(On Cable TV, October 2013) At a time where big-budget filmmaking seems to retreat in familiar narrative structures and a complete lack of daring, Cloud Atlas comes as a welcome break from the usual. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it features six loosely-linked narratives spanning centuries and several known actors playing different roles in each story. Heralding the return of the Wachowskis siblings to the big screen after a few quiet years (they co-direct three of the six stories, with Tom Tykwer directing the remainder of the film), Cloud Atlas is big, ambitious and offers things that cinema doesn’t often get to showcase. It is, in many ways, a singular movie experience, and one that deserves to be contemplated rather than simply liked or disliked. As an adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel, it’s an excellent, even audacious re-working: the film’s structure works in ways that the novel couldn’t, and still ends up a fiercely cinematic work. Most of the actors playing multiple roles seem to have a lot of fun, with particular notice to Tom Hanks (who gets to tweak his usual good-guy persona), Halle Berry (who gets one of her best roles yet as a 1970s journalist), an often-unrecognizable Hugh Grant, as well as gleefully multifaceted Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving –who even gets to play both assassin and nurse. (Some roles don’t work as well, such as when actors get to play outside their ethnicity or gender, but that happens.) The six stories interlock in subtle ways, suggesting both reincarnation of personalities and malleability of interpretation once truth becomes fiction. For all of the good things about Cloud Atlas, it’s almost too easy to forget that this is not an easy or even completely successful film: You have to give it at least 30 minutes for the six stories to earn narrative interest, and there’s a sense that the film is definitely not tight or focused: it often appears to run off on tangents and forced similarities, and certainly will not please anyone looking for solid links between all elements of the picture. Still, for jaded moviegoers, Cloud Atlas is as close as it gets to a truly new experience within the big-budget framework: it tries many new things, succeeds spectacularly well at some of them and leaves hungry for a bit more. I could go on, but the film is too big to be adequately described within the constraints of a capsule review.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Critics weren’t kind to this remake of the 1941 horror-classic and, up to a certain point, it’s easy to see why: There isn’t much of a story here, nor too many chills. The tone can be inconsistent, and some moments feel more ridiculous than anything else. Additionally, the winks and nods to horror fans sometimes lead the story into small dead-ends (eg; the silver cane). Still, The Wolfman has a lot going for it in the visual department, from an effective gothic atmosphere to Joe Johnston’s often-clever direction. The makeup and special effects are used wisely and the cinematography can be adequately lugubrious at times. While not up to Tim Burton’s standards (You should see The Wolfman in a double-bill with Sleepy Hollow), there is a lot to like in the film’s visual presentation, which is a notch over the usual horror film. Unfortunately, the assets are often undermined by gratuitous gore taking down the film’s moment-to-moment impact from high-art to low-schlock, and there is a sense that the straightforward narrative isn’t up to the setting it inhabits. (Much like Anthony Hopkins seems to be slumming in a one-dimensional role.) Oh well; at least Benicio del Toro and Hugo Weaving can be compelling to watch, and if viewers get bored, there’s usually a nice image every few moments to keep things interesting.
(In theaters, July 2011) The inherent nationalism of the Captain America character makes it a tricky sell outside the United States. How best to translate a superhero originally developed to tap into pro-American anti-Nazi fever to an international audience that, to put it politely, may not believe as much in American exceptionalism? Nazis, unsurprisingly, are part of the answer: This Captain America not only takes places during World War 2 (albeit a dieselpunk-verging-on-atompunk fantasy version of WW2) and squares off against a supernatural Nazi opponent, but director Joe Johnston also adopts an un-ironic filming style reminiscent of classic adventure films. Fortunately, it all fits together, with a little surprise at the end: Trying something a bit different from other films superhero films proves to be a good idea, and Captain America turns into a refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment. A good chunk of the fun belongs to Chris Evans, who takes on the square-jawed heroics with unselfconscious honesty; good supporting roles also go to Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as an eccentric mentor and Tommy Lee Jones, chewing on the kind of gruff military man role he’s so naturally suited for. The story plays itself out over a few years, with a few unexpected hooks and references to the real-world history of Captain America: keep your eyes out for a reproduction of the real Captain America #1 cover during the film’s amusing showbiz digression. Fans of the Marvelverse put on film will love the references to Thor and the Iron Man hooks with the importance given to Tony Stark’s father. Add to that a few good supporting characters, a decent romance with chronological room to grow, a nifty coda and some fascinating special effects and Captain America isn’t just good enough to become a high point of Summer 2011 in Hollywood, but a superb lead-in to 2012’s The Avengers.
(On DVD, August 2010) I realize that I’m fifteen years behind the rest of the world in (finally) seeing this charming Australian comedy, but then again you would be horrified at some of the other curious omissions in my personal film-viewing record. Suffice to say that hindsight has advantages of its own: It’s hard to see The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert now without spotting Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp in fearless performances that are remarkably different from the kind of roles for which they have become best known. (Go ahead; make a joke about Agent Smith in drag: “Mis-ter An-der-son, you look… fabulous”.) The film itself has aged remarkably well: While social attitudes toward queer issues represented in this film have hopefully evolved, the exuberant quality of the characters does a lot to bring audiences into their colourful reality. By the end, the film reaches a quasi-idyllic acceptance that acts as inspiration. But social issues aren’t the reason why the film has become such a self-confident camp classic: You just have to look at the astonishing visuals of a scene in which a bus drives across the desert featuring a rooftop performance by a drag queen draped in long billowing silver drapes to realize how awe-inspiring this film can be. The Australian outback makes for a spectacular background, and the script deftly moves between emotional tones without losing track of its goals. It’s all very impressive, and you don’t have to be interested in LGBT issues to appreciate the cinematography, the script or the fun of the bus ride.
(In theaters, March 2006) It may be too early in the year to talk about 2006’s best films, but it’s certainly not too early to say that this is the first good movie of the year. I’m always a sucker for tales of insurrection against totalitarian government, and this one is slicker than most. Somewhat faithfully adapted from the graphic novel, V For Vendetta remains faithful to the spirit of the original, and delivers a tighter, more cohesive take on the basic story: the film is likely to become my preferred version. (Alan Moore may pout and fume about Hollywood betrayal, but this one’s really not that bad.) From a cinematographic standpoint, the film is gorgeously designed and directed with a great deal of self-confidence: James McTeigue may be overshadowed by the Wachowski producers, but his work is crisp and clean. Blessed with capable lead actors, V For Vendetta showcases some fantastic mask work by Hugo Weaving and one of Natalie Portman’s best role yet. Despite the lack of action set-pieces (don’t believe the trailers), the film has considerable forward momentum and only falters slightly late in the film. Politically, it’s a loud scream against the dangers of totalitarianism, and successfully manages to integrate the Thatcher-era fears of the original with current-day concerns over the so-called War on Terrorism: If it touches a nerve, it’s only because there is something to be concerned about right now. Otherwise, unfortunately (and there’s my biggest problem with the film), it remains quite literally a comic-book fable that tackles ideas in a stylized fashion, but falters on the follow-up: Totalitarian regimes never spring up completely without popular roots, and are seldom defeated by a grandiose gesture. V For Vendetta, hobbled by the necessities of a feature film’s running length and the low bandwidth of cinema, does not seriously engage with the demands of political thought, or the solutions required by real-world trade-offs. It’s all well and good to scream revolution, but it’s not going to do much good unless there are solid alternatives behind the reform. (And it’s what distinguishes comic-book-reading teenagers from adults used to the real world). But I’m being overly harsh: After all, I didn’t say such things after Equilibrium, right? But if V For Vendetta is going to propose itself as a bold political thinking piece, it better withstand the scrutiny it invites. That rabid political point aside, there’s little doubt that V For Vendetta is going to be one of 2006’s good films. Now let’s see the competition before deciding if it’s one of the best.