Archive for 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Silverliningsplaybook1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

One of the questions nagging David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” as it divides critical opinion like so many of the filmmaker’s previous movies asks whether his adaptation of Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel wallows in the feel-good, romantic movie clichés Russell once (seemingly) rejected. Has Russell, following seven Oscar nominations and a pair of acting wins for “The Fighter,” acquiesced to the corporate conventions demanded of so many Hollywood hit machines? Is filmmaking somehow less “personal” if the story involves impossibly attractive stars playing characters “struggling” with mental illness?

Some answers might be found in the pages of Quick’s often funny book, one of those buzzed-about debuts optioned for cinema prior to its publication. In an interview with Mike Ryan, Russell describes receiving the novel from Sydney Pollack as a project that was to have been made prior to “The Fighter.” The filmmaker worked through multiple drafts of the script, significantly altering story elements, dropping several subplots, reimagining characters, and perhaps most notably overhauling Pat Sr., a figure whose presence in the novel is as cold and authoritative as Robert De Niro’s performance is tender and fluid.

The principal romantic relationship, between Bradley Cooper’s bi-polar Pat and Jennifer Lawrence’s grieving Tiffany, makes the transition from the page largely intact, and Russell doesn’t blink at the obvious genre requirement demanding the final reel union of the pharmaceutical-dependent pair (it wasn’t a problem for Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, or Gregory La Cava either). Ostensibly, Pat is wholly committed to reconciliation with his estranged wife Nikki, whose adultery triggered the physical outburst that landed Pat in an institution and now places a restraining order between them, but from the moment Tiffany shows up, Pat will be the only one convinced he still has any hope of restoring his old life.

Like nearly any classic screwball comedy, Pat’s relationship with Tiffany is predicated on the unlikely: because she has the necessary access, she will deliver Pat’s letters to Nikki as long as Pat agrees to dance with Tiffany in a competition. Quick’s novel arguably makes better use of such a harebrained premise, but Russell apparently sees less value in the mechanics of plot when opportunities for charged dialogue and physical closeness are so ripe. Quick is specific about the music that so deeply affects Pat, but the movie capitalizes on different selections. One look at the delightfully amateurish medley mashup choreographed by Tiffany for the dance finale explains why: Russell aches for the unexpected shifts in tone that might otherwise threaten the consistency of a less interesting world.

“Silver Linings Playbook” reiterates the director’s strengths, from his confidence with noisy ensembles to his appreciation for unfiltered, truth-hurts declarations. Russell’s respect for the messy, impolite exchange has manifested in some of the director’s greatest moments (often around dinner tables, as “Flirting with Disaster” and “I Heart Huckabees” attest). “Silver Linings Playbook” starts as a story about a delusional young man but by the time the title reaches fruition, it might have transformed into a story about a young woman just as determined to find her own redemption from the past.

Hitchcock

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Hitchcock2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

When Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” was published in 1990, cinephiles drooled over the riveting account of the landmark movie’s production history. Praised by fellow film historians and hardcore admirers of the Master of Suspense, Rebello’s work remains, more than two decades later, one of the most entertaining discussions of the construction, care, and feeding of a movie. A non-fiction film adaptation chronicling the events described in the book might have made the better choice as a theatrical motion picture, but instead we are left with Sacha Gervasi’s colorful, odd fabrication.

Fixing its gaze on the behind-closed-doors dynamics of long-married Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, “Hitchcock” will never be mistaken for the precision-engineered narratives brought to life by the great filmmaker. Expectedly, Anthony Hopkins can’t quite escape the long shadow that comes with playing an iconic figure whose voice and physicality prove tough, if not impossible, to effectively crack. Helen Mirren keeps a straight face and fares better than her co-star, breathing some life into Alma’s position as the wounded, overlooked, and undervalued “behind every great man” device. The unfortunate surprise is that “Hitchcock” fails to burrow deep into “Psycho,” content instead to synopsize the most predictable and superficial anecdotes when it is not inventing fodder for the marital melodrama.

There are few things “Hitchcock” doesn’t manage to goof up, from the lurching shifts in tone to the ill-advised decision to bring Ed Gein to life as a phantasm that haunts Hitchcock’s dreams and stokes his anxieties about Alma. The broad portrayal of Anthony Perkins by James D’Arcy as a twitchy, closeted homosexual exploited for his “duality” would be simultaneously laughable and insulting, if Perkins wasn’t treated like a minor player. Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh functions apparently to argue that Hitchcock wasn’t always a creep to his leading ladies, but Raymond Durgnat, whose “A Long Hard Look at Psycho” matches Rebello’s writing as the most detailed examination of the film to date, would likely have been disappointed that the filming of the shower scene comes and goes with little fanfare.

The most crushing disappointment of Gervasi’s film is twofold. First, the movie takes very little interest in the fascinating nuts-and-bolts details of the actual production process of “Psycho.” Hitchcock’s collaborators are given short shrift onscreen, feeding into the mythology of singular auteurism even as Alma at one point decries that very idea. Gervasi leaves out any really meaningful interactions with the likes of Saul Bass and Bernard Herrmann. Joseph Stefano sweats nervously in the surprising form of Ralph Macchio in one brief scene. Robert Bloch’s misfortunes in life translate to the fiction: he does not even appear as a character in the movie.

Second, the filmmaker wholly misjudges the necessity of a rotting red herring in Hitch’s suspicions of Alma’s flirtatious relationship with Danny Huston’s prowling Whitfield Cook – the previous Hitchcock collaborator who doesn’t even rate a mention in Rebello’s book. One can only imagine why Rebello, who provided rewrites to John J. McLaughlin’s script, would advocate for shifting attention away from “Psycho” to speculation about Alma’s fidelity. No saint himself (as a pile of starlet headshots in his study and a naughty peep through the wall of Vera Miles’ dressing room attest), Hitchcock is positioned in the movie as the victimized spouse when the dramatic focus might have been more effective and more accurate had the polarity been reversed.

Searching for Sugar Man

Monday, December 10th, 2012

Searchingforsugarman

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even though Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” presents its narrative as an enigma concerning the disappearance and rumored suicide of singer-songwriter Rodriguez, once the movie gets underway the true mystery emerges: how could a brilliant artist release a pair of masterful, transcendent albums and not be recognized in his native country for contributions to recorded music? There are many possible answers to that question, and the cynics have dismissively suggested that the quest to uncover a lost, slept-on, or forgotten classic overshadows and overpowers the art. Either way, engaging Rodriguez’s sounds is like stepping into a time machine.

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the Dylanesque poet of Detroit’s inner city impoverished and working class, is the very embodiment of the rock cliché “but we’re big in Japan,” except that the international audience in this particular case was comprised of anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa. Even as Rodriguez’s sounds fell on deaf ears in America, South Africans like Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and Stephen Segerman assert in the movie that in their country, Rodriguez was every bit as popular as the Rolling Stones, with record sales estimated between half a million and a million copies.

As a story of rediscovery and delayed appreciation, “Searching for Sugar Man” avoids too many tangible villains. The film is justifiably more interested in silver linings and happy endings, but Bendjelloul does see fit to include a section detailing the recording industry’s shameful, execrable treatment of performers who never saw a dime of royalties from record sales. Some follow-the-money sleuthing leads the investigators to producer and Sussex Records founder Clarence Avant, whose on-camera defensiveness and irritability do him no favors regardless of whether he personally profited on the distribution deals that so widely disseminated Rodriguez’s music throughout South Africa.

Aside from the muddiness over Avant’s possible culpability in Rodriguez’s lost earnings, the greatest deficiencies in the film are easily recognizable as deliberate choices made by Bendjelloul. Information is withheld, in large measure to lay the foundation of Rodriguez’s growing status as a legend. The filmmaker also delays the appearance of Rodriguez longer than necessary. Fortunately, the late arrival of Rodriguez in person is not similarly applied to his songs, and there is no question that the recordings are as important to the story as the presence of the man himself.  The music is so good, “Searching for Sugar Man” will introduce scores of new fans to masterful tunes like “Crucify Your Mind” and “Cause.”

In addition to the content from “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality,” Bendjelloul includes material from Rodriguez’s unfinished third record. “Can’t Get Away” appeared as a bonus track on the 2009 U.S. re-issue of “Coming from Reality,” and it makes one wonder how the songcraft might have evolved had Rodriguez found an enthusiastic audience in his prime. “Searching for Sugar Man” never attempts to address Rodriguez’s feelings about the long, strange trip he took. The singer talks about working in construction and demolition after he left the record business. His daughters describe a failed Detroit city council campaign. No discussion of Rodriguez’s romantic partner or partners is included. “Searching for Sugar Man” leaves so many questions unanswered, Rodriguez emerges at the end every bit as unknowable as he was at the beginning.

Killing Them Softly

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Killingthemsoftly

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Hard-boiled crime fiction writer George Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” is the basis for writer-director Andrew Dominik’s self-conscious genre entry “Killing Them Softly,” a jazzy acting showcase that embraces both the crime-as-business and style-above-all dicta that have steered gangster movies since the birth of the form. Brad Pitt is comfortable as a calm, exacting mob enforcer hired to clean up the mess resulting from a card game robbery. The actor reteams with Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, two previous co-stars whose presence instantly increases the aggregate performance I.Q. of the cast.

Pitt, whose interest in working with Dominik helped secure financing for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” is more relaxed and arguably better when playing the morally compromised antihero. His best scenes in “Killing Them Softly” are the ones in which he discusses strategy with Jenkins’ suit-and-tie messenger and recognizes the error of bringing in Gandolfini’s no longer competent muscle. Gandolfini’s grotesque is riveting, and as soon as he appears on screen, Dominik downshifts the pace, accommodating the actor’s formidable skill in a manner not unlike the way Peter Yates appreciated Robert Mitchum in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” another film adapted from a George Higgins book.

Dominik’s least necessary update to Higgins – and really the only deliberate indication that the movie could not take place in the 1970s – moves the action to 2008. Televisions and radios playing soundbites from George W. Bush and Barack Obama highlight the sense of impending economic doom descending on America’s poor and working class. Unlike the similar “recent period” tactic employed by the Coens in “The Big Lebowski,” however, Dominik does not know when to quit, and the unsubtle motif wears out its welcome soon after the slick, arrestingly sound-designed opening title sequence.

The worlds Dominik chooses to investigate pulse with testosterone and masculinity. There is little room here for women and the only female with a significant speaking role in “Killing Them Softly” is Linara Washington’s degraded prostitute, who appears in a brief exchange with Gandolfini’s coarse alcoholic. The absence of women signals many things, but chief among them may be the failure of the corporate model Dominik explores via crime metaphor. That women are so invisible as human beings in the realm of wiseguys, driven as it is by unrelenting physical violence, is not particularly surprising. Dominik’s reliance on the misogyny cultivated in the filthy talk of Higgins’ ugly brutes, is, however, problematic.

Alongside the bleak, shabby, industrial environments inhabited by the lowlifes and outcasts who populate Higgins’ imagination, a crafty sense of very black comedy accompanies the unsavory felonies. Dominik cited “Blue Velvet” as one of his favorite movies in the “Sight & Sound” “greatest films poll” coverage this year, and the influence of David Lynch’s noir masterpiece is in evidence during a slow-motion, rain-soaked hit underscored by Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” Less overtly, Lynch’s gallows humor weltanschauung leaves its mark on what may be Dominik’s saving grace. With the exception of Pitt’s savvy operator Jackie Cogan, who knows how to get paid, the denizens of “Killing Them Softly” are hapless and hopeless underclass goons ready to be sacrificed for their foolishness.

Life of Pi

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Lifeofpi

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ang Lee’s best and worst tendencies as a filmmaker are manifested in the visual smorgasbord “Life of Pi,” a rainbow-colored adaptation of the popular 2001 novel by Yann Martel. Cutting back and forth between the awesome spectacle contained within the see-it-to-believe-it story of a man and a tiger sharing space on a lifeboat and the leaden, prosaic didacticism of the scenes in which the title character recounts his unbelievable tale to an eager writer, Lee insists on showing and telling the audience when the former is cinematically preferable to the latter. The result is a flawed but intoxicating experience brimming with luscious compositions undercut somewhat by Lee’s insistence on unwelcome over-explanation.

Martel’s Booker Prize-winner seemingly belongs to the class of literature suggestive of the catnip adjective “unfilmable.” Alternately introspective and preachy, the fantasy fable of spiritual truth-seeking may strike some as an optimistic, New Age variation on “The Old Man and the Sea,” but both works surely depend upon the will to endure, exemplified via Hemingway’s veritable epithet  “grace under pressure.” Perhaps someday a film will be made detailing the strange case of Martel’s erroneous recollection of an unflattering Updike review of Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 “Max and the Cats,” a novella in which a shipwreck survivor is stranded on a dinghy with a jaguar.

The logistics of photographing a Bengal tiger and a human being in close quarters depend on the illusion of proximity and the specialized skill sets of animal trainers and CGI artists. Lee succeeds mightily in his realization of maneater Richard Parker, and the sinewy beast takes on the substantial mantle of simultaneous symbol and flesh-and-blood feline. Newcomer Suraj Sharma plays Pi in the sections of the film dealing with the aftermath of the shipwreck, and while the actor gets the job done, one wishes that Lee had found a performer with the presence and depth of Irrfan Khan. Khan nearly manages to save the framing scenes in which the older Pi recounts his crucible, but those sections of the movie reek with the annoying sense that the viewer is not smart enough to discern the subtext.

While the scenes of Pi and Richard Parker lost and adrift rightfully receive the majority of attention over the tedious conversations of Rafe Spall’s unnamed writer and the older Pi, Lee also includes a third narrative trajectory establishing the hero’s childhood fascination with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Set in India in the former French colony Pondicherry, the exposition lays out the interfaith and mono/polytheistic framework that will contribute to the explanation accompanying the surprise ending of the story. Screenwriter David Magee also adds a love interest that does not exist in the novel, a reasonable alteration that raises the emotional stakes of Pi’s departure from India.

Like “Avatar,” a movie to which “Life of Pi” has been frequently compared, Lee’s facility with technology in the service of image-making trumps the shortcomings of the script. The director lavishes painterly detail, sometimes combining incongruous foregrounds and backgrounds in thrilling tableaux, on the stylized world inhabited for 227 days by the young man and the tiger, and his investment in the natural world and its menagerie of inhabitants approaches the same level of interest exhibited over the decades by Terrence Malick. The beauty of sky and sea, imagined in the quiet, placid calm and the roiling, tumultuous chaos, engages the senses in a way that verbal expression cannot approach.

The Sessions

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Sessions

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Award season exuberance follows “The Sessions” like an adorable puppy dog, but director Ben Lewin’s sharp exploration of one man’s quest to dispense with his virginity before his “use by date” mostly steers clear of the inevitable platitudes of affirmation that accompany so many movies in which able-bodied actors portray the disabled. John Hawkes will have to tally more votes than Daniel Day-Lewis to win an Oscar, and one of the trivial anecdotes sure to be noted in the likely event that Hawkes find himself nominated is that his “Lincoln” castmate collected his first Academy Award playing “My Left Foot” artist and poet Christy Brown.

Based on the experiences of tenacious Berkeley, California resident Mark O’Brien, a victim of childhood polio confined to an iron lung for all but an hour or so on any given day, “The Sessions” focuses on the adult O’Brien’s desire to reconcile his religious faith with his drive to experience sexual intercourse. Lewin maximizes the comic mileage inherent in the juxtaposition of erotic curiosity and Roman Catholic Church doctrine. William H. Macy, as the priest who eagerly counsels O’Brien, endorses the quest, saying, “In my heart, I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one.” O’Brien goes on to hire Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate.

In Jessica Yu’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” O’Brien says, “My ambition as a journalist is to be able to write about anything. I know I’ll always be asked to write about disability…  but I think of an actor like Danny Glover, who doesn’t play ‘black’ men all the time. He just plays men.” Hawkes’ performance, due in no small measure to the weight of O’Brien’s own words, allows the viewer to see O’Brien not as a disabled man but as a man. Hawkes makes the tremendous effort to accomplish the physical transformation into O’Brien, but he particularly excels at embodying his subject’s biting sense of humor and clear-eyed lack of self-pity.

Along with Yu’s short film, O’Brien’s 1990 essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” shares indispensable insight into the psychological and emotional dimensions of the events dramatized by Lewin in “The Sessions.” Archived on O’Brien’s website, the brief essay describes in clear prose both the procedure O’Brien followed to arrange the sessions with Cohen Greene and the psychological barriers he surmounted to get past imagining himself as damaged and deformed. The article and documentary touch on aspects of O’Brien’s life, particularly his relationship with his parents, not explored in the dramatization.

If “The Sessions” fails on any level to meet the high standards set by O’Brien’s directness and honesty, it is in Lewin’s struggle to understand Cohen Greene’s psychologically challenging line of work. The viewer is told that surrogacy is not the same as prostitution, but the director struggles to articulate to what extent Mark transcends his position as a client. We also experience domestic tension between Cheryl and her husband Josh (Adam Arkin), and even if a great deal is deliberately left unsaid by the filmmaker, the audience is not invited to understand Cohen Greene to the same degree as O’Brien.

Flight

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Flight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Flight” is a tale of two movies. In the first, technical craftsman and special effects-focused veteran Robert Zemeckis constructs a lollapalooza of a doomed commercial airliner crisis. In the second, Denzel Washington battles the demons of alcoholism in an old-school social morality play. Altogether, the movie’s running time comes in at just under two hours and twenty minutes, a mark of its unnecessary sense of self-importance, but audience members looking for a character study could do worse than what amounts to a made-for-TV, grown-up after-school special enhanced by the presence of an A-list star and a huge production budget.

Boozehounds are attractive to actors for a variety of reasons, and potential award recognition probably ranks on the list. Nine men have won Oscars playing alcoholics from a pool of many more nominations. Tim Dirks, Emanuel Levy and others have pointed out that all five 1983 Academy Award Best Actor nominees played “drunks of one kind or another.” As a two-time Oscar winner, Washington doesn’t need any more golden hardware to remind us of his status, but his turn as Captain Whip Whitaker has a good shot at earning his sixth performance nomination.

The dependably watchable Washington is surrounded by a group of terrific supporting players, including Bruce Greenwood as a pilot union representative, Kelly Reilly as the recovering addict who moves in with Whip post-crash, and John Goodman as a funny, scene-stealing Dr. Feelgood. Unsurprisingly, Don Cheadle makes a perfect criminal defense attorney brought in to help exonerate Whip by, among other things, working to suppress a damning toxicology report. Cheadle’s Hugh Lang makes no secret of his disgust at Whip’s irresponsibility, and the actor’s handful of scenes with Washington remind viewers of their chemistry in the excellent “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

One of the most thought-provoking questions raised by John Gatins’ screenplay seriously considers whether Whip’s chemically altered state actually prevented a greater loss of life. Lang explains that pilots in ten FAA simulations of the crash failed to successfully land, but for whatever reason, Whitaker was able to avoid total catastrophe – even though several people lost their lives. “Flight” flirts not so much with the possibility of divine intervention, but rather the existential crisis that arises when Whitaker must decide whether to accept responsibility or allow someone else – a very specific, innocent someone else – to take the fall for the vodka bottles found in the aircraft’s trash.

Even though the movie will almost certainly be missing as an in-flight airline viewing option, I’ll take Zemeckis films with flesh and blood performers over soulless, uncanny valley motion capture animation any day. The last live-action movie Zemeckis made was “Cast Away,” in 2000. That film also featured a terrifying plane crash sequence. That said, “Flight” relies too often on formulaic explorations of the distance between heroism and the need for redemption. Whip’s post-crash struggles to stop drinking, even against the increasingly tense backdrop of the ongoing federal investigation and an upcoming NTSB hearing that will determine the captain’s fate, simply cannot compete with the initial rush of the movie’s thrilling depiction of every traveler’s worst nightmare.

Wreck-It Ralph

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Wreckitralph

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Providing a ray of hope for the future of videogame-as-movie and vice versa, Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” carries on the company’s once-automatic tradition of churning out art-meets-commerce product that attracts the kids but offers enough charm for the grown-ups.  So much of videogame cinema is littered with the charred remains of titles that failed to bridge the appeal of play with the narrative imagination demanded by the feature film. For every movie that embraces the logic and aesthetics of videogaming there are trash heaps of the forgettable (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”), the cacophonous (“Doom”), the misguided (“Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li”), the balding (“Hitman”), the insensible (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”), and the certifiable (“Super Mario Bros.”).

And let’s not talk about Uwe Boll at all.

Of course, “Wreck-It Ralph” is not directly based on an existing franchise, so to be fair, its code more closely resembles movies in which videogame culture frames the story, including “Tron,” “WarGames,” “The Last Starfighter,” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” In “Wreck-It Ralph,” the characters that populate the graphically challenged coin-operated arcade machines of the 1980s interact with the more three-dimensionally rendered avatars representing the current state of the art. A universe is carefully constructed and presented with no small debt to the basic premise of “Toy Story.” In fact, Pixar’s influence on “Wreck-It Ralph” is so strong, one can imagine some executives wringing hands that the movie wasn’t released under that banner.

John C. Reilly lends his voice to the title character, a Donkey Kong-like heavy in the game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” Tired of being the bad guy in the Sisyphean world of re-starts and endless lives, Ralph attends a therapy group for other heels who must cope with the knowledge that medals for heroism lie forever out of reach. When Ralph decides he can take no more, he abandons his game. This grave breach, referred to by videogame cabinet inhabitants as “going turbo,” threatens “Fix-It Felix Jr.” with permanent “out of order” status. Even worse, if a character dies outside of the game to which he or she belongs, there are no more second and third chances.

Like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the rights and clearances team for “Wreck-It Ralph” surely wrote another chapter in the book covering cross-platform, competing company synergy. Cameo appearances from vintage pixel stars like Pac-Man, the Tapper bartender, Q*Bert, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bowser/King Koopa, and Zangief provide the nerdy recognition factor for older filmgoers, but the moviemakers keep the primary focus on the quartet that includes Ralph, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), Felix (Jack McBrayer), and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch). A villain also emerges in Alan Tudyk’s King Candy, whose close resemblance to Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter will endear some and infuriate others.

Silverman’s sassy, hyperactive smartmouth lives in a racing game called Sugar Rush, and her status as a “glitch,” conforms to another of Disney’s most cherished traditions: the picked-on outsider whose initially undesirable differences will be affirmed as assets en route to the lesson that everyone has value. Like many of her corporate kin, Vanellope can be anyone she wants to be and do anything she sets out to accomplish, no matter the “disability” hidden in her programming. While the outcomes for Vanellope and Ralph can be guessed by the viewer long before the retro-styled Buckner & Garcia song plays over the end credits, director Rich Moore makes the journey entertaining for gamers and non-gamers alike.

By the way, for everyone keeping track of high scores, the greatest videogame movie of all time remains “The King of Kong.”

Cloud Atlas

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Cloudatlas

Movie review by Greg Carlson

For the defense, “Cloud Atlas” has enough ambition for a few lifetimes of storytelling, but ambition does not make a great movie – or in this case, even a mediocre one. The adaptation of David Mitchell’s cult novel, a dreamy, puzzling mash-up of period and science fiction, is ideally suited to the talents of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, filmmakers whose greatest successes have dealt with epistemological pretzels, philosophical synchronicities, and the elasticity of time. “Cloud Atlas” slices up and cross-cuts among six interconnected narratives that cover a span beginning in the 19th century and stretching to a post-apocalyptic future the world has yet to experience.

In a 2004 review for “The Telegraph” critic Theo Tait wrote that Mitchell’s novel, “spends half its time wanting to the be The Simpsons and the other half The Bible.” The film retains those lurching shifts in tone, and they are even less successful on the screen. “Cloud Atlas” pinballs from the broad slapstick farce of a nursing home breakout to the somber melodrama of a doomed love affair between a vagabond composer and a future atomic scientist. One intention of the book, less apparent in the movie, is to address a variety of well-worn genres via the self-acknowledgment of metafiction, but the technique fails on film because the directors deliver a product that is, as Karina Longworth so aptly points out, “totally lacking in self-awareness.”

“Cloud Atlas” surely wants to communicate something profound about the human animal’s tendency toward destruction through the way we mistreat one another, but a motif exploring cannibalism, like so many others things in the film, is variously treated as a joke (the morbid humor of a rascal collecting teeth on a beach once used as a “cannibals’ banqueting hall” and later, a flip shout-out to “Soylent Green”) and a matter of grave import (the rather horseshit revelation scene in which a servant “fabricant” is shocked to learn that her fellow clones are kept nourished by unwittingly consuming one another). The weak are meat the strong, and apparently the slave class, do eat.

For a fiction in which the structure is designed to replicate a musical composition and a major thematic link involving the sextet of the title, “Cloud Atlas” desperately needs a grander score than the one provided by co-director Tykwer and his regular cohorts Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. What should be critical, indispensable material is forgotten the moment it is played. Additionally, the pulsating, techno-reprise of essentially the same lines Tykwer and company wrote for “Run Lola Run” does not help a clumsy 1970s thriller homage when Halle Berry’s investigative journalist Luisa Rey is on the run from an assassin on the streets of San Francisco.

Alongside Berry, stars Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, and Doona Bae all play multiple roles across the various sections. Most of their accents and prosthetic makeup effects are so ridiculous, one wonders if the rubber Halloween mask looks were done on purpose. A flap over the ill-advised use of so-called “yellowface” resulted in a somewhat weird defense from the moviemakers, but the visual evidence is nasty no matter how you feel about actors playing other races. Instead of sub-titling an alien language, the infantile pidgin patois (the truth is the “true true” and a great distance is the “far far”) spoken by the Hawaii-dwelling Valleysmen tribe in the long-away future is as gross as anything that dribbled out of Jar Jar Binks’ snout.

For a movie from the creators of “The Matrix,” the staging of the laser gun shootouts in the Neo Seoul sequences set in the year 2144 look like they are taking place in slow motion and underwater, and not in that cool “bullet time” way. As Jim Sturgess rolls around the hood of his hovercraft to trade fire with a bunch of black-clad ninja stormtroopers, the thought may cross your mind that you have probably seen student films with better fight choreography. The Wachowskis should be in clover with this stuff, but the scenes featuring Bae as revolution inspiration and future deity Sonmi-451 merely contribute to the status of “Cloud Atlas” as the umpteenth failed “Blade Runner” larceny.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Perksofbeingawallflower

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Heart-on-its-sleeve earnest and desperate to be both taken seriously and embraced by the young people who helped put more than a million copies of the novel in print, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” aspires to the same kind of teen angst insider credibility owned by John Hughes in the 1980s. With David Bowie on the soundtrack and a cameo appearance by Joan Cusack, the movie pays Hughes respectful tribute during the course of its exploration of lunchroom caste systems, post-football game pot brownie parties, Rocky Horror performances, and heartfelt mixtape compilations.

Written and directed by “Wallflower” author Stephen Chbosky, the movie sticks close to the events described in troubled protagonist Charlie’s (Logan Lerman) letters to a “friend” in the book, dropping a subplot about an abortion and family scenes involving holidays spent with cousins. The author retains the core trio of thematic ballast: sexual abuse, the ugliness and consequences of homophobia, and (mostly) unrequited love. In “Slant,” Chris Cabin attacked the film as a “somewhat revolting piece of pop martyrdom, made for and isolated to the damaged middle class.” Cabin also detected “that certain, odious brand of liberalism that favors and tends toward victimization.” Given the movie’s milieu and ambitions, Cabin’s position may be a bit harsh.

The film remains virtually silent on the issue of class, but the characters clearly inhabit a world where attending college is a given (the movie version adds a thread of anxiety about Sam’s shaky application credentials). In the book, Charlie indicates that his family is not wealthy, and also that his grandfather is a racist, but the movie depicts the suburbs of Pittsburgh as a universe without much color. The same criticisms were often leveled at Hughes, causing one to wonder if teen films are somehow more glaring or noticeable in their homogeneity than romantic comedies, musicals, or thrillers.

As an epistolary novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” relies solely on Charlie’s descriptions of his friends and the members of his family. Obviously, a film adaptation requires actors to inhabit the characters, and the casting choices – particularly the principal trio of Charlie, crush object Sam, and Sam’s step-sibling Patrick – prove one of the film’s greatest strengths. Both Ezra Miller and Emma Watson break free of their best-known roles – he as sullen, deeply damaged kids in “Afterschool” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and she as Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” juggernaut. Both supporting players leave a mark, and Miller especially runs off with every scene in which he appears.

Not all of Chbosky’s decisions carry water, however, and I for one find it hard to believe that bright, artistic-minded, popular culture-obsessed teenagers of 1991 would not recognize or be able to figure out how to identify Bowie’s “Heroes,” which is used as the “mystery tunnel song” in bookend scenes. And while the movie’s pre-Internet setting precludes the possibility of iTunes and Google searches, Charlie’s affinity for the Smiths’ “Asleep,” along with the soundtrack inclusion of New Order, Sonic Youth, XTC, the Cocteau Twins, and Galaxy 500, among others, paints a picture of uncommonly sharp musical taste.