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 one of history's better sports stories Cinderella Man focuses on legendary prizefighter James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) who during the Great Depression became a common-man hero. Once a boxer on the rise Braddock hits rock bottom with the rest of the broken-down beaten-up and out-of-luck American populace and is forced to give up his dreams of being a world champion to find work. We get to sit around with Braddock his loving supportive but weepy wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and their starving cold children for the first hour of the film feeling mightily depressed indeed. But then things pick up when Braddock gets a last-chance bid to make something of himself by returning to the ring. Spurred on by an inner determination--and his hardnosed manager Joe (Paul Giamatti)--Braddock miraculously makes an almost mythical rise to the top. The underdog to beat all underdogs--yes even topping a nobody horse named Seabiscuit--the pugilist ends up taking on the heavyweight champ of the world Max Baer (Craig Bierko) who's renowned for having killed two men in the ring. And wins. The roar from the people who look to their "Cinderella Man" as their champion is deafening.
Chris Rock said it the best: "If you're gonna do a movie about the past you best to get Russell's ass!" It's absolutely true. The Oscar-winning Crowe has an uncanny knack for taking anything period and making it seem contemporary be it clashing swords in the gladiator ring in ancient Rome or working out equations on a library window as a brilliant but trouble 1950s mathematician. So it seems natural Crowe would once again turn in a stellar performance as the Depression-era boxer who rallies from the depths of despair to become a world champion. Of course Crowe did have to learn how to box--and apparently injured his shoulder pretty severely during the process--but it was all in a day's work for this hardworking Method actor. He also is supported by a superlative cast including Zellweger as Braddock's devoted yet longsuffering wife. The actress may be a bit more pinched-face than usual having to play cold and hungry most of the time but she still does an admirable job. The biggest standout however is Giamatti as the beleaguered but sharp-as-a-tack manager who does everything in his power to get Braddock back in the ring--and keep him there. Someone just needs to give this man an Oscar. Pronto.
Of course everyone is calling Cinderella Man this summer's Seabiscuit. Granted the comparisons are numerous--underdog plot the Great Depression down-trodden men who need some kind of hope to get them back on their feet again a nation rallying behind them. But Seabiscuit didn't have the powerhouse duo of Crowe and director Ron Howard to back it up. Their special brand of mojo made A Beautiful Mind another rather staid biopic the Oscar winner of 2001. It only makes sense they would try for it again with Cinderella Man's inspirational story. While the first part of the film discourages you a bit it's necessary to set up Braddock's desperation and ultimate fortitude. Once we hit the ring however the action is nonstop and riveting making you shout from your seat. Howard now joins the handful of directors including Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) who can effectively cause this reaction by watching two men (or women in Eastwood's case) pummel each other. But as far as Cinderella's Oscar chances it's a tough call because: a) it is the beginning of summer and b) it's not a film you carry around with you once you leave the theater. Perhaps if the studio does a blitzkrieg Oscar marketing campaign similar to Seabiscuit it might work. We'll see.