Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas


CLOUD ATLAS: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (163 min.)

What is Cloud Atlas?  I had no idea walking into the film what to expect, where it would take me, or what it had to say.  After seeing it, I can assure you explaining the plot itself is an exercise for a madman.  I know what Cloud Atlas is, but I wouldn't dare go into details.  Maybe the more appropriate question is, what is the film about?  Well, in the broadest sense, it is a film about everything.  But that is a cheap explanation to give to such a beautiful, mesmerizing film experience.  It shoots for the stars and juggles a myriad of themes and musings on life and existence with creativity, energy, and ambition, and it deserves much more praise than "it's a film about everything."  Let's paint a broad picture of the plot and move from there.

There are six narratives in Cloud Atlas, all thinly threaded together by themes and firmly tied to one another by the actors appearing as different characters in all of them.  There is a segment in the late 1800s, where a man travels aboard a ship and befriends a stowaway slave; there is a lovely narrative in the late 1930s, where a young man lives with a famous composer and composes a beautiful work of his own, The Cloud Atlas Sextet; from there we go to 1973, where a dogged reporter attempts to uncover a sinister energy plot that could cost thousands of lives; the modern-day tale is aloof and spirited in a very comical way, as an old man is tricked into becoming a prisoner of a retirement home.  There are two future segments, the first in 2144 involving the awakening of a synthetic human, her freeing, and subsequent birthing of a revolution; the final segment takes place some 100 years later, when the world has been destroyed and there are but a few outlying colonies here and elsewhere in the galaxy.

But, again, what is the point of telling so many stories?  And with the same actors?  There are any number of reasons for this, namely to show the connection humans have with one another across time and space.  This film deserves and extended essay, but that requires a copy to re-watch and plenty of time.  But there is a central thesis at the heart of Cloud Atlas: no matter how hard we try and control people, free will finds its way.  Each narrative involves a sort of prison, and each character performs different acts of kindness or villainy or cowardice or bravery throughout these periods in time.  Cloud Atlas is about the human spirit bottled up and released, about the way our past affects our future, and the way death merely brings ab out life.  It is all very convoluted as I type this here, but I assure you it makes sense in the picture.  The dots may not entirely connect, but they never really do in life.

What I found to be a marvel is the way directors Tom Twyker (Run Lola, Run), Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) and Lana Wachowski manage to transform David Mitchell's complex novel into a series of narratives which feel vastly different in tone and pacing, but still manage to feel enough alike for everything to work.  Part of this belongs in the hands of the actors.  Tom Hanks and Halle Berry deliver on what must be challenging performances, volleying between five and six characters.  Other multiple roles are played by Jim Broadbent (Oscar worthy in his performances), Hugo Weaving - who has a fascinating character in the most futuristic of the tales - Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant (he never appears to have a redeemable character), Keith David, Jim Sturgess, and Doona Bae, who has the pivotal role of the synthetic revolutionary, Sonmi-451.

Of course the scenery in Cloud Atlas is stunning.  There are wonderful landscapes, fully realized visions of a future in "New Seoul," and the visual mastery is second to none.  And I would imagine here is the frontrunner for the makeup Oscar, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of transformations these recognizable actors undergo from era to era.  Some of the makeup doesn't quite work, especially in later scenes with Bae and a shaky job of Weaving as a female nurse, but those are forgivable because behind it all there is a strict purpose.  The makeup may not make sense, but the reason behind it does.

I knew not what to expect walking into Cloud Atlas.  I halfway expected a mess of a film, and early on I was afraid maybe I was right.  But I gave it a chance, I allowed the flower to bloom beneath the narratives, and I let the game come to me.  Perhaps it is the extended run time of nearly three hours which deters some, which will find a great number of followers throughout the years on home video.  But, I assure you this feels like anything but a three-hour epic.  It moves briskly, with a fever of storytelling and wonderful ambition that may not be matched the rest of the decade.

A

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TRAILER BULLETIN: Iron Man 3

I know what you were thinking, or maybe what I have been thinking all along... If Iron Man is in trouble why doesn't he call one of his friends for help?  Well, perhaps because Tony Stark must travel to China?  I'm not sure, but it looks like Iron Man 3 has Stark facing off against one of his more famous villains, The Mandarin, played here by Ben Kingsley.  I am a little up in the air as far as what I think or expect, but one thing is certain: they spent a lot of money on a certain CGI scene...


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Seven Psychopaths


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson (109 min.)

We all know, or maybe we are, those people whose office or work space looks like a complete mess, is in shambles; but when they need to find something they know right where to go and have no problem finding what they need.  Seven Psychopaths is the cinematic version of this person, a film that looks and acts like a mess but has strict purpose, focus, and knows right where it put all those important points.  It bounces wildly from one point to the next, from scene to scene, but it is done with such joy and conviction the audience cannot help but bounce right along with it.  It is funny, serious, heartfelt, violent, and peaceful; it is everything and, perhaps, nothing.  The only thing I can say for sure is, it's a lot of fun trying to figure out.

The meta-fictional plot floats in and out of reality and the fiction of a screenplay.  The screenwriter is Marty (Colin Farrell) who has the title of his screenplay, "Seven Psychopaths," but nothing else besides imagined stories of the psychos.  Or maybe they aren't imagined at all, maybe Marty heard them at a party one time but he drinks way to much to remember these sorts of things.  Marty's best friend is Billy, played by Sam Rockwell who can play a bemused loon better than most.  I don't imagine it's coincidental Billy's last name is Bickle and he has a conversation with himself in a mirror.

Billy desperately wants to help Marty write his screenplay, but he also has a side business with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), kidnapping dogs and returning them for the reward money.  Hans is a gentile man with a past that may have leaked into Marty's story, or maybe not.  Either way, this is some of the best acting of Walken's career, at least in the last two decades.  He carries Hans with such sweetness, such ease, a different type of personality than most Walken characters.  Billy and Hans just so happen to kidnap a Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie, a cold-blooded killer with a soft spot for his puppy.  Woody Harrelson plays Charlie, and the pieces of the story fall into place, however sloppy it may appear.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but I don't think I could if I tried.  The trio of Billy, Hans, and Marty wind up entangled in murder and mayhem, all the while they try and finish this blasted script.  Marty wants it to be about more than killing and shootouts, Billy rolls his eyes at that notion.  Then they all manage to find themselves in the desert brainstorming with the help of a little peyote as the third act draws to a close.

Seven Psycopaths can be crass and it is most certainly violent, but it also manages to be quite sweet.  The scenes between Hans and his ailing wife, Myra (Linda Bright Clay), are especially touching.  I was surprised by the acting of Walken in these scenes.  Farrell is the pinball of the story, bouncing between the maniacal energy of Billy and the soft-spoken danger lurking behind the ascot Hans wears around his neck.  Director Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed the brilliant In Bruges, takes things up a notch with a bigger cast and wilder moments of violence.  But without his dedication to the wildly absurd, Seven Psychopaths wouldn't be near as much fun.

B+

Monday, October 15, 2012

Argo



ARGO: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman (120 min.)

Argo tells us a few things, both as a history lesson and as a testament to competent and succinct filmmaking.  It is, at times, a nerve-jangling film about the rescue of six Americans during the height of the Iran hostage crisis.  At times the story meanders towards a conclusion, but there is no denying the fact that Ben Affleck is going to be one of our better American directors when all is said and done.  With Argo, he steps out of his native Boston neighborhood and shows that he has much more than one trick in his bag.  This is an incredible true story, but maybe it is not the most incredibly film able story.

The time is late in 1979, and political strife and civil unrest leads the Iranian people to storm the walls of the American Embassy in Tehran and take hostages.  Only six of the Americans escape and take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), stuck and without a plan out of the country that does not include being dragged into the street and executed.  The sextet of hideouts include some recognizable faces and solid character actors including Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and Christopher Denham.  The CIA becomes involved, and once they get wind of the six escapees they try, fruitlessly, to devise a plan to extract the six Americans.  Everything from a pitiful bicycle plan to an English-teacher cover is considered, but nothing works.

The head of the operation, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston, finally getting a supporting role to sink his teeth into), brings in Tony Mendez (Affleck) to think of a better idea.  Mendez specializes in extracting citizens from sticky situations, and even he is stuck on a solution until, one night, he is talking to his son on the phone.  His son is watching one of the endless Planet of The Apes sequels, set on a desert landscape, and inspiration strikes Tony.  He will create a fake movie and get the Americans out of harm's way under the guise of being a film crew.

The plan is so outlandish and preposterous... wait for it... it just might work.  Mendez heads to Hollywood and employs John Chambers, the Oscar-winning makeup artist playedby John Goodman, to put together the details.  Mendez and Chambers tap the resources of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a legendary film producer.  A barren,desert sci-fi screenplay is optioned, ads are taken out in Variety, the press is invited to a reading, and so on and so forth.  A fake office is even made for the fake studio.  Now comes the hard part. 

The tension mounts in the final act of Argo to a point where I found myself mesmerized by the tension of the extraction.  Affleck manages the small delays, the car not starting and the ringing phone needing an answer, as well as anyone could in this situation.  I just found the midsection of the film too laborious.  Early on, when the film is coming together out in Hollywood, the energy and panache of Goodman and Arkin carry the film through.  And of course the final act is a collection of thrills.  But getting from point A to point B feels soggy and much too cumbersome.  Perhaps it's the lack of interest I found in the six escapees, none of whom I cared for one way or another.  I kept wondering about the hundreds of hostages in the Embassy.

The details in Argo are wonderful; I cannot imagine a better more accurate film of the time between late 1979 and early 1980.  And Affleck, as I mentioned, will win at least one directing Oscar in the future.  He may even win this year, although I don't think he should.  And something should be said of his ability to fill even the smallest roles with respected and interesting character performers.  I liked Argo, I respected Argo.  But I simply did not love it.

B-

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

DVD REVIEW: Sound of My Voice

It has been nearly a week since I watched Sound of My Voice, and it has crossed my mind in some form or another ever since.  It lingers in my memory like the haunting central figure, a woman who has convinced a small cult following she is from the year 2054.  It is a small film, some may call it science fiction while others might say it is straight drama.  That is neither here nor there; Sound of My Voice is at times a hypnotizing and intimate look at perception and reality, about expectations and the human psyche.  Once it gets into your head, the vapor trail is lasting.

The girl in question goes by Maggie, and is played with quiet intensity by the up-and-coming Brit Marling, who can also be seen playing Richard Gere's daughter in Arbitrage, another excellent film.  Marling's beauty is effortless and unassuming.  As Maggie, her job in the film is to keep you guessing whether or not she is crazy or whether she may actually be from the future.  The two stars of the film, the focus of our story, are Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius).  Peter is a journalist looking to expose the cult as fraud.  More importantly than Peter's motivations is his manner as a rigid, bookish control freak.  Lorna is a reformed wild child, so the dynamic in their relationship is intriguing.  I saw Peter as the man who saved Lorna from doom. 

Peter and Lorna do their research, they study the traditions, and Peter hides video and audio equipment on his person in order to expose Maggie.  The two are picked up in one house, blindfolded, cuffed, and driven to another house where they shower vigorously and slip into white clothing.  They are led down to a basement where they must complete a secret handshake that is as elaborate as anything you and your buddies have ever tried in jest.  Maggie arrives, sometimes hooked up to oxygen, and warns the followers of a planet at war in the future.  She manipulates the captive audience into believing she is a prophet, even having everyone in the group vomit on command in order to purge their body and "feel free."  And she takes their blood, for what we never quite know.

What is fascinating is the way these two people react to Maggie and the cult.  Expectations go one way, then veer in another direction when other factors and characters come into play.  And of course there is the central mystery of Maggie, and whether or not she is from the future.  I won't say here, but I will say the answer isn't very easy to see.  And that is refreshing.  Director Zal Batmanglij, working from a screenplay by Marling herself (who also wrote and starred in Another Earth last year) keep the ambiguity in tact and allows the intensity to remain quiet and unassuming.

Sound of My Voice stays in your mind the way staring at the sun leaves a ring behind when you close your eyes.  It stains your memory, not in a bad way.  Christopher Denham is going to be an excellent character actor - appearing later this month in Ben Affleck's Argo - and Nicole Vicius is a hard-working actor with a very unusual look and real talent.  Brit Marling will be a star before long.  Sound of My Voice isn't easy to find, it most likely won't be on Netflix or Redbox quite yet.  But if you have the means, seek it out.

A

Thursday, October 4, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Narc (2002)

Joe Carnahan has had an interesting career to this point.  His attempts at commercial success, The A-Team and Smokin' Aces, are decidedly flat and uninspired.  However, when Carnahan departs from crowd-pleasing action fare, he shines more than any modern action director.  Just this year he released The Grey, which remains in my top ten still.  One of his earlier films was Narc, a small police thriller which floated under the radar of audience reception while garnering critical acclaim.  All of the acclaim it deserves, and the lack of box office impact is a drawback only the simple-minded cinephile would acknowledge.  Some of the best films of all time never brought in the big bucks, which is fine.  Not that Narc belongs on the greatest of all time lists, but as a crime drama it is an uncompromising and intense thriller on par with some of the best in the genre.

It makes sense, then, that one of the more under-used actors in the last twenty five years is the star of Narc.  Jason Patric plays Nick Tellis, an undercover Detroit poileman hanging on to his sanity by the thinnest of threads.  The intensity and the danger of the job is ruining his life and his family.  Like so many cinematic cops, Nick wants off the streets and wants "a desk."  As the film opens, an undercover sting goes horribly awry and a pregnant woman winds up dead.  Nick takes the heat for the murder and is suspended from the force.  Of course, a murder investigation draws him back into the frey.  Another undercover cop is murdered, and his cop friend, Henry (Ray Liotta) may or may not be a suspect in the murder.  Internal Affairs is leaning on Henry and implores Nick to make a collar in the case. 

Naturally, the opposing objectives of these two cops cross paths as they dive deeper into the criminal underworld of a snowbound Detroit winter.  But the meat of the story involves Nick and Henry working their way through the murder case and crossing paths with some of the lowest forms of criminal life in the metropoliltan area.  There are a number of grimy and unsettling scenes, including a dead body rotting in a bathtub and a drug addict who begs the officers to take one last hit before he cooperates for their investigation.

Narc is also an effective mystery at its core, as Nick desperately needs a conviction to save his own soul while Henry defends his own actions in the murder of his friend, the policeman.  Shot in cold blues and greys, Narc is a dark and brooding picture that is firm in its atmosphere, a sort of heightened realism which accentuates the evil in the streets of Detroit while remaining true to the characters involved.  Patric is all smoldering intensity and angst as Nick fights an uphill battle of the world he embodies.  I don't think Jason Patric has ever been appropriately recognized as an intense actor.  He seems bland and appears dry, but in the right role - especially here in Narc and in Rush - Patric can convey burning desire and intensity with some of the best.  Liotta, who can sometimes pick curious roles beneath his talent, slides into the role as Henry, the most interesting character in the film.  Is he bad?  Is he guilty?  There is a monologue near the middle of the film where the audience is expected to both sympathize and recoil from Henry.  The lines may not be that clear, and the way Liotta handles the ambiguity of the role is nothing short of amazing. 

There are startling outbursts of violence, and the grittiness in which they are displayed hammer in the look and the feel of the film.  But there are real moments of emotion behind this story.  Henry was the murdered cop's friend, Nick just wants a way to a better life.  Narc is not necessarily an easy film to watch at times, as the hardcore nature of the events and the violence accentuate the darkness these policemen inhabit.  But it is nevertheless a brilliant police drama.  And it is a testament to what Carnahan can do when he is inside the right material.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Time for October Horror Film Previews!

Every year, once October (or, Rocktober) rolls around, Hollywood sets out to scare the masses with a whole slate of horror films.  You cannot tell me that once the calendar changes this time of year, you don't have that urge to pop in a fright flick or ten.  Hollywood knows this, so it only makes sense to overload the month with some spooky stories. 

Last week I shared the trailer for the upcoming killer thriller Sinister, what I expect to be the best of the bunch.  But don't be fooled here, studios have plenty of scares in store.  Here are the horror flicks to look forward to in this glorious month...

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4

No matter how tired you may be of this franchise, I may rebut with this: would you rather have a Saw film every Halloween?  My answer is no.  The Paranormal Activity series is one of the better recent horror franchises in recent memory, and is rife with spooks and thrills and startling moments no matter how thin the central story may be stretched at this point.  This fourth entry in the franchise may be a tipping point, as it doesn't seem as well structured as the previous entries.  But perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised...



SMILEY

Next up is Smiley, a slasher film which seems to have a very thin strip of originality.  Everything is here for formula, from high school to teenagers to suburbia to sexual innuendos.  Only the killer this time has a gruesome mask shaped like a gory, stitched up smiley face.  I don't know if that is enough to separate the film from the droves of slasher pics out there.  Maybe it's scary, maybe it's stupid, but I imagine it will be at least a little fun...



ALMOST HUMAN

I don't think this film will be released in time for Halloween, but the release of this trailer seems to be quite timely.  Almost Human looks like the most harrowing and unsettling entry in this list, a bloody disgusting and grand good time involving an alien invasion.  Imagine the film Fire in The Sky if D.B. Sweeney's character landed back on Earth as a psychopath.  Then, you have Almost Human.



THE SHINING

Finally, time for something old but arguably one of the finest horror films ever made, now being re-released in the UK in time for Halloween.  Every horror fan worth his or her salt knows the story of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - a strict departure from the Stephen King novel - so there is no need wasting time with a synopsis.  This original trailer is making the rounds on the web, and shows off the intense minimalism and power of Kubrick's vision.  It still blows my mind that, in order for Kubrick to get this trailer past censors, he told the ratings board the blood spilling from the open elevator was rusty water.  And they bought it!