Monday, October 29, 2012

"Cloud Atlas"

Written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving - Rated R

"Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today."
Cloud Atlas needs to be seen just for the sheer ambition behind it.  Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have adapted one of those “unfilmable” novels that always inevitably leads to a movie that some call brilliant and some label the “worst film ever made.”  Just so we’re clear from the onset, I thought it was one of, if not the best film of the year.  Cloud Atlas is one of those rare, magical films that stays with you and begs to be watched again and again.

Trying to describe what Cloud Atlas is “about” is an exercise in futility, but I won’t let that stop me.  It is an interwoven tale that spans from a seafaring adventure in 1849 to a struggling musician in the 1930s to a nuclear reactor conspiracy thriller in the 1970s to a nursing home escape in present day to a clone revolution in the future to a search for new beginnings after the downfall of civilization.  That is the simplest way to describe what the story of Cloud Atlas consists of.  If that sounds a bit busy, imagine how complicated it gets when you realize that most of the actors play a different role in each storyline, sometimes switching gender and race.  So a film like this isn’t necessarily about a certain plotline or anything, but more a story about humanity, love, freedom…life.  Cloud Atlas attempts to grab the viewer and give them a profound experience, and because of that many will label this film as “pretentious” or just “too ambitious.”  Maybe it is those things, but the film succeeded with me. 

Perhaps what will grab most people’s attention is the whole multiple role aspect of the film.  It is fascinating to see some actors take on vastly different roles than usual (Hugo Weaving as a woman and a Korean come to mind), but if that was all Cloud Atlas had to offer it would simply be a gimmick of Eddie Murphy proportions.  The point of the different roles is not to showcase acting or get nominations.  If you pay attention, you will see that each actor portrays basically the same character throughout, sometimes evolving over the different lifetimes.  Some of the character journeys are easier to track than others, but it is still a very interesting way to look at the film. 

Tracking character development and trying to spot the actors underneath all the makeup and prosthetics is not the only enjoyment to come from Cloud Atlas.  One of the marvels of the film is how it is all edited together in a surprisingly coherent fashion.  The novel was split up in a way that works if you are reading, but would be disastrous for a film.  The Wachowskis and Tykwer somehow found a way to tell these stories one scene at a time rather splitting each story in half.  This, of course, led to plenty of transitional elements that are fun to spot. 

The transitions and editing can nearly make you forget about the performances of the film (which is why I’m just now getting to them).  Or perhaps it’s because so many of the actors seamlessly move from one character to the next.  Tom Hanks is the most recognizable face.  He is one of the most likable actors in movie history, and every scene he is in works, most notably his role in the film’s final story.  His characters’ journey was not the most interesting, however, and his role really required the least amount of range.  (His scene as a gangster/writer was certainly a departure for him, though a short one.  Definitely one of my favorite moments from the film.)  It’s still Tom Hanks, and he provided an emotional core to the film.  Hugo Weaving was fun to watch in all of his evil incarnations.  It was good to see Hugh Grant and Halle Berry working in a quality film and delving into some very different parts, as a post-apocalyptic savage warrior and a male Korean doctor, respectively.  Jim Broadbent provided some welcome comedic moments in his main story and he worked as a great foil to Ben Whishaw’s struggling musician. Whishaw holds his own and is a name more people should now.  Doona Bae stands out as a clone with a soul in her futuristic storyline.  Her story arc with Jim Sturgess was the most compelling of the film.  I could go on and on.  The cast is great and they get to do some very interesting work.  Just look at all the names mentioned above, and also add Keith David and Susan Sarandon to the list.  An immense amount of talent was involved in the making of the film.

The most important talent, however, lies behind the camera.  The Wachowskis and Tykwer have made a stunningly beautiful film on every level.  There are images that stay with you, music that perfectly matches emotional scenes, superb action sequences, and worlds designed in such a way that you are left wanting more from each story (some more than others).  They have managed to take a lengthy story (it is nearly three hours long) and make it feel too short. 

It’s hard to truly think about Cloud Atlas without comparing it to the source material.  I was impressed with the novel in its structure and author David Mitchell’s ability to write from such vastly different settings and perspectives, but was left underwhelmed with the overall message about humanity.  I was missing the big picture moment that the film was able to provide.  So, in a rare instance, I recommend the film over the novel.  I cannot comment on how well the film works without prior knowledge, though.  I think the best experience would involve reading the book first, but I think it is a coherent and effective film on its own. 

As with all movies that I make sound perfect, Cloud Atlas does have slight issues.  I had trouble understanding the dialogue at times, especially the post-apocalyptic stuff (though that part was even difficult to read in the novel).  I also felt that some of the sections didn’t connect in as meaningful a way as others.  The musician segment and the nuclear reactor thriller were compelling and enjoyable, but I found the connecting thread to be a bit thin.  Perhaps “thin” is not the right word as the connection is certainly there, but it seemed as if the deeper themes that are evident in the other segments are not very clear.  Specifically, I felt that Cloud Atlas was a film very much about freedom and humans persevering, and I think you have to stretch the stories a bit to make those segments fit with the rest. 

The above issues are not really complaints about Cloud Atlas.  When a film has six separate stories, you can’t help but have a couple that are your favorite and a few that are your least favorite.  Still, I found the entire film extremely interesting and each story could have held its own as a standalone film. 

Cloud Atlas is a treasure trove of cinema.  It can be enjoyed on so many levels.  Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer have taken something many thought could not translate to the big screen and have made something better than the source material.  Cloud Atlas is a fulfilling movie experience that everyone should see.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Directed by Ben Affleck, written by Chris Tessio, starring Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Rory Cochrane, and Scoot McNairy - Rated R

"This is the best bad idea we have."
Ben Affleck has already proven himself with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, yet people are still focusing on this idea that it is surprising that Affleck could make yet another solid, arguably great film.  After The Town, the question was, “Can he leave Boston and still do it?”  And the answer to that ridiculous question is a resounding, “Yes.” 
Argo, much like Affleck’s previous work, is a film for adults.  Those who regularly read my crap know that I am a sucker for serious movies that respect the audience’s intelligence.  Argo is not only one of those serious movies, but it is also entertaining, interesting, tense period piece. 

The Middle East is the setting for many tense situations, and the Iran hostage crisis is certainly one of the tensest situations in our country’s history.  The main story has been covered extensively, but what makes Argo unique is that this aspect of the crisis was classified until a few years ago.  (I was a bit embarrassed that I had not heard of the event until I heard about the movie.  I love history, but the hostage crisis is something I haven’t read much about.)  So this film isn’t exactly broad in scope, which allows it to be a very tight, succinct story. 

The specific story of Argo concerns a group of six embassy workers who managed to escape to the Canadian embassy.  The CIA is tasked with getting them home, quietly.  Enter Agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) with an idea just ridiculous enough to work: pose as a Canadian filmmaker on a location scout and leave with the six Americans.  Maybe that doesn’t sound too crazy, but for something like that to work, everything needs to check out, so the fake film has to appear as real as possible.  This, of course, leads to be a bit of comedy.

The scenes featuring Tony in Hollywood definitely lighten the film up.  As he works with a make up artist (John Goodman) and a producer past his prime (Alan Arkin), Tony gets to experience the hilarity that is Hollywood.  These moments are great, but they don’t turn the film into a flat out comedy.  There are still lives at stake, and Argo never lets you forget that.

The overall film is extremely serious and the only thing that matters is the mission.  Affleck could have beefed up some Mendez subplots to get more emotional scenes, but he didn’t.  We get glimpses of his personal life and some issues that are going on with him, but these are nearly unspoken moments that leave it to the audience to figure out.  The same goes for any modern day message about the Middle East.  You can apply importance to this story and compare it to tension that exists to this day in that region, or you can simply enjoy Argo for the straightforward intense film that it is. 

It is very easy to simply enjoy Argo because the film looks great.  I don’t mean that in a high-def kind of way; I mean that in a 70s way.  This film looks old, from the grainy picture to the hairstyles.  The filmmakers created a very immersive world, and once a setting is properly established, it’s easy for the rest to fall into place. 

The actors seamlessly inhabit their roles.  Arkin and Goodman get the easy part, playing their Hollywood personas for laughs, while every single other actor must play it deadly serious while rocking period clothes and hairstyles.  That’s a tough assignment since the 70s have been lampooned so often lately.  At first glance, most of the characters do look a bit goofy, but like any good period piece, you can get past that very quickly and start seeing them as humans rather than characters. 

Argo is a well-made film for an adult audience that tells a story most people are unaware of.  It does get the Hollywood treatment a bit (I imagine some of the last-second close calls were amped up to create excitement) but it has an authentic feel to it that allows the viewer get involved with the story.  It’s short on character development, and that is actually a positive element as this is not a story about getting to know everyone.  It is about saving lives.  Affleck doesn’t prove that he can direct with Argo; he’s already done that.  Don’t think of Argo as confirmation of a talented director.  Think of it as simply another great film that doesn’t talk down to you made by an accomplished director.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Little Red Wagon"

Directed by David Anspaugh, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, starring Chandler Canterbury, Anna Gunn, Daveigh Chase, Frances O'Connor, and Dylan Matzke - Rated PG

I don't usually go for the feel-good movies, but this one really did make me feel good...
“Family friendly” is not a term that normally defines the type of films that I watch and enjoy.  If you skim over my past reviews, you’ll see that I stick to a steady diet of blockbuster/sci-fi films and art house fare, with an occasional deviation.  I do this because I feel like my purpose as a “critic” is to weigh in on movies I would normally seek out and like-minded individuals can use my opinions to decide what they watch (or people can just read it and tell me how wrong I am).  I don’t review many family films because they are not meant for me.  That said, I recently watched Little Red Wagon, directed by Indiana native David Anspaugh (of Hoosiers and Rudy fame).  I checked out this inspirational, family friendly film for three reasons: the Indiana connection, my love of getting early access to films, and it sounded like an interesting story.

Little Red Wagon is about a little boy, Zach Bonner(Chandler Canterbury), in Florida who begins a charitable mission to raise awareness (and donations) for homeless children.  It begins small, with Zach going door to door in his neighborhood picking up donations and hauling them away in his red wagon.  Zach is helped by his teenage sister and single mom.  His charitable nature eventually attracts the attention of the media and politicians, and his cause grows by leaps and bounds to the point that Zach decides to walk to the state capital.  To add effect to the story, a parallel narrative follows a widowed mother and her young son as they struggle with poverty. 

This is a story that could easily fall into cheesy “gee whiz!” material, but it does manage to rise above the gloss and deal with serious issues throughout.  You wouldn't know that listening to the score, however.  The music that accompanies this film sounds like stock music from an after school special in the 1980s.  Normally a score wouldn't raise many issues with me, but the music nearly took me out of the film entirely.  At some points, it even takes away the emotional impact of some scenes, as if to say, “We don't trust that you'll understand how the characters feel, so here's some music just to be safe.”  It's insulting and annoying.

Little Red Wagon survives the atrocious score thanks to some truly emotional moments.  The struggle between Zach's sister, Kelley, (Daveigh Chase, Donnie Darko) and mother, Laurie, (Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad”) struck me as the most real moments of the film.  Kelley might come off as a selfish teenager when she complains about being forced to help out with Zach's cause, but it's not that simple.  When Zach decides to walk to the capital, he doesn't seem to realize what that means for his sister and mother.  He has good intentions, but it causes them to drop everything for his cause.  Sure, there's always the argument that they should be charitable and stop thinking about themselves, but the reality of the situation is that most people wouldn't be happy being forced to be charitable. 

The parallel storyline has the most compelling moments, though.  Frances O'Connor does a fine job portraying the struggling mother as she drags her son from one terrible situation to another.  It borders on melodrama, but the performances keep it afloat, particularly that of child actor Dylan Matzke.  He seems so genuine when he is frightened or excited.  You can't complain about melodrama when the performances add up.  In fact, Matzke may have been the better choice for the lead role.  Canterbury carries the film, but there are a few weak moments throughout the film.  He just can't sell his excitement and disbelief like Matzke can. 

These critiques don't really add up to the main purpose of the film, which is why I am not necessarily suited to write about it.  But as I watched, it occurred to me that this would have been a film that could have inspired me when I was younger.  This is truly a film for children because it speaks to them. 

Little Red Wagon is a family friendly inspirational tale with moments of raw emotion.  The music nearly deflates many moments of the film, but it makes it through.  This is still not the type of movie I would normally get excited about, but it is a moving piece of cinema and should be extremely effective with its core demographic.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels - Rated R
"This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg..."

Time travel movies are fascinating…and can be mind-blowing.  Wait, did I write, “mind-blowing”?  I meant irritating.  The concept can lead to fun, interesting, exciting, and gloriously complicated films, but it also makes your head hurt if you try to wrap your brain around every minute detail.  (Don’t worry.  I am not going to write a lengthy thesis about the ins and outs of time travel.  Go to the message boards if you want to read theories written by the time travel “experts” that populate IMDb.)  The films that use time travel to great success, like 12 Monkeys, The Terminator, or Back to the Future (to name a few), rarely waste much time with complicated plot points about time travel.  Those films feature a lot of explanation, 12 Monkeys being the closest film that could be complicated.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have films like Triangle, Timecrimes, and Primer.  These films, while great and thought provoking, can almost feel like homework assignments when you stop and think about them.  They become complicated because of all the alternate universes and timelines they create.  You almost need to take notes to keep track of it all.  (Sorry to the fans that find those films easy to follow.  They just feel more like work than play to me.)

Looper, the latest from writer/director Rian Johnson, thankfully falls in the former group.  It is an interesting, entertaining sci-fi movie that doesn’t get bogged down with the rules of time travel.  That is not to say that this is a simple film.  It is still about time travel and it still contains a paradox or two.  But if we’re willing to forgive The Terminator its paradox (sorry, I don’t buy any theories about how it is possible for John Connor to send his own father back in time to become his father) because of its awesomeness, then we should do the same for Looper. 

Looper is a great movie for many reasons, Rian Johnson being number one.  He has crafted such an interesting story.  In the relatively near future, time travel has yet to be invented, but it will be thirty years later.  Since it is impossible to get away with murder in the future, crime lords will use time travel to send undesirables into the past to be taken care of by hit men, or loopers.  Eventually, since time travel is so illegal in the future (and to protect the criminals’ own interests), a looper must close his own loop.  This means he must eventually kill his own older self.  All of their marks show up hooded, so a looper doesn’t know he has essentially killed himself until after the job is done. 

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an addict (he's addicted to some future drug taken in the form of eye drops) who quietly goes about his business in the hopes of saving up plenty and eventually having a happy retirement.  Things go awry when Joe has to close his own loop.  His older self, or Old Joe, shows up without his hood on.  Being face to face with his older self (Bruce Willis) startles Joe, giving Old Joe enough time to distract Joe and get away.  Someone from the future being loose in the past is a huge problem for the mob, so young Joe must stop Old Joe no matter what.

What makes the plot of Looper more interesting is that Old Joe doesn't run simply because he wants to live longer.  He's there to kill the child version of the future's evil overlord.  I think it makes the film more interesting because it takes the common time travel scenario of going back in time to kill someone like, oh, let's go with the mainstay, Hitler, but adding the problem of said Hitler-type being a child.  You start to rethink things once you see a gun pointed at a child who has done nothing wrong...yet.  The moral implications of Old Joe's plan fascinated me and Willis did a fine job of showing steely reserve as he contemplated murder. 

Bruce Willis is right at home in a sci-fi film (he's even done the time travel thing a time or two, as well), and his scenes with Young Joe discussing time travel are great.  At one point it's almost as if he's predicting the internet message board arguments by yelling at Joe and telling him to forget about the time travel crap.  I'm with him on that; just enjoy the show. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes it very easy to enjoy this film.  The first thing you notice is how different he looks in this film because they put makeup and prosthetics on his face to make look more like a young Bruce Willis.  The true joy of his performance, though, comes through his mannerisms.  His constant squint, that bark of a laugh; it's a great performance and it makes the film a lot of fun.  I only wish they shared more screen time. 

The rest of the cast is well-rounded.  Jeff Daniels plays a somewhat disinterested future immigrant in an interesting way.  Paul Dano is in his wheelhouse playing a nervous, stuttering looper.  Emily Blunt is does okay as a single mom on a farm.  Garrett Dillahunt has a great, tense scene.  And Pierce Gagnon is admirable if for no other reason than he is a child actor in a sci-fi film and he isn't annoying at all.  Kudos to the marketing team behind this film completely leaving the child out of the previews even though it is a vital part of the film.  I'm serious, this film probably did better because people were unaware that a child factored into the plot.

Speaking of marketing, this film is being touted as one of the “best action films” of the year.  But it's not really an action movie.  The few action scenes are great, though.  Willis's big action scene might go down as one of the best of his career, and that is certainly saying something.   

But Looper is not an action movie.  It's a sci-fi/time travel movie.  There's a great future world created with very few answers to any questions that might arise (and that's the way it should be, most of the time, in sci-fi).  There is a multiple time line aspect to the film, but it is handled in a very clear and stylish way.  In fact, the film is flat out stylish and it works on nearly every level.  I was left with only one issue with Rian Johnson's great film: I wanted more.  I wanted to see more of the world, I wanted more of the future world Bruce Willis came from, I wanted more one-on-one scenes with Gordon-Levitt and Willis, etc.  If the only issue you have with a film is that you wish there was more of it, then that is a good problem to have.  Check out Looper.  It might not be one of the best “action” movies of the year, but it is one of the best movies of the year.