Friday, October 26, 2012

‘Cloud Atlas’ is supremely complex, stunning epic

By Steve Crum

Spanning 500 years, Cloud Atlas had to be the ultimate creative challenge facing the three screenwriters-directors, production crew, and actors. It is also a challenge for the audience, in both pro and con ways. 

Let me put it this way. If you can make it through the first third of the nearly three hour epic, things get clearer. Those “things” include fragmented plots and layered characters. This is the kind of film requiring vigilant attention. Do not leave to get snacks. You will be Cloud Atlas lost forever. 

Credit writer-directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski for successfully adapting David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas novel to the film medium. Unfortunately, their creation will likely register as too daunting, too confusing for the mainstream audience. That would  be unfortunate, because of the movie’s cinematic and philosophical riches. 

But as long as one is very patient, and willing to ride with six separate story lines that dart back to forth to forth to back and in between, then there is no problem. Otherwise, Cloud Atlas is problematic. With a narrative that seems at first to be all over the place, the multiple stories are sometimes hard to grasp. Stories are joined in disjointed ways. The good news is everything gets clearer as the film progresses. Patience is indeed the virtue here. 

Cloud Atlas features stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and more--each portraying five or six characters. In multiple cameos, look for Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Credits note two or more producers, composers, designers, and directors of photography. Collaboration City, indeed. 

The film’s overall theme smacks of reincarnation, exemplified by studio press banter: “Drama, mystery, action, and enduring love thread through a single story that unfolds in multiple timelines over the span of 500 years. Characters meet and reunite from one life to the next. Born and reborn.” Stories are set in the past (1849), present (various years in between), and future (2144-2300’s).

Visuals throughout Cloud Atlas are Oscar caliber stunners, from sets to digital effects to stunts to makeup. Regarding the latter, Halle Berry is even transformed into a man in one time period. She is so believably a guy that I did not realize it was Berry until the end credits. In a reverse, Hugh Lofting’s brutish woman guise surprised as well. What a hoot! Or hooters. 

A figurative time capsule captures the complex story lines: in 1849, a San Francisco lawyer protects a runaway slave on a ship in the Pacific pre-WWII Great Britain, a poor but gifted composer commits an act which influences the creation of a lifelong work he calls “Cloud Atlas Sextet”...a 1973 journalist  tries to avert an industrial disaster...a present day publisher faces unjust imprisonment as he nears great 2144, a genetically engineered young lady, bred to follow orders without thought like a robot, begins adopting human emotions, and acting upon them...and in 2300 or thereabout, a goat herder faces both his conscience and violent surroundings in an evidently post-apocalyptic world. Hanks, Berry, and cast all act in key roles of each segment, and do so quite gloriously. I will not muddle the mind explaining or even listing all their characterizations.

The fact that a key character per story wears the same birthmark reinforces the reincarnation premise that ties the tales together. However, are these really the same individuals reborn or merely symbolic beings representing the struggles and glories of mankind? Or both? “Our lives are not our own” is uttered by one character, which could be taken as a predestination inference.  The film consistently preaches that everyone’s life is shaped by the feelings and actions of others. 

What is blatantly missing is any direct reference to religion playing a part in these characters’ lives, Christian or otherwise. This is an observation, and neither negative nor positive. 

Cloud Atlas is an epic, visionary work expounding upon life existing as a domino effect. 

This is a complex and must see film.
GRADE on a Scale of A-F: A-
Maybe the trailer will help clarify:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Factual, ultra tense ‘Argo’ is one of 2012’s top films

By Steve Crum

The rescue of Israeli hostages in 1977’s Raid on Entebbe came to mind at the outset of settling into Ben Affleck’s tautly directed Argo. Both films are based on real events that occurred two years apart, and both are presented in storytelling that flips back and forth from rescue planners to each country’s detained citizens. However, there is a major difference in the two incidents. 

The successful raid on Entebbe (in dictator Idi Amin’s Uganda) is a story focused on a squadron carrying out a precision military rescue laced with machine guns, hand grenades, and gritty combat. Argo’s rescue “force” is one determined CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), whose brash and ultimately successful plan is to rescue six Americans in Tehran, Iran. He will do so virtually single handedly--with incredible help from Hollywood movie insiders, no less. It should be no spoiler to reveal the outcome of the rescue since it is historic fact. That said, I admit to having never heard anything about this sidebar story of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, perpetrated by Iran’s infamous Ayatollah Khomeini. 

Chris Terrio’s script, based on writings by Antonio J. Mendez (yes, the same Mendez depicted in the film) and Joshuah Bearman, opens in near documentary style, on Nov. 4, 1979. Militants storm the walls surrounding the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, and take 52 Americans hostage. (They will remain captives for over a year.) But that is not Argo’s real story. Argo focuses on the six Americans who barely escaped and hid out in the Canadian Embassy, also located in Tehran. They are given sanctuary in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). 

Since the Iranians had no vent against Canada, the property was a safe haven. Of course, their presence had to be kept secret. Once the Iranians discovered the six were missing, however, a dragnet to find then ensued. At the same time, our homeland CIA was planning their escape. Realize too that separate negotiations were ongoing regarding the captured 52. 

CIA operative Mendez’s plan turns on a pretty far fetched premise: travel to Tehran alone under the guise of a Canadian filmmaker scouting possible filming locations. Once there, he would visit the Canadian Embassy, and prepare the six “guests” to escape. With the help of Hollywood  studio special effects guru John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) a shelved sci-fi script is chosen, entitled Argo (sort of a B-grade Star Wars), and publicity is immediately put into place for credibility. Even the Hollywood community believes this to be a production in the works. If Hollywood itself believes the ruse, surely the Iranians will too. And so it goes.

Argo is a lesson in near perfect pacing with the first 2/3 in slow, temperate gate with light humor supplied by the characters of Goodman, Arkin, and Bryan Cranston (as CIA honcho Jack O’Donnell). The groundwork is specifically laid out. The film's final 20 minutes are some of the most seat-edged, harried moments of this or any film. Bee-rother. 

The plaudits have to go to Ben Affleck, whose producing/directing/acting trifecta makes Argo one of the top films of the year, and a natural for the Oscar. 
GRADE on an A to F Scale: A
The Argo trailer gives one a good overview: