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.
I saw Disney’s TRON: Legacy last week and had a very middling reaction toward the science fiction spectacular. It is without question a visually stunning roller coaster, but lacks compelling characters to navigate its rather unfulfilling narrative, except for one minor player. Michael Sheen always brings class and complexity to his work, making him a filmmaker’s dream candidate for just about any role one can create.
Though he’s wonderful as a lead actor in films like Frost/Nixon and The Damn United, he excels at taking small roles and doing big things with them. That’s why Tim Burton used him in Alice In Wonderland as the White Rabbit and why Joseph Kosinski cast him as the eccentric club guru Castor in TRON. He was my favorite part of the movie; undeniably charismatic and infinitely watchable, but he’s not the first supporting player to steal a film’s glory. Take a look at a few other cases of small roles with a big impact:
Lambert Wilson in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix was a massive hit not just because it was a mind-bending, genre-defying blockbuster for the new millennium, but also because it was a fun ride. In the bloated sequel everyone – from Keanu Reeves to the Wachowski’s – was wound up and super-serious about the material, leaving precious little breathing room. Enter the Merovingian, an eccentric, aristocratic asshole holding The Keymaker in captivity. Lambert Wilson’s blase portrayal of this pompous program was the gust of fresh air that Reloaded desperately needed and was the best of all the additions to the franchise.
Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shannon’s contribution to this saddening film is colossal. His character says the things that we, the audience, want to say to Frank and April Wheeler when their marriage begins to unravel. He is the voice of reason in a society caught up in consumerism and upward mobility, pleading with the couple to follow their hearts instead of their wants. He maximizes his screen time with a raw, uninhibited performance that overshadows the films prestigious stars.
Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused (1993)
I bet you can’t name more than five people who appeared in this classic comedy. Whether you can or can’t, I’m positive that one of those people would be McConaughey, who steals every moment of the movie with pitch-perfect delivery of his hilarious lines. Oozing charm and a delightful disregard for authority, he followed a long line of cinematic rebels that includes James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause), Marlon Brando (The Wild One) and Sean Penn (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) and is as cool as any of them.
Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Though some may disagree, I find this rendition of Robin Hood to be one of the most enjoyable. Director Kevin Reynolds assembled an all-star cast and created some memorable action sequences to tell the age-old story of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but Connery ends the film on a high note with a rousing cameo as Richard the Lionheart while giving a nod to his own cinematic past (he played the adventurous archer in 1976’s Robin and Marian).
Jackie Earle Haley in Shutter Island (2010)
Every bit the twisted mind-bender it was supposed to be, Shutter Island’s best moment was an informative standoff between Haley and star Leonardo DiCaprio. The former child actor sells the primal terror that the patients experience almost as well as director Martin Scorsese, but does so in less than ten minutes. In that time he reveals the entire plot of the movie – backstory, conclusion and all – but sandwiches it so well between layers of emotion you’re not entirely sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s masterful exposition and a riveting sequence thanks to Haley’s tremendous talent.
Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille (2007)
O’Toole personified every chef’s worst nightmare as an imposing food critic in this heartwarming animated comedy. With just the power of his voice, he gave Anton Ego the presence of a Roman gladiator and the attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge. His character's enlightenment doubles as the moral of the story; not an easy task for someone taking on a minor role in a film of this size, but O’Toole makes it look easy and fun.
Matt Damon in EuroTrip (2004)
This by-the-books teen comedy isn’t all that great, but is fun enough to warrant repeat viewings. The ace up its sleeve is Damon’s tattooed bandleader Donny, who ridicules protagonist Scottie by sleeping with his girlfriend and then singing about it. The comedy is born from the absurdity of seeing the generally dramatic Damon in full frat-boy mode. Silly? Yes, but it’s a welcome surprise that never gets stale, even if the film itself has.
Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Had Murray’s brief appearance in this surprise hit never happened the trajectory of its awesomeness wouldn’t have changed. Looking at the film in hindsight, however, I find myself counting down the minutes and seconds until Bill chimes in. The timing of his cameo within the narrative is perfect and his self-deprecating humor plays so well off of the film’s central characters it’s practically a comedy short all on its own.
Elijah Wood in Sin City (2005)
In a film populated by creepy characters, Wood is exceptionally crazy as Kevin the cannibal. Without any words he managed to scare the pants off of most moviegoers with one of the weirdest characters in modern movie history (next to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter, of course). His performance recalls the work of Max Schreck and other silent film stars while providing Mickey Rourke’s Marv with a polar-opposite nemesis who’s equally as deadly.
Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s landmark neo-noir features many great monologues and cameos, but none is quite as affecting as Walken’s. He delivers little Butch’s entire genealogy in less than ten minutes, but laces it with so much detail you feel as though you were in the trenches of Hanoi with him. His comical delivery makes it go down smooth and turns a somber moment into one of the funniest in the film. [Click here to view]