'Cloud Atlas' and more new movies, plus one new-old movie ('Wake in Fright')

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in "The Sessions."
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

A couple of potential Oscar contenders open this week: The Sessions, which could earn a nomination for John Hawkes' portrayal of a paralyzed man seeking to (finally) lose his virginity; and Cloud Atlas, an sprawling, interesting-yet-flawed epic from Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski that might win some technical notices, though probably won't earn any acting nods (however, the Many Faces of Tom Hanks could sneak in there). Short reviews of both films below.

In this week's Guardian, read up on unsettling 1971 Australian film Wake in Fright, finally hitting US theaters this week, and the San Francisco Film Society's "French Cinema Now" series, including a film starring Jane Fonda as an American expat in France (speaking flawless French, and looking pretty flawless, too).

Other new movies this week: Gerard Butler battles big (Bay Area!) waves in Chasing Mavericks; a teen (Nickolodean starlet Victoria Justice) chases her rascally little brother from one end of Halloween night to the other in Fun Size; a king (Korean dreamboat Byung-hun Lee) hires a lookalike actor to body-double him in Korean hit Masquerade; and people ... uh, run shrieking from spooky stuff in video-game sequel Silent Hill: Revelation 3D.

Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell's wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess' sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher's (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell's book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there's too much uplift forced on the six tales' summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can't help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn't possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) (Dennis Harvey)

Nobody Walks In Ry Russo-Young’s LA-set film, from a screenplay co-written with Lena Dunham, an alluring young woman named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) is welcomed into the Silver Lake home of psychotherapist Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and sound engineer Peter (John Krasinski), who has agreed to help Martine with the soundtrack for her film, destined for a gallery installation back in New York. While Martine’s film constructs a fiction around the fevered activities of the insect world, Russo-Young’s drifts quietly through the lives of its human household, offering glimpses of the romantic preoccupations of a teenage daughter (India Ennenga) and Julie’s interactions with one of her patients (Justin Kirk), and revealing a series of relationships hovering tensely on the border of unsanctioned behavior. The uncomfortable centerpiece is the intimacy that develops between Peter and Martine; tracking their progress through the family’s sprawling home as the two collect sounds for her project, the camera zooms in toward the sources, making the spaces the pair inhabit seem ominously small. Their eventual collision is unsurprising, but Peter hardly comes across as a besieged, frustrated family man. He tells Martine that “marriage is complicated,” but against the warm, appealing backdrop of his and Julie’s home life, it sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse for kissing a pretty, proximal 23-year-old. As for Martine, she seems not to need any rationale. But even factoring out the callousness of youth (or at least the genre of youth presented here), the film offhandedly suggests that the tipping point away from domestic happiness is depressingly easy to reach. (1:22) (Lynn Rapoport)

Pusher A pusher has been pushed to the limit — this time around in a charm-free, deal-driven London. This remake of the Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish hit was given the seal of approval by the Drive (2011) auteur, who took a role here as an executive producer, with Luis Prieto in the director’s seat. Prieto does his best to keep the pressure on at all moments, as small-time heroin dealer Frank (Richard Coyle, resembling Dominic West in urban-hustler safari mode) undergoes the worst week of his life. He appears to have a tidy little existence with goofy, floppy-haired cohort Tony (Bronson Webb) by his side and delicately beautiful stripper Flo (Agyness Deyn) providing sexual healing and safe harbor for his dough. He has just hooked up drug mule Danaka (Daisy Lewis) to bring back a batch from Amsterdam when acquaintance Marlon (Neil Maskell) hits him up for a large order. Frank goes to his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his role in the original), an avuncular sort who pushes baklava in space sprinkled with wedding-cake-like gowns. Frank already owe him money and can’t cover the heroin’s cost, but this is a business built on trust, as fragile as it is, and Milo likes him, so he goes along, provided Frank returns the money immediately. Those tenuous ties of understanding are tested when cops bust Frank and Marlon and the former must dump the dope in a park pond. He refuses to give up his connections to the cops but finds that the loyalty of others is being tested when it comes to threats, cash, and even love. Prieto is a more self-consciously lyrical moviemaker than Refn, choosing to a vaguely Trainspotting-style cocktail of lite surrealism and slightly cheesy low-budg effects like vapor-trail headlights to replicate the highs and lows of Frank’s joyless clubland hustle. Still, he makes us feel Frank’s stress, amid the fatalistic undertow of the narrative, and his sense of betrayal when Pusher’s players turn, despite a smalltime pusher’s workman efforts to shore up against the odds. (1:29) (Kimberly Chun)

Question One Question One goes behind the scenes of the 2009 campaign concerning the referendum which reversed legislature granting same-sex couples the right to marry in Maine. The film investigates both sides of the story, including marriage dreams of queer families and confessions of regret from the appointed leader for the Yes on One Campaign, Marc Mutty. Though listening to preachers and activists devalue love between two men or two women might make you cringe, the inclusion of these moments creates an emotionally tense experience that will remind you how important it is to bounce back from defeat. It shows that the next step will have to be more than just rallying voters, it will require a change in ideology — an understanding that gays who wish to marry deserve equal rights, not religious salvation. As Darlene Huntress, the director of field operations for the No on One Campaign says, “I want to sit down and break bread with these people. I want to sit down and say get to know me — open your mind up enough to get to know me.” (1:53) (Molly Champlin)

The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn't had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures' experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it's not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn't pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn't been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark's very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) (Dennis Harvey)