2012 Movie Blitz: Part 14

December 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Movies reviewed: Cloud Atlas, About Cherry, Dredd, To the Wonder

This is probably going to be my last 2012 movie blitz (at least for now) because I’ve promised to do my best and worst of 2012 before the end of this year and the days are running out! I believe I only have about 4 movies left to watch (I’ve discarded the rest), but since none of them will likely make either list I’m just going to leave them for later.

If this is indeed the last one then I’m going out on a high as this blitz is a great one, packed with some high-profile flicks from 2012.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

CloudAtlas-Poster

Cloud Atlas was one of my most anticipated movies of 2012, but for some reason the film either (1) never made it to Taiwanese cinemas; or (2) was only showing for such a short time that I missed it completely. I’m not sure what happened because it had been slated to be Oscar bait and one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, but perhaps it was the furore over the Asian-izing of white actors that sunk the film even before it made its way to Asian shores.

I finally got around to watching it the other day, and my reaction to it is mixed. I can see why it was so polarizing – there are elements about it which are amazing, but on the other hand it felt like an ambitious film like this was doomed to failure from the start. Success or failure, Cloud Atlas is without a doubt one of the most ambitious films ever made, and kudos must go to the Wachowskis (for those who don’t know, they are no longer the Wachowski “brothers” because one of them is now a “sister”) for even attempting a film of this size and complexity.

Spanning nearly 3 hours, Cloud Atlas is an epic set across six time periods, from the mid-1800s to the 24th century. Each period is played by more or less the same set of actors playing different characters, and that is where the ridiculed makeup and special effects come in (I’ll get to that in a sec). The reason why they got the same actors to play characters in different time periods is because they are supposed to be reincarnates from different lives, and the film is pretty much an exploration of the idea that people go through life after life, that they are bound to certain people in each life, and that actions in one life can affect or shape lives in the future.

The narrative jumps around between the six time periods, which can be confusing and daunting for some, but for the most part the Wachowskis do a stellar job of keeping the story flowing and bringing its core concepts to the forefront. That said, with so many interlocking stories and characters, it is difficult to afford all of them enough time to develop, and as a result I found parts of the film unsatisfying and lacking in emotional depth. There is a payoff at the end, but it took a very long time to get there.

The all-star cast is blameless in all of this. Really, how can you complain about the likes of Tom Hanks, HalleBerry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant? Each of them play a wide range of characters from good to evil, and they each do it convincingly, as far as performances are concerned. What didn’t work so well was the makeup and effects needed to transform those actors from one race to another. This was something that didn’t pose a problem in the novel, and it’s hard to fault the Wachowskis for trying to overcome the issue by, for example, turning Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving into slanty-eyed Asians, and HalleBerry and Korean actress Doona Bae into white women. As good as makeup is these days, the results were laughable in many of the cases, especially for Sturgess and Weaving, who look like absolute freaks and more Alien than Asian.

But is that reason enough to bash the whole film? I don’t think so. They did the best they could under the circumstances, but for many people it will mean putting aside the absurdity of the characters’ appearances to enjoy the movie.

Like it or hate it, Cloud Atlas is a memorable film. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s the masterpiece it set out to be, though it is certainly not the spectacular turd that some critics and audiences have labelled it. If you can ignore the freaky faces and immerse yourself into the story, Cloud Atlas could be one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year, complete with well-executed action and eye-popping special effects. I’ve heard on numerous occasions that it is a film that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate, so on my first (and possibly last) viewing I’ll give it…

3.5 stars out of 5

About Cherry (2012)

cherry

The film is called About Cherry, but it’s really not about much at all. Technically, it’s about a naïve and pretty girl (Cherry — -played by Ashley Hinshaw, who had a small part in the underrated Chronicle) who sinks into the world of pornography, but in reality it’s just about a girl who decided to get into porn for a quick buck.

I thought it would a good, or at least interesting, film because it was backed by a strong cast of supporting stars headed by James Franco, Dev Patel, Heather Graham and Lili Taylor. I’m not sure why they were drawn to this project, the directorial debut of American author, journalist and activist Stephen Elliott, but I doubt this will end up being a film placed high on their respective CVs.

The biggest problem with About Cherry is the titular character, who is played well by Hinshaw but offers no real redeeming qualities or genuine personality. She’s just a girl who wanted to make money, and saw porn as an easy route (no pun intended). There’s no manipulation, no exploitation, no coercion or persuasion – it’s just a consenting adult wanting to make money. And that doesn’t make for very compelling viewing.

Sure, her career creates some friction in her life – with her best friend (Patel) who is painfully and obviously in love with her, a fact she has no trouble using and abusing to her advantage; with her boyfriend (Franco), a druggie lawyer; and her mother (Taylor), a deadbeat alcoholic – but honestly, it’s not that bad.

We don’t really gain an insight into why Cherry went down this path or why it escalated from solo pics to real sex, apart from the suggestion that her mother is a loser and she wants to get away from her. And besides, all these relationships are not resolved properly, with the James Franco arc being particularly bizarre, almost as though he decided to quit the film midway through the shoot and they had to come up with a rushed solution.

The film is made slightly more interesting by the presence of Graham, who plays a porno director who becomes infatuated with Cherry to the detriment of her long-term relationship. But the way this part of the story is wrapped up is stupid and could be perceived as an insulting message about the nature of human sexuality.

In the end, apart from the soft core porn scenes there just isn’t a lot to like about the movie. It’s not poorly made, and the performances are decent, but it’s hard to a connect with a film on an emotional level when the characters feel so remote and uninteresting. Maybe I missed the point of About Cherry completely. Frankly, I don’t care.

1.5 stars out of 5

Dredd (2012)

dredd

It’s unfortunate that the comic strip hero Judge Dredd almost always conjures up the image of Sly Stallone mumbling about something incoherent, with Sandra Bullock beside him wondering what the hell she’s doing. This “remake”, just Dredd, probably won’t erase the memory of the 1995 disaster, but it’s nonetheless a much much better film that’s surprisingly effective and exciting.

For starters, Dredd knows exactly the type of action film it wanted to be – brutal, violent, unflinching, dark, gritty and littered with hints of political messages. This time Karl Urban (who never shows his face) plays Dredd, a Judge who plays judge, jury and executioner in a dystopic future world. Most of the action takes place in a massive slum building block controlled by drug lord Ma-Ma, played awesomely by Lena Heady (from 300 and Game of Thrones). Dredd and a new recruit with psychic powers (Olivia Thilrby) are sent to investigate the building after a brutal execution-style killing, and find themselves trapped against a whole army of criminals.

It’s a fairly simple Die Hard premise, though the look and feel of the film is closer to a futuristic version of the 2011 Indonesia masterpiece The Raid: Redemption – and it would be unfair to suggest Dredd is anywhere near as good as either film. But for the most part, Dredd is effective and should appeal to fans of the source material.

While the plot leans close to predictable, the action is explosive and thrilling, the special effects are sharp and the dialogue is darkly humorous. Plus Karl Urban and Lena Heady are just so good. It’s not quite enough to elevate Dredd above the rest of 2012’s top action flicks, but it’s not far too from the apex of the pack.

3.75 stars out of 5

To the Wonder (2012)

TotheWonder

The title of Terrence Malick’s latest romantic drama, To the Wonder, is very apt, as I am still wondering what the hell I watched. I’ve given Malick a lot of tries through the years, starting with The Thin Red Line, The New World and Tree of Life, and I’ve come away disappointed every time despite all the praises and accolades.

Like those films, my guess is that To the Wonder will polarise audiences, with some critics loving it (as evidenced by its Golden Lion nomination at the 2012 Venice Film Festival) and the majority of audiences hating it. I am siding with the latter.

The premise of the film seems harmless enough – a Ukrainian woman played by Olga Kurylenko moves to the US after meeting Ben Affleck’s character in Paris. She feels isolated and she returns to France – during which time Affleck dates Rachel McAdams – and then returns to try and rekindle the relationship.

But in typical Malick fashion, To the Wonder is all about the arty farty, the beautiful imagery, the barely decipherable whispering monologues (luckily this time there’s no Nick Nolte) and people dancing and prancing around in the meadows, staring out the windows, running around and flailing their arms about like lunatics.

All of this is done in rapid cuts (in one instance you get what feels like 100 snippets of two people frollicking through a cornfield) and minimal, almost inhuman dialogue, which makes it an unusual viewing experience but also a very annoying one. In short, To the Wonder is REALLY self-indulgent.

Maybe some viewers can appreciate the beauty of it all and understand what Malick is trying to do with this movie, but I found it emotionally unsatisfying and bordering on laughable. I thought I would love a film where Ben Affleck says almost nothing and where Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams are the lead actresses, but for most of the painfully long 113-minute running time I was either confused or irritated by it. Javier Bardem playing a priest who questions his faith was pretty funny though, albeit unintentionally.

Bad films that are supposed to be bad I can take, but pretentious films like To the Wonder really get to me. Or maybe we’ve all been fooled and it’s supposed to be a parody, though that doesn’t make the movie any better.

1 star out of 5

Battle of the Polarizing Films: Drive (2011) vs The Tree of Life (2011)

November 13, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s November and I still haven’t finished reviewing my list of 2011 films. So here’s another film battle — this time,  between two of the most polarizing films of last year — Drive and The Tree of Life. I thought one of these films was amazing, and the other boring and pretentious — but can you guess which is which?

Drive (2011)

I had heard some mixed reviews of this Ryan Gosling neo-noir crime drama. Some said it was slow and boring and too violent for its own good. Others said it was one of the best films of the year.

The story follows Gosling’s unnamed lead character, who works as a mechanic by day and a getaway driver for criminals at night. You don’t know much about his past or background, but all you know is that he is one heck of a driver who can stay calm under the tensest of situations and a badass you wouldn’t want to mess with. He befriends a neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son, whose father is in prison and owes protection money to the mob.

It’s a simple story driven by a fascinating character and a sublime performance from Gosling, who seems to be unable to do anything wrong these days. It’s also boosted by a superb all-star cast, including the omnipresent Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks.

With the exception of Mulligan, who gives a good performance but feels miscast in the role, I loved everything about this riveting film, which had been hooked and on the edge of my seat from the opening sequence — which is, might I add, one of the best of any movie ever. I loved the tension and I loved the mystery of Gosling’s character — the calmer he was the more nervous I got. And I don’t often notice the soundtrack but this one’s was rocking — the ethereal-electronic-pop-dominated score was perfect for the look, style and feel of the film. (For some reason it reminded me a little of the video game Grand Theft Auto!)

As for the violence, yeah, it might have been a little excessive (elevator scene, anyone?) but I thought it fit in well with the overall tone and added an edge to the tension. I’ve always been a fan of well-executed violence (thanks, Tarantino), and I suppose this is a great example of it.

One of the best, and potentially one of the most memorable, films of the year for me.

5 stars out of 5

The Tree of Life (2011)

The buzz around The Tree of Life before I watched it was that it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking that cements his place in cinematic history as one of the best directors of all time. But word of mouth from relatives was that it was so confusing and boring that walking out would have been a better option than staying until the end.

My previous experiences when it comes to Terrence Malick have not been positive. I remember when people were calling The Thin Red Line a vastly superior film to Saving Private Ryan and decided to check it out, but had too much trouble trying to decipher all of Nick Nolte’s mumbling to really understand what the fuss was all about. Then I watched his next effort, The New World with Colin Farrell, but I gave up on it about 20 minutes in after, again, failing to get through all the mumbling voice-overs. What’s this guy’s deal with incomprehensible philosophical mumblings?

Anyway, I thought as a more mature movie viewer, I would now be more capable of appreciating Malick’s art. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The Tree of Life had its fair share of mumblings as well, but that wasn’t its problem. Its problem was trying too hard to be “profound”, to be “different”, to be a “masterpiece.”

Essentially, this “experimental” film follows a middle-aged man’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), but at the same time it is also supposed to be some chronicle of the history of the universe that explores the meaning of life.

I don’t have a problem with ambitious projects, which this clearly is, but I suppose you need to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy The Tree of Life (ie, high on LSD or something). If you’re expecting a linear narrative with a clear story to tell, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you’re expecting a movie to suddenly turn into the National Geographic channel and show the images cosmos and dinosaurs and asteroids, and feel that it explains what life is all about, then you’ll probably love The Tree of Life.

I do appreciate the artistic merits of the film to some extent, as well as the beautiful images of nature that Malick projects onto the screen. The scenes depicting the children and their relationship with their father are also done well and occasionally stirring. In that sense I guess I don’t despise The Tree of Life like some others do, but at almost 140-minutes it was just too much to take and digest. Frankly, I was often bored and frustrated.

Maybe I’ll have more luck with Malick’s next film, To the Wonder, a romantic drama starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. I heard people booed laughed at it during the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

2 stars out of 5!

 
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