Cloud Atlas an Epic Masterpiece of a Novel

Imaginative. Ambitious. Rich. Enthralling. These are just a few of the adjectives that pop into my mind when I think of Cloud Atlas, the David Mitchell novel from 2004 that I completed last night. Cloud Atlas is so interesting and unique I’m not even sure how to describe it, but in a nutshell it’s a series of stories that span a huge swath of time from the past to the present and far into the future that are loosely interconnected and when put together tells the story of what mankind’s future might hold if we do not veer from our course of corporate control of politics and everything else.  I said it was ambitious!

The story begins with the tale of a 19th century American writer on a journey in the South Pacific, reaches a pivotal point in the distant future where mankind has experienced a “fall” back to his hunter and gatherer ways, and then abruptly does an about-face and journeys back to the beginning. Each story is interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, but when put together the novel is a strange and exotic journey itself. I wasn’t sure what to think when I began reading the novel, and when the first twist came I was quite confused but continued on, and after a while I figured out Mitchell’s strategy but still had no idea where he was taking me or where I would end up. It was such a fun read.

I’m not going to delve into the plot, but I will say the novel was superbly written and the characters were robust and each was unique. Mitchell is a glorious writer with a fabulous imagination. I’m not usually one for literary gimmicks (I thought Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad relied too heavily on its gimmick), but the way Mitchell tied these stories together was quite brilliant. Again, I don’t want to give anything away because I encourage you to read this book — but I will say each story leads into the next with just a hint of connection. The novel is pretty complicated a have to admit. At times you can lose track of characters and relationships, especially since just when you get used to a character Mitchell switches things up and changes stories. I would have loved a character map, or perhaps I will simply read it again and keep notes.

I highly recommend Cloud Atlas. And you should definitely read it before Fall 2012 so you can be well prepared for the film which stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry amongst others.

AFI #89: The Sixth Sense

I watched The Sixth Sense a few month’s ago with my son, so no need to watch it again for this blog. I had seen it before, and frankly I didn’t really want to see it again because once you know the ending it’s not much of a film, but Connor hadn’t seen it and we thought he’d like it. Well, he had the same reaction as I did the first time I saw it — “eh.”

Let’s be honest, were it not for the ending, which I will not disclose here for the three of you out there who haven’t seen this film, it would have been a rather typical mystery movie. I don’t think The Sixth Sense belongs on this list. Believe me, if you “love” The Sixth Sense it’s probably because you haven’t seen it again since being shocked by the ending. It’s a gimmick film, and it should have tipped us off to just how overrated M. Night Shayamalan really is. After this he did the forgettable Unbreakable, followed by the moronic Signs and a several more unwatchable films. Can you say over-hype?

There is one worthwhile thing beyond the plot twist at the end, and that is the superb acting of young Haley Joel Osment. After playing Forrest Gump’s kid he did a bunch of TV before breaking out in this film, and then he followed this up with a bunch of great performances in films like Pay it Forward and Artificial Intelligence. He has the creepy kid thing down.

Next up: Bringing Up Baby

AFI #90: Swing Time

Right off the bat I should say I’m not a big fan of musicals, and I’m definitely not a fan of dance movies. Swing Time (1936) is a musical dance movie, so it pretty much had two strikes going in for me. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite films are classics (Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story). However, the whole musical thing doesn’t do much for me — old or new (I didn’t care for Moulin Rouge and I don’t care to see Chicago). I had an old girlfriend in college who loved musicals so I’ve seen plenty of them, and some of them I really liked (An American in Paris, The Sound of Music), but I can’t say I enjoyed Swing Time.

Swing Time is the story of Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire), a dancer with a gambling problem, who goes to New York to earn enough money to return to his hometown and marry his sweetheart. Unfortunately, or fortunately, once in New York he meets and falls for fellow dancer Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers). I had never seen a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film so I’m glad I finally checked that off my list, although I had seen other Fred Astaire films including Band Wagon with the gorgeous Cyd Charisse (best legs of all time)! These films all follow a simple formula where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl and in between there is dancing and singing. If you like that sort of thing you’ll probably like Swing Time.

I read several reviews of Swing Time prior to watching it and they all said it was the best of the Astaire/Rogers films, which doesn’t say much in my opinion. This one was cute, and a little corny, but overall a tad boring. And on top of that, it featured a huge musical number with Astaire dressed in black face which I couldn’t get past even though it was made in 1936. It’s just wrong no matter when it was done.

On the bright side, there are only a handful of musicals on the entire AFI list including The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain so I won’t have to suffer much more through this dated genre.

Next up: The Sixth Sense

‘Super 8’ this Generation’s ‘Stand By Me’

Great coming of age films are few and far between, but for guys my age one of the best has to be Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me featuring Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix and Jerry O’Connell. The Steven King story is about a couple of boys who go on an adventure in search of a dead body, but it’s really more about the journey than the destination. Stand By Me is a classic.

Super 8 has the same feel. It’s the story of a group of middle school kids who accidentally stumble upon a huge Air Force cover up while making a homemade zombie movie on their Super 8 camera. But like Stand By Me the plot is secondary to the maturation process we witness as these boys learn what it’s like to experience adult issues. And also like Stand By Me, the best parts of the film are the conversations between the characters. Who can forget the great debate in Stand By Me about Goofy? “Mickey is a mouse…Donald is a duck…Pluto is a dog…what the hell is Goofy?”

The boys in Super 8 are all experiencing their own issues — the key one being Joe Lamb who is reeling from the loss of his mother and a “distant” father. His new relationship with popular girl Alice (Elle Fanning) is wonderful and turns out to play a key role in two major aspects of the story. These two young actors in particular were brilliant and believable and I suspect we’ll be seeing much more from both of them in the future.

The relationships in the film are so interesting that we almost forget that this is an action-packed thriller from writer/director J.J. Abrams (Lost, Cloverfield, Star Trek, Mission Impossible II). The action is awesome and the effects are super. It has a Transformers feel with a little Alien and E.T. thrown in. And of course the E.T. feel comes directly from Super 8’s producer Steven Spielberg. It’s hard not to compare Super 8 to E.T., but aside from some plot similarities it’s really the mood of the film that is pure Spielberg. The film is set in 1979 in a small Ohio town and little references and images make the period feel real (mentions of Walkmans and Rubik’s Cubes for example). These kids are just like we were growing up in the 70s — Spielberg/Abrams really delivered on that. Plus the kids were all interesting and probably like your own pack of friends there was a goofy kid and a fat kid and a kid who was afraid of everything. Perhaps the best relationship (the one between Alice and Joe) was the one that hit home for me as there was a credible awkwardness between them. 12 year old boys and girls are strange beasts to each other…they repel and attract at the same time. Alice’s entrance into this boys world captured that awkwardness so well.

I think Super 8 is a great family movie — one of the best in many years. It definitely might be a little scary for young kids, but for a 13-year-old like my son it is a home run. But even if you don’t have a tween or young teen but you liked Stand By Me, go see Super 8. You’ll love it.

AFI #91: Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice was one of the films on the AFI list I wasn’t overly excited about seeing again. To begin with, I’d seen it. But I also have a hard time watching Holocaust-related films because when you grow up Jewish you pretty much have to see it all — from Hollywood films to documentaries to short films about butterflies (my MOT friends who went to Hebrew School will get this reference). But then I started watching Sophie’s Choice yesterday and I was immediately drawn in to this amazing film.

All discussion of Sophie’s Choice must begin and end with Meryl Streep. Say what you want about Streep, but it’s no accident she has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards. She won her second “Best Actress” award for her role as Sophie, and frankly I’m not sure how an actress can perform any better. I didn’t think for one second that she wasn’t a Polish immigrant in this film…she was astonishing.

Sophie’s Choice is an actor’s film, by which I mean the three leading roles carry the action throughout and the film is entirely dependent on those performances. I suspect Streep knew what she was getting into when Alan Pakula cast her, but lost in Streep’s magnificence were two wonderful performances by Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol. Sophie’s Choice marked the feature film debut for Kline and his work as Sophie’s “mad lover” Nathan was very memorable and clearly indicative of things to come for this Oscar winner. And then there was Peter MacNicol in only his second film, playing “narrator” Stingo. MacNicol never did turn into a great film star, but he has won a handful of Emmy Awards for great performances in a whole host of TV shows from Ally McBeal to 24 and Grey’s Anatomy. This acting ensemble was fabulous and it’s quite remarkable that the film didn’t even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

That year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to Ghandi, which was a great film but did not even make the AFI Top 100. Also nominated that year were two films that did make the AFI list (Tootsie and E.T.) along with The Missing and The Verdict. Sophie’s Choice certainly deserved to be nominated…it did get nominated for the Golden Globe.

Sophie’s Choice is definitely worth seeing again if you haven’t seen it in a while. Most people know it because of the horrific “choice” itself that Sophie had to make at her arrival at Auschwitz, but it’s so much more than that. It is funny at times, and heartwarming, but ultimately it’s a tale of man’s inhumanity to man and how difficult “recovery” can be. It’s also a commentary on madness (the Nazi kind and the kind that afflicts everyday people like Nathan). I was glued to the screen this time around and really, really loved Sophie’s Choice.

Next up: AFI #90 Swing Time

AFI #92: Goodfellas

“Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies.” — Henry Hill

What is it about mob movies that we enjoy so much? Is it the gratuitous violence? Is it the men with no fear? Is it the stories? I’m really not sure, but I do know I love a good gangster tale. That being said, there are only a few mob films that I’d consider great…and Goodfellas is definitely one of them.

Back to Goodfellas in a moment, but first I should mention those great mob films. The Godfather saga is of course, without question, head and shoulders above the rest as we’ll learn much further ahead on the AFI list. A Bronx Tale is one of my favorites (is it better to be feared or to be loved?). Once Upon a Time in America makes the cut. Casino. Hmm, all of these flicks have one thing in common — Bobby De Niro! Maybe that’s what makes a good mob flick.

Goodfellas is a great mob film. It has all the ingredients. Violence. Made guys with funny names. The “F” word. De Niro. But really what makes Goodfellas so compelling is that it’s a true story. De Niro’s Jimmy Conway actually whacked all those people. Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito was a real sociopath. And Henry Hill turned state’s evidence on all of them and left for the witness protection program. Goodfellas, like most mob films, doesn’t have a happy ending. Maybe what we love about mob films is that the bad guys always get what’s coming to them in the end? Nah! We like the violence!

We also like the humor. Is there a funnier mobster than Tommy De Vito? Here’s an epic exchange after Tommy “accidentally” shoots Spider (Michael Imperioli) for telling him to fuck off and Jimmy eggs him on about not letting Spider get away with it:

Jimmy Conway: What’s the fuckin’ matter with you? What – what is the fuckin’ matter with you? What are you, stupid or what Tommy, Tommy, I’m kidding with you. What the fuck are you doin’? What are you, a fuckin’ sick maniac?
Tommy DeVito: How am I meant to know you’re kidding? What you mean, you’re kidding? You breaking my fuckin’ balls?
Jimmy Conway: I’m fuckin’ kidding with you! You fuckin’ shoot the guy?
Henry Hill: He’s dead.
Tommy DeVito: Good shot. What do you want from me? Good shot. Fuckin’ rat anyway. His family’s all rats. He’ll grow up to be a rat.
Jimmy Conway: You stupid bastard, I can’t fuckin’ believe you. Now, you’re gonna dig the fuckin’ thing now. You’re gonna dig the hole. You’re gonna do it. I got no fuckin’ time. You’re gonna do it.
Tommy DeVito: Who the fuck cares? I’ll dig the fuckin’ hole. I don’t give a fuck. What is it, the first hole I dug? Not the first time I dug a hole. I’ll fuckin’ dig a hole. Where are the shovels?

Tommy whacks an innocent kid and instead of feeling bad they argue about who is going to dig the hole. Classic. Goodfellas is loaded with dialogue like this and it’s so abhorrent you have to laugh. And we do. And we love Goodfellas because of it.

You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny? — Tommy De Vito

Next up: #91 Sophie’s Choice