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.
James (Macaulay Culkin) and Heather (Alexis Dziena) have a problem. Heather loves him but cannot climax with him during sex. Ellis (Kuno Becker) and Renee (Eliza Dushku) also have a problem in that she isn’t as sure about their relationship as he is and wants to experiment by having a lesbian encounter. Each couple meanders their way to Dr. Wellbridge (Joanna Miles) whose group sex therapy system has helped an appreciative crowd to broaden their horizons. The two couples are paired up and their dull partner-swapping evening results in big changes for all four people involved. “Dull” is the operative word here as Sex and Breakfast never ignites any interest in the characters individually nor as a group. And even more mysteriously for a film that centers around sex it is completely sexless and non-erotic-- even while the four are in the midst of having intercourse in the same bedroom. Macaulay Culkin has grown up to have a face that is strangely un-cinematic. He’s not exactly ugly but he is certainly not handsome with his pale skin flared nostrils and bulging eyes. Plus his character in Sex and Breakfast is a total dullard whose only interesting quality seems to be that he is a nice guy--which makes it something of a Hollywood mystery as to why such a beautiful woman as Alexis Dziena would be living with him in the first place. She is the opposite of Culkin with a face that drinks up the camera and draws all eyes to her when she is onscreen. But she cannot sustain her scenes with Culkin alone and they fall flat throughout. Eliza Dushku is also a pretty woman; her pairing with handsome Kuno Becker is in keeping with the more traditional Hollywood pretty people combos but their scenes together are equally enervating. It’s as if the four of them got together and agreed to keep the tone of the story so flat and unemotional as to suck all the life out of it. Two bright spots are Joanna Miles as the shrink who puts the two couples together and Jamie Ray Newman as the waitress who serves them both breakfast and entices Renee toward acting on her lesbian leanings. Writer/director Miles Brandman is apparently hoping to follow in the footsteps of greats like Ingmar Bergman the late Swedish filmmaker who understood perfectly how to create movies about interpersonal relationships that literally jumped off the screen and into one’s own psyche. Sadly Brandman has a long way to go to reach that skilled level of storytelling and filmmaking. The one thing he does right here is to set his tale of insipid people in Los Angeles the place where insipid people flock to from all over the world. The problem is these people have no soul and are excruciating to spend time with. Perhaps Brandman should try blowing some stuff up in his next film? At least that would be something to keep audiences from looking at their watches every five minutes to see how much longer there is to go until his movie is mercifully over.
After immigrating to Los Angeles from Mexico Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker) and his family are struggling to make ends meet. While his father has big plans to own a lawn care service Santiago’s big dream is to play soccer. During a game in L.A. Santiago gets his break when he meets Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane) a former footballer and scout for the Newcastle Team in England. Promising Santiago a tryout if he can get to England Glen sticks his neck out over and over again to prove that Santiago is just as good if not better than most members of the team. Finally he gets Santiago a one-month look-see. When it starts out shaky the newest (and most well paid) member of the Newcastle Team Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola) takes Santiago under his wing and helps him prove his undeniable talent. It’s not hard to see why Becker is one of the most recognized stars in the Hispanic television market--and judging from his skills in Goal! he could crossover into the U.S. very easily. As Santiago Becker is able to make you feel his pain and struggle particularly through his smoldering eyes. In one powerful scene Santiago pleads with his father to let him take his shot at pro soccer--leaving the audience in a puddle as he pours his emotions out. You might have expected a little more from British thesp Dillane (The Hours) however as the man who discovers Santiago. His lack of energy is evident in almost every scene he is in. On the other hand American Nivola (Laurel Canyon) has the English bad boy act down pat. Wished there was more of him on screen. Director Danny Cannon best known for I Still Know What You Did Last Summer misses the mark with Goal! the first in a trilogy about soccer. For a sports movie there just isn’t enough excitement. Instead the rags-to-riches story drags on and on. Many of the film’s elements seem tacked on and then later forgotten or watered down things that could have helped develop Santiago’s character more. Then by the time we get to the highlight of the movie--the BIG soccer match--you’re left twiddling your thumbs waiting for it to be over instead of standing up and cheering when Santiago makes the winning GOOOOOOOOAL! Pity. Let's just hope the next two movies are better.