Friday, November 30, 2012
Another year, another James Bond movie. I'll admit, I was feeling pretty 007'ed-out after the underwhelming Quantum of Solace from a few years back, and I was once again questioning my overall position on the Bond films. I've always enjoyed Bond, to the point where I'll be mildly excited for each new entry in the series. But ... I've never really *loved* the 007 franchise. And certainly, the things that most appealed to me about Bond were the series' more stylized elements - the over-the-top villains, the crazy gadgets, and the exotic locales. So even though I could recognize, say, Casino Royale as a well-made action film ... it ultimately felt pretty bland to me. What's the point of Bond if he's just a gritty, Bourne-esque bruiser? Luckily, SKYFALL is nothing if not stylish. Director Sam Mendes infuses the franchise with a dose of its old pop-art and pseudo-psychedelic sensibilities, making this the best-looking Bond, by-far, in decades. It's also a Bond that's a little more playful and comic-bookish than we've seen recently, embracing a sense of nostalgia for the series' 60's heyday, and introducing an uber-villain, played by Javier Bardem, who is one of the series' most flamboyant.
Skyfall opens with an awesome action sequence that shows us how Bond ends up off-the-grid, presumed dead. However, he ultimately returns to MI-6 in order to thwart the plans of a sinister agent-gone-bad. But 007 comes back older, more grizzled, and not quite in top super-agent form. And so the movie plays with a running theme of "I'm too old for this $#@&" ... introducing the old-school Bond to a new-school spy world that's hipper, higher-tech, and less forgiving of 007's roguish ways. The agent-gone-bad is Javier Bardem, playing a sexually-ambiguous, eminently-creepy terrorist named Silva. Seems he was the victim of a prematurely-aborted mission in his spying days, after which he was left with some fairly traumatic physical and mental damage. And now, dammit all, he's out for sweet, sweet payback.
Javier Bardem is definitely one of the best parts about the movie. His character isn't inherently awesome, per se, but Bardem makes him awesome by virtue of acting the hell out of him. With an Anton Sigurgh-esque voice and speech pattern, Bardem is a lot of fun in this one - and even genuinely disturbing at times. What also makes him work well as a villain is his personal vendetta against Judi Dench's M. Dench is obviously an incredible actress, and in Skyfall, she gets to stretch a bit and really grab a bit of the spotlight. Skyfall focuses in a lot on M and her stubborn crusade to hold MI-6 together in the face of chaos. And it also gives ample time to her motherly relationship with 007. Dench's heavy involvement in the plot gives the movie an injection of gravitas and drama that was missing from some previous installments. We often see Bond fighting to save a girl he's only just met, or to prevent large-scale, impersonal disasters. Rarely do we see people he's known for ages and whom he cares deeply about under threat. Point being - this isn't a save-the-world-from-nukes story - it's a very personal one. As for Daniel Craig - he brings his A-game to his third go-round as Bond - quipping effortlessly, brawling stylishly, and getting deep and serious and reflective when need be. Craig is the Bond who is in a sort of constant existential crisis - what is his place in the modern world?, must he exist?, why does he do what he does? - and Craig is well-equipped to bring that sense of man-out-of-time intensity to the role.
There are some nice supporting turns as well. Ben Whishaw brings Q into the modern age - a GQ-ready geek for 2012. Naomie Harris is coyly charismatic as Bond's MI-6 colleague Eve, and Berenice Marlohe has all the right moves as exotic femme fatale Severine. Ralph Fiennes also puts in a nice turn as M's steely MI-6 boss who finds himself at odds over her constant support of Bond.
But really, Sam Mendes is the star of the film. The director has always had a knack for evocative, almost surrealistic scenes that use color and light to mind-melting effect. But what he does with Bond is just plain badass. That opening action scene I mentioned is fantastic - a rip-roaring battle aboard a moving train that leaves you breathless. Later, there's a stunning fight scene in a neon-lit skyscraper, with shadow-brawls in silhouette over a future-shock blue backdrop. And then, in the climactic showdown with Silva, the firefight between warring combatants is a gorgeous fireworks display of gleaming explosions. There's also the trippy opening title sequence - set to a haunting theme song by Adele. It's one of the coolest in Bond history, I'd venture to day. All in all, Mendes outdoes himself here.
But despite the high praise for Mendes, I'm still reluctant to hail Skyfall as some kind of pop-art masterpiece. The movie stubbornly refuses to go to that next-level of greatness from a character and narrative perspective. Bond is tricky, because tradition states that there's minimal continuity between the films - so any major character developments tend to feel ephemeral. There are some interesting attempts to add to the Bond mythos, and give 007 a bit of an origin story. But again, it's a balancing act of telling the origin and not revealing too much so as to de-mystify the enigmatic, iconic Bond. I guess that after seeing so many Bond films, frustration tends to set in. Is there any sort of Bond cannon, or is every film just it's own thing, with winks and nods to the series' history that are, ultimately, just fan-service and nothing of real substance. And that's what makes me less enthused about Skyfall than others, at the end of the day. It's a fine example of a director playing in a toybox and making a beautiful arrangement of the pieces given to him. But when a last-act twist revealed a key character to actually be a Bond franchise staple incognito, I sort of sighed. It's all well and good to have fan-favorites pop-in, but when they tend to be such non-characters, it's hard for me to get all that excited (I did however get excited for some of the film's more over-the-top touches, like a so-crazy-it's awesome den of lethal komodo dragons).
I felt a similar sentiment about the film's use of women. Severine seemed to have a lot of potential at first, but her character proves one-note and disappears from the movie before her character arc gets a chance to fully develop. Meanwhile, Eve regresses from badass field agent to Bond sexcapade partner and MI-6 pencil-pusher. It's 2012 - can't we have some female characters in the Bond-verse who kick just as much ass as 007 and who have actual personalities?
That said, Skyfall is, overall, my favorite 007 film of the Daniel Craig era. It's easily the most purely entertaining, has the best villain, and is definitely the coolest from a visual standpoint. But this is a franchise with limitations. Even when everyone's putting their best foot forward, they run up against the wall that is the state of Bond. It's a franchise that wants to be both one-and-done pop-art, but also a serious, character-based universe in the same manner as the Bourne and Batman films. You can't necessarily have it both ways, and so Bond is stuck, currently, in that frustrating middle ground - introducing new backstory and layering on the mythos, yet also constantly hitting the reset button. No wonder Craig's version of Bond is always in the midst of existential crisis.
My Grade: B+
Saturday, November 24, 2012
- FLIGHT marks the welcome return of director Robert Zemeckis to live-action filmmaking, after an extended foray into stop-motion animation. While many still associate Zemeckis with fantasy fare like the Back to the Future trilogy, Flight is one of the more down-to-earth, grittier, darker stories that the director has ever worked on. And yet, there's a familiar directorial touch present in this one - a retro stylistic flair for the melodramatic - an old-school sort of tone that makes FLIGHT feel like a bit of a throwback to the old days when personal, human dramas peppered the multiplex. This makes Flight thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly cinematic, but also a bit heavy-handed and unsubtle. In lesser hands, the film could have proved grating and cheesy to the point of being off-putting. But Zemeckis infuses the film with just enough humor - and just enough genuinely great character moments - to make the movie, mostly, work. And Denzel Washington anchors the movie, delivering a great, memorable performance that, again, elevates the film beyond what it might have been otherwise.
Denzel plays "Whip" Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who's also a high-functioning alcoholic and drug abuser. Whip has serious vices, but in typical Denzel fashion, he uses his charm and alpha-male charisma to convince people that he's in command of his life and is doing just fine, thanks. Whip has a magnetic personality, and manages to hide his demons from most of his friends and colleagues. His ex-wife and teenage son know the extent of his issues, and of his well-concealed dark side - but few others are fully aware. Not only that, but Whip is one of the best and most naturally-gifted pilots around - an experienced and well-respected veteran of his profession. Both aspects of Whip's life come crashing against one another, however, during a perilous commercial flight in which a severe storm and some faulty engineering combine to create a nightmarish scenario. Whip's plane begins hurtling towards the ground, and only Whip's incredible flight instincts and piloting skill save the day - as Whip engineers a miraculous landing. Casualties are minimal, and Whip is hailed as a hero by the press. But one outstanding issue threatens to fell the newly-crowned saint - the revelation that Whip was drunk while flying the plane. And so begins Whip's battle with the press, with his colleagues, and with his own ongoing struggle with his demons in a bottle.
FLIGHT is an unusual movie in that its big, showpiece scene is towards the beginning of the film. And indeed, the big plane-crash scene is breathtaking - a show-off scene where Zemeckis establishes that, yep, he's still got it, and can still film the hell out of a big, balls-to-the-wall action set piece - creating a white-knuckle sense of chaos and intensity. From there on in, the film becomes a much smaller-scale, more intimate sort of character study - but no less emotionally weighty. We watch as Whip convalesces in the hospital, where he kicks off a relationship with a woman who is a fellow troubled soul. We see him return to his family farm for some soul-searching. Ultimately, we see him stand trial for his mistakes.
Washington's performance as Whip is very, very good. It's a perfectly-cast role, because Washington is one of the few who could make us (mostly) root for Whip despite all of his flaws, all of his lies, and all of his manipulations of others. There are many classic Denzel-isms on display here - and yes, numerous moments of what you might call overacting. But that's the kind of movie this is - a melodrama where everything is played very big. Luckily, Denzel excels at that sort of thing, so he's really entertaining here, especially when he's in full-on self-destruction mode. John Goodman is probably the other big delight of the movie, hilariously over-the-top as Whip's drug-supplier, the ponytailed, flamboyantly-vulgar Harling Mays. Other actors in the film do a nice job, but play things much straighter - reliable guys like Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle circle in Washington's orbit. Meanwhile, Kelly Reilly is excellent as the damaged love-interest, Nicole, who tries to set Whip on a similar path to recovery as she herself has found.
Flight is consistently enjoyable - thanks in large part to the great performances from its stellar cast, particularly Wasington - but it's rarely awesome. The truth is, the story here just isn't as compelling as I'd hoped it might be. We don't get a lot of back-story on Whip, and so the roots of his drug and drinking problems all feel a bit nebulous. And the structure of the movie itself presents a sort of Catch 22, in that the movie most comes to life when Whip is at his worst. The movie feels most fun when Whip is acting crazy due to being drunk or high, and so there's a strange effect where you don't quite root for him to sober up as much as is probably intended. Ultimately, the story of the crash is a bit convoluted, and so the parts of the film that are about the investigation into the circumstances of that fateful flight are its least-interesting bits. Because the whole plane crash thing turns out not to be the real story of the film at all - and we never know, exactly, to what extent Whip's drinking was a factor in what happened. The real drama of the movie is Whip's self-deception, and whether or not he'll come clean to himself about his issues. I guess my point is: all of the *plot* and the backstory of FLIGHT are not as interesting as the central human drama, and in some ways, the plot almost undermines the real story of the film. The movie might have been better served with a plotline that better underlined Whip's story and character arc. As is, the movie's most impactful moments are in its first act, and so you can't help but feel some sense of anticlimax over the course of the film from that point on. Despite Washington giving it his all, there is a bit of that TV movie-of-the-week feel to everything after the big plane crash.
Ultimately, FLIGHT is worth checking out, even if only to see a quintessential Denzel Washington performance. But for a movie that likely aspires for greatness, this is a film with some great moments, but one that ends up feeling pretty middle-of-the-road. Maybe even a bit dated in its execution. Perhaps this is just Zemeckis cracking his knuckles and warming up for something a bit more ambitious. Whatever the case, Flight is a pretty decent film, but not in that upper echelon of best-of-the-year candidates that it strives for.
My Grade: B
Monday, November 12, 2012
WRECK-IT RALPH Review:
- There's something that's just inherently awesome about the fact that Wreck-It Ralph even exists. I mean, within the insular world of videogaming, there's no shortage of nostalgia for the medium's 80's and 90's glory years. But within the larger pop-culture universe, it's not exactly common to see the likes of Bowser, Chun-Li, Dig-Dug, and Q-Bert treated with the same kind of iconic status as their film and TV contemporaries. And yet, whole generations have now grown up with these digital characters as omnipresent and as revered as were the great screen icons or TV personalities of days gone by. Where gaming has often felt trivialized in pop-culture has often been misguided attempts to translate interactive games into non-interactive narratives. Yes, games have become more and more story-driven in recent years, but still ... they are games, and the narrative exists as part of a larger world or experience. And that's why Wreck-It Ralph is so cool - it's not a Pac-Man movie or a Dig-Dug movie ... the film skips over any attempt to bring a complex storyline to relatively simplistic characters. Instead, it goes the meta route - going inside the world of videogames and imagining the inner-workings of how this world functions - a brilliant melding of Toy Story and Tron. And so ... old-school gamers will be thrilled to see a movie that reverently calls out and gives props to so many touchstones of gaming culture (in doing so, acknowledging that this is now truly mainstream, pop-culture).
Still, unlike some of the older-skewing Pixar films that tell stories aimed as much as adults as they are kids, Wreck-It Ralph - from Disney proper - is much more a traditional Disney flick ... it's even got a princess (albeit a pretty nontraditional one). Perhaps that's where I found the movie just a bit frustrating - finding out that a lot of the call-outs to old-school games were more of a surface-level thing. Because even as many of us will love the shout-outs to the Konami code and Metal Gear Solid, the tone of the film is, nonetheless, decidedly kid-centric. That's not necessarily a knock, but I did feel that too often the movie felt overly simplistic and, well, kiddie. Maybe the outward similarities to the Toy Story series raised my expectations, or maybe all the old-school references made me think that this would be tonally more aimed at adults. But whatever the case, there's still a lot to like in Wreck-It Ralph. Visually appealing and filled with memorable and funny characters, kids are guaranteed to love it. But its saccharine-tinged sweetness may grate, just a bit, on those old enough to actually know what the Konami code is.
WRECK-IT RALPH paints a picture of videogame characters as blue-collar clock-punchers. By day, the characters dutifully go about their pre-programmed roles - whether that involves fighting off alien hordes, racing go-karts through candy-coated fantasy lands, or, in the case of Ralph, smashing an 8-bit building so that the user-controlled Fix-It Felix can strive to repair it. Essentially, Ralph is a nice guy, despite the fact that he's long filled the role of videogame villain, and has been programmed with a penchant for reckless destruction and Hulk-esque smashing. But because of his villain status, Ralph is a pariah among the other denizens of his videogame. His nemesis Felix is revered as a do-gooding hero, worshiped by all of the other non-playable characters in the game. Felix goes to parties and is cheered when he enters a room. Ralph lives in a dump (literally), and his only refuge is a support-group for videogame villains, where he commiserates with the likes of M. Bison and Bowser. Therein lies the most brilliant conceit of Wreck-It Ralph - that all videogame worlds are connected through a Grand Central Station-esque hub, and that during off hours, the various characters - from 8-bit pixel-blobs to realistically-rendered next-gen warriors - co-mingle.
That idea is where, to me, Wreck-It Ralph is most captivating. On a quest for medals that might change his status from villain to hero, Ralph violates videogame taboo, and leaves his game in search of new adventures and opportunities. Seeing Ralph explore the inter-game hub-world is visual eye-candy, and a fun game of Where's Waldo-style spot-the-character. Even better is when Ralph ventures into a modern Halo/Gears of War-esque game, where he encounters Calhoun - a badass woman warrior who shows him the ropes. This is the most exciting sequence of the film - a breathtaking series of action set-pieces that are also thrilling in how they juxtapose Ralph - a simple, 8-bit character - with the sleek, grim n' gritty world and complex gameplay of that typifies the modern era of games. Ultimately though, this section of the movie is sort of a tease. The next game-world that Ralph journeys to - the fruity-pebble world of Sugar Rush - is where the remainder of the movie is set. And so suddenly, the movie that promised to be some sort of mad-genius meta-analysis of the evolution of videogaming becomes a pretty standard-issue Disney story.
Once in Sugar Rush - a kart-racing game that's like Mario Kart high on pixie-stix - Ralph meets one of the movie's breakout stars, Vanellope. Vanellope is a "glitch" - she fades in and out of existence and is, like Ralph, a bit of an outcast in her own game. But while Ralph was a vital part of his game - albeit the villain - Vanellope's glitch status prevents her from even properly participating in her game's races. Eventually, we learn more about why that is, and how this fate befell Vanellope. But once introduced, she and her big brother/little sister relationship with Ralph sort of takes over the movie.
At this point, I'll mention the voice-acting in the film - because it's hard to talk about Vanellope without mentioning the fantastic voicework of Sarah Silverman. Silverman helps make Vanellope one of the most distinct female leads ever in a Disney flick - quirky, witty, smart-assed, and packing some serious 'tude. I like the Vanellope character a ton, and I suspect that girls and women are quickly going to embrace her as sort of a cult-favorite - because she is so different from what we typically get in a Disney movie. There are so many things about Vanellope that are a bold choice - from the choice of Silverman to voice her, to the semi-sadistic glee she takes in getting back at those who've belittled her and kept her down. Vanellope is, in many ways, sort of awesome. And yet ... she makes bathroom jokes. Lots of them. And rides a very, very fine line between being endearing and just plain annoying. Maybe part of that lies in how her story takes over the movie at the expense of the chance to see more cool videogame worlds or characters. Maybe part of it is that it's sometimes hard to feel overly sentimental - as the movie wants you to - about such a smart-alecky character. Whatever the case, I'll profess that over the course of Wreck-It Ralph, I kept going back and forth between admiring Vanellope's moxy and wondering if/when she might be gobbled up by a flashing-blue ghost. I guess I felt similarly about Sugar Rush itself. I loved it as a sort of parody of overly-cutesy and whimsical game worlds. But as a setting for over half the movie to take place in, with a neverending stream of candy and sugar puns in tow? After a while, I was desperate to see what other worlds were out there in videoland.
But back to the voicework in the film - it's pretty excellent overall. John C. Reilly is right in his sweet spot as lovable lug Ralph. Jack McBrayer could play Fix-It Felix in his sleep, but he does the part to perfection. I actually think that perhaps Jane Lynch was a bit miscast - her distinct voice evokes more stern school principal than badass space marine, but as always, Lynch gives the part her all. Meanwhile, Alan Tudyk channels golden age comedy icon Ed Wynn in his portrayal of the affably evil King Candy. It's another part that is highly entertaining, but borders a bit on annoying in certain segments - although what Tudyk does from a purely vocal perspective is pretty remarkable. There are all sorts of other impressive vocal turns here (my favorite was a cameo from 24's Dennis Haysbert as a space-marine commander). But I'll go back and give Reilly even more credit, because he really does carry the film and make Ralph into a sympathetic, all-too-human character.
Wreck-It Ralph opens strong - with its eye-popping look inside this imaginary, virtual world of intermixing videogame characters and concepts. But Ralph's overarching premise eventually takes a backseat to the saga of Vanellope and Sugar Rush, and loses some momentum. The film itself takes on some of the characteristics of the Sugar Rush world - losing a bit of its bite and satirical edge in the process. But I was pleased that the movie pulled itself together for an exciting finale, that combined action, humor, and heart to end on a crowd-pleasing yet still-slightly-subversive note. And throughout the film, there are so many great little visual touches - the distinct way in which the 8-bit characters move as opposed to the more modern ones, for example - that shows the level of care and thought that was put into this universe. At the same time, a lot of issues were sort of touched on that I would have liked to have seen explored more. How does an 8-bit character feel in a world where he's now outdated? How do the arcade characters (and their real-world owner) feel about a world where arcades are quickly becoming extinct? Again, some of these story points are touched upon, but the movie does sometimes seem content to do that Where's Waldo thing I mentioned earlier. As cool as it is, it can be a little distracting at times. Especially given that Disney got permission to use some of the iconic characters (Pac-Man, Sonic), but not all (no Mario, for example). It gives a slight feeling of randomness to the movie - like there was a lot of last-minute scrambling to make adjustments based on who was or wasn't licensed to use (and on a sidenote, I'll admit I was slightly bothered by the fact that so many non-arcade game characters and concepts - things that have their roots in home game consoles - appeared in a world that was supposed to be linked to a physical video arcade - anyone else bothered by this?). That said, yes, I got a huge kick out of a lot of the references, and all of the visual and aesthetic tributes in the film. The ending credits alone are a gorgeously-rendered homage to classic videogames that will make even the most hardened geek crack an appreciative smile.
Wreck-It-Ralph is a fine effort from Disney - it's got visual sparks, great characters, and a heaping helping of heart. It may suffer a bit from trying to be all things to all people, rather than a completely unfiltered creative vision. There is that sense that this one, perhaps, suffers from needing to appeal to the Disney-kid demographic and be a cross-platform franchise hit, rather than just a great movie. But hey, it's funny to think we're now living in a world where today's kids need to be taught videogame appreciation, and that a movie like this one might familiarize them with the greats. I'll say again that Wreck-It-Ralph is a great kids movie - but it doesn't do quite enough to transcend its genre or its Disney trappings, to advance to that proverbial next-level of awesome.
My Grade: B+
Friday, November 9, 2012
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS Review:
- What happens when RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan fulfills his lifelong creative ambition and makes a kung-fu movie? Well, pretty much what you'd expect. Filled with over-the-top violence and packed with homages to classics of the genre, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is obviously a labor of love. But while the movie shines with its imaginative characters and creative fight scenes, it flops when it comes to delivering a narrative that's compelling or even cohesive. Now, I myself might question how important such things are in a go-for-broke action flick. But RZA attempts to create a surprisingly complex world around his film. It's admirable that he wants to give us such a fleshed-out mythology, but he stumbles in the execution. The result is a movie where the action entertains, but the long waits between the kung-fu smackdowns prove a chore to get through. Perhaps the flick also just suffers from being released in the same year as one of the greatest martial-arts epics I've ever seen - that being The Raid. But whatever the case, while I commend RZA for working to get his vision to the big screen, I also suspect he's still got something to learn about storytelling before he can truly deliver on that vision.
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is totally over-the-top, a winking homage to the classic but sorta-insane kung-fu flicks of old. The movie references everything from Enter the Dragon to Shogun Assassin to the more recent wire-fu epics of Ang Lee and Zang Yimou. And the action scenes go for Tarantino-esque, "did-you-see-that?" shock and awe. Indeed, Tarantino is a "presenter" of the film, and Eli Roth is a co-writer and producer. And you can see where Roth may have tried to sharpen up the script by adding in a killer one-liner or two. Every so often, the movie surprised me with a great little moment of badass dialogue or killer character detail. But like I said, the fundamental structure and narrative of the movie is a bit broken. The story centers on RZA as The Blacksmith - a weapons-maker who provides swords and other pointy objects for the various feuding clans who call the township known as Jungle Village home. Keeping with that theme, the warring clans each have animal motifs, so you've got the tiger clan, the lion clan, etc. I know - it sounds sort of funky and awesome on paper, but this backstory is conveyed in ultra-clunky fashion in the movie. But anyways, there's some sort of power-grab where the head of the village is killed by his two right-hand men. Silver Lion, the new head honcho, is an evil sort of dude, and so there's a whole revolt against him ... or something. I'm not really sure, because the story of the film quickly becomes confusing and incomprehensible. I guess what's important though is that the Blacksmith, who was once an impartial independent contractor, now decides to take a stand and rise up against Silver Lion. He does so with the help of X-Blade (seriously!), the son of the murdered Lion Clan leader, and Jack Knife (seriously!), a drunken, womanizing British cowboy (yep ...) played by Russell Crowe. Yeah ... this movie is crazy.
If the film had stuck to a simple plot about a motley crew of rebels trying to take down Silver Lion, it might have worked better. But the film just keeps throwing random stuff at you to the point of bursting. There are twin warriors called The Gemini who are in the mix. They have a great fight scene, but their appearance is a complete tangent to the main plot. Lucy Lui, as Madame Blossom, runs a brothel, and switches sides a lot from good to evil and back again. There's a villain named Poison Dagger, who wears a hood and talks as if his voice has been dubbed in. Oh, and former WWE champ Dave Batista plays Brass Body, a crazy meta-human brawler who can turn his skin into indestructible metal, Colossus-style. Again - lots of interesting ideas, but there's very little sense of cohesion to any of this.
A lot of the character design in the film is actually really cool. X-Blade has a great look and cool fighting style. The Gemini do this awesome Wonder Twins kung-fu thing that is a highlight. But all of the backstories feel thin, and the character motivations are weak or nonexistent. But what hurts is that there are so many moments in the film that *could* have been flat-out awesome if told more effectively. The movie finally picks up steam towards the end, when we see how The Blacksmith ultimately transforms into the iron-clad hero described in the title, and the character's epic mano e mano showdown with Batista proves worth the wait. But for a while, the movie seems to drag. And kung-fu action-fests really shouldn't drag. Part of that is the head-scratching narrative. Part of it is that there is so little drama or feeling of anything being at stake. RZA occasionally tries to jolt some life into the movie with some well-placed gore, but sometimes it just seems like a way to hide the fact that many of the action scenes - while fun - also have a strange feeling of blandness. One or two of 'em shine (the Gemini Twins' fight, the ending Blacksmith vs. Batista brawl), but even some clever fight choreography can't fully cover for RZA's lack of directorial polish or dynamism. I mean, Tarantino's name on the marquee evokes comparisons to the likes of Kill Bill, and this one doesn't even come close to Kill Bill's memorable characters, story, or action.
What it does have are some great actors who give it their all. Russell Crowe, for example, is memorable as Jack Knife. His character makes no sense, but Crowe nonetheless chews every bit of scenery for all it's worth, and is hilariously sleazy, violent, and unpredictable. Lucy Liu is in top, Kill Bill-esque form as Madame Blossom - she needs to be in more films where - as here - she kicks crazy amounts of ass. Even Batista is pretty solid here, delivering some key lines in appealingly badass fashion. The movie also employs some talented kung-fu action stars like Rick Yune (X-Blade) and Bryan Mann (Silver Lion). They bring the chops, but it's too bad they don't get more moments to shine. I will say though, Mann makes for a charismatic lead villain. As for RZA ... he's okay. He handles himself decently as The Blacksmith ... but still, he's clearly a bit rough around the edges from an acting perspective.
Where RZA shines, of course, is in the crafting of the movie's stellar soundtrack. It's no surprise that the music is a potent mixture of Wu Tang-style hip hop and Kill Bill-esque ambient tunes that evoke not just old kung-fu movies, but also spaghetti westerns (and there is, overall, a heavy Western influence here). The great music throughout the film is, honestly, what keeps it afloat even during its rougher patches.
THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS has enough moments of cool action and imaginative badassery that it's worth seeing if you're a true-blue kung-fu fan. It's by and large a fun movie. I just wish that it didn't drag so much in certain segments, and that it didn't feel like such a mess from a storytelling perspective. This is a movie that would have done well to keep things simple. Yes, it's all sort of a tribute to the wild and wacky kung-fu flicks of old - but at some point, you've got to go beyond homage and carve your own path. It's that extra something that makes Tarantino's genre-mash-ups more than just greatest-hits mix tapes, but fantastic films in and of themselves. RZA doesn't qute take things to that next level, and instead crafts a film that just about collapses under its own weight. Still, it's nice to see a different voice out there making movies, and I'll never say no to a little kung-fu craziness in my moviegoing diet.
My Grade: B-
CLOUD ATLAS Review:
- CLOUD ATLAS is a sprawling, ambitious, thematically-rich epic that is practically bursting with ideas, philosophy, high-concept storytelling, and audio-visual fireworks. It's also an unabashedly earnest movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. In short, a lot of people will probably hate it. But personally, I was totally captivated by its mind-blowing ideas and time-spanning story. To see a movie that looks this good, with this sort of A-list cast and incredible f/x - to see a movie of that high production value tackle themes so heady and grand - well, you couldn't ask for a better alternative to what typically passes as blockbuster filmmaking these days. The Wachowskis have always pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema - and that's brought them both mainstream success (the Matrix), and popular dismissal (the still-underrated cult classic Speed Racer). But Cloud Atlas might just be their most boundary-pushing film yet - and also their best. This film has it all - pulpy adventure, star-crossed romance, hysterical comedy, and imagination-igniting sci-fi. But when all was said and done, I felt like I had just watched a very personal film from a group of artists telling a story their way. Despite all of its grandeur, Cloud Atlas still feels like a thesis-statement film - a personal rumination on life, the universe, and everything. This is one of the must-see movies of 2012.
Cloud Atlas' premise can seem intimidatingly vast on paper, but I actually found it fairly straightforward and easy to grasp. Essentially, the film takes place over six different time periods, with people and events in each period having some sort of game-changing effect on the subsequent era. As the tapestry unfolds, we realize we're not just seeing the story of six disparate groups of people, but of six interrelated events that serve as a microcosm of humanity's story. In these six events, we see mankind rise, fall, and rise again. We see the seeds of the sorts of hatred and divisiveness that ultimately lead to annihilation and apocalypse, and we also see the sorts of bonds of love and friendship that could prove to be our salvation.
The oldest era explored in the film is in the 1840's. In this story, a young man meets with his slave-owning father-in-law and prepares to set sail on a business venture. One of the slaves stows away on the ship, and becomes an unlikely friend and ally of the businessman, especially in the face of a sinister doctor who is plotting against him. In 1936, a young, secretly gay musician leaves his lover to become the apprentice of a reclusive master composer. In 1973, a crusading journalist seeks to expose dangerous corruption at a nuclear power plant. The powers-that-be at the plant are on to her, and will stop at nothing to silence her story, and anyone who tries to act as an informant to her. In 2012, a book publisher squanders his unlikely, late-in-life success by accumulating debts and getting in with the wrong sort. He seeks help from his wealthy brother, who - instead of helping - prematurely confines him to a prison-like nursing home to get him out of his hair. In 2144, revolutionaries lead an uprising against an oppressive regime. Their rallying cry revolves around the liberation of "fabricants" - a genetically-modified slave-class of clones, from their subservient and demeaning way of life. One of those fabricants - Sonmi-451, becomes an unlikely messianic figure once recruited by the rebels. Finally, in 2321, earth is a post-apocalyptic mess. The lucky ones live in remote sky-cities, while others have reverted to a primitive, tribal, savage way of life down below. An emissary from one of the cities travels to tribal lands on a unique mission - trying to find a long-lost site that might open up communication with other worlds. Perhaps, she hopes, humanity's ultimate salvation from this post-Fall desolation lies in the stars.
Much attention has been paid to how the six stories interweave. Again, the film's trio of directors - the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run), tell each story in a fairly easy-to-grasp manner. But what the do brilliantly - in a departure from the novel on which this is based - is to intercut between each of the stories. The theme of six, of the sextet, comes back again, as the film is loosely divided into six thematic sections, with a prologue and epilogue as bookends. This could have been confusing, but by elegantly tying each segment of each story together through thematic links - discovery, capture, escape, pursuit, etc. - each of the six stories rides the same wave of momentum. It may sound cheesy, but the movie really is structured in a symphonic manner - it ebbs, flows, and builds to a narrative crescendo. The name "Cloud Atlas" comes from the piece of music - the Cloud Atlas Sextet - composed in 1936 by one of our key protagonists. And it's fitting, because the film unfolds in a manner that mirrors its titular composition. It's sort of awesome.
Now, from a narrative standpoint, the way the stories relate is pretty straightforward. Key events in one era come into play in the next era and beyond, causing a domino effect of history. But there are also all sorts of notable crossover moments and similarities between the eras. Names recur. Motifs come back. Family legacies extend across eras. This is a movie that has many, many layers. Beneath the surface is an ocean of connectivity. But the directors go even a step further - by casting the same troupe of actors as different characters in each story, in each era. Here is where the movie *could* become complicated if you let it. One could spend hours trying to decipher the connections between the characters played by each actor. And one could interpret the nature of these multiple roles in different ways. You could say it's just an acting exercise - that it's just an excuse to have talented actors play different parts. Or you could look at it as each set of characters played by an actor as representing different incarnations of one soul. This is the interpretation that I like, but I also wouldn't overthink it too much. The point, to me, is to show the different types of journeys that one soul can take. Some are eternally evil - witness the characters played by the great Hugo Weaving, each reliably ruthless and sinister. Some are eternally good - the characters played by Halle Barry, for example, always seem to be crusaders fighting for truth and justice. And some, like the characters played by Tom Hanks, seem to be on a more up-and-down path - always torn between right and wrong.
But speaking of the actors in this - wow. Cloud Atlas is a total tour de force, acting-wise. I'll preface by saying that each segment of the film has a different tone, so some of the acting is silly, over-the-top, or melodramatic - but, it's supposed to be. The cool thing is that each time period evokes not just a certain time, but a specific film genre. So the 70's-set segments have the drab, gritty look of a 70's-style crime thriller (think All The President's Men), while the future-world segments evoke a mixture of Star Wars-style swashbuckling with Blade Runner-esque neon-lit dystopia. The 2012 segments are an homage to classic screwball comedy - with an almost Python-esque wit. In any case, much of Cloud Atlas is intentionally pulpy, melodramatic, comedic, etc. And that makes the varied acting we see from the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, and the rest of the cast that much more remarkable. Those are some of the film's real MVP's, as far as I'm concerned. What they do in this one is pretty stunning. Hanks plays a scheming villain, a do-gooding whistle-blower, a simple tribesman ... and makes all of them work. The most classic, Hanksian work is in the post-apocalyptic tribesman role, where Hanks brings an fantastic groundedness, earnestness and moral complexity to a story that is fairly epic and crazy. To look at the sum total of what he does here - it's mind-blowing. I don't know if it will be recognized come awards season - perhaps the pulpiness of some of the characters will be held against him (or his brief, silly turn as a foul-mouthed Irish writer in the 2012 segment). But holy crap, this is some of the most impressive work I've ever seen from Hanks. Same goes for Halle Barry - she was probably my biggest question mark going into the film - could she pull this off? She does - effortlessly playing a number of roles - most less showy than Hanks, but very effective nonetheless. She particularly shines in the 70's segments as an intrepid reporter with an axe to grind. But I also thought she was pretty great (and incredibly kick-ass), in the post-apocalyptic segments, as a woman on a quest for answers. Weaving - wow. He recurs as a villain throughout the film, but he plays everything from an expressionless hired thug, to a battleaxe of a woman in 2012 (yep, Weaving plays a woman!), to a demonic creature who haunts Tom Hanks in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Awesome. Finally, Jim Broadbent is the guy who may get the most critical acclaim, because he's just such a scene-stealer. Chiefly, as a book publisher trapped in an existential nightmare in 2012. Broadbent is just hilarious in these segments. But he also shines in the darker and more somber 1936 segments, as a master composer who comes into conflict with his young apprentice. Jim Sturges is also amazing in this. Keith David kicks ass. Hugh Grant, of all people, surprised me - he plays in his wheelhouse as a smarmy CEO, but also (quite convincingly!) plays a savage tribal leader. Who woulda' thunk it? Susan Sarandon has some memorable moments. James D'Arcy is also great, particularly when you think about how he so convincingly plays the same character as a young and old man, in the 1930's and 1970's.
But I will single out one other MVP of the cast - Doona Bae. She is the heart and soul of the film as Sonmi-451. Even without speaking much ... it's all in her eyes. She is a real find, and I can't wait to see her in more movies. Now, it's occasionally awkward when they've got her playing some of the other characters that are more out of her comfort zone. But as Sonmi, man, she just nails it, and is instantly iconic in the part. If there's one lasting image that CLOUD ATLAS leaves you with, it may just be wide-eyed Sonmi confronting the horrific reality of her Fabricant existence, that until now she was blissfully ignorant of.
Some of that iconography can again be attributed to the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Again, can't say enough about their directorial prowess here. Prior to this, I thought of the Wachowskis as fantastic genre directors, but now I put them in the categories of great directors - period. That said, the sci-fi and action stuff in Cloud Atlas is just off-the-chain and badass as hell. Get these guys on Star Wars. At the same time, the comedy stuff in 2012, the period piece drama in the 1840's and 1930's, the gritty crime drama in the 1970's ... equally well-done. And the icing on the cake is how it's all so skillfully woven together. The various time-periods interweave in a way that is exciting, that keeps the momentum high - but that also brilliantly ties scenes together from a thematic perspective.
As I said, it's rare that such an epic, blockbuster film can also feel so personal. But this is a movie that is bursting with heart and soul and humanity. It's a thesis statement on the human condition, a look at who we are and where we've been and where we might go. Not everyone wants such ambition in what is, in some ways, a popcorn flick. But I gladly absorbed it all and went along for the ride. To me, this was big, thought-provoking, cosmic storytelling - the kind of thing I wish we'd see more of at the movies.
My Grade: A