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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Kicking off the new label DisneyNature Earth represents a return to the kind of filmmaking that won eight Oscars for Walt Disney between 1948 and 1960 under the umbrella name True Life Adventures. This time the focus is on three different animal families as cameras follow their remarkable migrations across the planet — literally — as the film was reportedly shot in 68 countries over seven continents. There’s the polar bear mother trying to protect her cubs from melting ice caps and overbearing sun as the father desperately searches for food; there’s the elephant and her calf trying to keep up with the rest of the herd through a stormy Kalahari Desert in search of water while fending off dangerous nighttime attacks by predatory lion packs; and finally there’s the mother whale and her calf traveling 4 000 miles from the tropics all the way to Antarctica.
WHO’S IN IT?
Beautifully narrated by James Earl Jones Earth avoids the hokey cutesy antics some nature films and television shows succumb to in their scripting. Jones’ distinctive elegant storytelling adds a moving layer to the overwhelmingly powerful images we see on screen. No cute talking animals in this film folks.
New technologies and more sophisticated cameras have energized this kind of filmmaking since the more primitive days when Walt Disney was regularly turning these movies out. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (Discovery’s Planet Earth) take their cameras into places no one has seen before and get incredible footage some of it heartbreaking some of it thrilling some of it funny. But with brilliant editing and a stunning musical score by George Fenton it all adds up to a breathtaking motion picture achievement adults will enjoy just as much as the kids.
Only that we have to wait another year for the next installment of the series Oceans from the talented filmmakers who gave us the equally amazing Winged Migration.
Just in terms of its haunting effect the richly-detailed sequence in which the slowly-starving father polar bear tries to get food by infiltrating a large pack of crafty walruses is both fascinating to watch and unforgettable in its impact. It’s that unstinting realism and sense that we are watching nature as it really unfolds that gives Earth its gravitas. Another grainy nighttime scene — captured on hidden cameras — shows determined lions out to kill a baby elephant as his mom and her pack try to protect him. Incredible stuff.
INTERESTED IN TRIVIA?
If this seems familiar Earth originally opened in several countries around the world in 2007 and had Patrick Stewart as narrator. Disney eventually picked up the film retooled it and now launches its U.S. premiere on Earth Day. This is the first of six annual films all also intended for release around Earth Day including the aforementioned Oceans.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Although the BBC and the Discovery Channel are partners in this venture this is a MUST on the big screen.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
For real estate broker Peter Klaven the bride wasn’t hard to land; it’s finding a best man that’s proving the real challenge. After he gets engaged to sweet Zooey he realizes he has no close male friendships so he sets off on a series of “man dates” to rectify the situation until he finally stumbles upon Sydney Fife a care-free bachelor and Peter’s polar opposite. An immediate best-buddy connection is formed as the two bond to Rush music and engage in honest mano et mano conversation. But when the bromance gets a little too intense it causes ripples in his relationship with Zooey and threatens the wedding.
WHO’S IN IT?
With a cast who mainly cut their teeth in TV sitcoms and improv this is can’t-miss comedy providing the best role Paul Rudd has had to date. Playing Peter as the ultimate female-loving straight guy a potential bride’s dream because he likes to cuddle up on the couch and watch chick flicks like Chocolat Rudd is hilarious especially later on as he tries the male-bonding thing with Sydney -- using hip phrases and non-sequiturs he is incapable of uttering with any level of competence. There’s a grounded sweetness to Rudd in this role and he never loses sight of the character. Rudd and Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) are sensationally funny together -- the best movie buddy team in years. That’s largely because Segel also is down-to-earth in a role that could have soared over the top but never does. The two are always believable and that’s key to making the comedy work as well as it does. Rashida Jones is refreshingly likeable and sweetly understanding if frustrated as Peter’s fiancée. As her BFFs are: Jaime Pressly (My Name Is Earl) who is always battling with her hubby (a riotous Jon Favreau) and Sarah Burns as the awkwardly man-hungry Hailey are highly amusing. SNL’s Andy Samberg is surprisingly understated as Peter’s gay brother and there are nice moments from J.K Simmons (Juno) and Jane Curtin as their parents. And watch out for Thomas Lennon who steals his few scenes as Doug a spurned early “man date” of Peter’s. The original Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno also turns up as himself in a wryly amusing running gag.
This is a broad comic premise but it’s never allowed to careen out of control allowing everyone to create three-dimensional human beings despite the hijinks going on around them. The bits with Rudd and Segel jamming on Rush songs are great and so is the endless stream of corny catchphrases such as Rudd’s "we’re just chillaxin’" and Segel’s "Dude Von Dudenstein."
Considering the smart instinctual comic chops that writer/director John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) displays here he could have cut back on the raunch which gets piled on a little thick at times for the film’s own good; although compared to last week’s dreadful buddy bomb Miss March this is Disney stuff.
There are too many to name but the Chinese restaurant engagement dinner is a comic knockout particularly when it comes to Segel’s toast -- full of thinly disguised and totally inappropriate sexual innuendo.