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1
Mar

Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Though just about anyone, from the most experienced critic to a casual moviegoer, can consider it a success or a failure, what cannot be denied is that “Cloud Atlas,” directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, has vision and it dares to ask us what we should expect from the movies as an art form and as a source of entertainment.

The plot does not hold much significance. And it does not need to. It is understandable that we are resistant of it, either only initially or throughout, because we are used to recognizing a template and seeing it build from the ground up. This one starts in the middle while floating on air. Right away it begins grow a trunk, all the way down until it takes root, as it simultaneously builds height and eventually bears fruit. Having a story unfold this way is frustrating, certainly. During its opening scenes I was confused. I wondered with crumpled brow when or if it was going to go anywhere worthwhile. After some time I gave up. But not on the movie. I gave up trying to make sense of it through a conventional lens.

To evaluate it in terms of plot, I think, is a misstep, a limitation in part of the perceiver. In essence, the film’s message is somewhere along the lines of a person’s action (or inaction) having a rippling effect across time and space. We track these decisions across six stories, each subsequent piece at least forty to a hundred years apart. They are interwoven to make an elegiac quilt. Actors play different characters regardless of their gender and race. Some of us might be distracted by the makeup; I was not. The focus is on the big picture: humans putting stamp on our home planet and beyond.

Each segment varies in level of curiosity and emotional impact. Most beautifully executed is one that begins in 1936 Cambridge as Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), with hopes of being hired by a renowned musician (Jim Broadbent) as an amanuensis. Frobisher thinks that by being around a person of considerable talent, he will learn to become a great composer someday. Under the direction of Tykwer, showing the images of Frobisher writing letters to Sixsmith along a voiceover that reads its contents as the score yearns and laments, creates a period piece with magnetic pull. We do not get to know the main players inside and out, but a lot of us, I imagine, will be able to relate to former or existing feelings of being young and wanting to accomplish so much that eventually we end up sacrificing more than we should.

Also compelling, but to a lesser degree, is the the Wachowskis’ love story between a clone named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo (Jim Sturgess), member of a rebel group who shows her the reality of Neo Seoul 2144. What they have is forbidden. It is predictable that they are hunted by government agents and there are rapid-fire shootouts. Impressive special and visual effects are employed. But how do you know when a love story works? Here is one answer: When you know what is going to happen and yet you root for reality to turn out differently. In this case, the romance is told through flashbacks as Sonmi-451 is interviewed by an Archivist (D’Arcy) before she is put to death.

Two stories fail to take off: the 1849 voyage in the Pacific Ocean, directed by the Wachowskis, and the 1973 nuclear reactor conspiracy in San Francisco, directed by Tykwer. With the former, it is mostly composed of familiar elements of a white man (Sturgess) recognizing slavery of black people, through Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway, for what it really is. As shown here, it is difficult buy into a character somehow overcoming racial attitudes when the story is told only superficially. With the latter, Louisa (Halle Berry), a journalist, is mostly boring. Instead of really making us understand how her deceased father is major force behind her motivations, going as far as putting her life on the line, we are simply given shots of her glancing at his picture and then looking sad.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is not short on ambition. Two of the six parts are weak compared to the others but they are not so dull that they break the film’s overall rhythm. Also, I would have liked to have the birthmark, shaped like a comet, to have been delved into. The movement across time and back is so fluid that it is almost like looking into a memory of a soul that has gone through several incarnations.

27
Feb

A Clockwork Orange


Clockwork Orange, A (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) leads a group of friends (Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn), the four of them collectively known as “droogs,” to commit sociopathic acts of random ultra-violence. Based on the screenplay and directed by Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” wastes no time to lay out its platform. The second scene showcases a beating of an old homeless man, the next involves another five men undressing and attempting to rape a girl, followed by the droogs breaking into a writer’s home to rape his wife. Right away there is an understanding that it is not going to be a movie for everyone—but it does not mean that its message is not important or universal.

It works as a satire due to the material’s proclivity for exaggeration. For instance, aside from McDowell, the majority of the performances are rather robotic and archetypal. People of authority are played to the extremes, especially the police. Scientists are portrayed as cold and unblinking—the ends justified by the means. “Normal” civilians, like Alex’ parents, are dull, some might say idiotic. “Abnormal” civilians, like Alex, his fellow droogs, and other males his age who like to cause trouble, are extremely violent, unpredictable, like starving dogs chained to a post clamoring for the same slab of fresh meat placed only a few feet away. Because the performances are hyperbolic, even though the supporting characters are not fleshed out, they work because each one is magnetic.

There are certain roles where a specific actor is born to play a part. McDowell is Alexander DeLarge, prisoner 655321, and he plays the lead droog with animalistic energy both ferocious and playful that he is ingrained in film culture. In every scene, he hits the perfect spot, exuding a specific level of danger with a hint of humor. There is not one scene when we feel like Alex is playing one emotion or thinking about one thing. Because of such a portrayal, he is an enigma through and through.

The picture comes into focus the moment the main character brings up a form of treatment that can potentially get him out of prison in no time. With no intention to exorcise his thirst for sex and violence, he volunteers to participate in a so-called Ludovico Technique, currently in its experimental stage, which, in theory, can “make a man good.” The goal of the study is to eliminate the “criminal reflex” and the methods employed is not at all dissimilar to aversion therapy. The big question is this: Given that the tools are available and the methods work in the most elementary sense, is it morally right to change one’s nature just so a person can fit the mold of society?

The circus of violence in the first arc is justified not for the sake of experience but for the sake of argument. We need to see what Alex’ lifestyle, how he thinks, what he is capable of. We need to see him destroy lives, to scare them in some way. So when the big question is placed onto our laps, it is not so easy to provide a simple answer. We acknowledge that Alex is a convicted felon and what he has done is wrong, but the underlying motivations of the therapy should also be taken into consideration.

Based on a novella by Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange” shows us a monstrous society, not limited to the behavior of the droogs, by executing and shooting it through beautiful aesthetics. This is only one of the many contradictions in the film. Another aspect worth mentioning is its utilization of classical music to underline chaos. Kubrick creates a synergy between music and imagery so confidently that the experience is like undergoing hypnosis.

24
Feb

21 Years: Richard Linklater


21 Years: Richard Linklater (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Richard Linklater has always been one of my favorite directors probably because his film, “Before Sunset,” made a big impression on me when at the time when I was still trying to figure out the kind of stories I would be willing to invest my time in. When that film ended, I remember feeling excited, maybe even inspired, because I had not seen anything quite like it.

Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s “21 Years: Richard Linklater” is an entertaining and informative documentary about Linklater’s films up to “Before Midnight” but because it attempts to cover as much ground as possible and as quickly as possible, it does not feel cohesive. In addition, some of the interviews come across as pandering rather than as a true celebration of an artist whose works helped to shape the landscape of independent cinema.

The picture is divided into sections. For example, “Daze and Confused” gets about ten to fifteen minutes of discussion. There are other instances, however, when two films are combined into one section like “The Newton Boys” and “Bernie.” Although the technique makes sense because the discussions aim to highlight Linklater’s fascination with lovable losers or criminals, the connections between such films are few.

Interviewees are performers such as Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Ethan Hawke as well as directors that range from Mark Duplass to Jason Reitman. While there is no shortage of personality, eventually it begins to feel like the same people are being asked the same types of questions. While the energy in front of the camera is appreciated, one wonders about the other aspects of the director’s techniques. He is often labelled as having a very relaxed approach to making his films but how does that work necessarily when his projects are so different from one another?

The material is at its best when it provides information we do not already know. For instance, Jack Black admits that “School of Rock” is his first time really working with kids and he was concerned about having to do so. One might not have guessed that because his character has such a strong connection with the children. Also, I enjoyed moments when the documentary takes the time to underline important scenes in movies like “Before Sunrise,” particularly the scene where Jesse and Celine go inside a listening booth and genuinely connect in a place of quiet.

“21 Years: Richard Linklater” has a playfulness about it that is endearing but that same quality gets in the way at times. It needed to ask tougher questions, maybe even provide information about the subject growing up, his past and current influences, the challenges he had to overcome to create films that will stand the test of time. Overall, I liked the subject more than the film itself.

21
Feb

The Rover


Rover, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Stained with bleakness gray, desert-dry yellow, desaturated dirt and grime, “The Rover,” directed by David Michôd, is a picture that is clearly made with a vision. It is to be admired in parts for two reasons: its visual presentation of rural Australia after an economic collapse and the performances by its two lead actors. But the film is a disappointment in that it fails to engage in the long haul. We want to get to know it, but it does not let us in such a way that by the end of the experience, we feel as unwashed and emotionally drained as the characters look and feel.

The story begins with three men (Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo, David Field) stealing another man’s car after they get into an accident. Eric (Guy Pearce), sitting in a bar while the trio break into his vehicle, would not have anybody stealing from him and so he uses the thieves’ transport—still functional after an unbelievable acrobatics—to go after them. The sequence that transpires on the road has an ironic sense of humor about it that discerning viewers will likely suspect that it is building up to something.

Robert Pattinson steals the film because he delivers an odd, magnetic, and at times sensitive performance. He plays one of the brothers of the car thieves and we meet Rey with a bullet in his midsection. Pattinson has a way of acting in a scene with dead blank eyes and yet it is not boring. It is because everything else is interesting: his posture, the awkward way he moves, the tension in his lips, the way he strings words together. The predictable thing to have done was to play the character tough and unstable. He takes the unstable part and twists it in such a way that we become interested in learning who he is despite the screenplay not giving much.

And therein lies the problem: The screenplay by Michôd is so inaccessible or deliberately opaque at times that the story ends up not having a defined shape. While it is a positive quality that we get the impression that just about anything can happen, especially with its tendency to erupt into quick bursts of violence, it is difficult to care about what might transpire. I caught myself being along for the ride, admiring a handful of its technical achievements, such as the score and choice of soundtrack, but I was disconnected from its core.

The picture is highlighted by several seconds of brilliance. Several examples include a vulture observing a man waking up from unconsciousness, a young girl bleeding from being shot through the chest, and a confession that takes place at an Army base. There is not enough connective tissue in the material to underscore these memorable seconds and unify them into a theme.

“The Rover” is not about entertainment but about texture. Notice the people we meet, how famished and desperate they appear. Look at the desolate environment. Just about every place Eric and Rey visit appear as though a riot or pillaging had taken place there at one time or another. We notice the dirt on their clothes, limbs, and faces. The hunger in their eyes or revenge. On the basis of style and mood, at least it delivers.

18
Feb

The Long Day Closes


Long Day Closes, The (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

When is a movie not a movie but a poem?

Written and directed by Terence Davies, “The Long Day Closes” plays more like a memory rather than a standard story with defined exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action—which is a most appropriate approach considering that the material is autobiographical. To tell it through an expected arc would have cheapened an otherwise sensitive, visually-striking, subtle picture with something genuine to say about loneliness.

Bud (Leigh McCormack) is an outsider. At school, he does not have very many friends. Most boys his age play and talk rough while he is quieter and more into his own world. At home, although he gets along with his mother (Marjorie Yates) and three elder siblings, the considerable age difference makes him feel like his interests are worlds apart than theirs. In order to feel less alone, he likes to go to the movies and be entertained by epic stories, song and dance, and timeless movie stars.

The film likes to take its time to give the audience a chance to appreciate the images in front of us. Right from the beginning, for instance, the camera stays still and asks us to really see the beauty of a street drenched in raindrops. In a way, we see through the eyes of the protagonist. He likes to watch things unfold and soak in what little moments offer.

It plays with light and shadows with elegance. I was mesmerized by the sequence where the camera simply fixates on a rug coupled with a time-lapse of the day. The way the shadows migrate from one spot to another, sometimes disappearing, is delightful because we typically do not stare at one spot for an entire day to see something like that. In other words, the writer-director gives us images that we may otherwise not get a chance to see.

The use of classical music and a cappella adds another layer to the story. I found that it captures the atmosphere of the post-war, mid-1950s through a child’s eyes. To him, it is a very innocent time—pure—but it makes an impression because he has begun to become more self-aware of his identity. Just when one might expect for it to turn into a coming-of-age territory some time in the middle, it is able to maintain its focus and general tone: a gloomy retrospection of a boy realizing that he is different and how painful that fact can be at times. There is no lesson that encourages a person that it is okay to be oneself because at the protagonist’s age, fitting in feels more important.

“The Long Day Closes” is not about plot but about sensation. We are given fragments of memories and it is up to us to consider why certain events have made an impression on Bud. It is the kind of film where the audience has a choice to participate and really engage by considering one’s own memories and why certain images have left a mark.

15
Feb

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Spy action-thriller nowadays default on looking gloomy and dark in order to be taken seriously. Who would have known that one that is bright, funny, and vivacious proves to be a breath of fresh air in a sub-genre that is increasingly becoming one-note?

“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, is a highly entertaining, creative, and good-looking picture that takes inspiration from early Bond films—eccentric villains included—and runs with it till the finish line. Couple such qualities with good performances and pacing that can keep up with The Flash, what results is a mindless good fun for those who are not easily offended and willing (or craving) to embrace the unexpected.

With Lancelot (Jack Davenport) dead after being cut in half, there is an open position in a top secret government intelligence agency. Arthur (Michael Caine), the leader, requires his fellow agents to recruit potential candidates who have the potential to replace Lancelot. Once gathered, a challenging and thorough training process will take place. Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who feels indebted to a man who saved his life seventeen years prior, chooses a Royal Marines dropout named Eggsy (Taron Egerton)—the only son of that same man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and fellowmen.

Its level of violence is very high and so although at times it comes across light or high-spirited, somewhere along the veins of Robert Rodriguez’ “Spy Kids,” it is absolutely not for children. Having said that, the violence is never meant to be taken seriously or offensive—including the church massacre that a surprising number of viewers point out as unnecessary or just plain sick. I believe that it is meant to be over-the-top in order to demonstrate the evil that the villain is willing to execute. I found the scene to be well-choreographed, well-edited because we can actually observe the action unfold instead of attempting to make sense of random cuts, as well as exciting and amusing.

The villain, Valentine, is played by Samuel L. Jackson who sports a thick lisp and a strong dégoûté, ironically enough, for blood. His crazy plan involves saving the human race from extinction due to global warming. However, in order to save the species, he is willing to initiate a mass genocide. The details of his plan has to be seen to be believed. I have not seen a villain like this in years and he is a true throwback from classic Bond pictures. His lethal assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), reminded me of those kick-ass women from Quentin Taratino’s “Kill Bill.”

Egerton is a breakout star partly because of his performance but mostly because of his looks. I bought him completely in terms of playing a character who has been raised in a rough neighborhood, very tough and street-smart. The actor has the kind of face of a big movie star in the making. Given the right role in the right project, if it did not happen to be this one, his career, in my opinion, will skyrocket. Furthermore, anybody with an accent Egerton employs can come off rather threatening but the performer draws us in by maintaining a level of sensitivity or vulnerability even when he looks like he is ready to fight. That is key because it makes us root for him.

Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is the kind of movie I am happy to revisit once every year or two because of its infectious energy, willingness to be fun, and creativity. If a sequel were to happen, consider my seat booked.

14
Feb

Fifty Shades of Grey


Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a character in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” that sets the standard, at least in my mind, for a male sexual dominant. He is played enigmatically by Jamie Bell and the reason why we are fascinated by this man is because although his physicality is not at all domineering—he is neither especially tall nor muscular—there is a silent intensity about him, most often localized in the eyes, that makes one want to lean forward and yet still in a ready position to recoil in an instant just in case he did anything surprising—the kind that looks like it really hurts.

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on the novel by E.L. James and screenplay by Kelly Marcel, offers a character similar to Bell’s but one that feels slight by comparison. The title character, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), is supposed to be a sexual dominant looking for a willing submissive and yet one gets the feeling that he is only trying on daddy’s leather shoes. I found the attempt to be cute—for the lack of a better word—but two hours of playing pretend stretches the attention to its breaking point.

Let’s get it out of the way: The love or sex scenes are not titillating. Perhaps it might be for prudes or sexually inexperienced, but I do not belong in either camp. Part of the problem is due to the performers’ severe lack of chemistry. The other is editing. Focus not the act happening on screen but the way the scenes are put together. There is a lack of interesting transitions that tease the mind or the senses. We see skin, an article of clothing being taken off, a close-up of a face, and then more skin (most often the back). Sometimes we get heavy breathing that denotes a character being sexually pleased.

Why not allow the perspective of the camera to take its time gliding across the hills and valleys of the human body—of both the man and the woman? This film, obviously catering to women, does not treat the human body as a beautiful thing to be explored. It gives the impression that it is afraid to get real close just in case too close may translate as unsexy. Clearly, director Sam Taylor-Johnson needs to learn a thing or two from the great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Dreamers”). Thus, the scenes often come across as not raw or dirty enough to be believable. Let me be clear: the picture need not show sexual organs because it is supposed to be a movie after all, not pornography, but I do require an erotic dramatic film to be sensual enough to give the impression that the audience is a part of the action.

Going back to a prior point: the actors’ lack chemistry. Dakota Johnson is the saving grace of the picture. I found her to be alluring because she almost completely embodies someone who we may encounter out there in the streets or in department stores. Those girls who are not convinced they are beautiful but they really are. Johnson also plays Anastasia with humor and a level of innocence. So when the character says something amusing, it feels effortless, like certain remarks Anastasia makes are what we come to expect from the kind of girl that she is. There is variation in how the actress plays her character which cannot be said the same about Dornan.

Dornan plays Christian sort of stoic most of the time which is supposed to communicate masculinity, I guess, but I found the approach to be predictable and boring. He does not make the character accessible. Halfway through I began to wonder if the twenty-seven-year-old billionaire was any good at his job. Just because he wears expensive suits, owns and drives helicopters, and knows the best kinds of wine to fit any occasion does not mean he is the best at what he does. He is supposed to be an entrepreneur, but we never see him working. What does his company do exactly?

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a title dripping with irony because I did not walk away from it knowing Christian more as a person. I grew worrisome that it is designed to be a trilogy. How can such a thing be sustained if the setup is weak in many respects? When the novelty and curiosity wear off, what else is there for us to chew on?

11
Feb

Matinee


Matinee (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Half man, half ant—all terror!” is the tagline of Lawrence Woolsey’s (John Goodman) new monster film, “Mant!,” strategically released on a weekend when fear is on an all-time high in the Key West, less than hundred miles from Cuba where Soviet missiles threaten nuclear abyss. Gene (Simon Fenton) and his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer) are big horror movie fans and they have made the decision to see next week’s feature. Word has it that it is unlike any other monster flick that came before. And although “Mant!” has not yet been released, there is already protesting outside the movie theater.

Based on the screenplay by Charles S. Haas and directed by Joe Dante, “Matinee” offers a real good time, perfect for anyone who loves the movies. It is funny, entertaining, creative, and offers surprises when one least expects it.

There is an innocence about the film, just like the monster movies in the ‘50s. There is a sweetness between the young characters, from the way Gene teases his little brother to the manner in which Gene treats a potential girlfriend (Lisa Jakub) who is unlike anybody else at school. Particularly fresh is the latter. There is no scene where a boy is depicted to be grossed out by girls, vice-versa. Credit to the screenplay for not being afraid to treat kids and teenagers like they have a heart and a brain.

Goodman is at the centerpiece, playing a film producer who is broke. Mr. Woolsey’s many gimmicks to sell the film are riotously amusing, from the way he inspires people who work at the movie theater to the vibrating seats he installs right before moviegoers buy their tickets. There is even a consent form required to be signed by the audience because kids in other cities have supposedly had heart attacks during “Mant!” showings. The look on Dennis’ face reminds us of that tickle we felt in our stomach back when we were children and our little or brother or sister believes just about anything he or she is told.

We get to see a good portion of “Mant!” In a way, we become a part of the audience. They are shown to be having a great time and we get to see why. The black-and-white movie is silly, cheesy, and ridiculous but there is something about it—in terms of visuals, music, and energy—that we cannot help but look away. Though we get to see only several scenes of the monster film, I thought it was actually something I would be interested in watching from beginning to end.

Its weakness is a subplot involving Gene’s classmate, Stan (Omri Katz), and a troublemaker (James Villemaire) who happens to be a poet. Both like the same girl and so the latter threatens the former to back off. Unlike Gene and the girl he likes, this triangle is a tired regurgitation of what we already expect. It might have been better if this subplot had been excised to make room for the real fears of Gene and his family because the head of their household is on a blockade ship by Cuba. Maybe the brothers go to the movies to escape having to think about the possibility that their father might not come back.

“Matinee” offers nostalgia but does not rest on it. It has an active imagination and so we are engaged just about every step of the way. There are jokes on the foreground to be sure but take a second to look in the background once in a while. The film deserves to be seen more than once not for the sake of understanding it completely but to capture the little golden nuggets one might miss the first time around.

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