Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: "Cloud Atlas"

Director(s): Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Runtime: 172 minutes

In an age when Hollywood has become increasingly prone to loud, mindless blockbusters and endless sequels, you have to admire the amount of faith that went into Cloud Atlas. Based on David Mitchell's acclaimed novel, this massive (in scope and in length) adaptation is the sort of ambition Hollywood ought to aspire to more often. Even if, as is the case here, the final product is neither a mind-blowing masterwork or a total train wreck  but rather a well told story that works better narratively than emotionally.

As far as plot is concerned, Cloud Atlas has plenty, though it ultimately boils down to six main threads. Among them are a journalist's investigation of a shady nuclear power plant, a young musician's relationship with a famous composer, and a clone in the far future who gets dragged into a rebellion. How these, and other, stories link together is a matter of echoing dialogue, images, and sounds. Oh, and there are also very literal links as well. Whereas Mitchell's novel unfolded as a nesting egg of sorts, directors Tom Tyker and Andy and Lana Wachowski (the newly monikered Wachowski Starship) have strung the six major segments together as simultaneous narratives. 

And, on the filmmaking level, it's impossible to deny the effort that the directing trio went through in order to bring Mitchell's novel to life. Each segment is well told, and though the genres range from sci-fi adventure to goofy comedy, they are strung together with such smart organization that changes from story to story are rarely, if ever, off-putting. Above all else, the true hero of Cloud Atlas isn't one of its dozens of characters, but rather editor Alexander Berner. The task before him had to be nothing short of monumental, yet he has turned the massive collaboration into a fluidly organized film, that not only runs upwards of three hours, but also tells some of its individual stories out of order.

Berner aside, technical prowess abounds in the film. Costumes and set design nicely recreate past worlds while also birthing new ones, while the cinematography captures each genre with lighting to match. There's also the quietly building score, courtesy of Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil. Like some of the collaborations between Kieslowski and Preisner in the late 80s and early 90s, some of the music plays a major plot point across narratives, and this composing trio have crafted a nicely affecting set of recurring musical themes that carry the massive narrative with grace, rather than with overcompensation.

Of course, there's also the make-up. Many an actor has transformed him/herself with make-up and prosthetics, but never like Cloud Atlas. Every major player in the ensemble undergoes radical transformations across segments that include changes in race and gender. Part of the fun of the experience is figuring out who's who. Whether or not Cloud Atlas succeeds in being mindblowing as a whole is debatable  but I'd be hard-pressed to find someone not won over by the extraordinary efforts of the hair and make-up teams.

Before I forget, however, there are actually people doing interesting things infront of the camera as well. Though some members of the ensemble are more prominent than others (Susan Sarandon feels largely underused), the cast is generally a marvel. No individual flies far ahead, but the performances all register nicely. Near the top of the crowd are Doona Bae, most prominently featured as a clone named Sonmi-451, and Ben Whishaw, best utilized as a struggling gay composer. Tom Hanks also surprises, in roles that range from cartoonishly evil  to tenderly sincere. With so much ground to cover, the performers have few notes to play, though they hit them more often than they miss.

But looming larger than any character (or prosthetic nose) are Cloud Atlas's ideas. The idea that "everything is connected" has certainly be done before on film, but perhaps never on such a ludicrously large scale. To meld time periods and genres in pursuit of grandiose New Age wonderings is the sort of philosophical undertaking that could easily sink a film. How well it succeeds is somewhat difficult to describe. The connections between and among segments are often beautifully handled, never spelling things out so much as finding elegant and entertaining links to and from the various stories. Though separated by decades and centuries, part of what works in the film is that the connections evolve and deepen as time progresses. If Mitchell's novel was set up as a Russian nesting doll, then this adaptation is more akin to a very large jigsaw puzzle.

The inevitable drawback, however, is that with so much work put into simply telling the stories, there isn't quite enough room for the film to come together at the end. Each story has its own progression and arc. Each story has heroes and villains. But even as the pacing escalates up and down throughout the final hour, Cloud Atlas ends more with a whimper than with a bang. Moments that could elicit either immense awe or deeply felt sadness instead connect on a much more shallow level. Plot and construction are a critical part of the story's overarching themes, but in the transference to the big screen, the human element hasn't translated as fully.

The most immediate comparison I can make is Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006). Despite being half the length (and also containing only three story strands), it's an equally ambitious film. And despite the differences in length and number of characters, both films work on certain levels, but are held back by certain deficiencies. For Aronofsky's film, it was the narrative and thematic elements that felt incomlpete, whereas in Cloud Atlas, it's the characters. Both weaknesses prevent the films, despite their strengths, from reaching their (insanely high) potential.

 I have no doubt that many will disagree. Like The Fountain, Cloud Atlas is likely to be the love it/hate it film of its year. Yet once again I find myself in the curiously small middle ground. I merely liked and admired what the Wachowski's and Tykwer created. At the very least they succeeding in telling six  engrossing stories - non-sequentially, mind you - over the course of three hours. In an age where big studio projects are built increasingly to move fast, be simple, and make money, Cloud Atlas is something of a relief. As A.O. Scott of The New York Times put it in his review, this is "the most movie" you can get for your eight (ten? twenty?) bucks. Yet considering how much "movie" I got from Cloud Atlas, it's hard not to be left a little wanting. That this film exists is something of a miracle in this day and age. A shame that it exists and only partially succeeds in reaching its lofty goals, which are left floating somewhere up in the stratosphere.

Grade: B

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: "The Sessions"

Director: Ben Lewin
Runtime: 95 minutes

Being billed as "The Festival Hit of the Year" puts a lot of expectations on a movie. And, as is often the case, festival darlings often underwhelm once viewed in the broader context outside of the festival environment. Unfortunately, Ben Lewins' The Sessions is the rule, rather than the exception. A nicely made and touching film, The Sessions never probes its characters' motivations or backstories enough to achieve a resonance deeper than its modest-to-a-fault narrative. 

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) has spent almost his entire life trapped in an iron lung after contracting polio. Having successfully completed college, Mark has spent his post-grad years as an aspiring poet, constantly tended to by wave after wave of assistants. As illustrated by the film's opening act, in which Mark professes his love for an assistant who then abandons him, Mark's existence is a lonely one. Mark's life changes when two new people enter his life: new assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), and priest Fr. Brendan (William H Macy). Confiding in both Vera and Fr. Brendan, Mark confesses that he feels his time is running short and that he finally wants to experience sex with a woman. It's not long until Mark is referred to sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who agrees to work with him. 

Of course, there's a catch. Cheryl is only allowed to have six sessions with a client. It's the type of set up that could devolve into a forced framing device. Thankfully, Lewin (who wrote the script, itself based on a true story), ignores the temptation, lets Mark's journey unfold naturally. Some of the most effective moments come when Mark's sessions are juxtaposed with Mark's conversations with Fr. Brendan, as he talks about his latest experiences. There's an organic nature to Mark's story that benefits the film greatly, and allows it to work as a story with real people in it rather than a maudlin exploitation of one man's trials and tribulations. 

The Sessions is the second film this year that has taken a look at intimacy among a marginalized group on the silver screen. At Cannes there was Michael Haneke's unflinchingly brilliant Amour (which begins opening in the US in December), which looked at the love between an elderly couple as one of them falls into increasingly ill health. Amour is certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but it manages to be sensitive to its subject matter and still be deeply moving, albeit in a reserved manner. By contrast, The Sessions is a much more accessible film, even as it deals with its own uncomfortable topic (sex among the disabled). Lewin's film functions more as a drama/comedy than as a grim-faced drama. That's certainly not a bad thing. The sense of humor comes through nicely in a number of scenes, and prevents the film from being a dull slog through Mark's struggles.

Lewin is also aided by the nice work from his cast. Hawkes and Hunt have a nice doctor-patient chemistry that feels well thought-out. Hunt in particular gets to shine as her feelings about Mark become more complicated. But even though the film's focal point is Mark and Cheryl's sessions, but other relationships succeed as well, including Mark's interactions with Vera (a surprisingly enjoyable character). Bloodgood plays Vera like a more mature, less sardonic version of Aubrey Plaza's April Ludgate. Despite her reserved nature, Vera is the one who forces Mark to go to his first session with Cheryl even as he has last minute doubts. She may be his assistant, but that doesn't mean she's just going to bend to his every whim just because he says so. Macy's Fr. Brendan is less successful, despite the humor mined from his encounters with Mark. Whereas Mark and Cheryl's are driven by nicely realized interactions, some of Fr. Brendan's scenes feel a little stiff, as though Lewin isn't entirely sure how to use their encounters to enhance the film's ideas.

And it's in the ideas department where The Sessions comes undone. Though the film builds to a quietly touching ending, there's the overwhelming sense that it could have been a much richer work. Though the titular sessions reveal some of Mark's past, they do little to explore what it means in the bigger picture. The most we get from Mark about his desire to experience sex is that it will make him feel like a fully realized man. Yet there's never any connection to Mark's past or his relationship with his parents or his faith to give his desire more weight. The problem is relatively similar for Cheryl. There's no real exploration as to how or why she became a sex therapist (other than a joking line about how she stopped being religious because of her love of sex). There's also very little examination of how Cheryl feels about her work, and how she deals with being a sex therapist and also a wife and mother. Mark and Cheryl's sessions may register, but they only do so at the shallow end of the spectrum.

As such, The Sessions is little more than a "nice" movie that does a "nice" job of tackling tricky subject matter. Lewin deserves praise for dealing with the material with such maturity, but it's a shame that he didn't also go into greater depth. All that's left is a film undone by its own niceness, one that exists as a pleasant and affecting enough viewing experience that fades shortly after you exit the theater.

Grade: C+

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: "Argo"

Director: Ben Affleck
Runtime: 120 minutes

At once a period-thriller, true story, and darkly funny commentary on Hollywood, Ben Affleck's Argo is a stupendously entertaining drama built on remarkable craftsmanship. The actor's third outing as a director finds him in the middle ground between his first two features. Round three finds Affleck balancing the grim realities of Gone Baby, Gone with the broader entertainment value of The Town. The result is a lively and thoroughly entertaining film that is never sunk by its basis in real events. True story or not, this is compelling movie making that has mainstream appeal without needing to dumb itself down.

Based on declassified events, Argo follows Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA extraction expert, as he tries to maneuver the rescue of six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Opening with a nail-biting depiction of the assault on the American embassy in Tehran, the film follows six workers who escape to the home of the Canadian ambassador. From there, the film weaves together Mendez's unique (and very risky) idea for a mission: set up a cover as a Canadian film crew to get in and out of increasingly hostile Iran. 

What Affleck and writer Chris Terrio accomplish is a constantly engaging work of storytelling, even when the outcome is never really in doubt. Argo is, of course, working from real events, yet the film is so immersive that it never feels hindered by its historical basis. Affleck and his technical collaborators are firing on all cylinders, and whether the film is being funny or serious, the momentum never flags from the opening scenes. Terrio also deserves credit for including an efficient and thorough background of the events leading up to the hostage crisis. Even though Mendez may be the "good guy," the film as a whole makes several jabs at the American involvement in the Middle East that led to the crisis.

The only department where Argo is lacking is character development. That's not to say that the characters are one note. They're all nicely drawn, even if they aren't afforded terrific amount of depth. Yet because the characters are completely governed by their circumstances, and not their own doing, there's virtually no room for people to grow or change. The closest the film comes to achieving this is Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) gradually overcoming his disdain for Mendez's plan. It's a knock down for the film, where all of the other elements congeal so well. Thankfully the performances all come through quite nicely, especially McNairy, Bryan Cranston (as a fellow CIA official), and Clea DuVall.

Yet even though the character development borders on non-existent, Terrio's script is still very well written and Affleck's direction carries off the tonal switches of the narrative seamlessly. Rather than succumb to the temptation to create an overly dour and bleak story, Argo introduces a fair amount of humor. Most of it comes via makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and big time producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), both of whom help create the fake background info for the film Mendez is using as his cover. As much as the film is about the grim circumstances of the Iran Hostage Crisis, it is also a very funny send up of the amount of fakery involved in Hollywood.

Despite the forgery and deception involved in the plot, Argo is a very real, and very good third feature from Affleck. The use of real events never feels cheap or exploitative, and allows the director room to craft an impeccable thriller with some excellent and visceral sequences that deliver a wonderful payoff. Argo is a first rate piece of mainstream filmmaking that solidifies Affleck as one of Hollywood's most exciting voices behind the camera.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: "Pitch Perfect"

Director: Jason Moore
Runtime: 112 minutes

In the wake of Glee, musicals are something of a commodity again. Whether it's further exploits on the small screen (NBC's Smash), or the upcoming Les Miserables, we've entered a brief period where singing on screen is actually considered acceptable. Yet Pitch Perfect, unlike the above-mentioned properties, had one obstacle: Glee fatigue. It's one thing to have people singing. It's another to have a band of misfits singing covers of popular music. That's Glee's territory, the stuff that has made it an object of adoration and ridicule (sometimes at the same time). Yet thanks to a lively and funny script from 30Rock writer Kay Cannon, and dynamic work from its ensemble, Pitch Perfect hits the sweet spot, despite being an entry in a soon-to-be overcrowded field. 

Rather than a wide-eyed Broadway hopeful, Pitch Perfect's protagonist is Beca, an aspiring music producer entering her freshman year at Barden University. While perusing the campus org booths, she's confronted by Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the leaders of the Bellas, one of Barden's four a cappella groups. Beca refuses, though of course she eventually winds up in the group. Filling out the Bellas' roster are a gaggle of oddballs, including Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), and the nearly silent Lily (Hana Mae Lee, an absolute scene stealer). With the Bellas' reputation in trouble (the film opens with a disastrous outing at the a cappella nationals competition), Chloe and Aubrey must turn Beca and the other new recruits into a team that can claim victory. Beca also struggles with her possible feelings for Jesse (Skylar Astin), a member of the dominant (and all-male) a cappella group at Barden.

In terms of plot, Pitch Perfect packs no genuine surprises. With many similar movies, this would result in an awkwardly-paced attempt to breathe life into tired story arcs. Yet somehow, Jason Moore's treatment of Cannon's script is surprisingly nimble. Though it runs for nearly two hours, Pitch Perfect utilizes its characters (even the one-note ones) so well that there's never a moment for tedium to take over. Cannon may be best known for her work on a network sitcom, but her writing here takes her 30Rock experience and applies it smoothly to the world of feature films. You'll likely never doubt the story's outcome, but Cannon makes the journey such a fun (and consistently funny) journey that it hardly matters.

Cannon is also lucky that her words are in the hands of such a delightful ensemble. Kendrick makes an appealing lone wolf, and neither the script nor the actress try too hard to make Beca an outsider. Though certain characters are used for repeated jokes, they are given just enough to prevent them from feeling like blunt comedic tools. Wilson, who broke out as Kristen Wiig's oblivious room mate in Bridesmaids, furthers her status as a master of hilarious deadpan. Yet Wilson isn't the only one earning laughs. Lee's Lily, a severe low talker, is used effectively, and the script never wears out her welcome. In addition to the low talking, Lee also gets to deliver a handful of hysterical (and comically dark) non-sequiturs that showcase the best of Cannon's 30Rock roots. As for Snow and Camp, they aren't afforded as much comedic material, but the pair capture their roles perfectly (Camp in particular).

So even though Pitch Perfect succumbs to the temptation to include a gross-out joke (make that one and a half), 95% of it is good, plain, silly fun. Cannon and the cast also manage to never let the comedic energy dip in the last act, despite going through the motions of the "dramatic incident breaks up the group" trope. Pitch Perfect may not register further than skin-deep, but it provides enough nice character interactions and big laughs to stand out. If you've ever been curious about Glee but didn't want to give in to something so hopelessly sincere, Pitch Perfect will allow you to have your musically themed cake and eat it too.

Grade: B

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: "Looper"

Director: Rian Johnson
Runtime: 118 minutes

Introduce time travel into a narrative, and a suddenly a whole can of worms breaks open. No matter how hard a writer tries, there are issues involving time travel that are difficult to avoid. All movies, even character-centric indie dramas, tend to have at least one plot hole or element that requires suspension of disbelief. With time travel narratives, the opportunities only multiply. So it stands to its credit that Looper, the big (ish) budget breakout film from director Rian Johnson, succeeds as a compelling piece of entertainment, even if it still has some elements that, upon further thought, might possibly invalidate the entire narrative.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred in Johnson's debut, Brick (2005), plays Joe, a looper for crime lords. Loopers are recruited in the film's present of 2044, to take out targets zapped back from 30 years in the future. As established via some voice over from Joe and some tight editing, Joe is quite good at his job, and enjoys a life of sex, drugs, and possibly rock 'n' roll (the jury is still out on that last one). Things get messy, however, when Joe's unseen bosses decide to close his loop, which means that Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back as Joe's target, along with a severance payment for his remaining 30 years of life. As established earlier in a stunning sequence involving fellow looper Seth (Paul Dano), it's not exactly a good idea to let your future self go. Yet future Joe gets a jump on his younger self and escapes, and sets Joe off on a chase to capture his future self and evade his boss' hit men.

One immediate problem that comes up is why would crime lords send a looper's future self back to that looper? Why not just send it to someone else so there wouldn't be any chance for hesitation or doubt? That's the sort of thing that happens when you mess with time travel and co-existing realities. But even though Johnson, smart writer that he is, falls into some time travel traps, his direction does an impeccable job of smoothing things over for the ride. Most impressive is the long stretch involving Gordon-Levitt and Willis' first encounter, shown multiple times to the point where it almost becomes intentionally comical. And, despite the script's use of voice over narration throughout, Johnson does give himself moments to simply let the visuals carry the narrative with compelling results.

Better yet is that Johnson hasn't forgotten how to write characters in his transition to more mainstream filmmaking. The roles filled out by Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Emily Blunt (as a farmer who shelters an injured younger Joe) all have room to breathe as real characters despite the complex sci-fi premise. Despite the film providing an opportunity for Gordon-Levitt to be the true star, it's his two main co-stars who end up running away with the film. Willis moves just far enough outside of his star persona to deliver a performance laced with fear, anger, and regret, all fueled by injustices in his past and present. Just as surprising is Blunt, who is thankfully given much more to work with than 'love interest sucked into the chaos.' Her relationships with her son (Pierce Gagnon), and Gordon-Levitt give the actress the sort of range she hasn't had room to display in quite some time. Gordon-Levitt gives a solid turn, but he's ultimately the least interesting, as his stakes feel the most basic and least layered. Still, the actions between and among the leads, along with their individual moments, provide enough genuine emotion to make these people worth following. 

This is crucial, because after its more typical first half or so, Looper settles down into the more gradual build up for its hectic (but never rushed) finale. Yet with the characters and environment so smoothly set up, this doesn't become a problem. What could have become a dragging attempt at character development instead enriches the narrative and provides its own gunshot-free moments of intensity. If Looper's screenplay is held back by issues from the time travel conceit, it benefits immensely from Johnson's ability to tell the story and build the characters in such an engaging way without disrupting the pacing. Johnson also isn't afraid to make his world full of real consequences. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that Looper's gunplay doesn't come blood-free (the R-rating is certainly earned).

From a filmmaking standpoint, Looper is certainly aces. The editing (especially in the scenes driven strictly by visuals) is tight and controlled and stitches together the narrative with an intelligence that overrides the time travel conceit. Visuals and effects are nicely handled as well. Despite the $30 million budget, nothing in Looper ever looks less than seamless, whether it's the hover bikes or the futuristic skylines. Nathan Johnson's score also contributes nice touches here and there, and manages to stand out (in a good way) in the last few minutes. And, despite the presence of gunplay, the sound design makes sure than any bit of violence has impact, and that the film never descends into a muddled cacophony of gunfire and shouting. Regardless of conceptual issues, Johnson can pride himself on the overall package here.

It is only in the final seconds that Looper's spell starts to weaken. As nicely drawn as the characters are, the the film does occasionally surrender to the circumstances. The ending is nice enough as it is, but it does come with the catch of presenting a thorny puzzle that doesn't quite add up. For all of the time spent with the characters, the ends of their arcs are surprisingly not as gripping as all of the build up. It's a classic case of the journey, and not the destination, being the selling point of the narrative. But what a well-made journey it is. If Johnson continues on the path to more mainstream filmmaking, let's hope that he strives to keep making films at this level or higher. The worlds of indie, arthouse, and foreign films have plenty of interesting voices, but mainstream cinema is desperately in need of more. Hopefully Johnson takes up the mantle.

Grade: B/B+