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.
Hank Azaria is an actor with whom you’re probably more familiar than you’re aware. You may not have seen his face, but you’ve almost certainly heard his voice.
Azaria provides the voices of some of the most beloved characters on The Simpsons; Apu, Chief Wiggum, and Moe just to name a few. But as phenomenal as Azaria is on The Simpsons, the curse of vocal actors is that their faces, and even their names, are subsumed by the characters they voice. With Azaria all set to provide his talents once again to an animated film this week, Happy Feet 2, we thought we’d give you a few titles to seek out featuring Hank in the flesh in order that you might put a face to his many, many voices.
Quite possibly Azaria’s best cinematic performance, The Birdcage is a must-see comedy. An American adaptation of the French play La cage aux folles, The Birdcage follows the misadventures of a gay couple trying to pass themselves off as straight man and wife in order to impress the conservative parents of their son’s fiancé. The film is a fantastic modern farce and Azaria, as the flamboyant Guatemalan butler Agador, is one of its finest elements. His constant stumbling as he adjusts to “straight men’s shoes” and his overly demonstrative baritone voice disguise is sure to have you rolling.
As sports comedies go, few balance irreverent silliness with legitimate understanding of sports movie tropes as perfectly as does Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. It’s safe to say that, after watching it, you will never think about that terrible gym class game the same way ever again. Every single member of Dodgeball’s formidable cast fires on all cylinders, and that includes Hank Azaria. Though featured only for a moment, as a younger version of Rip Torn’s Patches O’Houlihan in a filmstrip our heroes watch, Azaria’s commitment to the over-the-top satire of the game of dodgeball as well as 1950s PSAs is a riot.
Grosse Pointe Blank
Easily one of my favorite romantic comedies, Grosse Pointe Blank stars John Cusack as a hitman terrified to return to his high school reunion and face his abandoned sweetheart for whom he still carries a torch. The movie puts such a clever and unique spin on the tired rom-com genre and gets plenty of attention for its soundtrack alone. But part of what makes the film so effective is that while the story is absurd, the actors are playing it as a serious crime story. Azaria plays a federal agent following Cusack, waiting for him to attempt to take out his assigned target so that he can in turn take out Cusack. His conversations with his partner amount to one of the film’s most charming quirks.
Azaria appeared again with John Cusack, as well as some of the biggest names in the business, in the 2001 comedy America’s Sweethearts. The film centers on a beloved Hollywood power couple who experience a very bitter breakup and whose latest film is being held hostage by its lunatic director. On paper, the film seems like a flimsy, lifeless studio comedy, but the wry shots it takes at celebrity dating and the media really does elevate the material and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable film. Azaria plays Latin actor Hector, a big reason for the big breakup. His lisp and wild tirades of insecurity are incredibly fun to watch.
Mystery Men is the story of a group of superhero wannabes who are forced to face off with very real supervillain Casanova Frankenstein when the city’s chief protector, Captain Amazing, goes missing. This is going to be hard sell as I fully admit that Mystery Men is a tremendously awful film. However, it is something of a guilty pleasure for me. I enjoy the half-baked plot, woefully dated production aesthetics, and to-a-fault outlandish characters. One of the most outlandish characters is Azaria’s Blue Raja, a hero who dresses as a swami, speaks with a British accent, and hurls silverware at his enemies. Azaria’s dopey accent and his insistence upon the appropriateness of his hero persona is a hoot. That’s right, I said hoot!
“Just make sure O’Leary doesn’t get on that train ” smalltime gangster Stef Czyprynski (Marcus Thomas) warns his gin-soaked mess of an uncle Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley). All the button man’s got to do is pop a rival mobster. But Frank passes out drunk and O’Leary (Dennis Farina) survives the night. That’s bad news for Frank’s boss (Philip Baker Hall) as O’Leary’s planning to muscle in on his turf. It’s worse news for Frank. He’s ordered to dry out or face the consequences. Taking with him a bottle of booze and a snow globe as a reminder of sweet home Buffalo Frank heads to San Francisco with no desire to sober up. He enjoys drinking as much as he enjoys killing. But he knows he must attend AA meetings. Even if he does occasionally slip back into his old drinking ways the change of scenery is good for Frank. He lands a job in a funeral home dressing corpses. He makes friends with his sponsor Tom (Luke Wilson). He even falls for Laurel (Tea Leoni) a go-for-broke TV ad exec who’s not fazed at the prospect of dating a cold-blooded killer. (Once he opens up Frank is er frank with everyone about what he does.) At this point You Kill Me unfolds as a sharply written but less noisy middle-aged version of Grosse Pointe Blank as Frank’s professional obligations begin to intrude on his personal commitments. And he’s not sure how to handle all this especially when he decides to return to Buffalo to make amends. Just when you thought Kingsley was now only in it for the money (BloodRayne and Thunderbirds anyone?) along comes a gem like You Kill Me. Upon first meeting Frank you dismiss him as a weak pitiful fool whose problems extend beyond his drinking. Without smoothing out Frank’s rough edges Kingsley unapologetically makes this hit man a complex and sympathetic figure deserving of a second chance. And whenever Frank is clean and sober Kingsley doesn’t make the mistake of blaming our antihero’s criminal actions on alcohol. Instead he portrays Frank as a regular Joe who happens to take great pride in a job he loves. He also mines great humor from Frank’s fish-of-out-water predicaments and his brutal honesty about himself though he never allows Frank to become the subject of ridicule. Kingsley and Leoni make an odd romantic couple but they play up their obvious differences to persuade us their love is real. Sure Laura’s desperate to find a man but Leoni chips away at her tough exterior to reveal that she really adores Frank and accepts him for who he is. An annoying bundle of nerves in just about everything she does Leoni finally manages to lower the shrill factor and let’s down her guard. Yes she still talks a mile a minute but Leoni for once is confident likeable and delightfully acerbic. Even Luke Wilson pulls himself out of his usual stupor and employs his wry wit to truly reflect the mixed feelings the audience harbors toward this nice-guy killer. Director John Dahl made a name for himself with several little-seen neo-noirs that masterfully combined knotty plots with a wicked sense of humor. Unfortunately he failed to live up to his potential after The Last Seduction and Red Rock West with only Rounders standing out from such recent disappointments as The Great Raid. But You Kill Me finds Dahl back in his element. He’s clearly more comfortable cozying up to society’s unsavory types than he is eulogizing heroic prisoners of war. You Kill Me though separates itself from Dahl’s earlier thrillers by being a fascinating and darkly comical character study rather than a cool calculated exercise in deceit and manipulation. As he explores the empty lives of a man and woman destined to become soul mates Dahl embraces and celebrates their flaws rather than judge them for their past actions. Some may find it hard to identify with a man who kills for a living so Dahl goes to great lengths to show Frank as just a working stiff in need of a hug and a kiss. Yes You Kill Me does tread heavily on Grosse Pointe Blank territory during Frank’s unorthodox courtship of Lauren. But Dahl can be forgiven for this transgression as he and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide a fresh and funny look at unconditional love. And thankfully Dahl resists the urge to fire too many guns. Washing the screen red with blood really would not have been in keeping with Frank’s preference for a swift clean kill.