Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)... And Kittens

Note: Instead of screencaps of Cloud Atlas, please enjoy these adorable pictures of Memebon, the adorable Japanese smooshface kitty.

SEE three directors carrying a total of six separate plots across a gaping ravine!  SEE a cast of acrobats somersault gracefully from one plot to another!  PRAY that this travelling circus doesn't plummet to certain doom on the rocks below!

He's so freaking cute!
If you're a cinephile, you owe it to yourself to see Cloud Atlas, just to be part of the conversation.  If you aren't, I recommend approaching with caution.  This is a long, long movie.  It doesn't break three hours, but it feels like four.  But these problems are perhaps unavoidable given the ridiculous high-wire act that directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer have set up for themselves.

Cloud Atlas is basically an anthology of six short films, but all told at the same time, with the same actors playing various roles in multiple stories.  Astonishingly, this never gets confusing.  Due to truly masterful editing, not only does every plot remain clear, the parallels between the six stories are made apparent throughout.  Sometimes two people are simultaneously engaged in similar tasks, and sometimes the connections are a bit more poetic.  Somebody deserves an award for this.

What isn't deserving of an award was how sore my ass was after about six hours... er, 2.75 hours of this.  But what kind of film is this, you may ask?  The answer is, six kinds:

1) In the 19th century, a white man on a ship makes an uneasy truce with a runaway slave who has stowed away in his cabin, gradually awakening to the evils of slavery.

2) In the early 20th century, a young gay composer works uneasily with a cranky old genius to craft what will hopefully be a masterpiece.

3) A spunky, black, female investigative reporter tries to blow the lid off an evil corporate plot against alternative energy in the 1970's, and gets shot at an awful lot.

Box kitty has found a box!
4) In modern London, a scrappy old publisher finds himself involuntarily checked into an old folks' "home", and plots a cunning escape with a gang of dissenters.

5) Neo-Seoul in the 23rd century is home to a cottage industry of synthetic hostesses, bred only to serve.  One of them wakes up to reality and becomes an unlikely rebel.

6) Far, far, in the future, a race of primitive tribesmen are menaced by a more violent tribe, but a visitor from an advanced civilization may be able to help them.

That's a lot of genres for one movie, and they're all done well enough.  Unfortunately, hardly any of it is "great".  And while "well enough" might sustain a fun ninety minutes, three hours demand a bit more "oomph".  Some stories are good, even great, while others I could have done without.

The best of the lot is the lighthearted nursing home escape, which could have been a fine movie on its own with a little polish.  I also enjoyed the far future plot, especially the dialect that the tribespeople spoke.  A lot of people will probably complain that it was hard to decipher, but it was a shockingly well realized bizarro-English that added color to the story.

The thriller plot is serviceable, despite a gratuitous cute dog murder (what is it with cute animals being introduced just to get killed in movies?).  The other plots are mostly meh, with the Neo Seoul plot proving the most annoying.  It's the most outwardly "Wachowski-ish" story, with gorgeous visuals, a boneheaded plot that amounts to "Logan's Run 2: Even Runnier", and a completely wasted Doona Bae in the lead role, directed down to sub-Matrix speed.

I'm done with my popcorn now!  Mew!
So after all this, what is the "point"?  Well, in each story one character leaves some kind of record of their ordeal, which someone in the next story reads and is inspired by in some way.  There's also this intimation that the same sorts of conflicts repeat throughout time, but this just draws attention to the fact that the film's six plots are thematically redundant.  This becomes obvious at the end, when every plot reaches its "I've learned something today" speech, and the dialog just does cartwheels of profundity.

Basically it's six films in one, and if that's all you expect, it could be time well spent.  I'm grateful I saw Cloud Atlas, but ye gods was my ass sore by the end.  If nothing else, I got to see Tom Hanks as a bald-headed London thug, and Susan Sarandon as a gibberish spouting holy woman.  These are the small pleasures that make life worth living.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cryptopsy - "Cryptopsy" Album Review

It's been a hard life for Cryptopsy, those Canadian vanguards of technical death metal.  The thing about tech-death (as some of us like to call it) is that to the untrained ear it sounds like an endless stream of blast beats, squealing guitars and "roo roo roo".  But in a genre so apparently monotonous, Crytopsy have done more than any band I know to keep things interesting.  This has had the unfortunate side effect of pissing off the more cro-magnon elements of their fanbase, who greet any change in style with cries of "SELLOUT!".  The idea that a band that sounds like the Frankenstein monster molesting a lawn mower could be considered sellouts is hilarious, and I'll leave it at that.

The band has always been anchored by the inhuman drumming of eight-armed colossus Flo Mounier, who appears to rule the band with an iron fist.  Cryptopsy hasn't maintained a stable lineup for more than an album at a time, and notably has had no less than four lead singers over 8 albums.  Current vocalist Matt McGachy has caused a pretty obnoxious fan backlash, mostly because he had the gall to sing melodically once or twice on the album "The Unspoken King" instead of gargling nails the entire time like you're supposed to do in death metal.  This was apparently a sign that Cryptopsy were just trying to sell T-Shirts in Hot Topic and be sellouts.  My own opinion of "The Unspoken King" was just that it wasn't terribly interesting.  I still haven't actually gotten through the whole thing.

The angry fan outcry that greeted "The Unspoken King" was probably responsible for Cryptopsy's latest effort, the self-titled "Cryptopsy".  Mounier would never admit to this, but the whole affair reeks of damage control.  The band's last two efforts were wildly experimental, but this one hearkens back to the band's earlier efforts.  More specifically it sounds like a cross between "None So Vile" and "Whisper Supremacy", with eight tracks that add up to about 34 minutes of almost non stop blast and noise.  The band's best lead guitarist, Jon Levasseur has even returned with some really badass solos.  In short, it's a very "safe" Cryptopsy.

The band's efforts to not anger anyone result in an album that is likely to please pretty much everyone, even if I doubt it wil be anyone's favorite.  The biggest roadblock for me is McGachy, who is easily my least favorite of Cryptopsy's singers.  He was apparently hired for the amount of range he has, and a closer listen to "The Unspoken King" might back that up.  On "Cryptopsy" he consistently sounds like an army of vacuum cleaners playing from the other end of a long drainage pipe.  There's virtually no shading or variety to his performance, and this is the first Cryptopsy record I've heard that would be better as an instrumental.

It's very possible that McGachy, along with the rest of the band, is holding back.  I really wish they wouldn't.  Still, even middle of the road Cryptopsy is something to treasure.  Jon Levasseur still sounds like no other guitarist on earth, playing riffs that sound "undead", like they were dug up from the earth and reconstituted in a way that almost makes melodic sense.  The drums are still amazing, and this album boasts the band's best production quality in years.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.  If you've ever liked Cryptopsy, you'll like "Cryptopsy".  And I hope that the fans are a little nicer to these guys this time around.

EDIT: I think I was a bit harsh in this review.  After listening to this record a few more times it's begun to grow on me.  I also finally gave "The Unspoken King" a full and fair listen, and it proves Matt McGachy is a much more capable vocalist than this record led me to believe.  

Even on "Cryptopsy", he does reach for a few good moments (the shriek in the middle of "Two Pound Torch" is my favorite).  Still, I feel like he's holding back here, and I hope the band puts his talents to better use in later albums... and doesn't fire him too soon!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Coming Evolution of Man

The popular belief is that America and the world in general are more deeply divided than we've ever been.  I don't buy it.  The world has ALWAYS been populated by a wide variety of people.  People in the city have always thought differently than people in the country.  People in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have always been vastly different.  And yet, I consistently hear people say that we've never been more divided than we are today, that even 10 or 15 years ago, things were vastly different.  They were, but not for the reasons you might think.

The real reason is the Internet.  That may not be the only reason, but it's the biggest one.  Think of it this way.  A hundred years ago, if someone on the other side of the country said something you found distasteful, it probably wouldn't have bothered you in the least.  The reason is that you would never have heard about it.  Unless you lived in their geographical area, or worked together, or traveled to meet, the two of you would likely live in your own little bubbles, content that the world was fine and dandy.  All those people that you may currently think are destroying America with their views (most of could slot someone in that role)?  They wouldn't have bothered you in the least, unless something happened to get into your local paper.

Today, people vent out every stupid silly little thought that crosses their minds into cyberspace.  Twitter accounts from across the world are pooled together in massive feeds and consumed by people they don't even know and probably will never meet in person.  What this means is that suddenly we have billions of neighbors, or at least we feel like we do.  Even people who don't bother to use the Internet are affected.  Since news can travel at light speed  across the world, our helpful news anchors on TV and our eager news reporters are happy to vacuum suck everything that's likely to provoke, enrage, entertain, and most importantly ensnare an audience.

Suddenly there are people who you hear everyday (at least virtually) saying things you haven't heard before! And that goes for everyone.  As a young suburban liberal, I was concerned that a conservative wind was rising to destroy my nation and my ideals.  Everywhere I looked on the Internet or on TV people were saying things I found distasteful, and only after a few years studying American history did I realize that these people have always been there.  But I hadn't been privy to their thoughts, and they hadn't heard mine.  They alarmed me just as much as I probably alarmed them.  I had to come to a realization that these scary thoughts weren't new.  I had just been happily ignorant.

I was now aware of things that I was not.  I had a new-found perspective on the world.  I had evolved.

I believe that we are collectively undergoing one of the most stressful times that humanity has ever undergone.  Not physically stressful, like the years of the plague or the ice age.  But mentally we are under a stress that we have never had to handle.  Modern communication (especially the Internet) is almost certainly a good thing.  It allows us too pool resources and talent across the entire world, and draw on a wider range of experience and insight than has ever been possible.  It is also very scary.

Those angry protesters in the Middle East, burning American flags over depictions of Mohammed are a perfect example.  Before modern communication, many Americans would never have even heard of Mohammed.  Those angry protesters would never have even seen that film, or those cartoons.  But here's the important bit:  How many of the Middle Eastern people that you've seen on TV in the last month have been protesting with flaming effigies or looting embassies?  A fair amount I'd wager.  The truth is that only an incredibly small percentage of people in the Middle East are angry enough to do that.  Most go on about their day.  But we never see them.  Tolerant people peacefully going about their day don't make for exciting news stories.

We need to evolve.  And we need to so by working on many skills that are new to us.  To process all of this new and conflicting stimuli we need to learn to think critically.  We must realize the bias of our sources, and the fact that anything someone tells you could be wrong.  More importantly, we need to stop succumbing to the easy fiction that the end times are near and the other side will soon destroy us all.  They've always been there, and the sooner we all learn to ignore them like we always have, the better off we'll be.

Flickchart - 1337 Get!

I finally hit my 1337th movie on Flickchart, so I am now officially a super l33t movie critic.  If you're curious, the film that pushed me over the top was 1951's "Angels in the Outfield", which slotted into my chart at 880, between "28 Days Later" (879) and "The Grapes of Wrath" (881).  

Want to check out my Flickchart to see what my favorite movies ever are? Click the Flickchart banner to the right.  See you at the movies 8-)

(By the way, the picture in my Flickchart icon isn't me, it's Janosc from the film "Werckmeister Harmonies")