movie review: cloud atlas

After reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas I would have said it was the perfect example of a book that couldn’t be filmed. Now, to prove me wrong, there’s a Cloud Atlas film by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.

It’s really good. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

I mean, yes, when adapting a story that has 6 storylines and a unique structure (the book starts with a story from the 1850, tells half of each story which extends into a post-apocalyptic future and then goes back through time to finish each story) into film, it’s going to be changed. And the Wachowski’s are not making a subtle film here, so the changes are not going to err on the side of subtlety. The biggest change was intercutting all the stories together, so you bounce from Neo-Seoul to 1970s San Francisco to a Pacific voyage back to the 1930s composer all at once. And it worked. Each of the stories did have its own tone to it, but the reuse of actors in all these different roles made it feel like one movie.

Obviously, everything was less detailed than in the book. The conflicts within characters, obviously couldn’t come to the fore as much. If you love the book, this might bother you. I felt that most in the 1970s nuclear plant story and the 1930s composing story. If I hadn’t read the book I think I’d have been wondering where the depth to those storylines was. The movie had to pick one viewpoint character for the nuclear story, and chose wisely in sticking with Luisa Rey, but a lot of the intrigue in the book version of that story for me had been in the indecision about things. Similarly with the composing story we don’t have the sense of interiority that the book gave us.

But the simplicity of film worked so well in the two futuristic storylines. The story of the post-apocalyptic Valley people was done in excellent dialect and the interior parts of Zachry’s fear of the devil could be shown dramatically with the devil all around him. Visually, Neo-Seoul was great: the streets made of light for flying cars were awesome, and this was also where the best fight scenes were. I did kind of hate the facial prosthetics the white actors were wearing to look Korean. I had to think of them as something a bit more alien than Korean people to keep my cognitive dissonance down.

There were also a few very “movie” moments that I could have done without. Ending the film was obviously going to be difficult because of how it abandoned the novel’s structure. The Adam Ewing ending of “And now I am off to join the Abolitionists!” was such a Hollywood happy ending I had to check my copy of the book to see if that was wholly made up (it was not, but is expressed as a hope in a journal, not a dramatic fireside confrontation). The other big ending change was turning far-future Zachry into the person telling the whole story on some far planet. Which, again, was not subtle. And the 1970s “Don’t call me a wetback” line seemed gratuitous, though I guess it fit the kind of movie that era would produce.

But those quibbles are just that. I love stories that are cut up and told like this. Where you’re looking at the commonalities between stories and drawing connections in the process of watching. After the film was over last night one of the people in the theatre said “I have no idea what that was about but I think I liked it.” Nobody said anything similar when I was done watching Skyfall last week. Cloud Atlas demands something from the viewer that a lot of movies don’t, and I want more movies like it.

movie review: prometheus [spoilery]

I really wanted to like Prometheus but I couldn’t. Not immensely. Of the movies I’ve seen in 2012 I liked it better than John Carter (of Mars) (which I had low expectations for), but less than everything else. I rewatched Total Recall a while back, which while not being a masterpiece by any means, it had a better sense of itself and more mind-bendy SFishness than Prometheus (and much worse acting).

The good bits:

Michael Fassbender as David the android was pretty excellent. He was well done as the translator and childish person who was just trying to do right by his creator. The scene in the billiards room where he makes the final decision to infect Holloway or whatever the guy scientist’s name was is chilling.

Idris Elba as Captain Yannick was so good. He had one exposition scene which seemed weird and unprovoked but otherwise, he was badass and charming and yeah. I need to see that show he starred in because he’s pretty excellent.

The rest of the bits:

You know how in Alien, nobody is an idiot? Everyone is just doing their jobs as well as they can. The only stupid moment in Alien is when Ash breaks quarantine and lets the facehugger onto Nostromo, but it’s because he’s working on a different set of orders from everyone else.

In Prometheus this trillion-dollar team of super scientists is a pile of morons. They poke creatures and destroy stuff and breathe the atmosphere without compunction. First thing we do, let’s jolt this head with electricity and trick it into thinking it’s alive! They behave in nothing like a reasonable fashion for a scientific possibly first contact team (apart from Captain Yannick, and even he takes the ship on a suicide mission). “This is a scientific mission. We won’t need weapons.” Having a character lampshading the stupidity of their choices doesn’t make it any better.

The iconic image of the big ring thing rolling from the trailer? Huge fucking spoiler. The only thing the trailer didn’t have was the explosion that caused it rolling. Knowing that the big ring thing lands on the ground drained all the tension from the Engineer alien’s plan to go to Earth with its biological weapons of mass destruction.

It would have made more sense to get an actually old person to play Weyland instead of Guy Pierce in eighty tonnes of makeup. Just saying.

While the pregnancy angle was interesting, why the fuck would the medical doodad in Vickers’ lifeboat be configured to Male Only (so Shaw couldn’t tell it do do a caesarean section – and definitely not an abortion)?

There were so many crew on the ship who were there just to be killed in the rampages near the end. One of the things that made Aliens work is the slow build where you felt for everyone who was about to die. There were all these people I hadn’t seen before getting tossed about by the alien infected form of the geologist, and it all felt hollow.

Bah. I really wanted this to be good. I was hoping it would be more like a big-budget, more actiony Moon, but it was way more like Predators or Alien Resurrection – not the worst movies ever made, but nothing I’m going to remember fondly (outside of a couple of bits). The Avengers is still in theatres; go see that instead. It doesn’t try to answer any big questions about the meaning of humanity but it’s way more fun and the only people doing terribly stupid things are bureaucrats trying to nuke New York.

book review: endgame (the losers vol. 5)

I was a little disappointed with Endgame, the final book of The Losers. Not because it lost the big A-Team style action from the previous books, but because Max (the big shadowy bad guy through the story) had such a Lex Luthorish grand plan. It involved creating a new rogue nuclear-armed country on a brand new island in the Persian Gulf who would do what America didn’t have the stomach for any more. Actually, putting it that way it doesn’t sound as silly. I just get stuck on the “brand new island” bit, especially since it was so reminiscent of Superman Returns.

But there was a good amount of exploding and not all of the Losers died. It was a much bigger story than the movie version, and I’m glad I finally read it. Definitely recommended if you like actiony comics without capes and tights.

book review: the invention of hugo cabret

Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the book the movie Hugo was based on. It’s the story of a little boy whose father has died, leaving behind only notebooks with drawings of an automaton. This is in 1930s Paris. Hugo winds the clocks in the train station, stealing what he needs to survive. There’s a grouchy old man and a little girl who constantly accuse him (accurately) of being a thief. Then discoveries are made.

The book is told with lots of full page pictures, interspersed with pages of prose. It’s not a traditional illustrated novel as the pictures and words are in sequence, not together. The pictures carry a lot of the action, which is good efficient storytelling in my book (reading action scenes isn’t my favourite thing in life). The black and white pictures aren’t amazing though, with the characters all seeming a little generic, but whatever.

The story of Hugo is actually kind of boring. There are predictable bits of him being unloved and forgotten. He doesn’t really change throughout the book. The girl, Isabelle, is a jerk the entire time. The old man has a sudden change of heart that’s a little inexplicable. For a children’s book I guess that’s all right, since you really want clarity of action and things moving forward. For an adult reader it was kind of meh.

I did enjoy all the discussion of filmmaking and films that the characters love. It’s easy to see why this would be made into a movie. So yeah. Not a bad book, but nothing insanely wonderful. And not enough automatonishness!

book review: ender’s game

I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game a long time ago. I remember liking it, but rereading it now made me realize just how good it is.

Ender Wiggins has been bred to be a genius and maybe go to learn to be a genius military commander. He is a gifted child who’s forced into difficult situation after difficult situation in training to become a gifted strategist. He is 6 years old when the book begins.

The Game is about battle simulation and learning to become a leader. There is no romance in this book. There isn’t even real camaraderie, just the isolation and pain of duty and becoming the best. I don’t agree with the military glorification that happens throughout most of the story but the ending redeems even that for me. While they try to make Ender into a tool, so incredibly tough and lethalm he also remains human.

This humanity despite the fact that he acts little like any child I ever knew. The main strategic thesis of the book is that you respond with overwhelming force so you never have to fight the same battle twice. This is something that makes sense tactically but as the novel shows, it doesn’t make for a very happy life.

I’d always thought it was written before I was born but it wasn’t. One thing I really appreciated was the description of the simulations in the Battle Room. They’re like zero-G laser tag games, but they feel much better than that. Supposedly they’re making a movie but man, that’s going to feel so dated with all the CGI. The simulation technology in a book is so much better in its infinite upgradeability, no remake required.

movie review: the french lieutenant’s woman

Holly got some DVDs from the library the other day, and one of them was The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), based on the book by John Fowles, which I’d read in China. I remembered that there was a Victorian gentleman and he ends up sort of ruined because of his interest in a woman not his fiancee, and I remembered that it had an intriguing double ending.

What they did to bring the book to the screen was pretty awesome. There are two stories in the movie: the story of the French Lieutenant’s Woman and the story of the two lead actors in the film adaptation of the book they’re shooting and their romantic entanglement with each other. It’s kind of awesome.

Early on we see them rehearsing scenes that meld into the story. They talk about the statistics behind how many Victorian prostitutes there were in their offtime. Late in the movie, the lead actress’ partner asks the lead actor what they decided to do about the ending of the book. “Which ending are you going to use?” he asks. It’s all very meta and Harold Pinter’s adaptation adds so much in kind of the same way Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002) does (and Holly’s just pointed out to me that Meryl Streep is in both films). Adaptation’s the only movie I can think of that does this kind of thing, but I’d love to hear about more.

book review: waltz with bashir

I haven’t seen the movie version of Waltz With Bashir, but Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s comic (they also made the animated documentary) is an adaptation of it. It feels that way, more like a tie-in product than something natively created in the comicbook form.

It’s about an Israeli soldier coming to terms with his actions during a massacre in Lebanon in 1982. He starts off not remembering it at all, but travels to some places and talks to some people to figure out what happened and what his dreams about it mean.

Maybe I sound dismissive, but it felt very shallow. It might have worked as a film, but without humans portraying these characters the dialogue felt uninspired. There wasn’t anything for me to really get into. I want more meat to a story like this. I guess I’m just saying this was no Joe Sacco book.