Cloud Atlas

November 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

“What is an ocean? But millions of droplets.” That line, spoken by one of the protagonists in the new Wachowski film “Cloud Atlas”, pretty much sums up the idea of the film in general. It also illustrates how empty headed this nearly 3 hour pseudointellectual exercise is.

It’s hard to really lay out the plot of this film, because it’s one of those movies that strings together a bunch of little vignettes to try to tell one singular narrative. In this case, your choices lead to consequences, which lead to legacies. That’s what the film is about, and it strains it until it becomes completely meaningless.

It takes a few different main characters, some played by the same actors, and tries to tell a story throughout time about people who all have choices to make. Their choices will change the futures of some of the characters, just like in real life, you know? The most interesting stories involve a journalist (played by the always appealing Halle Berry) uncovering a malicious nuclear plot that could destroy mankind, set in the 70’s; and a bisexual pianist who has been chosen by one of the greatest composers to flesh out his last masterpiece before he dies. The pianist, Robert Frobisher (played by Doona Bae), has to leave his lover, Sixsmith (played by James D’Arcy in one of the film’s only Oscar calibur roles), and in doing so, compromises his only true love for the love of himself and musical self-glory. This story is probably the most keen in bringing out what the film is about.

The film’s at its weakest and most groan inducing when it is in the future, where 2 of the stories are set. One looks straight out of “The Matrix”, in a place called Neo-Seoul, where servants are produced and re-produced to supplement the regular population. The other takes place deeper into the future, something that looks straight out of “The Time Machine”, where a tribal people led by Zachry (Tom Hanks) are ruled by a god that was actually one of the replicants from Neo-Seoul hundreds of years ago. The Neo-Seoul future is just preposterous and retread. But it’s at least somewhat entertaining. The tribal future is just downright silly, and there’s an annoying “demon” that honestly looks like Leprechaun popping up whenever the hero Zachry has a moral dilemma.

There are other plots involving a slave stowaway on a ship in the 1800’s, and a publisher who becomes the victim of his brother’s revenge after a debt is needed to pay off gangsters. The former is a bit stiff, and the latter is amusing but sometimes over the top in its attempt at humor. All of the stories, as I said, reuse the same actors. I would say that by the 6th incarnation of Tom Hanks, you’ll be rolling your eyes. There’s one version of Hugo Weaving that is supposed to be funny, I guess, but it really just comes off as ludicrous and stupid. And it’s somewhat disjointed in its attempt to be humorous because the rest of the film is supposed to be taken so seriously.

The nicest thing I can say about the film is that it’s ambitious. In the tradition of similar films that try and use different time periods to beat you over the head with a simple theme such as “Being Human” and “The Fountain”, “Cloud Atlas” tries too hard to be important, and doesn’t try hard enough to be engaging. The characters are never given enough screen time to be anything more than a guessing game of “OK which actor is this?” Behind the makeup (some of which is awful), it is hard to tell at times. And I’m sorry, but as much as Tom Hanks can be a fine actor–here it’s like he’s trying to be that fun uncle at a birthday party to trick the kids into thinking he’s 8 different people. But he is always Tom Hanks.

This film is based on a book, and I can imagine the book is not this abrasively eager. It could be equally ambitious; but a book can get away with that, because I’d imagine the characters are more fleshed out in the book. A film is constantly moving; you can’t sit there and ponder something when the film changes to something else. And this film doesn’t let up for a second with its story. You go from the middle of a story to the next, with no breather. It’s literally flipping back and forth, with its own agenda, and it’s up to you to keep up.

There are good performances by Jim Sturgess and the man who plays a slave, David Gyasi; and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant have some funny moments in their different roles. But as I said, you become so aware of who the actor is far more than who the character is, and that takes the emotional impact the film is going for right out of you. There are perhaps 2 moments where I “felt” the film. One of those involved the characters of Sixsmith and Frobisher. There’s a very nice moment where Frobisher has lured Sixsmith into thinking they’ll meet, and they never do. There is a wonderful subtle beauty to that scene, that moment, and that idea.

But the film never achieves take off with its ideas. Instead it uses narration to drum between the ears about its supposed thoughtfulness on life, the universe, and everything. And that ocean of droplets becomes nothing more than a body of water that can easily be flushed down a toilet, and never thought about again.

My rating: :?

The Hunger Games

April 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Oh, those dystopian futures. We can’t seem to escape them in arts and entertainment. The future is always bleak, and it’s always violent. This has been visited many times in film, including the screen adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “Blade Runner”, and “Children of Men”. This time, it’s not adults killing each other, though, it’s kids. This plot is almost identical to the film (also a book) “Battle Royale”, but with a few changes. This, too, is based on a popular novel series, by Suzanne Collins. Its protagonist is a girl, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who is known as a Tribute, when she “volunteers” for her sister who was selected in her District to partake in the annual Hunger Games, a tournament in which 24 Tributes (participants) compete in a battle to the death, and one sole survivor wins. That’s what I call March Madness.

The Districts are all controlled by the Capital, a place where the wealthy inhabitants look like a cross between a Star Trek convention and a Culture Club reunion. This Capital’s fascination with seeing adolescents fight to the death isn’t really explored in the film–except that I suppose it represents the harsh coldness of the ever oppressive government. This is what they’re willing to subject the people to. Oh, and it’s sort of “punishment” because at some point, one District decided to rebel against the Capital. So they control the Districts, which are all ravaged and starving, and they give these Hunger Games out as entertainment (they’re broadcast to all the Districts). They also have their own version of SportsCenter with two hosts, played amusingly and joyfully by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, who comment on the games while they go on, and Caesar (Tucci), interviews each participant before the Games.

Before the Games begin, there is a series of trainings by mentors, and Katniss is given Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner in District 12 and a drunk (but he serves more as just comic relief than anything else). He helps her along the way, and the boy from the same district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). During the interview process, Peeta reveals to Caesar on air that he has had a crush on Katniss, seemingly to spark a new interest in the two of them as they’re hyped as “star crossed lovers”.

The two of them initially don’t get along, but as Katniss recalls in a flashback, Peeta had tried to give her a loaf of bread in the rain. Instead of handing it to her, though, he merely threw it on the ground. She also mistrusts Peeta after his revelation of the crush he has because she thinks he’s only done it to gain favor by the audience. Haymitch is on Peeta’s side, however, and tells her to go along with it because it will help her chances as well.

Throughout the Games, Katniss survives by skills she had learned in her own homeland, including bow and hunting skills. She scores high during the training and is hunted by an alliance of other Districts. She escapes them with the help of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who forms an alliance with her. Meanwhile, she has to remain faithful to Peeta as rules begin to change, and her own feelings for him do as well.

The performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson are what make this film so captivating. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and some elements that seem to set up for a bigger pay off and don’t–but the genuine chemistry between these two cannot be denied and take you from beginning to end cheering for each of them in your own way.

There are a few logical problems I had with the structure of the Games themselves: everyone at the start is right in a circle. Normally, in a game where you fight to the death to win, wouldn’t everyone just clamor at the center, grab the biggest weapon, and kill everyone they could? That sort of happens, but some people just escape into the woods, leaving themselves to the elements. It seems like if this were an option, it would be a keener idea to drop them off at random points and let them find each other. Besides, according to the Gamemakers rules, they can change just about everything in the Games’ little universe. Everything from starting forest fires to creating mean little dog-like animals seems to be at a finger’s length. So why not just randomly put them in different parts of the forest? I also didn’t see much audience participation. It’s said that they could help the Tributes by sending aid. But the only person who does that is Haymitch, for his own District. And then I thought, if he’s doing that, where are the other mentors for the other Tributes? One of them dies by eating poisonous berries. Wouldn’t their mentor have told them about things like that to watch out for? There are some other contrivances but I’d have to give away some of the secrets of the plot and I don’t want to do that.

The main reason is, for all the nitpicking I could do, I still found myself enjoying it, even though the biggest flaw with it was in its inherent theme that it seemed to be completely ambiguous on whether this dystopian future is good or not. Sure it’s violent and it’s sad to see some of the Tributes die–but on the other hand, sometimes you’re rooting for some for them to die. If you’re trying to make a statement against humankind’s violence, that pretty much betrays your message. If you’re trying to say that this is the way mankind is, then why give us any humanity to side with at all? In the end, you do of course side with Katniss and Peeta. And you certainly have no choice but to be against the cocky Tributes from other Districts who are out to get our heroes. But in a world where the Capital is the ultimate villain, it just seemed like the film merely poked fun at the outrageous way the “infotainment” motif is exploited at the expense of the human lives.

This coming from the director of films like “Pleasantville”, Gary Ross, is somewhat curious to me. In the past he’s had no problem making statements about politics (“Dave”) and the human condition (“Big”) in amusing, heartwarming ways. With “Pleasantville”, even harshly critical ways. But here in “The Hunger Games”, he, like the Capital, just lets these kids go out and slaughter each other without saying much about it. While the ride is enjoyable, it leaves you a bit hollow afterwards. And for something with a premise that has this much gravity, that’s a bit of a disappointment.

My rating: :-)


July 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog, Home Video

Mike Judge, the prolific animator and voice talent turned filmmaker, took H.G. Wells’ envisioning of the future and turned its on its head in 2005. The release was a small one, and therefore the film has been re-discovered as a kind of cult classic in the past few years. The idea he works with is…what if 500 years from now, the world gets dumber and dumber to the point where everyone is stupid? And they still procreate just as much, if not more.

So instead of the Eloi and Morlocks, we just have one race of vastly dumb people and instead of regressing technologically, they’re actually more automated (though I wouldn’t say advanced).

The premise of this film is very promising; the execution actually left me wanting more. The film does work in its own right, and Judge seems to really have fun with the idea. But that’s all the film really is–a collection of funny ideas that never really comes together as a “true world” for the future.

For instance, there must be a few smart people still around to have invented some of the automated services provided (including a very amusing “menu system” at a hospital)–they couldn’t have all disappeared. I think it would’ve been interesting if there was a small society, shunned by the masses, living I guess *like* Morlocks, and even being imprisoned just for being smart.

The protagonist of the film, Joe (Wilson), is actually sent to prison because he doesn’t have the product ID number tattoo on his wrist. He also didn’t pay his hospital bill when he went to check himself out, since he is disoriented and sees a “doctor” (played by Justin Long in a short but funny role). The problem for Joe is, he was part of a military experiment to preserve human life in a pod, and have them in suspended animation for as long as the military wants–in this case, a year. But something goes wrong because the project is scrapped after its creator has some…other priorities it seems that upsets the board. But Joe and a companion, Rita (played by Maya Rudolph), are clumped up along with all the rubble made of the outpost in which the project was being conducted.

Rita is a prostitute, and she’s afraid her pimp Upgrayedd is going to find her. She and Joe are both unaware of how much time has passed when they first arrive in the future.

There are some really big laughs when we’re introduced to the year 2505, where our president (played outstandingly by Terry Crews) is basically the equivalent of a WWE Superstar. His name is funny, too: President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. There is no water (except out of the toilet); instead we have Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator, which is basically Gatorade–and has electrolytes! Because there’s no water, there are no crops growing and there’s a bad “ecomony” because of it.

This is kind of where the movie goes for jokes instead of creating a real satirical world. If water isn’t used for anything but toilets, I think the human population would eventually die out. And there’s no other real joke about the fact that life exists through Gatorade except that the stock is important to people making a living, apparently. When it crashes because Joe uses water to regrow the crops, it puts Joe’s life at risk. I think when he’s sent to prison, there’s just some missed comedy when you just have regular dumb inmates amidst other dumb people. It’d be much more compelling if there was still a separation of stupid, and if smart people were imprisoned because they were smart–and no one could understand them because of that. That’d also be a nice comment about ignorance and intolerance and would’ve given some more strength to the comedy.

I have mixed feelings about the movie because I did find it extremely funny throughout. Unlike “Office Space” which starts strong and ultimately gets bogged down by the weight of its plot, this film never really drags along or gets too heavy. There is always a laugh that will keep you going.

But at the same time, I would’ve really liked to see a more dystopian world that made sense. There are things that just don’t really add up if the population truly is that stupid. And I really think it would’ve benefited if there were other smart people. While Joe is given an IQ test and it’s made him “The Smartest Human Alive”, I think it would’ve been interesting if there were other people who became jealous of Joe and tried to overthrow him and the President.

It makes me wonder if Mike Judge truly thought out the Stupidity vs. Smart thing or if he wanted to just make fun of idiots and the oversaturation of advertising and corporations (every scene is littered with ads and logos).

The fashion jokes are funny, as are the misspelling of words (like “Time Masheen”); but that’s all the movie really is. I guess, in a way, that works fine. I guess I just wanted to see him really build this world and make it credible.The premise was too good to just have it full of “jokes”. I got some big laughs. But I can’t quite say this movie totally delivered.

My rating: :?