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.
Based on the bestseller by co-writers Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus The Nanny Diaries paints a pretty dim picture of the wealthy Upper East Side folk who are too busy with their professional and/or social lives to raise the children they think they needed to have. As seen through the idealistic Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) a 21-year-old New York University grad who has dreams of being an anthropologist being a nanny to a rich kid isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Annie takes the job of looking after the precocious 6-year-old son of a super-wealthy couple she calls “The X’s” as a way to clear her head before moving on with her life. In fact as she finds herself immersed in this elite and ritualistic culture she considers it a field study much like living in an Amazonian tribe. But Annie quickly learns that life is not very rosy on the other side of the tax bracket as she must cater to the every whim of Mrs. X (Laura Linney) and attempt to avoid the formidable Mr. X (Paul Giamatti)—and try to comfort a lonely little boy who just wants to be loved by his parents. With that Annie breaks the cardinal rule in the science of humans and their works: She goes native. Just as The Devil Wears Prada had Meryl Streep to raise it above its frivolity The Nanny Diaries has Laura Linney. Her Mrs. X is a brilliant case study in duality: On the one hand Mrs. X is carefully manicured an uptight high society dame planning fund raisers attending “Nanny Cam” seminars and ignoring her little boy; on the flipside she is just as lonely and wanting of love as her son. Linney’s vulnerable moments are the most heartbreaking especially when she sits through Annie’s chastisement about her parenting skills on a nanny-cam tape in front of a group of her high society friends. This performance probably won’t give Linney an Oscar nod but someday the actress should win that damn thing. Giamatti--as the distant hands-off husband--makes his presence known but it’s pretty much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance. As for our leading lady Johansson fares well among the upper classes as the kindly Annie but doesn’t really do anything above and beyond the call of duty. And for the ladies there’s Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) as Annie’s would-be suitor whom she dubs “Havard Hottie.” Hottie indeed. Actually the comparisons between The Nanny Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada are numerous: Both are adaptations from bestsellers written by women; both skew Manhattan’s highfalutin upper class with a Sex and the City sensibility; and both incorporate idealistic female college grads who face tough women and get caught up but somehow manage to ground themselves eventually. The difference this time is that Diaries is co-written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini the same wife-and-husband team who gave us 2003’s American Splendor the ultra-quirky but innately mesmerizing biopic of comic book creator Harvey Pekar. Talk about a change of pace. Maybe Berman and Pulcini were feeling romantic when they picked Diaries as their follow-up. The couple doesn’t use as much cinematic flair as they did with American Splendor but there is a certain charm to Diaries’ anthropological look and feel especially as Annie analyzes Manhattan’s denizens in their natural habitats. Still there’s some oomph lacking. As a Prada wannabe Diaries doesn’t quite make the cut.