Mini Reviews- ‘Cloud Atlas’, ‘Life of Pi’, ‘Argo’

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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.

Trailer Reviews- 6/27/13

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Good morning, everyone.  One of the goals I had in mind in creating this blog is to continue doing something I did for a short time a few years ago- review trailers and talk about upcoming films in general.  I’m one of those oddballs that loves the trailers almost as much as the films themselves.  There’s a specific art form to it, and both wonderful and terrible trailers exist.  Therefore, each week I’d like to go through the trailers I choose to see, and those I was forced to watch in the theater.  I’d love to hear what you think about any trailers you’ve seen as well.  Here goes!

“Frozen”:  Here we are with the latest non-Pixar Disney CGI-animated feature, which has been adapted (loosely) from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.  Disney’s track record over the past few years is good for these, with enjoyable fare like “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Bolt”.  This trailer reminded me quite a bit of the first trailer for “Ice Age”, in that it was a character struggling to acquire something necessary to it, with craziness ensuing.  I’ll accept Disney’s track record for reasonable non-Pixar output and likely take my son to see this when it comes out, even if Kristen Bell is the lead voice talent.  The moose that behaved like a dog in the trailer was a real benefit.  I admittedly laughed out loud twice.  “Frozen” is in theaters November 27, 2013.

“The Lego Movie”: When I first heard about this, I figured it must be another cash grab from Lego, whose direct-to-video submissions have become increasingly more tiresome and less inventive.  However, this trailer brings some hope back into the equation.  Not only was the trailer funny, but they’ve actually lined up huge names to provide the voices, from Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson to Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Charlie Day, and Elizabeth Banks.  There’s also some ‘branded’ Legos in the trailer, like Batman (Arnett),which should add to the fun.  The only beef I have with the trailer is that the animation is terribly choppy.  This isn’t the case with other ‘Lego’ films, so why here?  “The Lego Movie” arrives on February 7, 2014. 

“Turbo”: A snail that dreams of going faster than, well, snails, is in an ‘accident’, and absorbs what appears to be nitrous oxide.  Can you guess what happens next?  The idea is absurd, and even more so that Turbo the snail starts competing in human races.  Correct.  Human races.  Ok, well, at least the voice cast is fun, and I laughed a few times during the trailer, especially when the ‘White Shadow’ appeared.  Ryan Reynolds voices Turbo, and other voice talents include Paul Giamatti, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Snoop Dogg, Michael Pena, Ken Jeong, and Samuel L. Jackson.  “Turbo” will be released July 17.

“Adore”: Does anyone remember the SNL digital short from a few years ago with Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg singing about their respective mothers?  As funny as that was, I never thought of that on a ‘meta’ level and wondered if that idea should become dramatized some day.  If you thought the idea should be turned into a full-length movie starring Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, and two Abercrombie & Fitch models as their sons, then this one’s for you.  I’m certain there are deeper ideas here about trust, friendship, parenting, love, sex, etcetera, but on the surface (which is what a trailer is), all I can think of is a dramatic, Australian rendition of  ‘Mother Lover’.  This movie has been released in Australia already, but there is no release date listed for it in the U.S.

“Price Avalanche”: Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star in what appears to be your standard indie movie about quirky loners trying to find peace in their self-inflicted isolations.  This isn’t a new storyline, but I’m intrigued to see what else Rudd can do.  He’s great in comedies, even terrible ones, because of his inherent ‘watchability’.  This is a Magnolia films release, and usually those films wind up straight on the video shelf or on IFC.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad by any means, but they don’t gain a lot of traction.  I’d see this for Rudd alone, but the back and forth of two road workers figuring out life doesn’t quite get my attention.  This releases August 9th, 2013 (presumably a limited release).

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”:  The first teaser trailer for the second ‘Hobbit’ film has arrived, and to be honest, I’m underwhelmed.  I enjoy the theatrical Middle-Earth world quite a bit, but at this point, I need something new, otherwise it’s just a rehash of things previously seen.  We do get our first look at Tauriel, an elf played by Evangeline Lilly, and the return of Legolas.  We also get our first look at the character in the title– a dragon, that if I’m honest with myself, looked far too much like the lady dragon from “Shrek”.  Perhaps the look will be more impressive on a bigger screen than my computer.  This one hits theaters December 13, 2013.

“Despicable Me 2”:  Sometimes (often these days), the excerpts from a film that make it into the trailer are the funniest, best scenes in the film, and nothing is left to the imagination.  I’m worried about that for “Despicable Me 2”, because this trailer is hilarious from start to finish.  The minions are funny, Gru is funny, the Eminem song fits perfectly, and even a couple of great stereotypical ‘parenting’ moments are thrown in.  I’m not sure what the plot is, exactly, but what I saw was funny, and I think that’s the point.  The first film was good, but not great, more hyper than comedic.  The hyperactivity is still present, and expected, but hopefully we all laugh more than the first. The entire setup is ripe for comedic greatness, both for adults and youngsters. “Despicable Me 2” opens July 3rd.

“Free Birds”:  This is a very high concept for an animated children’s film- altering the fate of turkeys forever by changing the first Thanksgiving meal centerpiece.  Clearly, it wouldn’t be humans doing the time traveling in a kid’s movie, but turkeys instead.  So, wayward turkeys (who, according to the narrator aren’t very smart) need to work together to figure it all out.  The trailer works, and my child belly laughed throughout, but I’m inclined to give pause once I see who the director is.  Jimmy Hayward is responsible for both “Jonah Hex” (terrible), and “Horton Hears a Who” (underwhelming), and therefore I can’t get too excited.  We’ll see this on November 1st of this year. 

Next week I’ll review another batch of trailers, and discuss a report I read about how and why trailers have changed over time.  Thanks everyone!

Film Review- ‘Monsters University’ (***)

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The start of a beautiful friendship?
The start of a beautiful friendship?

‘Monsters University’  *** (out of 5)

Starring (the voice talents of): Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Charlie Day, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Aubrey Plaza, and Nathan Fillion

Written by: Robert Bair, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon

Directed by: Dan Scanlon

I cannot say with a clear conscience that Pixar is lazy, as they are clearly productive with their output of short and feature-length films.  I can only point out that they lack the ability to stay as creative as they are prolific. Their films are generally so good and beautiful-looking that the standard they set for themselves each time is quite high.   “Monsters University” is another sequel, or in this case, prequel, to an existing hit, as opposed to an original story.  Including “Toy Story 2” & “3”, “Cars 2”, as well as the upcoming “Planes” (a “Cars” spinoff) and the announced “Finding Dory” (reaching theaters in 2016), this is the sixth project considered a continuation of their previous material.  I never felt the ‘Monsters, Inc’ story needed to continue, or that I needed the back story of the Wazowski/Sullivan friendship, but Disney/Pixar gave it to us anyways.  It’s a wholly unnecessary movie, but like all Pixar films, it’s better than 90% of the ‘family’ material given to us today.

It won’t take long to summarize what happens here, but I digress:  Mike Wazowski (Crystal) dreams from a young age of becoming the best ‘scarer’ ever, and follows the path of his scaring ‘hero’ by attending Monsters University over other famed establishments such as Fear Tech.  The first day of class, the ultimate monster jock, James P. Sullivan,  (Goodman), doesn’t even bring a pencil to class, and why would he?  He’s a Sullivan, and his father was a legendary ‘scarer’.  I think Pixar misses out on a huge opportunity here to introduce, at least as both characters are moving in, the parents.  I, for one, would revel at the opportunity to see Mama Wazowski or the Sullivan family.  What about brothers or sisters?  In a movie that gives us the opportunity to see where these characters come from, and what their motivations are, it’s odd to not see family, or hear any more about them other than a passing statement.

The main event takes place as a result of a snafu by our main characters.  Mike works hard, reads everything there is to read, and can’t quite pull off ‘scary’ like Sully, who can scare without much of an effort.  This isn’t a new idea; there’s always the bookworm versus jock storyline, so how do they get us to stay interested?  The aforementioned ‘snafu’ causes both Mike and Sully to get booted from the scare program at the university (a pretty harsh punishment for first time offenders), a punishment handed down by the scary looking and inconsistent character Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren).  Now we have our MacGuffin- how do the characters win back the favor of the dean?  If you guessed there would be some competition involved, instead of going through a customary appeals process, as would be the norm, you got it!  But wait, there’s more!  Of course, our ‘at odds’ heroes have to work together to win the ‘Scare Games’.  Cue an extended Pixar version of a montage, and voila!  A resolution!  (Every movie needs a montage….MONTAAAAAAAGE!!!)

If you’re detecting cynicism towards a perfectly innocent movie, you’re correct.  There’s nothing wrong with “Monsters University” as an innocent, better-than-most-every-kid-movie-around movie, but as an innovative, wholly emotional, memorable film, it fails.  Sure, Charlie Day’s ‘Art’ character is quirky and fun, but doesn’t get enough screen time, and Joel Murray’s ‘Don Carlson’ is great, but since “Fargo”, we’ve been inundated with the Minnesota Swede accent as a cute trait far too many times.  Maybe what’s missing here is a bit more heart.  So, we’re missing a ‘Boo’ type of character from the first movie, or at least more than simply an origin story of sorts to make this memorable.  Or necessary.

Film Review- ‘Man of Steel’ (**1/2)

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Just because the character can fly...
Just because the character can fly…doesn’t mean the movie follows.

‘Man of Steel’   **1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, and Laurence Fishburne

Written by: David S. Goyer, based on a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Zack Snyder

**CAUTION: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD**

Considering the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, combined with the lofty status of ‘Superman’ in the comic world, then multiplied by the high bar set by the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, “Man of Steel” arrives at theaters with enormous expectations.  This particular franchise reboot should, all things considered, be the new high water mark for all comic films.  Right?  After watching the magnificent trailers time and time again, I couldn’t help but think “It looks like they may have nailed it this time”.  The end result, however, is a decidedly mixed bag of ‘high’ highs and ‘low’ lows; that being said, I should consider it a failure based on all the variables I mentioned before. After all, what else would it possibily take for someone to make an excellent modern film involving the superhero of superheroes?  I can’t say this is a bad movie, but I also can’t claim that it’s a great one, which ultimately makes this a disappointment.

It seems superfluous to go over the entire origin story of Superman with an audience that’s quite familiar with it, but I will say that there are a few changes to what we’re used to that deserve mentioning.  This film version doesn’t give us a straight timeline from the birth of Kal-El to when he takes off as ‘Superman’.  The story weaves in and out via flashbacks, which I appreciated as someone very familiar with the origin.  Like I said, though, the origin isn’t exactly the same.  We now have a Krypton not threatened by a sun, but by internal ‘core’ strife.  Jor-El (Crowe) still pleads with a Krypton high council, that somehow, despite being in a civilization advanced enough to proliferate itself across the universe, doesn’t want to listen to one of its’ top minds.  There’s also an interesting twist on the reasons for baby Kal-El’s very existence that I found interesting.  I sensed the reasons for Krypton’s demise certainly mirror issues that we have as a civilization now.

Director Zack Snyder’s (of the satisfying “Watchmen” and underwhelming “300”) production gives us a Krypton that is truly ‘alien’ in scope.  So much so, in fact, that I wonder where the inspiration comes from- while watching the movie, I was struck by how Giger-esque Krypton and it’s derelict ships looked.  The alien technology, like the assisting ‘computers’ on the planet are quite the creation as well.  This alien world is in stark contrast to the Smallville, Kansas setting we see young Clark Kent grow up in, where Jonathan Kent (Costner) looks predictably weary and offers life advice that only a guy who has been in many baseball movies can do. 

The casting is key for all superhero movies, since we all want to see the comic icons we’ve followed for years embodied by an actor that can bring forth the ‘essence’ of the character, whether or not they may actually ‘look’ like the drawn form.  ‘Man of Steel’ is almost more important, because, well, we’re talking about SUPERMAN, the most iconic comic character of all time, his two dads, his two moms, the most well-known love interest in comics, Lois Lane, and a villain that did a fine job the last time out.  I’m happy to say that most everyone does quite well in their roles, especially Cavill & Adams.  Cavill is clearly the strongest physical version of Kal-El we’ve seen, and he’s also the best we’ve seen- he plays Superman in a way I’ve always wanted to see him- convincing physically, kind yet firm in his manner, and also just cautious enough with us humans that we still see him as an alien.  Playing the role of ‘savior’ is not an easy task; Cavill navigates the gap between all-powerful being and emotional, soft, caring individual with ease.  I’m excited to see what he can do going forwar, and at the very least, to me there is no doubt that we have our Superman, and he’s good at it.  The only thing missing for me is the feeling I got from previous incarnations of Superman, where he seems quite happy and proud to defend the planet.  There aren’t many moments of joy in this film, to be sure.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t work for me at first when she was cast, but she’s actually perfect.  She plays the role with equal parts vulerability and no-nonsense.  Crowe as Jor-El is a commanding presence on-screen, not simply a talking head waxing poetic like Marlon Brando in the same role.  Michael Shannon plays Zod in a way I didn’t expect- I knew the character as a delusional alien with a God complex.  Shannon’s Zod is (mostly) a more focused character- he talks methodically (with an almost Southern drill seargent voice as opposed to the pompous Terence Stamp in the original), and like many good villains, really believes what he is doing is for the greater good.  I was pleased when he was cast, and remembered his brilliant turn in “Bug” as a severely disturbed man, but with a purpose. Perfect for Zod. **SPOILER ALERT** My only beef with his character is how he loses control at the end, doing an about-face and destroying just to destroy.  I didn’t see this Zod as someone who wouldn’t do something without a purpos.  Even without his crew, I figured he’d still regroup and try it his way again.  Instead, he went bonkers.  The other negative would be Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van, Kal-El’s birth mother.  The way she delivered her lines reminded me of Pernilla August as Anakin’s mom in Star Wars, Episode I, and no one should deliver a performance like that.  Ever.

With all this film has going for it, how can it fall short?  Well, I don’t see how Christopher Nolan, the king of grounding things in reality, can be involved in a film where indestructable aliens arrive, mass destruction of property and loss of life (assumed) occurs, and none of the characters stop to ask WHY or HOW.  Even Snyder has managed to make the fantastic seem like it could really happen (“Watchmen”) and sadly we don’t have characters that stop and ask that in 243 minutes.  Maybe that’s going to be a part of the sequel or inevitable ‘Justice League’ movie.  Maybe next time they’ll actually explore how and why Superman will help humans ‘do wonders’, or how Clark can pose as a worker on what should be a top secret ice excavation.  Maybe next time we will see a reaction from the world that I thought might be in a Snyder/Nolan movie instead of basically ignoring the subject.  That’s just the thing; after years and years of trying to deliver a movie that was worthy of the top hero, there was plenty of opportunity to get it right once and for all.  Anything less than that should be considered a failure.  There’s enough strength in the performances that I can’t quite call it a failure, but as bad as I want to love this movie, it’s obvious that it never quite delivers.

Welcome!

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Dear Reader,

Welcome to The Film Fan Perspective! This blog is dedicated to the study, review, and discussion of films/motion pictures/movies (however you prefer to say it), trailers, and film-related news. I am not affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, or other form of media. I’m simply a big fan of the movies, and I like to talk and write about them. I have strong opinions that certainly border on arrogance, but I definitely invite criticism of my ‘work’ on a civil level. There won’t be any Pulitzer-winning material on this blog, so keep that in mind. As for training, I can only say that I had a theater class in college, reviewing a number of plays, and learning about the structure of criticism through that process, and admittedly leeching off great film writers of our time. In essence, I know I’m not great at it, but I certainly think I have a thoughtful point of view.

Each week, I’ll review a different movie, whether it be new in theaters or new to me. From time to time, I’ll review films from the past, and hopefully I’ll compile enough reviews to amass a searchable ‘database’ in the future. For now, however, baby steps. To quote David 8 (and likely others) in ‘Prometheus’, big things have small beginnings.
Thank you in advance for reading. Movies are a passion of mine, and I’ve wanted to explore the hobby of review and criticism for a long time. I’d love it if you joined me in the discussion.

Sincerely,

Josh Adams
The Film Fan Perspective