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An Open Letter to the Director of Star Wars Episode 7

Yesterday Joe Carnahan, director of THE GREY, SMOKING ACES, NARC — and as of yesterday morning my favorite director — tweeted the following:

That’s right. Who wants to touch me.

While he might have meant just involving us in any potential saber action, that doesn’t strike me as a move requiring particular bravery on the part of the studios. I think he meant giving us the you’d-think-would-be-coveted-but-has-been-turned-down-by-all-the-big-names directing gig.

First off: yo, Disney/LFL. We’ll totally do it. It’s not that crazy. We’ll be working with ILM, with you guys, you’ve already got a great writer and I’m sure you’d team us up with a great DP and a great AD, and the experience and talent of the crew will more than make up for whatever we may lack. If you can’t get a name to draw the crowds, you know people would show up curious to see what the YouTube kids came out with.

Yeah, snowball’s chance, but had to put that out there. Shy people get nothing, right?

At any rate, irrespective of the probability that this could ever happen, I couldn’t help daydreaming about it, and in so doing, considering what the best approach could possibly be to a film with such high expectations. Looking at it from the perspective of a filmmaker and, more importantly, from that of a fan.

Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at articulating my thoughts and feelings on movies, and so I thought I would share with you, yet-to-be-named director of Episode 7, what I — and, I think, others like me — want you to know about the task ahead of you.

After the negative fan reactions to Episode 1, many people made the claim that, well, with a movie that hotly anticipated, there was no way it could ever have lived up to the fans’ expectations. And, two-and-change years before the unveiling of Episode 7, we’ve already got folks tempering their expectations saying the same thing. There’s no way it can be as great as they can’t help hoping it will be. There’s no way it can do anything other than disappoint.

I don’t agree with them.

Here’s the most important thing for you to know: we, the fans, want you to succeed. The internet is… well, you know. Scum, villainy, etc. So you’re gonna get a lot of hate coming at your face once your name goes out in the world, no matter who you are. But the truth is that there is nothing fans of Star Wars want more than to love the film you’re going to make. Despite how it may sound in the comment threads of various film blogs (and I suggest you avoid them), deep down, we’re on your side. We’re rooting for you.

You’re going to hear that the fans want the new movies to be like the original trilogy, and we do. That sounds like a tall order, but it’s really not. All it means is we want back the sense of adventure, the sense of fun, lacking from the very somber, convoluted-plot-driven prequels.

If you do try to listen to what the fans want, try to separate out what they are actually asking for, versus the specific execution they suggest. Yoda fought with a lightsaber in ATTACK OF THE CLONES because fans said they wanted to see Yoda fight with a lightsaber — but what they really wanted was to see what made Yoda the greatest Jedi of all time. Which, in actuality, had nothing to do with his swordsmanship (as even Yoda himself basically says in EMPIRE).

So, for example, you’re going to hear fans clamoring for the original characters — Luke, Leia, Han — to return. And while that would, indeed, be super cool (and if they’ll do it we’ll totally take it), what we’re really asking for is the kind of characters they represent. Characters who are human, who have personality, who are memorable and distinct. We love the original trilogy because watching it feels like going on an adventure with some of our dearest friends, we know their quirks and foibles, and love them not in spite of their flaws but because of them.

Where the prequels fell short of fan hopes, in my estimation, has nothing to do with their scope, their scale, their action, their visual effects. Obviously these aspects completely outstripped anything in the original films. But they feel like a history lecture, populated by larger-than-life mythological figures for whom it would be easy for us to rattle off a complete chronology of what they do, but an impossible task to describe who they are.

When it comes down to it, we want to meet some new friends. Because for all that people (like me) can delve into the worldbuilding minutiae of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, for all that we talk about the trench run or the speeder chase, it was never really about those things. It wasn’t about the history of the Jedi, or the lightsaber fights, or the space battles. We loved those things because we loved the characters we were experiencing them with. Give us characters to fall in love with again, and you can practically do no wrong. We’ll follow them to hell and back or just watch them eat a meal together. Throw them into peril and, more than just being impressed by the visuals I’m sure you and ILM will deliver, we’ll care.

That’s all we want from you. Really. The worst mistake you can make will be to approach this thinking you have something to prove. You don’t have to show off. You don’t have to convince us you have the chops to direct action or visual effects. Just introduce us to our new best friends. It’s the simplest, and most difficult, thing for a filmmaker to do. But it’s the only one that truly matters.

Good luck. Or, if you prefer — and if you’re the one with this gig, you probably should — may the Force be with you.

Oh, and one more thing. While I meant what I said above about the lightsaber fights not being what really mattered, if it so happens that the new adventure calls for them… please feel free to get in touch.

Movie Review: JACK REACHER

Remember when movies used to have titles? When they were actually descriptive and interesting and not just the name of the main character you’d never heard of?

Sigh. I miss those days.

In the titling spirit of JOHN CARTER and ALEX CROSS, somebody decided to call this flick JACK REACHER instead of ONE SHOT, the title of the book on which it was based. I don’t want to harp on the title this whole time, but I do think titles like this hamper a film’s ability to attract the general audience’s interest. I could be wrong — it looks like it’s doing fine at the box office — but I think it could be doing better if people had any sense of what the movie was about, its tone, or anything at all from the film’s title, its equally-generic poster, or its by-the-numbers trailer.

At any rate, I’m pleased to report that the title is my biggest gripe with the film. Otherwise, JACK REACHER is a highly entertaining thriller, channeling the energy of a Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler hardboiled detective story seamlessly into contemporary times. It’s not a throwback to THE BIG SLEEP, THE MALTESE FALCON, or CHINATOWN* so much as a (highly worthy) successor to that kind of mystery story.

In a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Sherlock solves the crime seemingly by magic, only afterward describing the clues his keen senses and intellect registered and which Watson missed. But since Watson was our narrator, the fact he missed those clues means we as the reader never heard about them until Sherlock mentioned, after the fact, they were there. We never had the chance to try to solve the mystery ourselves.

The other way to do it is to be in the mind of the detective himself, getting all the clues as he does and being able to put them together alongside him. JACK REACHER is this kind of mystery story, giving you all the same pieces our man Jack has to work with, doling them out in such a way that he’s always just one step ahead of us without feeling like he’s jumping wildly to unjustifiably correct conclusions.

Obviously to discuss the plot of a mystery is to ruin a lot of the fun, so I’ll refrain there, other than to say the villain’s motivation…doesn’t make a ton of sense. Which is okay, really, because it’s just the McGuffin and the fun is seeing how Reacher discovers the truth.

Whatever you may think of Tom Cruise in terms of his personal life choices, he’s capital-Tom capital-Cruise for a reason, and as always he’s compelling to watch in every scene. He and Rosamund Pike have great chemistry, and the film possesses exactly the kind of personality and wit so often lacking from the over-serious, melodramatic tentpoles of recent years. Reacher is a fascinating badass without a dark past he’s always sulking over, which was a breath of fresh air.

I also like a lot about the way director Christopher McQuarrie staged this film, particularly the action scenes. He makes them feel properly frenetic and chaotic without resorting to the shakycam crutch so often used to hide the fact the director hasn’t bothered to stage anything coherent at all, managing even to inject some humor into the action. (One action beat descends into almost pure slapstick, but the movie gets away with it because Reacher is as astonished by the absurdity as we are.) McQuarrie also knows when not to go for the thrill and dial up the suspense instead, a skill I think a lot of action directors (and screenwriters) seem to lack.

If you’re like me and the lame title put you off bothering to so much as find out what JACK REACHER even is, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is more clever and original than the marketing would have you believe, engages your brain without being exhausting, and is well worth your two hours.


* Which I guess today would be released as PHILIP MARLOWE, SAM SPADE and JAKE GITTES, respectively. Oh, Hollywood.

My Week in Movies (1/1–1/6)

Let’s see if we can get back into this in 2013.

Not a lot of movies this first week and all of them start with C, which I didn’t notice until just now. That’s funny.

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY

Generally speaking, the plan is for movies currently in theatres to get a stand-alone review, but there’s not enough to say about WORLDS AWAY to make it worth its own post. The film is a collection of acts from the various Las Vegas Cirque troupes — including O, Kà, Zumanity, and others — shot in stereo (apparently sometimes with James Cameron, who produced the film, operating the camera) and loosely strung together by a framing story of a young man and woman traveling through the different “worlds” represented by each act, searching for each other.

I saw the film in 3D and for once I felt it actually enhanced the experience. Many of the acts involve stunts that travel great distances or are performed high above the stage, and being able to feel the depth of the space made a difference in creating a sense of awe and appreciation for the grace, agility, and courage of the performers.

WORLDS AWAY’s plot is effectively nonexistent, but that’s never really been the point of Cirque du Soleil. Cirque has always been about marveling at various feats of human athleticism, usually set to some pretty great music. Orders of magnitude cheaper than a trip to Vegas and tickets to seven Cirque shows — and, by being able to get the cameras in among the action, showcasing the performances in a better-than-front-row view — if you’ve ever wanted to check out a Cirque show, this is 90 minutes worth catching in theatres (if you can find a showing near you).

CLEANFLIX

A documentary about Clean Flicks, a Utah-based (read: Mormon) company which in the mid-2000s began producing unauthorized bowdlerizations of Hollywood movies. Described as chronicling the “rise and fall” of the company, it actually chronicles the rise and fall of an entire cottage industry of “family” (read: fundie) friendly re-cut films.

The film does a good job of letting the Clean Flicks side of things make their case, while addressing the legal, ethical, and creative objections from the studios and filmmakers whose work is being — in my view, theirs, and I think the documentary’s — inappropriately altered. It takes a rather bizarre turn in the final third, but it’s a bizarre turn in the real events and it feels right that the documentary, shot over the course of several years while the events unfolded, should cover it.

Surprisingly engaging for what you’d think would be esoteric subject matter, as of now the doc is available on Netflix and worth checking out.

CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010)

I didn’t expect much from this, given its rather poor reviews (28% on Rotten Tomatoes), the fact I’m not super impressed by Louis Letterier, and the fact that — let’s have some real talk here — the 1980 CLASH was a pretty dumb movie to begin with, the inarguable genius of Ray Harryhausen notwithstanding.

Almost certainly as a result of such low expectations (and not having to shell out hard-earned cash for a ticket), I didn’t hate CLASH OF THE TITANS. I also didn’t love it by any means; in fact, trying at this moment to recall the movie enough to review it, I’m realizing it was literally almost completely forgettable and I have already done so. Stellar effects work, naturally, but nothing particularly memorable in terms of character, dialogue, plot or action. Oh, except the Djinn characters, they were a cool design.

I hear the sequel, WRATH OF THE TITANS, is significantly worse, which means I’ve pretty much got to check it out.

Adventures in Hackintoshing

I’ve been using the same Mac Pro machine since 2007. It’s been a solid workhorse — over the years I’ve upgraded it, boosting it up to 16GB of RAM, slugging an eSATA card in, and replacing the Radeon 7300 card with a pair of NVIDIA cards to get some CUDA acceleration going.* But I’d finally come to the point where I could no longer work efficiently on the machine — working with Scarlet footage on a new short we just shot is just choking it up; on top of which, I’ve decided to learn Houdini, and when it comes to running even the simple first-tutorial simulations, I might as well be asking it of a brick.

With Final Cut Pro effectively EOL-ed (Final Cut Pro X is… cute), and no other software I use being exclusive to the Mac platform, I considered jumping ship entirely back to Windows and building my own PC, especially with Apple dragging their feet in announcing a new line of Mac Pros.** Then someone reminded me that I could potentially get the best of both worlds by building myself what’s variously called a CustoMac, or Hackintosh — a PC tricked into running OS X.

The last time I looked at Hackintoshing was around the time I got my Mac Pro. It was known to be possible, since OS X was now compatible with Intel chipsets, but it required, well, hacking. You had to actually dig into the code and know what you were doing, which — as this post will demonstrate — my attempting would not be the path of wisdom.

But, much like building a proton pack — which I’ve also been investigating lately for…reasons — what used to be an underground, esoteric pursuit requiring all kinds of scouring for parts and information has since become a simple, standard procedure with pre-selected parts ready to go. In the case of proton packs, you can find almost all the bits and bobs just searching eBay for resin castings. In the case of a Hackintosh, the central hub is tonymacx86.

On tonymacx86, you can find articles recommending PC parts that have been successfully Hackintoshed — the primary part at issue being the motherboard. The forums are also packed with threads by clever folks who have successfully built OS X machines, all laid out with clear, step by step information what they did to get everything working (and what they couldn’t get to work, if anything). Particularly of note are the Golden Builds, which are chosen by the community moderators as particularly worthy of attention and emulation. All you have to do is pick a build to follow and it’s as simple as following the steps.

The build I personally chose to follow is this one, based off the Gigabyte GA-Z77-UP5 TH motherboard. I chose this board and build because the board comes with dual Thunderbolt ports that were confirmed to work after the hack, as well as USB 3.0. If I was going to build a new computer I might as well try to get as much of the latest and greatest as possible.

There are faster boards that take more RAM (my board tops out at 32GB), but I don’t have infinite funds and it’s easy to get down a rathole of spending — if I get a faster board that takes more RAM, I should get more RAM, and a faster processor, and a better cooling system, etc. This board and the parts seemed to hit a price-performance sweet spot I was happy with.

I also chose this build because it had successfully booted into Mountain Lion 10.8.2, which was the only version available from the App Store.

Not wanting to take any chances, and for the sake of expedience, I decided to buy pretty much all the same parts as the build I was following, so I got the same processor (Intel i7-3770K), the same RAM (Corsair low-profile DDR3-1600 — though I maxed out the board with 32GB instead of the 16GB in the build), same CPU cooler (I probably would have wasted days trying to figure out what the best one was, so I appreciated being able to just buy one that I already knew would be appropriate), and same case.

The recommended power supply was discontinued so I bought a similar one from the same manufacturer; it being Black November, NewEgg had a great deal on 240GB SSDs so I picked up two, intending to dual-boot Mountain Lion and Windows 7; and I got a GeForce GTX 680 instead of the 670 in his build. I also purchased a FireWire card for backward compatibility, as well as a card with extra USB 2.0 ports so I can keep the USB 3.0 free for devices that can leverage it. I also picked up a Blu-Ray-burning-multi-wonder-everything optical drive. OS X doesn’t have built in Blu-Ray support, but it recognizes the drive and reads/burns DVDs and CDs, and using software like Toast the Blu-Ray features work as they should. In this way it’s no different than putting a BD into a real Mac.

The first motherboard I bought was defective — the power supply cable for some reason would not plug in to the board. It just physically would not make the connection. I sent the board back, got a new one, and that one worked fine.

Once you’ve got the parts assembled and the computer boots into the motherboard BIOS (if you’ve never built your own PC before, simply follow this step-by-step video produced by Newegg), it’s three simple steps to get your Hackintosh up and running with very little muss or fuss:

STEP ONE: BIOS

Adjust your BIOS settings to be compatible with an OS X boot. This is where following a successful build is key — someone else already went through all the trial and error for you. The build thread will contain instructions — often screenshots — for exactly the combination of BIOS settings that will make your motherboard and OS X play their nicest. Once that’s done, you’re ready to move on to:

STEP TWO: UNIBEAST

Like I said before, back in the day you would have had to hack up OS X yourself to trick it into accepting a non-standard chipset, but now it’s as simple as downloading a utility called Unibeast. Unibeast will help you create a bootable USB thumb drive with an unlocked version of OS X.

The process of making the drive and installing the OS to your machine is simple and detailed clearly here.

Unibeast will get the compatible OS onto the drive, but the drive will not yet be bootable. Using the USB stick to boot into the newly-created hard drive, it is then time for:

STEP THREE: MULTIBEAST

Another pre-baked utility from tonymacx86, allowing you to install all the necessary tweaks, drivers, and a bootloader in one fell swoop, after which your computer will happily boot to OS X directly. This again is a step where following a successful build will save you lots of time and trials, because the build thread will have a screenshot of all the proper boxes to check. The process of downloading and using Multibeast is part of the Unibeast installation instructions.

After that, you’re pretty much done. You’ve got a computer that thinks its a Mac and you’re good to go.

Other notes about the process:

WIFI

My motherboard comes with a wifi/bluetooth card. Unfortunately, since it’s not meant to be a Mac motherboard, the card does not work under OS X. In fact, most wireless cards don’t. I think since real Macs come with wifi built in, manufacturers don’t see the point in making discrete cards for the purpose. Even the ones that say they’re Mac compatible turn out not to be, at least not for Mountain Lion, as I found after several round-trips to Fry’s in a cycle of purchases and returns.

There are a few guides for building your own Hackintosh-compatible PCI-e Airport cards, but I found someone selling prefab ones on eBay and just went with that. Once I got it, the computer recognized it completely natively. If you’re building your own, get one of these with the other parts.

CUDA IN ADOBE

The GTX 680 is not “natively” supported as a valid CUDA processor by Premiere or After Effects under OS X. As with wifi, this is an every-Mac thing, not just a Hackintosh thing.

Fortunately, it’s a simple fix. The programs have a human-readable .txt file inside the “package” telling them which cards they should accept for CUDA processing. It’s literally as simple as adding the name of your card to that file. A quick and easy, five minute walkthrough of how to do that from the Terminal is available here.

DUAL-BOOT

Having a dual-boot machine was as simple as installing a second SSD, installing Windows on the drive, and setting the boot priority in the BIOS so OS X is primary. If I want to boot to Windows I just hold down F12 when the computer first powers on and I get a boot selection screen (the specific key will vary depending on your mobo manufacturer, but it’s the same principle). No need for Boot Camp, it’s just native Windows. Easy peasy.

DON’T FIX WHAT AIN’T BROKEN

Okay, so here’s the story of how I completely fucked up my perfectly-working build for a little while there.

My motherboard has, among its other ports, an eSATA port built in. I have a Drobo S I use as my “active” storage — where I keep footage I’m using for editing and effects — connected to my previous Mac Pro via an eSATA card. Plugging the Drobo S into the eSATA port on my Hackintosh, it mounts as a drive, but is not recognized by the system — nor Drobo Dashboard — as a Drobo. Plugging it into FW800, it recognizes it as a Drobo.

This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that apparently if the computer doesn’t realize it’s a Drobo, the Drobo itself doesn’t realize it and doesn’t do its data protection thang. I transferred some files to the Drobo via eSATA, and then when I connected it to FW800 it went into data protection mode for several hours to deal with all the new data it apparently hadn’t noticed before.

I looked up my motherboard for driver/BIOS updates and it turned out that I was using BIOS v4 and it’s now up to v11, which listed “enhanced SATA capability” as its primary feature.

So here’s me, just built a Hackintosh, thinking I’m hot shit. I figure, hey, I’ll go ahead and update the BIOS.

In my defense, I wasn’t completely an imbecile about it. I downloaded Carbon Copy Cloner and cloned my boot drive to a USB drive so I could restore if needed. I likewise saved my existing BIOS to a thumb drive before overwriting it so I could restore it if things went pear-shaped. Which they proceeded to do. Updating the BIOS broke the OS X bootloader, so the computer no longer recognized the OS X partition as a valid bootable drive. Attempting to restore from the clone didn’t work because apparently I did the wrong type of clone backup.

On top of which, the graphics got all broken because Hackintoshing my particular motherboard’s BIOS has two sets of settings — one if you are going to use the onboard graphics, one if you are going to use your own graphics card. In my stress over trying to get my computer back up, I spent a good day repeatedly following the wrong procedure.

Long story short, eventually I rolled back my BIOS, followed the correct settings procedure, reinstalled Unibeast, reinstalled Multibeast, and just put all my applications back from scratch instead of trying to restore anything from Carbon Copy, finally getting back to where I had been in the first place.

The punchline? The Drobo-not-recognized-over-eSATA issue seems to be a problem with the Drobo and probably had nothing to do with my motherboard at all.

All in all, aside from user-error/-is-retarded issues, I’m very happy with my sexy new machine and looking forward to working with it. I especially look forward to trying some new-to-me apps — like Resolve and Smoke — which I simply didn’t have the horsepower for before. With the information and resources available, anyone even moderately tech-savvy can build a powerful, stable Mac Pro replacement — which can also boot Windows 100% natively — either for a fraction of the price, or for the same price but better. If you’re looking to upgrade your rig, don’t want to wait for Apple to show their hand on the Mac Pro, but still want to keep a foot in the OS X ecosystem, definitely consider it.


*The pair of cards, since I’m being tech spec-y in this post anyway, is the GT 120 and the GTX 285. The 120 is used to run the monitors, leaving the 285 purely for GPU acceleration. While not an officially supported configuration, it was recommended by Blackmagic as a kludgey way to get Resolve running on my machine. I still couldn’t really use Resolve but it boosted AE’s performance tremendously.

**They assure us such machines are coming, and that they will be awesome. This was also what they said of FCPX.

Movie Review: THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS

Written, directed by, and starring RZA (pronounced “Rizza”), THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is a throwback to the kind of grindhouse kung fu cinema introduced to the “mainstream” by KILL BILL. Tarantino and RZA met on that film’s production (RZA provided music for Volume 1), and presumably their mutual affection for the genre led to Tarantino throwing his weight behind what I can only guess is a long-time dream project for RZA, a film like the ones he loved growing up, starring himself as the hero.

I’ve done the fan film thing. I totally get it. I wouldn’t begrudge RZA his Mary Sue adventure at all if the fruit of his passion were, like KILL BILL, also a good movie. But Quentin is a kind of movie savant, who can watch movies and immediately turn around and do it without any prior training. RZA, unfortunately, is not Tarantino, and doesn’t do especially well with any of the many hats he wore on this movie (aside from the music he composed).

As a director, he doesn’t appear to have given the actors much to work with, with tone and performances wildly uneven through the film; visually he seems to have been under the impression that shooting well meant shooting more. As an actor, he’s dull and bland, lacking a proper director’s guidance, as well as lacking the screen presence to pull off the stoic hero. He doesn’t appear to have done much or any training to prepare for the role — his physique soft and undefined, his body language and posture slouched and unconvincing. When he puts on the eponymous fists and smashes them together, that moment in this kind of movie is supposed to feel like a powerful wild animal has just escaped its cage. Here it feels like a twelve year old wearing foam Hulk fists for Halloween.

The fists themselves don’t show up until very nearly the end of the movie, which brings me to RZA as writer. RZA shares screenplay credit with Eli Roth but has a story credit all to himself, so I’m going to assume the structural issues are part and parcel of RZA’s contribution. This 95 minute movie (which feels at least twice as long) spends easily the first half just introducing characters. RZA’s blacksmith protagonist — the archetypical Man Who Doesn’t Want To Fight Until He’s Pushed Too Far — isn’t Pushed Too Far until the last 20 minutes, doesn’t actually enter the fray with the iron fists until the final 5.

No no no. This is — or ought to be — a kung fu superhero movie. Can you imagine a Spider-Man origin film where Peter Parker didn’t get bitten by the spider until well into act 3? The event which pushes him to don iron fists ought to be the inciting incident, the rest of the story playing out as the blacksmith seeks to defend and/or avenge the people of his village.

But RZA didn’t want to just make a martial arts throwback film — he wanted to make all the martial arts throwback films. The film is so distracted by its need to pay homage to other films it forgets all about the putative story of the man with the iron fists until nearly the very end.

To be fair, when it comes to a movie like this, I don’t plunk down my cash for the story, nor the acting. I plunk it down for the fight scenes. A good martial arts movie is much like a good musical, but instead of songs, you have fight scenes. Like songs in a musical, the fight scenes should move the story forward and tell you something about the characters.

A schlocky martial arts film, on the other hand, is more like a porno. The story is a flimsy excuse to drive the action, the longer the better, and while some camera angles are better than others it doesn’t really matter as long as you can see the money shots.

Porno filmmakers understand what their audience wants to see, but for some reason most (American) filmmakers doing martial arts movies do not. A porno presenting its fucking the way THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS presents its fighting simply would not be allowed. The choreography (by Corey Yuen) is solid when you can see it, but the camera is almost always on a 50mm lens or tighter, rarely wider than a medium shot, and it’s an unusual shot that allows more than one move to occur before cutting to another. It feels like RZA thought he had something to prove about his ability to make a “cool” movie, and in so doing just got completely in his own way.

It’s too bad, because there’s definitely a good (“for what it is”) version of this story, and a great fight-porn flick buried in the concept. But this isn’t it. Not even close. If you’re not a fan of the genre, this isn’t going to convert you. If you are, save yourself the disappointment.

Movie Review: CLOUD ATLAS

In the relatively brief history of cinema as a storytelling medium, it seems like it’s been easy to pick out the major landmarks along the way, especially in the last few decades. Everyone who saw STAR WARS knew it had changed everything; a generation later, JURASSIC PARK would inspire similar awe and achieve equally enviable success. You see a film like THE MATRIX and you know, in your bones, you’ve just seen a new way to use the medium, something that will change its course forever.

Then again, sometimes it’s not so obvious. Sometimes a film takes its time to find its feet. THE WIZARD OF OZ; CITIZEN KANE; BLADE RUNNER — all classics of the medium, all flops upon release. But they withstood the test of time and are now appreciated and revered for those exact qualities which most likely alienated the contemporary audiences.

As of this writing, CLOUD ATLAS is performing poorly at the box office, taking in only $14.5 million in its first week against an estimated $100 million budget. But you would make a tremendous mistake to think this is a reflection of its quality.

Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski — the directing duo behind the MATRIX films and SPEED RACER — in collaboration with Tom Twyker — best known in the U.S. for RUN LOLA RUN — the film spans a period of several centuries, following six stories intercut together, all occurring in different times and places, all related thematically and by the presence of common actors playing (different) characters in each story.

If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a man who believes the Wachowskis can do no wrong. Bring up the MATRIX sequels and you’ve probably got about thirty seconds of discussion before I become unreasonable. And I’m about to squander any and all possible film snob cred by stating that I didn’t think much of RUN LOLA RUN, either. The trailers for CLOUD ATLAS were certainly ambitious, but did little to inspire my interest. Ultimately I went to see it because I try to see all the major releases like this, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.

Joyfully, I got the best. CLOUD ATLAS is my favorite film of the year.

CLOUD ATLAS is a film that requires your full attention, but will reward you for it in the end. It jumps, sometimes extremely quickly, between its six stories, but — as the movie itself assures us early on — there’s a method to the madness. It’s not stylized for no reason — in fact, considering the other films on the Wachowskis’ resume, the filmmaking aside from the editing is surprisingly conventional. But, as we know from the Kuleshov effect, editing is where the story is really told.

The plot of CLOUD ATLAS defies easy summary, comprised as it is of six disparate storylines. From the Wikipedia article:

  • South Pacific Ocean, 1849. Adam Ewing, an American lawyer from San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement for his father-in-law. He meets Dr. Henry Goose who offers a cure for the parasitic worm that is seemingly eating his brain. While ashore, Adam learns about the enslavement of the Moriori tribe and observes a slave being whipped. The slave, Autua, stows away on the ship and Adam reluctantly keeps him hidden.
  • Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland, 1936. Robert Frobisher, a gay, penniless, young English musician, finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” while his master attempts to take all credit for the Sextet as his own.
  • San Francisco, California, 1973. Luisa Rey, is a journalist, sent to write a story about a new nuclear power plant. She meets Sixsmith, a respected nuclear physicist who decides to help Rey expose a conspiracy regarding the safety of a nuclear reactor. In the meanwhile, a hitman, hired by oil lobbyists, attempts to silence the exposers.
  • United Kingdom, 2012. Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year-old publisher, flees the associates of a jailed gangster author and ends up confined against his will in a nursing home from which he attempts to escape.
  • Neo Seoul, (Korea), 2144. “Old” Seoul has sunken partly beneath the rising seas, which are now held back by colossal sea walls that protect the rest of the city. Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered fabricant (clone) server at a hyper-fast-food restaurant, is interviewed before her execution. Sonmi rebels against the totalitarian society that created and exploited her kind.
  • On one of the beautiful Hawaiian Islands on post-apocalyptic Earth, a tribesman named Zachry living a primitive life after most of humanity has died during “The Fall” is visited by Meronym who arrives on a fusion-powered hover-yacht, and is a member of the “Prescients,” the last remnants of a technologically-advanced civilization. After Meronym saves Zachry’s young niece, he agrees to guide her into the mountains in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost and station where many unburied dead bodies lay, where she hopes to send a message to people who have left Earth and are now living on other planets.

The stories are connected in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is that the main character of each story comes to know the story that preceded, and discovers this story at a crucial turning point in his/her own. The experience of the protagonist of the prior story heartens the protagonist of the next and leads them to take the action that will inspire the next. CLOUD ATLAS is a story about why we tell stories, and how our actions affect each other down the generations in unexpected ways.

The execution of CLOUD ATLAS makes it also an exploration of how we tell stories, intercutting the action of the stories together in ways that at first seem inexplicable, but then it slowly becomes clear they are thematically, and structurally, related. The stories are told in a mostly linear fashion within themselves, but sewn together in the most astonishing example of vertical storytelling I’ve ever seen. We jump rapidly between time periods as each story reaches its second act break, its bad guys close in, its dark night of the soul. Despite the different times, places, antagonists, and explicit goals of the protagonist, underneath it all the experiences are fundamentally the same. In each case a story about love and trust, in each case a story about defying the so-called “natural order” which is revealed to be a mere construct of those who most benefit from the status quo.

Even the name itself hints at this notion — a “cloud atlas” is a visual guide to identifying the various types of clouds (cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, etc.). The clouds come in various shapes and sizes, can be classified as different from each other, but ultimately they are all made of the same stuff. They are all, despite their appearances, identical. They can change from one to the other over time, combine, disperse. Change, indeed, is the only true “natural order.”

The name appears in the 1936 storyline, when the composer Frobisher writes the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a symphony played by six instruments. The structure of the film follows this same conceit — six stories, with recurring motifs that follow, transpose, reinterpret each other as the work progresses, each traveling, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in discord, through the major movements of modern storytelling. The structure of the film is perfectly literary, perfectly musical, and perfectly cinematic all at once. I have honestly never seen anything like it.

CLOUD ATLAS has come under a bit of fire for its race-bending — Caucasian actors portraying Korean characters, in particular — but in this film’s case it is thematically appropriate and (from my privileged white person’s perspective) respectful. The same actors portray characters in different eras, jumping across lines of age, of race, of gender — another way of making the statement that under our different appearances, we are all in fact the same. Recasting just for the purposes of the different ethnicities would in fact have undermined this aspect of the story. It should also be noted that Korean actors portray Caucasian and Hispanic characters, and in the far-future story, the primitive culture is light-skinned and the advanced dark-skinned, a quiet inversion of the slave-owning white culture portrayed in the earliest time period. It’s not about how you look, or even really who you are. It’s about what you’re made of.

There are gunshots and car-chases and VFX aplenty, but this is not turn-off-your-brain moviegoing. This is a crank-it-up-and-sit-up-straight experience, a movie that asks you to meet it in the middle. It wants to tell you a story — six stories about one story, more specifically — but it wants you to engage with it, to be an active participant rather than a passive observer.

Studios don’t make movies like this anymore. The studio penguins think the audience can’t handle it, won’t try. So they produce movies full of color and light and sound and fury all signifying nothing. A movie has arrived at last that trusts and respects its audience, that delivers all the spectacle but believes in the audience’s intelligence rather than insulting it. And I despair that the box office is on track to prove the penguins right.

I have little doubt CLOUD ATLAS will be recognized twenty years from now as essential viewing for all serious students of the art of cinema and storytelling. But will it be to study the moment the path of blockbuster filmmaking was altered, for the better and for good? The film that proved style and substance, thought-provoking and profit, need not be mutually exclusive? Or will it be to speculate, and lament, over what might have been?

Vote with your wallet. Go see CLOUD ATLAS.

Movie Review: DREDD

I never bothered to see the Stallone JUDGE DREDD. It was so famously bad, and I didn’t know the source material at all, so it didn’t seem worth my time to see it. I know Stallone took off his helmet — a lot — which I gather is a Dredd no-no, and I’ve seen clips of him slurring and raving about THELAW, and how he “am” it, at the top of his lungs, so I figured I got the idea. Nowadays I have a bit of a morbid interest in watching legendarily “bad” films — the docket currently includes HEAVEN’S GATE and GIGLI — and they’re much more readily available than they were 17(!) years ago, so I think at some point I’ll probably get around to it. Especially having seen the rebooted DREDD, I’m interested in comparing and contrasting.

But, as of today, I still haven’t seen the Stallone vehicle and I still haven’t ever bothered to become acquainted with the mythology of the Dredd world. So, though I’m certainly dialed-in to the tropes of sci-fi and action cinema, I’m more or less a member of the “general audience” a film like this typically hopes to court.

And I.

Loved.

It.

I know. Despite the fact it’s been getting a strong showing of positive reviews, many of them effusive, each one seems like it must be a fluke. Surely a remake, of an infamous bomb, based off an obscure comic, could only hope to rate “not that bad,” and in its wildest dreams perhaps reach the dizzying heights of “pretty good for, you know, what it is.”

But DREDD, as much to my surprise as yours, is an out-and-out good movie, needing no handicaps or qualifiers; and if you do tag on the qualifier “for what it is” — a big, bombastic, effects-heavy sci-fi actioner — then DREDD might just be a masterpiece.

DREDD takes place in a post-vague-apocalypse world, in which the landmass of America as we know it* has been rendered an uninhabitable wasteland, and 800 million people now live in a single, massive city — Mega City One — stretching from what used to be Boston to the former Washington, D.C. To accommodate such a huge population, massive tower blocks — each one essentially a city in itself, with tens of thousands of residents — now dominate the landscape. Standing as the immovable object against anarchy’s irresistible force is the Hall of Justice, and its police force, the uncompromising Judges. Martial law is the only kind, and clearly has been for several generations.

The world-building is immediately more successful than TOTAL RECALL, and the film is a more powerful work of science fiction, because all of this is recognizable to our contemporary concerns. Environmental crisis, urban sprawl and decay, overpopulation, fear of a police state — all of these are issues we as a society are struggling with right now. It’s not hard to extrapolate them into the future and see a world which, though exaggerated, is nonetheless a vision of some nightmare or other many of us have had.

What makes a man (or woman; more on this in a moment) living — most likely born — in such a world choose to become a Judge? The corrupt ones, the ones looking for an edge or for the small, primitive comfort of having some kind of power over others, I can understand. But the believers, the ones who do it for the sake of order and justice (harsh as it may of necessity be), the ones who value humanity so much they’ve made the choice to sacrifice their own to protect it — the ones like Judge Dredd — where do they come from? What makes them believe?

DREDD is not interested in answering — or even so much as acknowledging — this question, and I actually appreciate the film more for it. It shows just enough of Dredd making certain decisions — offering leniency, however slight, on a few occasions — that I get the sense there’s much more to this character than just what we see in the two hours of this film. Most would-be franchises try to “leave things open” for a sequel in terms of plot, leaving loose ends dangling to be tied up, one hopes, in future installments. This often backfires, though, because the film at hand winds up feeling incomplete, usually leading to poor reviews and no sequel. DREDD is a self-contained film which wraps up its plot neat and tidy, but leaves things open to be discovered, explored, and resolved about the character, which is far more compelling.

And what is the plot? Most films like this tend to get their heads up their own asses deciding they need to dive into the mythology, explore the psychology of the main character. Most movies like this would make the plot about the Judges, probably have it be about corruption within the system and the titular character has to decide between his loyalty and his principles. Movies like this tend to become about revolution. Instead, DREDD — as can be seen in the trailer — focuses effectively on a “day in the life” experience of Judge Dredd and his rookie partner, who get trapped in one of the tower blocks by the crime lord who runs it, and must try to survive while they attempt to complete their mission.

Those who have seen THE RAID: REDEMPTION are right to raise an eyebrow at the familiarity of the set-up, but the execution of each film is quite different (DREDD is not a martial arts film, for one thing) and neither detracts from the enjoyment of the other.

One of the real surprises for me is how smart and tight the writing is on DREDD. Economy of detail, stakes constantly rising, characters’ choices and behaviors are always justified but they don’t spend too much time explaining themselves. The film trusts the audience — and itself — in a way few genre films do. When the rookie Judge Anderson must execute her first-ever criminal, she doesn’t give any long speeches before or after about how she’s never done it before, doesn’t get all hysterical and useless. Judge Dredd doesn’t have time for that shit, and neither do we. Like him, we know what happened there, and like him, we’re just watching to see how she copes with it. There’s a lot of that in the film, stuff the movie knows we get and therefore, blissfully, leaves unsaid.

A film like this — in a brutal world where summary execution of criminals by law enforcement is the norm — needs to be not just an R-rating, but a hard R; DREDD hits the sweet spot of being unflinching without being unbearable, though your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for blood and gore. It’s not SAW —  it doesn’t revel in the brutality — but it also doesn’t turn away, not immediately. This is how this world is, the movie tells us. You wanted to see, so look at it.

The direction is also surprisingly confident and, believe it or not, restrained. Despite having a built-in excuse for bullet-time action — the story involves a drug called, appropriately, “Slow Mo,” which heightens the user’s perception and makes time seem to slow to a crawl — it’s used to tell the story, not to show off. There’s precious little showing off here, no impossible over-the-top camera moves or crazy editing (with the exception of a few well-motivated moments). It’s shot well, but simply, allowing the film to tell the story and speak for itself rather than become lost in the land of style.** It basically pretends it’s a low-budget film being shot in this world, which makes it all feel much more real and — even in 2D — immersive.

Speaking of which, I saw it in 2D but, for the first time, I’m strongly considering making my second viewing 3D. It’s a great movie in 2D, without any of the awkward, forced staging of a film designed to get in your face (I’m looking at you, TINTIN), yet there are moments in the film which I could see being pretty breathtaking with the added depth if the 3D is done well, which those who have seen it that way say it is.

As with RECALL, the VFX are so good, and so pervasive without being obtrusive I have to give them a nod. The sun-bleached city exteriors are phenomenal, and I only know the interiors of the tower block are VFX (shots within the massive courtyard/atrium anyway) because it’s impossible to build such a location. I couldn’t begin to guess where the set ends and the extensions begin.

Most surprising, though, was how a movie like this — a big, explodey, testosterone-fueled thrill-ride — was also the most quietly feminist movie I’ve seen in some time. Though the movie revolves around Judge Dredd, many of the other characters are powerful women, including: Dredd’s boss; the film’s archvillain; and of course Dredd’s psychic cohort. More importantly, the fact they are powerful women is considered entirely unremarkable in their world, not considered emasculating by the male characters nor by the filmmakers. Their wardrobes aren’t sexualized — female Judges dress pretty much the same way male Judges do — and the rapey tropes brought to the table by one particular character are cleverly subverted without treating the victim as being responsible for the actions of her victimizer. It’s not an overt capital-M Message of the movie, but I like the way it treated gender equality as perfectly normative, the way it showed men can still be strong and powerful without having to “put women in their place” to prove it, something even movies that do attempt such a Message sometimes make a hash of.

It’s not doing well at the box office, no doubt because many people — understandably — can’t get their mind around the idea of a Judge Dredd movie being worth a tin shit. But despite being an adaptation and a remake, DREDD is the kind of sci-fi thriller fans of the genre crave. I know you’re all looking forward to LOOPER this weekend with that exact craving in mind, but please, please also make the time to check out DREDD and give it a bump. You won’t regret it, and I want a sequel.


* As with THE HUNGER GAMES and many other such post-apocalyptic stories, the question of what’s happening in the rest of the world is ignored.

** The movie also eschews the orange-and-teal grading of a typical blockbuster, opting for simple naturalism, a clean image of a dirty world.

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