Thursday, November 1, 2012

Review: "Cloud Atlas" is six solid stories meshed into madness

Left to right: Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent 
It is impossible to aptly review the latest film from collaborators Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer without annotating a contraction here or there. For every positive feature, there is a "but" floating nearby. Nobody can fault the movie's level of ambition and for marvelously crafting six stories from the David Mitchell novel into a sweeping epic. It is at times gorgeous, innovative, and tough to decipher actors buried under make-up. Visually, this film succeeds on all accounts. It is dissecting the rest of the film in which things get more problematic.

I will be upfront about my relationship with the story. I have not read Mitchell's novel. Besides the six story premise, I knew very little about what was to come. The trailers seemed appealing, though at the same time maybe a little too foreboding. I went in with faith that Cloud Atlas would at very least show the Wachowski's pendant for visual flair. Also, I just have been obsessed with the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil leading up to this. I have been championing this film's chances at major categories, though as my coverage of director Rian Johnson's Looper will show, I don't believe that the Academy is ready for a sci-fi Best Picture winner, and at most director Ang Lee's Life of Pi is taking all of the steam away. 

*Going ahead, I want to acknowledge that there will be spoilers, though only in revealing plot devices. 

It is impossible to look at Cloud Atlas without admiring the craftsmanship that went into it. Very few directors can competently interweave six stories and make the narrative stand firm. That is almost harder when each story is many eons apart and often are conundrums of how they interconnect. There are subtle clues to this, but not enough to profoundly lead the audience from story to story. This also plays against the film's advantage, as each story has to keep moving, often tearing apart tension from scenes as the momentum builds.

Of course, that is the trouble with tackling six stories into a hybrid epic. The pacing can never fit right. Even when voice-over relays overlapping themes of oppression, greed, and freedom, there is a sense that not one story rises above the other for too long. Each plays out in almost equal time in a way that would have worked better had the film been built into 20 minute segments detailing each event. While the pacing keeps things moving aggressively, following six stories that consistently change over the course of three hours is a little bit overwhelming at times.

Notable standouts include Tom Hanks, who seems to be having the most fun with his roles. Rarely has Hanks been able to play characters different from his good guy shtick for an entire film, and it makes it more delicious. Hanks is one of the few interlocking points of the film, playing multiple characters (which was established as a way to represent the same souls through time), and while the range presented in each isn't quite impressive, the Academy should give some acknowledgement in being able to pull off the accents, characteristics, and varying energy of each of these characters. It is Hanks' most ambitious film in years and well deserving of an acting nomination (tough to determine if it should be supporting or lead, but I'll be fine with either). 
Everyone else is equally entertaining, despite not being as prominent or entertaining, though probably won't get nominated due to their lack of showiness.

The movie is not quite Best Picture material, as it manages to be as great as it is underwhelming. For every good idea that is executed on screen, another is distracting the pacing. At most we should applaud the Wachowskis on making an ambitiously deviant narrative. It doesn't always work, but very few films come close to being as authentically constructed as this. Cloud Atlas stands out as a result, though it does manage to fall into holes as the film shifts into Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona) rattling off philosophical statements that are supposed to be the emotional crux. At this moment, the film feels a little too preachy and while it doesn't unravel the effort, it tampers too much with the ending.

Instead of furthering with complicated reviews mixing up each story, I have decided to address each separately, sharing thoughts. I will go in chronological order and share my reasoning. Do know that while I seem to be warm on the film, I am enthused by the halves of it. They were each good enough stories to carry their own film or short. It's just that they didn't work well together at times, as I wanted to know how each one ended. Often times 20 minutes would go by before I found that out.

Left to right: Tom Hanks and Jim Sturgess
"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"

PLOT: Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) comes to the Chatham Islands to do business. Upon his stay, he gets treated for worms by a doctor named Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), who consistently gives him medicine. During this time, he comes across slaves that the property owners possess. He sees one being whipped named Autua (David Gyasi). As Ewing leaves, Autua somehow gets stowed aboard the ship and must remain hidden until they return back to Ewing's home in San Fransisco.

I felt that this was an interesting take on racism. While characters like Dr. Goose spend the entire film hating slaves, the narrative manages to show how Ewing and Autua bond during their time at sea. The narrative may not be the strongest of the bunch, but the relationship between Ewing and Autua really carries this story into interesting directions as it evolves into a bottle story on the lower decks of a ship. It is also interesting to see Tom Hanks being racist, which is not common in his filmography. He manages to not be over the top about it, which really benefits the piece.

Placement (in order of favorites): #4

Left to right: Broadbent and Ben Whishaw
"Letters to Zedelghem"

PLOT: Musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) decides to help old composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) who is suffering from a case of amnesia. As their relationship grows, Frobisher manages to help compose Sixsmith's song "The Cloud Atlas Sextet." This causes the two to get greedy, especially as the increasingly suicidal Frobisher tries to leave and return to see his boyfriend 

Rufus Sixsmith (Jame D'Arcy)

, knowing that if he departs, he will lose credit for this piece of work.

I really enjoyed this segment a lot, which may notably be because of my life as a musician, though also because it tackles collaborations in a very honest light and how homosexuality can often cause conflict in it. It also is where our title comes from, and for the most part this bit reminds me  of the final moments of director Milos Forman's Amadeus where Salieri and Mozart are forced to team up due to Mozart's sickness. It doesn't clone itself too much to the iconic film, but it manages to produce a lot of brilliant piano music and give us another great example of how the film is capable of making intimate relationships powerful despite the consistent shift.

Placement: #2

Left to right: D'Arcy and Berry
"Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"

PLOT: Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a journalist who is on a mission to write an article that will take down a nuclear power plant. Her relationships to Rufus Sixsmith (D'Arcy), Issach Sachs (Hanks), and Joe Napier (Kieth David) prove to be fruitful despite leading to a few mysterious events involving automobile crashes, Mexican cleaning women (Bae Doona), and a hit man (Weaving).

I didn't really feel like there was an established mystery here, and this is one of the pieces that I felt waned a little. It had good intentions of solving a crime, but I just didn't care too much for it. While we get some interesting twists as the story progresses, this is one of the segments that feel like it should have been fleshed out more. For the most part, Luisa Rey is an interesting character and her car crash scene is phenomenally shot. Otherwise, it just lacks the punch of the other segments. 

Position: #5

Left to right: Broadbent and Hanks
"The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"

PLOT: Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is a publisher for a writer named Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), who notoriously throws a critic off of a building. When the the dead man sends hit men to ask Cavendish for money, he turns to his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant) for the large sum of  money. Denholme finds his brother crazy and decides to throw him into a nursing home.

It is odd that of all the high concept plots in this movie, this one is my favorite. It makes me believe that the Wachowskis should do a contemporary film that shows their ability to paint an interesting story of the real world. Timothy Cavendish is a delightful and fun character, and as his third act arrives, it presents an old person's version of director Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in a brilliant fashion. There is plenty of spark and imagination here that started off weird and only got weirder. It may have lacked the offbeat performance by Hanks towards the end, but the bar fight more than makes up for it. This should be fleshed out and be called the sequel to director James Madden's Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, because there is no better film out right now that represents old people in a thrilling, philosophical way.

Position: #1

Zhoo Xun
"An Orison of Sonmi-451"
(22nd Century)

PLOT: In the future, a clone that works in a fast food restaurant named Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona) sees injustice happening to her coworkers. She decides to escape the holding facility that she lives at with help from Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess) only to get arrested and interrogated.

This is the weakest simply because I don't feel like there's anything interesting going on. This is a shame, especially from the creators of The Matrix to see a futuristic universe that is aesthetically impressive, but lacking in an interesting story. This is where the movie begins to turn from a great intertwining story to a disaster, notably as Sonmi-451 suddenly becomes a prophet and offers her philosophical teachings through narration that bleeds into everyone else's story. There isn't too much that I enjoyed in this tale, and I expected more from the Wachowskis. The one benefit? It looks really gorgeous.

Placement: #6

"Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After"

PLOT: In the future on an island, Zachry (Hanks) lives with his tribe. One day, Meronym (Berry) comes to visit in search of a building called the Cloud Atlas. She needs to send a message to a tribe from there. During this time, bad guys begin attacking the tribe and Zachry gets haunted by Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving), who keeps haunting him into doing questionable things.

While it is impossible to understand a lot of the dialogue in this segment, it is equally as ambitious as the Timothy Cavendish one. I notably liked the whole demonic concept that went into Zachry's character. It raised plenty of moral questions and was the most philosophical of the entire Cloud Atlas series without being too overbearing about it. It was an interesting take on the future and had the most kinetic energy, as well as probably an excess of graphic violence. It is also great because it almost serves as a father-daughter story of survival.

Placement: #2

That is the order that I wish to put them in. This movie wasn't terrible, but I had differing views on many of the stories. Like I stated, many could have been cut or told differently. Most of all, I just wanted the philosophical elements to not be so overbearing. I liked the themes in this series and some told them profoundly. However, I think that the Wachowskis should try and take a break from sci-fi for a few years. As the Sonmi-451 story shows, they don't have too much interesting to say for the time being. Tell us more about Timothy Cavendish and the modern generation. It sounds like you have something to say there.

As for Academy Awards, I am fully supporting not necessarily a sweep, but a high count of nominations. I want it to win for Costumes (which I don't think any film will come close to the ingenuity here), the Make-up, as well as Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, and any technical awards. I don't see Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay in their future (both seem to be owned by director Ben Affleck's Argo for the time being). It is a long shot, but please nominate Tom Hanks for acting (your choice on field), who at least brought unprecedented charisma to every single segment of this film. 

And finally, please listen to the Cloud Atlas score. Even if you didn't like the movie, it is a beautiful piece of work and I haven't heard too many this year that match the elegance and wonder that it gives me. 

Cloud Atlas is not a terrible movie, but the ambitious elements only carry it so far. Along with some great work by the cast, and the brilliant use of costumes, this is the kind of film that will dominate in the technical categories, though there isn't anything wrong with that. I am not sure if it is faithful to the book, but I would believe that the adaptation style was kind of a tragic change. Still, there is no film this year that will be mistaken for Cloud Atlas, which for better or worse,  makes it important.


  1. Good review. Even though I must disagree with you on much of it, it is well thought out. However you have made many errors; you have posted the wrong actors names under some of the photos and in the review. For example in the first picture is one of Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent but you have it as Halle Berry and James D'Arcy. There are many of those errors in your review and under the pictures and you should fix those as soon as possible before you loose credibility. For what its worth I thought this film was a masterpiece and every segment worked perfectly, but I apreciate your opinion.

    1. Thanks for your input. I have done research and have tried to make things clearer. My problem the first time around was trusting Wikipedia for the information (which was vague to begin with). Hopefully I put the right names in this time. Let me know if I missed one.

      Have you read the book? I am curious to know from those that read it if it is faithful or differed in any drastic way. I am thinking that I had problems with the movie because I "didn't get it" as in I didn't understand the significance of certain moments, which had plenty to say, but I wondered how it contributed to the overall narrative. Of course, this could also be because I wasn't quite ready to see a movie with a deviant narration style. Of course, I tend to have problems with films that have multiple continuing stories, as I feel few do it well. This is one of the better examples.

      If I consider it a masterpiece in any way, it is in artistic merit and craft. I admire the way it was put together, but I think the individual segments (as I pointed out) was the issue. Maybe you could help me to determine what each meant and maybe it will make more sense. Do know that I plan to revisit the film when it arrives on DVD to see if a second viewing makes a difference, as I have heard that from a lot of people.

    2. I have not read the book and I have a similar question to those who have: Since there are no actors in the book how does it make it clear that some characters are reincarnations of others? Other than that I had no concerns about the film. I don't think that you had problems because you didn't get it because overall I don't really think that there is much to understand other than what is clear, I think the film just appears to have a hidden meaning when in fact everything is pretty cut and dry, I just had fun watching every story by itself and then just knowing that characters were reincarnations of previous ones anchored the segments together.

      Oh and by the way the girl in the picture above the 22nd century segment is not Doona Bae it is Zhoo Xun, and obviously the girl that Tom Hanks is holding isnt Zhoo, I don't know who it is though.

    3. i have read the book. what confuses u?