Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas


I’m honestly having a bit of trouble discussing this movie. Partially it’s that this movie is very complicated. That’s not such a problem, as it’s this complication and intellect that make it so good. And it is good, ridiculously good, probably the best movie I’ve seen this year thus far. But, as I write this, it’s been less than 2 hours since I got out of the theater and it’s only my first viewing. I will have to see it again, and perhaps a third time, before I grasp it fully, but I have to review it, so I can hopefully convince other people to see it, even though I might accidentally spoil it in my attempts to recount the plot. So, what I’m trying to get across is, this is the best movie I’ve seen all year. If my saying that intrigues you at all, you should go see this movie right away, in case I accidentally spoil it. If you want to learn more…well read on.

Okay so the plot is probably gonna take some time to explain, so let me get started. Actually, fuck that, my usual approach is kind of worthless here. Instead, I’m going to give you the setup: There are 6 different plots in this movie, interwoven and parallel, from varying settings and genres, which never directly cross. The first, at least chronologically, is about a Lawyer in Africa in 1849 who becomes friends with an escaped slave. The second is devoted to a penniless musician in 1936 who is working for a great composer and is inspired to make his own work. The third is about a crusading journalist in 1975 writing about a corporate conspiracy. The fourth is about a British publisher in the modern day (2012) who finds himself locked in a Nursing home against his will. The fifth takes place in the 22nd century in South Korea and is devoted to a cloned slave who may be beginning to question the purpose of her existence. And the sixth and final one takes place 100 years after an unspecified apocalypse and is about a barbarian leading a woman up a mountain where she believes something important waits.

Okay so those are the 6 plots of this movie, and what’s important to absorb is that, despite being fully separate from each other with no characters crossing over (okay, one character crosses over into a second story verrrry briefly) they are united by shared themes and actors. Yes, despite each story boasting it’s own unique cast of characters, each of them are played by a surprisingly small stable of actors, accomplished through extensive makeup, causing each actor to play a completely different person in each role, crossing time, race and even gender lines. For example, Hugo Weaving (the closest thing the movie has to a recurring bad guy actor) plays an old man in one story, a younger man in another and tall woman in another. Elsewhere, Halle Berry plays a white woman, a latina and what appears to be a mixed race woman. I won’t spoil any of the others, because you deserve to go into them cold, but trust me, all of the major actors do it and it’s so amazing that not only did I not recognize a lot of people in multiple roles, but anyone else nominated for Best Makeup at this Oscars might as well stay home.

The actors are all brilliant, to the point where my earlier worries about stunt casting proved completely wrong. Halle Berry is better than she’s ever been and this is the first real role in her (rather unfortunate) post-Oscar career that really reminds us of why we were interested in her in the first place (aside from, you know, the obvious). Tom Hanks, who is given the most of the prominent roles is really incredible, going from comic relief, to villain to action here, a good example of why he’s one of the few actors who has made the often difficult transition from comedy to drama. Jim Broadbent is a good standout, his natural affect and likability really helping to sell a third act twist and Jim Sturgess gives it his all in his two lead roles, and acquits himself nicely. Bae Doona is a little harder to get a read on, as she only has a major role in one story, but she’s excellent in it, and knowing where she is in the other ones, I think I can safely say she did a great job.

None of this, and I do mean none, would work without great direction and screenwriting. The way the stories fit together and flit from genre to genre (for example, the 1975 story is a conspiracy thriller, the 2012 a slapstick comedy and the 2200 one a sci-fi action movie…no really) is breathtaking to behold. A gun being aimed in one story can cut to a different kind of gun being fired in another, a comedy chase leads into a real one. Each one has a distinct visual style and a beginning, middle and end, and I’d normally expect the movie to feel thinly spread, or the individual stories feel cut off, but they don’t. In fact they meld so seamlessly together that I’m surprised how fast the movie feels and how well they used their (admittedly long) running time.

Oh and about the whole racial thing: I’ve noticed people getting quite angry about the fact that Jim Sturgess places an Asian in one story, with accusations of ‘yellowface’ being thrown around. Now, based on having seen the movie and it’s major themes, I have to assume that such people haven’t actually seen the movie. But, for the record, no the movie is not racist, it’s being used to make a point about past lives and how races are all in our minds. I’d say that that’s as far from being racist as you can get.

Guys, I gotta be honest, I was completely blown away by this movie. It's a captivating, engaging, unique and at times deeply moving film (this is the first time, since 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, that I actually cried in a theater). I know the word pretentious gets thrown around a lot, but I think it’s ill applied, especially when the movie it’s being thrown at actually has something to say and says it in a unique, memorable and captivating way. This is currently the best movie I’ve seen all year, a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, and the best film in all three of it’s director’s careers. Do not miss this movie, it’s an experience you never forget.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and next time he goes he’s going to bring a flowchart to try and figure out where each actor is in each segment.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Missed Movies: The Return


Man, it’s been a while since I did one of these eh? According to my blog, I haven’t done one since October 2011, just about a year ago. And so, since I’m bringing it back due to a lack of content, I figured I’d do something special for it. So I have a special subject this time: Fascinating disasters.

I’ve said on a couple occasions that you can learn just as much watching a bad movie as you can watching a good one. Sometimes you can even learn more. But the issue is, most bad movies are irritating to watch (Transformers) or just plain boring (The Wicker Man). But these movies, for better or for worse, are actually watchable and serve as various lessons on how good movies can become shitty ones.

Signs

I could stock this entire list with later M. Night Shyamalan movies (and indeed, this was nearly The Village instead) but I think Signs is interesting because it’s one of those rare movies that falls apart slowly rather than quickly. It’s not badly directed, and it’s certainly not a bad idea. It’s got some solid acting towards the beginning and a couple of well staged scare-scenes.

The movie’s main issues show up towards the end, when the movie begins to essentially create plot holes out of nothing, and then falls even more apart on repeat viewings. It’s when you realize that the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, the script kind of poorly written and a lot of the acting just plain surreal. Some of these things can be overcome (Christopher Nolan in particular often overcomes the first one and David Lynch often works very hard to make the latter happen) but the movie isn’t really set up for that. But the movie combines an inability or unwillingness to overcome its flaws with some truly jaw dropping plot holes and some really inappropriate uses of Shyamalan’s favorite screenwriting techniques. It’s a little impressive to see how quickly this movie falls apart in the last act and how glaring all it’s flaws are on a second watch through. If you watch carefully, you can probably grab them on the first run, which makes this at least a study in how to force a movie that should have been good into being bad.

Hannibal

I really hate bringing this one up, partially cuz it reminds me that Brett Ratner made a better Hannibal Lecter movie than either Michael Mann or Ridley Scott, which kind of makes me want to curl up into the fetal position. But the point remains that Hannibal is a massive mess of a movie, pretty much non-functional from the word go.

A lot, and I mean a lot, of this can be traced back to issues with tone, as every sequence seems to be at odds with all of the other scenes. The weird anti-hero treatment of Lecter is completely at odds with his increasingly brutal actions, which is weirdly at odds with the way they’re treating Clarice in this movie (which is not only at odds with other movies, but also weirdly at odds with how they treat her every other scene), which is REALLY at odds with the villain who seems to have stumbled in from a different movie which is RIDICULOUSLY at odds with the villains plan, which seems like something out of a James Bond sequel. A bad one.

All of these issues could have been overcome if the film could blend the genres and subplots more seamlessly (you all know my laundry list of genre and subplot mixing films by now, Brotherhood of the Wolf, O’ Brother Where Art Thou, Pan’s Labyrinth etc.) but that gets harder to do with each thing added in, and once we get to the sequence where the Gary Oldman monster is introduced (he’s basically a monster, shut up) the movie is officially broken. The movie is therefore fascinating for the sheer degree it doesn’t work, as it spends it’s entire run tripping over itself. Scary scenes are undercut by the movie’s treatment of Lecter, the creepiness of Oldman’s character is undercut by how silly his plan is, etc. You could probably get a similar experience watching Hannibal Rising (the movie which ends, I will remind you, with Lecter using his ninja skills to assault the fortress of a ranting supervillain no REALLY) but I think Hannibal is more fascinating for how well it could have worked.


The Thief and the Cobbler

This movie is a case study in vision and ambition getting in the way of getting things done (for more information, go watch Heaven’s Gate, or rather read about it, since the movie itself isn’t good). You can’t see this in the movie itself (which is mostly sort of dull, especially the theatrical release), but more in it’s tragic history. Animation genius Richard Williams (best known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit) first conceived and began work on this movie in 1964, but it didn’t take off until 86 when it got financial backing (yeah he worked on it all that time).

What follows is too long to recount here, but suffice to say Williams went a tiny bit…well crazy. There are conflicting accounts, but he was a supposedly tyrannical boss, firing people randomly and keeping (and demanding) long hours. Many of the people he fired went to work for Disney, which began work on a similar project called Aladdin and well…

Suffice to say, when 92 rolled around (for those of you keeping track at home, 6 years after he got financial backing) the movie was horrifically behind schedule and ridiculously over budget. Similarities to the better known, better marketed Aladdin were making investors worried and eventually the decision was made to pull Williams off the project and hand it to someone else with the mandate to finish it as fast and as cheap as possible, so they could shove it into theaters and try to recoup some of their losses. It turned out all for naught, as the movie was critically panned and barely pulled 500,000 dollars against its 28,000,000 budget. Williams, to this day, has not made another animated feature. The movie itself is kind of a dull, predictable and rather shitty slog, but the story of it’s creation and failure is something of a fascinating one, a tale of being unwilling or unable to temper ambition with reality can sink a project.

Incidentally if you do decide to see it, I’d actually recommend you watch the Directors Cut of this (called the Recobbled Cut). It’s mostly using test footage and it’s still kind of an imperfect movie, but it’s a vastly less compromised vision. Of course the legality of that is kind of iffy and I’m not certain how easy it’ll be to locate (I saw it in Film School). Still, if you can, that’s the version to see.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: Taken 2

…Meh.

I’m sorry is that vague? Well that’s the best I’ve really got right now. I honestly can’t think of a time that a single three letter word has summed up my opinion on a movie so thoroughly. It’s not even bad in the strictest sense, just not good. So meh will probably sum up the majority of this review.

So yeah, we all remember Taken right? No, it wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, just a really solid, really well made action movie. Okay so there was the odd bit of troubling subtext in the kinda racist undertones of the villains and yeah it got kinda old with the whole “Father knows best thing,” but still. It was tightly focused, well made, intensely realistic and interestingly put together, and part of what made it good was how realistic and direct it was.

The sequel actually starts from an interesting concept, IE that most of the villains in this one are the family and friends of the people Liam killed in the first one. That’s an interesting idea about revenge and how it goes both ways, but the movie refuses to do anything with it, apart from a pair of awkward scenes, and for the most part the main character, who is at least theoretically interesting from that standpoint, mostly acts like a one dimensional Bond villain. The plot consists of Liam Neeson (I’m sure his character had a name but fuck you, Liam Neeson) on vacation/assignment in Istanbul. His family arrives for some contrived reasons and within 10 minutes Liam and ex-wife have been kidnapped (or Taken, if you will) by the villains and it’s up to daughter to evade capture and help Liam escape.

This is a perfect example of how a good movie, with a few changes, can really not be a good movie anymore. The biggest is a change in scope, IE where the first one was tight and realistic enough to make Hanna blush, the sequel instantly turns Liam into…well Superman essentially. Perfect example, when Liam is Taken (capitalization required) he finds out where he is by having his daughter throw grenades and listen for the echo. No really, that’s a thing that happens. All of this makes the movie really hard to take seriously sometimes and it makes the sequences where he has to screw up for the plot to keep going harder to buy and really sucks the tension out of the room all around.

All of the big scale action sequences have this issue, where they’re so over the top and silly that you end up bursting out with inappropriate laughter at all the wrong places. But at least that renders them better than the close quarters sequences which are over-edited into mush. And this really irritates when they come clashing together, like a sequence where Liam has to fight the mini-boss guy in a perfectly round room with a raised platform (no, I’m not kidding).

Some of this could be salvaged by the story, but the script is weak all around and, I’m sorry, but the whole ‘evil foreigner’ thing in this movie is getting kind of icky. Yeah it was there in the first one too, but there it was helped along by some intense moral ambiguity, vis a vis what Liam’s character being somewhat dark and outright bad in some cases. Here the villains are so one dimensional and the ‘evil foreigner’ thing laid on so thick it starts to become a little uncomfortable for me.

Look, I know we all like Liam Neeson and I know we all like an action movie, but this one is just…not very good. It’s not tense, it’s not exciting, it’s not particularly engaging it’s just kind of dull. You want smart action? Go see Looper. You want silly action? Go see Dredd. You want Liam Neeson? Go rent the original, or The Grey. You want boring action? I guess you could go see this, but why would you want to?

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s pretty sure the ‘memorizing direction scene’ would be a direct lift from Sneakers if anyone else but him remembered that movie.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths is being billed as a straight ahead comedy, which is going to piss a lot of people off. It’s actually a dark comedy, quite a dark one at that. Oh it’s still funny, in spots it’s hilarious. But if you go in expecting a broad comedy, you’re going to be unhappy. What you get instead is a weird, metatextual and often quite disturbing black comedy. It reads a bit like a crossbreeding of A Fish Called Wanda and Adaptation. And I mean that as the highest possible praise. Or, to put it another way: This movie is AWESOME.

Okay, let me try to explain the plot: Martin (Colin Farrel) is an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter having trouble writing his new movie, Seven Psychopaths (told you it was weird). He’s friends with Billy (Sam Rockwell) who supports himself by running a business with Hans (Christopher Walken) where they kidnap dogs, wait for the owners to post rewards and then return them (getttting weirder). But their latest kidnapping is the beloved dog of a high level gangster. Oh and there’s a masked killer running around murdering mid-to-high level mafia members. Oh and all this is interspersed with the tales of the psychopaths in Martin’s screenplay, some real, some imagined, some both.

Okay and that’s just the setup (it gets more complicated, ESPECIALLY when the 3rd act rolls around). But it all works, in a very weird way. A lot of the credit for it working has to go to the actors. Of course Sam Rockwell (IE, one of the most underappreciated actors working in Hollywood) turns in the best performance. He’s good when he’s being funny, good when he’s being creepy and GREAT when he’s somehow managing to be both. But everyone who’s seen Moon knows Sam Rockwell is a brilliant actor, what’s surprising is how much the others do. Colin Farrel has always been a better character actor than a leading man, but he really shines in this movie, having been given the opportunity to do both. And Christopher Walken, who has usually played parodies of himself, actually dials it back for the most part here, to what is probably one of his best performances in years.

The script is subtle and nuanced, and I want to spend some time talking about it’s genre deconstruction and how it turns out to parody and discuss the tropes and clichés of a certain genre by the end…but I can’t. Because the genre being deconstructed (and the WAY it ends up being deconstructed) are major spoilers and I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment of them.

The direction is unique, in it’s way, especially the way it holds on certain shots for a long time, and how it intersperses dream sequences and flashbacks. Unfortunately it’s also where the movie gets its only major flaw, an inability to keep a consistent tone. Put simply, the movie is playing both the dark aspect AND the comedy aspect all the way to the hilt, and certain comedy scenes directly after dark scenes (and vice versa) occasionally grate. Still, it manages to find it’s groove part way through the 2nd act and holds it rather nicely.

Honestly, this movie was a pleasant surprise. It’s not the most sophisticated meta-narrative I’ve seen this year, but it’s an interesting one, and a great showcase for a group of talented people. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good smart dark comedy, a genre we don’t see enough of. Recommended. See you next time.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders why the female characters are in the advertising: They’re barely in the movie.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: Sinister


Sinister, stripped of context and timing, is a perfectly acceptable, workmanlike horror flick, that gives us a neat idea and some well put together scares but kind of blows it (okay, really blows it) in the story and character department. But I can’t strip it of context and timing, and both those things force me to put it up against 2012 other two horror flicks (The Cabin in the Woods and The Woman in Black) and against the other two movies I’ve seen this week (Looper and Argo). And unfortunately for Sinister, those are all fights it’s going to fucking lose.

To the plot: A true crime writer has recently moves his family to a house where a grisly murder took place, killing all of the family who lived in the house except for the youngest daughter, who is still missing. He quickly discovers a box full of Super 8 Camera footage (because Super 8 cameras are creepier) the contain footage of the family and their murder, as well as other families and their murders, with a creep inhuman figure in them. Soon he’s seeing strange things about the house and a symbol of a Pagan deity is found floating around the footage.

The first 20-30 minutes of the movie is where most of the problem crop up. The dialogue is universally clunky, the exposition awkward, the character work a shade or two too thin and the acting ranging from okay to boring. This is all compounded with the movie’s later problems, including one of the worst cases of ‘horror dumb’ I’ve seen in a movie lately. And while I’m complaining, a lot of the movie’s best jump scares and twists are spoiled by the trailers, but I can’t really blame the movie for that.

But a weird thing happens after the first 20-30 minutes. Once all the awkward character work is done, the movie turns out pretty damned engaging. The scares are extremely well put together and there’s just a thin enough veneer of character to make you care. The concept, while clearly influenced by the Slender Man Mythos (look it up) is legendarily cool, and a lot of the execution of said concept is well done. Yeah, it’s annoying that they never even bother to hand wave why the main character won’t turn on the lights, but I can’t say it’s not effective. It was directed by Scott Derrickson, whose previous movies have all sucked horrendously, but who seems to have grown a little bit of talent for this movie. Maybe in a few years we’ll get a legitimately good movie out of him.

Sinister is still a flawed movie and is made to look worse by the company it keeps. Sure it lacks the class and acting chops of Woman or the brains and balls of Cabin, but neither of those things are actually its fault. Right now, it’s October so we all want a horror movie, and if that’s what you’re in the market for, I’m gonna call this one tentatively recommended. It’s not perfect, but you could do a lot worse.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks the villain looks like what would happen if Tommy Wiseu joined Slipknot.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review: Looper


One thing I’ve tried to make very clear in my (calling it a career would be ridiculously ostentatious, even for me, so I’ll call it time) as a critic is that I don’t think that an action movie should have to choose between being exciting and smart. Indeed, some of the movies that manage to walk that (often difficult) line end up being on my year’s best list, like Drive or District 9. Looper…is not quite that good. But don’t take that as an insult, it’s still an damn, damn, DAMN good movie on essentially every level that counts.

The plot is kinda labyrinthine, but I’ll try to give you the setup. It’s the future, naturally and even later in the future, time travel has been invented but outlawed. So the crime syndicates set up a system wherein they arrange for people they want dead to be sent back in time with payment for their hitmen known as Loopers. The catch is, eventually in your career, you’ll have to kill your future self and then be given 30 years before then. The film follows one of the Loopers, Joey (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) living a hedonistic lifestyle when his future self (Bruce Willis) comes back in time and…that’s all I’m going to tell you.

Okay so the plot is really complicated, like any good sci-fi movie based around time travel will be. It’s helped along by an incredibly good script that deftly combines the multi-character perspective with some interesting takes on time travel and time loops. One segment in particular, showcasing what amounts to a dark parallel to Back to the Future’s ‘disappearing scene’ will be sticking with me for a while. It also has the good sense not to dwell on the mechanics of time travel. It works because they say it does, and that’s all we need to know.

The film was directed by Rian Johnson, late of the unspeakably brilliant Brick and he brings his A game to this. The action scenes are tense and exciting, while the character building scenes are also engaging and interesting. It’s also got some truly excellent set pieces, most notably a sequence involving telekinesis that suggests to me someone watched Akira a few dozen times (what is it with movies and referencing Akira this year?) It also doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of it’s concept. One character’s plan and his execution of it is shockingly dark and the movie goes there in full force.

It does have a few stumbling blocks. The character work and pacing in the second act is a little wonky and there are a few hiccups in the way some of the mechanics of memory and damage work (which the characters actively address, oddly enough). Still, it’s an engaging thriller, buoyed by some great action beats and a great pair of performances from Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt (both of whom are having great years). It’s not as good as Argo sure, but that’s not really a complaint. If you haven’t seen this yet, I recommend it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile, and he had to cut this review short so he could go work.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: Argo


Yes, I’m back! Sorry, life is complex and occasionally difficult and movies are expensive (I aint getting paid for this folks…in fact, come to think of it, I’m PAYING for it). But, as penance for being away for…2 weeks, shit, I’m going to try to see upwards of 3 movies between today and next Tuesday (aiming for 4, unless something opens that I want to see Friday, in which case that might increase…or unless my roommate wants to go see Taken 2 and is willing to pay for me). But all that begins with Argo.

Argo is one of those movies that comes along every so often, then is a hit with multiple crowds. Taken purely on it’s own merits, it’s quite good, an incredibly well made and interesting movie, with a brilliant script, incredible acting and great direction. But it’s also a straightforward, well paced and intensely engaging thriller. In other words it can appeal to a general audience too. It’s the whole package, the real deal, it’s this year’s Eastern Promises.

To the story. It’s the Iran Hostage Crisis (quick version: After Iran deposed the US backed dictator, a bunch of students stormed the US Embassy and took a bunch of the workers hostage, past that, wiki it) and 6 US Embassy workers managed to escape and are hiding out at the Canadian Ambassador’s House. Ben Affleck (still doing penance for his entire career between Dogma and Gone Baby Gone and also directed) has the lead as Tony Mendez, a CIA Agent who has a crazy idea: Get them out by forming a production company and pretending to be a movie studio doing a Star Wars ripoff, shooting in Iran.

If it sounds like a plot that crazy just has to be true…well it is. And if you’re expecting a movie about making a real movie, where making the real movie saved the day to be full of winking in jokes and Hollywood myth making…well there you would be wrong. In fact, one of the things I find most refreshing about it, is how straightforward and almost clinical it is. Yeah there’s some Hollywood legend nods, mostly in the character of John Chambers, but for the most part it all passes without comment.

Perfect example: The concept artist for the fake movie is played by Michael Parks. Now, nothing odd about that, in and of itself, until you realize he’s on for less than a minute and is never mentioned by name. So you might, like I did, go to wiki and look it up and find out it’s Jack fucking Kirby. You know, the guy who created all those Marvel comics characters while Stan Lee was nailing his wife (little nerd inside joke there). But the movie doesn’t dwell on it, and it’s this refreshing lack of myth making that gives the movie the vast majority of its energy. It’s direct and to the point, moving forward at such a brisk pace that even when it’s slowing down to talk about Hollywood minutiae, it never feels anything but engaging. It’s a testament to how good the filmmakers are that the film has easily one of the most tense final acts of a movie this year (yes including The Dark Knight Rises) despite not one character ever firing a gun or even throwing a punch.

All of the technical details are in service of this style. The script is a direct, straightforward, and the actors are all note perfect, especially John Goodman and Alan Arkin in the supporting roles. But special mention must go to the direction that manages to ease around what could be whiplash inducing changes in mood, between the somewhat humorous Hollywood workings and the deadly serious situation in Iran (during one scene, dancing back and forth from line to line of dialogue). It also does an incredible job establishing the mood of the time, both in Iran and America and most notably, doesn’t cop out in America’s responsibility for the circumstances that led to the violent revolt (Dear Cia: Installing the Sha? Not. Cool.)

There are issues, mostly in terms of the hostages. Put simply, they’re mostly a bunch of living macguffins. There’s some strong work from a couple of the actors but the movie doesn’t spend enough time with them to really give them a whole ton of characterization and a couple of scenes with them slow down the second act. But they manage to overcome it in the third act, even if a pair of them look a little too much like each other.

You know, I compared this movie to Eastern Promises in the first paragraph (well second, but shut up). But thinking back, I think a more apt comparison would be to Munich. It’s a direct, straightforward thriller about a recent event in history that could easily tie back into modern events without getting bogged down in them. And like Munich, it’s easily one of, if not the, best things playing right now, and a surefire contender for a bunch of Oscars down the line. Highly recommended.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he resented that crack about directors.