Who knew that a movie based on an “unfilmable” literary property with a complex story structure — even with an all-star cast — could be this dynamic, this moving, this, yes, fun? CLOUD ATLAS encompasses stories spanning five-hundred years — going all the way from the historical tale of a young traveler (Jim Sturgess) enduring treachery on a sailing vessel to the futuristic story of a clone (Doona Bae) awakening to her own existence and the even-further-future adventure of a member of an endangered elite (Halle Berry) reaching out to a humble farmer (Tom Hanks) to help in the survival of her kind — and the film is as nimble-footed and riveting as any produced by its three directors, Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer.
In this deluxe-sized episode (and, trust us, we could’ve gone on much longer), beabetterbooktalker.com‘s Andrea Lipinski joins Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons to look deeply into the film, how it lives up to David Mitchell’s original book, how its daring structure explores the concept of narrative storytelling, and where, if anywhere, this experiment falters. Then, Steve and Dan take a capsule look at the new horror film SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D, and Dan gives his verdict on the Cronenbergian horror film, GUT. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
So good it can make you forgive the Wachowskis for SPEED RACER – and that is really saying something.
Encased, each of us, in his or her own little mantle of flesh, we wander through life – singular, individual, alone. Or so it seems. The individuality we prize so deeply can have side-effects: isolation, alienation. We forget – or perhaps never notice – the inter-connectivity that runs throughout our lives, the intricate web of cause and effect, of action and reaction. Those threads bind us together; perhaps sometimes we feel restrained by them, but in our luckier moments we feel the the joy of communion and solidarity, of shared experience and common ground; we feel that Sense of Wonder that infuses our souls with something grander than the simple struggle for survival – a feeling that life has meaning or at least is worth living. Unfortunately, those gossamer webs connecting us are often too fine to be seen, hidden from view like an optical illusion – a failure of perception. We need to clear our vision, to wipe the scales from our eyes. We may turn to religion, mysticism, meditation, or drugs. Sometimes, we turn to the cinema. One of those times is CLOUD ATLAS.
The new film from the writing-directing triple-team of Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski is an epic tone-poem on the subject of inter-connectivity, portraying lives past, present, and future, whose stories intertwine and feedback on each other, whose themes repeat with variations, like the motifs in a great symphony. The concept may sound precious on the page – pretentious, even confusing – but on screen the results are captivating, almost from beginning to end.
Certainly, there is a little initial trouble; as the various timelines are being laid out and the characters introduced, the narrative gambit feels gimmick being used to goose up individual story lines that may not, in and of themselves, be particularly interesting. Fortunately, within fifteen minutes, the concept begins to coalesce in your mind, helped along by the fact that the various plots parallel each other in ways that make the jumps in time completely logical (figuratively – and sometimes literally – when a door opens in one era, another door closes in a different era).
Also assisting the audience is the casting continuity,which see the major players taking on multiple roles. It is not always clear that each actor is always playing his or her equivalent in the different timelines (in fact, a tell-tale birthmark suggests a completely different line of descent in some cases), but the sense of echoes and reflections is enhanced, increasing our sense of an overall understanding, even if the actual lines of connection require multiple viewings to sort out. Or perhaps not. One of the sly jokes in CLOUD ATLAS is to bracket its story with Tom Hanks as an elderly version of Zachry (one of many guises he assumes), telling the stories to a band of young children. It’s certainly conceivable that the jumble of events, flip-flopping back and forth in time, are simply the result of senility, an accidental mash-up by an old coot who keeps forgetting one plot and jumping to another.
CLOUD ATLAS is filled with references and allusions to other works (everything from Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad), which might help us get a grasp on how to read this sprawling epic. I’m sure it’s no accident that Moby Dick is conspicuously name-checked – another sprawling epic, the scope and scale of which ultimately wins out over any objections about its ungainly structure.
Strangely, the closest point of comparison I can find for CLOUD ATLAS is the Errol Morris documentary FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL, which told the story of four different people in unusual professions, cutting back and forth, and eventually overlapping dialogue, until the underlying continuity gradually emerged to the viewer, creating a sense of some unified whole that was more than the sum of the parts we were seeing.
The through line running throughout CLOUD ATLAS is freedom-versus-slavery, sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. Even as the film advances its vision of interwining events, the characters fight to find and/or retain their own identify, to defeat the so-called “natural order” of things, in which “the weak are meat, and the strong eat.” The message seems to be the the values we hold high – decency, fairness, equality, dignity – may be, in some sense, unnatural, and the fight to achieve them may be long and hard, but ultimately worth it because there is something eternal in us that cries out to achieve it, at whatever cost. As piece of technical craftsmanship, CLOUD ATLAS is impeccable. Equally important, the technique is put in the service of a vision with substance; the splashy visuals never usurp the drama. Even the gimmick of casting and recasting the same actors, sometimes under pounds of makeup, becomes part of the fabric, as the cast dig into their roles like actors rather than movie stars, relishing the opportunity to find the subtle differences in relationships and stories the span centuries but somehow remain consistent. Hugh Grant has a kick, playing against type as a savage; Keith David is so strong you wish he were on screen more, and Hugo Weaving proves he has all sorts of different shades and colors he can use to express villainy (most gaudily as the Devil – or at least Zachry’s imagined version of the Devil).
Not everything in CLOUD ATLAS is perfect. The murder of a literary critic is played for cheap laughs (he’s a critic, right, so good riddance!), and the consequence is at least dubious: the murderer’s book becomes a best-seller (a far more likely result would be a brief fifteen minutes of fame during the trial, followed by obscurity in prison). The future scenes, set in Neo Seoul, sometimes descend into second-rate MATRIX-style action, which would be fun in a summer popcorn flick but seems wildly out of place in the grander scheme of things here. The makeup intended to turn Jim Sturgess into a Korean ends up making him look more like Keanu Reeves (an inside joke, perhaps?) At first, Jim Broadbent looks so much alike from scene to scene that we lose track of which era we are watching. And the post-apocalyptic time period sparks unwanted memories of bad ’70s sci-fi telefilms.
Ultimately, these flaws matter little, because the rest of CLOUD ATLAS is so good that it can make you forgive the Wachowskis for SPEED RACER. And that is truly saying something. CLOUD ATLAS (Warner Brothers, October 26, 2012). Written for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski; based on the novel by David Mitchell. Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant. Recent Reviews:
We’re betting Paramount would’ve preferred that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER had come out on the Memorial Day or July 4th weekends. However, martial-arts-happy animals and big-ass robots claimed those two slots, so here we are in later summer, trying to get our patriotism back for a red-white-and-blue bedecked super hero doing his bit for mom, apple pie, and gas-guzzling cars in the thick of WWII. Does director Joe Johnston’s ROCKETEER-tested period style work its magic for this final bit of table setting before next year’s THE AVENGERS? Are two hours enough time for an origin story, rescue adventure, and ultimate clash between good and evil? And where the hell are all the Nazis? Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss these issues and more.
Also in this episode: Dan gives his capsule review of the moody, science-fiction drama, ANOTHER EARTH.
Entertainment Weekly offers this first official still of Hugo Weaving as The Red Skull in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.
From previous statements, it seems the character’s appearance is a mixture of make-up and digital effects.
Speaking to director Joe Johnston, it appears that one of the themes of the movie is that the Super-Soldier serum tends to bring out the subject’s inner self, transforming the good-hearted Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into the heroic Captain America, and the Nazi Johann Schimdt into a malignant monster.
This paralleling of Captain America and the Red Skull was also seen in the barely released 1990 CAPTAIN AMERICA film, but Johnston says in the article he never saw that version.
Originally in the comics, the first Red Skull was an American Nazi sympathizer/agent named Maxon who simply wore a mask to conceal his identity.
Eventually his supposed spymaster, the “original” Red Skull was introduced. He was supposed to be Adolph Hitler’s personally-trained protege, the ultimate Nazi—bizzarrely costumed and masked to help instill terror in his subordinates and victims. So good was he at this work, it was said that Hitler himself began to fear the Skull.
Like the Steve Rogers Cap, he survived into the modern day via suspended animation, his name disclosed in time to be the non-descript Johann Schmidt.
During the cold war another Red Skull, retroactively revealed to be the Communist agent Albert Malik, assumed the role. He fought a retconned Captain America successor, and eventually caused the deaths of Peter Parker’s secret agent parents.
It’s been rumoured for a while now but Marvel have sent out an official press release stating that Hugo Weaving (THE LORD OF THE RINGS, THE MATRIX) has been cast as Red Skull, the main antagonist in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is the latest Marvel superhero to get the Hollywood adaptation treatment and focuses on Steve Rogers (AKA Captain America), a sickly young man who was enhanced to the peak of human perfection by an experimental serum in order to aid the United States war effort. In the comics Red Skull had various different incarnations, but the film he’ll be a Nazi officer personally groomed by the one and only Adolph Hitler to spread terror and intimidation. After wreaking chaos throughout Europe, he’s eventually clashes with Captain America.
Hugo Weaving, as we all know, can play a great villain and that he’s officially on for the film is good news. Weaving will be joining a cast that already includes Chris Evans (FANTASTIC FOUR, SUNSHINE) and Hayley Atwell (MANSFIELD PARK, THE DUCHESS). Joe Johnston (THE WOLFMAN, THE ROCKETEER) is directing CAPTAIN AMERICA which starts shooting in the UK next month, ready for a July 2011 release date. UPDATE: Toby Jones (THE MIST, HARRY POTTER) has signed on to play Arnim Zola, a mad scientist and another of Captain America’s antagonists. In the comics Zola is an expert biochemist and geneticist working for the Nazis creating clones and monstrous beings.