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.
Another film opens this week on a wave of hype, this one much smaller in scale. That’s The Sessions, which won the Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. John Hawkes stars as a polio sufferer who’s paralyzed from the neck down and, at the age of 39, employs a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity. Helen Hunt plays the surrogate, while William H. Macy plays the priest who gives him God’s blessing to make an exception to the no-premarital-sex rule.
Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn broke through in the US last year with the sparse neo-noir of Drive, but the director’s star rose faster and brighter in Europe, where his very first film, 1996’s Pusher, became a huge hit, though it was mostly a cult attraction over here. Refn directed two sequels, and the film already inspired a 2010 Hindi remake. The British are taking their turn now, and a limited release of director Luis Prieto’s take on the material opens this week in DC. The film centers on a London drug dealer who finds himself in an ever-deepening spiral of violence and isolation over the course of a single week.
One of the very earliest examples of the classic silent film swashbuckler was this 1920 film starring Douglas Fairbanks. Zorro is a familiar figure now, but this was the first film to feature the masked hero, just a year after author Johnston McCulley created him for a serialized magazine story. The film tells the story of Zorro’s origin as the son of a wealthy rancher who takes on the plight of the poor and downtrodden against landowners like his father and a corrupt government that is complicit in their mistreatment. The American Art Museum’s screening will be accompanied by a live soundtrack from Hesperus, a musical group specializing in silent film performances.
There are plenty of scary movie options in the coming week, many of which are occuring as part of the AFI’s annual series, which we covered last week, as well as new releases like Paranormal Activity 4 and Sinister. Washington Psychotronic Film Society gets in on the act, too, with a screening of the 1991 low-budget schlocky horror-comedy film HauntedWeen. The film centers on a fraternity haunted house fundraiser that becomes all too scary when the students start being murdered for real.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Fear and Desire
Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, which he himself wasn’t too fond of, existed more in legend than in reality for most of the director’s life, deliberately suppressed from further distribution after initial release and later from any sort of home video release because it didn’t live up to the exacting, obsessive standards he eventually became known for. The only time I’d ever seen it was on a blurry, scratchy VHS bootleg years ago, which is probably even less the way Kubrick would have liked for it to be seen. It was only very occasionally seen at festival or museum retrospectives via the few privately held prints that existed. But the film was recently fully restored for Library of Congress preservation, and judging from the Blu-ray stills, this looks nothing like the Fear and Desire the handful of people who’ve seen it are used to.
It feels like a low-budget version of the standard Hollywood war movie of the day, about a small group of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines and their attempts to get back to their side. The catch is that Kubrick never identifies the countries that are fighting—this is meant to be war in the abstract, a fact underlined in an ending that gives the film a slightly surrealist feel. Much like his more well-known 1957 masterpiece, Paths of Glory, this is a staunchly anti-war film, meant to show the inhumanity inherent in war.
Special Features: The Seafarers, an industrial short made by Kubrick for the Seafarers International Union the same year as Fear and Desire. This was the first film Kubrick shot in color.