Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Love. Life. Freedom. That is what every being longs for. The struggle to find all in one’s lifetime, that is the battle beyond each being, that binds years, generations and descendants together in a tight tapestry through time.  This is the story of Cloud Atlas, the film by Lana and Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, adapted from David Mitchell‘s 2004 novel.  It’s several stories, actually, all interconnected and featuring the same actors in various roles throughout the time lines and across races and genders.  But the connections and conflicts all battle for the same goal, to find freedom, life and love.

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The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas describes the film as: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”  The interconnected stories are interwoven in the narrative, and can be quite confusing as the editing jumps between stories and time periods.  The mental gymnastics are done for greater emotional effect. You realize how one character’s actions in the past cause the reaction in the future, how we constantly face the same struggles and as Halle Berry‘s character states, “make the same mistakes over and over.”  The film is 164 minutes long, explores several themes and variations, but never bores and ultimately becomes a beautiful tale about the human experience.

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Cloud Atlas is amazingly ambitious.  The Wachowski’s were given a copy of the novel while filming V For Vendetta, by that film’s star, Natalie Portman.  The directors loved it, but the story was considered by many as unfilmable – the dense narrative and broken stories would be nearly impossible to translate to the big screen.  Tom Tyker joined the project, and financing was secured independently as the $140-million project frightened the conventional studios.  As the budget was spread across several investors, the film nearly stalled and died several times.  The Wachowski’s credit Tom Hanks as the driving force behind getting the crew, investors and other actors rolling in to production.  His commitment to the project shows through his roles, playing each of his characters with real strength, despite some weak accents.

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The film definitely has some problems, some that critics and audiences could not see past.  The makeup, in particular, was one horrible hurdle that was never quite reached. In many segments, the actors must play various roles with a variety of neoprene noses and questionable contact lenses, which makes them an object of distraction instead of a part of the order.  In addition, some segments of the story do not have the same emotional drive as the others.  But on the whole, I would rather watch an earnest, zealous attempt at something new in film over a safe, calculated collection attempt at a theater-goer’s pocket book. Any day. Any time. The high-reaching Cloud Atlas may not quite accomplish all that it attempts for all viewers, but it is still a beautiful, interesting, emotional, impressive, determined, soaring cinematic experience.  Because looking past “the same mistakes,” this is one film that really reaches for the stars to share its love, life and freedom with the world.

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Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Another experimental film.  Another film more concerned with experience and emotion than with a driven narrative.  Don’t think there’s no story to Upstream Color, because there is – and it’s fascinating – but it’s so hidden and dissected that it takes some time to mentally reassemble.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the film is written and directed by Shane Carruth, who directed the 2004 mind-blower, Primer.  And here, Carruth also serves as producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer.  That level of auteurity is pretty staggering.

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The story might be a little dense to try and describe, so I will quote directly from the film’s Sundance Film Festival program guide: “Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.”  It is science fiction, and body horror, but to an astonishingly controlled degree.  It is a cerebral, emotional thriller, but with none of the flash-bang of recent mind-benders like Inception, District 9 or Looper.  Those are all essentially intelligent action sci-fi films, with conventional adventure set pieces, archetypes and set pieces.  Upstream Color has none of those.  Its conflict is so internal, the battle in body and brain, that with editing we can assume what is happening, but have zero assurances.

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That said, if you have the patience, this is a film to be experienced.  It is a beauty to view, and amazingly was shot on a “consumer-grade” camera, a Panasonic Lumix GH2, with Voigtlander and Rokinon lenses.  From The Hollywood Reporter, “the experience of watching the film… is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves in a way that’s especially mesmerizing during this first section,” and  “Carruth’s is a cinema of impressions and technique, not overt meaning.”  The sound design and score is equally as impressive, carefully edited and toned to balance and brand the images.  As one character is composing music to the microscopic madness, we realize how bound is the brain to tone, timing and theory.

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As Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times said, “Color is somehow at once emotionally direct, while narratively abstract.”  It reminds of the intimacy of image of Terrence Malick, the internal horror of David Cronenberg and the philosophy of ‘reality’ of Béla Tarr.  With a little time, a little devotion, a lot of concentration and discussion once the film has finished, Upstream Color could become one of those movies you never fully understand and ultimately never forget.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors

A movie about movies is not new.  But Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” is not “Day For Night” or “The Last Picture Show.”  It is not a narrative melodrama highlighting the process of production or the struggles of the stars.  It is not about the movie within a movie.  It is about cinema. It is about role playing.  It is about acting, be it in art or the many faces we wear in our everyday lives.

Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) is driven in a white limo to various appointments throughout the day, transforming himself from beggar to motion-capture artist, to monster, to dying uncle and more. Acting each part as assigned, but never to a camera. Never to an audience. Never to a conclusion. Each part is brief and unexplained.  The why is never answered, the film only shows the how.  But even the how becomes unclear as Oscar escapes police, judgment and even death without an explanation.  The typical tools of cinema do not apply in “Holy Motors,” as the vignettes of Oscar’s scenes flip from horror to gangster to musical.  Archetypes are abandoned and the narrative a mosaic of fractured pieces, only realized days later after hours pondering the picture.

This type of film, which leaves you thoroughly entertained but thoughtfully perplexed, is extremely rare. The intellectual engagement it requires is part of the risk and reward of the viewer.  Casual viewers will hate it.  Committed cinephiles should love it.  And, most astonishing in our media-saturated society, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Tempers flare, ice caps melt, but is it more than ‘gator flashing in the pan?  One of the most divisive films of the year, Beasts of the Southern Wild, creates a hero’s odyssey for a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy.  Portrayed by an amazing-find local actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy lives alone next to her single-dad, Wink. Her mother is nothing more than an imaginary friend in a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey or a blinking light in the horizon.  When a giant storm hits their levee-leveled Louisiana community, a glacier sends prehistoric beasts their way, the residents are forcibly relocated, the levees must be destroyed and Hushpuppy must find a cure for her ailing father before the beasts come or he before Wink dies.

Sound a little confusing and convoluted? It is.  Sound daring and original? It is that too.  The film, championed through development via various film festivals and a huge grant by nonprofit Cinereach, is a labor of love by a group of filmmakers calling themselves Court 13.  Based on a one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, the film is really a love letter to Louisiana and the free-wheeling, free-living and free-loving spirit of that community. The film’s visuals and performances are the strongest points, with non-actors playing most parts and the film being shot by artists on grainy, saturated 16mm film.  The narrative is where the film suffers, feeling fairly cobbled, crude and confusing. As an experimental film, it works. As an emotional narrative, it’s a bit harder to really connect with the story, as it bounces and bobs like a buoy blasted by the storm.  A visually-stunning, non-traditional film can still connect with a narrative a little more easily, as shown in this year’s Life of Pi, by Ang Lee. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is still most definitely worth watching. It shows a people, place, population and culture rarely featured in a feature film. And it has one of the most commanding young actresses in film staring down the beasts of the wild and a beast of a film.

Rise of the Guardians

Rise Of The Guardians

Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. The Sand Man. Jack Frost.  Who knew that when the children of Earth are threatened, the Man in the Moon calls upon these Guardians to fight the dark forces rising?  William Joyce, the author of the series of children’s books on which Rise of the Guardians is based, has created an Avengers for kids – only it’s not just the kids who will appreciate this film.  Guardians is on the level of Pixar’s The Incredibles, a creative animated take on a superhero genre, this time recruiting legendary folk and fable heroes to lead the charge.

The Guardians rise to fight off the Boogeyman, here named Pitch Black. Pitch is forgotten and ignored, and wishes to come out from underneath beds and dark closets.  His plans include dark dreams and horrible nightmares, dashing the dreams and holidays of children worldwide, which will increase his powers and destroy those of the Guardians.  Jack Frost is selected to join the team as he is key to defeating Pitch, but the Guardians will have to learn to work together to save the spirit of childhood.

Not since The Incredibles have I sat in a theater, slack-jawed and laughing constantly at how clever a movie can be. This is animation post-Shrek. No pop-culture pun crutches required. No flat animation with an endless depth-of-field. No simple Platonic hero’s journey, insert character’s name here. No cover band pop soundtrack to sell to the boomers.  No… This is a beautifully animated, fast paced, heart touching ode to Victorian fairy tales living in a modern age.  The story is fairly simple and straight-forward, but most children’s stories are. Here, the real wonder is in the attention to action scenes, art design and heart strings, carefully crafting a real bond between the film and the viewer as we learn how each character cares for their calling, creating the wonder and will of childhood too quickly abandoned.  Guardians reminded me of how it felt to be a child, imagining the team-up that would happen if Santa Claus was a hardened Russian ready to kick some ass with a giant Easter Bunny if someone messed with their cookies, kids or eggs.

The reception to this film has sadly been luke-warm, but I hope it gets enough word of mouth to earn a sequel or two.  There are too many fun stories and more opportunities to bring in other mythical heroes and villains, and as fully-realized as Rise of the Guardians truly is, it left me craving more, more, more.  And as Santa (Mr. North) says, “We bring wonder and hope, we bring joy and dreams. We are the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy, we are the Easter Bunny, and Santa. And our powers are greater than you ever imagine…”

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Beyond The Black Rainbow

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In 1983, a young woman is locked away at a state-of-the-art experimental facility, doped and duped into controlling her special powers by a demented doctor.  Held prisoner, her psychedelic reality is pushed to the test as the doctor’s sanity begins slipping, and the young woman must escape the facility before it is too late.

Originally released in 2010, Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow was finally released on home video in 2012. And it is easily the best movie of this year.  The art design, lensing, soundtrack by Sinoia Caves all polish the plastic of perceived reels of an unremembered ’80s.  What seems like homage to dated John Carpenter-ripoffs that went straight to video and Saturday-afternoon poor programming, playing after American Ninja and Battle Beyond the Stars, turns out to be a slow-burning, deeply disturbing horror movie.  After viewing the trailer, I expected the film to be even more experimental, something like the hallucinations of Enter the Void.  But instead, I found a patient portent building to unexpected excitement, thrills and horror.  What some may view as pretentious, I found perceptive, and the film ends up feeling like a horror-ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey, filling frames with careful compositions and technological terrors.

If you enjoy a tribute to an ’80s-that-never-was, slow-moving but rousing psychological horror films, then pick up Beyond the Black Rainbow now, and imagine dusting off that chipped-plastic cover from your gas station Video Rental, slip it in your top-loading VCR, press Play and fade in to the Black Rainbow.

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