Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (2012)
Dir. Ang Lee

4 out of 5

Despite the production and marketing challenges of supposedly “unfilmable” books, they are all the rage in Hollywood, from the narrative Rubik’s Cube that is Cloud Atlas to the ‘how-do-you-dare-film-this?’ adolescent violence of The Hunger Games.  The trend continues with the visually breathtaking Life of Pi, based on the Yann Martel bestseller about a shipwrecked Indian teen who survives for months on the open ocean in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger.  The obvious difficulty here isn’t the subject matter – a quirky coming-of-age story that morphs into a gripping survival tale – but the necessity of creating animal actors that can hit precise cues and perform dangerous stunts.  It almost goes without saying that the visual effects in Pi steal the show, and are all the more impressive for their seamless integration of computer-generated images with flesh-and-blood actors.  (“The next Avatar!” screams the promotional copy.)

Oddly enough, it’s the early portion of the story concerning the childhood of Piscine “Pi” Patel that poses the greatest challenge to a successful cinematic interpretation of Martel’s heavily philosophical novel.  As the spiritually inquisitive younger son of the family that owns the municipal zoo in Pondicherry, India, Pi’s upbringing resembles something like a multicultural Venn diagram: an Indian kid with a French name dabbling in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam before his rationalist father scolds him for blindly accepting others’ truths.  Pi’s pre-pubescent soul-searching is an especially writerly flourish, one that does not register as strongly on the screen as it does on the page.  Toss in the framing device of an adult Pi (Irfan Khan) recounting his life story to an author (Rafe Spall) in a quiet Montreal neighborhood, and it’s difficult to imagine that this is the film setting a new benchmark for 3D cinematic spectacle.

But Life of Pi gets much better once it drops its spiritual pretensions and gets down to the business of survival.  The touchy-feely nature of the prologue quickly becomes disconnected from the rest of the film once the family sets out for a new life in North America on a cargo ship carrying their entire menagerie.  A violent storm unexpectedly sinks the vessel, stranding Pi (played as a teenager by newcomer Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with Richard Parker, an adult tiger whose territorial instincts make it especially challenging for the boy to utilize the lifeboat’s supplies and seek rescue.  It’s a bracing, savage interlude that belies the story’s gentle beginnings.

Though director Ang Lee is best known for character-driven prestige dramas, anyone familiar with his wire-fu epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also knows he’s no stranger to pushing the visual envelope.  And there are many jaw-dropping images in Life of Pi, including a sea full of phosphorescent fish and an island oasis teeming with thousands of meerkats.  All that digital whiz-bang is doubly necessary given the novel’s knotty narrative conclusion, which threatens to alienate audiences expecting a technically-impressive crowd pleaser in the vein of Cast Away.  Ultimately, Life of Pi’s boldest statement isn't in its revolutionary visuals and captivating sense of wonder, but in its message about how we prefer stories that use symbolism to make our existential dread easier to swallow.  Pessimists will complain that this technically makes the entire film one big cop out based on bogus pan-religious principles.  They might be partially correct, but you don’t have to buy into Pi’s philosophy to appreciate its rare combination of intelligence and top-notch spectacle.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
Dir. The RZA

4 out of 5

Of all the movies that have been released under the “Quentin Tarantino Presents” banner, none have felt as indebted to their loquacious benefactor as The Man with the Iron Fists.  Then again, maybe that’s just because nobody else in the industry approaches kung fu movies with the same fanboy-on-steroids fervor as the RZA, the Wu Tang Clan rapper-turned-bit actor-turned feature film writer and director.  Fists is arguably the year’s greatest labor of love, a kinetic valentine to the grindhouse martial arts aesthetic that shaped its creator’s artistic sensibilities.  

It’s RZA’s movie through and through, especially since he also stars as the blacksmith Thaddeus in this tall tale about the lawless outpost of Jungle Village, so named for its many animal-themed clans who are constantly at war with one another.  He reluctantly makes a living crafting tools of dismemberment for these ruthless thugs, but his nights are warmed by his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute at the brothel run by the savvy Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).  Business picks up for both of them when word gets out about an imperial convoy with passing through Jungle Village a fortune in gold.  Soon the village is overrun with criminals who will stop at nothing to steal the money, drawing a hesitant Thaddeus into the fray alongside the other warriors pledged to defend the community.

This is the type of film that raises many questions with its premise.  Does the gold really need to be sent through this notoriously crime-ridden village?  Why does the cathouse appear to be the largest building in town?  And how does a black man wind up as an expert blacksmith in 19th-century China?  (That last question is one of the few for which a satisfactory explanation is proffered.)  But it’s also the type of film where the answers don’t really matter as long as it keeps delivering madcap, inventive martial arts brawls at a steady clip.  By that standard, Fists is a rousing success.  The story is merely a license for licentiousness, an imperative enhanced by deliciously hammy performances from Byron Mann as the callous Silver Lion (complete with resplendent mane) and Russell Crowe as Jack Knife, a gentleman assassin with a vicious mean streak roiling just beneath his cheerfully perverse exterior. 

Though its creator is no stranger to Hollywood, The Man with the Iron Fists has the nervy feel of outsider art.  That’s not to suggest it’s unpolished – the stuntwork shines through frenetic editing, and the costuming and hairstyling is award-worthy – but it has a blind confidence in the RZA’s and co-writer Eli Roth's wild imaginations.  The pair tosses several movies’ worth of ideas at the screen, with enough of them sticking to justify the whole kitschy-kitchen sink enterprise.  And although Fists won’t make a leading man out of the RZA, it’s an impressive all-around debut that reveals his potential as a visual stylist – he and director of photography Chi Ying Chan choreograph several striking sequences, including a balletic scrum between Silver Lion’s henchmen and Taoist warrior twins that playfully references the symbols of the latter pair’s philosophical beliefs.  It’s just one of many pleasing flourishes in a film that finds an avid fan and filmmaker relying on both his acquired knowledge of kung fu films and his unbridled imagination to leave his own indelible mark on the genre.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jump Cuts: Better Dead Than Red Edition

MGM’s long-shelved remake of Red Dawn will finally see the light of day today, the culmination of a four-year journey interrupted by the studio’s recent financial troubles.   The new film trades in the1984 original’s Brat Pack cast (Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey) and Soviet antagonists for fresh-faced action heroes (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth, The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson, G.I. Joe’s Adrianne Palicki) and today’s biggest threat to America’s global hegemony, a most powerful Asian adversary that keeps politicians awake at night with its ever-increasing economic and military might – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Ok, so the Cold War ain’t what it used to be.  But even for 1984, Red Dawn was a puerile slice of anti-Communist hysteria, a generalized them vs. us narrative that wraps itself in jingoism and ignores the actually frightening stuff like nuclear proliferation.  (I’ll take WarGames over Dawn any day.)  Plus there’s the fact that the remake did portray the Chinese as the villains until questions arose about the film’s international box office potential.

However, though China and the U.S. mirror the old Anglo-Soviet dynamic in proxy conflicts – witness the two superpowers’ investment in capturing the most medals at this year’s Summer Olympics – anything more contentious just isn’t in either nation’s best interests.  It’s simply easier to pile on a global pariah like North Korea than it is to convince people that an opposing political ideology is inherently bad.  Red-baiting just isn’t practical anymore, especially not if you want to make your money back on foreign shores.

 But were the winds of change blowing earlier than expected?  It sure seems that way in the first half of Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s epic about John Reed, the early 20th-century journalist and political activist whose Ten Days that Shook the World provided a vital account of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and eventually led to his notoriety as the only American to be buried in the Kremlin.  Embracing his offscreen reputation as a noted “Hollywood liberal,” Beatty directed, produced, co-wrote, and starred in this love letter to the foment of leftist politics in the years surrounding the First World War.  But the movie truly belongs to its large cast of “witnesses” – acquaintances and contemporaries of Reed who appear throughout the film in talking-head interviews, providing the first-hand historic context for the events dramatized by Beatty.  Every era has its rebels, and the elderly firebrands featured in Reds keep things lively during the film’s dutifully formulaic but passionate exaltation of dissent.

 The year of Reds’ release also saw the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, ushering in a new birth of American conservatism that was especially conspicuous in its opposition to the Soviet Union.  This hawkish attitude was reflected in the action movies of the 1980s and the stone-faced socialist automatons that often played the villains.  Bucking this trend with its heroic portrayal of a Soviet state policeman, the otherwise forgettable Red Heat (1988) is as intriguing as a Jim Belushi-Arnold Schwarzenegger buddy cop thriller could possibly be.  Belushi’s loose-cannon Chicago cop and Schwarzenegger’s glowering militiaman must put aside their differences to apprehend a rogue Georgian drug lord (Ed O’Ross) who wants to be the USSR’s first major cocaine supplier.  Say what you want about the socialist state, but it apparently succeeded in keeping nose candy out of the Motherland during its entire ‘70s and ’80s heyday.  It’s a disappointingly dull rip-off of the Beverly Hills Cop/Lethal Weapon comedy-thriller formula, despite appearances from Peter Boyle, Laurence Fishburne, and a young Gina Gershon as O’Ross’ paramour.  But at least it reflected the new spirit of optimism in the era of glasnost – Belushi proudly demonstrates his knowledge of Russian tea culture when he instructs a waitress how to prepare Arnie’s brew, explaining to his amused colleague that he saw it in Doctor Zhivago.

By the 1990s, the scales had tipped so far in capitalism’s favor that the producers of The Hunt for Red October (1990) were quick to point out that their story took place in the recent past, when the U.S. and USSR were still neck-and-neck in the arms race.  The unforgettable opening scene ably communicates the threat of the Soviet leviathan, pulling back from a conversation between a Lithuanian submarine captain (Sean Connery) and his first officer (Sam Neill) to reveal a nuclear vessel the size of an aircraft carrier lurking in the dark.  This adaptation of Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller skillfully juggles several plotlines before tying them together with a brilliant triple climax onboard the titular sub.  The script by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (and an uncredited John Milius) makes cracking entertainment out of pages of naval jargon, and the cast features top-notch talent (Tim Curry, Scott Glenn, Stellan Skarsgard) filling out its supporting roles.  So compelling was Red October that it launched a Clancy mini-franchise despite the lack of its original star, Alec Baldwin, and its director, John McTiernan, a capable helmer of paradigmatic action films like Predator and Die Hard before a few misfires and a 2007 conviction for lying to the FBI effectively put his career on ice.

That’s nothing compared to the intrigue in Red Corner (1997), the Richard Gere courtroom thriller that finds the Free Tibet advocate as an American businessman attempting to open up the lucrative Chinese market for his satellite communications company.  After an unplanned tryst with a runway model ends in the woman’s mysterious death, Gere is accused of murder and must take his chances with the Chinese legal system.  It’s a fairly generic conspiracy potboiler that plays like an extra-xenophobic episode of Locked Up Abroad.  As the comely defense attorney assigned to represent Gere (Bai Ling) histrionically notes, a guilty verdict surely means the state will execute him and bill his family for the cost of the bullet.  Aside from the requisite airing-of-cultural-differences shouting match between Gere and Ling, the film makes little attempt to address the political complexities of Communist China, and alternately portrays its leaders as cold, corrupt authoritarians or overeager consumers of high fashion and schlocky TV.  In trying to communicate its message about the legal backwardness and lack of justice in a powerful Marxist state, Red Corner ends up saying far more about the West’s need to assuage its own insecurities.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (2012)
Dir. Sam Mendes

4.5 out of 5

As much as the James Bond series is heralded as the quintessence of big-screen action, it’s been equally concerned with reaction.  For all the recurring iconography – the cars, the gadgets, the women – its individual iterations have featured their own malleable interpretations of the character.  When
Casino Royale rebooted Bond for a post-9/11 world of conflicted Jason Bourne-like heroes, it was the latest instance of a marketplace-motivated reinvention.  An unprecedented 50-year cinematic run proves that this is a successful model:  Bond, the man for all time. 

But Bond is also a man of his time.  And this is a time of paranoia, of grim responsibility, of fearing the enemy within.  So it comes as little surprise that Skyfall channels the spirit of dense, dark contemporary action films – most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  But instead of just doubling down on gravitas, Skyfall retains 007’s droll wit and deft touch to create a Bond film that not only manages to rise above most of its predecessors, but also stands as the rare entry that successfully trumps the films from which it borrows.

The film begins its plunge into gloom early, when Bond (Daniel Craig) is presumed dead after a botched attempt to recover a top-secret list of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations.  Then a bomb rocks MI6 headquarters in London, pushing the organization into makeshift digs in an underground bunker and rattling M (Judi Dench), who appears to be the target of an unseen adversary.  The trail of evidence leads a rejuvenated Bond – after a brief beachfront retirement – to China where former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is pulling the strings of a sophisticated techno-terrorist plot to exact revenge on his former employer.

It helps that, with Silva, Skyfall eschews the type of world-domination megalomania usually endemic to Bond villains.  As a crazy man with a simple goal, Javier Bardem gives another brilliantly unnerving performance that would trigger an avalanche of Oscar buzz if it wasn't smack in the middle of a populist popcorn flick.  He’s a terrific foil for the icy calm of Daniel Craig’s 007, whose haunted eyes barely conceal that’s he’s similarly motivated by a subterranean anger and a thirst for vengeance – emotions that are kept in check by professional safety valves such as his junior field colleague Eve (Naomie Harris) and a reintroduced Q (Ben Whishaw), a cocky, boyish techie whose idea of nifty gadgetry is quaint and dignified.  (“We don’t go in for that sort of thing” is his response to the anathema of an exploding pen.)

For a film that’s essentially a variation on the “this time it’s personal” thriller template, Skyfall is genuinely engaging, blitzing through a robust 140-minutes with sly humor, compelling conflicts, and cleverly-placed callbacks to the Bond legacy.  That legacy, though sometimes laced with silliness, is the main advantage that director Sam Mendes has over the many contemporary action films that are obsessed with playing it completely straight.  This Bond’s flaws may be more apparent, but that stiff upper lip remains wryly in place as he defends queen and country and quite a bit more in his final confrontation with Silva.  Befitting a film that satisfyingly blends elements of blockbusters past and present, Skyfall’s old-fashioned heroics are an ideal, no-nonsense précis for a brave new world of action epics.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors (2012)
Dir. Leos Carax

4.5 out of 5

In Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly adventure Hugo, the early silent filmmaker Georges Méliès asks an adorable moppet if he’s ever wondered where his dreams come from.  He might as well be asking the audience.  The idea of cinema as dream factory is nearly as old as cinema itself, which is helpful to keep in mind when approaching Holy Motors, a puzzling provocation from another French mastermind, Leos Carax.  The film follows Mr. Oscar (Denis Levant) as he treks across Paris to act out nine bizarre scenarios at the behest of his mysterious employer.  As he rides along in a white stretch limousine that doubles as a dressing room, Oscar dutifully applies the makeup and prosthetics that transform him into an old female beggar; or a feral, ravenous leprechaun; or whatever character the job demands. These are not just dreams, but everything else in the kitchen sink of the subconscious, all brought to life with the go-for-broke gusto of a grand showman and the maddening obfuscation of a serious artist.  It’s the weirdest and possibly the most wonderful thing I’ve seen all year.

Even though Oscar displays a sense of resignation about his duties – something he discusses throughout the day with his chauffeur, Céline (Édith Scob) – the film pulses with possibility.  Each of his assignments attest to the formulas embedded in even the most experimental of stories.  Over the course his workday, Oscar stars in a motion-captured fantasy epic, a gritty crime drama, and a musical tragedy (co-starring Kylie Minogue!), among others.  Levant is phenomenal in the trickiest of roles, skillfully slipping into various personae while maintaining an empathetic version of the weary workingman that exists behind the disguises.  Because the “stories” he creates are not necessarily captivating in and of themselves – some of these gigs seem like mercy, but others are just mean-spirited or alienating – it’s these glimpses of the journeyman Oscar that resonate.  Is he an actor or an angel?  Or is he something else entirely?

Holy Motors is a wild trip through the headspace of a creative professional trying to find absolute truth – if such a thing exists – in the business of make-believe.  It’s also a mind-bending commentary on the messy collision of digital technology and practical artistry in the modern film industry.  Carax laments the loss of visible machinery; he clearly misses the flicker of the projector bulb and, somewhat surprisingly, the inviolability of the fourth wall.  It’s as if he feels powerless against the public demand for a fluid reality, and a day with Oscar is like getting at peek at the absurd lengths that filmmakers must go to preserve that illusion.  Holy Motors almost goes out of his way to defy comprehension.  Trying to read between its lines is like staring for too long at an abstract painting.  But by turning cinema on its ear and fooling around with everything that comes tumbling out, Carax creates something truly unforgettable – a lucid dream of a film that’s more than likely to inspire some dreams (or nightmares) of its very own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

3.5 out of 5

Abraham Lincoln is, to Hollywood at least, a Great American Mascot – a metaphor for the aspirational ideals of an entire nation.  The difficulty of retelling the Lincoln story is not in locating a new angle but the challenge of mining nuggets of intimacy from the bedrock of legend.  The opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln illustrates this well, as two star-struck Union soldiers breathlessly recite the Gettysburg Address back to the man who wrote it.  President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) looks on politely as they struggle to recall the ending, until an African-American soldier purposefully and dramatically completes it for them.  That’s Lincoln in a nutshell:  a film that struggles to balance its obligations as a crowd-pleasing biopic of arguably the most popular and iconic president in American history and its Lincoln-like ambition to break an impossibly complex and politically loaded scenario down to its basic human elements.

So how does a film divided against itself stand?  Pretty well, as it turns out.  After its shaky introduction, Lincoln improves markedly as it goes along.  Spielberg’s wisest decision is to narrow the scope of the film to a single month in Lincoln’s life.  In January 1865, the president is working to secure passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the United States.  Meanwhile, Confederate representatives are on their way to the capitol to discuss a negotiated end to the Civil War – a goal many are eager to accomplish with or without the abolition of slavery.  It’s a situation that’s perfect for spelling out Lincoln’s political genius, portrayed by Day-Lewis as an unassailable sangfroid withstanding a never-ending assault of competing agendas.  The two-time Oscar winner’s turn as the Great Emancipator is an intriguing variation of his trademark Method intensity, calmer and quieter but no less committed.

It’s a shame, then, that Lincoln is content to allow a cloud of inscrutability to partially obscure Day-Lewis’ nuanced performance.  The film doubles down on the president’s trademark homespun anecdotes, lending him a sphinx-like quality.  Perhaps in concession to the difficulty of making an epic about a figure famous for plainspoken brevity, Lincoln is dominated by its strong bench of colorful supporting characters.  There’s the pragmatic Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and the volcanic Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), trusted advisors with opposite approaches to preserving the Union; the abolitionist battleaxe Thaddeus Stevens – played with a crusty brilliance by Tommy Lee Jones – who controls a crucial Republican faction in Congress; and Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), a tempest of migraine headaches and melancholic fits.  This immensely qualified cast does justice to the florid, vividly theatrical dialogue of the script penned by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America).   

Ultimately, Lincoln is more of a historical epic and a love letter to American politics than a straight-up biopic.  Spielberg attempts to portray Lincoln as both saint and schemer, a family man and political operator whose well-intentioned ideas were only accomplished through a great deal of compromise and lawyerly machinations.  But, perhaps sensing how far he might stray from his successfully sentimental formula, Spielberg falls back into boisterous crowd-pleasing mode with haloed monologues from Day-Lewis and Jones, as well as a surprising abundance of humor (mostly concerning a trio of proto-lobbyists played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson).  Though it takes a while to find its balance, Lincoln is a worthwhile addition to the presidential filmography, not a revolutionary vision of the meaning of Abraham Lincoln but an evolutionary step towards separating the man from the myth.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Comedy (2012)

The Comedy (2012)
Dir. Rick Alverson

4 out of 5

There’s a British colloquialism I like, “taking the piss,” which refers to a type of unreasonable antagonism that’s usually intended to provoke an emotional reaction.  The Comedy is basically a 90-minute workshop on this concept, an acerbic character study starring Tim Heidecker (TV’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job) as Swanson, an aimless scion of a privileged family whose patriarch is slowly dying in a New York City hospital bed.  Swanson passes his time by attempting to transgress as many social boundaries as possible.  Along with his like-minded buddies – including Awesome Show cohort Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy – he pursues a deadpan agenda of expressing unpleasant emotions like shock, confusion, and grief by provoking them in others.  He’s a certifiable asshole to the world at large, mocking its sincerity and making ludicrous demands.  But it’s clear that every minute of his alcohol-soaked existence that his actions are clothed in an immense inner pain.

The loose, shambling plot concerns the attempts of Swanson’s sister-in-law (Liza Kate) to force him to recognize the gravity of the situation.  Documents are waved in his face, but money doesn’t seem to be an issue.  Swanson has plenty of resources for his roaming freak-outs – with or without his merry pranksters – and is perfectly content to conduct his life as irreverent performance art, trying his best to make others uncomfortable by impersonating gardeners or musing about the untapped potential of eugenics.  Even at his most offensive, though, Swanson has an odd charm about him.  Or rather, a remarkable chutzpah.  Moxie of Swanson’s caliber – on display when he goes to a bar in an black neighborhood to “represent” – is a rare gift, even if it comes with its share of harmful side effects.

The same could be said of the film itself.  Writer-director Rick Alverson and co-writers Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary have the right idea to ride the line with Swanson’s stormy moods with humor so dark it tilts toward the absurd.  Heidecker is more than up to the task as an unlikely but talented leading man, drawing on the sinister undercurrents of his previous work in alternative comedy (see: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie).  Casting the moon-faced comedy provocateur also helps Alverson cultivate the ambiguity he desires.  When Swanson finally lands a job as a dishwasher (he obsession with obtaining employment is the movie’s most unexpected leitmotif), it’s hard to tell how much of his persona is a put-on.  Is he sincerely seeking an additional distraction from his emotions?  Or is it just another way to transfer his misery onto others? 

Never an easy film to watch, The Comedy doesn’t deign to answer such questions explicitly.  Nor, thankfully, does it wish to traffic in obvious labels.  The “h” word looms over Swanson and his Williamsburg-dwelling, PBR-swilling clique, but even within this group there’s a difference between the harmless eccentrics and their frustrated friend play-acting his way through complex, painful emotions.  Once you strip away the protective layers of irony, The Comedy stands as a surprisingly moral film despite its apparent sympathy for the devil.  It’s an impressively-acted cautionary tale that balances its puerile outrageousness with the crushing knowledge that when it comes to jokes with cruel punchlines, none are crueler than life itself.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Dir. Rich Moore

4.5 out of 5

It's easy and accurate to draw comparisons between Toy Story and the newest addition to the Disney animated canon, Wreck-It Ralph.  That's not just because both are witty, detail-packed films revolving around the inner lives of supposedly inanimate objects, but also because they both use this premise to comment on the universal fear of obsolescence and the useful delusion of heroism.  We meet Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the heavy of the Donkey Kong-inspired Fix-It Felix Jr., in a support group for video game villains (sample affirmation: "I'll never be good, and that's not bad").  He yearns to be the good guy so he can win a medal like his in-game adversary, Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer).  One day, finally fed up with his one-dimensional role, Ralph abandons Fix-It Felix and goes "game-jumping" in search of a bauble that will grant him the love and respect he craves.  It's a massive risk for his colleagues, however, as Fix-It Felix can't function without a villain.  Unless Ralph returns to the game, the cabinet will be unplugged, thus stranding all its characters in arcade limbo with other sad, forgotten icons of its quarter-munching past.

Not unlike a classic arcade game, Wreck-It Ralph is addictive entertainment that contains a multitude of cleverly-conceived structural layers underneath a simplistic exterior.  Ralph's journey through the arcade makes a great excuse for tons of in-jokes and cameos featuring characters recognizable to gamers of all generations.  But director Rich Moore and his team aren't just content to pay homage to their favorite video games.  The film takes its spot-the-reference appeal one step further with the games Ralph "jumps" into:  the hyper-futuristic first-person shooter Hero's Duty and the cutesy, candy-coated kart racer Sugar Rush.  These fully-realized worlds recall the classic Disney/Pixar tradition of looking at a familiar environment with a connoisseur's eye, imbuing it with obsessive detail, a playful sense of nostalgia, and gob-smackingly gorgeous visuals.  

The goodie box approach to Ralph's setting also defines its lively plot, where new surprises and complications are constantly being revealed like the many layers of a nesting doll.  Screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee introduce many subtle twists throughout the script that continually heighten the stakes while saving time for funny side trips like the romance between Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the take-charge heroine of Hero's Duty who pursues Ralph across the arcade.  Moore, a veteran of The Simpsons and Futurama, inspires a looseness in his cast that adds to the film's amiable, pals-playing-Xbox-in-the-basement vibe.  In a highly unorthodox move for an animated film, Moore encourages improvisation, a gamble that pays off hilariously with some of the most offbeat dialogue and non-sequiturs ever uttered in a Disney film.  Reilly, McBrayer, and Lynch are all established funny persons, but comedienne Sarah Silverman steals the movie as Vanellope von Schweetz, a "glitch" in Sugar Rush who cultivates a meaningful friendship with Ralph and whose murky status within her game is the key to a mystery that carries arcade-wide repercussions.  Each character is a hero in his or her own way as Wreck-It Ralph gently makes its point about how staying true to one's self doesn't have to mean accepting the labels that others ascribe.  A funny, fresh, and inventive movie that lovingly borrows its cues from retro video games and classic animated films, Wreck-It Ralph instantly becomes a classic in its own right.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012)
Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker

3 out of 5

Six separate stories unfold across six different time periods in Cloud Atlas, an ambitious adaptation of the "unfilmable" David Mitchell novel about the synchronicity of souls from the passengers on a mid-19th century merchant vessel to the hunter-gatherer hermits of a post-apocalyptic island paradise.  It's dystopian sci-fi and a conspiracy caper and a friendship-through-adversity real-life adventure and a tragic romance and a happy romance.  Mostly, it's a feature length bout of déjà vu as a small group of recurring characters - or, at least, their essences - keep colliding with each other and harken back to one another through various era-appropriate methods of communication (a journal, a recording of classical music, a futuristic video message, etc).  A rich cinematic smorgasboard of themes and ideas, Cloud Atlas often plays out as writer-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker intended - one long, elegant montage about the nature of freedom and the possibilities of love.

On the other hand, the buffet-style approach can encourage overindulgence.  Because the filmmakers choose to run each story simultaneously, crosscutting across several centuries of action, Cloud Atlas presents information at a rate that's almost too fast to absorb.  It's never completely disorienting, but it can be disappointing when the film abruptly drops an intriguing thread - like the flight of a test tube-born cocktail waitress (Doona Bae) from a pernicious omni-government in 22nd-century Korea - to dutifully advance a less exciting storyline.  It also doesn't help that some portions run out of steam early (Jim Broadbent as a publisher confined to a nursing home is as wild as it sounds), and it becomes a waiting game to see exactly how the audience's patience will be paid off.

That, however, is the other issue with Cloud Atlas.  For a movie marketed with the tagline "everything is connected," it doesn't deliver on this promise as much as it should.  The colorblind, gender-bending casting of the same actors as multiple characters in each of the six chapters is just a distracting shorthand for what the film claims to be trying to do.  (And, despite a Herculean effort in makeup and costuming, a painful reminder that very few men make attractive or even convincing women.)  The characters constantly talk about their potential past lives or the unexpected nostalgia brought on by chance encounters with strange people or objects, but the movie often stops short of making these connections explicit.  There's something to be said for discretion.  But when it comes to the meaningful metaphysical kismet that is supposed to define this project, Cloud Atlas does too much telling and not enough showing.

At least what is being shown looks beautiful.  Every story receives a unique, often stunning, visual motif to match its genre and tone, and the Wachowskis again prove they are the undisputed masters of seamless, unobtrusive CGI.  Unfortunately, the audience is rarely given the proper amount of time to savor these harmonies.  Music, the composer Claude Debussy once said, is the space between the notes.  By that measure, Cloud Atlas is more cacophony than symphony.  Financed in part by the Wachowskis' personal coffers, it's fun to watch the filmmakers fearlessly manifest the book's weird idiosyncrasies in full-on splendid detail, like the Cajun-inflected internal struggle between Tom Hanks' island dweller and his dandy demon, Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving).  But  as a film, it's simply too dense and discomfiting to effectively register its point about the interconnectedness of individual lives.  Somehow, the characters in Cloud Atlas seem to know exactly what to make of it all.  I wish I did, too.