Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas Movie Review

It’s not often that a truly ambitious movie hits theaters. It’s also pretty rare when a movie that focuses on theme more than story or narrative remains very interesting. Lana and Tom Wachowski (who directed The Matrix) wrote and directed this innovative piece of cinema with the help of Tom Tykwer and brought us an enigmatic movie called Cloud Atlas (2012).
Cloud Atlas is 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 the centuries to inspire a revolution. Everything is connected: an 1849 diary of an ocean voyage across the Pacific; letters from a composer to his friend; a thriller about a murder at a nuclear power plant; a farce about a publisher in a nursing home; a rebellious clone in futuristic Korea; and the tale of a tribe living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, far in the future. Each member of the cast ensemble appears in multiple roles as the different stories move through time.
Cloud Atlas is an impossible movie to summarize; that really was the best way to condense it. There are a total of six stories being told; they are interrelated and interwoven stories that span centuries. The stories have a chronology to them with a unique setting and set of characters. The stories are all told simultaneously, switching back and forth between each story. Usually the transition between the stories is logical, such as switching rapidly back and forth between two stories that both have chase scenes. Other times the transition is less logical, such as a suspenseful moment being interrupted by a calmer scene in another story, then returning to the suspenseful scene.
This makes the movie somewhat disorienting at times, but really makes you think about what the feeling, theme, and idea the movie is trying to communicate. According to David Mitchell (the author of the novel Cloud Atlas was based on), the movie is structured “as a sort of pointillist mosaic: We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward.”
A sizeable cast is used for Cloud Atlas. The cast includes Jim Sturgess, Tom Hanks, David Gyasi, Bae Doona, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Halle Berry, and Ben Whishaw. Listing the characters that these actors play in Cloud Atlas would take a lot of space. Each actor is in each of the six stories, but playing different characters in each one. In so doing, the movie explores the concepts of reincarnation and how our actions have far reaching effects in a way that I have never seen in a movie before. It was fascinating to see how different souls kept finding each other in different lives.
The actors, Tom Hanks in particular, act very differently between stories as they play different characters. Sometimes they are depicted as different ethnicities and sometimes even different genders. Seeing Hugo Weaving dressed as a very convincing female nurse was a bit odd. But so was seeing Jim Sturgess with a makeup job that made him look Korean. The makeup jobs weren’t always convincing, but it did get the point across.
The art direction was absolutely stunning. Camera techniques were captivating, the sets and costumes were stunning, the special effects were spectacular, and even the color pallet and designs were different from story to story; it was simply fascinating to watch! Some of the stories were more action based, while others were more calm and emotional, but they were presented in such a way that really draws you in. Cloud Atlas hooks you right from the beginning and doesn’t let go.
Cloud Atlas is very artistic, somewhat abstract, and a very unconventional means of structuring a movie. Because it’s so artistically complex and unlike anything else out there, I could very easily see some viewers not enjoying it. I even saw some audience members at the theater I attended leave before the movie was over. Cloud Atlas took a non-traditional narrative, impressionistic, and even a poetic approach. There was meaningfully implemented profanity, and sex scenes. That is to say it wasn’t simply junk thrown in to give it a higher rating. I didn’t find it offensive, but it’s still not something to show young viewers.
Cloud Atlas was incredible. It was fascinating to watch, captivating, and really makes you think. At two hours and forty-five minutes it’s a very long movie, but not once did I feel bored. I felt like I was viewing some mesmerizing abstract art. And like any abstract art, Cloud Atlas will not appeal to everyone. If you see it and really enjoy it, I can sympathize. If you see it and are completely confused or even hate it, I can totally understand your reasoning. I don’t expect Cloud Atlas to make much in the box office; I don’t think it will appeal to most viewers because it’s so unusual. But I enjoyed it, and I want to see it again to try to understand more of what this film is trying to say. If Cloud Atlas sounds like something you might enjoy, I recommend seeing it, possibly twice. If it sounds too strange for you, then it probably is and I’d avoid it. Nevertheless, I think I would like to own a copy of this on Blu-Ray. It’s such an intriguing work of cinematic art.

Have you ever seen an experimental film? What did you think about it? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hocus Pocus Movie Review

I’ve said before that I don’t particularly care for horror movies in general. During the Halloween Holiday it can be tricky to find some good “Halloween Movies” that aren’t simply slasher horror flicks. There are a couple of good ones out there that are both fun and family-friendly, like Hocus Pocus for example.
300 years have passes since The Sanderson Sisters were executed in Salem, Massachusetts for practicing witchcraft. Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) used a spell before being hung to ensure they would return on Halloween to exact revenge upon Salem. The Sanderson Sisters have become a legend in Salem, and their old home a tourist attraction. Newly transplanted from California, Max (Omri Katz) explores the tourist destination, daring the witches to manifest themselves. Disregarding warnings of his sister Dani (Thora Birch) and his new girlfriend Allison (Vinessa Shaw), Max actually causes The Sanderson Sisters to appear to wreak havoc on the town. The kids take off with the witches’ spell book. The witches, who will die by daybreak if they can’t cast the proper spell for immortality, have to get the book back by whatever means they can.
Hocus Pocus is a great family-friendly Halloween film. Witches, magic, black cats, trick-or-treating, and even a zombie all run amuck in this film. And yet, they aren’t depicted in such a way that would induce trauma in the kid viewers. There are a few scenes when the witches are attempting to drain the life force out of small children that might spook some younger viewers. But since the target audience is in fact children, I’d say the movie is probably best for kids age 8 or 10 and up.
The movie has a lot of energy, but has a weak plot and two-dimensional characters. Max is the usual teenage new kid trying to fit in, Dani is the token obnoxious younger sibling, and Allison does very little other than be a girlfriend. I did appreciate the fact that Max and Dani are depicted as being at odds with one another, but still very clearly love each other. I don’t see siblings in movies that openly love and care for each other very often; they usually just fight and argue.
With three big-name actresses playing The Sanderson Sisters, I’d expect a bit more from the dialogue. I’d assume Bette Midler would know good lines when she sees them, but she (and Najimy and Parker) goes into hyper mode and uses loud, boisterous delivery to help hide the fact that the dialogue is silly and simplistic. Nevertheless, The Sanderson Sisters are an amusing set of comical villains. They take on some Three Stooges style physical humor, they speak in Old English, and scenes when they encounter modern technology are usually pretty funny. Winifred, as the main antagonist, is particularly nasty, but the characters aren’t developed enough to really inspire the audience to hate these villains.
Part of what makes Hocus Pocus so appealing to me is having old, magical mythological beings in a modern setting. They are comically out of sorts with the rest of the world. When the Sanderson Sisters misplace their brooms, they need to improvise by raiding a broom closet. They then fly off on a dollar store broom, a mop, and a vacuum cleaner. Max tricks the witches a few times into thinking he has magic powers by using modern technology like overhead fire extinguishers. The magic-meets-modern setting makes for some amusing contrasts and ironic scenes that are just fun. Unrealistic, yes, but fun. It makes me want to see more modern day monster-hunting type of films.
The special effects are actually pretty good for 1993. One of my favorite scenes was when Max and the girls are driving away in an SUV and the witches start flying alongside the car, trying to get the kids inside. We see exterior shots of the witches swooping down upon the vehicle, and interior shots where we see the witches closing in outside the window.
Was Hocus Pocus good? From a film critic’s standpoint, no not really. Was it fun? Absolutely! I like this film a lot. Bette Midler is even quoted saying that "Hocus Pocus was the most fun I'd had in my career up to that point."  It’s a great family Halloween movie. It will appeal more to kid audiences, but it’s also got a nostalgic appeal to adults who enjoyed it as kids back in 1993. Hocus Pocus had a much greater success in sales as a home video, and has gained a cult classic status. I recommend seeing Hocus Pocus. It recently became available on Blu-Ray for the first time on Septermber 4, 2012; and I want a copy. It’s one of the best Halloween movies out there in my opinion.

What is your favorite Halloween movie? Let’s assume you’re probably going to say Hocus Pocus. Apart from Hocus Pocus, what is your favorite Halloween movie? Comment below and tell me what it is!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hanna Movie Review

I like genre blending stories. They can juxtapose storytelling tropes that ordinarily wouldn’t go together and by proximity they take on a new, interesting quality. Shaolin Soccer, for example, combined a sports movie with a Kung Fu movie and made a very extraordinary and entertaining movie. Hanna (2011) combined the cat-and-mouse chase spy movie with subtle elements of a fairy tale, giving us a fascinating movie.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a unique teenage girl. She has the strength, stamina, and the smarts of a soldier. These skills come from being raised by her father, Erik (Eric Bana) an ex-CIA man, in the wilds of Finland. Living a life unlike any other teenager, her upbringing and training have been one and the same; all geared to making her a perfect assassin. The turning point in her adolescent life is a sharp one; sent out into the world by her father on a mission, Hanna Journeys stealthily across Europe while eluding agents dispatched after her by a ruthless intelligence operative, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). But as Hanna nears her target, she is faced with startling revelations about her existence and some disturbing questions about her humanity.
Hanna is a foreign film; a British-German action thriller with some subtle fairy tale qualities to it. These aren’t really overt; they are just subtle enough to make you think of a fairy tale allegory while enjoying some great action scenes. You can imagine a young princess being raised secluded from dangers in the world by her father, you can picture the prowling big bad wolf henchman who is stalking the innocent little girl as she travels through a strange environment, you can also easily picture Marissa as the wicked step mother wanting to stop the young princess, or even kill her. Even Hanna’s character is like a blend of Black Widow from The Avengers and Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled. She’s a highly intelligent killing machine that exhibits a na├»ve sense of awe and wonder as she explores the world she has been cut off from. There isn’t really any magic or fantasy element in Hanna; it really is an action spy movie. But the beautifully subtle parallels to some of Grimm’s cautionary tales are hard to ignore.
The action sequences were remarkably well shot and choreographed. There was no real shaky cam to obscure the action; everything was meaningfully filmed and gave us a very clear image of what was happening. The director, Joe Wright, proves to us that action doesn’t need to be mindless. Even during scenes that are largely CGI and no actual human bodies are present, they are still well choreographed, making some truly beautiful action scenes.
There were a few times when the camera is following Hanna as she leaps, crawls, and flips around obstacles and she simply disappears from the shot and then turns a corner back into the same shot. It develops Hanna’s character by showing us that she is thinking a step or two ahead of us and is faster than our eye can keep up with. In several scenes in the movie, there were very long, sweeping shots that were remarkably well filmed. In one instance, Eric is arriving at an airport and the camera follows him from the terminal to a subway without any cuts. As we watch him walk from different angles we see CIA agents obscured from his vision but not from ours as they close in on him. The cinematography really is impressive in Hanna and it keeps it interesting.
A lot of action movies (and fairy tale movies for that matter) have over-the-top fantasy violence. Has anyone ever thought a James Bond movie was realistic? Hanna remains pretty well grounded, though, especially when she repeatedly encounters an ordinary British family on vacation. The family has a daughter named Sophie (Jessica Barden) who is probably the first girl her age that Hanna has ever met, and Sophie’s family is the first normal family she has ever seen. Scenes with the family are usually humorous, but it adds a touch of reality to the story that keeps the movie from going too far overboard in its own action-based exuberance.
As foreign films go, Hanna was quite good. The only bad thing I can say about it is it left a few loose ends unresolved. I didn’t get the feeling it was hoping for a sequel, but if the movie had gone maybe 5 more minutes to establish just a little more closure, it would have been perfect. There’s still something disquieting about a little girl who has been made into a ruthless killing machine; that alone says something about our views of gender roles. How would we have felt if Hanna was a 16-year-old boy?  Still, it’s great to see a strong female protagonist in a lead role. I liked Hanna, and I recommend seeing it. I didn’t love it enough to want my own copy, but it was well worth renting. Also, you should watch more foreign films.

What is your favorite cat-and-mouse style chase movie? Is it a spy movie like James Bond? Is it a sci-fi action movie like Predator? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Funny Girl Movie Review

It used to be the case where watching a big budget, major motion picture was a highly cultural event. Theater attendees would probably dress up like they would for a night at the opera, the movie would have overture before the opening credits, an intermission, and fully orchestrated exit music. Ben-Hur (1959) is an example of this, as is Funny Girl (1968). Ben-Hur was an epic tale which deserved such presentation. Funny Girl, though it was good, didn’t seem to have a big enough story to justify its production costs.
Funny Girl is loosely based on the life and career of Broadway and film star and comedienne Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand). Set just prior to and following the First World War, the awkward “New Yawker” Fanny Brice fast-talks her way into show business, certain that she’s destined to be “The Greatest Star.” She is later hired as a dramatic singer by impresario Flo Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon). Unable to follow orders to play drama, she turns her role in a “Beautiful Bride” tableau into a laugh riot by dressing herself up as an extremely pregnant newlywed. This stunt turns her into an overnight star and the toast of Broadway. Her comedic public image hides her imperfect private life as the wife of big-time gambler Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif). Nick at first finds it amusing to be referred to as “Mr. Brice,” but he begins to resent his wife’s fame and fortune and starts taking foolish risks with other people’s money.
In general, I enjoy musicals. Musicals have to be crafted very meticulously and carefully. Musicals can go one of two ways; they either have meaningful songs and musical numbers that complement the tone of the story and develop the characters well, or they rely too much on fun musical numbers that have nothing to do with the story or characters, thus weakening the film. Funny Girl seems to fall in the latter category. The songs are alright, but they don’t really modify the story or move it forward. Funny Girl has a bland romantic story with almost illogical vaudeville interludes here and there. Only a couple of them reflect what is happening in the story or to the characters, the rest are just filler that does nothing but reemphasize the fact that Brice does theater.
Funny Girl was Barbra Streisand’s first film role, and she did so well that she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. That is pretty much where the good acting ends in this film. All the supporting characters are very dull, predictable, and poorly acted. They’re almost mechanical in their delivery. I enjoy a good romantic story, but this was just dreadful melodrama. Streisand, by contrast, blows them all out of the water and steals the show. She really makes everyone who isn’t Barbra Streisand look like a petty supporting character. Streisand doesn’t just sing these songs, she acts them. She is expressive, has excellent comedic timing, and is genuinely fun to watch.
It seems strange to say that a movie looked too good for what it was, but that is the case for Funny Girl. The sets were huge, elaborate, and detailed. Even if the set was used only once or twice, it was still too big for the action that was occurring onscreen. For example, the scene when Fanny and Nick finally have a chance to talk for the first time there is a huge, expansive set they stroll around while talking. They are the only ones on set, no background action to capture, and the actors don’t move all that much. It looks okay, I suppose, but it really draws attention to the fact that they are on a set and the production has lots of money to spare. There are also elaborate, sweeping camera shots and wide angles used to captivate events that just aren’t that grandiose. There’s a scene that shows us one of Fanny’s first stage performances, but the camera is so far back away from the stage itself we see less of what she is doing and more of the elaborate set in the peripherals. The movie almost seems to be trying to show us how much money went into the production rather than tell us a story.
Funny Girl isn’t necessarily bad, just over-produced, over-photographed, and really long. During the second act, there are fewer musical numbers and the pace of the movie slows down considerably. This really draws attention to the small scope the movie has and emphasizes the leaden melodrama and poor acting of everyone who isn’t Barbra Streisand. Streisand really is stunning in this film, and makes the whole thing worth watching; I can’t praise her enough for her acting job in Funny Girl, it’s so expressive and full of quirky subtleties that are uniquely hers. This was, of course, before she became one of the most obnoxiously egocentric entertainers in the world. Overall, I didn’t enjoy Funny Girl very much and if not for Streisand, I would have flat out hated it. If you enjoy watching movies that are pretty, have fun musical numbers, and aren’t bothered by poor acting, you’ll likely love this movie and I’d recommend seeing it. If you find extravagant camera work visually distracting, unjustified musical numbers annoying, and weak romantic stories boring, I’d steer clear of this one.

Do you have a favorite Barbra Streisand movie? What is it and why do you like it so much? Comment below and tell me why!