Friday, October 26, 2012

Dull Sameness: Cloud Atlas

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

On Monday the 22nd of October, 2012, I had to attend a screening of Cloud Atlas. This meant missing the majority of the game in which the Giants clinched the National League title; missing the subsequent city-wide celebration; and missing roughly three hours of my life.

But I promise that's not why I didn't like Cloud Atlas.

I didn't read the book it was based on, but now I think I might, mainly because I want to know what all the fuss was about, and also because there's no way it can be any worse than the movie.

Now, the movie isn't an unmitigated disaster. But it's filled with missteps, is way more ambitious than the skills of its (three) directors, and is, as a whole, a bit of a mess.

Essentially, it's six movies in one, set in six different time periods, featuring the same actors in all.

The earliest story, set in the mid 1800's, centers on a young man, (Jim Sturgess), making a journey across the Pacific Ocean on a slave ship, while being treated by a shady doctor, (Tom Hanks), for a mysterious malady

Robert Frobisher, (Ben Whishaw), and Rufus Sixsmith, (James D'Arcy), are lovers in early 1930's England who, after a brief affair, maintain contact through letters after Frobisher leaves for a job as musical assistant to an aging composer, played by Jim Broadbent.

Halle Berry is the center of the next story, set in 1973 San Francisco. (And by San Francisco, I mean Majorca. If you're going to try and convince me that's San Francisco, at least get the color of our street signs right!) She's an investigative reporter named Luisa Rey, working on a story about a nuclear power plant.

Present day England follows, with Jim Broadbent now a literary agent with a dangerous client, (Hanks again, doing the worst cockney accent, EVER), who is tricked by his brother, (Hugh Grant), into going into hiding at an old age home.

A futuristic Korea is the setting of the dystopian chapter, featuring Doona Bae as a clone amongst thousands, all designed to work in the service industry. She is freed by a young man, (Sturgess again, this time with creepy, fake Asian eyes), educated, and eventually leads a rebellion.

Jump ahead many years, (or "106 After the Fall"), and Tom Hanks is now a fur clad caveman living in fear of cannibals that look like Day of the Dead revelers mated with 1960's Hollywood's version of Native Americans. Halle Berry is a visitor from a more civilized area of Earth, hoping to find someone to guide her to a mountaintop so she can summon a deus ex machina to save humanity. More or less. I'm not entirely sure, because this part of the movie has the characters speaking in some futuristic patois that is so hard to understand, it had me wishing for a closed captioning option within the theater.

These stories aren't told chronologically, but instead, the film jumps from era to era. Along with the main actors, there are some supporting actors who also appear in each story, like Keith David, and Hugo Weaving. And the lead actor in one story will often appear as a supporting actor in another.

Sometimes it's fun spotting these actors as they bounce from era to era. But at other times it's just plain laughable, because the directors didn't trust that the audience would understand the actors were actually playing different characters, and instead pile on the most distracting fake noses, prosthetics, and spooky contact lenses to ever grace a movie that wasn't about werewolves, in an attempt to alter the appearance of the actors from story to story.

Most of the stories have to do with freedom and enslavement, power and weakness. Most of them. And therein lies another big problem with the movie. Once I saw the connections between some of the stories, I was looking for how all the stories and characters are supposed to be connected, when in fact, sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't.

Sometimes it's painfully obvious we're dealing with the same "soul" as it travels from story to story, (there's a totally corny birthmark many of them share). And sometimes there's a male actor in drag just...because. And that's nothing but distracting.

Perhaps it would be less of a distraction if the stories were told chronologically. But the movie jumps from story to story, and sometimes those jumps are really jarring. The tone of the modern day story about the old age home is very light and funny, (and therefore the film's most enjoyable as well), but when they jump from a bunch of old people "fighting the power," to say, ANY of the other stories, it's just a huge downer.

I would have loved it if each of the stories was treated like a different genre of film. And with two Wachowskis and one Tom Twyker directing, it seems like that could have been a relatively easy thing to do. Instead, all of the stories have a dull sameness that drains the film of any real surprise. They went for inspiring, but let me tell you this: I'm sure that Giants game lifted more souls than this movie ever will.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Cat People was my introduction to Nastassja Kinski, so I had not yet seen 1979's Tess at this point in 1982. So when it came to the York Theater, I was all over it.

Now, there's no doubt she fits the role as far as looks is concerned; she's just stunningly beautiful in it. But I think she got some criticism for her performance. Personally, I think she's fine, and I find her attempts at a Wessex accent kind of charming. But I can totally seeing sticklers taking issue with it...

After seeing the movie, I read the book, and quite liked it. I think it benefited me to have seen the movie first, as it made the book easier to follow, and the language a little less impenetrable. About a year later in school, we started reading books by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and others, mainly Victorian novels, or a little earlier. But I stuck with Thomas Hardy, and to this day, prefer Tess to anything by Jane Austen.

I also had this Tess poster on my wall for years, never really considering a poster with the word "rape" on it might not have been the best thing to really draw the boys to me....

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

If it seems like a long time between posts, it has been. I will admit I skipped one day (October 3rd, and a third viewing of E.T., mainly because I just couldn't remember where I saw it), but really it's because, apparently, I didn't see anything between October 3rd and October 23rd in 1982. Which seems weird! I don't know what was going on in my life back then that I wasn't finding any time for movies, but apparently, there was a lot.

But the release of a new Halloween movie was what got me to the movies once again, on the opening night of Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Whiiiiiiich, was a huge flop. The concept: to bank on the Halloween movie brand name, and release a new Halloween-themed movie every year that had nothing to do with the previous Halloween movies was, in hindsight, pretty dumb. All they managed to do was piss off people who were thinking they were going to see Michael Myers's return, and didn't, and also piss off people who knew it wasn't a "real" sequel by releasing a movie that was...kinda dumb.

Looking back on it now, I can kind of appreciate it because it's so preposterous. It's basically the story of mad scientist who hates kids and wants to melt their heads. And somehow, Stonehenge is involved. What's not to like?

If it were just that, with no ties to the Halloween franchise it...well, it probably would have still been a flop. But it was just plain doomed with that marketing behind it.

I saw it at the Alhambra, and I am not sure if both of my parents came with or not. I remember the theater was pretty packed--a sold-out crowd of disappointment!

And despite thinking it was kind of dumb, I still bought one of the tie-in masks featured in the movie. It was insanely cheap for something that was actually pretty high quality, glowed in the dark, and I wore it on more than one Halloween. To wit:

In fact, I still have it, and every Halloween, I put it on and watch this:

Still have my head, too. SO FAR.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Absolutely Terrific: Argo

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm not sure why I continued to have doubts about Ben Affleck: Director. His previous efforts, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town are both very good movies. And that might have been the issue: those movies were good, but they weren't great. But with his third movie, Ben Affleck: Director has solidly moved into the "great" column. Argo is absolutely terrific.

I know I tend to talk about how preferable it is to go into some movies knowing very little about them, but this isn't just because of possible spoilers, or learning about plot twists. Sometimes not knowing what kind of movie you're getting into can make it a much more enjoyable experience.

In the case of Argo, not knowing the history it was based on makes the movie surprising, and one of the most edge-of-your-seat thrillers you'll ever see. I just can't fathom enjoying the film as much if you know the outcome.

And that is actually kind of a sad thing to admit, since I am essentially saying I am a complete ignoramus who didn't even know about the events depicted in the movie, (aside from the hostages part), despite them happening within my lifetime, AND I am hoping the majority of the audience is just as ignorant.

Sure, some of it was kept secret until 1997, (specifically, America's involvement), but the shell story was public knowledge, and in fact was even made into a film before, (a TV movie called Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper).

The basic plot is this: In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was overtaken by a mob of Iranians angry about America's support of the Shah, and his political asylum within the U.S. They, and much of Iran, wanted the Shah returned to the country so they could try him, and execute him.

Sixty-nine employees of the embassy were taken hostage, but six were able to slip out unnoticed, and make their way to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, (played by Victor Garber) and his wife, where they were forced to remain hidden.

CIA Agent Tony Mendez, (Affleck), is given the task of figuring out how to get the Americans out. While the CIA is focused on giving them flimsy covers as teachers on a biking trip to the border, Mendez hatches one of those "if this were in a movie, no one would believe it" plans. And in fact, it is a movie. A fake movie. Mendez plans to give them covers as a Canadian film crew in Iran scouting locations for an Arabian-influenced space movie titled...Argo.

In order to make the fake movie look as real as possible, Mendez employs special effects make-up man John Chambers, best known for his work on the Planet of the Apes movies, (John Goodman), and a cynical veteran movie producer, (hilariously played by Alan Arkin), to create a credible cover, including the optioning of the script, the creation of trade paper ads and storyboards, and a table read/press event.

This part of the story is pure fun, and takes the movie into the realm of insider comedy, especially when the wisecracking movie vets utter such lines as, "If I'm gonna make a fake movie, it's gonna be a fake hit," and "Can you teach someone to be a director in a day?," "You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

Once Mendez gets to Iran, the film turns into an intense bit of suspense, and that's where I'll stop with the plot details, and hope for your shared ignorance in how everything ultimately turned out.

Now, I'm not so naive as to believe that every aspect of the movie is factual. Much of the second half of the film is played up--way up--for the sake of suspense. But it's a pleasing bit of irony that Affleck has made a movie about planning a fake movie, and it's filled with falsities that actually help to make it an almost perfect Hollywood production. The irony gets even bigger when you realize that the story that was sold to world for years as fact was, largely, a lie.

So, yeah, it will have detractors who will condemn its selling of yet another legend over fact. But to them I can only quote directly from the movie itself and say, "Argo fuck yourself."