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 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.
The Chinese proverb that all emotions are intertwined and so are people is depicted in The Air I Breathe using four very diverse characters from very diverse worlds known only by the emotions they represent. The story starts off with Happiness (Forest Whitaker) a lonely banker who realizes he has let life pass him by until he decides to take chances much like his mysterious client Pleasure (Brendan Fraser). What Happiness doesn't know is that Pleasure is the lead henchman to a gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia). Happiness overhears co-workers talk about a sure bet at a horse race and decides to bet more than he has and so ends up owing Fingers. Meanwhile Fingers wins a contract to represent popular pop singer Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and she turns suicidal when she finds out he is her new manager. Then she takes an interest in Pleasure. And in another story Love (Kevin Bacon) is frantically searching for a rare blood type to save his old girlfriend (Julie Delpy) from a snake bite. It just so happens Sorrow has the type Love is looking for. Finally Fingers' self-absorbed nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch) is flying into town and he just wants to have fun; Fingers assigns a reluctant Pleasure to the task. Sure you could say that Gellar is just playing herself as she deals with rude journalists and overzealous fans but she plays a range of emotion and pathos she hasn't tapped into since the end of her popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fraser is equally surprising. He's not played someone so stiff and unpleasant since he made a splash with indie film Gods and Monsters. Fraser also shows a strong range as Pleasure who ends up becoming surprisingly sympathetic. Bacon and Whitaker are in rather low-key roles that don't seem to push their talents and Hirsch is simply irritating in his one-note role. Garcia is famous for playing gangsters (Godfather Part III anyone?) and Fingers is just as brutal and deadly named for his preference to cut off people’s fingers. His presence is chilling every time he walks into a room. He embodies fear the emotion which seems to linger over or tamp down the emotions of the others. First-time director/co-writer Jieho Lee makes a superb debut with an A-list cast and a compelling story. Even though it has the feel of an ancient Chinese proverb The Air I Breathe is set in a Western city (in actuality it was shot in Mexico City) and is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz: Sorrow as Dorothy blithely seeking her career; Love as the Scarecrow; Pleasure as the heartless Tin Man; and Happiness as the Cowardly Lion. Fingers' role is not only both the good and bad witches he is also the Great and Powerful Oz as well who manipulates their lives but ultimately has no power at all. Lee tosses in subtle filmic references to his movie influences but the over-the-top third act takes away from the fine subtleties he sets up early in the film.
Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.
In his effort to recall and contrast the enthusiastic optimism that surrounded the presidential campaign of RFK with the heartbreaking illusion-shattering reality of his assassination Estevez wisely bypasses conventional biopic storytelling or even conspiracy-minded cinematic razzle-dazzle of JFK. Instead he tells the tale from the ground level focusing on a large disparate cast of characters of differing social status – some interconnected some not – who’ve assembled at Los Angeles’ swank Ambassador Hotel on the fateful day in 1968 and as a group they’re both as troubled as that turbulent year and still each clinging to hope in their own individual ways. There’s the Dodger-loving busboy (Freddy Rodriguez) contending with a brooding racist kitchen boss (Christian Slater) and bolstered by an eloquent chef (Laurence Fishburne); the head of staff (William H. Macy) who’s sleeping with a comely switchboard girl (Heather Graham) while seemingly happily married to the hotel’s compassionate beauty salon operator (Sharon Stone); she in turn counsels both a young teen bride-to-be (Lindsay Lohan) marrying a friend (Elijah Wood) to protect him from service in Vietnam and the faded boozy lounge singer (Demi Moore) whose self-destructive cruelty alienates her subservient husband (Emilio Estevez); a veteran hotel manager (Anthony Hopkins) and his retiring crony (Harry Belafonte) reflect on their lifetime of experience while an idealistic Kennedy campaigner (Joshua Jackson) dispatches two volunteers (Shia LaBeoufand Brian Geraghty) to recruit last-minute voters but they head off on an acid trip with a high-minded hippie (Ashton Kutcher); the disconnected May-December couple (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt) the black campaign volunteer (Nick Cannon) who’s already lost too many leaders; the crusading Czechoslovakian journalist (Lenka Janacek) scrambling for an interview with the candidate; and Kennedy himself appearing in news and archival footage the most eerily effective presence in the film. While such an A-list ensemble of actors initially seems like a director’s dream team they are also responsible for the biggest hurdle the film faces. While most films have a handful of stars and the luxury of time to help audiences forget their celebrity status and embrace them as the characters they’re playing Bobby keeps shoehorning more and more famous faces into short scenes which makes it somewhat more difficult to shake the initial distraction of “Hey there’s so-and-so!” Some of skilled cast—particularly Hopkins Belafonte Macy Sheen Hunt Rodriguez and Fishburne—make the transition easier but with others who are known more as “stars” than actors (Moore Stone Lohan and Kutcher) it takes longer to adjust. And that’s not to say those performances are bad: Moore is terrific reminding us more of her innate watchability on screen than her well-preserved looks and much-younger husband; Stone is in top form despite her overly dowdy get-up; and Kutcher shows his skill with a slightly subtler form of comedy than he usually delivers. Lohan is only passable however trying too self-consciously to appear vulnerable. Still other performances are revelations: Cannon shows as-yet-unseen depth and fire Jackson displays a Clooney-esque self-assured poise and Estevez smartly underplays his role. Understatement definitely seems to be Estevez’s watchword. He typically eschews an overly flashy cinematic approach and simply allows his actors to bring the scenes to emotional life even as he takes great pains to get the period details just right. When he does bring his technical filmmaking savvy more obviously to the forefront primarily in the scenes that integrate real scenes of Kennedy into the story it’s especially potent. Indeed the first three-quarters of the film are well-shot well-acted vignettes that evoke an era but it’s the thoughtful and clever integration of RFK into the third act that unifies and ultimately gives each of the stories—and the film as a whole—genuine dramatic power. Ultimately Estevez uses Kennedy’s own words to deliver a solemn respectful eulogy for the man and a hopeful call to keep the man’s dreams alive.