review

Cloud Atlas: A Review of the Film

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I had wanted to see Cloud Atlas for quite a while. The concept of interwoven storylines and a futuro-sci-fi setting intrigued me, and the Wachowskis have made a few films before of similar scope that I enjoyed, most notably V for Vendetta.

Released in 2012, and one of the most expensive independent films ever produced, the story of Cloud Atlas is actually several interwoven stories that explore similar or related themes and characters across time. The idea is, in some cases, well utilized in its attempt to thread separate narratives along a single flow of action.

Of the things I liked in the film, I enjoyed the cast the best. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry are the standouts to me. Normally I don’t find Halle Berry to be all that engaging an actress, despite being an Academy Award winner, but her performance here was quite good. Tom Hanks is always a pleasure, and Hugo Weaving always brings a menace to his villainous characters, and he does it so well.  He even crossdresses to play one of his characters, a little reminder of his adventures in the desert with Priscilla.

In fact several of the cast assume roles as different genders. Across time and place, the cast is consistent, which helps establish some continuity for the audience to follow. A great deal of makeup and creative wardrobe were used to evoke different times and personalities. The makeup in particular has received criticism, especially when depicting a futuristic Korean society with several of the actors wearing prosthetic face pieces to make them look Asian.

I didn’t find this offensive as it was clear to me that the actors were meant to be recognized across time regardless of race or gender. Had this movie been animated, I doubt people would complain if characters were drawn as different nationalities in different settings.

The movie is quite long, and sometimes the cuts between stories can be frenetic, but the build up through the first half works out quite well. The latter part of the film, though, does begin to buckle under the strain of the ambitious scope. This is mostly because the focus is frayed among the different strands of story that suffer from a lack of priority.

There are some clear themes that provide a strong framework for all the plots, such as equality and disenfranchisement, with slavery, race, and sexuality being some specific applications. Tom Hanks’ character also follows an arc of redemption that is fairly good, a testament to his acting skills.

Otherwise the stories all start to congeal at the end as if the effort to adapt everything from novel to screen had created a great wound, and things just never healed properly. The climaxes mostly seemed to go by a check list of things that needed to be complete, rather than express any culmination of plot and theme.

The film’s tagline, “Everything is connected,” is basically a by the numbers promise, and yes that much is delivered, but not with nearly as much flair as the build up seems to indicate. In fact, most of the characters never develop. Instead they merely get things done in order to ensure that things do connect.

This is why I mentioned this film lacks priorities. Perhaps in the novel the author was able to imbue all of his narratives with equal power. This is not so in the movie, and some storylines could have benefited from more editing, and even one storyline, Jim Broadbent’s main one, could have been cut out entirely despite its light-hearted feel providing a counterweight to some of the heavier plots.

One story’s climax in particular was emotional, the one where a homosexual composer, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Whishaw,  commits suicide. Watching his lover cradling him moments after the deed was heartbreaking, but slightly aggravating as well for two reasons.

The first reason is that this is just another example of depicting homosexual love as being fraught with tragedy. Yes, this character was a “product of his times” and all that jazz, but it is just too convenient to make homosexuals these tragic, troubled, unhappy creatures.

The second reason is that the surviving lover plays an important role in another, chronologically later story, but there is no reason depicted as to why his lover’s suicide was a catalyst for his later actions. That character barely had enough screen time for us to even see how events could have affected or changed him.

And therein is the flaw of this film. We are shown *what* happens, but very little of *why* things happen. I’m not sure if it was an oversight of the adaptation process, or if the filmmakers didn’t think an audience would much care for more in depth exploration of the characters’ motives, but the reason why someone pursues something is just as important as the plot itself, and provides the relevance that makes it engaging.

Telling me that within three hours you are going to weave together a handful of seemingly separate plots isn’t an example of good filmmaking as much as it is an act of sleight of hand.

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Re-watch Reviews- Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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This film is one of the most maligned in the Star Trek franchise. Released in 1979, Star Trek: TMP was an attempt to revive the classic TV series that had gained a massive following through syndication since its cancellation in the 60’s. Through a turbulent development, it premiered as a bloated mess that fans had no choice but to try to love, and with the release of subsequent films has become a black sheep.

Gene Roddenberry had tried throughout the 70s to get his baby back on its feet. A stint as an animated series ensured that memory of the show didn’t wither away completely, and Star Trek was thus juggled between producers who wanted to make a movie or a new series.

1977’s Star Wars proved that sci fi films could make money, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind confirmed that sci fi could be something other than Star Wars and still succeed. So all plans made for a new series, Star Trek: Phase II, were scrapped and rolled into the new film, and some of those scraps eventually took root in Star Trek: The Next Generation (which at this point wasn’t even a preconceived notion yet).

Star Trek: TMP got a huge budget, and everything got a lush treatment, but unfortunately having so many egotistical cooks in the kitchen, as it were, led to so many paralyzing creative differences that the film’s focus was hamstrung and the result was an over-indulgent mess.

You can’t blame them, to an extent. At this point, Star Trek was dead, and having a chance to resurrect it was a rare gift. Why not go all out?

On a positive note, the film has some gorgeous special effects. The soundtrack is also sweeping in an old fashioned way (the opening fanfare was later used as Star Trek: TNG’s opening). The problem is that so much time is spent showcasing these assets that it becomes obvious that the plot is thin. Who wants to sit through an overture without even any credits to read, and those minutes and minutes of flybys of the Enterprise’s exterior?

Speaking of the plot, it’s not terrible. A strange cosmic invader that threatens Earth may seem cliche, but seeing the Enterprise crew using their wits to explore this thing and find a way to save humanity is essentially Star Trek. The main problem with the plot is its presentation. The story is convoluted and fragmented, and extended scenes of space travel and ironically boring “ooh ah” moments spoil the fun.

But there is some fun, occasionally. At the film’s start, we see a brand new iteration of Klingons, the ones we know to this day. Unfortunately, the concept was still coming together and these Klingons seemed excessively stupid, and the make up still needed work. You get the impression that these Klingons are inbred and suffer from congenital mental handicaps.

Another fun scene is when the bridge is invaded by a probe in the form of plasma. It meanders around while the petrified crew helplessly watches, except for Spock. He attempts to prevent the probe from gathering data, and even tries to save the bald Deltan beauty Illia from “assimilation”.

A failed transporter beam frighteningly shows that not all deaths in space are pretty.  This is a surprisingly dark scene in an otherwise celebratory film. This scene stuck with me throughout my childhood.

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Unfortunately, several other plot threads just fray the film’s focus. Kirk’s unfamiliarity with new technology, Riker-esque Commander Decker’s unrequited love for Illia, and McCoy’s distrust of Spock’s hyper-logical motives exhaustingly cannibalize screen time so that when the actually interesting twist that the invader is an Earth probe returning home is revealed, you just wish it was all over, already.

It must also be mentioned that the uniforms in the film are horribly awful. Whoever decided that no one should wear undies underneath their pajama-like uniforms certainly had issues. There’s more peen in this film than in a sci fi themed porn flick, and some of the characters look exceptionally sweaty in their scenes.

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There is nothing sleek or space worthy about this film. It is opulent, and crowded with “all the things” that people had been working on since the original series ended. It’s a shame that it was so poorly executed, because this movie does have some interesting elements.

Commonly this film is compared to Star Trek V, another miserable Star Trek film. The debate rages on as to which one is worse, but it’s safe to say that if you’re wanting a taste of Star Trek movie goodness, then skip this one and start with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It’s interesting that the start of Star Trek’s film franchise echoes the beginning of the original series. Both had an initial installment, or pilot, that just didn’t please, but the second installment became a success. Perhaps something as grand as Star Trek needs a couple of tries to get things right.

Re-watch Reviews: Sex and the City Season 1

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So that’s it for the first season, eh? It was definitely an exciting ride and I can see why it hooked so many people, but I don’t think that this season portrays the series at its best.

Yet.

Like so many shows, this one suffers from First Season-itis. It is inflamed with unnecessary elements and identity issues.

Let’s start with the identify crisis. Some shows are lucky to know exactly what they are when they start and their first season is always one of their best (Glee, Desperate Housewives were great starters but lost their ways). Sex and the City, however is torn between two things: sex and relationships.

I won’t deny that sex is a great hook, but when you’re main characters are basically mannequins that you throw into different sexual encounters every week, it gets boring. Thats when the relationship portion gets introduced, but that can be a problem if things get a bit too soap opera-ish.

While the show does eventually focus on relationships (actress Sarah Jessica Parker actually emphasises this later in the series’ run), and soap opera shenanigans ensue but with HBO’s signature edginess, in the first season we get an uneven mish mash. Some episodes are sex heavy and plotless, while more plot based ones are rather dry and not very sexy.

Let’s also talk about some unnecessary elements. I enjoyed the journalistic approach for the first few episodes, I admit. It’s a much different tone than what we get later on in the series, but it’s fun. However, once we start to get to know our girls a bit more, I found that the random interviews were more distracting than informing. I would rather hear the main characters’ opinions on sex rather than some innocent bystander.

While the series does juggle its slew of guest stars rather deftly, this season was a bit too haphazard with the supporting characters… oh, who am I kidding…

I can’t stand Skipper. Even his name!

You either love Skipper or you hate him. While the writers eventually found some usefulness for him in the last episode, he was just a really bad concept. Some of you might find his nerdiness endearing, but he just clashes too much with the girls. He’s not sexy, and is a bit too immature.

But here’s where I change my tone. Sex and the City is a show I really enjoy, and for all its faults, I consider the first season to be a prototype for the seasons that follow. There are several themes that are reused and expanded upon, namely sex, but also things like marriage, pregnancy, strange men and women and their sexual kinks, and of course, relationships.

It’s the last one which divides most people about this show. Season one gives us all this sex and a sense of adventure into a topic that many people find difficult to discuss. Don’t worry that it disappears because we get more of these adventures throughout the show, but many people were turned off when relationships got involved.

Ain’t that always the way? Samantha would agree.
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But seriously, we have all kinds of shows about relationships and the drama they cause. Why did Sex and the City have to become another one?

The switch in focus is just drawing the conversation this series started with the public into more mature and deeper topics, and sex was just the pick up line. This show became famous for bringing a modern, and, more notably, a female perspective to what sex means in our modern world. The switch to relationships also mirrors our gals maturing into women as well as fleshed out characters that get actresses nominated for all kinds of awards…

It can be seen as a rough start, but the show gains traction soon enough. Everything you got in this season you get exponentially more later on, minus some needless details.  Besides, some of the most beloved shows had a rougher start than Sex and the City. Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, had *two* seasons of mostly crap before becoming one of the best sci-fi series ever.

Did I just compare Sex and the City to Star Trek?  Oh yeah, because that’s how I roll.