Archive for the ‘cult’ category

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters¹ … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

¹ Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

December 14, 2014

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The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.

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Birdman

November 28, 2014

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Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.

Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.

All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.

Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

Frank

September 6, 2014

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide, where Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.

Spring Breakers

March 22, 2013

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When Harmony Korine was writing Spring Breakers — this is just a guess — he must have filled the script with cautionary-tale cliches, then gone back and reversed all of them. Nothing in the movie plays out as you’d expect. It isn’t a cautionary tale, but it’s not really an empowerment tale, either; it’s just a tale (though just barely, since Korine still disdains narrative). Korine follows the characters and watches them, occasionally evoking the beauty of the moment, the jags of excitement and fear, the stretches of contented restfulness. This movie that opened at #6 at the box office, becoming the most lucrative amd acclaimed film Korine will likely ever make, is a trancelike tone poem, a fantasia about freedom, or at least what certain debased segments of American culture consider freedom.

Plot-wise, what we have here could fit into a B-movie directed by Andy Sidaris, T.V. Mikels, or Russ Meyer. Four college girls — Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) — try to scrape up enough cash to light out for spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. They come up short, so Brit and Candy rob a diner while Cotty drives the getaway car; Faith, whose struggle with religion is suggested by her name, isn’t involved and only finds out about it later. Once in Florida, the girls lose themselves in partying until they get arrested during a hotel sweep. They’re out of money and can’t post bail, but someone comes to their rescue: Alien (James Franco), a wannabe rapper and self-styled gangsta festooned with crude tattoos and sporting a gold grill.

Alien looks like bad news. But he’s not the kind of bad news that decades of movies have conditioned us to expect. Underneath his Scarface pose and rancid Korine-style dialogue, Alien is surprisingly soulful, almost childlike, and his big “Look at my shit” scene is already a classic and an internet meme. Korine achieves greatness here when Alien discovers, to his delight, that at least two of the girls are as hardcore as he is. They all come from a Gen-Y moral swamp where nothing has consequences because everyone’s a winner if they try. Spring Breakers unexpectedly and movingly develops layers of feeling, and Korine sustains the greatness when Alien picks out Britney Spears’ “Everytime” on the piano and three of the girls, in pink ski masks, dance around with AK-47s. At times like this, Korine’s elliptical and seemingly nonsensical approach coalesces to plug directly and cleanly into thoughts and emotions we never knew were there. He’s been doing that since 1997’s Gummo, by the way; this is just another of Korine’s art projects, only with a deceptive mainstream glaze (and a marketing hook that apparently worked). Spring Breakers has less in common with something like Project X than with Korine’s previous effort, Trash Humpers. (I’d dearly love to see someone program that double feature.)

With the aid of cinematographer Benoît Debie, Korine makes most of the movie (other than some on-the-fly camcorder stuff) look like neon sherbet, lush and candylike, with a menacing undertone from the score by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex. I go on a bit about pure cinema, but this is the clearest American example of it in some time. Korine judges nothing: the crime scenes buzz with outlaw excitement, and the menage a trois between Alien and his two favorite “soulmates” in his pool is undeniably erotic, a contrast to the aggressively sexual but unsexy show-us-your-boobs spring-break footage earlier in the film. I haven’t read any Korine interviews about the movie, so I don’t know if he’s been gassing on about the moral message, if any, but I don’t think he has one, truly, or needs one. It’s a dreamy riff on events we almost certainly, at some points, are not supposed to take seriously.

The actresses, mostly veterans of tween-pop entertainment, communicate a sense of numbness, hungry-ghost appetitiveness that, in at least two cases, will never be sated. The movie belongs to James Franco, an intelligent and experimental actor who sometimes seems to feel superior to his roles (definitely including Oz the Great and Powerful). Here, though, with Korine as his art-installment kindred spirit, Franco comes to play, going far beyond type or stereotype into a poseur’s fantasy of himself. Alien has a rapist’s big-bad-wolf grin upon introduction, and our inner alarms wail sharply, but Franco and Korine know exactly what they’re doing: Alien, who never actually harms a hair on any of the girls’ heads and seems like more of a lover than a fighter — and ultimately less dangerous than his two proteges — is the movie’s romantic center, and Korine eroticizes Alien’s grubby, tat-speckled body more than any of the girls’. Actual spring breakers will probably loathe the movie; it’s really for the pale art majors who never went.

The Man with the Iron Fists

November 3, 2012

Am I the only one who remembers Kung Faux? It used to run on IFC, though I’ve no idea if the show is still in production. Anyway, they’d take old martial-arts flicks and dub them with wise-ass dialogue, kind of a hip-hop version of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? It wasn’t the first time I was aware of the large African-American fandom devoted to chop-socky movies, but it sure was the funniest. RZA, the hip-hop legend who leads the Wu-Tang Clan, is a serious student of martial-arts epics, particularly the Shaw Brothers productions, the same films that kept Quentin Tarantino company on so many afternoons. Now RZA has co-written and directed (and Tarantino “presents”) The Man with the Iron Fists, an homage to thousands of hours of poorly-dubbed Asian action. He gets some blaxploitation in there, too — Pam Grier is even in it, briefly. This is almost the missing third chapter of Grindhouse, only without the fake splices.

Probably my recounting the plot would make us both stupider. It has to do with the Lion Clan and some bad Lions who kill their leader, and the good Lion who wants revenge, and some gold the bad Lions want, and there’s a brothel called the Pink Blossom run by Lucy Liu, and a beefy dude who can turn his flesh into brass, and a British soldier named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) who ambles into the middle of all this and avails himself of whatever the Pink Blossom has to offer. There’s also a blacksmith (RZA himself), a freed slave (the movie is set in the 19th century) who found himself in this village and makes weapons for bad guys so he can make enough money to get his girlfriend (Jamie Chung) off the Pink Blossom’s payroll.

We don’t go to these things for the acting, but some of the performers — especially Rick Yune as the vengeful Lion — deliver their lines in an inert manner that seems to pay tribute to the terrible dubbing of old martial-arts films. Others fare better, like Byron Mann as the wicked Silver Lion, who looks and sometimes acts like Dave Chappelle playing Prince. Crowe and Liu have fun, and RZA salts the supporting cast with venerable old-timers like Gordon Liu (no relation) and Chen Kuan-tai. I also enjoyed “the Geminis,” who escort the gold and who have joining swords that form the yin-yang symbol. The movie is undeniably colorful and action-packed, and gorier than a slaughterhouse floor. But something’s missing.

I don’t doubt RZA’s commitment to the genre, and he acquits himself smoothly enough as director — we always get a good look at what’s happening in the fight scenes, which is always a plus. But Man with the Iron Fists leaves me feeling the same way Grindhouse did, and Hot Fuzz too. I know that RZA wanted to do his martial-arts film, and he’s done it, and now he should move on; people with the talent to pay tribute to other people’s movies should really focus on making original movies. What’s missing, I think, is passion — not passion for old movies, which this film and Grindhouse have in abundance, but passion in general. For all its bloodletting and crazy action, the movie never really cuts loose. RZA never risks the excesses that sometimes made old chop-socky funny, and that Kung Faux lampooned so effectively. It feels like the work of a very serious student, not a master.

Still, I’m curious what else RZA might have in his quiver. He has a good feel for narratives of injustice, to the point where he almost masochistically gives his own character three movies’ worth of heartache before he finally gets to become the hero of the title. The film is dynamically scored, of course (by RZA and Howard Drossin). In the tiny subgenre of debuts by musicians-turned-directors, The Man with the Iron Fists ranks with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses — which was, maybe not coincidentally, another act of worship towards grindhouse cinema. If RZA has a Devil’s Rejects in him as his second film, and if he can avoid remaking a classic, he stands a good chance of being a filmmaker to watch.

Cloud Atlas

October 27, 2012

If the massive, vaultingly ambitious Cloud Atlas could be whittled down to one old-Hollywood concern, it might be this: At the end of the picture, do the guy and the girl get together? This is a tricky proposition in this case, because there are six guys and six girls, in six different times and places, all of whom, we are led to surmise, are the same guy and girl in different stages, and sometimes they don’t even meet each other for so much as a how-do-you-do. Cloud Atlas, based on a widely cherished cult novel by David Mitchell, spans centuries and the globe without breaking its stride, intercutting between each of its sextet of tales and arriving, finally, at its big takeaway: Love is good. Freedom is good. Truth is good. The opposites of those things are bad, and the pursuits of those things are the only constant in an ever-changing, ever-hostile world.

Well. Yes. It would take a preternaturally grumpy viewer to object too strongly to this life-medicine, though, because it’s administered so skillfully and passionately, with a complete disregard for the cynics in the balcony. I think the tipping point in Cloud Atlas determining whether you will love it or hoot at it is a top-hatted imaginary demon with greenish skin, exhorting a character to do vile things in the name of self-preservation. I grew to look forward to that fellow, and I sighed a little and became restless when the movie flicked over to the futuristic “Neo-Seoul” segments, which feel the most like a dystopian fantasia by the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix). Sure enough, they directed those segments, as well as another futuristic story and one set in the 19th century, while Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) handled the ’30s, the ’70s, and 2012. Which shows, I guess, that Andy and Lana Wachowski are uncomfortable with present day, present reality, and Tykwer can work quite well without spaceships and laser blasts.

Taken all in one two-hour-and-52-minute lump, Cloud Atlas is never boring; I checked the time at one point, saw that we had about an hour to go, and settled back, relaxed and happy to get more. As pure cinema — a term I overuse, but can’t avoid when discussing this thing — the movie is a vast banquet table stretching to the vanishing point, though we’re never allowed to linger over any one tasty dish before it’s removed and replaced with an entirely dissimilar platter. Mitchell’s novel was structured symmetrically, or palindromically (it’s a word now), the first story leading into and appearing in the next, and so on, and then the narrative doubled back on itself. The movie shuffles the deck — the effect is simultaneity, not continuity. Each reality the film shows us — a notary on a ship, a rent boy working as an amanuensis to a composer, a journalist uncovering shenanigans at a nuclear power plant, a publisher trapped in a nursing home, a clone seeking freedom in futuristic Korea, a post-apocalyptic tribesman in Hawaii — unfolds, for us, at the same “movie time,” in apparently different dimensions.

The fun part, despite clucking from the politically correct, is watching the same actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant — appearing as different characters of sometimes different races. Hanks gets to be heroic (or at least morally conflicted) in some segments and diabolical in others; my favorite of his incarnations was “Dermot Hoggins,” a pugnacious Irish writer who chucks his least favorite literary critic off a roof. Hanks and Halle Berry appear to be destined for love — the “guy and the girl” who get together at the end of the picture — though in a couple of the stories they make no more than a nodding acquaintance, perhaps because in those realities Hanks isn’t worthy of love yet. Karma seems to be one of the many ideas bubbling to the surface here. In his six identities, Hanks starts out rotten, becomes merely sleazy, then conflicted, then violent, then an inadvertent motivator of freedom fighters, and then, after many visitations from Hugo Weaving as the aforementioned top-hat demon, finally a hero deserving of Halle Berry’s hand.

Again, most of this is shuffled together so smoothly that it never confuses and nearly always engages. As photographed by Frank Griebe and John Toll, it’s a gift for the eyes, and though Cloud Atlas is perhaps not the intellectual/emotional one-two punch it seems to want to be, it’s nonetheless made for endless replaying on Blu-ray and at midnight screenings (the few still extant). In isolated bits it feels major; other bits force us to agree to go along with them (the makeup department kept very busy here, and sometimes it’s like playing spot-the-actor in something like The List of Adrian Messenger). The cast and the filmmakers are committed at the highest level, and good old Hugo Weaving gets to chew scenery as a variety of evildoers, including a forbidding nurse (yes, a female nurse). Given that this is the first major film co-directed by a transgendered woman (Lana Wachowski), it ends its gay love story less cheerily than some will like, while others will shrug and blame it on the repressive time period. The Magical Negro trope pops up in a couple of the segments, too, which may, for all I know, reflect as much on the book as on the filmmakers. Cloud Atlas is too earnest and overarching to be perfect in any way — the literal-minded will gather dozens of flaws to cackle over. But in such a timid time for entertainment in general and movies in particular, I have to respect the beauty of the attempt. It isn’t a masterpiece but it sure has masterful pieces.


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