Cloud Atlas

One of the biggest disappointments of last year was how no one really seemed to get or appreciate Cloud Atlas. It was written off as “bad” but I’ve got a feeling one day those reviews will be laughable. Jim Sturgess was disappointed, too, in how it turned out.

On why it did better overseas and especially in China:

The Asian culture, it’s an idea they’re much more familiar with, the afterlife and life rippling through time, that kind of thing. So it was interesting that they really connected with the material. It was a shame to me that maybe American audiences didn’t pick it up so much. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a shame

Back in the day, when there was a cinematic event, something that was new that you could all go see and watch and have an opinion on whether it was good or bad. It was a shame that people didn’t even get to have an opinion, it didn’t really get kind of distributed in a way that people were even able to know it was on, I guess.

It was a movie you either went with fully or it left you behind. But it will go down as one of the year’s most ambitious films.

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The Oscars can be a kaleidoscope view of our world — spectacular and surreal. Or they can be a microscope, honing in with sharp perspective on matters we’re obliged to observe with crystal clarity. The themes that course through this year’s Oscar race for Best Picture will likely be far more consequential than stories of a king from the 1930s who stuttered or a silent movie star who lost his mojo. For voters in recent years, those films offered a path of least resistance; they delivered a lot but asked so little of us in return.

Between then and now, we’ve witnessed a divided America, a hard fought election, a second-term victory by the first black president, and the subsequent fallout which cannot yet be measured. These events have altered our perceptions of ourselves as Americans. How could they not? 2012 wasn’t a bloody civil war but it often felt that a physical clash was just a few hurled insults away. Racist tweets from young students in the deep South using hateful epithets you just don’t hear anymore were quickly investigated and rightly outed. At this very moment, signatures are being gathered from at least 15 states on petitions to secede from the union. All because a black man is in power and he won’t step aside until he finishes the job he started. Nothing has ever made America lose its head the way it has over this.

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Les-Miserables

Will actors eventually be selected out of their central role in movies, increasing replaced by animation,  performance capture, and other evolving forms of digital characters?  That irrational fear has been drifting in and out of Oscar conversations for years. Just as the pleasure of reading books has endured while movies became the world’s foremost storyteller, films driven by great performances remain as popular now as they’ve ever been.  In the end, no technology can ever replace what gifted actors are able to do. This year, a handful of film ensembles remind us of the irreplaceable power of performances.

Two essential forces often compete to dictate the Best Picture race — the director and the ensemble cast. The Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble award has come to mean much more than just a precursor for Best Picture. They have gone out of their way to define their ensemble prize in terms of their unique collaborative contribution — Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.  Those of us who look to the SAG Awards to see what might win Best Picture must balance our regard for the acting branch as the largest block of voters who choose the top prize at the Oscars with our awareness that sometimes it really is all about the acting.  When a film wins Best Picture without an Oscar for its director — as was the case with Crash, Chicago, and Shakespeare in Love — the SAG ensemble prize is often an early indication that its strength is perceived to be the collective contribution of its cast more than a result of the director’s control.

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One of the few critics who seems willing to give himself over to its fearless exuberant head-tripping labyrinth, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir says “Cloud Atlas is a flawed and potentially ridiculous work and I loved it, and can’t wait to see it a second time (and then a third). Indeed, all of that is connected…”

I can appreciate a well-crafted work of Hollywood formula that gives the audience what it already knows it wants, at least up to a point, but I often come away feeling restless and unsatisfied. I’d almost always rather see the rare kind of pop spectacle that takes enormous risks, that reaches for grand themes, big ideas and operatic emotions, even if it makes indefensible mistakes along the way. That’s what “Cloud Atlas” is, the kind of oversize, overpriced movie that critic Stuart Klawans described in his book “Film Follies.” (The classic example would be D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Intolerance,” which serves as a major model and influence here.) “Cloud Atlas” is arguably way too much of a good thing, with too many characters, too many stories, too many directors – Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume,” and Andy and Lana Wachowski (né Larry) of the “Matrix” trilogy — and too much running time. But its too-muchness is also the source of its power; I was absolutely never bored, and felt surprised when the movie ended. It’s an amazing, baffling, thrilling and (for many, it would appear) irritating experience, and for my money the most beautiful and distinctive big-screen vision of the year.

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With two weeks before the US Presidential election, nerves are frayed. The horses are kicking in their stalls. Cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon and a country sharply divided. Oscar season had no choice but to start early this year. With ballots being turned in very early in January, there are just two months left to lay it all out. At the end of November and early December we’ll get our critics top ten lists. After that, the critics awards. Then the guild awards followed by the Oscars. That means that a consensus will be forming soon. Usually by the beginning of December the race seems to be about a handful of films that have run the gauntlet and come out the other side with a consensus vote. Some of these movies have been preordained, their places in line held firm. They only have to meet or surpass expectations to fortify their position.

Oscar pundits are busily making their lists, putting certain names at the top of the list because they deserve to be there, or because they hope they will be there. Oscar voters are preparing for the all-out assault of ads and screeners, parties and interviews. Through the noise they’ll lift their fingers and point, “that one. I like that one.” It’s enough to drive any sane person off the cliff, that is, if the election hasn’t done that already. But at this stage of the game, there isn’t a lot more we can know because four of the biggest movies of the year have yet to be seen: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hobbit. Any one or all or none could shift the race from where it stands right now.

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