Thursday, November 1, 2012

In Theaters: CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

(Germany/US/China/Hong Kong - 2012)

Written and directed by Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski.  Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Keith David, David Gyasi, Xun Zhou, Robert Fyfe, Martin Wuttke, Brody Nicholas Lee. (R, 172 mins)

Based on David Mitchell's 2004 novel universally considered unfilmable, CLOUD ATLAS is the kind of insanely ambitious undertaking that I suspect many people will respectfully admire from a distance rather than like.  It's a film that's bound to be divisive and not everything about it works, but it's a safe bet that you've never seen anything like it.  A collaborative effort between Lana & Andy Wachowski (THE MATRIX) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN), CLOUD ATLAS is one of those "everything is connected" films (in fact, that's the tag line on the poster art), but instead of the usual wallowing in self-absorbed ennui, it's a story that stretches across time, balancing multiple stories and timeframes.  It demands patience and attention and yes, it all eventually more or less comes together, though it can be a bit chaotic and messy at times.  There's a lot of comparisons one could make (I kept thinking of THE TREE OF LIFE if it was directed by Christopher Nolan), but CLOUD ATLAS is a film that stands uniquely alone. 

CLOUD ATLAS simultaneously tells six stories across six time periods and places, and almost all of the main cast appear as different characters in each:  in 1849, a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) travels by ship to facilitate a slave deal for his father-in-law.  In 1936 Scotland, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is hired to assemble pieces of a symphony dictated to him by an aging composer (Jim Broadbent).  In 1973 San Francisco, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) gets in over her head investigating a conspiracy involving a powerful oil company and a nuclear power plant after a chance meeting with an elderly man (James D'Arcy) in a stuck elevator.  In 2012 London, a scheming literary agent (Broadbent again) is duped into committing himself to a nursing home while on the run from gangsters to whom he owes a significant amount of money.  In 2144 New Seoul, a replicant waitress named Sonmi (Doona Bae) is being interviewed prior to her execution for leading a clone rebellion against the totalitarian status quo.  And "100 winters after The Fall" in a post-apocalyptic world, the nomadic Zachry (Tom Hanks) agrees to guide a strange visitor (Berry again) into the mountains.

Team Wachowski handled the 1849/2144/The Fall scenes, while Team Tykwer tackled 1936/1973/2012, working at the same time with two different crews and sharing almost all of the actors, who are often unrecognizable under heavy makeup, or at least playing far against type.  Most of the actors handle their multiple assignments well (even when playing different genders and races), but Hanks, largely because he's likable and instantly-recognizable Tom Hanks, does seem a bit out of place and miscast in some of his roles.  Having said that, it is amusing in the 2012 segment to see him playing cauliflower-eared, scar-faced thug of the "fookin' ell!" variety, dropping plentiful F-and-C-bombs and throwing a guy off a balcony.  Actors often fare better in some segments than others:  Hugo Weaving is distracting as a female nurse in 2012, but absolutely terrifying as a demonic figure tormenting Zachry in the Fall.  Berry is fine as the crusading 1973 journalist, but as an elderly male Korean doctor under a ton of old-age prosthetics?  Not so much.  But the stunt casting, for the most part, has a point, and ties into the "connected" them, regardless of any controversial "sensitivity" issues, as odd as it seems in 2012 to see British actors like Sturgess and D'Arcy playing Asians.  When's the last time you saw eye makeup like this?  Peter Sellers in THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU?  Joel Grey in REMO WILLIAMS?

CLOUD ATLAS is the kind of film that offers something for pretty much everyone:  drama, comedy, romance, art, high seas adventure, conspiracy/paranoia thriller, dystopian sci-fi, horror.  It's an incredible achievement in the sheer scope of what it tries to accomplish, and it mostly succeeds.  The filmmakers cut no corners with CLOUD ATLAS, and it's fascinating to watch a visual element in one time frame tie into another, or a line of dialogue in one section that has significance to something that happens in another.  As expansively huge as the film is, it's mostly very tight in its construction and rarely loses momentum despite two teams of filmmakers juggling six narratives for nearly three hours.

With CLOUD ATLAS, Tykwer and the Wachowskis reassert themselves as among the most visionary of modern filmmakers, even though they've only achieved fleeting mainstream success since their big breakthroughs.  The Wachowskis produced and scriped V FOR VENDETTA, but got otherwise chilly receptions for the disappointing MATRIX sequels, the underappreciated SPEED RACER and the unremarkable NINJA ASSASSIN (which they produced), and also had a hand in attempting to salvage THE INVASION (an uncredited rewrite, and their associate and V FOR VENDETTA/NINJA ASSASSIN director James McTeigue handled uncredited reshoots).  Tykwer thus far has yet to enjoy a repeat of the critical and commercial success of his 1999 cult classic RUN LOLA RUN, though 2006's PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER and 2009's THE INTERNATIONAL both deserved better receptions than they got.  I don't think CLOUD ATLAS is going to be a big US box office hit (it will likely do better overseas), but it's a complex and often extraordinary, one-of-a-kind film that will likely be discussed and dissected for years to come.  While not a perfect film by any means, and one where the technique is perhaps more important than the story, it strikes me as a film that will reveal more layers of detail with repeat viewings.

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