Archive for October 2012

Cloud Atlas

October 27, 2012

If the massive, vaultingly ambitious Cloud Atlas could be whittled down to one old-Hollywood concern, it might be this: At the end of the picture, do the guy and the girl get together? This is a tricky proposition in this case, because there are six guys and six girls, in six different times and places, all of whom, we are led to surmise, are the same guy and girl in different stages, and sometimes they don’t even meet each other for so much as a how-do-you-do. Cloud Atlas, based on a widely cherished cult novel by David Mitchell, spans centuries and the globe without breaking its stride, intercutting between each of its sextet of tales and arriving, finally, at its big takeaway: Love is good. Freedom is good. Truth is good. The opposites of those things are bad, and the pursuits of those things are the only constant in an ever-changing, ever-hostile world.

Well. Yes. It would take a preternaturally grumpy viewer to object too strongly to this life-medicine, though, because it’s administered so skillfully and passionately, with a complete disregard for the cynics in the balcony. I think the tipping point in Cloud Atlas determining whether you will love it or hoot at it is a top-hatted imaginary demon with greenish skin, exhorting a character to do vile things in the name of self-preservation. I grew to look forward to that fellow, and I sighed a little and became restless when the movie flicked over to the futuristic “Neo-Seoul” segments, which feel the most like a dystopian fantasia by the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix). Sure enough, they directed those segments, as well as another futuristic story and one set in the 19th century, while Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) handled the ’30s, the ’70s, and 2012. Which shows, I guess, that Andy and Lana Wachowski are uncomfortable with present day, present reality, and Tykwer can work quite well without spaceships and laser blasts.

Taken all in one two-hour-and-52-minute lump, Cloud Atlas is never boring; I checked the time at one point, saw that we had about an hour to go, and settled back, relaxed and happy to get more. As pure cinema — a term I overuse, but can’t avoid when discussing this thing — the movie is a vast banquet table stretching to the vanishing point, though we’re never allowed to linger over any one tasty dish before it’s removed and replaced with an entirely dissimilar platter. Mitchell’s novel was structured symmetrically, or palindromically (it’s a word now), the first story leading into and appearing in the next, and so on, and then the narrative doubled back on itself. The movie shuffles the deck — the effect is simultaneity, not continuity. Each reality the film shows us — a notary on a ship, a rent boy working as an amanuensis to a composer, a journalist uncovering shenanigans at a nuclear power plant, a publisher trapped in a nursing home, a clone seeking freedom in futuristic Korea, a post-apocalyptic tribesman in Hawaii — unfolds, for us, at the same “movie time,” in apparently different dimensions.

The fun part, despite clucking from the politically correct, is watching the same actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant — appearing as different characters of sometimes different races. Hanks gets to be heroic (or at least morally conflicted) in some segments and diabolical in others; my favorite of his incarnations was “Dermot Hoggins,” a pugnacious Irish writer who chucks his least favorite literary critic off a roof. Hanks and Halle Berry appear to be destined for love — the “guy and the girl” who get together at the end of the picture — though in a couple of the stories they make no more than a nodding acquaintance, perhaps because in those realities Hanks isn’t worthy of love yet. Karma seems to be one of the many ideas bubbling to the surface here. In his six identities, Hanks starts out rotten, becomes merely sleazy, then conflicted, then violent, then an inadvertent motivator of freedom fighters, and then, after many visitations from Hugo Weaving as the aforementioned top-hat demon, finally a hero deserving of Halle Berry’s hand.

Again, most of this is shuffled together so smoothly that it never confuses and nearly always engages. As photographed by Frank Griebe and John Toll, it’s a gift for the eyes, and though Cloud Atlas is perhaps not the intellectual/emotional one-two punch it seems to want to be, it’s nonetheless made for endless replaying on Blu-ray and at midnight screenings (the few still extant). In isolated bits it feels major; other bits force us to agree to go along with them (the makeup department kept very busy here, and sometimes it’s like playing spot-the-actor in something like The List of Adrian Messenger). The cast and the filmmakers are committed at the highest level, and good old Hugo Weaving gets to chew scenery as a variety of evildoers, including a forbidding nurse (yes, a female nurse). Given that this is the first major film co-directed by a transgendered woman (Lana Wachowski), it ends its gay love story less cheerily than some will like, while others will shrug and blame it on the repressive time period. The Magical Negro trope pops up in a couple of the segments, too, which may, for all I know, reflect as much on the book as on the filmmakers. Cloud Atlas is too earnest and overarching to be perfect in any way — the literal-minded will gather dozens of flaws to cackle over. But in such a timid time for entertainment in general and movies in particular, I have to respect the beauty of the attempt. It isn’t a masterpiece but it sure has masterful pieces.

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Paranormal Activity 4

October 21, 2012

The more plot-heavy these Paranormal Activity films get, the less scary they are. I’m a big fan of randomness in horror movies, because horror in real life chills us by its randomness. It’s frightening to think that you could be standing in line at the store and get shot to death for no better reason than that you happened to be there. And it’s frightening to think that a demon might decide to mess with your life for no better reason than that you happen to be there. It’s not all that frightening to think that the demon might pick you out because you’re part of a family that’s had trouble producing a male child, and that you’re destined to be possessed and kill a lot of people and kidnap your sister’s baby son, and blah blah blah on into infinity. But that’s what the Paranormal Activity franchise has become, and the fourth and latest installment follows yet another family terrorized not because a demon just wants to mess with them, but because the same damn demon has moved in across the street.

Unlike the previous entry, which covered the early days of the demonic mischief in 1988, PA4 unfolds in the present day (well, 2011), bringing in such devices as laptop cameras and the Xbox Kinect to help sell the scares, which this time are in sadly short supply. The heroine is teenager Alex (Kathryn Nelson), who lives with her squabbling parents and her adopted younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Wyatt becomes friends with a strange kid from the neighborhood, Robbie (Brady Allen), whose mother, we’re told, has gone to the hospital for a few days. Alex’s parents take Robbie in — he seems to have no other family, and nobody asks why Child Protective Services don’t step in — and things start getting weird. Robbie toddles around in the dead of night, talking to people who aren’t there. Doors open and close. Alex and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) catch a lot of the weirdness on camera, but of course her parents don’t take her seriously.

There’s one neat effect, courtesy of the Xbox Kinect. I didn’t know that the way this videogame system works is by throwing off thousands of tracking dots visible only to an infrared camera in a dark room. The dots then “read” your movements, enabling you to play the games; apparently they also show up on otherwise invisible demons. That’s good for a spooky image or two. But it gets overworked, as do a lot of other tropes; a cat is in the house solely to pop up and startle the audience. Paranormal Activity 4 also feels like the most conventional film in the series. In the other movies, we were forced to stare at length at darkened rooms, waiting nervously for something creepy to happen. There’s really only one scene like that here; the movie feels far too “cutty,” moving from one camera to another, and most of the cameras capture the footage in bright clear color. The eerie inertia and starkness of the past films’ imagery are mostly gone here, and that style is what had set this series apart for me.

I suppose it’s no big surprise that Katie Featherston, the possessed young woman from the first two films, returns here. She’s scariest when acting like a normal smiling mom, but when she’s stalking around quietly and doing evil things we see why it was wise to use Featherston so sparingly as a boogeyman in the other films — she just seems like too amiable a presence to sell diabolical influence. (It’s a little like imagining Jenna Fischer, whom Featherston resembles, as the Bride in Kill Bill.) Katie’s presence muddies the narrative waters: we’re not sure if the child living with her is Hunter, the baby nephew she’d kidnapped, or if Wyatt is actually Hunter. We’re supposed to come back for Paranormal Activity 5 to find out more, probably. I think I’ll stop at four.

Argo

October 14, 2012

 

Technically, the CIA and the Canadian government actually did it, but what Argo tells us is that the myth of Hollywood saved six lives in Tehran in 1979. Hollywood itself didn’t have much to do with it; part of the cover story involved a government-sanctioned independent studio, which was supposedly scouting locations in Iran for a sci-fi turkey. All hail indie cinema! Argo should tickle pop-culture geeks with long memories: John Chambers (played here by John Goodman), who was instrumental in what became known as “the Canadian caper,” had won an Oscar for his simian makeup for Planet of the Apes; comics legend Jack Kirby was pressed into service as a storyboard artist for the fake movie; and the fake movie itself, also called Argo, began life as a script based on a novel by science-fiction titan Roger Zelazny. This may be the most geek-friendly movie that never did the rounds at Comic-Con.

Goodman’s introduction scene is a pip: Chambers strolling onto the set of some terrible minotaur movie, to the sublime funk and bounce of Booker T. and the MGs’ “Hip-Hug-Her.” His scenes with Alan Arkin, as an attenuated movie producer who picks Argo from the slush pile for the greater good, give the film a lift it badly needs; much of the movie is fairly tense and grim, though directed with crackle and momentum by Ben Affleck. Six American diplomats are trapped in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the hostage crisis; the clock is ticking on their rescue, which demands stealth and subterfuge. CIA expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) shoots holes in every idea the State Department floats past him, then catches a TV showing of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and thinks of his (and the CIA’s) friend Chambers.

Affleck can only fit so much into two hours, but some will wish for more details on the movie that never was, the actors (cult-flick favorite Adrienne Barbeau appears as one of them; Affleck knows his retro cinema) gamely sitting in costume for a full-dress script read-through. I hope Uncle Sam paid them for their time; they might’ve been missing out on gigs as extras on Galactica 1980. What Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do accomplish is an unstressed tribute to the power of fantasy to shape reality. Around the time Khomeini came to power and set off the hostage crisis, Harlan Ellison commented that the rest of the world was now living in Khomeini’s warped reality, and in Argo, veteran reality-warpers from Hollywood and the CIA join forces. Mendez’ scheme to sneak the diplomats out of Tehran under the cover story that they’re Canadian filmmakers may not strike the government as too implausible, given that spycraft is all about acting and storytelling.

Affleck’s idea (a good one) of making a film set in the late ’70s is to make it look like a film made in the late ’70s, including the vintage red Warner logo at the start. Master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto opts for warm, natural colors even in the grayness of government offices. Some of the movie’s events, as Affleck has acknowledged, have been amped up, Hollywoodized. There was no frantic pursuit of the diplomats’ departing plane by Iranian guards, and probably the scene in which the “filmmakers” almost get nabbed while faking a location scout in a crowded bazaar has been intensified for audience consumption. But the theme of countering absurdity with absurdity holds strong, as does the subtext that people of any nationality can be blinded by Hollywood bullshit. When some guards at the Tehran airport browse the fake film’s storyboards, making excited “pew pew” laser sounds, the movie amusingly suggests that Star Wars has even infiltrated such an unlikely place as Iran. Hey, if George Lucas helped save six lives, even indirectly, that might make up for the Star Wars prequels.

Some of the last images in Argo pan across various action figures — Star Wars, Star Trek — on the bedroom shelves of Mendez’ little boy. I assume that Mendez’ actual career included “exfiltration” plots far more sober-sided than a fictitious space opera. But Argo is about the time that Mendez rubbed elbows with the fantasists and sharks who keep the dream machine humming. Dumb as they often are, movies at their core are escapist, and Argo literalizes that — the non-existent movie actually helps six people escape. The shot of the airplane lifting off over the rooftops of Tehran is a bit too on-the-nose as a metaphor — get on board the movie plane and leave your worries behind! — but it happened, as did the celebratory round of drinks when the plane left Iranian airspace. That’s a wrap.

Frankenweenie (2012)

October 6, 2012

Imagine this: You’re working for a huge family-friendly conglomerate. You direct a half-hour film to be shown before a re-release of one of the conglomerate’s classic movies. The conglomerate hates your film — too scary for kids, they say — and fires you. Twenty-eight years later, the same conglomerate hands you $39 million to remake the same film they hated, in 3D stop-motion. They even let you make it in black and white. This, of course, is the story of Tim Burton, who made a short called Frankenweenie in 1984 for Disney, which has now thrown its full marketing weight behind the new remake. The lesson here is that if you make enough money (all told, Burton’s films have earned $1.7 billion for various studios, including Disney), your failures will be forgiven eventually. (Disney did acknowledge its short-sightedness earlier, releasing the first Frankenweenie on videotape in 1994 and then putting it on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD as an extra.)

The 1984 Frankenweenie wasn’t a failure, though; it was a charming tribute to the monster movies Burton grew up on (and this was before his career grew a little too long on charming tributes to the monster movies he grew up on). The new one — call it Frankenweenie 2.0 — pretty much tells the whole story of the earlier version, with some padding that gets a little tiresome but does produce more monsters. Young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) obsesses over monster movies to the point of making his own, starring his beloved dog Sparky. One day, Sparky chases the wrong ball at the wrong time, and Victor loses his movie star and best friend. But not for long: Inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau), Victor brings Sparky back to life on a dark and stormy night.

There are a couple of sad moments for dog lovers, especially those who have dug their share of tiny graves. But overall this is a comedy; Sparky doesn’t come back as a monster — he comes back as the same Sparky, except that his tail or his ear occasionally falls off (“I can fix that” is Victor’s refrain), and he needs to be “topped up” with a jolt of electricity every so often. I have to say I prefer the original version, not only because it felt fresher at the start of Burton’s career, but because it was shorter and didn’t succumb to subplots. Here, we get complications when other kids in Victor’s class find out about Sparky, and they want to learn Victor’s secret so they can win the school’s science fair. We don’t really care if they succeed or fail; it’s just a distraction from what should be the main event, in which the townspeople, horrified, corner Sparky at a windmill, just like old times.

The windmill in the original short was a small windmill at a mini-golf course. Here it’s a real windmill, and Victor has to run up endless stairs to save his neighbor Elsa (Winona Ryder) from a hybrid cat/bat as the windmill burns down around them. It reminded me of the entirely unnecessary fight at the end of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, which felt as if Burton had internalized all the studio notes he got on Batman. You gotta have a bang-up finish, kiddo! But the tiny windmill in the original had so much more charm; you knew Burton didn’t have the budget to build and burn down a big windmill, so he improvised. In stop motion, you can do anything (and let’s have a round of applause for Trey Thomas, the animation director here), and some of the additions are inspired — I enjoyed the re-animated turtle who becomes a sort of non-flying Gamera — but some of it nudges our ribs a little too hard. Hey, remember Gremlins? How about Jurassic Park?

I suppose we should be thankful there isn’t a dancing number (no numbers at all, actually, except for some simpy end-credits song sung by Karen O). As long as it stays with the friendship of Victor and Sparky, Frankenweenie is fine. The look and tone are — say it with me now — a Charming Tribute to the Monster Movies Tim Burton Grew Up On, same as Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow and many others. The thing is, Disney should’ve had more faith in this premise back in 1984, when it mattered, instead of shocking it back to a bigger life now, after we’ve seen Burton return to this cobwebbed well again and again and again. It’s been said before, but Burton is almost ready for his own amusement park — Burtonworld, home of dozens of lovable misfits, land of sportively macabre imagery. Frankenweenie passes 87 minutes nicely, but apparently the 54-year-old Burton doesn’t have much more to say with this story than the 26-year-old Burton did. That’s a little dispiriting.