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.
As a kid, growing up in Indiana, February was usually the month in which our schools would run begin to run exhaustive tornado safety drills on a weekly basis. Given that Indiana resides in the eastern wing of Tornado Alley, and March was the official start of tornado season, these seemingly excessive measures were actually quite necessary. I’ve lived through several tornadoes in my life, one of which chased us home from the Indy 500 one summer. I think back to that terrifying day now, and the one thing that really sticks with me…is how much it reminded me of Twister.
Given that Twister has just been added to Netflix’s Watch Instantly service, we hope you’ll consider giving it a spin.
Who Made It: Twister was directed by Jan de Bont, once a major force in the action genre. For many years, he worked as a cinematographer, shooting films like Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, and Lethal Weapon 3. But then he gracefully crashed into the director’s chair with his debut film Speed. He would follow Twister with the unfortunate Speed 2: Cruise Control. Incidentally, the film was co-written by the late, great novelist Michael Crichton.
Who’s In It: The film stars Bill Paxton (Aliens) and Helen Hunt (Mad About You), but they are far from the only talent in the movie. Twister also stars Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his more colorful roles.
What’s It About: A former storm-chaser, now working as a TV weatherman, returns to his old stomping grounds to force his estranged wife, also a storm-chaser, to sign their divorce papers. While there, he becomes entangled in a feud with another team adventure-seeking meteorologists over a tornado-tracking invention he developed that was then stolen by a rival. During the course of the feud, he rediscovers his love for the hunt as well as rekindling his relationship with his ex.
Why You Should Watch It:
As mid-nineties blockbusters go, Twister is one of my very favorites. The meteorological science at the heart of the film may be questionable, but its incredible action sequences are undeniable. The very concept at the core of the film creates a veritable playground of wanton destruction. Acting as the hand of God, or more likely director Jan de Bont, the tornadoes can literally throw anything and everything at the actors. Few films have the ability, within any semblance of reasonable context, to have a car speed down the highway only to drive directly through a two-story house that rolls into its path. The special effects in this movie, groundbreaking at the time, hold up remarkably well even today.
As if extreme weather conditions like tornadoes, and the decimation they leave in their wake, weren’t scary enough, Twister gives these forces of nature intelligence as well. They actually make the twisters, one in particular, sentient beings that actively chase our heroes; hunting them down like some sort of vengeful wraith. Helen Hunt even has a line in the film about the tornado that killed her father: “you haven’t seen it miss this house, and miss that house, and come after you.” That’s right, a tornado came after her family. It creates a formidable, tangible villain for the film out of something as ephemeral and elemental as the wind. It sounds really silly, mostly because it kind of is, but it creates some thrilling tension.
One of the biggest reasons to watch Twister is its cast. Bill Paxton, playing a character named Bill for continuity sake I suppose, has this bizarre mystic quality to him that affords him an almost telepathic connection to the storms. Helen Hunt is damned adorable and Cary Elwes as the smarmy rival meteorologist is an entertaining caricature. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the borderline insane Dusty, is one of the film’s most memorable elements. He is a wild, kinetic engine of over-the-top goofiness that never runs out of steam. The entirety of our heroic storm-chasing team works so well together and many of the film’s most iconic scenes involve their riding in a convoy alongside the roaring, conniving twister.
Jessica Shephard (Ashley Judd) has just been promoted to police inspector with the San Francisco Police Department's Homicide Unit and her first case--a man found beaten to death on the beach--proves unsettling: She had a one-night stand with the victim a few months back. Shaken Jessica downs a bottle of red wine rummages through an old box containing gruesome black-and-white photos of a man with a bullet in the head and some dingy Raggedy Ann dolls. Turns out Jessica has some serious issues. Her father a police officer was a serial killer who ended up murdering his wife before turning the gun on himself making Jessica an orphan at the age of 6. This tough-as-nails cop appears composed on the surface but she indulges in self-destructive late-night activities including engaging in violent sex with strangers and drinking until she blacks out. Within a week two more of Jessica's former flames turn up dead and all three bodies bear the distinguished signature of a serial killer--a cigarette burn on the back of the left hand. Since she can't remember anything that happened during her blackouts Jessica starts to suspect she might be responsible for the murders. On the other hand she can't shake the feeling she's being followed and her new partner Mike (Andy Garcia) has been behaving strangely showing up on her doorstep in the wee hours of the night. A tormented Jessica seeks comfort from John (Samuel L Jackson) her mentor and an old friend of her father's who seems to think she needs protection--from herself. Could Jessica be the very killer she is tracking?
Judd tones down the Hollywood glam here and with her makeup-free complexion she actually looks like a real cop. But her physical transformation doesn't overcome the inherent flaws in the way the character is written. While we should feel sympathy for Jessica because of her childhood trauma we don't for all kinds of reasons. Her character doesn't think she has a problem for one and she never develops close relationships in the film except maybe with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and the stringy-haired strangers she has violent sexual liaisons with. Even Jessica's revelations to a staff psychiatrist are superficial. While it's almost impossible to warm up to Judd's character it's even more difficult to relate to her relationships with leading males. As Mike Jessica's partner Garcia constantly spews cop-thriller clichés about their unspoken loyalty and trust as colleagues but for all his talk we never actually see that kind of bond between them. How can these cops who only met a week before be expected to have instant loyalty? What's worse the sleazy pass he makes at a boozy Jessica one night squashes his character's potential to be the film's only good guy. Jessica's relationship with John who is supposed to be her mentor at the police department is equally hard to swallow. Jackson is great at making his character chillingly creepy but if the audience can sense his deviousness within 10 minutes why hasn't Jessica picked up on it after years of knowing him personally and professionally?
It's hard to believe that Twisted comes from Philip Kaufman the same director who brought us opuses The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. While Kaufman uses his trademark visual style to capture the briny and foggy feel of the San Francisco Bay area Twisted suffers from the same sorry plot predicament his 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun did: It's utterly predictable. But rather than remedy the story Kaufman and co-writer Sarah Thorp toss one red herring after an another hoping to keep viewers off the scent. Case in point: Every time Jessica suspects someone is watching her we hear the distinctive sounds of someone repeatedly flipping a lighter cover so it's safe to assume the bad guy will be the one who carries a lighter and not the one who lights his cigarettes with matches right? The film adds distractions to conceal the obvious including Jessica waking up with unexplained blood on her hand and her jealous ex-boyfriend constantly breaking into her house. There are so many diversions at work here that the film becomes a joke one that culminates with a hokey punch line as the antagonist spills out an elaborate confession that partly patches up any holes in the outrageous plot.