?

Of course it is. Sam is beamed down there and is immediately captured and sent to the gaming grid, at first mistaken for a rogue program. When it is discovered that he is a user he is brought before a mysterious masked figure who appears to be the head honcho of the grid. The mask comes off and it’s – his dad, but the same as he was 30 years ago. Sam discovers quickly that he’s not quite his dad.

This is Clu (Bridges, using the same de-aging software found in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a program his dad had written to help create the perfect electronic society but this version of his dad is obsessive and somewhat cruel. He sends Sam out to be executed in the light-cycle arena but Sam is saved by the beautiful Cora (Wilde) who takes him to his dad in a sanctuary outside the grid where grid vehicles can’t travel.

There he finds his real dad, looking every bit the aging guru (not unlike the Big Lebowski two decades later) in a white robe and bare feet. Grizzled as a man exiled from his home and family might be, he has gone from being cocky and reckless to being almost afraid of taking any sort of action. His Zen has become his pen.

It turns out that Clu decided he didn’t like the way Flynn was running things, so he took over, destroying Flynn’s electronic partner Tron (Boxleitner) in the process. Clu is obsessed with perfection and thinks that he can take his well-ordered near-fascist state out into the other world, which he has yet to be able to do. However, should he get Flynn’s identity disk he’ll not only be able to do it, he has amassed a gigantic army in order to take over our world and make it over in his own image.

Sam is incensed that his dad wants to sit in his lonely castle and wait until the portal that Sam opened closes on its own (the power it takes to maintain an open portal is tremendous and they close usually after about eight hours). He figures that he can go to the outside world and delete Clu with a keystroke. However, he has to get back to the portal to escape and Cora tells him there’s one man who can do it; a man called Zoos (Sheen).

Zoos however has his own agenda and things take a turn for the worse, forcing Dad to come to Sam and Cora’s rescue. However in the process, Flynn’s identity disk falls into Clu’s hands, leading to a final showdown between maker and machine.

There is a lot to like about this movie. Unfortunately, I wanted to like it more and left feeling a bit disappointed. That may be because I do believe the trailers and the hype set the bar awfully high and it may be that the movie just didn’t quite get to that bar. Perhaps on its own merits I might have given it a higher score; do keep that in mind as you read on.

The visuals here are absolutely dazzling. Those that remember the graphics of the original TRON will be pleased that the sequel takes those images and refines them, keeping the essence of the filmmaker’s intentions rather than redefining the wheel – they are merely redrawing it with a better pencil.  That’s a very good idea.

Bridges, who I believe filmed this before his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart is at the top of his game here. He is both the megalomaniacal Clu and the Zen surfer dude Flynn, as well as the grizzled disappointed Flynn. He is really playing three different roles and he imbues them each with their own subtleties. I had never considered him one of the best actors of our generation, but I’m beginning to change my mind on that score.

Hedlund looks and sounds a lot like a young Brad Pitt here and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When held up against Bridges, you have to feel for him; he’s just not in that league quite yet. However, he makes a serviceable hero here, both vulnerable and ballsy at the same time. I was more impressed with Wilde, who is beautiful, mysterious and physical, all blending well together in a single core role. For my money, she has the looks and talent to be an A-list actress if she gets more roles like this one. Sheen has an entertaining supporting role as an outgoing Zoos who is equal parts David Bowie, Liza Minnelli and the Merovingian from the Matrix movies.

A quick word about the soundtrack. It was composed and performed by the French electronic duo Daft Punk (they make a cameo appearance as masked DJs in Zoos’ club) and it is one of the best movie soundtrack’s I’ve heard, maybe since Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire. It perfectly compliments the mood and the environment of the movie, plus the music stands up on its own without the visuals.

In fact, the movie has a lot of the Wachowski Brothers epic trilogy in it, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are positives and minuses about both of those elements which you take with a certain amount of salt. However, what I had more problems with is that the movie has long sequences where it drags, such as when father, son and Cora are riding a long train to the Portal near the end, or when Sam is investigating his dad’s page early on. The movie is at its best when it is at its most kinetic; any gamer will tell you that a game is only as good as its action and the more of it the better.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are dazzling, a must-see. Hedlund resembles a young Brad Pitt both in look and in performance. Wilde makes a bid to be an A-list actress.

REASONS TO STAY: While the movie looks good it can’t really live up to the anticipation. There are long stretches where it drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi action and some of the littlest tykes might be put off by the derezzing. There’s also a little bit of bad language but quite frankly there’s nothing here that most parents should prevent their kids from coming to see.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s a hidden Mickey in the film; check out the back of Sam’s motorcycle helmet.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much the theater. These visuals should be seen in an epic scope. However, the 3D I found essentially unnecessary and added nothing to the film.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

New Releases for the Week of December 17, 2010


December 17, 2010
“What do you mean click your heels three times and you can go home?”

TRON: LEGACY

(Disney) Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen, Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk. Directed by Joseph Kosinski

It’s finally here! Sam Flynn investigates a signal that could only have come from his father, once the world’s leading video game developer who had disappeared 20 years earlier. His investigation finds him beamed into an incredible digital world that his father helped create only it has advanced a great deal in 20 years. Behind the scenes is an evil force that will do whatever it takes to keep both Flynns trapped in the electronic landscape.

See the trailer, clips, promos, interviews and music videos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language)

All Good Things

(Magnolia) Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall. The movie is loosely based on the story of Robert Durst, the notorious scion of a wealthy New York real estate family. His wife Kathie disappeared back in 1982 and has never been found. Durst has been accused of the crime (as well as others afterwards) but was never convicted. Here in Orlando you can see this exclusively at the Enzian Theatre.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Mystery

Rating: R (for drug use, violence, language and some sexuality)

Black Swan

(Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. A ballerina in an elite New York City ballet company is finally getting the break she’s been waiting for as the lead in Swan Lake. However, the arrival of a new dancer who is far more sensual than she complicates matters and puts her ambition in jeopardy. She will need to get in touch with her own dark side which leads to frightening complications. This was originally not scheduled for wide release until January but the limited release did so well that it was rushed into theaters this week. It is also considered a leading Oscar contender next year, with Portman pretty much a lock for a Best Actress nomination.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use)

The Fighter

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo. The true story of boxer Irish Mickey Ward who overcame incredible adversity to become a champion. All four lead actors were nominated for Golden Globes, as did the movie itself for Best Drama. At this point it is considered one of the leading contenders for Oscar gold at next year’s ceremony.

See the trailer, interviews, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: R (for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality)

How Do You Know

(Columbia) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson. Director James Brooks (Terms of Endearment) returns with a comedy centered around a love triangle between a businessman with integrity who is about to be indicted for fraud, a narcissistic professional baseball player and a softball player recently cut from her team and having to redefine her identity. Sounds like a busy afternoon.

See the trailer, promo and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some strong language)