Movie Reviews: Skyfall, Cloud Atlas,House on the End of the Street, Cosmopolis

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SKYFALL: a bit of a downer

Spoiler Alert

Skyfall   I have mixed feelings about Skyfall, the new James Bond film directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty).

Since 1963’s Dr. No, and until the current set of three (Casino Royale, Quantum of Silence and Skyfall), Bond films have given audiences beautiful people, cities most of us will never see, and fantasy. Evil geniuses hatched outlandish plots to rule the world, requiring ridiculous amounts of money, often wagered in elegant casinos full of tuxes and evening gowns, up-dos and bow-ties. There was always a seduction, with Bond making love to a dangerous goddess-like bad girl. He would growl and of course, she stretched and purred as the music crescendo-ed. Then, there was the action, involving Secret Agent gadgets, long stretches of chases, fights, dodges and jumps moving through exotic streets and narrow alleys crowded by costumed extras. All of it was played out by vivid characters, whose barely there emotions let us thrill to the stunt because we owed them no empathy when they met their cinematic ends.

We expected dreamy, gleaming surfaces that offered an occasional flash of something darker, a secret, a hint of the forbidden. Or at least we did until the last few with a new Bond, and a new kind of Bond.

James Bond has become emotionally complicated. Now he has a past. There’s still some fantasy. The chases, as always, are entertaining, but the convoluted plot, takes us to all those far away places for show, and they have little to do with what is at the heart of the Skyfall plot–betrayal and abandonment of both Bond and the bad guy, Silva, by “M,” whose cold pragmatism allows her to apply the cost/benefit dynamic to those who serve the Crown so valiently. The resulting blow-back (literally) is caused by Bond’s seeming death and Silva’s (Javier Bardem) transformation from a dedicated agent to a relentless enemy. Underneath M’s steely professionalism there’s a maternal caring that both Bond and Silva perceive. And that makes her betrayal and abandonment of each all the more painful–a pain we the audience can see and understand. No more mere glimpses of dark secrets, we learn of the sacrifices both men make and it makes us and them question M’s decisions.

And so I was never sure how to feel.

Javier Bardem, as usual, was the best thing in the movie. Daniel Craig is growing on me. I’d had my heart set on Clive Owen for the new Bond, but Craig has this battered charm that works. I wonder if the scripts are going to get even darker in tone, sort of in keeping with the reality of the world today. If so, the character may be named Bond, but he will no longer be the same tuxedo-ed hero we knew. I did like Judi Dench’s “M.” Along with the crisp manner, she brought a light humor to the more recent Bond offerings, before they became so dark. Sorry to lose Judi Dench, (if you’ve made this far, I hope you took the spoiler alert seriously), but Ralph Fiennes can send me on a mission any time.

The script could have been way tighter. I did like the youth versus age and experience theme., but I found myself wanting to keep Bond a mystery. I hope they can find a way back to that cool spy and lover we found so irresistible, the man who was unknowable. As director Kevin DiNovis, recently commented, “There’s a place in the world yet for exploding pens and volcano lairs.” I agree, but perhaps that place lies in the “discovered country” of the movies that spoke to who we were–moviegoers relishing a new world that was breaking away from the rules of the past and we were breathless at the idea of all that glamor and sex. Change has sped up and it’s a little disconcerting. We may not be able to jettison the past so easily now.

For the time being, I’ll look for the gleam in those Arctic- blue Ralph Feinnes eyes and the steely pale blue gaze of Craig’s as the new “M” sends 007 out to save the world again.

Ah the mysteries behind those sexy blue eyes. In the next Bond film, I hope they reveal a secret formula or two.

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A movie review: Cloud Atlas the movie connects the drops.

I saw Cloud Atlas this weekend, and I recommend it, especially if you have read the book.

Before you read this review, I recommend you read my review of the book, Cloud Atlas.

cloud atlas movie Whether or not you enjoyed reading the book, (I enjoyed some of it but I still wanted to throw it against a wall at the end) I believe most people will enjoy at least parts of the movie without wanting to toss Tom Hanks off a highrise. I did not go into see this movie with high expectations. Okay, here it is–my reason for not expecting much: I hated The Matrix and Cloud Atlas was co-directed (with German director Tom Twyker who did Run, Lola, Run, a movie I remember liking ) and co-written by the Wachowskis who gave us The Matrix. Go ahead and hate me. Although virtual reality stories hold special interest for me (see my The Thirteenth Floor review ) I found The Matrix pretentious sophomoric and even with a suspension of disbelief, not credible. There’s no way anyone would look that buff after spending a lifetime in a pod and aliens using us to power their alien stuff didn’t make sense. We wouldn’t be cost effective. Plus the long coats, the dippy mysticism and all the martial arts got on my nerves. I could go on but it won’t convince anyone who loved The Matrix. Another thing, I should disclose that I briefly worked on casting The Matrix sequel (nothing fancy–just set up auditions for the secret service guys and you’d have thought we were guarding the secrets of the universe rather than a few pages of barely there script).

Regardless, in my opinion, Cloud Atlas the movie is better than Cloud Atlas the book.

The problems that I had with the book centered on Mitchell’s failure to adequately connect the six stories.

I felt like Mitchell the writer was showing off. I wanted more than he gave in terms of connecting the stories. It was all icing and very little cake. Then those last two pages of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the first and last story. They were the last frickin’ frackin’ two pages of the novel, and might as well have started with “So you see boys and girls . . .” The movie was able to stitch the stories together. Movies have more options in terms of pacing, plus visual and audio devices, something a novel lacks. As small a thing as a shiny blue button on a 1930’s vest that becomes a beautiful stone prized by a goat herder helped me connect. The music helped. Casting the same actors in different stories helped a lot and most of all, the editing, which blended the parts of each story, pacing them all to build and crest like music wove the narratives into a satisfying ending, an ending that differed from the book. The stories had been simplified, characters pared and the plots crafted to suit the film and it helped.

This film conveyed the message, the universal theme that Mitchell meant for us to discover in his novel. I felt Mitchell said it rather than showed it. The movie, on the other hand, did what movies do best. It made us feel it so that we could think it. The reviews I’ve read of this film have been mixed. At three hours, it is very long. All I can say is that I liked it, and so did the others in the audience. There was applause at the end, and I doubt many had read the book. It didn’t matter. They felt it; so did I, shiny blue buttons and all.

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A Movie Review: The House at the End of the Street — resting on a tired plot

Attention: Spoiler Alert

House   As I write this review, The House at the End of the Street is in theaters. I doubt it will stay there long before it sinks into the depths of Netflix one point five stardom. This film, directed by Mark Tonderal (Hush) with story by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3 and U-571) and screenplay by David Loucka (Dream House) offers a worthy cast headed by Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Shue and Gil Bellows.

The House at the End of the Street shows its cards in the first scene where it’s night and a woman hears a bump. She rises from her bed, and we see a figure and a mop of blond hair covering the face of whoever made the bump. One determined blue eye peers out from the mop as a hand takes a long sharp knife from the kitchen. Right before the woman encounters the business end of the knife, we see the mad determined gleam in the blue eye. Despite the efforts of all involved, we also see part of a face that could use just a smidge more estrogen. The woman says, “Carrie Anne? What are you . . .” We assume Carrie Anne, from her toned bicep, must be working out. Then it’s shower curtains as Carrie Anne’s knife meets the woman’s kidney. Soon, the woman’s waiting-in-bed husband becomes victim number two. Okay let’s jump ahead.

A woman (Elizabeth Shue) and her daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) move into a big house. Sitting in a rustic area with trees and a hint of wilderness, this prime real estate is a steal because of property values dropping in the neighborhood. The crime of the notorious Carrie Ann refuses to be forgotten. They never found her, you see. Now her brother (Max Theriot) lives there alone. The woman and her daughter are at odds. There’s been a divorce and rather than the absent rock musician father, the woman, a doctor, has custody of the daughter. Of course there’s lots of fighting and predictably, the misunderstood neighborhood boy living alone becomes the center of it all. The girl can’t resist the tortured blue eyes of her studly handsome neighbor, who wasn’t around when the murders happened. He went to live with an aunt when he was seven you see. Now, all he wants to do is fix the place up and sell it, he tells her. He doesn’t tell her about his sister, Carrie Anne, tied up in the cellar. They were twins, and he feels responsible for her. Unfortunately, crazy Carrie Anne manages to get away and he ends up chasing her down and killing her. In the meantime, the neighbor girl decides to seduce the tortured but cute neighbor, much to the distress of her mother and annoyance of various high school bullies, who make it their business to drive him out by harassing him. Poor soul, he’s all alone now that Carrie Anne’s gone. Or is she?

I kept waiting for something to surprise me in this pre-fab project. The lack of originality had me shaking my head as we see that those neighborhood punks had the right idea. Lonely boy finds another girl to be his crazy sister and it’s official, he was Carrie Anne when the murders occurred. It turns out that his mom and dad were so angry when the real Carrie Anne fell off her swing and died, that they forced him to take her place. Fed up, dealing with puberty as a girl, he killed them. Understandable. Predictably, neighbor girl figures his secret out and she and mom have to fight him off. The movie ends with him on Thorazine as he stares glassy-blue-eyed at a jigsaw puzzle.

Young Mr. Theriot is playing Norman Bates in a TV production, Bates Hotel. Ah good plan.

For the life of me, I’ll never understand how projects like this are made and released while more worthy scripts are met with indifference. The plot and characters were indifferently written and trite. The actors, including Mr. Theriot will appear in more worthy projects. And if the writers and director do another one of these clunkers, I hope the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock haunts them, hopefully inspiring more original fare.

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Cosmopolis: A huge throbbing chainsaw and a cream pie

cosmopolis   Right before I entered the theater to see Cosmopolis, a 2012 film written and directed by David Cronenberg from a 2003 Don DeLillio novel, a fellow middle-aged lady asked me why I had decided on seeing it. “I almost went,” she said, “but people kept telling me how boring it was, and so I decided on something else.” She said the name of the movie she had decided on; I forget which one.

I told her that I had heard the same thing, but I liked Cronenberg movies. I had read mixed reviews regarding Pattinson. Having worked in casting in a previous incarnation of my professional self, I was curious to see what kind of chops this young actor was sporting since he traded in his fangs.

Okay, let’s get this over with. The dialogue of the Cosmopolis script is dense, artificial, and extremely inaccessible. Do you think I came up with the “huge throbbing chainsaw” on my own? Nope, it was one of the script’s many gems. The whole script reminds me of those scenes I’d get assigned in acting class when I was at UCLA. Existential works are often assigned to nineteen-year old students, who spend a lot of time imagining their glorious futures. We’d mouth lines, pretending to know what was going on, and since most of our fellow students were as clueless as we, it wasn’t a total humiliation. In fact, this script might have worked better in a theater in terms of audience enjoyment. In theater, audiences are an active part of the whole experience.

Movies are inclusive, but the audience is passive. The aim is to immerse you in a point of view and in a world. For the most part, when watching films, you feel rather than think. That’s how movies communicate–by manipulating our responses.

I think that deprivation is the point. Cronenbeg wants us to feel like outsiders, straining to understand what is going on behind those tinted limo windows.

In Cosmopolis, a character remarks on how the future is cannibalizing the present, and time is broken up into infinitesimally smaller bits. People can’t keep up with how fast things change or deal with the necessary “creative destruction.” Eric Packer (Pattison), a self-made multi-billionaire recalls that when he was four, he calculated how much he would weigh on each planet of our solar system. The kid must have been interesting to potty-train.

One thing hasn’t changed. Eric, the protagonist of Cosmopolis, is every bit as bloodless as Edward the lovesick vamp. Most of the action takes place in the interior of a white stretch limo where Eric, a 28 year old self- made capitalist, holds court. Along the way, various minions enter the womb-like limo interior. We see all the symbols of wealth on numerous small screens, but the only tangible evidence is isolation from the damage caused by the machinations of the rich and entitled. Eric stares impassively through the bullet-proof windows at the rage of on-going riots. One by one, these employees report and/or perform. Reports he receives from two of his even younger male staffers reveal that Eric has lost all of his money, and all the capital of his clients. The news has no effect on him. He’s restless and bored. Two of the women, including his art dealer/mistress (Juliette Binoche) bask in his attention, reflecting back to him his narcissistic approval. One employee (Emily Hampshire) forced to interrupt her day off, strokes the nozzle of her water bottle as a doctor (inside the limo which hosts an ultrasound and mini-lab) performs what, for Eric, is a highly erotic prostate exam. Eric’s attention to the woman ends as the exam ends. He is only affected by the doctor’s comment that his prostate is asymmetrical.

I’ve known people like Eric. There’s an unspoken message: Impress me; entertain me. Make me care; make me notice. And the people in Eric’s small world do try. It’s not enough. Eric has a hard time feeling anything. His outer shell is a white limo that becomes increasingly defaced as it crosses through an urban nightmare. Several times, during the course of the day, he encounters his new wife, an equally bloodless blonde. Each time, he coerces her into having a meal with him. She rejects him sexually, saying that her writing (she’s a poet) takes too much of her energy. Her rejection is what he finds compelling.

When his “I deal in theory” servant (Samantha Morton) sniffs at the sight of a man self-immolating on a sidewalk, dismissing it as an unoriginal gesture (it’s been done), Eric wonders at all that pain to just make a statement, to say something.

The movie is a journey. Ulysses, the character from Homer’s epic, The Odyssey (okay technically he’s Odysseus), as well as James Joyce’s novel inspired DeLillio. Both works (Ulysses) were also an influence on Mark Rothko, the artist whose “Rothko Chapel” Eric means to buy. Talk about entitlement; Eric assumes everything’s for sale. The trip is a slow crawl through Manhattan traffic, its street arteries clotted by a POTUS visit. “We (as in the royal we) want a hair cut.” Eric announces. The barbershop in question is across town. It is a space, that for Eric, means the comfort of the familiar–mirrored walls, swivel chairs, etc. He dismisses his bodyguard’s warning that someone means to kill him. This devourer of the future craves the illusion of the past.

Very little elicits an emotional response from Eric or from us, the audience. One sweet exception is a cream pie that gets smashed into titan boy’s face. The pie is wielded by a man with his own film crew. The man, who has smashed pies into the faces of countless heads of power, assures Eric that he’s nonpartisan. Castro got served too. So after a spectacularly bad hair cut, and an off the wall murder, Eric faces his end in a run-down building and a bare-foot, hang dog (even more than usual) former employee (Paul Giamatti). Before he was downsized, this employee went nuts trying to keep up with the rate of changes in the way things are calculated. How’s that singularity thingy workin’ out for ya? Now the man has no identity. For him, “no identity” means no appointments, no plans, and no credit card receipts.

Eric forgot, the man accuses him, that all the Universe’s symmetry and repetition means nothing without the isolated exception, an exception, like the asymmetrical prostate, a benign condition he and Eric both have. Worse, this man has a fungus between his toes, and it urges him to kill Eric. In the words of the long-ago church lady, “Isn’t that special?” Eric has failed to save him, you see, and so Eric must die. Eric doesn’t seem too concerned. Death is new; it’s something he hasn’t done.

We all have this in common. We all fear death and want someone to make it better. Some of us find comfort in religion and others in superheroes. No wonder vampires are so popular. Unlike zombies, you’re undead and you get have sex and you keep your marbles (smarts).

As far as Pattinson’s chops go, he’s got them. The vivid desperation of the other characters collides with the impassivity of Pattinson’s face. He’s a neutral so that the colors are more vivid. I’ll be interested to see what he does and how he is cast as he ages. I think he’ll welcome the chance to do character work, and I hope he can keep working.

Regardless, I suspect some of those scenes will be showing up in actor showcases. There are some things that don’t change.