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On TIFF Day 3, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer tackle Cloud Atlas, and Noah Baumbach collaborates with Greta Gerwig

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Cloud Atlas
Director/Country/Time: Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski/USA/163 min.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Six Coins In The Fountain
Scott’s Take: “How in the world could Cloud Atlas work as a movie?” has been the rhetorical question surrounding Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel, which stacked six different timelines in a nesting-doll structure that unfolded in chronology for the first half and reverse chronology for the second. The answer is that the filmmakers have obliterated the structure altogether—a radical ploy in itself, given that it’s the first thing anyone mentions about the book—and instead compresses the timelines into one long montage sequence, a symphony of artistry and tackiness. It’s like a Big Gulp version of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, but much bigger and broader in scope, and with stories that disrupt each other more often as they syncopate. As part of a strategy to link past and present in a grand cosmic continuum, the main cast members appear in multiple roles, which means Cloud Atlas combines the facial hair of Gettysburg with the old-age makeup of Bicentennial Man. None of the timelines function well on their own—the setting furthest in the future, in which Tom Hanks plays a tribesman in distant-future Hawaii after the fall, is least convincing, but Halle Berry as a journalist snooping around a nuclear reactor in ‘70s California is nearly as bad—but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something fundamentally powerful about the film’s (and book’s) understanding of humankind as the push-and-pull between enslavement and freedom, though the directors are better off expressing its themes in a flurry of gorgeous images than in the overly explicit voiceover narration. (The New Age spirituality, on the other hand, is total bunk.) Still, Cloud Atlas is every bit the fiasco it seemed destined to be, but its failures at least have the courtesy of being bold, and those who connect with it will likely go all the way. 
Grade: C+
Noel’s Take: I think you’re being a bit too harsh, Scott. I actually agree with you that Cloud Atlas whiffs big at times. Some whole storylines never really work (though from your list I’d replace the far-flung future, which I kind of liked, with the storyline that has Hanks as a goofy-looking, morally ambiguous 1800s doctor), and the decision to re-use the actors is distracting on multiple levels, both because the audience is playing “Where’s Waldo?” in each storyline and because none of these cast-members is the right choice for all the roles they’re asked to play. Or maybe I’m just bothered by that ploy because I find Cloud Atlas’ theme of reincarnation and recurrence as cheesy and New Age-y as you do. All of that said, I really don’t want to discount how boldly and effectively constructed this movie is. It’s like a two-hour-and-forty-minute version of the last half of Inception, keeping multiple plates spinning and reaching strong crescendos by cross-cutting action sequences between timelines. And yet it feels very much like one big story, and not just a bunch of stuff that happens, chopped together randomly. I know after the film you told me you couldn’t imagine suffering through the worst parts of Cloud Atlas again. But I think I could put up with them, just because the movie has a relentless momentum that pulls viewers (or me, at least) past the shakier spots. There’s a rhythm to Cloud Atlas that I found very enjoyable, even when I was cringing at the melody, the words, and the performers.
Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: Nicolás López, Chile, 90 min.
Cast: Eli Roth, Ariel Levy, Andrea Osvárt
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Disaster porn has its moment
Noel’s Take: There’s a fair amount of “When are we going to get to the fireworks factory?” to the first half-hour of the gamy disaster movie Aftershock, as three fairly unlikeable dudes—one of whom is played by horror maven Eli Roth, who also co-wrote and produced—gallivant around Chile, getting drunk and chasing skirts. Then an earthquake hits, and the heroes scramble for safety, while also trying to avoid the roving bands of looters and rapists. Here are the two big twists with Aftershock: It’s extraordinarily gory, playing up the crushing and the severed limbs; and writer-director Nicolás López purposefully avoids any of the “triumph of the human spirit” business common to the disaster genre. As soon as the trouble starts, the good get punished just as cruelly as the douchebags—and perhaps even get the worst of it. But while that spin is semi-clever in a blackly comic way, it also means that Aftershock becomes perversely predictable after a while. Just imagine what a conventional disaster movie would do, and wait for the opposite to happen.
Grade: C+

Call Girl
Director/Country/Time: Mikael Marcimain, Sweden, 140 min.
Cast: Pernilla August, Sofia Karemyr, Simon J. Berger
Program: Discovery
Headline: Swede and lowdown
Noel’s Take: The Swedish true-crime drama Call Girl follows a juvenile delinquent in Stockholm in 1976, as she falls into a circle of bad girls who introduce to her a notorious madam. The set-up here is classic sexploitation, which director Mikael Marcimain nods to in the opening titles, which have that grainy, lurid, Sweden-in-the-‘70s look. But the storytelling has more in common with the modern Scandinavian mystery-thriller wave, in that Marcimain takes his time, parceling out the details of the case and not skimping on the dodgier parts. Frankly, Call Girl could stand to pick a lane—to be more of a trashy B-movie, or to be a lot classier, spending less time with the wayward teen and more time with Simon J. Berger as the man who connects the prostitution ring to the highest reaches of the Swedish government. The film does though recreate the ‘70s remarkably well, not just in terms of the clothes and the music, but also the attitudes. Marcimain ties the scandal to a series of sweeping, libertine reforms that the Swedish government was trying to institute at the time, to decriminalize some forms of rape and adjust the age of consent downward. Apparently, the whole “follow your bliss” philosophy was nudging Swedish society toward sexual anarchy, until the scandal broke and snapped some sense back into the citizenry. It’s a fascinating bit of history, even if Call Girl tells it a little too conventionally.
Grade: B

Frances Ha
Director/Country/Time: Noah Baumbach/USA/86 min.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Annie Ha
Noel’s Take: Someday when cultural historians look back at this era of cinema and television, they’ll wonder why we so obsessively documented the lives of upper-middle-class city-dwelling Americans between the ages of 22 and 28. Director Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha—which he co-wrote with his star, Greta Gerwig—is another in the seemingly unceasing string of stories about post-graduate men and women who aren’t quite ready to be responsible adults, yet can’t really afford to continue being flighty either. Gerwig stars as a semi-professional dancer—an apprentice at a dance company, to be exact—whose best friend and roommate Mickey Sumner moves in with somebody else, pushing Gerwig to crash on a series of couches while waiting for her dreams to come true. There’s nothing new about Frances Ha; the plot’s been done, the main character is a familiar type, and even Baumbach’s use of black-and-white just makes Gerwig’s New York look like a vintage Woody Allen film. But the movie is so, so funny, full of Baumbach’s usual crackling dialogue between people who on some level realize that they’re just playing parts in each other’s lives. And Gerwig is terrific. Even is she is just playing a variation on a type that she’s played a lot before, she fills the character with lots of telling quirks, from her inability to leave a room in a timely fashion to her propensity to tell people she’s never met before about people they’ve never met. Frances Ha is episodic, such that it feels like it could’ve ended in at least a half a dozen different places before the actual end-titles arrive. But the heroine is such a likable, relatable goofball that she’s fun to spend time with, even when she’s not getting anywhere.
Grade: A-
Scott’s Take: To respond to Noel’s first line, I think cultural historians would conclude that characters like Greta Gerwig’s in Frances Ha—or the girls on HBO’s Girls, which this film resembles—are cast adrift in an economy that doesn’t need them, and have parents wealthy enough to sustain their misadventures on financial life support. Though here, Gerwig really does need work and actually has a viable plan to advance her career as a dancer—it just doesn’t work out the way she plotted. Frances Ha makes deft, uproarious comedy out of her many changes of address and the social miscues that account for about half of them. With Gerwig on board as co-writer and star, Baumbach dials back the abrasiveness of previous films like The Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding, and Greenberg—not to say that abrasiveness was a problem, mind—and tailors the film entirely to Gerwig’s daffy, self-deprecating charms, which recall Diane Keaton in Annie Hall if she were more ungainly and even less sure of herself. The quick-and-dirty production—under 90 minutes, B&W, minimal trappings—gives the film a wonderful verve and Gerwig’s habit of babbling herself into a corner has never been better exploited. It takes some narrative shortcutting to get to the ending, but otherwise Frances Ha is a perfectly scaled pleasure, with the lightness that’s particularly welcome at a film festival.
Grade: A-

Ginger & Rosa
Director/Country/Time: Sally Potter, UK, 89 min.
Cast: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?
Noel’s Take: The biggest problem with Sally Potter’s ‘60s period piece Ginger & Rosa is that it’s really not about Rosa at all. The two girls are best friends, who find themselves growing apart as they approach young adulthood, with Ginger (played by Elle Fanning) getting involved with leftist politics, while Rosa (Alice Englert) starts looking for a man to settle down with. But while the choices Rosa makes in that regard drive the movie to its dramatic conclusion, there’s not that much in the film about her, or even about the friendship. A better title might’ve been Ginger & Africa, the latter being Ginger’s real name, given to her by her bohemian father Alessandro Nivola. As Ginger navigates through a community of artists and anti-nuclear activists—and alienates herself from her mother, Christina Hendricks—she comes to realize that the theoretical war she’s preparing for may not be as devastating to her personally as what her friend and family are capable of doing to her. Potter evokes the feel of early ‘60s London fairly well, conveying the heroine’s sense that revolution may be the only alternative to impending doom; and Potter gets strong performances up and down her cast (though it remains strange throughout to have so many Americans playing Brits). The move is very affecting at times, and might’ve been even moreso had Potter not chosen to make the theme explicit, via speechifying during what’s an otherwise powerful climax. But given how audacious Potter’s movies have been in the past, Ginger & Rosa seems far more obvious and down-the-middle than it needs to be. 
Grade: B-

The Place Beyond The Pines
Director/Country/Time: Derek Cianfrance/USA/140 min.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Crime Of Two Lifetimes
Scott’s Takes: Co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance follows up Blue Valentine with another heavy, structurally unconventional drama that requires too much narrative convenience to link up. A strong first half returns Ryan Gosling to a role similar to Drive as a small-time crook who’s particularly skilled at zipping through the streets in a motorized vehicle. Here he’s a motorcycle stuntsman at a traveling carnival who stays in town after finding out ex-hookup Eva Mendes’ one-year-old boy is his; needing cash to provide for him, Gosling and a partner start knocking off banks. Bradley Cooper comes along later as a rookie cop in Schenectady who pursues Gosling, and Cianfrance abruptly cleaves the narrative to cover his negotiation of a corrupt police department and his ambitions to power. The Place Beyond The Pines is about the intertwined legacies of Gosling and Cooper’s actions and the respective impact on their families, but getting to that theme involves some wrangling of the Guillermo Arriaga/Alejandro González Iñárritu variety. Cianfrance gets great performances out of his actors—Cooper has never been this good—but like Blue Valentine, the new film is undermine by self-seriousness, a tendency to underline the gravity of situations that don’t need the added emphasis. His “sins of the father” theme registers as schematic rather than profound, because the screenplay is so ruthlessly geared toward supporting it. It’s rarely a good idea to approach a movie thesis first. 
Grade: C+


Next: Joss Whedon does Shakespeare, Rob Zombie does witches, and Brian De Palma does… what he does