If you could grade a film for effort, Cloud Atlas would get an A+. Adapted from the “unfilmable” novel by David Mitchell, it runs nearly three hours, through six interlocking stories made by three directors (The Matrix series’ Wachowski siblings and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer). Those stories run span more than half a millenia, from the mid-19th century through an indeterminate post-apocalyptic future. The same actors are cast in different (often parallel) roles in each segment, and there is nothing linear here, with frequent cross-cutting between segments to help define their relationships. This is a staggeringly complex project, and the effort to assemble it is difficult to imagine.
Unfortunately, effort isn’t all that counts, and the problems with Cloud Atlas are many and insurmountable. While it’s no exaggeration to say this is the best film the Wachowskis have directed since the first Matrix film, that’s an extremely low bar. And sadly, the high school journal philosophizing that made the Matrix sequels so unbearable is ever-present here, often in wispy Terrence Malick-like voiceovers that are as trite as they are tedious. Many of these stories, even with the lengthy running time, feel too lightly sketched for the epic import they’re given. There simply isn’t enough time to cover them sufficiently, and so only the lightest fare (a present-day comedic plot in which Jim Broadbent’s character escapes from a locked-down retirement community) works; the heaviest segments simply drag. As a result, the film feels every bit as dauntingly long as its running time suggests, and getting through it can be a test of both endurance and patience.
It’s not all bad. The cross-cutting between different timelines during tense moments is done masterfully, so well that at times I thought the movie might even be saved from itself. And all the performers here display skillful ranges, playing entirely different characters within the same movie, even if they’re often betrayed by distractingly poor makeup jobs, particularly when someone is made up to look like a different race. (At my screening, the makeup produced unintended laughter in the theater on multiple occasions.) All of this comes in a gorgeously shot package that blends the past, present, and future into diverse, lushly imagined realities that at least manage the task of feeling like they’re from a single work. If only that work actually succeeded in fulfilling its lofty aspirations.
Being a fan of horror is a double-edged sword. You seek out as many movies as you can, looking for more and more scares, but that effort also numbs you to the images onscreen, making you more and more difficult to frighten. Eventually you’re watching things you know intellectually are terrifying, even if you don’t find yourself the least bit scared. Add to that the sorry state of Hollywood horror, in which most major releases are trend-following cash grabs, and watching horror can by and large be a thankless pursuit.
But every so often something sneaks into major release that surprises you by making the dark walk home through quiet streets feel like it could be your last, and causing you to turn on every light once you’re safely indoors. Writer/director Scott Derrickson’s new film, Sinister, is one of those rare gems.
The film stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who moves his family into a house where a horrific family murder took place. He’s desperate to write the next In Cold Blood, but the stress of strained finances and a failing marriage are driving him to drink and to hear many things going bump in the night. Not helping his state of mind are the images he sees on a bunch of super 8 films he finds in the attic of the house, depicting not only the murders there, but also connected ones in other cities. The movie’s eventual twist can be seen from the very start, but because the movie is essentially told from his perspective, the predictability doesn’t become a weakness. Within that framework, Derrickson creates a bone-chilling occult thriller that has plenty of make-you-jump moments that might be cheap adrenaline rushes from lesser films, but seem earned given just how much skill he displays (with a huge assist from Christopher Young’s fantastically macabre soundtrack) at creating a frightening atmosphere.
Tim Burton’s first live-action film was a half-hour Disney movie intended to screen before the 1984 re-release of Pinocchio. That never came to pass, however, as Disney decided the film he turned in—about a boy who reanimates his dog, Sparky, after the pup gets hit by a car—was too scary for its intended audience. It was rarely seen until Burton’s first few feature releases made him famous. Now the director has returned to the material for an animated feature, expanding the story of Sparky and his escape after being raised from the dead.
This is Burton’s first stop-motion animation project since 2005’s Corpse Bride. Given the lackluster turn his career has taken in the ’00s, one hopes that this return to his roots will revitalize his creative juices. The project also reunites Burton with a number of collaborators from his best films, including voice turns from Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Landau.
Movies about time travel can get so caught up in the mechanics of the science fiction, coming up with convoluted explanations to deal with the paradoxes inherent in time travel, that sometimes they can forget you still need a good underlying story. Not so with the third film from Rian Johnson, a deeply felt narrative about destiny and how our past shapes the inevitabilities of our future selves, that keeps its time travel logic simple, and just fuzzy enough to allow for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hitman whose entire job involves going to a rural field at an appointed time and shooting the person who will suddenly appear upon the tarp he’s laid out. The victims have been sent from the future, where criminals use time machines mostly to send people they want to get rid of back to the past to be killed and disposed of, removing any evidence of the murder from their present. The only catch to his job is that eventually he’s going to have to kill his future self, sent back 30 years after the termination of his contract to “close the loop”. If Gordon-Levitt looks not like himself in those trailers, it’s because he’s been made up to look like a younger version of that future self, played here by Bruce Willis, who is prepared to avoid his death the moment he pops up in front of the gun of his younger self.
If any of that sounds confusing, don’t worry: Johnson makes the time travel bits easy to comprehend by keeping it simple and not overdoing the science fiction. Once the future Joe escapes death at the hands of his younger self, he goes on the run to try to alter the past so that he’ll never have come back at all. Meanwhile, Joe is on his tail, while the criminal syndicate is on both their tails to clean up the mess. Part science fiction, part mob movie, and with a nice infusion of dark comedy at just the right moments, Looper is Johnson’s best movie yet, and manages to be hugely entertaining, affecting, and thought-provoking.
There’s no surer sign that Oscar season is officially underway than the release of one of the most anticipated films of the fall: The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to the modern masterpiece that was There Will Be Blood. The filmwas known colloquially in cinephile discussions during its somewhat difficult development process as Anderson’s Scientology project, but it isn’t technically about Scientology. It is, however, about a charismatic writer who, in the wake of World War II, develops his own philosophy/religion and begins collecting recruits to his way of thinking. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the writer, here known as Lancaster Dodd, who is supposedly modeled on Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Joaquin Phoenix plays a veteran having difficulties since returning from the war, and in his first role since his self-imposed Hollywood exile to make the faux-documentary about his fake career meltdown, I’m Not There, he comes back as the force of nature everyone remembered him as, garnering near-universal acclaim and awards buzz for his performance from audiences at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
The Master is being described in terms just as grand and operatic as There Will Be Blood, though is somewhat more confounding plotwise. The reaction among many critics on Twitter seemed to be one of bewilderment as to how to begin writing about it. This critic was not able to catch the local press screening, but it’s exactly those types of reactions that make me more eager to see the film when it opens tomorrow. It will be playing all over the area, but there’s only one place to go if you want to get the full experience Anderson intended: the AFI. Anderson, not yet a convert to digital filmmaking, not only stuck with traditional film for this feature, but went so far as to shoot on the 70-millimeter format, which gives greater detail and lush visuals than the usual 35-millimeter. The AFI is the only area theater that’s actually projecting a 70-millimeter print of the film, which, by all accounts at preview screenings happening throughout August in select cities, is one of the most amazing visual experiences you’re likely to have at the movies all year.
If you’ve spent any time in New York City (or Dallas, or Plano), chances are you’re familiar with the Angelika Film Center. The NYC Angelika, an East Village landmark on the corner of Houston and Mercer, has been an indie film institution since it opened in 1989, and this weekend sees the opening of Washington’s own Angelika—but on a much larger scale.
Angelika Mosaic, which opens this Friday, is a brand new eight-screen luxury theater and the cultural linchpin of Fairfax’s Mosaic development, which is projected to feature restaurants such as Matchbox and Taylor Gourmet, as well as stores including Anthropologie, Timothy Paul, and Lou Lou. We got a preview of the cinema complex, which aims to offer intelligent programming such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master alongside indie movies (Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts) and foreign films (Jean Renoir’s 1937 La Grande Illusion).
Nicholas Jarecki cut his teeth working in documentaries, the same genre in which his brothers, Andrew and Eugene made their first and best-known marks. Andrew broke into narrative filmmaking last year with the lackluster Ryan Gosling-starring All Good Things, and now Nicholas follows his brother into fiction with Arbitrage. Taking its name from a financial practice that may only be familiar to econ majors and those who spend a lot of time watching CNBC, the film isn’t quite as dry as that title might suggest. The financial misdeeds of its primary character, played by Richard Gere, might be the spark for the plot, but there’s also a murder, a cover-up, and a police investigation led by Tim Roth, as well as Gere’s character’s difficulties keeping the details of his failing empire from his wife (Susan Sarandon) and CFO daughter (current indie darling Brit Marling). Early reviews have been largely positive, especially regarding Gere’s ability to garner sympathy for a hustling Wall Street one-percenter.
Washington, DC, native Rachel Grady and her filmmaking partner, Heidi Ewing (a Georgetown grad), have been making documentaries together since 2005, and managed to earn an Oscar nomination in 2006 for what was only their second film, the fascinating Jesus Camp. Their fifth feature is Detropia, which opens this weekend at West End Cinema.
Detropia documents the current state of life in Detroit, a city that’s been on a rapid downward slope due to the devastating loss of jobs in the automotive industry—jobs that helped define it as the booming Motor City for much of the 20th century. As the plants have shut down and the automakers have fled, so too have many residents, leaving hundreds of abandoned buildings to fall into disrepair and a population that’s less than half of what the city held at its peak.
Grady and Ewing, employing the observational, often visually poetic style that has become their trademark, capture this city at a crossroads, as longtime Detroiters struggle for survival, leaders attempt to re-engineer the city, and newcomers see the opportunity to start over in a place that’s also looking for a fresh start. The Washingtonian caught up with Grady to discuss how she initially hoped to make Washington her subject, how Detroit residents responded to the film, and the “exquisite decay” she and Ewing attempted to capture.
The local film scene is abuzz this week with the kickoff of the ninth annual DC Shorts film festival. But this Sunday also marks the local premiere of the indie flick Not Waving but Drowning, screening at the AFI Silver Theatre. The music-driven movie tells the story of two teenage girls in a small town in Florida, best friends who begin to head down different paths when one departs for New York City and the other stays behind. It’s preceded by The Most Girl Part of You, a dark yet touching short film based on the story of the same name by Amy Hempel. This is the first feature from director Devyn Waitt, 26, who is from Oldsmar, Florida, and is produced by Nicole Emanuele, also 26, a Rockville native. The two met and became friends while attending film school at Florida State University (where, full disclosure, this writer knew both of them), and will attend Sunday’s screening. We chatted with Waitt and Emanuele about the challenges of a first movie, screening to French audiences at the Champs-Élysées Film Festival, and using Kickstarter to get a horse on a train.
Tell me how the movie and your partnership first came about.
DW: The idea started my freshman year of college, when I was 19—kind of from that overwhelming feeling of being trapped and being anxious. I started writing the script after I moved to New York [after graduation]. I went through this long period of restlessness, and a lot of the characters came out of that. It was a year of writing and working on it, and it was definitely a lot of getting to know the characters. It’s kind of a collage; there were lots of little things I knew I wanted to include, so it’s more like a novel in that you spend some time with these people and in the end maybe you learn something, rather than setting things up in the first act. At times it felt urgent that I be working on it, and at times it became distant. Like the characters—they kind of wax and wane.
NE: We started working on this in 2008 or 2009, and I quit my job in April 2010 to work on it full-time. Devyn and I were both delusional and thought it would take us one year to make the movie—it’s been two years, so only twice as bad as we thought.
When did you decide to include the short, The Most Girl Part of You, at the beginning?
DW: That was something that came about while we were in beginnings of preproduction. I wasn’t super-happy with how Not Waving but Drowning began, and I’ve been a huge fan of Amy Hempel since I was in college. I was thinking about how Girl would make such a great short film, and as I was walking home listening to music and imagining it, I got excited about making it. I feel like not a lot of people see short films . . . I liked the idea of putting a short with a feature so people could see both, like it being a throwback to when you used to see a short film before a movie.
This column normally opens with a wide release or a high-profile indie. But this week’s two wide releases include a barely marketed Bruce Willis action pic currently not even out of single digits on Rotten Tomatoes (The Cold Light of Day) and a Bradley Cooper-starring drama (The Words) about a plagiarizing author that’s not polling much better, and which has one of the most cloyingly unappealing trailers of the year. With little of note on the indie slate, either, the dearth of worthwhile new releases actually works out quite well this week, which features the opening of one of the city’s most consistently popular film festivals: DC Shorts.
The festival, now in its ninth year, kicks off tonight with four of the 16 programs of shorts that will play over the course of the next ten days. Those 16 programs collect the full slate of 140 films, from more than two dozen countries and a wide variety of genres, ranging from tiny productions to higher-profile works with actors that include Judi Dench, Anna Paquin, and Gérard Depardieu, among others. This year’s festival also concentrates on food-themed films, and is partnering with chefs from the area to provide snacks for audiences at selected screenings featuring those films. In addition to all that, there are a number of parties and non-screening events, including a screenplay competition with live table readings by local actors.
The festival schedule conveniently allows you to sort by a number of different variables to determine which collections might be most interesting to you.
Opens today and runs through September 16 at a number of area venues.