Monday, October 29, 2012

New Releases: Cloud Atlas & Silent Hill: Revelation

No real theme for these two, other than both being released on the 26th and a little bit of MoviePass-related frustration in getting the tickets (in previous months, I would have been able to buy IMAX and 3D tickets at the independent theaters supporting the program, but not any more, even when they would have been cheaper than the regular-priced evening tickets), even before the whole mess with the card not working at all...

I have to wonder if I would have looked at Silent Hill 2 the same way if I hadn't seen Cloud Atlas the day before. It's a big "be kind and love each other" story, and that colored my impressions of the other - after Sharon/Heather makes a big production about how she and her new classmates aren't going to be friends, and the movie reiterates that she is the empathic part of "Alessa" (it's a thing), so it seems like there's an interestingly humanist spin on the horror movie.

It doesn't fully go that way, and backs off what it does somewhat. That's a shame; it's the most interesting thing the movie's got going for it with Christophe Gans out of the picture. Speaking of which, what's with him working so little? No movie since Silent Hill, which came five years after Brotherhood of the Wolf, itself six years after Crying Freeman. It seems like he's prone to biting off more than he can chew, and he winds up putting a ton of effort into movies that just never happen.

Cloud Atlas

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2012 in Regal Fenway #12 (first-run, digital)

Cloud Atlas is like a whole week of going to the movies compressed into three hours (and that's for the likes of me; for the less fanatical, a month or two). It would be a pretty good week, though maybe not a great one, but these filmmakers have definitely made something greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1849, lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) has traveled to the South Pacific but finds himself returning not only with a signed contract, but a runaway slave (David Gyasi). In the 1930s, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whisaw) takes a job as the assistant to composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) while pining for his lover Rufus (James D'Arcy). In 1973, writer Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates suspicious goings-on at a San Francisco nuclear power plant. 2012 has publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) needing to hide out from an author's violent friends but not much liking how it turns out. In the 22nd century, fabricant Sonmi-451 (Bae Doo-na) shows signs of individual thought and is broken out of her dormitory by rebel Chang Hae-joo (Sturgess). Finally, on an isolated island 106 years after the fall, hunter/stroyteller Zachry (Tom Hanks) and visitor Meronym (Berry) find they need each other's help.

My usual tendency when reviewing an anthology movie is to examine each of the elements separately, and there would be a certain logic in attacking Cloud Atlas that way even if the filmmakers choose to cut from one story to another rather than present them as individual short films. After all, the six stories come from different genres - a historical adventure, two flavors of science fiction, a drama, a thriller, and even a comedy - so describing what works and what doesn't would certainly be easier that way. That would sell the movie far short as a whole, though - a large part of what makes it remarkable is how well it comes together. Indeed, there's an argument that the most valuable part of the crew might be editor Alexander Berner, who helps sew together the directorial work of Tom Tykwer (the 1930, 1973, and 2012 threads) and Lana & Andy Wachowski (1849 and the future) so that no single element ever seems to dominate and the whole keeps a remarkably good pace. This movie never seems to drag; even though all six stories climax together, they get there by routes just different enough that the movie never seems to drag.

The stories being cut between are not terribly complicated, but there's enough to them that any could be expanded to an entertaining movie with a little effort, and even the lesser threads are well-done. And while the connections between them are fairly obvious - a common birthmark and a tendency to be drawn to the stories of the other protagonists - the way Tykwer and the Wachowskis (working from David Mitchell's novel) handle those connections is just right. Instead of forcing a somewhat obvious and rote story of karma and reincarnation despite the detail that two of the characters' lives almost certainly overlap, these devices instead serve to highlight that things like social position, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are random and not the signifiers of a person's worth, and one should find love, inspiration, and respect from whatever sources one can. It makes what could just be a story about a single soul into a story about humanity.

It also lets the cast reappear in some fun ways. Sure, they tend to be most noteworthy in their lead roles - Bae Doo-na, especially, is fantastic as a clone rapidly learning what it means to be human, while Tom Hanks does a very nice job of making Zachry understood despite a language that has drifted toward pidgin in the future. But it's also great fun to see them flipped around as familiar faces reappear in different contexts - we get two different sorts of chemistry between Hanks and Berry, for instance, while Jim Broadbent gets to play darker reflections as well as broad comedy. And while some folks seem a bit underused - Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, for instance, only have a few noteworthy moments even after even after the end credits reveal which heavy makeup jobs they were under - others can't help but rise to the top: Hugo Weaving proves a most flexible villain, threatening even when made up as a stern matron, while Keith David proves able to grab the screen in three different threads.

As you might gather from that description, the makeup work in this movie is something to behold; that old-age makeup doesn't look terribly is hardly surprising given that actors are routinely cast as people of different sexes and ethnicities, and while that's a bit weird at times - recognizing Sturgess, Weaving, and Grant as residents of "New Seoul" isn't quite balanced by seeing Bae in her other roles - the execution is so flawless and without caricature that the quick shots of each actor in his or her various roles in the end credits is more likely to elicit surprised delight rather than offense. That's just the most visible part of an astonishingly well-executed shoot - or actually two, as the end credits are divided between "Team Wachowski" and "Team Tykwer", with the cast by and large the only ones shuttling between the two. While the Wachowskis create astonishingly detailed future worlds, Tom Tykwer's 1973 San Francisco seems equally perfect, with both having a chance to stake some impressive action and getting the characters' quieter moments right as well.

The ambition on display is incredible, to the point where this would be a remarkable movie even if the filmmakers didn't hit so many of their marks. That they do is kind of amazing, and I honestly can't wait to see it a second time just to see how much more is packed into what seems like a very quick three hours.

Originally posted at EFC

Silent Hill: Revelation

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, digital 3D)

I'm not sure why, exactly, I went to see the second Silent Hill movie; I didn't like the first and the people who drew me into it are either absent (director Christophe Gans) or reduced to cameo appearances (star Radha Mitchell). Surprisingly, Revelation proves to be a minor upgrade, with a much less stupid script making up for a parallel reduction in style, but that still doesn't bring it up to "good".

Christopher DaSilva (Sean Bean) and his adopted daughter Sharon (Adelaide Clemens) have been on the run since Christopher's wife Rose (Radha Mitchell) disappeared inside Silent Hill, West Virginia six years ago, settling in new towns and taking new names on a regular basis; today they're "Harry" and "Heather". Heather doesn't remember her ordeal in Silent Hill, but she has strange dreams and when her father is taken (and "come to Silent Hill" scrawled on their new house's wall in blood), she and fellow new kid in town Vincent (Kit Harrington) head out to rescue him.

The main way that writer/director Michael J. Bassett improves on the first movie is in the script; where Silent Hill is a mess of idiot-plotting and demonstrations that the video game routine of "go place, find strangely-hidden clue, repeat" looks ridiculous in any other context, the new movie has some understanding of cause and effect and at least suggests an interesting theme of Sharon/Heather's enforced isolation being the true enemy. Bassett even has a nice moment where he just gets an inevitable "surprise" out of the way rather than dragging it out until the last act.

Of course, he's hampered by the fact that this is a Silent Hill movie, which means that it's tied to a mythology that is much more convoluted than the scale of the plot requires (because video games need to last more than ninety minutes) and ultimately just seems random. What information the viewer who missed the first movie (or doesn't remember the details from six years ago) gets is vague and doesn't necessarily fit with the story. For instance, there's a reasonably creepy sequence involving mannequins that might work damn well in a mannequin-themed horror movie, but just doesn't seem to have anything to do with everything else that's going on. It's a well-made sequence that has no reason to be in this movie specifically.

At least that one is executed fairly well; many more feel like Bassett and company just throwing grotesqueries with a monochromatic color scheme up and expecting that to scare. Other bits are just ridiculously telegraphed - cut to an otherwise inert amusement park mascot suit enough times and it's no surprise when the head finally turns. Still others just feel like obligatory repeats from the first film or ports from the game, just not done quite as well (remember the sequence with the weird nurses from the first? There's another one here, only more obviously choreographed and with more close-ups of their boobs). Any genuinely scary moments are dwarfed by ones where people just go through the motions.

The cast is somewhat guilty of that as well. Adelaide Clemens is game enough as Sharon/Heather, but doesn't quite give the sort of performance that boosts a lackluster movie. Harrington's first line is his best, while Bean gives the sort of performance that this sort of movie so often winds up with: Making an effort, but never having enough takes to really nail it. Carrie-Anne Moss and Deborah Kara Unger show up but don't make much of an impression, so it's nice to see Malcolm McDowell tear into his scene with gusto even if it's ridiculous.

The first "Silent Hill" was saved from being a complete disaster by its director's style, while this one is able to manage basic narrative competence. It ends (clumsily) with the potential of more, but maybe the producers shouldn't press their luck: Eventually, they're not going to be able to climb up to "below average" from "terrible".

Originally posted at EFC.

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