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Entries in Susan Sarandon (5)

Friday
Oct262012

Cloud Atlas

I can’t say I’ve read the book that Cloud Atlas is based on, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a thematically complex novel that most people think would be very difficult to adapt to the screen. After having seen the film, I understand why. There are six stories in this one movie that span across multiple time periods and locations involving characters who seem to have some type of connection to each other. It cuts back and forth between all six stories throughout its nearly three hour runtime and leaves it up to the viewer to connect the thematic dots. It’s an intriguing movie with narrative ambition akin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and it suffers from the same problems. Its ideas don’t always fully come together, certain narrative threads aren’t entirely finished and it thinks it’s more spiritual than it really is. Indeed, the transition from book to movie must have been a tough one, but that in no way means it is bad. When those ideas do come together and meaning manages to sneak through its sometimes pretentious demeanor, Cloud Atlas is quite fascinating and thought provoking.

Cloud Atlas is at its best when it explores the meaning of life and death and the idea that we are all bound to each other, when it explores the idea that our actions, both good and bad, affect the world around us in ways we can’t even imagine. The film explores the idea of reincarnation and karma, that the choices we make now ripple throughout time. It’s about the spiritual connection we have to each other and the world, which dictate our behavior, our actions and who we ultimately fall in love with. It’s all that and more and when these ideas aren’t shrouded behind thick ambiguity or too obviously spelled out through sometimes unnecessary narration, the film is magical.

The problem is it rarely hits that middle ground and I sometimes felt like I was putting more effort into trying to make sense of the movie than it was itself. Keeping something intentionally vague does not make it profound, which is something that the directors, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, must not have realized. Too often, particularly in the first 45 minutes or so, the film doesn’t bring its themes together. It takes so long to figure out what the hell is actually happening (unless you’ve read the book, I assume), that much of the meaning is lost. While there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to discover the depth of the film they’re watching, there must be something that leads them in that direction. Cloud Atlas is too opaque for that to happen and it’s guaranteed to bring about wildly different analyses. It’s the type of film that film snobs will claim to love and pretend to understand.

The film further confuses its already convoluted narrative with actors playing multiple roles (most of them play six, if you didn’t guess), but each actor’s prominence differs depending on what story they’re in. One can’t help but wonder, if these characters in these different time periods are somehow connected in some way and may actually be the same people reincarnate, wouldn’t their importance to the story remain the same? Switching up which actor plays the larger role from story to story only brings about unnecessary confusion. When we learn that one character from each timeline has a shooting star in the shape of a birthmark, thus connecting their spirits on their journey through multiple lives, things begin to make more sense, but by then it’s a case of too little, too late (and too long). We’ve stopped caring, so although the narrative connection is made, the emotional connection remains missing.

Not all of its problem stem from its occasionally incoherent plot and sporadically explored themes, though. Questionable decisions continue to appear and reappear throughout the film, most notably in the timeline that takes place in what appears to be a mixture of the distant future and a long forgotten past. In this time, there is an interstellar being called a prescient who visits a primitive group of scavengers in the hopes of finding her way home. They talk in some strange half broken English dialect where they repeat certain words and phrases for no real apparent reason. Because of its assumedly futuristic setting, this was no doubt done to differentiate it from the past and present, but it simply doesn’t work. I’m sure it played better on the page, where readers could create their own appropriate context, but here, it’s ridiculous.

I’ve mostly avoided describing the story in Cloud Atlas because to do so would be a fruitless endeavor. There’s far too much going on and far too little space to discuss it, which makes me fear that my review may come off as too negative. Make no mistake, I am recommending this movie. It doesn’t suffer so much from a lack of focus as it does simply an overload of ambition, which isn’t always a bad thing. Cloud Atlas has many flaws that are all too apparent, but when it works, it’s beautiful, meditative and unique.

Cloud Atlas receives 3/5

Friday
Mar162012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In one way or another, all movies are about destiny. The journey a character takes from a film’s opening moments all the way to its conclusion can easily be defined as such, yet critics and filmgoers still criticize those films for their contrivances and happenstances. Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with a quote, directly telling the audience that the film they’re about to see is about fate, which will give certain critics a reason to look past the film’s contrived situations, but expressly stated or not, contrivances are contrivances and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is full of them.

Jeff (Jason Segel) still lives at home with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). He’s 30 years old and nobody understands him. One day, he gets a call from a wrong number looking for a man named Kevin. Jeff sees this as a sign to look for someone named Kevin because, who knows, that person might just need his help. On a trip to the supermarket that same day, he spots on a man wearing a basketball jersey with the name “Kevin” etched on its back, so he follows him only to be robbed, beaten up and wandering the street where a whole mess of contrived situations lead him to what he thought he was looking for.

If I went through every single one of those aforementioned contrivances in an attempt to defend my stance on the film, I’d be giving away the entire story beat by beat because they continue on, quite literally, until the very last scene where characters who hadn’t seen each other the entire film just happen to intersect at a crucial point in time, so instead let me just give a few early examples. After taking a beating from the kid wearing the basketball jersey, Jeff takes a stroll down the road, the very same one that his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), just happens to be having lunch on (and only spots him because he leaves his table to take a conveniently timed call from his mother). Pat offers to give Jeff a ride home, but after some reckless driving, he slams into a tree, only for the two to spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer), across the street at a gas station with another man (both of whom are oblivious to the fact that a sports car at top speed just slammed loudly and violently into a tree).

Jeff and Pat then decide to tail Linda and the mystery man, but eventually lose track of them, so they part ways after an argument. Pat hails a cab and out of all the streets in the entire city it could have driven down, it drives down the one with a Hampton Inn on it and where Linda’s car is parked. Meanwhile, Jeff has hitched a ride on a snack food truck because the company name just so happened to have the name “Kevin” in it. Guess where the truck’s next delivery is? You guessed it. The Hampton Inn. What happens after this point is too story sensitive to discuss due to potential spoilers, but you can be sure moments like those previously mentioned continue to occur, bringing about what can only be described as a mega-contrivance.

Frankly, it’s tiring. This movie is either too stupid to realize the opening quote doesn’t negate its contrivances or it’s so smart it realizes putting that quote there will fool people into thinking it’s something more than what it is. If it’s the latter, it’s a clever ruse, but something tells me the Duplass brothers, the directors behind this and other so called mumblecore films Cyrus and Baghead, aren’t smart enough to pull such a sham, given that they still haven’t even realized how to operate a camera. Like their previous films, Jeff, Who Lives at Home still looks (perhaps intentionally) like an amateur home video, complete with poor framing, little headroom (if any) and misplaced zooms both in and out.

An uninteresting side story involving Sharon’s secret admirer co-worker is just another drop in the fail bucket when stacked up alongside the film’s bigger problems, but it’s not all terrible. A few of the jokes are laugh out loud funny and the lead is quite likable. He’s a bit of a slouch and spends more time smoking weed than looking for jobs, but he genuinely cares about people, as evidenced by a number of scenes, including one where he helps an old lady cross the street. Segel’s sympathetic portrayal of a character that could have easily come off as little more than a loser carries Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but without strong supporting content to aid him, it’s still difficult to care.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home receives 1.5/5

Friday
Sep242010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Being a movie critic sometimes means having to go back and watch older films to prepare for new ones. If something is being remade, it’s my duty to watch the original first. The same rule applies to sequels. In some cases, it doesn’t really matter, but in others, it is absolutely crucial to be up to date on the story. Such is the case with Wall Street. Having just watched it only 24 hours before the sequel entitled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I believe I appreciate it more than I would have had I not. Although outdated, that 1987 drama was solid and entertaining. The modern sequel is pretty much the same.

The movie begins with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) getting out of jail after serving eight years in a federal prison. He has lost everything: his money, his family and his friends. Flash forward seven years and we meet Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a “Wall Street guy” that is in a relationship with Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), despite her hatred brought on by her father for anything associated with Wall Street. After the death of Jake’s mentor and friend, he meets and begins a casual relationship with Gekko, much to Winnie's disapproval, vowing to take revenge on Bretton James (Josh Brolin), his hedge fund manager that he suspects led his mentor to suicide.

I’m not a business man and I don’t pretend to be. The workings of Wall Street are confusing to me. When to buy, when to sell, what the repercussions are if you’ve invested stock in a company that goes under; all of that boggles my mind. Throw in equity loans, leverage, bailouts, insider training and a scheme to somehow take a multi-billionaire down by making him more money, and my brain begins to hurt.

Fortunately, this movie, nor its predecessor, is too concerned with all of that. The nature of the movie says those things must exist, but the story and messages are easy to decipher. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is about greed and how it corrupts individuals into partaking in illegal activities, even if that means hurting those close to them. Within the film, that simple, prevalent theme works.

The problem is that the movie doesn’t go further by relating it to our country now. When asked if their company was going under, Jake’s mentor casually says, “Who isn’t?” At one point, the movie mentions how those laid off by a failing company eventually end up with “no income, no job and no assets.” But those are merely passing statements. It never truly makes a point on how jobs and our economy have been affected by, among other things, corruption on Wall Street.

Given Oliver Stone’s political slant, it comes as surprising that those areas weren’t explored to give the movie a bit more intellectualism, but no matter. The actors, specifically Michael Douglas, do a fine job of keeping our attention. As mentioned, watching Wall Street prior to the sequel boosted my enjoyment, and here’s how. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, Gordon Gekko went from being the villain in the original to the hero here. He is shown in a much more sympathetic light and, try as you might, you will come to like and understand the old guy. His life experiences, which include his time in jail, have made him more aware of what really matters in life, telling Jake at one point, “Money is not the prime asset in life. Time is.” He still does some bad things—after all, old habits are hard to break—but he’s a human being this time and, more than anything else in the world, wants to be there for his daughter, though she has rejected him ever since he has been in jail. Walking out of the gates for the first time in eight years, he expects Winnie to be there waiting for him. When she isn’t, sadness sweeps over his face. Watching the evolution of character from one movie to the next was fascinating and Douglas gives a wonderful performance.

Nevertheless, this is still a messy movie. Stone goes overboard with distracting visual excess, including the use of wipes and split screen, and there’s a subplot involving Jake’s mother that fits no logical place in the story and should have been cut. In another 23 years, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may be just as outdated as its predecessor—besides, business changes and Wall Street does along with it—but good drama is good no matter what time period and, despite some shortcomings, this movie works.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps receives 3/5

Friday
Jun112010

Solitary Man

There are few actors as versatile as Michael Douglas. He can be scary, he can be timid and he can even be funny, as evidenced by his excellent turn in the otherwise awful Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. He can also be dramatic and deep, however, and his new movie, Solitary Man, shows him at his best. A character study of the highest caliber, this is a movie that deserves to be seen and has proven itself as one of the year’s best.

Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a former captain of the car industry. In his heyday, he was known as the “honest” car dealer and couldn’t keep cars in his lot if he tried. His name was widely known, but now years later, that name is tarnished. People still know it, but they think of it in a more negative manner due to some illegitimate business decisions that threatened him with jail time and stripped him of his money, pride and family. He spends most nights now on the prowl at the local bars looking for younger girls willing to have some fun despite being in a relationship with Jordan, played by Mary-Louise Parker.

After coming down with the flu, Jordan asks Ben to take her daughter Allyson, played by Imogen Poots, to his old alma mater and show her the ropes. He’s just getting back on his feet business-wise and is close to getting the approval to open up a new dealership, but after making a huge mistake on campus, he loses the opportunity and his already decaying world starts to fall apart even faster. His daughter Susan, played by Jenna Fischer, is getting tired of his inconsistent inclusion in her child’s life and his ex-wife, played by Susan Sarandon, is one of his only means of comfort, though she takes potshots at him as well given his destructive tendencies.

I try to keep my plot synopses relatively short in my reviews, but it’s important to know all of this to understand the character and why this movie is as good as it is, though even then you’ll have to see it to fully appreciate his complexities. He’s not a simple character to decipher. The feelings he holds on the inside don’t match the thick skin on the outside. His pain and his fear are hidden underneath his debauchery and nonchalant attitude.

All of this derives from the opening scene where he is told by a doctor that his EKG looks worrisome due to an irregularity with his heart, but instead of finding out the problem, he leaves and never looks back. He’d rather not live with the knowledge of his impending death and won’t accept that he has grown old in a world that seems increasingly younger. As he says, instead of walking in a room and being the center of attention, the only people who notice him now are the old ones. He has a problem with that and to compensate, he parties like he’s in college and acts like a kid, which distances him from his family.

When he goes out with his daughter and grandson, he orders them not to call him “dad” or “granddad” because he wants to carry the illusion of youthfulness. Instead of showing up for his grandson’s birthday party, he spends a night with a woman and sleeps through it. It isn’t until Susan threatens to take away his right to see his grandson that he begins to wise up.

Of course, a myriad of other factors contribute to his enlightenment as well. He has no income and has been kicked out of his home, forcing him to work as a waiter in a small restaurant owned by an old friend he hasn’t seen in 30 years, and after winding up in a hospital from a cracked rib he realizes he can’t cheat death and that his womanizing and partying has only been a temporary solution to his troubles.

This is where the brilliance of the movie lies. You do get the sense that Ben is starting to see things straight, realizing that the rest of his time on Earth is better spent with his family than with random women he picks up at night, but at the same time that habit is hard for him to break. Ending on a note that offers no definitive conclusion, Solitary Man is a fascinating character study in its own right and shows that just because you’re around people, it doesn’t mean you’re not alone.

Solitary Man receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jan152010

The Lovely Bones

Before 2001, few people knew of the now famous Peter Jackson. Before landing the gig of a lifetime with The Lord of the Rings movies, he had dabbled mainly in comedy/horror films with Bad Taste, the Michael J. Fox starring The Frighteners, and one of my personal favorites Dead Alive (known as Braindead in other areas of the world). Since then, what with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the highly lauded 2005 King Kong remake, Jackson has proven himself to be a real talent in Hollywood. So imagine my disappointment after watching The Lovely Bones, a mediocre, pretentious effort from one of cinema's most prized directors. It's been quite a while since I've seen a movie with such an impressive resume that has failed to create any type of emotional resonance or meaning.

The film begins in 1973 and is about Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14 year old girl who gets murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) one day on her walk back home from school. Susie ends up in a purgatory type of world, which her brother dubs "the in between" after seeing her in his room one night. You see, her family, particularly her father, can still sometimes see her or at least get a message that she is still around, like through a flickering candle for instance. In the in between world, she meets up with another girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who explains that she can pass over whenever she likes, but she must leave her old world behind her. She decides she isn't yet ready and watches her parents, as well as her killer, as they try to unravel the mystery back in the world of the living.

There's a lot going on in The Lovely Bones. There are themes of love, death, tragedy, murder, the afterlife, divine intervention, the break-up of a family, and more, but none of them ever seem to fully come together into a cohesive whole. They are explored, but only by themselves, never together. None of the themes ever run their courses into one giant metaphor on life or death. They're just there.

This is a movie that assumes there is an afterlife. It never truly questions what happens after you die, which comes as a disappointment. Quite simply, one minute you're here, the next you're not and you're on your final journey on your way to the afterlife. Susie talks of "my heaven," but as far as I could tell, this heaven had no god or supreme being to rule over it. The film never questions the implications of what would happen if you died and there was an afterlife, but nobody was there to rule it. I felt like it had plenty of opportunities to really get into why death is such a mystery, but it spends the majority of its time on Earth going through the motions of a routine murder mystery.

The Lovely Bones is an unstructured movie where years go by with little to no indication, which comes off as confusing because Susie does not age in the afterlife, but everything goes on as it would normally on Earth. Its plot turns come off as insignificant, as evidenced by a scene midway through where the Salmon mother, played by Rachel Weisz, leaves the family out of grief and doesn't return until late in the movie. There's even a montage that occurs after Susie's death that is played for laughs that feels like it should be placed in the next Austin Powers movie, not in the serious nature of this film.

Then you have the acting, which is uniformly unimpressive. Mark Wahlberg is poor, Rachel Weisz, a usually reliable actress, seems to be phoning it in and little Susie Salmon as played by Saoirse Ronan is adequate, but hardly compelling. The poor acting correlates with the sometimes laughable story because none of it feels authentic. There's a ridiculous love connection that sparks up between Susie and Ray, played by Reece Ritchie, that plays like a deleted scene from Twilight due to the long awkward stares and a piano tune that sounds ripped from NBC's "The More You Know" PSA's.

After my screening of The Lovely Bones, I inadvertently heard another critic comment that the film had the "style over substance" school of thought. That person couldn't be more right. This is all style and no substance. Jackson is a great director, but his approach to this film seems extravagant simply for the sake of it. It worked in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, but the difference is that this material doesn't always necessarily call for it, yet it's bumped up to 11. It becomes a major distraction.

Though not devoid of all positive qualities (Stanley Tucci is terrific and there's a truly heart pounding chase scene in the back half of the movie), The Lovely Bones nevertheless feels manufactured not out of love, but labor and its ending is anti-climactic and unfulfilling. Don't expect this one to win best picture kiddos.

The Lovely Bones receives 1.5/5