Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Directed by: Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski.
Written by: Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski based on the novel by David Mitchell.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Dr. Henry Goose / Hotel Manager / Isaac Sachs / Dermot Hoggins / Cavendish Look-a-Like Actor / Zachry), Halle Berry (Native Woman / Jocasta Ayrs / Luisa Rey / Indian Party Guest / Ovid / Meronym), Jim Broadbent (Captain Molyneux / Vyvyan Ayrs / Timothy Cavendish / Korean Musician / Prescient 2), Hugo Weaving (Haskell Moore / Tadeusz Kesselring / Bill Smoke / Nurse Noakes / Boardman Mephi / Old Georgie), Jim Sturgess (Adam Ewing / Poor Hotel Guest / Megan's Dad / Highlander / Hae-Joo Chang / Adam / Zachry Brother-in-Law), Doona Bae (Tilda / Megan's Mom / Mexican Woman / Sonmi-451 / Sonmi-351 / Sonmi Prostitute), Ben Whishaw (Cabin Boy / Robert Frobisher / Store Clerk / Georgette / Tribesman), Keith David (Kupaka / Joe Napier / An-kor Apis / Prescient), James D'Arcy (Young Rufus Sixsmith / Old Rufus Sixsmith / Nurse James / Archivist), Xun Zhou (Talbot / Hotel Manager / Yoona-939 / Rose), Susan Sarandon (Madame Horrox / Older Ursula / Yusouf Suleiman / Abbess), Hugh Grant (Rev. Giles Horrox / Hotel Heavy / Lloyd Hooks / Denholme Cavendish / Seer Rhee / Kona Chief).

No matter what you think of Cloud Atlas, you at least have to admit that this is one of the most daringly ambitious films of the year. I understand the people who think it’s a mess or bordering on incoherent (I’m not sure how I would have fared in piecing everything together had I not recently finished David Mitchell’s novel) or who simply think the film is overlong and flawed and fails to live up to what it sets out to do. I don’t necessarily agree with all of that – some of it, yes – but what I don’t understand is how some are outright mocking the film. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer decided to take an enormous risk in bringing this novel to the screen, and have crafted a huge, ambitious and daring film that is full of wonderful moments. Whether or not it all quite adds up (and for me, it mostly does) is almost beside the point – you have to at least admire their daring in even attempting to make Cloud Atlas. American film would be much better off if more filmmakers were as fearless as these three.

In the 1840s, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is travelling by boat from the South Pacific back to his native San Francisco – and tries to help a stowaway slave as well as fight off a parasitic worm making his way into his brain with the help of Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks). In 1936, a young British composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) from the home of Vyvyan Ayers (Jim Broadbent), an aging composer who needs Frobisher’s help if he’s ever going to write music again. In the 1970s, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an aging Sixsmith on an elevator, and he gives her the clues to help unlock a nuclear conspiracy. In 2012, a book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) has to hide out from some thugs, and finds himself in a Kafka-esque nursing home being held against his will. In 2143 in Neo-Seoul, a Fabricant Somu-451 (Doona Bae) discovers the truth about herself and her position in life, and tells it to an archivist before she is to be executed. And 106 Winters After the Fall, Valleysman Zachary (Hanks) helps the strange, foreign woman Meronym (Berry) find the secrets of the past, which could save both of their people’s futures.

In Mitchell’s novel, these stories were told in ascending order – climaxing with Zachery, and then works their way back down to end with Adam Ewing. That structure worked remarkably well in the book, as Mitchell daringly mixed genres, and links the stories to each other, with a character in each story discovering the story previously told – and thinking it may well be fiction. The book also valued language, and through the course of the novel, we see it devolve, from the prim and proper sentences to Adam Ewing, to the barely coherent ramblings of Zachary, and then back again. As the novel progresses, you start to see how the stories mirror each other – all touching upon the same themes. The novel has many accomplishments, and is truly one of the most original works of fiction of the last decade.

The Wachowskis and Tykwer decide on an even more daring, and cinematic, way of telling these stories however by jumbling them up – jumping back and forth between them for the entire almost three hour running time – linking individual scenes that correspond with each other. Although Tykwer directed three of the segments himself – the Frobisher, Rey and Cavendish stories, and the Wachowskis the other three, Ewing, Sonmi and Zachary – they never feel like the work of different directors, as the come together as seamlessly as is possible given the structure of the movie. Casting the same actors to play roles in each segment was a stroke of genius, as it provides some dramatic continuity between the stories. It is certainly true that not all the roles that all the actors play come together seamlessly to create whole characters, for the most part it works. Particularly for Hanks, who is a man who struggles with doing the right thing throughout – there is a definite progression for his multiple characters. Hugo Weaving is the opposite – an evil, amoral character every time he shows up. The rest is more of a mixed bag – although the two best performances in the movie are by Ben Whishaw, who likely doesn’t leave much of an impression in his small roles, but makes Frobisher into a tragic, romantic, poetic hero and Doona Bae, who as the fabricant Sonmi has the most emotional journey of any one segment – which is saying something as this segment has also been pumped up by the Wachowskis to give the movie some action. Also impressive though was Jim Broadbent, who seems to be having a blast as Timothy Cavendish and Hugh Grant, who shows up as characters who seemingly have more power than they actually do. And Halle Berry does a fine job being a spunky heroine – especially in the 1970s segment.

The film is also an impressive visual achievement – with wonderful special effects, art direction and costume design that gives each segment their own distinct look and feel. I was impressed by the cinematography – by Frank Griebe for the Tykwer segments and John Toll for the Wachowskis, although the entire movie has the free flowing camera style that connects each segment. The editing by Alexander Berner is undeniably the most complex editing job of the year. I was also surprised to learn that the score, which often ties the whole movie together, was also a team effort by Tykwer along with Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek.

To put it bluntly, I was in awe when I watched the movie, marveled by the impressive way this was all put together, and how the directors got the cast of stars to buy into the roles, and dive headlong in which certainly ran the risk of making them look stupid. I was film with admiration for the movie for its entire running length – yes, it is almost three hours long, but for me the time flew by – I wasn’t bored for a second.

And yet, I also have to admit that Cloud Atlas has more than its share of flaws. Like I said, overall I think the casting of same actors in various roles was a stroke of genius – and I see how some of them connect to each other. But other time, I have to admit I’m at a loss. I know why Sturgess is playing both Ewing and Hae-Joo Chang, the “Union” man who Sonmi falls in love with, but I have no idea why he shows up as a Poor Hotel Guest or a Scottish thug in other segments. I get how Luisa Rey and Meronym connect to each other for Berry, but have no clue why she shows up as Jacosta Ayers or some of her other characters. And other than Frobisher, it seems like they’re making poor Whishaw play the most meaningless roles in the other segments for now reason. While I’m not offended, as some are, about actors playing different races – after all, if Koreans are offended because many white and black cast members show up as Koreans in Neo-Seoul, than I suppose whites, Mexicans, blacks and women should be offended as well, since different races play those characters as well. After all, part of the theme of the movie is what makes us who we are is much bigger than race. Having said that, while I admire much of the makeup work in the movie, some of the Korean makeup is a distraction.

And then we have to deal with what the movie is actually saying – and I have to admit that the message is jumbled and messy, and I don’t think ever quite comes together the way the Wachowskis and Tykwer were hoping it would. The film is filled with a lot of new age spiritual hokum, that I personally don’t believe in, but then again, I don’t prescribe to the religious beliefs on display in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life either, and I still think that film is a masterpiece. The difference is that Malick’s message is confidently told, and comes through during the course of the film. While the message here is muddled.

Yet the pros of Cloud Atlas certainly outweigh its flaws. The film is a daring, original, technical marvel – one that takes huge chances, and mainly pulls it off. I don’t want to have a film culture where a movie like Cloud Atlas, which is so hugely ambitious, is mocked. Hate Cloud Atlas all you want – I understand the reasons – and yet I have to say that a film like this deserves respect. To me, it’s one of the must see films of the year for anyone who values ambitious films. You may hate Cloud Atlas, but I don’t think you can easily dismiss it.

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