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Column Fri Oct 26 2012

Cloud Atlas, The Sessions, Chasing Mavericks, Fun Size & Keep the Lights On

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Cloud Atlas

Last year, when I reviewed Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, I started out by saying that you would hear a great number of interpretations from critics of what the symbolism in the film meant, what the deeper meaning of the subtext was all about, etc. And I concluded my opening remarks by saying that all of this analysis was both totally wrong and totally right. Although the new movie Cloud Atlas bares little resemblance to Malick's family drama combined with a history of life on earth, it shares the wonderful notion that films are not meant just to be something you experience for the two hours (or damn near three, in this case) you're in a dark theater. The best films are the ones you take home with you in your head and your heart, the ones that reveal themselves to you hours or even days after you see them, the ones you feel absolutely compelled to see again because the one viewing simply isn't enough (for whatever reason).

As co-written and -directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), based on the dense book by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas has already been picked apart for deeper meaning and hidden agendas. But the truth is, most of the film's messages and themes are worn at surface level and — for better or worse — there isn't much much digging to be done. This didn't bother me at all, since there's enough to keep track of here in terms of plot and sheer volume of characters without then also getting lost in metaphors. But the messages worn on the sleeve of Cloud Atlas are plenty ambitious and worthy to keep things interesting and impressive. And as much as these filmmakers plumb the depths of faith and philosophy and expression and the soul, they never forget to keep the proceedings flowing, moving and, above all, entertaining. This one is the whole enchilada, folks.

Let's cover a few basics here that you're probably already aware of, but you'll probably do a little bit better having some idea of what you're in for. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I say go into a movie with as little advanced knowledge as possible, but I'm not sure that's necessarily true here. Still, here's a little primer. There are a half-dozen stories being told here, all set in various points in history, including two set in the future — one in the far future, after the fall (about 300 years from now, when people speak a broken-down form of English with a few new words you just have to figure out as you go; it's fun, trust me). Within these stories are characters played by actors, some of whom appear as different characters in each of the six stories; others appears in most or a few of the stories. For examples, Tom Hanks plays everything from a devious ship's doctor on an old schooner circa 1849 to a character named Zachry in the far future, a man torn between helping a woman (Halle Berry) who may hold the key to ancient technology and killing her.

The one thing you can't get lost in is how good or bad or appropriate the makeup in Cloud Atlas is. Sometimes the old-age makeup on someone looks flawless, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes it's not the race, sex or either of the actor, and who the hell cares? There's no stereotyping or insulting going on here. This film has expanded on the book's loose idea that souls continue on from era to era, person to person, and someone who is a white man in the 1800s may be an Asian woman several hundred years later. The film doesn't make direct apples-to-apples references that carry from timeline to timeline (with the exception of certain music cues), but there are connective trails nonetheless.

While Hanks and Berry are both quite good, I found myself more taken by the various performances by the likes of Hugh Grant, who goes nearly unrecognizable in all of his roles; Hugo Weaving playing villain in nearly all of his performances — his Nurse Noakes is something to behold; and Ben Whishaw (soon to be seen as James Bond's new "Q" in Skyfall), whose plays the composer of the main music piece that fuels much of the film (written by Tykwer), Robert Frobisher, opposite Jim Broadbent's nasty Vyvyan Ayrs, who steals credit for the piece. You see how this works?

The film also features find work from the likes of Jim Sturgess, James D'Arcy, Keith David and South Korean actress Doona Bae (The Host), the star of one of my favorite segments, set in a futuristic New Seoul, in which a service clone becomes the basis for a cultural revolution based on individual freedom. Does all of this character jumping get confusing? Not really. If anything, having such a small group of usually recognizable actors playing multiple roles helps us keep track of characters as we jump from story to story. For example, I remember each of the six characters Hanks plays here; but if six different actors played those parts, I likely would have gotten confused.

What you actually get with Cloud Atlas is six different movies, each with its own unique look and context, that are cut together in a way to form connections that may or may not only be in your head. I fell in love with seeing if the puzzle pieces fit (they don't always), but the juxtaposition of scenes is hardly random. I also was thoroughly entranced with the look of the film; cinematographers Frank Griebe and John Toll did a wonderful job making each timespan look unique and beautiful; if for no other reason, see Cloud Atlas to be mesmerized by the camerawork.

Sweeping ambition does not a great movie make. Some of the sweeping statements made in Cloud Atlas are downright silly, but I love that these filmmakers are even bothering to try and make them. And the film isn't all far-reaching in its intentions; there's a great deal of humor, action, and plain-spoken cinematic entertainment happening. For all the new ground this film breaks, it also paves a shiny new surface over much-treaded paths. And there's not a damn thing wrong with that.

What made me fall in love with Cloud Atlas was that, with just a few important adjustments to the way we are used to having movies unfold (in terms of casting, structure, production design), the Wachowskis and Tykwer have made a kind of film the likes of which you've never seen before. Potential is unlocked, possibilities are opened, and minds will be blown. It's been more than a month since I saw Cloud Atlas for the first time, and there hasn't been a day that some aspect of its vast, expansive vision hasn't crossed my mind. I don't know about you, but those are the kind of experiences and recollections that I live for as a person who sees as many movies a year as my eyeballs can handle. The worst moments in Cloud Atlas are still better than 90 percent of the films I've seen this year. And please don't get caught up in box office figures this weekend; even if this movie falls short, that doesn't make it any less a masterpiece or give you any less of a reason you need to see it.

The Sessions

There's a real reason that the latest film from writer-director Ben Lewin (Georgia, Paperback Romance) won the Audience Award for drama (as well as a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting in a drama) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film is a soaring testimony to humanity at its very basic, raw core. Yes, this true story features as its lead characters a physically disabled, 38-year-old man (John Hawkes playing journalist and poet Mark O'Brien) locked in an iron lung for most of his life and an often fully nude, able-bodied woman (Helen Hunt as Cheryl) sex surrogate hired to help Mark lose his virginity before he dies, but The Sessions covers so much ground in its 90-minute-plus running time, it's difficult to believe just how beautifully efficient and perfectly realized the work is.

On top of being a gifted writer (his article on his experience with a sex surrogate served as the inspiration for Lewin's screenplay), O'Brien was a deeply religious man whose shame over his polio-twisted form was the result of both Catholic guilt and simply never being introduced to his body as a source of giving or receiving pleasure. Before he hires the surrogate, he consults with a priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), whose discomfort with O'Brien's condition is clear but he manages to get past it and give his blessing to the normally sinful act of sex outside of marriage for Mark. But as the film goes on, Mark returns to the priest with regular updates on the process, complete with graphic details of his encounters with Cheryl. Macy's priceless reactions cover a vast range of fascinations, but often he just sits and allows himself to get wrapped up in what becomes an almost-romantic tale.

There's nothing precious or overly sentimental about the way Lewin lays out O'Brien's journey. He's a man who falls in love easily because he meets so few women outside of his caretakers. In fact, the film opens with a near-miss relationship with Amanda (Annika Marks), who is clearly falling for the funny and charming Mark, but she just quite get past the physical limitations such a relationship would have. He eventually finds Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a new caretaker who is both a bit more clinical and impressively supportive of his sex therapy sessions.

So what about these sessions? I have to confess, they were fascinating even before the clothes came off. Hunt is absolutely convincing as a person who introduces body awareness to this man who can't even see most of his body. But the actual sex acts, which she must build up to since O'Brien has a tendency to finish before he's begun, are both wonderfully awkward and completely traumatizing. But listening to her describe the process of figuring out what Mark likes and doesn't like, what he wants to explore and what doesn't work for him goes beyond intimate and is endlessly fascinating. She's the definition of patience and nurturing, and the delicacy with which she performs her job is inspiring. Plenty of people — disabled or not — could learn a lot from her.

Clearly, Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) is doing the heavy lifting here, but it's far from a showy performance. He brings a great deal of humor and charm to O'Brien, but he also plays up his emotional flaws, weaknesses and occasional biting wit. He fully admits that part of the reason he's engaging the surrogate is because he thinks his "use-by date" is almost up, so there's a bittersweet quality to the whole proceeding. Still, a final-act appearance by Robin Weigert as his eventual girlfriend Susan is pure enjoyment for him (and us), since Mark now has the mental and physical tools to better handle a relationship. Cheryl introduces this new confidence into his life, and all concerned are eternally grateful.

Director Lewin isn't afraid to let things get mildly explicit — in words and deeds — but things are handled tastefully, and before long, Hunt's nudity becomes a natural part of the nurturing scenery. Above all else, The Sessions gives one a sense of pure, unfiltered uplift. The performances are flawless, and the flow of the screenplay makes the whole process of O'Brien's life and Cheryl's work seem like they were destined to find each other somehow. The film is a pseudo-love story whose conclusion enlightens both participants even as their relationship comes to its natural conclusion. This is a magnificent little movie that you won't help but fall in love with.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with writer-director Ben Lewin, star John Hawkes, and co-star William H. Macy.

Chasing Mavericks

I'll admit, I walked into this docudrama about the relationship between a 15-year-old fatherless Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston) and his surfing legend neighbor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) in Santa Cruz, California, slightly skeptical. But as the film went on, I found myself getting drawn into this decidedly non-surfer-dude telling of this story of a man who basically adopts the neighbor kid and teaches him discipline and maturity through surfing lessons, preparing him to surf the legendary surf break known as Mavericks, home to what are believed to be the largest waves on the planet.

And by the end of the film, I was surprised how strong a narrative Chasing Mavericks was supporting. I got even more of a shock when I saw that the film was co-directed by Michael Apted (Gorillas In the Mist, The World Is Not Enough) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile), two solid filmmakers who get the help of some real-life surfing types and a great deal of astonishing surf/wave footage I've ever seen outside of surfing documentaries.

What becomes clear early on in Chasing Mavericks is that Frosty is not just teaching Jay how to surf the toughest waves imaginable; he's also teaching him to survive in the world and preparing him to live life as a man, since there isn't a father in his life, and his alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue) can barely take care of herself. Frosty's wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) and he have basically taken Jay into their home, and apparently part of growing up a little faster than most kids his age involves Jay starting up a relationship with a fellow high schooler, Kim (Leven Rambin).

While the lessons taught and learned in the film are about following your dreams, Frosty makes sure that Jay does not enter into this endeavor blindly. Imagine the lessons taught by Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, and then imagine that if you screw up during the training, you might actually die. But there are other teachings as well that focus on mental abilities and collecting one's thoughts. Jay must write essays about the things that matter to him, things he observes, and things that move him. Jay is no thrill seeker with a death wish; he's a solid student willing to put in his time until his instructor says that he's ready for Mavericks. You'd think the kid was almost boring, until the final act of the film when he hits the waves.

There's a bittersweet epilogue to Chasing Mavericks, but it doesn't take away from the emotions and inspirational message the film delivers with subtlety. I was especially impressed with Butler's dialed-back performance as a man who has seen many of his own dreams fall flat, and refuses to see that happen to a fellow surfer while he's still so young. The film isn't perfect; it manufactures a villain for Jay to overcome — a generic high school bully. Those scenes add absolutely nothing to the film's strengths, but they don't hard it too much either. I think you'll actually be pleasantly surprised how much of Chasing Mavericks gets to the core of growing up and taking responsibility, even as the lead character engages in one of the most dangerous challenges imaginable.

Fun Size

I literally feel like I'm being forced to review this wretched little turd-heap of a movie. No, no one forced me to go to the screening or to write this review. But part of my duty to you as a film critic is steering you clear of the crap as well as guiding you to the good stuff, and in that spirit, here's my review of Fun Size, from first-time director Josh Schwartz (executive producer of "The O.C.," "Gossip Girl," "Chuck" and "Hart of Dixie").

Like a dirty vulture, this film picks off pieces of slightly better teen comedies and gives us this Halloween tale of a fairly straight-laced Wren (singer Victoria Justice, star of the Nickelodeon staple "Victorious"), who is planning on attending the biggest party of the season with her peer-pressure source/best friend April (Jane Levy), when Wren's desperate single mom (Chelsea Handler) forces her to take her little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) trick-or-treating. Albert doesn't speak and likes to cause trouble, so of course he runs off almost as soon as they leave the house, and the entire films is various combinations of people in Wren's life looking for Albert. Wacky adventures ensue, or not.

One major problem with Fun Size is that it's not really that funny. I know, it's hard to believe that a film that brings in the outrageous (and uncredited) Johnny Knoxville in at the 11th hour to spice things up doesn't tap into the comedy keg is hard to believe. I will give Thomas Middleditch a little credit as a convenience store clerk for at least having a couple of funny lines. But as if to counter any contribution he gives the film, Thomas Mann comes in as a third-string Michael Cera to stutter his way through secretly liking Wren but being too cowardly to say it. I should also make mention of the adorable and funny Riki Lindhome's performance as a cosplay character named Galaxy Scout, who helps out Albert. You see, the film isn't devoid of humorous characters. There just aren't enough of them to balance out the terrible script by "Colbert Report" writer Max Werner.

Perhaps the bigger problem with the film is that with the exception of Wren, none of these characters are particularly likable. Now I'm not saying I have to like every character in every movie I see, clearly, but there is almost no one in the movie who isn't selfish, often cruel or otherwise unpleasant to spend time with. The story gives is tired and worn characters we've seen done better in other high school comedies. Good for Nickelodeon for attempting to enter the PG-13 racket (only the second time for them as a film studio), but a few mild gross-out jokes and vague sexual references seem more like an attempt to appear edgy in the eyes of kids than for any real comic effort.

At least something like Pitch Perfect (which I liked a great deal) had some original humor and an freakish take on certain a slightly older age group; I'm guessing this film is aimed at much the same audience. Rest assured, Fun Size is a dismal failure compared to Pitch Perfect and pretty much every other that was released in 2012. Consider yourself warned, youngsters.

Keep the Lights On

One of the more hauntingly compelling works I've seen on the dramatic front lately is director/co-writer Ira Sachs' Keep the Lights On, which focuses on the rocky journey of an on-again/off-again gay couple in New York City that begins in 1997 and continues for nearly 10 years. At its heart, the film is like many other honest looks at troubled romantic entanglements — they have their good and bad days; their nights filled with passion, drugs and drinking; and when they attempt to define the boundaries of their relationship, things begin to solidify as much as they fall apart. It's a painful, emotionally fueled film from Sachs (Forty Shakes of Blue, Married Life).

What keeps us interested are the fascinating characters, especially Danish actor Thure Lindhardt (Into the Wild, Angels & Demons and the upcoming Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal) in his U.S. debut as a leading man, playing Erik, a documentary filmmaker who excels at spending hours on phone sex lines and hooking up for one-night stands. One of these nights is spent with a closeted lawyer named Paul (Zachary Booth), but it doesn't take long for the connection to form or for Erik to become troubled by Paul's drug addiction. In fact, Paul seems to need to be whacked out of his mind to even have sex with Erik, and before long it becomes a source of constant conflict between the two.

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have pieced together a series of exceedingly believable moments between this couple that beautifully capture the arc that every relationship must go through to either survive or be made clear that it was not meant to last. The issues may be different from couple to couple, but the patterns are mostly the same. Keep the Lights On is held together by deeply unsettling original music by Arthur Russell, who sings sometimes incoherently underneath some of the sadder moments of the film as if to highlight the pain in searing red; it's gorgeous material.

If you've never seen Lindhardt's work before, you owe it to yourself to check him out. My guess is that you'll want to find others works he's acted in prior to this; he's a gifted and versatile performer you'll probably be seeing much more of in the States in years to come. Keep the Lights On is intense, realistic drama that always opts to be just a little more realistic. The love is genuine, and the fighting is severe and difficult to watch, which of course means you can't take your eyes off of it. The movie is a jarring experience that ebbs and flows with an organic rhythm that sounds a lot like the human heart. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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