There are few things in life that people either love or hate with no shades of grey. Black Licorice. Law & Order. Turtleneck Sweaters. Well, you can absolutely add Cloud Atlas to that list; the three-hour-long epic that spans five centuries, six stories and a universe of character all played by the same eight actors. Confused? Just wait till you see it.
This was originally a novel by David Mitchell and it was excellent. It was easy to follow because with a book you can move at a pace you're comfortable with and there was no need to be distracted by Tom Hanks in silly make-up because the concept of the same actors playing all the different parts was conceived in the minds of the directors, Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (The International, Run Lola Run). Yes, three directors were needed to throw a lasso over this story, which might be your first indicator that this is too much to take in.
First off, I need to say that the film deserves an A for effort. What these directors have pulled off is nothing short of incredible. It's a movie that is bold and daring and has never been attempted before on this epic level. However, the execution of Cloud Atas falls somewhere in the grade of D. It's a real shame because it's something I feel like is important for Hollywood to embrace because I'd like to see this attempted again. The problem is it's simply not as important as it thinks it is. It's also not as well done.
If you're looking for a bang for your buck, you'll get no better deal than Cloud Atlas. It's a three hour movie that has six different stories. Now I'd love to watch a 90 minute film that is about all of the stories involved because they're all fascinating. There is a story about a slave ship in 1829, two gay lovers lost in a WWII-torn world, a corporate conspiracy that involves a faulty power plant in the '70s, an old man trapped in a silly home for the insane at present time, a Matrix-esque revolution a hundred years in the future and a struggle with faith that takes place 300 years in the future. All are great stories but none are threaded together as much as they needed to be to make the whole thing worth while.
I was hoping for a deep meaning or a tearful climax or a common theme that flowed through all the stories. There isn't one; not really at least. It's more of an obstacle course in centuries that exhausts. After the first hour I leaned over to my buddy Dave and said, "I'm not sure I can do another two hours of this." He agreed because it was simply exhaustive to whiplash from story to story and never have any kind of big payoff.
The cast involved Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Gangs of New York), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix films, The Lord of the Rings films), Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, 9 Months). All are noble for doing their best and attempting something so different. The problem with playing so many characters is that some will be great and some will terrible. Tom Hanks has two Oscars but does a British accent as a thuggish author so poorly it would be laughed at in a high school play. Not to mention that the rubber noses and plethora of wigs becomes so ridiculous that it takes away from whatever important message you're suppose to get.
Cloud Atlas may be a failure in my opinion but that doesn't mean that it should be disregarded. Just like black licorice, it will have its fans and they will be passionate. It deserves a viewing simply for the effort put forth. I hope Hollywood gives scripts like this a chance in the future. But as far as this sample is concerned, I have to average the effort with the execution and come with... Cloud Atlas (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C
Well, it's that time of year again. Now that the Saw series has come to an end, Hollywood needed to exploit another horror film that had noble and small beginnings before the Hollywood machine got ahold of it. Seems like that new series is Paranormal Activity where a new one is cranked out every October regardless of how good the script is, how good the acting is and whether or not it's effective; as long as it makes money, it's made.
Just like with the Saw films, the first two were really well done and Paranormal Activity is no exception. The first one was creative and innovative and the second one, I thought, was even better. Then the third one was still scary but confusing and seemed reaching. This fourth installment is absolutely the worst in the series, but it's a series that still has an interesting continual story and appealing "less-is-more" frights.
This one takes place with a new family that lives in Nevada. This seems unrelated to the haunted sisters we've come to love but as you find out early on, it's not. As interwoven as they tried to make this new family, it comes across slightly reaching and confusing once again with how it all ties together. That being said, the new cast of characters are some of the better actors and most fun to watch.
Paranormal Activity has almost prided itself on casting unknowns so much so you'll probably never see any of them again. (For Christ's sake, the guy that played Micah in the first one is in a Honda commercial now.) But Paranormal Activity 4 features a teenage girl and her boyfriend filming the whole movie through Skype and the webcams on their MacBooks. They're played by Kathryn Newton (Bad Teacher) and newcomer Matt Shively. They're both really fun to watch and have playful chemstry that makes the movie the funniest in the series, but funny is not why someone comes to a Paranormal Activity movie.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman did the last one and before that they did the documentary Catfish, which was pretty scary in a very different way. These guys aren't bad filmmakers but seem as if they've been a bad omen on the series since they've been getting worse since taking over. I give them credit for making stars out of weird objects like an oslicating fan in the third one and an Xbox Kinect in this. But the film series has become predictable to the point that it feels like a paint-by-number horror movie. Every scare you see coming a mile away and there's almost nothing shocking or frightening at all. Keep in mind, I did say "almost" because Katie Featherstone makes her return and in a very creepy way.
I'm still an ardent fan and defender of the low-budget creepfests but this is the first that tests that. There are positives that come out of the fourth installment but they don't even come close to countering the negatives. If the series is to continue, and I kind of hope it doesn't, it needs some major retooling and a more creative approach. If not, then Paranormal Activity will become just another horror franchise that will parody itself into obscurity and bargin bins. Paranormal Activity 4 (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C-
Halloween is always the best time to go see a horror movie but for some reason it often seems that the studios don't release them then. Too on the nose, perhaps? Regardless, we always have the reliable Paranormal Activity series that seems to pump out a quality installment every October but outside of that we're usually limited to the latest slasher or torture porn sequel that seem to have a goal of repulsing rather than scaring. It's rare that a horror film comes out in October that terrifies and impresses but I was hoping Sinister would be it. It's not and I was let down.
Ethan Hawke rarely makes appearances in studio films anymore and has reserved himself to the art house talkie almost exclusively. He's an excellent actor that really impresses me given his child actor roots. I still think his greatest performance to date was in 2001's Training Day where he earned an Oscar nomination. Sinister delivers his best performance since then and he crafts a character that is just as tortured and intense. He is the best thing about this film.
Unfortunately, the film, which is about a true-crime novelist who moves his family into the home of the murdered family he's writing about just to discover the other worldly reason behind it, is lackluster most of the time. That's not to say that it doesn't have some truely disturbing and shocking images, but they are few and far between. Most of the scenes that are suppose to be horrorific are spun in such a gimicky way that you've seen them done a hundred times over and most of those were done better.
Director/Writer Scott Derrickson has made a horror film like this before. In his The Exorcism of Emily Rose it was the same kind of atmospheric creepiness that pervades most of the film but in the end didn't quite do much to scare, which should be a horror film's ultimate goal. Sinister falls victim to the same fate and worst of all uses CGI for several FX that you'd expect to see on a TV series.
That's not to say Sinister doesn't have some crowning achievements. Besides Hawke's performance, the other reason to give it a view some time is for the musical score. Composer Christopher Young, who has lots of expierence creating music for the macbre movie, has made possibly the creepiest thing about Sinister. It's more like noise experimentation than actual music and it's damn effective.
The other effective aspect comes in the discovery of the filmed murders of the victims of the villain, a pagan god named Bughuul aka Mr. Boogie (see what they did there?). This is a clever throwback to before the time when "found footage" was in every single genre of filmmaking. These movies are dated and shot beautifully creating an almost snuff-like feel. They too are one of the creepiest things about Sinister.
I have no doubt that this will find an audience and make some money. Considering how I feel about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, perhaps I'm just not a fan of Derrickson's style. I still have a few weeks left before Halloween, so maybe I'll look elsewhere for my October fright because after seeing Sinister, I'm still sleeping soundly. Sinister (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C
Showing up to a movie screening seconds before it starts is never a good idea and that's exactly what I did for Seven Psychopaths. I didn't know I was going to a screening of it and actually thought I was sitting down for a screening of the Ben Affleck movie, Argo, which was playing next door. (I went into the wrong theater.) The opening scene of Seven Psychopaths involves a very Tarantino-esque scene of two hitmen standing around talking about a recent murder in a very funny way. After a few minutes and a couple chuckles something gruesome happens and the opening credits roll. Argo is getting lots of serious Oscar buzz and the scene I just watched was goofy, graphic and set in a world that didn't feel real at all; so it's easy to say that I realized it wan't Argo before the title for Seven Psychopaths even rolled.
Martin McDonagh has only written and directed one other movie and it was called In Bruges with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter series, 28 Days Later) and Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter series, Schindler's List). Most people didn't see this in the theater but by word-of-mouth it became a cult classic after its release. It's of the same vein in that it's about brutal killers who exist in a surreal world that navagate through some very funny scenes. Seven Psychopaths is just as enjoyable and shows McDonagh's progression as a filmmaker.
The titular characters are played by Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Moon) among a few others. This ensemble cast is fantastic and some of the best performances these guys have done in a while. Walken and Rockwell especially shine brighter than they have in years. Rockwell is one of the most gifted actors working today and deserves to be elevated to A-list pronto! He wields comedy and drama chops better than anyone else I can think of. What's fun about Seven Psychopaths is that it allows him to showcase both in the same film, something that's rare to see. One scene in particular allows him to deliver a monologue that had the audience cheering at the end of it because it was so funny.
I think one of the most enjoyable aspects about Seven Psychopaths is its self awareness. Lots of movies like to lampoon Hollywood and turn a mirror on the silliness that dwells within it, but McDonagh does it in a way that is disorienting, hilarious and shocking. It is as close to sitting in a room with him, hearing him read the script aloud to you, complete with his uncertainty and insecurities about the plot, before he shoots a single frame. It's a very unique movie-going expierence and some may not enjoy it.
Another reason someone may not enjoy this as much as I did is because of the violence. This is a brutally graphic film and most of it is done with the agenda to shock and make you laugh. It succeeds 75% of the time. That's par for the course for a McDonagh film. He makes crime comedies that also have stark moments of drama. The transition between them are never smooth and feel like you got slammed in a traffic accident at times. But as long as you get through the blunt transitions, the meat of each scene is almost always done with earnest and commitment.
Seven Psychopaths isn't a movie for everyone and I expect it not find box office success. However, just like with In Bruges, I expect this to go on to gain a cult status as well and it feels good to get on that band wagon before it gets too crowded. Sorry Argo, but I'm glad I missed ya. Seven Psychopaths (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B+