Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Made it to the theater today to see Cloud Atlas and really enjoyed it. I read the book years ago and found it fairly fascinating, especially for someone rooted in comics which, as a serial production, often have multiple storylines (and often multiple timelines) running simultaneously. It was an ambitious novel and Roger Ebert made a point of lauding the film in the same way, calling it "one of the most ambitious films ever made." I think there's some veracity to that, especially given a mass release to an audience that is often unprepared for this kind of complex storytelling (I still grimace when thinking of the local news media broadcasting a story about the phenomenon that was Pulp Fiction and interviewing people walking out of the theater saying: "I don't think I liked it. It was too confusing. First, John Travolta was alive and then he was dead and then he was alive again...")

Most of the performances were good, although I was kind of disappointed at Tom Hanks' lack of range. He never really escapes the Tom Hanksisms that make him who he is, which departs from the idea of all of these characters being linked across time, but still distinct people, and none of the roles were lengthy enough for him to display the depth that he can sometimes reach (as in Philadelphia.) That's a situation complicated by the "leading man" vs. "character actor" dynamic that I'll get into one day. I was pretty impressed with Hugh Grant in all of his roles (I did not expect to be) and Halle Barry as Luisa Rey, though. I do have to say that the makeup in the Sonmi-451 story, providing everyone with epicanthic folds, was a little jarring and could have been subtler.

As for the story itself, there were changes from the book (surprise!) but those were inevitable. The fact that it was made into a film, and a good one, is impressive enough. The overall pace of the film is much more frenetic than the book, which is typical of the Wachowskis' style and something likely necessary to keep a modern mass audience in their seats for three hours. However, I have to say that I felt more convinced of the emotional and cerebral impact of the story in reading the novel than I did in viewing the film. The most important of the six on a broad level is An Orison of Somni-451, while the best on a personal level is Letters from Zedelghem. I think the latter came across very well, while the philosophical underpinnings so necessary to the former weren't as well conveyed. It's very difficult to present a message of inspiration, since so many will take inspiration from different things. On a personal/character scale, Somni-451 was, like Letters, excellent. Bae Doona is another who deserves commendation for taking on a difficult and transformative role and pulling it off without traipsing in to melodrama.

I do disagree with Ebert on a very prominent point, though: I wasn't confused. There are moments when you will certainly be lost as to the relevance of what you're seeing in the overall picture and I had the advantage of having read the book, so I knew where much of it was going. But the fact that there are so many possible interpretations are what make the film good, not confusing. Looking for logical connections in the film is about as pointless as doing so in life, in general. Some things are simple to be experience and, by that experience, understood. Analysis will often get you nowhere.

So, good stuff, overall. It's Oscar season, of course, and I'm eager to see several other films, although money is a limiting factor these days. I wanted to see The Master and will hope for its rapid release on Amazon, but I've heard the raves for Argo and would like to see Lincoln, Seven Psychopaths and, of course, The Hobbit in December, although I'm still not certain how you could turn that simple story into three films without hijacking a ton of the Silmarillion. We'll see.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I have a fundamental attachment to this film. It's one of those that I've seen any number of times but would gladly watch again any time that I see it on or even toss in myself (VHS!) First off, I think Steve Martin is a creative genius and I have always been a fan of the work that he has created, like The Jerk and his stand-up material. I draw that line between what he's "created" (acknowledging that acting, in and of itself, is a creative effort) and what he's done to earn a paycheck, like the execrable comedies he's been making with people like Goldie Hawn and Queen Latifah. There was a self-assuredness that I heard in his stage routines that was really appealing to me when I was young and remains so. He's confident and so much so that much of his humor seems self-deprecating without being desperate. He doesn't make decisions out of lack of knowledge ("I played football in high school. I was the quarterback. I used to like to punt on first down.") He makes them because he's simply on a higher plane of understanding than everyone else ("You take geometry and geology in college and it's all numbers and you just forget it all. But you take just one semester of philosophy and it's enough to fuck you up for the rest of your life.")

While the tone of the film veers toward the sappy and it deftly avoids any deeper message than what the original story of Cyrano de Bergerac conveyed; and while none of the performances outside of Martin's (and Shelly Duvall's somewhat) are memorable; and while the story is simple... it's still appealing because the script is so brilliant and Martin's performance is so earnest that it dispenses with guile and cynicism even while his character is the most cynical person in town. He takes you past that and demonstrates a basic feeling that many of us (most assuredly me) are often loathe to admit: the desire to be wanted.

American individualism is an essential element of our modern culture. It's the dictum that encourages people to slough off any emotional pain and keep rolling along. If they can't "get over it", then there's something wrong with them. Martin's character attempts to turn that perspective on its philosophical head and declare that deep (and often tragic) feelings are what make people feel alive. I've known that from a very negative perspective for as long as I can remember. Rage drove me for many years and occasionally still does. But I'm attached to this simple little movie because it the character is "weak" and is plaintive and is lost in the search for something that he feels he can't have but which is actually searching for him.

And, of course, any film that presents both Strauss' Blue Danube and Mozart's divertimento in B flat Major is worthwhile viewing, IMO (I try to overlook the standard alto sax theme music and score that all 80s movies were contractually obligated to use):

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Five minute impressions: The Walking Dead, season 3, ep. 1

1. I only read Kirkman's first story arc. It was OK.
2. I am not a zombie guy, despite being very much a post-apoc guy.
3. My standards for watchable TV are admittedly kind of high.

I'm a huge fan of some of AMC's offerings but it took me a while to get there. I watched the first episode of Mad Men when it premiered, but wasn't taken by it and never watched another until last fall, when a friend suggested that I was missing out and should take advantage of the series on Netflix (other people had suggested this before; this time, I listened.) I immediately realized that I should have been more patient with it, watched seasons 1-4 quite quickly, and was on track for season 5 this past spring. Likewise, I hadn't bothered to pay attention to Breaking Bad but had always put it on my "someday" schedule. After learning that season five would be airing this past summer, I once again hit Netflix for as much as was available and then watched the rest on DVD and the new season with a group of friends that had also caught up rapidly. Both series are brilliantly written and I haven't regretted one second of the time I've sat in front of them. I've often said that the best thing ever put on TV was The Wire, but Breaking Bad is a very close second, at this point.

Determined that I would not be left behind again, I began to watch some of AMC's more recent offerings from the beginning; specifically, The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels. Unfortunately, both have been much more uneven than either of the aforementioned series. I wasn't even sure that I'd watch the second season of Hell on Wheels and am still uncertain about the third season, despite its steps toward improvement, script-wise, in the recently concluded episodes. I had the same issue with Walking Dead in its second season, as the storyline seemed to stagnate and the characters other than Daryl were two-dimensional in their motivation and hollow in their actions. Hell on Wheels improved because of a creative change in which the brothers Gayton were removed as the writers. Walking Dead also underwent a fairly dramatic change in the off-season, in which the tempestuous Frank Darabont left the project and a new showrunner, Glen Mazzara, stepped in. It was with that in mind that I decided I'd give it one more try.

I knew a lot about what was coming in this season as I've accumulated information from AMC's promotions, talk on the Web, and friends who are dedicated fans. I know that they're still loosely following Kirkman's story and that the events at the prison and the introduction of Michonne are key developments here. So, it was gratifying to see them dive right into it within the first few minutes of the opening. I was under the impression that, having seen the prison so nearby in season 2's finale, the story would reopen relatively soon after that close. A quick glimpse of Lori's distended belly and Herschel's thick beard put the lie to that and it was clear that we were seeing the group a few months post-season 2. With a new writing team and direction, I think that's fine. It gives the new team a chance to jump right into their versions of the characters and it's not jarring for the fans to see them moving as a coordinated unit when dealing with the walkers. It also gave rise to good character moments, such as Carol attempting to joke about screwing around with Daryl. It's left uncertain as to whether their relationship has taken that next step or whether they're still sorting it out, which is a good tease for the viewers.

On the one hand, having seen the prison so close in the season 2 finale, there's room to question how they could have failed to stumble across it for several months. Of course, one has to consider just how easy it is to run in circles in the countryside without modern communication and the activity of other humans to follow, so I have no issue with that. I think Rick's demonstration of disdain and anger with Lori is a sign of the writers having moved him past the angst-filled "nice guy" to a genuine survivalist in the Daryl mode. What made Daryl the only really decent character in the first two seasons was the fact that he actually matured in respect to his surroundings. He was still the callous survivor, but it was clear that he was also touched by the group actually desiring his presence and the fact that his particular code of ethics (concern for others' well-being not only as a survival method but also because that's how humans generally act in crisis) was particularly well-suited to the circumstances. If that's the direction that Rick is going, so much the better, as it will reduce the level of guilt/angst/general caterwauling that often brought things to a grinding halt in season 2. Obviously, Rick is also being set up to be too callous and cold, but I can live with that kind of development as long as it doesn't become rote "redemption of the hero."

There were a lot of ways that introducing Michonne could have been an abject failure. She's the most fanciful of Kirkman's characters to appear and it could easily disintegrate into the Roger Corman arena if she's not handled carefully. I think it was well done here, showing a bit more of her sword work and her pet zombies, but staying away from exposition and allowing her to retain an air of mystery for a while longer. I'm especially interested in seeing a bit more of her style with the weapon. On the one hand, there are different ways to use it. OTOH, in the picture above, she's holding it like a baseball bat, which is not the way a katana would be wielded whether you're doing iaido, kendo, or some kind of koryū. I really hope they paid attention to some of the riddles of steel, as it were. Unfortunately, there continues to be no riddle whatsoever about T-Dog, who keeps running his two season marathon of following orders and generally not contributing anything to the conversation. Likewise, it seems pretty unusual that Glenn and Maggie would still be that wooden with each other with another few months of life under their relationship belts.

That said, I think this was probably the best episode of the series so far. The script was well-paced and no one said anything glaringly stupid or annoying. The action scenes were more suspenseful, especially since the zombie action is moving back into enclosed spaces inside the prison, rather than outdoors in the sunlight where they're much less threatening. It's still not hitting the high points of Mad Men or Breaking Bad and likely never will, given the greater room for thoughtful subtlety afforded to those mostly-"real life" stories (yes, even including the blue meth.) But I felt actually intrigued by this episode and not left thinking that I shouldn't be watching so much TV. It's also the closest I'll ever get to seeing something like Gamma World, where mundane facilities like prisons are highly valued for the trove of stuff that could be inside...

I do have to say that, if AMC does much more of this mini-season split crap, where a series is shown eight episodes at a time, separated by several months, I may just give up even on things that I enjoy. It's ridiculous that we're waiting another year after only 8 episodes of Breaking Bad and having a multi-month split in between the two halves of season 3 of Walking Dead is possibly even worse. There is a point where you piss off your loyal viewers and, IMO, AMC is reaching it.