Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, 2012). Based on the dense, woven basket David Mitchell novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas is an escalating dare as cinema. The film freely intercuts between six different plots, spanning from the high seas of the mid-nineteenth century to a dystopian future around three centuries from now. There are echoes and parallels across the stories, including most of the principal cast playing multiple roles, often under mounds of makeup effects. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, all familiar with reality-warping narrative tricks, do their best to hammer the unwieldy material into a sleek shape, but it’s probably an impossible task. Inevitably, some stories work better than others, and every instance of endearing inspiration is matched by two of shortcut cliche gussied up in distracting finery. The cast is understandably all over the place in their capability to meet the demands of their varied roles, with Halle Berry the somewhat surprising standout. Tom Hanks should be the ringer of the group, but he frequently lapses into hammy posturing. The weakest might by the Wachowskis’ former Agent Smith, Hugo Weaving, who’s saddled with too much dull villainy, including a proto-Babadook chaos spirit that is maybe the film’s single worst element. Cloud Atlas is messy, but at least its cascading clutter is in service of wild ambition. I’ll always take that over staid safety.
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2012). I can’t compare this longer, preferred cut of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan against the first version of Margaret that saw release one year earlier, but trimming over a half hour out of this thoughtful, complicated drama would be an act of creative brutality. Filmed in 2005, the film reckons with the anxious uncertainty and aligned aching for justice that was endemic to the U.S. spirit in the long aftermath of the September 11th attacks. And yet it’s not about that in any explicit way, focusing instead on the emotional travails of a high school student named Lisa (Anna Paquin, stronger here than I’ve even seen her) who witnessed — and partially caused — a fatal accident on a New York City street. Without ever letting the film get undone by sprawl, Lonergan covers a tremendous amount of storytelling ground, always with a thematic purpose. Margaret is a dense, emotionally acute movie that invites spirited and exhaustive discussion of its many, many layers. Its imperfections probably make it the weakest of Lonergan’s three films to date, but Margaret is still enthralling as a piece of art that unabashedly aims for greatness.
Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018). A rampaging, borderline incoherent disaster, Venom scrapes a cartoonishly designed antihero from the Marvel Universe and sets him bounding along to the most tired rhythms of big screen superhero storytelling. In the comics, Venom’s origin story hinges on symbiotic costume briefly worn by the amazing Spider-Man, which helps to explain the design of the character. Here, it’s just some living, thinking goo coveted by an evil corporation, led by Elon Musk stand-in Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). A chunk of it winds up bonding with down on his luck investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, affecting a voice and cadence that suggests Bobcat Goldthwait doing an impression of Marlon Brando playing Irwin Fletcher) and the quickly wearying nonsense gets underway. Director Ruben Fleischer seems entirely indifferent to refined qualities such as character depth or narrative coherence, opting instead for so much distracting clamor. For me, the sole enjoyment in the film is watching Michelle Williams, as Eddie’s estranged girlfriend, navigate her scenes as a gingerly baffled bystander.