Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Last, Full Measure

One sentence synopsis:  Abraham Lincoln struggles to get the 13th Amendment passed through congress before the end of the war makes it impossible.

Things Havoc liked:  Daniel Day Lewis is one of my least-favorite great actors. Method to a fault, he throws himself into his films like a madman, with the predictable result that his movies are often wholly mad. Gangs of New York, in which he played a raving maniac, was a muddled, chaotic mess of a film that lost itself in artifice and stylization. There will be Blood, in which he also played a raving maniac, was a languid, boring piece of crap, livened only by a hunched-over Day-Lewis screaming incoherently about milkshakes. Though there are movies of his I've liked, they've either been due to factors other than him (Last of the Mohicans) or films where his tendency to devolve into histrionics served the film well (The Crucible). Though on some objective scale he is reckoned a great actor, I must admit that I questioned his casting as Abraham Lincoln, a man whose biography, I felt, was not conducive to the typical soul-baring rage-against-the-heavens that Day-Lewis tends to inflict on his audiences.

Well apparently, I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Lincoln, a biopic based loosely on the pioneering biography "Team of Rivals", is one of the greatest biographies ever committed to film, and the majority of the credit is due to Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether by consultation with the production team, his own obsessive method preparations, or both, Lewis presents us with a Lincoln unlike any we've seen before, and yet better, by far, than all of the others. The movie takes place (rather surprisingly to me) in the last few months of Lincoln's presidency, and we see him as a bent, exhausted man, wearied by four years of seemingly ceaseless slaughter, yet still empowered with reserves of will sufficient to take on yet another bitter battle because of an opportunity he alone perceives as existing. His voice is high and almost reedy, infused with the mid-western twang that so many Lincoln actors forget he must have possessed, and his manner is folksy and informal, and his penchant for tall tales and Aesopian parables is such that he drives members of his cabinet out of the room with the mere mention of the phrase "I am reminded of the story...". More shocking to me, there is here no trace of the violent, brooding madness that Day-Lewis previously seemed to mistake as 'pathos' in so many of his previous characters. Capable though he is of deep feeling, he only occasionally lets it break out, and then quickly thrusts it back inside, understanding instead the need to be the man that others expect him to be. Only once, in the entire film, does Day-Lewis explode into the sort of tirade that his previous films were so studded with, and in that case he is easily upstaged by a genuine lunatic.

Speaking of which, Lincoln carries with it a cast of supporting actors to die for. Sally Field, who I like more and more as she gets older, plays the infamous Mary Todd Lincoln, who in her own words in this film, is "remembered only for being crazy and ruining [Lincoln's] life." Field plays Mary Todd as a woman who is borderline crazy, yes, but who has been crazy for a long time, and who has, along with her husband, come to terms with her own conditions to a point. She and Lincoln fight, even rage at one another in thunderous bombast, but she retains enough self-awareness to cut dead her husband's political adversaries with weaponized remarks, to play the part of the first lady when necessary, and to indulge in the political intrigues of the day. Other roles include that always dependable David Straitharn as Secretary of State William Seward, a polished statesman still rankling somewhat beneath Lincoln's backwoods aphorisms and seemingly impossible requests, but who quite clearly has come to be in awe of the President whose greatness so clearly eclipses everyone's including his own. Tommy Lee Jones, who recently has taken to playing himself in every film, here plays Thaddeus Stevens, a firebrand radical abolitionist, who must set aside his own distrust of Lincoln's moderation to force a bill outlawing slavery forever through a hostile congress. Jones' performance isn't a terribly grand departure from his usual fare, but he benefits by getting fed some of the best lines, standing up in the House of Representatives and denouncing his opponents with savage, biting wit. If nothing else, this film provides a counterpoint to anyone who claims that bitter partisanship is somehow a new development.

Steven Spielberg is a director whose name was once a byword for quality, but whose tendencies towards schmaltz and sappiness have overwhelmed him of late (AI, War of the Worlds, War Horse). But Lincoln serves as a reminder of just how effective Spielberg can be when he chooses. With one brief exception early in the film, the movie is shot entirely without battle sequences or fights of any kind, concentrating instead on the details, sometimes the exacting details, of congressional procedure and political dealmaking. We watch as Lincoln's team of fixers (led by an unrecognizable James Spader) seeks to bribe, cajole, and threaten various congressmen into voting for the bill, go through lengthy debates and speeches that deal with arcane rules of governmental protocol and hear over and again Lincoln standing firm against what appears to be his entire cabinet as they try and convince him that the Thirteenth Amendment cannot (or should not) be passed). And yet somehow, not only is this material not boring, it is positively riveting, shot as it is in such a manner as to allow these towering figures of history to show the import of the tremendous events they are participating in. Far too much historical material regarding the Civil War and slavery is presented from a modern perspective, investing the "good" characters with qualities anachronistic to the times so as to force our identification with the side of right. Yet the movie here, without disfiguring the context of its history, portrays all of the players in 1865 as being well aware of what history they were making, and the seriousness and passion with which the movie and the characters treat the subject at hand is infectious, turning what could have been a Ken Burns documentary into a vision of living history, timeless and timely all at once.

Things Havoc disliked:  When the film is dealing with issues of weight and gravitas, it is faultless, but there are occasions when it deals with other matters, to its own disservice. The entire sub-plot with Robert Lincoln, who wishes to enlist in the army over the objections of his mother and father is not badly handled, but comes across as a very pedestrian subject by comparison to everything else being done. Moreover, as Robert is played by the increasingly ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt, these sequences served only to remind me of the fact that I'm not a great fan of his, despite his excellent turns in The Dark Knight Rises or Inception. Gordeon-Levitt doesn't do a bad job, but the material he gets to play with is far less compelling than everything else, and he does not have the services of half a dozen superb, veteran actors to call upon in support of his major scenes.

The movie also does go a bit overboard near the end, when it becomes time to hold the climactic vote to decide whether the 13th amendment will pass or not. I appreciate that the issue was closely fought for, and that it serves here as the climax of the film itself, but the slow, lengthy recitation of what must be every single congressman in the House claiming Aye or Nay run for so long that one suspects the intention was to ward off any possible criticism from historians, as opposed to generating riveting film. Yes, we've invested a great deal of time in the question of whether this congressman or that one will vote for the amendment, but the film spends at least ten minutes going through the votes of other congressmen we've never met and never heard of up until this point, which given that we already know that A: the amendment passed, and B: the amendment's passage came down to a handful of votes, the bearers of whom we've spent two hours exploring, the fixation on procedure seems odd.

Final thoughts:   Lincoln is a towering achievement, a movie that presents us with the story of a great man in tempestuous times and shows us how he rose above them to command the reverent adulation with which his memory is clothed today. It takes a tiny portion of Abraham Lincoln's overall story, and presents it to us with such skill that we are simply left wanting to see more. I know that I seem to have fallen into a habit of saying things like this, but it is one of the best films I've seen in quite a while.

There are some biopics that colonize the popular memory of a historical figure. George C. Scott will forever be synonymous with George Patton and Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles. If there is any justice in the world, when people think of Abraham Lincoln in the future, they will think of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Alternate Title:  Bond Begins Again

One sentence synopsis:  James Bond must confront a former 00 agent seeking revenge against MI6.

Things Havoc liked:  Like with Batman, every generation gets the Bond it's looking for, and Daniel Craig is unquestionably a Bond for this generation. Despite the vitriol with which his second film, Quantum of Solace, was greeted, many people, myself included, were so blown away by Casino Royale that Craig immediately usurped our position of "best Bond". Craig's bond was gritty, energetic, serious, dialing back the puns of the Brosnan era and the silliness of the Moore era in favor of something much more robust and modern. Part Jason Bourne, part Jason Statham, Craig's bond was the first one to dive into what might make a secret agent like Bond actually tick, showing him as he evolved from fresh-faced (though still lethal) MI6 assassin to the more mature Bond we remember from the classic films. With Skyfall, Craig's Bond has come full circle, entering the film as a bitter, broken agent, worn down my years of physical and psychological abuse, seeking to determine if he still has what it takes to save the world.

Skyfall is a movie well aware of the long history of James Bond, a movie that sits and thinks about what it means that Bond has now been with us for fifty years, still saving the world as resolutely as he did back when he was Sean Connery seducing Ursula Andress. It is, effectively, the story of two characters, Bond himself, who after years and years of saving the world has ground himself down to an alcoholic nub, and M, played by Judy Dench, who now faces the prospect that her no-nonsense ultra-pragmatic approach to the shadowy world of espionage may be about to explode in her face. The vehicle for this explosion is Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, a former 00 agent turned Wikileaks-style computer hacker and revenge-obsessed assassin, who wishes for nothing more than the destruction of M and all her works. This could have become, and indeed sounds like, the most generic premise for a Bond film ever, and yet the movie wisely takes its time with all three elements to the triangle, giving us time to understand the limitations Bond is pushing up against as his body and mind begin to fail him, while also affording us glimpses, grudging but present, of the toll that the job of safeguarding the free world has taken on M, and the terrible choices she has had to make, live with, and stoically refuse to question. Craig, in his third movie as Bond, plays the character perfectly, recognizably Bond at all times, and yet plainly approaching his breaking point as the missions keep piling up and his ability to cope with them drains away. Dench meanwhile, in her seventh turn as M, gets arguably more material here than she did in the previous six, an old woman at the twilight of her career, whose relationship with her finest agent is finally given some of the weight we have all long suspected it must hold, and whose greatest failure has returned to haunt the last days of her reign. Dench has always stolen the show as M, but we finally here get a sense of what makes her tick beyond the professional demeanor that she has shown us in film after film. Much of the second half of the film is dedicated to her and Bond and the ways in which these two solitary, weary veterans know one another far more than either one will admit.

But a great Bond movie also needs a great villain, and Bardem is one in the best traditions of Blofield or Treveyan or Scaramanga. The best Bond villains always had a sense of self-awareness concerning their situation, and Bardem plays a character who knows his own role in a drama only he seems to be able to perceive. His introduction to Bond is a glorious repartee between himself and an agent whom he no doubt once resembled, and ends with a hilarious sequence I will not spoil here. And yet humor, int he sense of the classic Bond villains, is not the point here. Bardem's character is a broken, shattered man, thirsty for a bitter revenge against the woman (M) who used and then discarded him, and while he seems entirely comfortable with the fact that, as a Bond villain, he and all his works are destined to end in fire, he cares little so long as he can burn her (and Bond) down with him. The cat and mouse between Bond and a villain every bit as skilled, driven, and, let's face it, obsessive as he is, effectively lets the movie ratchet up the stakes and then ratchet them up again, on and on throughout the film.

And the stakes do indeed get ratcheted. One of the objections that was made of the previous sortie, was that Quantum of Solace simply wasn't grand enough, focusing on a hackneyed plot involving Bolivian Water rights, and an action climax set in a deserted hotel. No such criticism applies here. It's not just that the action sequences are stunning, though they are, but they're extremely well done, shot perfectly, and with glorious senses of spectacle and cinematography. An early fight between Bond and an international assassin takes place in a single, unbroken take, with nary a camera movement in sight, as Bond and his adversary shoot, fight, and grapple with one another on top of a building lit by neon signs the size of airliners. In an age of microscopic shot lengths and shakey-cam, this one sequence shows us exactly how to do it, and it is buttressed throughout the film by several more, including a truly tense sequence inside a courtroom, and a climactic battle in a location far more personal than any has ever been in a Bond film. The callbacks to classic Bond films are many and varied (even the classic old Aston Martin DB5 of yesteryear makes an appearance), and yet the movie never pretends to be anything but extremely modern in theme and tone, deconstructing what it is to be Bond while still letting him retain that mystique so central to the character. By the end of the film, I was looking at Bond in an entirely new way, and yet recognized everything I saw.

Things Havoc disliked:  So consumed is this movie in its sense of tone and style that minor issues like "plot" fall between the cracks. For example, I recognize that most movies that involve computers bear no resemblance at all to how the things actually work, but this movie takes it a step further, with a series of "hack the internets" moments so ludicrous I half-expected Neo to make an appearance. It doesn't help that these hacks feature prominently in the evil plot of the villain, a plot so convoluted that it makes the Joker's plan from the Dark Knight look straightforward and plausible. I hate to spoil things, but if I never see another villain who lets himself be caught so that he can employ some ridiculous social engineering trick based on omniscient preconception to break out of his cell and be exactly where he wanted to be all along, it will be too soon.

The villain's infinite resources get annoying on the temporal plane as well. I can accept that a Bond villain must and will have a small army of well-armed men who follow his every command, that comes with being hired as a Bond villain. But in a film that is trying to be as, dare I say, 'realistic' as Skyfall is, to have the villain assemble not merely a small army but military-grade hardware, including attack helicopters, in the middle of Great Britain, is asking quite a bit. Yes, many Bond villains have had private island fortresses, underwater warships, or moon bases, but those villains at least had the decency not to place their secret volcano lairs in the middle of Scotland.

The movie also seems to assemble and then discard subplots at random. A promising story seems to be in the making early on with a character named Severine, a mysterious woman with a history of child abuse and sexual slavery whom Bond identifies and then (of course) seduces. Yet nothing is made of her character after about the third-way point through the movie, as though the film abruptly decided it should pursue other interests and characters. Similarly, the character of Eve, a junior agent responsible for a terrible mistake early on in the film, is never really expanded upon, as once more the film drops everything to pursue Bond and M. I'm not objecting to those two being the focus of the film, but why introduce such interesting character points if you're not going to do anything with them?

Final thoughts:  Ultimately though, Skyfall for all its veneration of the history of the character and all the inventiveness of its action sequences, is less a Bond movie than a movie about James Bond. Who he actually is, what drives him, and what relationships, as opposed to flings, he has managed to assemble along the way. Though Bond movies are, and remain, ludicrous exercises in excess and superhuman daring-do, Craig, in Skyfall, has come the closest to showing us Bond as he might actually be. At the end of the film, when Bond speaks to M, and receives his newest set of orders, we get the sense not of an ending, but a beginning. Craig's entire journey as Bond through three films, has led us, finally, to the steely-eyed Secret Agent we recognize from fifty years of adventure, seduction, and heroism.

His name is Bond. James Bond. And at long last, we know who he is.

Final Score:  7/10

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Burlesque Assassins

Alternate Title:  War and Pasties

One sentence synopsis:  A team of international Burlesque Dancers/Assassins team up to defeat evil dictators and save the world.

Things Havoc liked:  A while back, I reviewed a film called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, a movie in which the Great Emancipator liberated the entrails of an army of vampires with a silvered axe while racing to save the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a movie with a premise so ridiculous that to criticize it was to miss the point. One could either choose to accept it, or not. It is with that notion in mind that I present The Burlesque Assassins, a movie with a premise so outlandish that I can't decide if it represents insanity, genius, or both: A world where Nazis, Fascists, and Cold War communists must fear the watchful eye of Johnny Valentine, and his posse of burlesque-dancers-turned assassins.

Who is Johnny Valentine? Picture a cross between Charlie (of the Angels) and Hannibal Smith of the A-Team, and you'll begin to get an idea. Valentine is a grizzled veteran who ran a secret squad of burlesque assassins during WWII (the newsreels of their exploits are one of the movie's highlights), while simultaneously carrying on with his Russian counterpart, Katerina Molotov any chance he could get. Valentine (I could not for the life of me discover the actor's name) brings just the right note of played-straight spy foolishness to a role that is, on the face of things, utterly ridiculous, and manages to render the entire thing believable, even as he dons an ever-more absurd series of "disguises" (the source of many awesome jokes). Valentine's performance is spot on, and grounds the entire escapade, somehow, in just enough of a veneer of reality that we can suspend our disbelief. His is the role of the gruff, cigar-chomping unit boss, unflappable and supremely confident in his plan and his agents, though when he gets his hands dirty (as he does several times in the film) the result is unfailingly hilarious.

But the stars of the show are intended to be the Burlesque Assassins themselves, a collection of actual burlesque dancers of note, acting here with stage names and cover identities that I must assume are barely, if at all, exaggerated above their "real" ones. The team's modus operandi is generally to seduce their targets with a sexy burlesque routine, following which the target is invited backstage for a 'private' show to die for. It comes as no surprise, of course, that professional burlesque dancers can indeed perform burlesque routines, but given the generally low budget style of the film, it is a surprise that several of them actually seem to be able to act as well. Particularly, the actresses portraying Bombshell Belle and Koko La Douce (I beg pardon if I'm confusing real stage names for film ones, but IMDB is singularly unhelpful here) bring just the right hint of world-weary comedy to the planning and execution of their assassinations to carry the farcical yet straight-played tone that the movie is going for. And many of the more slapsticky routines they engage in, particularly those where they have to dispose of the bodies of the malefactors, are actually really funny.

Speaking of the malefactors, this movie presents us with, and I'm not making this up, the Son of Mussolini, the Clone of Adolph Hitler, and a very much non-dead Joseph Stalin working in cahoots to destroy the world with a Death Ray. If that concept sounds awesome, it's because it is, and the actors who portray the three villains in question manage to have a great deal of fun with their roles, despite physically doing little more than sitting in a theater watching Burlesque routines. Of the three, Hitler is probably the funniest (if only because of a single hilarious sequence involving his er... preferences... in companionship), but all three play fantastically off one another, a cross between their versions from The Great Dictator, and more modern parodies from a Family Guy-style. Their interplay, and reactions to the girls are quite well done, and anchor several of the best sequences in the film.

Finally, I obviously can't speak to what budget this movie had, but given everything, the effects are better than I expected. Most of the violence is deliberately over-the-top, Tom and Jerry style "hijinx", but while the blood, body parts, or futuristic weapons won't be winning any Academy Awards, they were a step or so above what I initially expected to see from a movie like this one. Given that the movie's tongue is firmly in its cheek, a little bit of ludicrously over-the-top blood gives it a very Sam Raimi feel in all the right places.

Things Havoc disliked:  A risk with small projects like this is that the actors you're employing are not always up to par. Such is the case for the main assassin, Bourbon Sue, who simply doesn't know how to deliver a line properly. Oh she can dance seductively with the best of them, that much is for certain, but there's more to acting than burlesque dancing, and her wooden acting does the film no favors. In fact, given the movie's low budget and burlesque theme, Sue's performance hurts more than it normally would, as it brings to mind uncomfortable parallels to the bad acting one finds in porno movies. Don't get me wrong, that's not what this is, but it was the impression I got.

Speaking of Burlesque, I understand that this was a niche film made by a proud subculture, I really do. But for boring old me, a man who knows less about Burlesque than he does about rocket science (I'm not kidding), the movie seemed entirely overloaded with Burlesque routines. Not only does each of the assassins get their own number, but the rest of the action is intercut by three or four "guest" appearances by other well-known Burlesque stars. I recognize that it's a bit churlish to complain that there are too many beautiful women removing their clothes in front of me, but each of these routines is three or four minutes long, and after the seventh one, I began to wish the movie would simply get on with it. There was enough interesting and funny material to be had from the actual main characters, and given that I did not know who any of the guest Burlesquers (that may not be a word) were, there wasn't really anything for me there. I doubt there's much for anyone who doesn't know the participants.

Final thoughts:  And yet the reason I bring that complaint up at all is because this is not simply a fan-work for insiders only. It's actually a surprisingly well-done action-comedy-farce graced by good writing, acting, and a suitably ludicrous concept. Were it not for the languid pace that the various numbers give it, and the issues that mar its choice of main actress, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. That said, even with its flaws, this is one of the better low/no-budget flicks I've seen, and should one of you happen to come across it in your wild journeys through the cinematic landscape, you might well be in for a surprise.

Final Score:  6/10

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Alternate Title:  The Story of Us

One sentence synopsis:  The lives of a group of people cross again and again throughout the past, present, and future.

Things Havoc disliked:  Yes, I know that normally I start with what I liked, and leave the whining until later, but this time I had to get something out of the way:

I don't like it when movies decide they're too smart for you. I don't like it when they go out of their way to be impenetrable, artifice-laden slogs. I don't like having to disentangle a movie from the pretensions of their authors, and I absolutely hate it when the movie compounds this issue by playing around with the basic language of cinema for some bullshit 'cognitive effect' dreamed up by an overindulged 'artiste'. Setting, character, shot selection, coherent editing, narrative flow, these are not optional elements in a film, they are the mechanisms by which the fever dreams of a cinematographer's imagination can be translated for the rest of us, and films which abuse these elements for the purposes of showing off how superior they are tend to arouse my ire.

Cloud Atlas, based on a novel by David Mitchell, is an unfilmable mess, worse by far than the Lord of the Rings adaptations ever were. The novel consists of six different stories told across time and space, linked together by the fact that many of the characters in each one are the re-incarnations (I assume) of one another. I am forced to assume this, as opposed to knowing it, because while in the film version of this novel, these characters are played time and again by the same actors, what is actually going on is never, ever explained. Some gestures are given to magical birthmarks, some to deja-vu, some to spiritualism and some to God, but we are clearly meant to simply sit back and accept the central conceit, something that would be much easier to do if it were made clear at any point if the characters played by such actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Kieth David, or Hugo Weaving (to name only the ones I recognize) are meant to literally be the same person brought forth in a new time and place, the descendents thereof, or something else entirely. I just finished the entire movie, and I couldn't tell you the answer.

Indeed, I can't tell you a whole hell of a lot about this film, not even if I had the time to sit down and parse out the various narratives of this story one by one. Part of the problem is that the stories are tied together so closely and with such rapid shift from one to the next that we scarcely have time to get our bearings in terms of what is actually happening in one tale before we're whisked off without warning or hesitation to another. Worse yet, several scenes actually have the temerity to flash-forward within the same (or even a different) narrative, further confusing everybody as to just what's happening. And as though that wasn't enough, one of the larger narratives takes place with the characters speaking some kind of post-apocalyptic argot that's effectively incomprehensible. And since subtitles (or, you know, English) would spoil the majesty of whatever brilliance the filmmakers are deigning to place before us plebeian swine, I still have no idea what most of the characters in that sequence were saying. Of course, this would be the one plot thread where the directors decide to actually slow down and linger for a time.

You can therefore imagine my frustrations as I sat through this interminable (three hour) movie, completely lost as to what was going on, who the characters were, what they were doing, and even what words they were speaking to one another. What greater point the movie was trying to make was only dimly perceptible beneath layers of artifice, confusion, and artistic chaos. And all I could think of as I sat there, was that eventually it was going to be my task to come home and try and make sense of this mess to the rest of you.

Things Havoc liked:  And then, around the 45 minute mark or so, something very strange began to happen...

Each of the six stories that we are told here, taken in and of itself, carries a different theme and a very different tone, all this despite the actors occurring and re-occurring within each one. Some of these actors, like Hugo Weaving or Halle Berry, are constantly playing the same basic character archetypes (slimy villain and intrepid explorer, respectively), set down in settings as varied as a 19th century ship, 1970s San Francisco, or the distant future. But what began to dawn on me was that other characters, particularly those that Tom Hanks portrays, are not. Hanks portrays, at times, a violent thug who brutally murders people in a drunken rage (his cockney accent leaves something to be desired), at times a nebbish scientist dragged into doing the right thing against his will, and at other times a cowardly fisherman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world of cannibalism and death. He's not alone. Jim Broadbent goes from a murderous, virulently-racist ship captain one moment to a conniving book publisher trapped in a mental hospital, while Jim Sturgess and Korean actress Bae Doona go from demure Victorian aristocrats to fire-breathing rebel leaders in an Orwellian superstate. Once this became apparent, and it took some time, it dawned on me that what was being represented here was not a specific set of characters, replayed through the ages like broken records. What was being represented was a range of human experience. And how some people, for better or worse, can change over time, and some people, for better or worse, cannot.

This recognition, such as it was, was the first of many within this film's enormous running time, and as the movie moved on, I became more accustomed to what it was trying to tell me, and more importantly, how it was trying to tell it. What appeared at first to be maddening artifice slowly evolved into a different language entirely than the one I was used to experiencing in movies. The overlap between the stories, I came to realize, was not based on tone or scene tension levels (action scene links to action scene, for instance), but based around something else entirely, specifically the relationships between all of the various characters at given moments, and the resonances, not repetitions, that their interactions had as they rippled across time and space itself. And once I had gotten over my confusion, even in the slightest degree... what a tremendous landscape this film unveiled before me.

Every element to this film, taken by itself, is done extremely well, with great fidelity to the style and times required. The pastoral periods, be they pre-civilized or post-apocalyptic, are shot in glorious, vibrant color, while the futuristic dystopia setting has dark, gritty cinematography livened by bursts of bright visual effects, ones that honestly resemble Tron more than they do the Wachowskis' famous Matrix trilogy. The cinematography changes too, from broad canvasses appropriate to adventure films for the 1840s scenes, to a blocky procedural style for the 1970s segment, and to a more modern caper-flick Scorsese-inspired set of sweep-shots and held takes for the sequence taking place in the modern day. The major linking factor through all this is the truly incredible score, written by co-director Tom Tykwer, a score that somehow manages to make the same piece of music work for adventure, action, romance, and inspirational scenes all at the same time. It is able to do this because, as with everything else in the film, the important element isn't what scene is currently playing, but the overall tapestry of human experience that the movie is trying to portray, and a score appropriate to that will by definition be appropriate to every scene that represents it.

Indeed, Cloud Atlas might be one of the boldest films ever made, a sprawling, elaborate spectacle, both visually and in the sheer complexity of its narrative, which twists and turns around itself like a helix, filling every scene, every shot with detailed references to other stories, past or future. It's true that none of the individual stories that comprise this enormous offering are terribly nuanced by themselves, but taken in summation as they are, the stories buttress one another to produce a larger, more universal narrative, reflecting the themes of power, love, abandonment, indifference, and hope. Life, at times, is not terribly nuanced either, and only when combined with the stories of the lives of everyone that surrounds us does it acquire definition. This is not the sort of re-incarnation story where we see characters play out the same tale over and over again with changes of costume and scenery. Every story, every relationship, every moment of this film is unique to itself and yet rhymes in a strange, almost rhythmic way with moments and scenes scattered across creation. The various tracks that the movie jumps between with such frequency are not actually individual stories, but elements of a larger, cohesive whole, simultaneously unified and multifold, a record of human experience throughout the ages, and the ways that the black evils and selfless kindnesses that we do for one another resonate with people we never meet, whose lives we can scarcely imagine.

Final thoughts:  If the above sounds inane, meaningless, or like a particularly bad bout of over-analysis, then I apologize, but this is a film that defies easy description. Some critics have savaged the film for being a plodding bore, others for being overly full of itself, and some even for being horribly racist (several actors change their ages, genders, and even races for some of their characters, not always with the most convincing of effects). And yet, if I am to be brutally honest with everyone, I can't possibly describe it in terms other than near-rapture. I've seen dozens, hundreds of films in my life, both before and during this grand experiment. And yet I cannot name more than a handful of movies that have left me with such a feeling of awe and wonder as this one did. All the complaints I leveled against it in the beginning are true, and remained true throughout the movie, and yet at some point, I simply began to perceive what this film was trying to show me, and like an incomparably intricate Swiss clock, every element simply slid into place. What response it will generate from others, I cannot possibly speculate, yet the passion, heart, and empathy of the film are so strong as to be overflowing, all without once veering into maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. It is, without question, one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

'We are all connected to one another,' says one of the characters in this movie repeatedly, and indeed both the narrative and the thematic hearts of the film are encompassed within the above statement. This film's subject matter is no less than the interwoven nature of our lives, not in some basic tit-for-tat sense, but in all its glorious, majestic complexity. It shows us as we are, billions of individual threads dancing around and between one another, forming iterative patterns much greater than ourselves, simultaneously newly minted and long-worn. When revealed in all its glory, the resulting tapestry is vast beyond scope, yet infinitely detailed, a fractal pattern repeating itself forever, and each time in a manner wholly new. We call the result History.

Final Score:  9.5/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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