Film Review- ‘Hot Pursuit’ (**)

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See, Reese Witherspoon's character is covered in cocaine, and since she doesn't do that, it's funny?  Get it?
See, right here Reese Witherspoon’s character is covered in cocaine, and since she doesn’t do that, it’s funny? Get it?

 

Hot Pursuit  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, Richard T. Jones, John Carroll Lynch, Vincent Laresca, Joaquin Cosio, Jim Gaffigan, and Mike Birbiglia

Written by: David Feeney and John Quaintance

Directed by: Anne Fletcher

 

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: a straight, overzealous law enforcement officer comes into a dangerous situation and must escort a quirky witness from point A to point B.  If it sounds familiar, that’s because the film has been done before.  Ad nauseam.  But oh, the hijinks!  Be still my beating heart!  Alas, I kid you- despite an honest effort (as usual) from Reese Witherspoon, combined with a perfunctory attempt to foist herself upon the comedic landscape by Sofia Vergara, Hot Pursuit is a tired, familiar viewing exercise.  While I’m sure the principles involved had a hoot during filming, they forgot to provide much of anything to hold our attention, and assumed that tired stereotypes and also-ran clichés were fine stand-ins for actual fun.

Witherspoon is “Cooper”, the daughter of a well-known and respected police officer in the sovereign state of Texas.  She grew up riding in a squad car, learning police codes through the scanner, and becoming a thoroughly trained officer herself.  An unfortunate incident involving a taser has left her not quite disgraced, but also not, well, ‘graced’ either.  In staying true to ‘cop movie’ form, Cooper is ridiculed by her supposed brethren as she is relegated to the evidence room.  In a not-so-surprising twist of fate (but not really, since there isn’t a movie otherwise), her boss assigns her to a high-profile witness relocation mission.  She is to accompany a FBI agent (Jones) to the home of Felipe Riva (Laresca), an important cog in the Vicente Cortez (Cosio) drug cartel, who is choosing to turn informant.  Cooper’s part in this is to escort Felipe’s wife Daniella (Vergara), who wants to shove everything into her suitcase.  She’s high-maintenance, it appears, and insists on having things her way.  This, of course makes it difficult for Cooper to do her job.  Do I hear sitcom?

We don’t have a movie if it’s a group of four people, though.  Cooper and Daniella escape a sticky situation when two separate groups of assailants attack the household.  Now it’s a road/buddy movie!  These two sure do get into a whole bunch of shenanigans on their way to Dallas.  First, they discover that there are (gasp) crooked cops!  Then they lose their transportation.  Then, of course, the straight-laced one gets all wacky after ingesting a banned substance.  Then, there’s some physical comedy involving Jim Gaffigan’s awful stereotype of a rural Texan.  But wait- there’s more!  There’s a super hunky convict that takes a shine to Cooper, and we just know he’s going to crack that shell of awkwardness.  There’s also more to Daniella than we may have originally thought.  Cortez has killed her brother, or so we’re led to believe, so the chickens will, in all likelihood, come home to roost.

Please do not mistake my blatant sarcasm as intentionally vicious.  I don’t hate this film, and for all intents and purposes, it isn’t Adam Sandler-level offensive to my sensibilities.  I would have gladly welcomed a fresh take from a new release comedy, however, especially considering how likable and convincing Reese Witherspoon can be in most any role.  Hot Pursuit simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to be fresh or new, especially when we consider that in the past few years, we’ve had multiple police comedies, usually pairing one straight-laced personality with an unpredictable one, or just a cop movie comedy in general.  (See The Heat, 21 Jump Street, Ride Along, the Rush Hour films, Reno 911!, and even Let’s Be Cops for examples)   At this point, whatever humor exists that is inherent to the police trade has been covered to the nth degree.  It’s simply a tired formula that has seemingly bled out, and only gasps for life.  I, for one, would like to officially call the time of death.

Oddly enough, the outtakes shown with the end credits outshine the film itself.  We can see a distinct chemistry between the two stars, and their natural personalities are revealed.  Now, if that magic could have been captured on-screen, we’d have something.  Unfortunately, there is a humor deficit and familiarity with this film, which apparently forced the writers to rely on lazy cultural stereotypes and gross-out gags to generate laughs.  Save for the staunchest of Witherspoon supporters, or perhaps those that can’t seem to get enough “Modern Family”, the film is wholly unnecessary.  Actually, that thought leads to another- go watch “Modern Family”, then pop in Walk the Line, Election, or Legally Blonde (if you’re into that kind of thing) to get a better understanding of how these stars can make a project shine.  Seek them out with a hot pursuit.  See what I did there?  I just made myself chuckle, a far greater accomplishment than I can credit to this film.

Film Review- ‘Ex Machina’ (*****)

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No one told ME about the 'Face/Off' reboot?
No one told ME about the ‘Face/Off’ reboot!

Ex Machina  ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac

Written and directed by: Alex Garland

 

Apart from the occasionally palatable scientist (Neil DeGrasse Tyson comes to mind), the field of technology and science finds communicating their astounding results with the public a difficult task.  Most of us can’t be bothered to leaf through the latest MIT Review or Popular Science to discover what brilliant people are creating or are on the verge of creating.  As a result, it seems as though the public consumes the possible future through mediums such as film and television.  Luckily for us, we’re occasionally fed these messages through the skilled lenses of Steven Spielberg (A.I.) and Spike Jonze (Her), or through the enchanting voice of Scarlett Johansson (Her).  Ex Machina is one of those films, that doesn’t give up halfway through on its’ sci-fi senses just to blow things up.  It’s the best type of work in this genre- a cinematic work that takes a thought and has a conversation with the audience before, during, and after the film.

Director Alex Garland, the writer of such science fiction fables as 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, handles his first directorial charge with the hand of an old pro.  As the title implies, the film deals in gods and monsters, and is never swift to identify which is which.  The subtlety Garland and the cast play between beauty and menace results in a truly mesmerizing, smart fable for our time- well, for all time.  The film is science fiction embodied, chock full of questions, precisely in the manner I prefer to digest it.  As it wades in both the shallow waters of our societal and moral atmospheres, whilst simultaneously toeing the line between tension and horror, it stands as 2015’s best thus far.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a company called ‘Bluebook’.  We come to him as he’s just won an exclusive trip to meet the company’s founder and stay with him for a week.  I imagine that would be like a Microsoft programmer spending a week with Bill Gates, whether that individual would want to or not.  The fictional ‘Bluebook’, the world’s preeminent search engine, was created by a mysterious, reclusive genius (is there any other) named Nathan (Isaac).  By now, we know the type; disconnected, awkward, wealthy beyond our imaginations, and lonely.  Nathan is indeed that, it appears, and wants Caleb to interact with his latest creation, a “female” android named Ava (Vikander).

We know that Ava is a robot because we can see her metal innards, exposed gears, coverings and all.  If we were unable to see her interact with Caleb, however, would we be able to tell whether or not she was human?  That’s his dilemma, and a striking one at that.  As the audience, we’re given their dalliances like acts of a play, each separate in nature, each building upon the previous one in terms of depth, understanding, and tension level.  Caleb is increasingly affected by her pleasantness, curiosity, and insight, leading to emotions he can’t quite understand, including affection for her as a female.  He begins to wonder what has transpired in this compound.  Has Nathan, the creator, abused her?  Does he keep her prisoner for any particular reason other than his own insecurities and misgivings?  Does Nathan understand the responsibility of creating an intelligence, only to then repress its’ growth?

Caleb’s task, per Nathan, is simply to gauge whether or not Ava can pass for human, but it becomes clear early on that it will not, and cannot, be that simple.  From their first chat until the film’s final moment, everything Ava says and does is unpredictable, just like the film itself.  Will she be child-like?  Will she be motivated to evolve?  Will she see humans as a threat?  If she does, will she use brute force, or maybe even manipulation, to achieve that goal?  Does Nathan have a “kill” switch in the event of an emergency?  Why does Ava not appear to be programmed with a template of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?  Is there a reason the film doesn’t touch on them?  Is everything that Ava says and does simply a result of programming, or has she actually transcended what she was intended to be?  I hope you can tell that just by watching, the film inspires a number of interesting and difficult questions and thoughts.  Garland writes this in a way that plays on our wonder of scientific possibility as well as our inherent fears of robots and the future.  We can’t help but question what happens and what doesn’t happen during the film, creating a specific feeling of tension akin to horror.  The film’s location, in an isolated, constricting compound in the mountains that can only be reached via helicopter, only adds to the feeling of impending doom.  The film’s color palate adds to the feeling as well- the foggy, almost smoky wash when the camera is on a human, then clean and clear when focusing on an artificial being.  Whether or not it was intentional, it certainly adds a dimension and a contrast to the film.

Another subtly horrific thought is the care, or lack thereof, in which each character handles the balance of life or death.  We see Nathan throwing it around, not entirely concerned for the well-being of the things he hath wrought.  We see Caleb doubt himself, to the point of questioning his role in the world, and his actual existence.  In one breath, Ava seems to innocently understand the delicate balance of life, and in the next, it appears that she may not care in spite of her understanding.  In essence, this is what humans may not be prepared for- giving life and an abundance of knowledge to a being, without taking the responsibility for what emotions they may encounter, the real fear they develop, and the results of such things.  Thus, should we never attempt create it, as we do lack the comprehension to guide it?  It is quite the sensation to watch and know that Ava is a machine, while simultaneously knowing that she may be more than a human.

I should take a moment to praise the performances here as well.  All three leads are just simply outstanding.  Gleeson is the perfect choice for Caleb, for we already buy him as a sweet, naive programmer, and then he expands on the role to include a darker side.  Isaac, is, well, Oscar Isaac.  His piercing intellect and gaze make him truly believable as a genius, and his awkward attempts to be a ‘regular guy’ with Caleb are perfect.  He just isn’t a regular guy- he’s a reclusive genius, no matter how hard he tries not to be.  Well, he’s also one of the top two or three actors working today, which may explain how wonderful the character is.  Vikander, previously unbeknownst to me, is the real revelation here.  One might assume that as a robot/android, there might be a limited range to display, but she is able to convey such optimism, such intrigue, and such menace with what amounts to just a facial performance.  Her longing to see and do more is not a far cry from any Pinocchio story we’ve seen before, but it may be the most honest portrayal.

There exists the slightest hint that Garland made this material accessible as opposed to trusting the audience to digest an advanced plot about artificial intelligence, but I accept that.  I’m also fascinated with Garland’s continued interest in the constructs of society, and how theoretical situations affect human beings in his work.  In Sunshine, he sees an interesting dynamic within the pressures of saving humanity and our human natures.  In 28 Days Later, he again puts human nature to the test in the wake of an apocalypse.  Ex Machina is yet another test of our theoretical resolve, and I for one don’t believe his result is far from the theoretical truth.   As he put it himself, this film is designed to emulate a future not too far from now, maybe ‘ten minutes out’.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a reclusive “Nathan” currently holed up somewhere with his own “Ava”.  For all we know, there may be robots walking among us.  Maybe Garland knows this to be true.  It is clear to me that he should continue telling stories, and continue to generate what all excellent science fiction does- questions.  This is a film that truly belongs in the upper echelon of the genre, which is no small feat for a rookie filmmaker.

Film Review- ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ (***1/2)

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Nope, no strings on him. A whole bunch of creepy, though.
Nope, no strings on him. A whole bunch of creepy, though.

Avengers: Age of Ultron  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, and James Spader (voice)

Written by: Joss Whedon, based on the comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Directed by: Joss Whedon

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

 

In the past few weeks, it seems as though I’ve developed a little something called perspective as it relates to the comic and superhero genres of film.  Despite this blog’s moniker, I’m poor with the perspective on whether or not a comic film achieves what it sets out to do.  Seeing the unfortunate, typical ‘fanboy’ reaction to the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser trailer taught me something, however- nothing can be achieved or enjoyed if we take this genre too seriously, or expect Oscar-caliber material with each entry, despite how much The Dark Knight spoiled us.  These films should strictly be for fun, despite how deeply into the mythos we might delve.   I admit to caring far too much for them, but I now can tell myself these things: they do not exist to alter filmmaking as a medium (even if they have certainly influenced it), they rarely bring hidden issues to light, and they rarely open my mind to new ideas.  Having taken that necessary step back from the ‘everything is awesome’ attitude towards these films now, I can see this genre in a new light, the correct light.

It’s a good thing for Avengers: Age of Ultron that I came to this way of thinking.  Despite his likely best intentions, director Joss Whedon has not busted open the proverbial creative bank, nor has he topped what he accomplished the first time around.  He has, however, kept the material from being stagnant, whilst maintaining Marvel’s unique identity and giving us all the wit we can handle.  Age of Ultron can be  scatterbrained from time to time, lacking the focus attributed to previous films in this universe.  Some plot points are non-sensical, some are skipped over (like the entire point of the Iron Man 3 film), and we’re handed a surprisingly heavy dose of emotional detachment.  On the other hand, it’s an enormously entertaining and witty superhero epic, with gigantic, sometimes even unintelligible battle sequences that pound our senses into oblivion.  If we hadn’t invested our time, energy, and emotion in these characters already, the film would be a mess.  Alas, we’re invested so hard that it somehow works in spite of its’ flaws.

The film begins tying up the loose end that is the remainder of HYDRA, the World War II-era Nazi spin-off organization.  We know from the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, and that HYDRA is holed up in the fictional land of ‘Sokovia’ with Loki’s scepter from the first Avengers story arc.  Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Kretschmann) is in charge here, looking all “Bond villain-y” with his monocle and utilizing the technology within the scepter to do…something.  The Avengers storm his castle, which is oddly littered with unfinished robots, some newfangled tech, and two ‘special’ twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively).  When we first encountered these ‘specials’ (they’re mutants, but because of silly rights issues, this film can’t call them “X-Men”) in the Winter Soldier end credits, they were caged, as if dangerous.  Clearly, things have changed, as Strucker can ‘unleash’ them like weapons against the invading Avengers.

One of the twins, the “witch” (Olsen), uses her mind-projecting powers on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) to show him a future in which he is responsible for the end of the Avengers, and, in essence, the end of the world.  It’s a neat power she has, for it allows the plot to use her based on what it needs, almost like a ‘get out of jail free card for Joss Whedon.  Stark’s experience in Sokovia causes him to rekindle a romance with an idea he had shelved- the ‘Ultron’ program.  As he explains to Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), this defense program would, in essence, take the responsibility of saving the world off the Avengers.  Here’s the problem- in starting the Ultron program, he inadvertently creates artificial intelligence.  The film doesn’t focus on the greatest achievement in mankind’s history (the creation of A.I.), but we must remember- this isn’t a science fiction film, and talking about science would delay the explosions.

The ‘essence’ known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that emerges from a successful trial of the program rapidly becomes self-aware, gathers a rudimentary ‘body’, and in turn, begins to attack those that would reign it in.  I found it interesting, and sensible that at no point did Ultron choose the path of least resistance, and at no point did he show much sympathy- he simply chose the natural path of defending himself, another sensible option considering the framework of evolution.  You can imagine what happens after that- Ultron finds the Avengers to be a threat, and systematically attempts to eliminate them.  I also find it interesting that the combined intelligences of Stark and Banner couldn’t predict this outcome, with their acute scientific acumen and all.  I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a film if they had.

Everything that follows Ultron’s escape and subsequent terror plans is rather standard, and requires no explanation.  The fun in this film does not come from trying to make logical sense of what Stark and Banner did, nor does it come from most of the action set pieces.  Age of Ultron, like its’ predecessor, is at its’ best when the characters have time to talk.  It’s an epic action film, sure, but what myself and most of the crowd cheered for were the personal moments.  From the comraderie of the team when they storm the HYDRA castle to the exchanges at Stark’s party at Avengers tower, I loved the ‘lived in’ nature of the film as it recognizes and plays with the familiarity we have with these characters.  The banter between fringe team members like Falcon (Mackie) and War Machine (Cheadle), the budding romance between Black Widow (Johanssen) and Banner, and the other side of Hawkeye (Renner) that we get to see is the most fun we’ve had in a Marvel film. Captain America (Evans) again asserts his status as the rightful leader of this team, never wavering in his morality or his dedication.  This is an excellent, well-cast team of (mostly) professional actors, and when they’re allowed to interact as a team, it’s an extremely entertaining film.

I’ll go a step further on the casting brilliance and admit that Ultron is so much fun.  Spader’s voice is a perfect complement to the CGI creation- completely and totally unhinged, sarcastic, all-knowing.  Basically, he’s a psychotic hunk of vibranium.  Despite the fact that we know Ultron’s plan cannot ultimately succeed, as there are future movies already planned, I still appreciate and revel in his lunacy, even laughing in disbelief at some of the words spewing forth from his mouth.  Spader’s performance may not be the complete tour-de-force that Heath Ledger’s Joker was in The Dark Knight, but honestly, I don’t think it’s that far off.  At the very least, it is certainly the film’s main attraction.

As I said before, I needed to step away from my fanboy feelings as I watched the film.  Well, I suppose I needed to step away from my feelings on logic as well.  I’m sure “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”  explains where Agent Coulson is, but I haven’t watched the show, so I’m asking- where is Agent Coulson?  Where are any of the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents?  Why would Falcon sit out the end battle?  Why would Tony Stark push Iron Man aside in his last film, only to come back without question this time?  Why should I care?

I shouldn’t, and I won’t care too much.  Marvel has done a commendable job of creating their own cinematic world while keeping most of the moving parts in place.  I suppose one could consider that the whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts in reference to the Marvel Universe.  That doesn’t excuse some of the missteps and all-too-easy confluence of events in Age of Ultron, but if you see the film as part of a twenty-two picture saga (including future installments), the missteps are more palatable.  This is the eleventh film of the saga, the literal midpoint, which would seem to be the fulcrum for future change in this universe.  We sort of see it, and some events, like the immaculate conception of Vision, show a different voice and look from what we’ve seen before.  The fanboy side of my brain, however, just wished for a slightly bolder, and braver, take on this universe we’ve come to know so well.  I wish I could have sat with Whedon as he put the pen to paper, whispering ever so gently as he wrote, “Come on, man.  Do something brave.  Do something bold.  We can take it; heck, we WANT it.  We love these characters, even enough to let them go if necessary”.  Instead, as our mid-credits scene promises, Age of Ultron is simply another bridge-builder, forcing us to stay tuned for the climax.  Here, I begrudgingly give you my future money.

Classic Film Review- ‘Cloud Atlas’ (2012) (*****)

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In the distant future, Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) work together to find the answers.
In the distant future, Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) work together to find the answers.

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.

Film Review- ‘It Follows’ (***1/2)

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I'll go out on a limb and say it's ok if she follows me.
I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s ok if she follows me.

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

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS**

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.

Film Review- ‘Cinderella’ (****)

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Ah, to be the belle of the ball.
Ah, to be the belle of the ball.

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.

Classic Film Review- ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (1985) (***1/2)

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Guess which one is Susan?
Guess which one is Susan?

Desperately Seeking Susan  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Mark Blum, Robert Joy, Will Patton, and Laurie Metcalf

Written by: Leora Barish

Directed by: Susan Seidelman

 

Simply stating “I saw that many times when I was younger” is not sufficient enough info to explain a film’s quality.  On the eve of the 30th anniversary for Desperately Seeking Susan, I revisited the film, curious to see if what fired up on my TV screen coincided with what my nostalgic mind had etched in.  The result was interesting, for I remembered everything; as an adult, however, I saw it all differently.  Plot-wise, it is a standard film about mistaken identity and breaking out of your shell, and just by watching, you can nearly smell the Aqua Net.  History now tells a slightly different story.  Looking back we can see that the film is, quite possibly, a landmark- not just for culture and fashion, but also from an oddly feminist perspective in a time where capitalism and machismo ran amok.  With memorable characters, great music, and a carefree sensibility, it’s an 80’s film that actually works.

Rosanna Arquette stars as Roberta Glass, the embodiment of the wealthy stay-at-home 80’s wife.  She’s bored, naturally, as her husband Gary (Blum) runs a hot tub business while fooling around.  Roberta resorts to sifting through the personals to generate some excitement in her life.  One such personal, an ongoing, coded conversation between a ‘Jim’ (Robert Joy) and a ‘Susan’ (Madonna) catches her eye, and she decides to ‘participate’.  First, she not-so-subtly tails Susan to a meeting with Jim, then to a thrift store, where she manages to buy what Susan has just traded in, a sequined jacket.  This just happens to be the same sequined jacket that caught the eye of a mob killer (Will Patton), who now tracks her.  In a twist, she’s knocked unconscious after an altercation with said killer, and Dez (Aidan Quinn) comes to her rescue.  Of course, Dez is the aforementioned Jim’s friend, and he’s just helping him out by checking up on her.  Dez now thinks that Roberta is Susan, and since her identification disappears, well, she basically becomes Susan.

I completely understand that this film offers no breakthroughs in plot framing, but it does work, even if it asks the audience to pay attention.  The issue with amnesia/mistaken identity films always becomes when and where the lead is ‘found out’, or begins to remember.  The writer always knows to place that moment wherever it is needed, not when it necessarily would happen.  In this case, the coincidences are plenty, but thematically it works.  Roberta, for all intents and purposes, wanted to be like Susan anyway- fate just sort of pushed her in that direction.  She becomes attracted to Dez, gets a job working with a magician, and begins to dress how her mind apparently wants her to dress.  I appreciate this film’s rebellious spirit and renegade fashion sense, not conforming to the entrepreneurial 80s.  You can almost feel society moving with the film, as Roberta drops her shoulder pads for a monogrammed leather coat.

In that sense, one could classify Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan as a “feminist” film; one that recognizes the jolt that Aidan Quinn’s character gives to Roberta, but establishes that it’s Roberta herself that makes the choice to leave her husband, and to succeed on her own, establishing her own identity.  The rogue, expressive freedom that Madonna exudes through her character and her wardrobe is sexy, yes, but not exploitative.  Susan is a character that controls her sexuality, and maintains her independence.  Make no mistake- Madonna started something in the mid 1980s, and this film is a fair portrait of her influence.  I remember in particular a fellow student raising a ruckus back in second grade when she dressed like Madonna.  Certainly, while it was inappropriate wear for a second grader, it’s clear that Madonna’s personality and style permeated our culture like few stars before- or after.  While not a narrative masterpiece, Desperately Seeking Susan is still fun, and quite deserving of its’ position as a declarative 1980s film.