Archive for October, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Monday, October 29th, 2012


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


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.

Pitch Perfect

Monday, October 15th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A painfully unfunny movie that sticks to formula like Enfamil, “Pitch Perfect” has all the authenticity and verisimilitude of the Fiji mermaid. The sharp-eyed Anna Kendrick, taking a big step down from the quality of her recent roles, trades supporting status for a headlining turn, but her character displays no distinguishing features or personality traits. Kendrick’s Beca, a faux-rebellious wannabe music producer who reluctantly enrolls at the college where her father works, joins a competitive all-female a cappella group that can only exist in the cotton candy imagination of Hollywood. The members of the Bellas take a vow not to date any members of the all-male rival Treble Makers, but Beca falls for the handsome Jesse (Skylar Astin) faster than you can say “Romeo and Juliet.”

Building the structure of its narrative on the template popularized in low-stakes competition laffers like “Bring It On” and “Dodgeball,” “Pitch Perfect” even apes the former’s affinity for manufactured slang and the latter’s convention in which a pair of dysfunctional commentators banters through the performances, nattering away as if in some other, funnier film while carpet bombing their scenes with double entendre. John Michael Higgins, whose singing and arranging experience mark him as an obvious choice, and producer Elizabeth Banks, do the honors in the broadcast booth. Other than Kendrick, only Rebel Wilson escapes anonymity among the Bellas. Wilson continues her run as an indispensable generator of empathy in a society seemingly hell-bent on the ridicule of the overweight. As Fat Amy, Wilson walks off with every scene in which she appears.

Like “Glee,” “Pitch Perfect” depends on the razzle dazzle of its pop song choices, and only a handful of the tracks selected for vocal arrangement have cross-generational appeal. The movie crushes hard on John Hughes, returning several times to a motif revolving around “The Breakfast Club,” but director Jason Moore doesn’t hold a candle, let alone sixteen of them, to the legendary 80s auteur of angst. To win back the heart of her boy, Beca belts “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” but the thrill is blunted by an earlier scene in which the heroine weeps while watching Judd Nelson freeze mid-step with his fist raised in triumph. It’s never a good idea to include a clip reminding viewers of a much better film.

Given the bland, uninspired tone of “Pitch Perfect,” it is only a small surprise when Moore includes a scene in which Bella leader Aubrey (Anna Camp) empties the contents of her stomach all over the floor of the choir’s rehearsal space – a reprise of the embarrassing onset of nervousness that cost the singers a trophy during their last competition. The gushing fountain of vomit splatters and sprays everywhere, and Moore cannot resist adding additional gross-out gags, including a high-angle view of one of the Bellas slipping and falling in the foul, lumpy spew. The amateurish puking effects even fall short of the tube-in-the-sleeve technique beloved of “Saturday Night Live,” but the rancid disgorgement only serves to remind viewers that successful gross-out humor ala “Bridesmaids” is not easy to replicate.

The Master

Monday, October 8th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

It goes without saying that many film students and wannabe auteurs will worship at the feet of “The Master,” another audacious, dazzling, and occasionally frustrating tour de force from the preternaturally gifted Paul Thomas Anderson. Highly anticipated as a potential expose itching to pull back the curtain on Scientology, the film functions instead as a rich character study of two particular types of American loser. The first is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a misguided sailor in the U.S. Navy marking time in the South Pacific during the waning days of World War II. A deliberately unlikable alcoholic quick to outbursts of violence, Freddie is a self-taught mixologist, experimenting with paint thinner, photo processing chemicals, and any other available toxic substance that might give him a buzz.

Lost, angry, and very likely seriously mentally ill, Freddie blacks out and wakes up on a yacht commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-confident conman of the highest order who introduces himself by saying to Quell, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, just like you.” Dodd is enough like Charles Foster Kane that one would not have been surprised to hear him add newspaper publisher to the list of his achievements. To the chagrin of his family and inner-circle, Dodd falls hard for Freddie, inviting him to join the traveling circus Dodd calls “The Cause,” a cult-like system that blends fantasy, science, and sense memory with the power of suggestion in intense, therapeutic “processing” sessions, sometimes conducted one-on-one and sometimes played out in front of a roomful of spectators.

“The Master” most closely resembles Anderson’s own “There Will Be Blood,” both as portrait of outsize dreamers and as clinic on male screen performance. Amy Adams, as Dodd’s wife Peggy, is allowed but a fraction of the screen time devoted to the movie’s real romance between Freddie and Lancaster. If only PTA loved women as much as he loved men, Adams might have been given more moments like the fantastic scene in which she brings her husband to climax over a bathroom sink. Truly private, it is one of the few times in the film Anderson allows a glimpse of the Master without his shield, and suggests at least the possibility that the hand that rocks more than the cradle rules Dodd’s world.

“The Master” is by turns claustrophobic and panoramic, although the former outpaces the latter in scene after scene of intimate medium and close shots in which many speeches are given and “applications” are administered. The highly presentational nature of Dodd’s movement/religion incorporates and even demands that the Master’s every word be documented, a strategy that affords Anderson the luxury of non-stop grandstanding every time Lancaster opens his mouth – which is a great deal more than Freddie, who is often photographed in reaction, gazing at his mentor in wide-eyed awe.

The best moments in “The Master,” including the much-discussed barking mad jail scene, indicate that underneath his collected, controlled exterior Dodd is every bit as unhinged and fragile as Freddie. Jealous of Freddie’s unselfconsciousness, Dodd manipulates and abuses his friend, who masochistically takes everything dished out to him and comes back for more. By the time the Master croons the second of his two major musical performances, we may not understand much, but we will have seen that Lancaster contains within himself a riot only Quell can quell.


Monday, October 1st, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Looper.”

The best scene in writer-director Rian Johnson’s “Looper” frames the profiles of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis) in the booth of a small, mostly deserted diner. The two men are one and the same, and the face-to-face meeting knowingly flouts one of the longstanding paradoxes of time travel. The wheels of the plot insist that the Joes have incompatible tasks to accomplish, and even though the viewer hopes that the two appealing actors will spend significant screen time together, Johnson has other, equally ambitious ideas in mind for the second part of the movie.

That Joe would be at cross purposes with himself is one of Johnson’s smartest touches in a film bursting with promise. As a murder-for-hire trigger man carrying out dirty work for a future mobster who uses time travel to vacuum any trace of assassinations by having the killings done in an earlier decade, a “looper” like Joe belongs to the cinematic tradition of weary tough guys popularized in hardboiled detective noir. We are told (but can also certainly figure out) that these blunderbuss-wielding “gat men” are not a particularly optimistic class of outlaw. The very nature of their business insists on something Johnson calls “closing the loop,” which means pretty much what you think it does.

Johnson’s debut “Brick,” which also showcased the talents of Gordon-Levitt, remains the filmmaker’s strongest effort because it was less pedantic than “Looper” in its explorations of pain and loss. “Looper,” however, reaches for the cosmic territory of the very biggest questions of normative ethics, including the whopper conundrum that asks whether the murder of a particular child to spare the lives of many is a justifiable action. That wicked game dominates the last section of the film, and Johnson has it both ways by using Joe as the protector of the future killer known as the Rainmaker while Old Joe plots to pull the trigger on the little boy.

Johnson effectively constructs his own version of the so-called Hitler’s Murder Paradox, or at least the element of it in which we are asked whether a person should be held responsible for crimes that he or she has not yet committed. Sara (Emily Blunt), the maternal guardian of the child who may turn out to be the Rainmaker, believes that despite evidence to the contrary, the future is unwritten, and her point of view rejects predestination. To date, nobody has cinematically expressed the Hitler’s Murder Paradox and the unfathomable transformation from innocence to evil better than Elem Klimov in the apocalyptic masterpiece “Come and See.”

The resolution of “Looper,” a grand trope often described as the Heroic Suicide or Heroic Sacrifice, is Johnson’s answer to the problem. Despite being presented in the context of the film’s climax as a surprise, Joe’s death has been foretold and foreshadowed since the opening voiceover exposition, and will shock only those who were not paying much attention. Or those who have never seen “Alien 3,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Constantine,” “Gran Torino,” “Sunshine,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Armageddon,” and “Sin City,” the latter two of which (perhaps coincidentally) afford Bruce Willis the opportunity to do himself in for a good reason.