‘Cloud Atlas’: Review

*NOTE: I haven’t even touched the Cloud Atlas book, so everything in here is solely related to the film and its content, I have no clue how the book differs and I couldn’t care less*

Cloud Atlas is an interesting film for the medium, at least due to its form and execution, rather than any stylistic flourishes or new implementation of special effects. It’s being put forth as a “must see” film, divorced from any quality of content, but as a film that does something new or different within the medium. We were here in 2009 with Avatar, where that movie was exalting its special effects, film style and the harnessing of the capabilities of 3D. I’d imagine it’s a tough sell to convince people to see Cloud Atlas, due to its running time, people’s confusion over what it exactly is, and what its about with seemingly so many random elements in it. The box office figures ($9.4 Million over its first weekend) seem to back this up, but I’m actually more interested in the film itself and how the film had me in its hand, then proceeded to drop me.

Cloud Atlas is so wide and sprawling in its storylines and featured genres that it would take me the rest of this review to summarize it all. But, the film consists of several storylines, ranging from sci-fi, comedy, mystery, relationship drama and one that takes place on a ship in the 1850s. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw and a bunch of others each play different roles in each of the storylines, changing their face with make-up and effects and even having them play different races, which I’m not going to get into the social politics behind, but it didn’t really bother me.

The film clucks along just fine as its introducing each of the storylines, its not at all hard to follow, and once you get your bearings within each one, everything seems to be moving along just fine. Then around the half-way to about two-thirds mark, the storylines run out of steam and coast while nothing really happens, as they wade through enough time until the end when it’s time to wrap up each storyline. Although there is six different stories to get through, there’s isn’t all that much substance of story or dense plotting, it’s all very surface level stuff, allowing the Wachowksi’s and Tykwer (although more so in the Wachowski’s directed stories) to beat you over the head with the themes and meanings, their point to the film. The film is overlong, and unlike other long films where the three hours just flies by, you’ll be aware of every minute of it in this one. The Wachowski’s have never been good with dialogue (see Bound as a prime example), as it’s very simplistic, and eye-roll worthy with some of the cliche phrases and language to make sure you get the obvious point they’re trying to make. While it’s easier to differentiate and critique the Wachowski’s and Tykwer in regards to their directing, as we know which ones directed each storyline. I hold out some ambivalence to the writing, as I’m pretty sure they collaborated on the whole thing, and I don’t want to critique one member for something that could have been perpetrated by the others. The film had me, lost me with its over-obviousness and lingering on with stalling plots, but still retained enough caché to remain an above average film.

Lastly, I want to touch on the themes and purpose of the film as it was a major reason the film started to lose me, as they became so obvious and simplistic when revealed and set upon. Not that your themes can’t be simplistic or have to be a deep coded message, but the Wachowski’s and Tykwer present them with no subtlety and lays everything out on the table. This isn’t a hard movie to understand, it’s no Inception (even though Inception is actually rather easy to follow) or Memento, puzzle type movie where you have to try and fit all the pieces together for it to work. There’s some inter-connectedness (a theme of the film) of the storylines, but it’s more of an easter egg type discovery and not a real key to understand the grand scope of the film. The main idea that the Wachowski’s and Tykwer are getting at is the strength of humanity, the perseverance of the human condition, and equality. One of Ben Whishaw’s characters is saved by a slave, and thus goes against his father-in-law over the treatment of slaves. In one of the sci-fi storylines, a clone is helped to rebel against the society which created and lied to them, using them as pawns and in a cycle of production. Even in the comedic storyline, where Jim Broadbent gets stuck in an old folks home, underneath the comedy there’s a runner of how degrading and trapped they are in this “prison”. Everything is so on-the-nose that it starts to become a blatant message film, where you keep going “Ya, ya, I get it, people are great and we’re all equal and deserve the same things”. I understand the intent, but having it so obviously placed robs us of any further depth that lets us apply our own thinking and provides a viewing experience with everything set out for us, while we just skim through it.

Even through my problems with the films’ handling of its themes, I did still enjoy it for the most part and would very much like to view it again and see how it holds up. I would recommend seeing this film to anyone who is interested in film and it as a medium, but casual viewers might find it a bit tough to slog through, but on the flip-side its generalizations could provide an easier watch than other “epic” films. I think Cloud Atlas is too divisive and different to be a legitimate contender for the big awards at the Oscars. I’m sure it will get nominated a bunch of times, but there seems to be too much depth in the various fields for it to even have a fighting chance, and deservedly so.

7/10

Advertisements

‘Argo’: Review

Ben Affleck can direct a film, can’t he? This is old news, of course after his break through with Gone Baby, Gone (Which I still haven’t seen, shhhhh. But, people tell me it’s great), and his sophomore effort The Town which is terrific in so many ways that play towards my personal interests and filmic sweet spots. I don’t really wanna get into a Ben Affleck career synopsis, but we all know what happened. Affleck has been a pretty good actor all this time, but countless poor decision after poor decision left him in lackluster film after lackluster film, that did no justice to his talents as an actor. Let’s say an epiphany happened, he hooked up with the godly Jennifer Garner, had a couple kids and his life and career were put into perspective. I know since he co-wrote Good Will Hunting, that directing was always in his wheelhouse, but after a less than critically popular career, he went to that well sooner than he may have thought. No doubt directing has resurrected his career, and has done justice to his acting career, where, hey! Everyone can finally see how truly great of an actor Affleck is, and boy, ain’t he a good director? I’m looking forward to the next 40-some odd years with Affleck behind the camera, it should be fun.

Affleck the director is more confident in Argo, not like he hasn’t been before, but now it’s like “Fuck, I’ve made some great films, I’m a good director, let’s go all out”. Argo is Affleck’s first “period” film and he handles it with grace and style that stays in the realm stylistically of his previous films, but also spreads his wings within the kinds of films he can tackle. Argo involves the rescue of six hostages taking cover under the Canadian ambassador in Iran, and the CIA’s attempts to free them using the cover of a fake film crew to extract them. Affleck smartly knows how to capture this period of the 70s, by splicing in real-life footage in the beginning, copying exact shots from the real-life event, and making the film stock really grainy and worn to give that old feel of a 30-year past event. The look of the film is nailed down and so precise, that you don’t get that laughable “70s stock clothing and stereotypes” that take you out of the picture, Affleck reveals it carefully and accurately to put you in the mood.

I briefly talked about Afflecks’ acting above and as in The Town, his acting isn’t something that brings down the film, or even holds it at an even keel, but one which elevates the film due to Affleck’s ability to faithfully convey honesty and truth across his face and his ability as an actor. One gets wary after he keeps putting himself in his own films, but as he gets more experienced and disconnected from himself as an actor it’ll fade away, but for the time being his acting does no disservice to his talents as a director. In fact, this whole film is filled with great acting, especially by Bryan Cranston, even in a small relatively small role. I know ever since Breaking Bad it’s been cliché to say how great of an actor Cranston is, but only in a couple scenes he delivers such integrity and fidelity that it’s impossible not to talk about it.

Not to spoil things, but Affleck (by the way, I’m using actor names over character names because that’s how I goddamn roll, okay?) tells his superior, Cranston, that he’s going through with the mission after the CIA told him it was shut down, and Cranston needs to make sure their plane tickets are available. Fearing for Affleck’s absolute safety, Cranston goes on a goddamn warpath making sure these tickets will show up in Iran for their safe passage. In other films the character would go crazy, overact and seem laughable for how high-strung they are in achieving their goal. Cranston does go manic, but also focused, it’s never laughable or cheesy, he straddles that line where he’s brash and foreword without seeming obnoxious or dumb, you understand the seriousness of his threats to “higher-ups” and every moment sinks in rather than played for an embarrassed type of laughs in his activity.

As I go on this doesn’t feel like the most succinct or focused review of the film, which put most plainly I really liked, but didn’t love. Knowing the basis of the story beforehand, the climax is something that works for the most part, there’s tension there, but isn’t the absolute pinnacle of everything that you might expect. It’s not some kind of guns drawn/full out action scene that’s like a big culmination. Sure, you don’t need an action scene with guns or violence to make your climax work, but it was little bit of a letdown with just a tense phone call and the take-off of a plane that seemed pretty certain. Nitpicks all around, but it was all well done, and staying true to the story means that it’s no slam-bang ending or shocking climax, but that’s still all well and good as long as it’s done well and performed to its absolute peak, which this was.

Make no question, Ben Affleck is a goddamn great director. Even though he’s a pretty good actor, I hope he just forgoes that and focuses all his energy on directing. Like, I mean, c’,mon buddy, we all love you, but we don’t need to see your face in like every movie you make, have faith in your talents behind the scenes. Argo is a great film, and one which I’m sure will be up for plenty of Academy Awards. Who knew the goddamn star of Daredevil would be directing some of the best films of our time, less than a decade later?

8/10

‘The Master’: Review

The Master isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, I’ll fight you to the death that it’s There Will Be Blood, nor is it his worst film. It’s hard to place the film right now in the oeuvre of PTA as there’s some great stuff in there but I’m not sure Anderson completely pulls it off and articulates fully what he wants to say. Don’t get me wrong, this film is good, very good, but when we compare it to PTA’s other works, you always expect a grand slam, this time it was probably more of a home run.

Freddie Quell is back from World War II. He’s an alcoholic, having created all kinds of moonshine from a bevy of chemical products, and he’s pretty much just down right weird. He can’t hold down a job, lest chasing girls or violently attacking a customer at his photo booth. Drunk one night, Freddie stumbles onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd, who’s facilitating the wedding of his daughter, and becomes intrigued by Freddie’s experience in creating his alcoholic potions. While drunk, Lancaster begins to ask Freddie some obvious and slightly philosophical questions, which Freddie thinks is weird, but he eventually succumbs to its interest. Freddie falls deeper and deeper into Lancaster’s ideas and practices, and not to mention Dodd’s increasingly subject family members. The grip of Lancaster’s beliefs is placed upon Freddie as this man and his family provide the only comfort he’s genuinely received since the war. Freddie eventually gets placed with an ultimatum, follow Lancaster’s beliefs or be sent upon the wayside by himself. He chooses, but how concrete is it?

Visually, PTA crafts a wonderful film that captures the essence and beauty of the 1940s/50s with some fantastic camera work that reveals a depth of  scope and develops a juxtaposition between the outer elements and the internal battles between Freddie and Lancaster. There’s also a mass of tension in the film, but it never beats you over the head with it, it just lingers, always present. This tension comes to a climax, when Lancaster challenges Freddie, his daughter and her husband to ride a motorcycle in the desert as fast as you can. Lancaster takes off, pretty fast, PTA follows him with the camera, nothing else is heard besides the engine, eventually Lancaster reaches his endpoint and turns around home. It’s Freddie’s turn, and something’s bound to happen, right? We’ve been set up by following Lancaster, almost too long, the tension is there, something has to happen. Freddie rides the cycle, fast, faster than Dodd, he keeps going, nobody knows where he went. The Master is filled with these deep moments, they work most of the time, getting into the head of Freddie, but there’s a few misfires where it’s not entirely clear what Anderson is getting at even through his prominent symbols and pairing of Freddie and Lancaster overpower the film.

Freddie seems to believe in Lancaster fullheartedly one minute, and the next he’s trying to get back to his sweetheart from before the war. He gets summoned to Lancaster’s new compound, under his own will, and is refuting him the next minute. I’m not sure things ever get fully realized with Freddie and his dedication or commitment or even reticence towards the cause, as things are left up in the air to his thoughts, and not in a good way either.

Again, I’m criticizing this film too much, where I probably really shouldn’t. Hey, watching PTA’s films in the past, I know for sure that you can receive his films in a plethora of ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the best film you ever saw, it attempts to be though-provoking enough, or a lesser film, it doesn’t completely form its ideas into a cohesive whole.

Nonetheless, you should see this movie. Joaquin Phoenix gives an incredible performance, and I’m not talking lightly here, he definitely hits a grand slam, utterly fantastic work by him. Hoffman is also very good, and solid, albeit nothing out of his wheelhouse that I haven’t seen before, but Hoffman is ALWAYS good. See this film, like it, love it, “meh” it, you (probably) won’t regret it.

8.5/10

Auteurism On TV And ‘Louie’

Probably my favourite concept in film is the one of auteur theory. Which, if you’re out in the dark, refers to a film that showcases a pure vision of the director as the sole voice that drives and creates a film. This director isn’t just coming into a film from the woodwork for his next job or paycheck. This is a particularly calculated film where the director has control over all aspects, and his unique voice is discernible in the film through common themes, motifs, camera techniques, dialogue etc.

Unfortunately, being a big TV fan, the auteur theory isn’t that translatable from film to TV, as the medium of television almost prohibits it to a certain sense. New directors are hired for each new episode as a “hired gun” who come in, direct, and leave right away. Now with the ever popular term of “showrunner”, usually the creator or executive producer of a show who runs day-to-day operations and oversees the writing process, their is definitely a sense of the auteur theory in TV, but not in a fully realized definition of the term as in the filmic sense. Shows like The Sopranos, Fringe and Breaking Bad have a unique vision and direction that is influenced and maintained by differing writers and directors, but these shows still contain other people trying to adapt either David Chases, J.H. Wyman or Vince Gilligan’s vision. These showrunners are of course in control of a lot of the content, but aren’t the sole, singular force.

This long-winded beginning is all to say that someone finally found a place for the “auteur theory” in TV, and against better judgment in the world of TV, FX gave Louis C.K. his own show, with free reign to do whatever he wanted week to week. C.K. does everything behind the scenes on Louie, he writes, directs, produces, acts and edits (although in this past season handed some of the editing duties off) all of it. People liken the show to short stories, or mini-independent films, mostly because of Louie’s introspective and inclusive story-telling to himself and the lack of any major continuing storylines, besides smaller themes and ideas. C.K. has freedom like no other person or show on television right now, possibly ever. Obviously, being a comedian this show was billed as a comedy and of course it largely is, but this is C.K.’s show to do whatever he wants and comedic guidelines aren’t always followed. There are several scenes of “drama”, or more accurately C.K. wringing the truths out of real-life that are often sad and sometimes depressing. Also, seeing as this is a comedy, I don’t think anyone really expected how tight and beautifully this show is continually shot. It is a comedy, but the aesthetics and visual look are massively top-notch and continues C.K.’s strength as an auteur and someone who is able to craft a multitude of visions into one package.

Being able to have full control over a film or show is great, but along with that comes all the criticism, as there’s no one available to scapegoat if you’re received less than favorably. C.K. has made quite a few bold choices in his episodes, ones that might not click with me or you, because of that personal nature that is so defined to his likeness and craft that it’s hard to relate to or get. But, the majority of the time, C.K. still carries the same vision, deft, direction and style into new areas that still feel like an episode of Louie, but is still vastly different to the previous episode.

Another one of my favourite ideas from the worlds of film and TV, is trying to top yourself after an amazing or great season of TV. The immense pressure of coming off something of such a success and making it even bigger, more expansive yet still faithful to your viewer is something that fascinates me and must be forever frustrating and hard to pull off. After season 2 of Archer, I never thought they could make a funnier season of TV, with season 3 they somehow made maybe the funniest season of TV (at least for me). The great season 4 of Breaking Bad was not quite eclipsed by season 5, but was closer than I ever thought it’d be. And as I write this I’m wondering if Homeland can expound upon their near perfect first season. Louie is hard to judge as a whole, as the episodes are so different, content wise, from episode to episode. I liked season one, but didn’t really fall in love with the show until the second season, where C.K. really got the confidence to tell his stories, no matter how wacky, weird and depressing they may be. It’s really up in the air for me for what’s better, season two or season three? I loved season two, but the more I think about it season three just seemed more audacious. Whichever the case, I’m sure I’ll be going back and forth over which season is truly greater (not to mention the coming seasons), forgetting the fact all along that I should just shut up and be grateful I have all this great TV at my disposal in the first place.

Louie is a special show, because it allows its creator to practice auteurism within the medium of TV, creating a truly innovative show that reaps rewards for its faithfulness and vision in its content and technique. Louie embodies the auteur theory and allows a window into auteurism for TV, that remains as effective a showcase as any film director has amassed.