"Cloud Atlas" (*** 1/2 - 163 minutes)

Cloud Atlas

Siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski burst onto the cinematic scene in 1996 with their critically acclaimed indie noir "Bound" about a lesbian couple who attempt to steal $1.7 million from the mob. One of my all-time favorite films, "Bound" was followed three years later by "The Matrix" series which expanded on their cinematic vision complete with imaginative story-telling and innovative special effects. Although the second and third in the series (made together and released in 2003) were not as critically successful, no one doubted the Wachowskis' expertise in the art of movie making.

However, their careers took a major critical and financial step back in 2007 with their disappointing "Speed Racer".  After that, Larry underwent a transgender operation to become Lana, and then the siblings hooked up with "Run Lola Run" director Tom Tykwer to write and direct one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking film of this or any year.

The trio was turned down by every major studio (David Mitchell's complex 2004 novel was widely considered unadaptable) until Warner Bros. agreed to finance a small portion.  Undaunted, the three went on to raise most of the $100 million themselves making this one of the most expensive independent films ever made.

"Cloud Atlas" cleverly interweaves six stories set across centuries-while imaginative makeup transforms the major actors into different characters in each segment-at times changing their race, age, and even gender.  The timelines shift continuously, back and forth, and circling from 1846 in the South Pacific, 1936 Scotland, San Francisco in 1973, present day England, 2144 Neo Seoul, and finally "After the Fall" in 2321 and 2346 post-apocalyptic Hawaii. There is a common thread flowing through each narrative that says something about freedom, reincarnation, spirituality, good vs. evil, love, and human relationships that had me rethinking and reliving the film long after I left the theater.  However, whether or not you "get" the heady concepts weaving it's way throughout the film is, frankly, irrelevant in that it  should not prevent you from experiencing the spectacle the directors present on the screen.  At nearly three hours, the time spent never bores.

The division of labor was split, with the Wachowskis writing and directing the 19th Century and the futuristic portions and Tykwer doing the same for the 1936, 1973 and 2012 segments.  Each story is provided with a different style, look, and grandeur; specifically encompassing most of the genres including comedy, horror, suspense, romance, etc.  The bottom line:  there is something here to please just about any viewer-whether it set in a classic period, presenting a mystery thriller, offering a present-day comedy, portraying a sci-fi future, or displaying a dystopian future.

Of course, some of the six work better than others.  I was extremely impressed with the classical and futuristic sequences while the 1973 story proved less interesting.  And the extremes the makeup crew went to Asianize several of the Caucasian actors became a minor distraction to the action in the Neo Seoul narrative.  However, the acting (by the ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgis, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, and Doona Bae) is generally superb with each actor, whether major or minor, deftly exhibiting tremendous range from segment to segment.  Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, and Johnny Klimek created the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", a brilliant sweeping score that permeates throughout the movie that also serves to cohesively link the characters and narrative.

And here is my first Oscar prediction:  editor Alexander Berner has intricately cut the film in such a fluid and seamless manner that I am certain his work on this film will be a film class teaching standard for years to come.  Berner's contribution is a major reason that the directors were able to successfully translate Mitchell's novel to the screen.

Finally, half the fun will be trying to recognize who is playing whom. So, don't jump out of your seat and head for the exit as soon as the credits start to roll-at least initially, as each actor and their corresponding roles throughout the saga will be visually displayed.  Count on several "oohs" and "aahs" to be heard throughout the audience as each character is revealed.  At times the participants on the sets couldn't even recognize each other.

(l to r) Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks) and Adam Ewing (Jim
Stugess) in a scene from the 1849 South Pacific segment

(l to r) Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) and Robert Frosbisher
during the 1936 Scotland segment

Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) and Joe Napier (Keith David) in
a scene from the 1973 San Francisco segment

Timonthy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in the 2012 England 

Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in the 2144 Neo Seoul segment

The Kona Chief (Hugh Grant) in the post-apacolyptic Hawii

"The Sessions" (*** 1/2 - 98 minutes)

Thursday October 4, 2012

I suspect that many movie goers will pass on seeing "The Sessions" when they first discover that it deals with a polio stricken individual paralyzed from the neck down, who, at the age of 38, is finally trying to discover and realize his sexuality.  If these folks decide to skip this wonderful independent film for the latest Hollywood mindless action pabulum, such patrons will miss one of most satisfying films of the year.  Australian writer/director Ben Lewin (who suffered with polio as a child) based his narrative on essayist and poet Mark O'Brien's magazine article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," and has expertly constructed an emotional, hopeful, and extremely well-acted story that is sure to be recognized come Oscar-time.  

The film opens with actual news footage of Mark graduating from The University of California at Berkeley and then shifts years later to his life which requires him to breathe for the majority of his time on a respirator and iron lung.  When it is suggested that he seek out a sexual surrogate to end his years of virginity, Mark seeks guidance and acceptance from Father Brendan (the always capable William H. Macy) who appears in snippets throughout as Mark relates, in detail, his session experiences. 

However, complications arise as the established six session limit is about to be reached as both surrogate and subject begin realizing that their encounters were becoming a bit more serious than either intended - that it was becoming increasingly difficult to check their emotions at the door. 

Helen Hunt (who won an Academy Award in 1997's "As Good As It Gets" but whose latter roles have been largely forgettable) wonderfully portrays the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene.  However, it is John Hawkes (nominated in 2010 for "Winter's Bone") whose performance is crucial to the success of the movie.  Portraying the stricken Mark entirely from a supine position is no easy task (I was reminded of Ryan Reynolds remarkable performance in a coffin in 2010's "Buried").  However, Hawkes magnificently pulls it off without a false note conveying equal parts humor and pathos.

The supporting cast, including Moon Bloodgood as one of Mark's attendants, is particularly noteworthy.  And a special mention must be given to the beautifully simplistic unobtrusive score by two-time Academy Award nominee Marco Beltrami ("3:10 to Yuma" and "The Hurt Locker").

The inspirational sexual coming-of-age film, which premiered at Sundance last January and deservedly received both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting, will have a limited platform release beginning October 19.  A word of advice:  this is a four hankie movie - so come prepared!

Cheryl (Helen Hunt) and Mark (John Hawkes) during a

Excellent Documentary premiers on most PBS stations October 4


"Give Up Tomorrow", which I screened at the 2011 SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival and placed 7th on my top 10 list, will be premiering on most PBS stations around the country beginning October 4 (it will be shown October 6 on WETA at 11:30PM and October 7 on MPT2 at 10:30PM in the Baltimore/Washington area).  Corruption within the Philippines' judicial system is exposed as the filmmakers examine the sensational trial of a 19-year-old student who was found guilty of raping and murdering two sisters during a tropical storm despite evidence of his innocence.  The following was my 4 star review from June 2011, followed by a letter from Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco. Set you DVR for this one!!

"Give Up Tomorrow" (****-95 minutes) 
SILVERDOCS screened a film last year, "Presumed Guilty", which focused on the corrupt Mexican criminal justice system that wrongly convicted a Mexican street merchant of murder. Michael Collin's film about a clearly innocent Filipino student, Paco Larranaga (along with 6 others), falsely accused and sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of two sisters, makes that Mexican case seem like a parking ticket trial. Paco's case eventually involved the U.N., Amnesty International, and even the country of Spain who are feverishly trying to free Paco, who has now been imprisoned for over a decade. Two Cebuana sisters, Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong, disappeared on July 16, 1977. When a blindfolded, battered, and handcuffed body of a young woman was found in a ravine two days later, the police, who first declared it wasn't one of the sisters, reversed field and said the corpse was Marijoy based on fingerprints. Paco had one minor fighting incident as a teenager and was currently attending a culinary school in Cebu, 300 miles from where the girls were abducted. Despite the testimony of 35 witnesses (students and teachers), including photographs of him there the night the girls were taken attesting to his presence in Cebu, Paco was convicted along with six others. This doesn't even scratch the surface of the injustice he faced over the next twelve years. Winner of this year's Tribeca Special Jury, Best Director Prize., this beautifully edited, riveting, comprehensive true-to-life nightmare should help generate even more worldwide support from everyone who screens it. The PBS P.O.V. film will air on PBS sometime in 2012 


 We are very excited to announce that TOMORROW, October 4, will be our US Television Premiere on PBS as part of POV's 25th Anniversary Season. The exact broadcast time and date varies depending on your location so please check your local listings by typing in your zip code here. (New York and LA will premiere on Sunday, October 7). And for those in the US, the film will also be streaming for 30 days online. While Paco's situation has improved since going to Spain, he remains in prison. September marked his 15 year anniversary behind bars for a crime that the whole world now knows he didn't commit. Read a recent bold and heartfelt statement from Paco's sister Mimi here. This is a tremendous opportunity for impact. We've been fortunate to screen in more than 60 festivals all over the world, but it is with this single broadcast that we will reach the most people at one time. Please help us spread the word. Tune in to POV on October 4, and join the campaign to Free Paco  Now!

Our warmest,

Michael and Marty

 P.S. Please join us on Facebook and our official website for the latest updates on our US premiere and our theatrical release in the Philippines.