Happy Saturday, everyone! When I don’t get the chance to see something that’s playing in theaters, I’ll do a review of something I saw at home. In this case, I’ve seen three movies recently that have stuck in my head, the brilliant “Cloud Atlas”, the visually stunning “Life of Pi”, and the tense, perfectly executed “Argo”. These three have been available to rent for a while, so I’m not breaking any ground here, but I’ve finally been able to see them. (Note- video release reviews will be mini-reviews- the big theater releases will get more ‘print’ from me.)
“Cloud Atlas”– Everything is connected. The magnificent trailer (one of the best ever created) gave us that tagline, and after seeing this in its’ entirety, I can’t help but keep the thought in the back of my head. From what I understand, this movie was adapted from a very engrossing novel by David Mitchell. I confess, that like usual, I did not read the book before I saw the movie. Most of the time that’s completely fine- if the movie is good, the original source material just enriches my experience if I get to it. I have a feeling, considering the variety of storylines involved with this movie, that something along the way was left out of the film that fans of the novel are upset about. That being the case, though, I can’t imagine additional material squeezed into an already full film. Not only is it full, one really needs to pay attention to the various parallels throughout the hundreds of years that span the life of the film.
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant (who, I believe, has been under-utilized as a villain) , Susan Sarandon, Doona Bae, among others, all play various roles spanning time, and so it’s quite necessary to pay attention to what’s going on. I can assure you, the effort is wholly worth it. “Cloud Atlas” could have been an expensive disaster, making no sense and cementing (in my head) that the films of the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix” trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (of “Run Lola Run” and “The International”) are no longer appointment viewings. Instead, it’s a beautiful film, in both tone and execution. In the three weeks since I’ve seen it, I’ve thought more about this movie than any other. The filmmakers treat the subjects of love, culture, humanity, and class-ism with such respect that I can’t help but admire their efforts. Although it wasn’t represented at the Oscars this past year, I truly feel this was the best film I’ve seen in the past year; it’s bold, unconventional, and successful in weaving a multitude of storylines around a central theme that we are all connected.
*Side note- I saw “Cloud Atlas” at home, in 2D. Theaters were offering 3D showings of this film, but I didn’t make it there, and the 3D version isn’t available to rent or purchase. Although most 3D versions of movies don’t bother to take the time and make an acceptable conversion, I feel strongly that this one would have been worth the upcharge. Here’s hoping one day that Warner Brothers makes the 3D blu-ray available.
“Life of Pi”– Speaking of the Oscars, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel won four of them, including the rare ‘Best Director’ win for a picture that didn’t win Best Picture. Having seen only four of the nominees, I can say with certainty that “Life of Pi” is an accomplishment, especially in the way of visual splendors. (Cinematographer Claudio Miranda took home Oscar for his achievement, which I cannot disagree with) For those not already familiar with the story, it follows a young man named ‘Pi’ Patel (short for Piscine Molitor Patel), a curious, kind child that appreciates and explores all kinds of religions in his youth. He sees things differently than others, and it turns out to be a trait that serves him well. At about the age of 13, Pi finds himself shipwrecked (an incredible sequence) with a few animals in his life boat, and without giving anything else away, his ability to cope with the one animal that takes over eventually shapes his life.
I’d offer that this movie isn’t quite as challenging as it should be; there are questions about religion, or better yet, spirituality, that the film attempts to tackle, but maybe that’s the point- not challenging us, but allowing the viewers to think for themselves. The ending of the movie, where the interviewer (Rafe Spall) questions the outcome of adult Pi’s (Irrfan Khan) story, brings the question to the forefront, but never arrives at a conclusion. One could say that spirituality, or religion, is similar, in that we choose to believe or not believe in a higher power in times of great despair or happiness, and most of us (if not all of us) have never been privy to hardcore evidence that a higher power actually exists. That entire conversation exists in a different setting than here, but what I love about this movie is that it never preaches to us. I may be interpreting it differently, but the message that being open-minded about our spiritual faith can lead to our being able to endure trials is a positive message. In an age where it’s harder and harder to have conversations about spirituality instead of taking a side, I appreciated the film’s ability to pose the question to us and stand back. That’s a brave stance to take in the spirituality discussion, and it makes the movie better for it.
*Side note- I waited to see this until I could rent it in 3D- I’m very pleased I did. A small handful of movies are able to provide the depth of image that this did in 3D. It’s immersive and beautiful, and I highly recommend seeing it that way, if at all possible, at least once.
“Argo”– I’m no longer surprised that Ben Affleck is an incredible director. The man is eventually going to win an(other) Oscar for doing just that. His latest, “Argo”, did win Best Picture this past year, and Affleck the director was nominated for his handiwork. Whether or not it was the best film is debatable (it wasn’t), but what isn’t questionable is the quality and economy of this movie. There are no wasted scenes, no unnecessary exposition, no forced emotion, nothing. It’s straight, to the point, efficient, and brilliantly edited. It’s effective without forcing the emotion and tension from the viewer. Affleck’s movies have gotten better each time. First, “Gone Baby Gone” was outstanding. Then, “The Town” topped that. I have no problem stating that I’ll see anything Affleck makes from here on, as well as anything producing partners Grant Heslov and George Clooney (also fellow actors) put out. They all seem to have a very keen eye for projects that may not be groundbreaking in terms of creativity, but certainly entertain and inform.
“Argo” centers around the mission to extract six Americans from Iran during the Hostage Crisis in the early 1980’s. I was aware of the situation from history books and TV programs, but was not aware of this particular mission. There’s a reason for that- it was classified until the Clinton administration. According to the film, the idea was that a CIA agent would extract the six Americans (hiding out at the Canadian Embassy after the U.S. Embassy was run over by angry Iranians) by masquerading as Canadian filmmakers, shooting a movie called ‘Argo’. Real steps were taken to make it seem like ‘Argo’ actually existed. Hollywood producers and marketing were involved, ads run in magazines, storyboards drawn, all to give the impression that ‘Argo’ existed, and thus the cover story to give the Iranian officials. This was the option over a military extraction, and avoiding a full-scale war. Everything had to go as planned, and so we have this tension throughout the second half of the film, knowing that any slip-up would cause the loss of life, as well as the possibility of igniting a war.
It helped that I didn’t know the true story, or the outcome, before seeing this. Also worth noting is the fact that this happened, all without the loss of life (as far as the movie tells us). In contrast with “Zero Dark Thirty” (which I admittedly have not seen), this true story involved a high-risk mission that didn’t involve assassinating anyone. By now, we’re so used to our heroes getting out of sticky situations using violence, it was almost refreshing to see something that involved purely dumb luck, trickery, and smarts to get the job done. With the period-specific garb and hairdos, as well as the retro-era fonts and opening titles, Affleck and crew pulled off a hugely entertaining and tense film, that, dare I say, made me yearn for the ’80s again. I don’t know whether to smile or cry with that statement.