Cloud Atlas – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Too much cheese can be bad for your health…unless you have nothing else to eat.)
On the printed page, Cloud Atlas implied, ruminated and teased along the edges of profundity. On the big screen, it blares, shouts and gushes how significant it’s trying to be. As you’ve heard by now, the movie is several thrilling romances in one enveloping 165-minute epic. So it’s not surprising to find yourself subdividing your overall reaction. I guess, then, as with some of my peers, I was alternately engrossed, impatient, enthralled, bemused, touched and incredulous – and never bored, though I’m damned if I can figure out how that happened. I didn’t always admire the film. But to mimic those who have only now finished campaigning for public office, I approved its message. And its message, in spite of what you may have read in reviews or heard from “advance buzz”, has less to do with reincarnation or karma as it does with freedom – or, more to the point, how we behave when freedom is absent.
To some critics, this recurring motif seems too obvious or banal to merit any “serious” consideration. But this presumes that every other commercial feature deals in such themes with as much grandeur and insistence as this six-ring circus of time displacement. The Wachowski siblings, who shared directorial duties with Tom “Run Lola Run” Twyker, made themselves golden when, with The Matrix, they suggested that your life may not belong to you while at the same time offering metaphorical routes towards release. You find this riff echoing through the parts of the movie belonging to them – the 1849 storyline about a Caucasian attorney and a Maori slave taking turns at saving each other’s lives; the 22nd-century dystopian saga of a Korean clone who finds her humanity by revolting against her masters; the post-apocalyptic tale of a tribesman disoriented by encountering relics of a lost civilization. The Twyker-directed segments – the 1936 thread about a dissolute young composer’s ill-fated encounter with his own greatness; the 1975 thriller about an investigative reporter’s set-to with ruthless energy-industry thugs; the present-day comedy about a publisher’s efforts to escape unjustified confinement in a dour nursing home – blend with the others better than you’d expect. But not quite seamlessly enough to notice some wobble and strain in the total package.
All the actors in the film in various roles – from Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and James D’Arcy to Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Donna Bae and Jim Sturgess are forced to wear varying layers of make-up to keep your heads in the game of trans-temporal souls. You get the feeling they’re not just engaged in role-playing, but in a genuine cause. They don’t get too many chances to tell stories about slavery and freedom either.
I suppose I should make a bigger deal of Cloud Atlas’ lapses in restraint and judgment in order to maintain my auxiliary membership in the Justice League of Curmudgeons. But while I can’t wholly recommend it, I can’t get out from under it either. And it’s mostly because while I don’t buy its pitch, I buy what it’s selling. I’m assuming I’ll hear a lot of talk about slavery and freedom in Spielberg’s Lincoln. But whatever its own merits, I doubt I’ll feel the direct sting of such issues as directly as I do here.
Arbitrage – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So, like, am I supposed to care what happens to this putz? And, if so, why?)
Hollywood’s golden age submitted for immortality a strikingly diverse male iconography: Cagney, Tracy, Gable, Cooper, Bogart, Wayne, Stewart, Mitchum and Grant. In their place, we have a handful of lizard kings: Cruise, Travolta, Cage, Willis and Jeff Bridges, especially his recent run playing grizzled-guys-of-blearily-compromised-dignity in both Crazy Heart and True Grit. Even Denzel Washington, who’s apparently proven yet again that he’s a standard-bearer for that aforementioned golden-age, won his only lead-actor Oscar so far by playing a distressingly bent police detective in 2001’s Training Day.
As good as Washington was in that movie, not even he can go into lizard mode with as much panache as Richard Gere. Mistaken at the starting gate (as was Alec Baldwin) for a dashing heroic lead, Gere is at his best playing characters who occupy that narrow range between morally conflicted and balefully duplicitous. It took a long time for audiences and critics to get that message given what I now suppose were the unreasonably large expectations Gere aroused back when ABBA ruled the hemisphere. Critics regard Gere’s own bent-cop turn in 1990’s Internal Affairs as the beginning of his revisionist period. But the evidence of lizard élan could be found as far back as 1979’s American Gigolo; its Julian Kaye lacking only the self-knowledge and articulation of Gere’s latter variations of the well-groomed, two-faced sharpie, whether as the blithe trick in 1990’s Pretty Woman or the ardent trickster in 2007’s The Hoax, which I was certain would nail down an Oscar nomination for Gere.
I have the same expectations for Gere’s splendid work in Arbitrage, though I suspect the results will be the same because the movie, as with Hoax, hasn’t gotten audience buzz strong enough to match the mostly-positive critical reaction. And what do I know anyway? I expected Margin Call to hit big with audiences and Academy voters a year ago. But I should know better by now. People may be mad as hell at Wall Street and the avaricious, short-sighted bastards who manipulated the economy to the edge of a cliff. But as far as today’s audiences are concerned, there’s no point in dragging these greed-heads out for further exposure unless Batman, Spider-Man and even The Hulk step in to beat the shit out of them. And I’m not sure they’re wrong to expect it.
Robert Miller, the besieged Master-of-the-Universe Gere nimbly portrays in Arbitrage, is a silver lynx in pinstripes, gliding into well-apportioned rooms as Julian Kaye did, only with barely-contained apprehension replacing Julian’s self-conscious swagger. Miller’s a bounder, an adulterer and, as with all true Americans, a serial improviser. He’s keeping law-enforcement wolves at bay on two fronts: By browbeating (charmingly, of course) his way into a merger that will paper over his hedge fund’s illegal oopsie and by buying off his former chauffeur’s son for helping him evade the scene of a fatal accident.
I’m only guessing the extent to which writer-director Nicholas Jarecki disapproves of such slippery-eel behavior because the game Arbitrage plays is one of compare-and-contrast ethics. Are the police, spearheaded by Tim Roth’s Colombo-esque bulldog, any more admirable for trying to get at Robert by terrorizing the African-American youth who’s merely keeping his word? After all, Robert’s rewarding his silence with money and what matters more than money? Justice? Robert would say you can buy that, too, though that’s the one thing he doesn’t bid on here, unless you count the merger. (Can’t say any more without spoiling the movie, which is still floating through the multiplexes before its December DVD release.) Despite Gere’s shrewdly-rendered performance, Arbitrage lets him down because, no matter how calculated its ambiguity, it doesn’t have the weight to do more than tweak its audience’s moral imagination. And if I’m going to spend an hour-and-change staring at yet another Master-of-the-Universe ensnared by his own machinations, tweaking isn’t enough inducement. Not after this election anyway.
Savages – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Not as bad as you’ve heard. In fact, the last time I had this much unadulterated fun at an Oliver Stone movie was…was….wait, it will come to me…)
People give Oliver Stone crap when he’s trying too hard to make a point. People give Oliver Stone crap when he’s not trying to make a point at all. Seems as though the only thing people don’t give Oliver Stone is a break – though it’s also true that, as with other maestros of the inflammatory/declamatory feature (see also “Lee, Spike” or “Moore, Michael”), he can be his own worst enemy. To deploy what seem to me appropriately martial metaphors, I tend to prefer the epee and the switchblade to the double-barreled shotgun for aesthetic approaches. But Stone’s blast-the-walls attack can yield arcane charms if you’re in the mood. And for any number of reasons, I’m more in the mood for Savages than I ever was for JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and even Platoon.
You could say – and I will – that Savages is Stone’s vision of the movie business as sifted through a SoCal crime thriller of dealing drugs and death. Its ménage-a-trois of Aaron Johnson’s Ben, Taylor Kitsch’s Chon and Blake Lively’s O-for-Ophelia is a too-neat analogy for the way Hollywood does business – or imagines itself doing business. Ben and Chon make their huge coin growing, packaging and marketing the sweetest, tastiest marijuana north of Baja. Nice guy Ben uses his take to help poorer countries become more self-sufficient in food production while hard guy Chon lays down the thunder to those who try to shortchange them out of profits. O, the triangle’s gauzy hypotenuse, loves them both for being twin poles of what she sees as The Perfect Man.
Inevitably, this beautiful dream is assaulted by a Mexican drug cartel, headed by a ferocious, helmet-haired Salma Hayak, that won’t accept “no” to their bid for a hostile takeover of Ben and Chon’s enterprise. Toss in Benicio Del Toro as Hayak’s sociopath enforcer and John Travolta as a morally flexible DEA agent and you have the kind of freewheeling comic misanthropy that once made you giddy to go to the movies in the mid-1970s. And if you still think Stone’s trying too hard, consider the two-for-one climax as a promising sign that maybe he’s starting to take everything less solemnly than before.