Month: April 2015
Cloud Atlas ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, David Gyasi, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, and Hugh Grant
Written by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer (screenplay), based on the novel by David Mitchell
Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
*Note- this review contains excerpts from a previous, shorter review of the film I completed in 2013.
“Our lives and our choices, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction. Yesterday my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Fear, belief, love, phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue long after we perish. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible?” – Cloud Atlas, author David Mitchell
Is it rational to think that right now, writing this review, I have been influenced by a decision made three hundred years ago? Is it rational to think that my praise of this film may, somehow, effect an individual hundreds of years from now? Of course not, but Cloud Atlas is not about rational, logical thought, nor is it a standard film. If I have interpreted the film accurately, it is about possibility, dreams, risk, chance, fate, our connection to each other, and the inherent responsibility of our choices. It is about how our actions, small as they may be, can have a ripple effect on people, places, and things. Rarely does a film come along that actually makes the connection between ethereal, spiritual thought and precision film making, yet Cloud Atlas, with its’ sublime color pallet, rousing score, and honest delivery, now exists as the supreme triumph of both in my eyes.
I’ll try my best to elaborate. When a work of art speaks to you on a deep, personal and emotional level, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue its’ merit. Cloud Atlas is the prime example of that conundrum for me. It may just be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I don’t believe for a moment that I can sway a regular moviegoer to my way of thinking. What I can say is that three directors collaborated to create a deeply soulful, spiritual film, spanning all genres, inspiring all emotions, and touching on all of the things I love about seeing a movie. It is perhaps the most unusual film of our time- it seemingly came from nowhere, had an extended trailer, opened wide in both 2-D and 3-D, defied convention, bombed at the domestic box office, and practically begged viewers to see it as multiple copies collected shelf dust. I simply ask that you keep in mind my absolute bias for the film as you read, and know that I cannot convince you that this is the best film of all time. I’m simply quite comfortable in my assertion that it is.
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, this beautiful and occasionally brutal film exceeded my expectations, in both tone and execution. The broad story spans roughly 600 years, from the days of seafaring clippers to a possible post-apocalyptic future. From a sick lawyer that tries to overcome his inherent racism to a grandfather finally able to find ease with his tumultuous life, we’re treated to a multitude of relationships, past, present, and future. A journalist strikes up a relationship with a scientist, and in the process uncovers a massive threat. An understudy to a great musician puts music to his words, creating the timeless title sound. A genetically engineered waitress breaks code and inspires the world as a result of the kindness of a rebellious stranger. A post-apocalyptic forager must overcome his hallucinations and simple upbringing to get humanity to connect again. How the directors were able to weave this plethora of storylines and characters together and still have it make narrative sense, I’ll never know. What I do know is that it works, just like a random collection of notes strings together to form a symphony. What this symphony wants to tell us is that the evil of then is the evil of now, and in the future. The love of then, now, and in the future is the same. It is simply up to us to find our common threads, learn from them, and decide which true fate we want for ourselves and humanity.
A film like Cloud Atlas can be misunderstood as perhaps too philosophical, or asking too much of its’ audience, which leads to the unfortunate label of ‘pretentious’. The problem with applying that specific label on this film is that an actual pretentious film may try to affect what isn’t there. The directors of Cloud Atlas, whilst exhibiting most of the qualities you might find in pretentious filmmakers, aren’t. I mean no disrespect of course, but I’m of the belief that they simply haven’t shown themselves to be nuanced enough with their on-screen work to be aware that what they’re doing could be pretentious. They’re all bombastic heart and soul, a mindset that doesn’t lend itself to pretentious results. It may lead to failed results (see Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix Revolutions, Speed Racer, The International), but even with those films, I appreciated their completely dedicated and earnest results. Everything they have is on-screen, and they seem to love it, even if we might not. If you can fault them for anything, it would be a lack of focus. I’ll take that over sheer pretentiousness any day.
I often worry, like the Wachowskis might, that I am pretentious. I often wonder that I may want to be so that my opinion somehow matters. The reality, instead, is that I simply have something in common with the directors of Cloud Atlas. We’re cinematic soul mates. I am content to be thought foolish, willing to wear my heart on my sleeve, outside opinions be damned (even if it may secretly hurt a bit). I’m always prepared to enjoy an incomplete, or perhaps a metaphysical idea of a film, provided that I’m able to draw conclusions and enjoy the experience. Cloud Atlas has gaps, and asks us to bear with it as we see an awful-toothed Tom Hanks in one era, then as a neo-language spouting future woodsman. It asks us to step outside of our comfort zone and accept that a piece of music may link people hundreds of years apart. It asks us to accept a possible near future in which the neon hues and wardrobe choices of a progressive Asian culture dominate the landscape. This kind of free-range boldness is incredibly endearing and rare, and I rode that wave through the film’s humbling conclusion.
I would ask the skeptical to allow for the possibility that what happens in this film could be a reality. If you can separate the rigidity of our regular lives and the realities that we’re ingrained with in this world, Cloud Atlas can stir that sense of hope and purpose within you. I feel it gives a voice and a narrative for what I believe is missing in many of our lives- a connection to the universe, and some meaning to what we do. In other words, it does for me what organized religion maybe should do. Interestingly enough, I’ve found myself not standing alone with my love for the film, and my thoughts for it. Those that like this film appear to share a kindred spirit, and an optimistic outlook on what we as a species could do. I say this being fully aware that I’m placing these opinions and feelings on the film, and it is altogether plausible that the original author and the directors had no intention of speaking to us as I’ve interpreted. I’m not buying that for a moment, however.
Cloud Atlas is too soulful, too all-encompassing an emotional tale to simply be meant as a popcorn film. Consider the fictional “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, as it has been wonderfully imagined in the film by composers Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself. Imagine it as a tangible, audible thing that we can hear, a real thread of sound that permeates time and space. Think of what a thing of beauty it would be, how that shared connection can link all of us together, our decisions, or triumphs and failures, our ups and downs, and how it would mirror the greatest of symphonies, the most resonant of sounds. It is a timeless piece, something I would never tire of hearing, as if the memories of a thousand souls were wrapped up in the single stroke of a piano key or the bow of a violin. I love this film, for everything it says to me, and for what I hope it will say to others once they see it. Perhaps my words will encourage you to be of a certain mind when you watch it, perhaps not. If nothing else, my hope is that viewers allow the film to wash over them, and not give in to the pessimism and preconceived notions of what a ‘Wachowski’ film might be. You may be pleasantly surprised.
It Follows ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto, and Jake Weary
Written and directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Considering the sheer volume of filmed material that has been produced over time, it seems rather unlikely that 100% of a new film will ever be wholly ‘original’ again. Audiences are used to seeing and knowing everything- in fact, the box office tells us that they prefer their films to be familiar and unoriginal. That being said, credit is due David Robert Mitchell for It Follows. Sure, it is a horror film, and on the surface, it appears to be rather typical. Young people, sex, demons, and bad decisions flow freely here, like the many that have come before. Call it an homage, ripoff, remake, or whatever works for you, but I’d rather call it like it is- a good, tense horror film. It owes everything to prior films, yet deserves praise for how well it is made, and how earnest it is whilst presenting a tried and true premise.
Allow me to be cynical for a moment, and tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a young, white female named Jay (Monroe) from suburbia starts to fall for a guy (Weary) who may or may not be dangerous. Well, he wears an earring, and he’s brooding, so I suppose he’s dangerous. They have yet to consummate their romance, or so the film tells us, but one fateful night, they do. It doesn’t turn out well for her. Hugh (if that’s really his name) wants to show something to her, so in the middle of an awful, rundown lot of a rundown building in Detroit, he ties her to a wheelchair as something walks towards them. He can see it, but can she? If she can, it is proof that she’s now the prime target of a being/monster/demon. It will walk in her direction, no matter how far, until she is dead- unless she passes it on my having intercourse with someone else. Then the being/monster/demon will chase that person, and so on. The film’s established rules for this being/monster/demon’s powers are hardly concrete, but we’ll get to that later.
So the plot is about as familiar as it gets for a horror film- a character has premarital sex, and as a result, they are doomed to die. It Follows succeeds not because of this inevitable, typical horror setup, but rather because of the way it careens towards the inevitable, typical end. Jay is not simply a helpless victim, Hugh is not a typical ne’er-do-well, and their friends are not only lining up to be hot lunches. These are reasonably bright young people who are trying to outrun or outsmart an indestructible (it seems) villain. Mitchell is not breaking any new ground with It Follows, but he does know how to consistently manufacture tension.
He also gives us some interesting parallels to the trauma these characters experience- whether he meant to or not. Think about the horrific personification of sex in general. How many of us have had the guilt-ridden “black cloud of sex” follow us around (nearly like an inescapable demon)? Be it the way we were taught about it, the way our various religions forbid us from thinking about it, or perhaps an awkward or bad first experience- sex, as fantastic as it may be, is quite possibly the scariest monster of them all. This is a film that carries this enormous burden of sex, and we feel the weight of it.
Also consider Mitchell’s use of the city of Detroit, as the group of friends often passes south of “8 Mile Road”, encountering all of the urban decay. Consider the clear metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, specifically AIDS, and how one moment of seeming innocence and bliss can literally haunt you to death. Playing off our existing fears and building tension is what the film does best. The being/monster/demon, whilst occasionally grotesque, is not what turns our stomach- rather, the probing of our mind and the fear it can create seems to be the target.
I did have reservations with the script’s penchant for changing the being/monster/demon’s powers at will. The rules can be difficult to follow; it can change its’ visage to resemble anyone, including those known to the victim, which is convenient to throw off the audience. We don’t know how it can do this, but only the true anal retentive viewer (like myself) cares why. Also, it can apparently only walk, not run, directly toward its’ target, but in one particular scene, it pounces on a victim as if injected with puma blood. In another scene, it can pick up inanimate objects and throw them. If it touches you, you’ll die, but apparently it’s fine if it only grabs your hair. I care about these only because I want to know why supernatural beings choose to do some things but not others. Just like other horror films before it, why slam doors and stand in corners if you can kill your target? I suppose that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, and ultimately it doesn’t keep the viewer from enjoying the film.
As I finish this review, I’m now clear that It Follows is one big tense metaphor wrapped in an homage for the modern audience. If the film hadn’t been treated with such delicate care, it may have been easy to dismiss. We’d simply throw it on the scrap heap with the latest exorcism film or Hellraiser entry. Instead, Mitchell and the cast have created something that may not be original, but most certainly is memorable. Some critics have gotten a bit out of hand with their praise for the film and its’ unconventional yet familiar score by Rich Vreeland (also known as ‘Disasterpeace’ apparently), calling both “game-changing” or “groundbreaking”. The static-laden bass notes in the score certainly work, but are the closest things to original I heard from it, and the MIDI-inspired crescendos don’t call anything other that Carpenter’s Halloween score to mind. Hyperbole aside, I can easily recommend the film to anyone interested in more than a simple slash and burn horror experience. It has nothing new to offer, but the method of delivery is certainly different, fun, and worthy of our time.
Cinderella **** (out of 5)
Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Ben Chaplin, Haley Atwell, and Helena Bonham Carter
Written by: Chris Weitz (screenplay), based on the children’s tale Cinderella by various authors
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
We have all seen this film, in one way or another, at least a hundred times over. How I could possibly get excited for, and then decide to pay for, a retread is beyond logical comprehension. However, trailers for director Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Cinderella hinted at a serious side. For that matter, Branagh’s involvement alone was enough to take it seriously, and the film upholds my faith. The film is honest and quite earnest, sweet without being saccharine, and heartfelt without being corny. That, in and of itself, is a compliment to all involved. For all of the wallet fleecing they engage in, Disney seems to be aiming higher with their live-action re-imaginings. While they may not be necessary, it is at least refreshing to think that they want to make quality films whilst fleecing your wallet. Cinderella never felt like a fleecing; in actuality, it is one of, if not the, best film of the year thus far.
Lily James (Downton Abbey) stars as the titular character. She may not actually be a natural blonde, but make no mistake- she’s very much a natural Cinderella. We’re introduced to her as a little Ella, as her parents (Ben Chaplin & Hayley Atwell) raise her in a gorgeous country cottage. Her parents instill in her a great deal of kindness, and she exudes the type of grace and beauty one would expect from such tutelage. As fairy tales are wont to do, this all begins to go awry. She loses her mother (Atwell) to death as a child, leaving her father lonely for many years. When Ella is all grown up, her father makes the difficult choice to move on and marry, as he discovers a widow (Cate Blanchett) and her two daughters (Sophie McShera & Holliday Grainger).
The new family comes together in the cottage, and there the problems begin. Ella’s stepmother is indeed cruel to her, but her motivations are different from we’re accustomed to. Sure, her daughters are spoiled brats that treat Ella like a servant and not a sister, but they have motivations as well. This is where the film takes off. By grounding the wicked stepmother and giving the “villain” true reasons for her actions, we don’t sympathize with her, but we understand. The stepmother and Ella are not inherently opposite people, but they have had inherently opposite experiences. The stepmother sees a great deal of herself in Ella, and naturally, is jealous of her youth, optimism, and beauty. Ella knows nothing but to “be kind and be courageous”. This sort of interplay may be what drew classically trained professionals in Branagh and Cate Blanchett to the project. The Shakespearean angle of this story, with dreams unrealized and the dynamic of the fractured family must have been just complex enough to interest them. It may help that Blanchett is nothing short of amazing in almost every film she’s in.
I want to be completely fair to what Branagh and crew have accomplished, for Cinderella is so accomplished that it belongs in the top tier of period dramas and romances like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre before it. Everything from the costumes, set design, and the brilliant score from Branagh regular Patrick Doyle are top-notch, and made this thirty-something male viewer feel comfortable and moved in a world normally reserved for the fairer gender. To that point, other reviews for this film have given the proverbial ‘finger wag’ to Disney for seemingly moving backwards in the urgent race for narrative gender equality. With Frozen, and apparently everything following, all women must be independent and never wont for a prince or male, if I’m to believe some of the goofy reviews for Cinderella. The prince in this film (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”) not only is completely enchanted with Ella, but pursues her in such a way that he’s but a respectful buffoon in her presence. I’m not sure how that translates to Ella being subservient or desperate.
Lily James has created a Cinderella performance that allows for the fantastical and still grounds her confidence in a realistic fashion. There’s nothing wrong with the romance in this film, and shame on other critics for trying to dig something up that simply isn’t there. I applaud all involved for their efforts with Cinderella, and they should be quite proud. What seemed at first like a simple Disney cash grab is actually far more realized and mature than I, or anyone likely imagined it would be. This new version should be the new ‘standard’, if there needs to be one, for all ‘Cinderella stories’ that came before and will likely follow. Maybe I am up for more live action ‘re-imaginings’ from Disney.