Movie Talk

Indie Roundup TIFF: The Wachowski’s ambitious epic ‘Cloud Atlas’ plus ‘The Iceman,’ ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Barbara’

Movie Talk

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Photo: Warner Bros

The Toronto International Film Festival always gives me a stomachache. Though I've watched so many movies a day that my brain feels like it's dribbling out my ear, it's never enough. There are so many that I missed, like Miguel Gomes's "Tabu," Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Penance," James Ponsoldt's "Smashed," Michael Haneke's "Amour." Anyway, here's my latest, and last, dispatch from TIFF 2012:

[Full Coverage: Yahoo! Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival]

"Cloud Atlas" -- If you ever wanted to see what Halle Berry looks like as a backroom Korean doctor, "Cloud Atlas" is your chance. Tom Twyker and Lana and Andy Wachowski's adaptation of David Mitchell's book is not lacking for ambition. The movie jumps back and forth between six very different narratives, from an 18th-century nautical adventure to a tale about a dissolute composer set in the 1930s to a potboiler set in San Francisco during the 1970s to a sci-fi saga that takes place in Korea during the 22nd century. For the first hour (this is not a short movie), the stories seem utterly unconnected, and you might be left wondering what the hell you're watching, but as the film gathers steam, the individual plots start to resonant off one another, creating a momentum that's beyond film's separate tales.

I have to confess that I'm a huge fan of the book. I made the mistake of bringing it along on a vacation last year. Once the book got its hooks into me, I couldn't tear away from it to see whatever ancient wonder that awaited. I went into this screening feeling both anticipation and dread, but for the most part the movie met my high expectations. Wachowski and company's love of the book and passion for the project is obvious in every frame.

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The movie is, in the end, a much more romantic work than the book. It tweaks a couple of the endings to be more palatable for the silver screen, and it foregrounds the book's Eastern notions of reincarnation. As with most literary adaptations, you lose much of author's stunning command of the language (read the book, seriously), but Wachowski and team add an additional layer to the flick, which sometime works and sometimes is just distracting. The same half-dozen A-list actors appear in nearly all its stories, underling the karmic connection to us all. Thus you have Tom Hanks playing a cockney thug, Hugo Weaving in full drag playing a Nurse Rachet-like retirement-home attendant, and Mr. Charming himself -- Hugh Grant -- as a cannibal barbarian covered in war paint. There's something that feels fundamentally right about seeing Hugh Grant dressed as a bloodthirsty savage. Too bad that footage couldn't be edited into "Notting Hill."

'Cloud Atlas' Theatrical Trailer

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The Iceman
"The Iceman" -- Richard Kuklinski was a mob enforcer who by some counts killed over 100 people. He was dubbed "The Iceman" in part because he liked to freeze his victims to hide their times of death. Kuklinski was the subject of an HBO documentary, which shows the convicted killer reflecting on his life. And now his story has been made into a feature film that stars Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder. At beginning of the movie, Kuklinski makes ends meet by dubbing porn for a living until mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) suddenly shows up at his door. If there's one thing that we can learn from both this movie and from "The Place Beyond the Pines," it's that when Ray Liotta comes knocking, it's going to be trouble. Demeo enlists Kuklinski to be his enforcer, a job at which Kuklinski proves to be unnervingly skilled. As the body count climbs, Kuklinski buys himself a piece of the American dream, complete with a family and a house in the suburbs. "The Iceman" is not a movie that reinvents the genre; it is strictly by the numbers. If you've seen "Goodfellas" or "Donnie Brasco" or the like, you know that Kuklinski's domestic bliss is not long-lived; everything is bound to go to hell.

What saves the movie is the cast. Shannon is, as always, mesmerizing to watch. Beneath the film's pacific surface is an ocean of coiled rage. Every grimace or eye-twitch looks like a prelude to volcanic explosion. But the real revelation is Winona Ryder as Kuklinski's wife. She lights up the screen even when things get very dark, providing a fragile warmth that counterbalances Shannon's signature brood.

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Byzantium
"Byzantium" -- Neil Jordan's latest vampire movie strips away much of the Southern Gothic cheesiness of his last foray into the genre, "Interview With a Vampire." And while this movie might not have Brad Pitt with long hair and a ruffled shirt, it does have Gemma Arterton in a corset. And she's almost as pretty. At the film's opening we see Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a pensive teen writing in her journal and then throwing each page into the wind. Hers is a story that she cannot tell, we learn from a voice-over, and clearly it's driving her crazy. Meanwhile, her protector Clara (Arterton) is having a bad day at work at the local strip club. First a client catches her red-handed trying to lift his wallet, and then a shadowy figure in a trench coat shows up. She bloodies the first guy's nose and decapitates the second. The latter guy, we learn, was a member of the vampire police. Eleanor and Clara flee the city and wind up in a sleepy coastal town. As it turns out, they've been to this particular community before. Like, 200 years ago. Immortality, as it turns out, leaves a lot to be desired. Especially if you're being pursued by the blood-sucking equivalent of Detective Gerard from "The Fugitive." Given the protagonists' persistent poverty, it is surprising that they've been alive for centuries but never discovered the magic of compound interest.

What's interesting about this film is its departure from the genre's convention: Vampires in "Byzantium" are immune to the sun, indifferent to garlic, and have a perfectly normal set of teeth. When they want to feed or when they're aroused, their thumbnails grow to a sharp point. In a movie about strong female vampires, that unabashedly Freudian choice is provocative. While the movie might not end up in the pantheon of great vampire movies like "Nosferatu" or "Let the Right One In," it is sleek and entertaining. And thankfully, none of the vampires sparkle.

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"Barbara" -- The press screening for this movie was scheduled at the same time as Harmony Korine's girls-gone-wrong yarn, "Springbreakers." Only a handful of people were at the screening, which is a pity because it was probably the best movie I saw at the fest. The Barbara of the title (played by Nina Hoss) is a talented doctor banished to a small burg on the Baltic Sea by the East German authorities for reasons that aren't immediately clear. What is clear is that she has no desire for friends. In spite of the attention and admonitions of hunky fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), she remains as forbidding as the Berlin Wall. As we soon learn, Barbara is doing everything she can to find a way out of the country to be with her West German lover. Of course, the Stasi have her under surveillance, subjecting her to regular house and body searches. The possibility of detainment or worse hangs in the air. Christian Petzold directs this movie with the precision of a surgeon, doling out information out bit by precious bit. As Barbara's situation becomes more and more clear, the movie's suspense gets ratcheted up to the point where you are at the edge of your seat and your heart is in your throat.

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