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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Adapted by Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero The Rules of Attraction American Psycho) from his own 1994 novel about the excesses of the rich and not-so-lucky in Hollywood circa 1983 this shallow film seems out of touch now in a time of economic turmoil — even if it is disguised as a period piece. Presented as a multi-story look at L.A. at its sordid best The Informers introduces us to a sleazy movie executive his estranged wife her poolboy lover a coked-out British punk rock star a fading newscaster a voyeuristic doorman a slimy ex-con and any number of beautiful vapid sexed-up twentysomethings who seem to spend their days either partying or snorting immune to any kind of social consciousness in an era marked by the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.
WHO’S IN IT?
The ensemble cast is split between older stars who’ve seen better days and a promising group of new talent unfortunately caught up in this mess. Billy Bob Thornton sleepwalks through the studio exec role while a pre-Wrestler Mickey Rourke (in a glorified cameo) shows us the kind of dreck he’s been stuck in the last few years as a tough ex-con who seems obsessed with someone called “the Indian.” Kim Basinger survives intact as a long-suffering Hollywood wife looking for a human connection from anyone who crosses her path while Winona Ryder projects just a shadow of her once-promising career as the aging newscaster. The late Brad Renfro who himself apparently fell victim to a drug-induced lifestyle is oddly touching as the peeping-tom doorman. Filling in the lost youth part of the equation are Jon Foster Amber Heard Austin Nichols Lou Taylor Pucci and amusing British star Mel Raido who do the best they can with their clothes on and off. Chris Isaak and Rhys Ifans also turn up in minor roles.
For what it’s worth The Informers has been handsomely shot and does capture emotional deadness well but unfortunately there’s nothing behind the façade of a group of characters we just don’t care about.
Ellis covered this all in Less Than Zero — same era same losers — so did we really need a LESS THAN Less Than Zero in 2009? It’s also a shame to see a fine group of actors so completely wasted both on screen and off.
BEST STONED-OUT LOSER SCENE:
The tenor of the whole film is summed up in the ice cube-filled bathtub sequence where a drunken almost catatonic British rocker proceeds to nearly kill himself trying to light a cigarette and answer a phone that NEVER stops ringing.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX:
This movie may already be available on DVD before you finish reading this review.
The Wackness winner of Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award compares favorably with some of the best teen angst movies of the past. It could have been just another stoner slack-fest but instead finds much to say and should resonate with not only those who also came of age in the ‘90s but anyone who ever crossed that frightening threshold. Set in the summer of 1994 when N.A.S Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast ruled the airwaves Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his last summer peddling marijuana out of an ice cart and trading it for free therapy sessions with his aging pot-smoking psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) who seems to be trying desperately to hang onto his own youth. Although the advice (“you need to get laid”) he hands out probably wouldn’t pass muster in most medical circles the two strike up an unusual relationship. Luke takes his first tentative steps into manhood courtesy of his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) while Squires must deal with a fading marriage to his much-younger wife (Famke Janssen). Peck--best known for Nickelodeon’s bubblegum sitcom Drake and Josh--exhibits great promise with his low-key simple performance as a messed-up pot-dealing teenager on the verge of adulthood. He could have played this as a straight stoner but instead is remarkably three dimensional offering a portrait of a young man in transition. He’s a guy whose problems with his parents friends and girls are just the tip of the iceberg in his own coming-of-age drama. As the other half of this very odd couple Kingsley seems to be relishing his role as an aging hippie therapist whose lifelong obsession with pot has clearly rattled his brain. Squires own confusion leads him to a hilarious “romantic” encounter with a dreadlocked little tramp played amusingly by Mary-Kate Olsen who is probably STILL talking about her make-out scene with the Oscar-winning actor. Also along for Luke’s quirky ride into manhood is Thirlby who showed great promise in Juno and confirms it here as a very confident young woman who deflowers the awkward Luke in a wonderfully understated bedroom scene. Janssen has little to do but look lovely while Talia Balsam and David Wohl are in for some brief moments as Luke’s difficult parents. And look for nice bits from Jane Adams as a new wave keyboard player Disturbia’s Aaron Yoo and Method Man as Luke’s supplier. It’s probably no coincidence young writer/director Jonathan Levine graduated from high school in 1994--the same year he has set for The Wackness. Clearly he knows the era and particularly the music which plays such a key role in setting the mood of this picture. Levine has passion for the hip hop sounds of the era and has effortlessly incorporated them directly into his storyline. Where The Wackness really departs from your average slacker epic however is in its seriousness of tone. At its core the film is not unlike classic teen movies such as Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Levine creates flawed almost tragic figures we can identify with in one way or another. That’s what holds this somewhat meandering tale together so well. We come to like these characters and wish them well as their lives are hovering at a crossroads. Levine’s filmmaking style is slightly awkward and the movie is unattractively lit but with The Wackness Levine captures a moment in time with great skill and heart.