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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Throughout a troubled childhood in which they moved from one foster home to another tightly-bonded brothers Stephen and Bloom lived out their lives and fantasies in the elaborate stories Stephen created. But when a grown-up Bloom decides to leave his false lifestyle behind he agrees to just one more game:
an elaborate con that his brother convinces him will hit paydirt. Together they invade the world of Penelope a daffy heiress who agrees to bankroll a (phony) million-dollar “deal” and joins them and their con-in-law a wacky Japanese explosives expert named Bang Bang on a cruise ship headed to Greece. But as this oddball quartet roams the globe Stephen’s elaborate plan becomes complicated by sinister characters unforeseen dangers and the blossoming of a genuine romance between Bloom and Penelope.
WHO’S IN IT?
It’s a superlative cast that makes The Brothers Bloom's complex caper work as beautifully as it does. Crucial to the intricate mix is Rachel Weisz as the loopy adventure-seeking Penelope. Not particularly known for lighter fare this Oscar winner (The Constant Gardener) proves as adept as any great screen comedienne in defining this sweet but trippy character. She provides a delightful anchor for the others particularly Adrien Brody’s (The Pianist) Bloom who understandably falls head-over-heels for his “mark.” Brody’s droopy eyes and hangdog expression are the perfect counterbalance to Weisz’s irresistible brio. As Stephen Mark Ruffalo offers a mixture of bravado and daring creating a three-dimensional portrait of a classic manipulator whose ideas are careening out of control. Seemingly channeling a combo of Harpo Marx and Raymond Teller Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi’s (Babel) nearly silent turn as the weirdly maniacal Bang Bang is consistently hilarious an inspired casting choice for a wonderful talent who speaks little English in real life. Also adding layers of darkness to the light-hearted con are Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg) as a wicked mentor and Robbie Coltrane (the Harry Potter films) as the mysterious Curator.
In his blazingly inventive debut the high school noir thriller Brick writer/director Rian Johnson proved he had a strong ear for adapting a classic movie format in a quirky contemporary fashion. Using a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels/Sting–style background this time out he not only creates a clever new cinematic con game but spices it up with some wildly amusing screwball comedy on top of an emotional and engaging look at the unbreakable bond of two brothers at a crucial intersection in their lives. The glamorous European locations and spot-on casting add flavor and style to Johnson’s very accomplished and supremely sophisticated sophomore effort. The film’s opening sequence which chronicles the brothers’ chaotic childhood and sets up the underlying theme of family ties is also inspired.
As with many flicks of this genre things have a tendency to get convoluted which could frustrate some audiences not into the minutia of the “con.” Also Johnson’s dazzling but highly stylized dialogue somewhat reminiscent of the kind of thing Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited The Life Aquatic) does so well is probably an acquired taste and could grate on the nerves if you can’t get on the filmmaker’s wavelength. Can you say “quirky?”
A GOOD RULE TO LIVE BY?
In one of Bang Bang’s rare lines she offers this memorable tidbit of life advice: “When you’re done with something blow it up.” This girl has clearly seen too many summer movies!
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
If you’re looking for something different during blockbuster May this is more than worth a trip to the cinema.