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Cloud Atlas the movie stars Frank Griebe and John Toll as the Cinematographers; Huge Bateup and Uli Hanisch as the Production Designers; Rebecca Alleway and Peter Walpole as the Set Designers; Kym Barett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud as the Costume Designers; and a cast of thousands when it comes to Makeup and Art Direction.  There are also some actors involved, but they’re all pretty much chopped liver by the time the credits roll.
The movie, for those not on twitter and facebook, contains six story lines set in six different periods of time, including the future as well as the future future.  The basic themes seem to be that we’re all connected; everything that happens is cause and effect; and that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Kansas can cause a tsunami in Japan.  Except it’s not really. 
In fact, as the movie jumps from time period to time period and story to story (as a friend of a friend said, it’s the perfect movie for those with ADD), no one character or event in one time period has any affect on any character or event in another time period.   Or if they did, the writers (those V for Vendetta/Matrix welding Wachowski siblings, Lana and Andy, as well as Tom, Run Lola Run, Twyker, all of whom also directed) did a very good job of keeping it to themselves.   True, there are overlaps.  A book from one period, letters from another, a piece of middle brow music that people go gaga over for some unclear reason, all end up in another era.  But that’s not a connection.  That’s a coincidence.  And of the extremely forced variety.   Coincidence and connection are not the same thing, no matter how much new age mumbo jumbo you want to throw at it.  Or if it is, the filmmakers have a totally different understanding of butterflies and tsunamis that I do (which is more than quite possible).
In the end, there’s only one reason to have made this movie and that is the opportunity to do a tour de force thingy by creating six difference films in six different styles (Bladerunner, Brideshead Revisited/Merchant-Ivory, a 1970’s crime drama cum social ills action movie, etc.), all using the same set of actors.  And if the filmmakers had pulled that off, what an amazing film it would have been.
But alas, the only section that really hits its mark is the Bladerunner type story about replicants in a futuristic New Seoul.  This story has the best acting (Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae in the leads); it hits its emotional mark of doomed lovers on the run (a 22ndCentury take on They Live By Night); and the visual aspects of this section meld well and don’t overpower the human (well, replicant, but let’s not be petty) element.  For the other sections, the filmmakers can’t seem to get the styles or rhythms quite right with the story set further in the future almost impossible to follow.
And then there’s the acting.  The biggest names are Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and Hallie Berry.  Sarandon isn’t given much to do.  Hallie Berry comes across well enough, especially in the 1970’s action film; all in all, her roles don’t require a great range (and there seem to be little difference in her ambitious investigative reporter and futuristic alien).  But (to paraphrase Pauline Kael in talking about Norma Shearer) oh, that Hanks.  Perhaps because he is so recognizable no matter what thickness of make up and prosthetics are slathered on, he felt the need to overplay every role to really remind people that he really isn’t who you think he is—but the further he tried to get away from himself, the closer he got.
The best performers come from the younger generation, like Sturgess and Bae as well as Ben Whishaw, the perpetually pouting English actor with the big hair.  They seem a bit more comfortable playing their wide range of roles (though the make up for Bae lets her down in the anti-slavery tract section).  And Hugo Weaving is a hoot in his Nurse Diesel/Ratchett turn, this time named Nurse Noakes (but he had a lot of practice in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).
In the end, Cloud Atlas is ambitious and often overpowering to look at.  But in execution, to be cruel and ruthlessly honest, it comes across more as the perfect choice for bad movie night where everyone can yell out comments as the scenes go by.  One suggestion: in the 1970’s film, when Hanks, coiffed in the typical top and sideburns of the day, and Berry go outside and Berry asks if it’s okay to smoke and Hanks says, I’m cool—yell out, not with that hairstyle, you’re not.


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Shortly into the movie Arbitrage, the new 1% thriller written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, I began to wonder whether I stumbled into the wrong theater.  According to the previews; reports from friends; reviews; etc., I was expecting a story about a semi-sociopathic financier, a Bernie Madoff type, who would do anything and betray anyone to survive (including his virtuous and untainted daughter), and who was about to pull off a deal that would destroy everyone but himself, but who is temporarily derailed when he causes a Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick type accident that results in the death of his mistress via manslaughter.  He is then pursued by two righteous police officers and a D.A. who are tired of the wealthy getting away with murder.
That is not the movie I saw.
Instead, I saw a film about a financier noble in heart, though weak in action, who desperately, and by, yes, illegal methods, is trying to save his company before it goes belly up, costing him not just everything he has, but also the savings and money of all his investors and the jobs of all those who work for him (including his daughter).  After a horrifying accident not caused by manslaughter (unless I’m simply unaware of the intricate parsings of said term—and I very well might be), but by the character falling asleep at the wheel, his greatest crime is leaving the scene of an accident.  He is then pursued by a sociopathic officer who seems to have some sort of personal vendetta against the wealthy man (though none is every revealed), to such an extent that he willfully manufactures evidence and gets the DA to lie to a grand jury in order to convict the financier for something he didn’t to (our taxpayer dollars at work, I guess).
Okay, po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  But you can see where I’m coming from.
In the end, though, even looking at the movie from my point of view, Arbitrage is not much more than an entertaining enough thriller that gets the job done.  It’s not quite a roller coaster ride, but it’s not boring.  Just a bit of a let down.
The cast is headed by Richard Gere as Robert Miller, the non Bernie Madoff/non-Ted Kennedy, Bernie Madoff/Ted Kennedy role.  Gere’s charming, though I think he’s been better in recent years.  But he has one great scene where his character finally traps the illusive Mayfield, the businessman who keeps putting of buying Miller’s business, and Miller shows the brass balls that made him what he is.  He out bluffs said Mayfield and finally gets a deal that saves anyone and everyone. 
There are some nice faces in the supporting roles, like Stuart Margolis as Syd Felder, Miller’s lawyer who gives Miller (what seems to be to me) questionable legal advice; and Chris Eigeman as Miller’s almost Zen like business manager.  Both are welcome sights.  
As for the rest, Tim Roth plays his “righteous” officer role rather broadly, in the way that actors often do if they don’t find their characters inherently interesting (probably a good choice here since his role isn’t particularly interesting).  Susan Sarandon is around to pick up a paycheck.   And the extras are filled out with some of the tallest Amazonian secretaries I’ve ever seen, which may suggest something about Jarecki and/or the casting director that I’d rather not know.
Perhaps the two characters that are written the most puzzling are Brooke, Miller’s daughter (played by Brit Marling) and his surprisingly dowdy mistress Reina (played by Monica Raymund).  Both are just a bit too incredibly naïve for me to have any empathy for.
Brooke is suppose to be this alpha female financier, but in all the years she’s been in the business, has yet to grasp the concept of imperfection in her parents.  She’s shocked, shocked (in the best Captain Renault manner) that her father is involved in some shady dealings.  Really? I mean…Really?  When Sarandon talks about it, she acts like Brooke just lost her virginity when her daughter’s at least thirty years old, for God’s sake.  (It reminded me of the reaction from all these men about what happened between Monica Lewinsky and Clinton—an “how dare you with my daughter” type response that only made me think: “you do realize she is over twenty one, right?  Just how long were you planning on protecting her virginity, anyway?”)
Reina, meanwhile, spends most of her time pouting because she’s not the center of her patron’s universe and is just now realizing that her lover is not going to leave his wife.  Again, really?  I mean…Really?  She also seems incredibly ungrateful that Miller pays for her luxurious apartment that no artist could ever hope to afford in New York; arranges shows for her; and buys her paintings.  At one point, Miller tells his daughter, “You’re not my partner, you’re my employee.”  I felt that this line would be much more appropriately delivered to Reina.


Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a shaggy dog story with a shaggy dog performance by Jason Segel in the title role (he’s referred to as Sasquatch at one point in the film and comes across as a hairless Chewbacca). It’s a feel good movie that gives feel good movies a good name. It’s written and directed by the Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) who are earlier practitioners of what is called “mumblecore” films (low budget indies who tend to use unknown actors who have a reputation of mumbling–since they don’t have the training not to, I suppose). The duo made their screen debut with the Puffy Chair (during which I wanted to shoot myself in order to end my agony, a reaction that’s not unusual for me when it comes to mumblecore) and ever since have been making solid strides in getting away from their origins, starting with the fun film Baghead. After that, they made a tremendous artistic leap with the romantic comedy Cyrus. I was hoping for an even bigger leap with Jeff…, but though that leap isn’t there (the movie never really tries to be any more than what it is), it’s still a charming little film that should win most people over. It has as its theme and philosophy the idea of letting destiny be your guide. Jeff (who lives at home, appropriately enough, in his mother’s basement) is told by an infomercial to pick up a phone just when said phone rings; when Jeff does, it’s a wrong number for a Kevin; subsequently while on a bus, Jeff sees a teenager with the name Kevin on his basketball shirt; Jeff follows him and thus is set off on a series of adventures that entangles him first with his estranged brother who is having a midlife crisis and thinks his wife is cheating on him (played by Ed Helms, who is doing the Edward Norton thingy of wearing a goatee so we take him more seriously that if he’s clean shaven, as in his movie Cedar Rapids) and then with his mother who feels the world is passing her by until she gets a mysterious paper airplane mash note (Jeff’s mother is played by the wonderful Susan Sarandon who has graduated from leading roles to significant supporting ones as actors these days often do once they pass a certain age, one of the unfortunate results of the studio system collapsing). The basic farce structure, in which the last person you want or expect to run into is always the person you do, grows in increasingly frenetic plot turns until it reaches the moving climax that proves Jeff’s philosophy of life is the correct one. If the movie has any sort of real flaw, and it’s probably trifling to bring it up, it’s Segel, who is perhaps just a bit too shaggy a dog and laid back in the role; one may not notice because of the strong casting around him (Helms, Sarandon and Judy Greer as the possible straying wife; if you don’t have Muppets for a supporting cast, these will more than get the job done); Segel may be a tad lethargic, but no one else is. The sweet music score is by Michael Andrews. For those of you who care, the movie also answers the burning question, whatever happened to Rae Dawn Chong, who is perhaps even lovelier now than when she was an up and comer.

STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE: Reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The Lovely Bones

Two films by incredible visual stylists have opened or are about to open. But though lately the prevailing wisdom is that in film visual is more important than anything else, both movies prove in many ways that being a visual stylist alone is not enough to create a satisfying work of art.

It would be almost impossible not to say that Terry Gilliam has a remarkable eye. His movies look incredible. He is an amazing visual stylist, but I have to be honest and shame the devil (played by Tom Waits in Gilliam’s latest project The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, with the name of Mr. Nick, no lack of imagination there, is there) and say I’m not quite convinced he can tell a story as well as he needs to. In fact, again to be honest, I’m not even sure what the story was in this film; I was thoroughly confused from beginning to end and found myself spending most of my time just trying to figure out the plot created by screenwriters Charles McKeown and Mr. Gilliam himself. Christopher Plummer (next to the production design the main reason to see this film) plays some sort of wizard type person (Dr. Parnassus) who made some sort of deal with the devil (the aforesaid Waits) that gave him, Parnassus eternal life. Parnassus now travels in a wagon that doubles as a theater with a couple of assistants and his daughter, who though she doesn’t know it, may have to marry Mr. Nick if Paranassus doesn’t win some sort of bet that’s never clearly defined. Enter Heath Ledger for some reason, who somehow complicates that situation and who somehow resolves it. The theater piece that Parnassus produces (which for some unbelievable reason is ignored by people passing by) has a mirror as part of the set and if someone enters it, they enter the imaginarium which shows the person something about their life, though what that is isn’t always too clear. Ledger’s character comes along and revamps the piece and suddenly it’s a hit (though it’s unclear why since the show isn’t that significantly different). The best scenes are those that take place on the other side of the mirror. Though the psychology may be shallow (a drunk falls into a pit of empty bottles and enters a bar that blows up; shopping women enter a world of oversize shoes and hats), the art direction takes your breath away. Ledger died during the making of the film and three actors (Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp) take his place whenever his character enters the mirror. This could have made sense, but it never does. Just like the movie as a whole.

The Lovely Bones is also big on visuals, while being bigger on story telling which makes it the more satisfactory movie of the two. It’s narrated, like Sunset Boulevard, by someone who is dead, here a 13 year old girl, Susie, played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan. The story is then told in two plot lines, one concerning Susie and her adventures in a land of limbo, a breathtakingly exciting place of dazzling invention where everything changes second from second. It’s an Alice in Wonderland location filled with beautiful non sequitors and with more depth of psychology than the mirror world of Parnassus’s. The second plot revolves around Susie’s family and how they respond to the daughter’s death. This is also interesting, though not as interesting as the land of limbo. But as intriguing as the whole movie is, it doesn’t quite work since the two story lines never really come together. Occasionally Susie somehow connects with the real world, but not in any significant way. The screenplay, by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson, who also directed, suggests that Susie has a character arc, that something happens that enables her to leave limbo and go on to what’s next, but it’s unclear what that something that happens could be. Susan Sarandon is a lot of fun as that staple of sit coms and 1970’s movies, the boozy, pill popping upper middle class pre-post-feminist woman who never learned how to wash clothes. Stanley Tucci is the rapist/murderer and he has his moments, but he does something with his voice that got on my nerves. In the end, it’s Ronan who holds the picture together.