David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
The DVD and Blu-ray releases of the major studios are so prevalent as to be available for sale everywhere from Best Buy to 7-11. But every so often, you need to gamble on something a little obscure.
Here to help, as always, I present to you some blind buys that won’t have you running back to the return counter of your local media vendor:
Battle Beyond the Stars
Company: Shout! Factory
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Roger Corman’s campy interstellar remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai is among his very best films, both in terms of entertainment value and legitimate quality. The wild characters, the fantastic set pieces, and the charmingly inhibited special effects all shine beautifully in Shout! Factory’s latest transfer. Little known fact: James Cameron’s first visual effects job was serving as art director for Battle Beyond the Stars.
Special Features Include: Commentaries with John Sayles, Roger Corman, and production designer Gale Anne Hurd, a new interview with actor Richard Thomas, trailers, radio, and TV spots.
Company: Anchor Bay
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
A group of friends go boating for the weekend when their craft is capsized while crossing a coral reef. Adrift in the middle of nowhere, they thought drowning would be their biggest concern…they were wrong.
If you are laboring under the delusion that Jaws has the market cornered on shark films, give this recent Aussie thriller a spin. Admittedly a low-budget outing, the amiability of the characters and the suspense created with minimal explicit scares is very impressive.
Special Features Include: Making of featurette “Shooting with Sharks.”
Company: Severin Films/Intervision
Format: DVD and VHS!
This particular recommendation carries the biggest caveat: only die-hard fans of utterly awful cinema need apply.
Severin Films once again demonstrates their commitment to completely forgotten films with this 1989 Canadian gorefest. If you thought it weren’t possible to make a movie for less than the cost of a six-pack of Labatt Blue…think again! What really makes the experience of Things worthwhile is the fits of laughter into which the inexplicable dialogue and nonsensical, but ultra-violent, effects will send you. Props to Severin for also releasing the film in a limited edition VHS format for hopeless nostalgics…like me.
Special Features Include: Far more TV interviews with Things star Barry Gillis than he ever deserved, original trailers, and reactions to the film from Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, and Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisner.
Company: Blue Underground
The concept behind Blue Underground’s latest horror release is fascinating. A woman who is incredibly agoraphobic moves into a house that turns out to be haunted. So while she is being tormented by malevolent spirits inside the house, she is frozen by her fear and can’t bring herself to leave the house. Though largely a b-movie, there are some genuinely creepy sequences that make The Nesting a true gem.
Special Features Include: Deleted and extended scenes, trailers, TV spots, and a poster & still gallery.
Company: Shout! Factory
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Just as well as suspected, the Cold War ended with the almost complete annihilation of the human race. A group of soldiers, who were posted in an underground installation when the nuclear doo-doo hit the fan, set out to cross the barren wasteland that was once the United States in what will go down in history as cinema’s coolest RV. Damnation Alley is a great little adventure film that, but for a few perfectly placed swears, could have easily been produced by Disney. The cast is outstanding and includes George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team), Jan-Michael Vincent (The original Mechanic), and a very young Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen). Giant scorpions, mutated rednecks, and flesh-eating cockroaches! What more do you need?
Special Features Include: Commentary with producer Paul Maslansky, three new featurettes, theatrical trailer, and TV spots.
Company: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Takashi Miike is a name with which you should immediately familiarize yourself. In many ways, the man is Japan’s Danny Boyle; there’s not a single genre in which he can’t operate. In his latest, and arguably best, film a group of samurai are tasked with killing an evil lord before he is made ruler of all the land. 13 Assassins is exquisitely shot, beautifully performed, and the last thirty minutes amounts to one of the greatest action scenes I have ever witnessed.
Special Features Include: Interview with Takashi Miike, deleted scenes, and theatrical trailer.
Beauty and the Beast
Not to belittle Disney’s animated version, but Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on Beauty and the Beast is definitely my favorite. There is something so otherworldly about it and the fantasy effects achieved despite the limitations of the time are spectacular. As per usual, Criterion’s transfer is breath-taking and the film has never looked better. It has been said that this is the film that inspired many of the fantasy films of the 80s including Ridley Scott’s Legend One glance at the shot wherein Belle runs slowly down a hall with seemingly miles of lace billowing around her and you’ll understand.
Special Features Include: Commentaries by film historian Arthur Knight and writer/historian Sir Christopher Frayling, Philip Glass’ opera La Belle et la Bête as an alternative soundtrack, interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan, rare behind-the-scenes photos, original trailer narrated by director Jean Cocteau.
Hobo with a Shotgun
Company: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Format: DVD and Blu-ray
For a while it seemed movies that harkened back to the seedy grindhouse films of yesteryear were a genre unto themselves, but Jason Eisner’s Hobo with a Shotgun is not content simply aping the conventions of b-movie past. Instead, he creates something wholly unique even while still utilizing the genre’s schlock roots. Hobo with a Shotgun is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek send-up of Troma Studios, They Live, Robocop 2, and a dozen other entities that many of us had to sneak around to watch as kids. Staring Rutger Hauer as the titular armed indigent, Hobo with a Shotgun is as arty as it is magnificently violent. For a film that began life as a fake trailer, Hobo has spawned into something remarkable. If you’re looking for both a wickedly good time as well as blood-spattered auteurship, look no further.
Special Features Include: Commentaries with Jason Eisner, Rutger Hauer, Rob Cotterill, and David Brunt, an alternate ending, nine video blogs, deleted scenes, and the original fake trailer that started it all.
I saw Disney’s TRON: Legacy last week and had a very middling reaction toward the science fiction spectacular. It is without question a visually stunning roller coaster, but lacks compelling characters to navigate its rather unfulfilling narrative, except for one minor player. Michael Sheen always brings class and complexity to his work, making him a filmmaker’s dream candidate for just about any role one can create.
Though he’s wonderful as a lead actor in films like Frost/Nixon and The Damn United, he excels at taking small roles and doing big things with them. That’s why Tim Burton used him in Alice In Wonderland as the White Rabbit and why Joseph Kosinski cast him as the eccentric club guru Castor in TRON. He was my favorite part of the movie; undeniably charismatic and infinitely watchable, but he’s not the first supporting player to steal a film’s glory. Take a look at a few other cases of small roles with a big impact:
Lambert Wilson in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix was a massive hit not just because it was a mind-bending, genre-defying blockbuster for the new millennium, but also because it was a fun ride. In the bloated sequel everyone – from Keanu Reeves to the Wachowski’s – was wound up and super-serious about the material, leaving precious little breathing room. Enter the Merovingian, an eccentric, aristocratic asshole holding The Keymaker in captivity. Lambert Wilson’s blase portrayal of this pompous program was the gust of fresh air that Reloaded desperately needed and was the best of all the additions to the franchise.
Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shannon’s contribution to this saddening film is colossal. His character says the things that we, the audience, want to say to Frank and April Wheeler when their marriage begins to unravel. He is the voice of reason in a society caught up in consumerism and upward mobility, pleading with the couple to follow their hearts instead of their wants. He maximizes his screen time with a raw, uninhibited performance that overshadows the films prestigious stars.
Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused (1993)
I bet you can’t name more than five people who appeared in this classic comedy. Whether you can or can’t, I’m positive that one of those people would be McConaughey, who steals every moment of the movie with pitch-perfect delivery of his hilarious lines. Oozing charm and a delightful disregard for authority, he followed a long line of cinematic rebels that includes James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause), Marlon Brando (The Wild One) and Sean Penn (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) and is as cool as any of them.
Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Though some may disagree, I find this rendition of Robin Hood to be one of the most enjoyable. Director Kevin Reynolds assembled an all-star cast and created some memorable action sequences to tell the age-old story of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but Connery ends the film on a high note with a rousing cameo as Richard the Lionheart while giving a nod to his own cinematic past (he played the adventurous archer in 1976’s Robin and Marian).
Jackie Earle Haley in Shutter Island (2010)
Every bit the twisted mind-bender it was supposed to be, Shutter Island’s best moment was an informative standoff between Haley and star Leonardo DiCaprio. The former child actor sells the primal terror that the patients experience almost as well as director Martin Scorsese, but does so in less than ten minutes. In that time he reveals the entire plot of the movie – backstory, conclusion and all – but sandwiches it so well between layers of emotion you’re not entirely sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s masterful exposition and a riveting sequence thanks to Haley’s tremendous talent.
Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille (2007)
O’Toole personified every chef’s worst nightmare as an imposing food critic in this heartwarming animated comedy. With just the power of his voice, he gave Anton Ego the presence of a Roman gladiator and the attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge. His character's enlightenment doubles as the moral of the story; not an easy task for someone taking on a minor role in a film of this size, but O’Toole makes it look easy and fun.
Matt Damon in EuroTrip (2004)
This by-the-books teen comedy isn’t all that great, but is fun enough to warrant repeat viewings. The ace up its sleeve is Damon’s tattooed bandleader Donny, who ridicules protagonist Scottie by sleeping with his girlfriend and then singing about it. The comedy is born from the absurdity of seeing the generally dramatic Damon in full frat-boy mode. Silly? Yes, but it’s a welcome surprise that never gets stale, even if the film itself has.
Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Had Murray’s brief appearance in this surprise hit never happened the trajectory of its awesomeness wouldn’t have changed. Looking at the film in hindsight, however, I find myself counting down the minutes and seconds until Bill chimes in. The timing of his cameo within the narrative is perfect and his self-deprecating humor plays so well off of the film’s central characters it’s practically a comedy short all on its own.
Elijah Wood in Sin City (2005)
In a film populated by creepy characters, Wood is exceptionally crazy as Kevin the cannibal. Without any words he managed to scare the pants off of most moviegoers with one of the weirdest characters in modern movie history (next to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter, of course). His performance recalls the work of Max Schreck and other silent film stars while providing Mickey Rourke’s Marv with a polar-opposite nemesis who’s equally as deadly.
Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s landmark neo-noir features many great monologues and cameos, but none is quite as affecting as Walken’s. He delivers little Butch’s entire genealogy in less than ten minutes, but laces it with so much detail you feel as though you were in the trenches of Hanoi with him. His comical delivery makes it go down smooth and turns a somber moment into one of the funniest in the film. [Click here to view]
The continuing adventures of Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) requires additional assistance aside from his trusted right hand man Winston (Chi McBride) and hacker henchman Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley), and so Fox has decided to bring Indira Varma and Janet Montgomery onto its returning action/adventure series Human Target full time this year.
MTV reports that the actresses will play resourceful women who aid the core cast members in various capacities. Varma, best known as Niobe in HBO's Rome, will play Ilsa Pucci, a newly widowed billionaire who is aided by Chance after the murder of her husband. Following the end of her case, she offers to become the benefactor of Chance, Winston and Guerrero, essentially becoming the owner of their protection agency as well as providing access to nearly unlimited resources and personal connections around the world.
Montgomery will also be joining the cast in a recurring role as Ames, an expert thief who has crossed paths with Winston during his days as a police officer. Ames reportedly accepts a job from Winston with their protection agency in order to get her life back on track. Montgomery is currently appearing as Jennie on this season of HBO's Entourage and has roles in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and My Idiot Brother opposite Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks.
Fox is making the right move by injecting some estrogen into Human Target. The show, based on a DC Comics property of the same name, is totally skewed toward young males and though they love seeing their heroes outrun and outsmart the competition, they also need some sex appeal to warrant their following. Female characters on the show have thus far been relegated to either damsel in distress, convenient one-shot ally or femme fatale. We never see a pretty face for more than forty-two minutes before it is killed or written off, so having a reliable vixen like Varma to count on will certainly add a new dynamic to a show that has the potential to be a long-running hit for the network.
Human Target returns to Fox on Friday, September 24th.