Tuesday, December 18, 2012

FILM REVIEW: Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an amazing, complicated tour de force of a novel. David Eggers' (in)famous phrase “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius” would not be out of place to describe this literary achievement. It was #6 on my list of my favorite books of the decade, and I confess (then, and now!) that I did not read every word.

At this point I must warn the reader that I am going to include some spoilers for the book. If you haven’t read the book but are interested in seeing the movie, read on. If you haven’t read the book but do intend to, you should probably stop reading this review. Now.

I found Mitchell’s book difficult to read in its entirety because it is an intricate weave of six different stories (set in six very different times and locales), using six different genres (and writing styles), divided into distinct chapters which, at first, do not seem to have any coherent thread tying them together. Part of the joy of reading the novel is discovering for yourself what the threads are that connect the various stories and characters in the book. Interestingly, you can also enjoy the book on other levels, simply as a collection of short stories.

Although the book was widely celebrated it was generally regarded as unfilmable. However, the film-making trio of The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer decided to take on the challenge of adapting the book into a film. Because of the Wachowskis' past successes (basically reinventing the special effects super hero movie with 1999’s The Matrix), they were able to raise enough money (estimated at over100 million dollars) to go and make the film they wanted. The three co-wrote and co-produced the film together and then each person directed two of the six vignettes which were then merged together.

The first thing I must say is that I think the filmmakers have done a superb job of adapting the book to be a film as well as creating an entertaining (and frequently beautiful) piece of filmed entertainment. They have distilled the essence of the book, and in addition, have taken advantage of the nature of the medium of film to tell all six stories from the book simultaneously in a way the printed page was simply unable to do. They should be shoo-ins for multiple Oscar nominations, such as Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. 

One of the reasons I did not read every word in the book was because of the difficulty of following the central storyline in Cloud Atlas, the one set far into a post-apocalyptic future, where English itself has drifted and there has been some kind of technological disruption so most of humanity lives very simply without any modern amenities and speaks a pidgin English which I simply was unable (or unwilling) to slog through in order to follow wherever Mitchell intended to take me. However, in the filmed adaptation of this storyline (which is the longest section of the book and opens the film) the filmmakers have bravely decided to keep the pidgin (with no subtitles!) and rely on their to-dream-for cast to use the visual language of the medium (and the actor’s craft) to communicate meaning. And it works. In fact, for me, it works much better than the book did (obviously, since I skipped that part of the book!)

Here now we must discuss the cast. The film stars 2-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia), Oscar winners Halle Berry (Monster's Ball), Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) and Jim Broadbent (Iris). The always stellar Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) and the (in)famous Hugh Grant are also present. Additionally, the cast includes other very good actors who are up and coming stars such as Ben Whishaw (played Q in Skyfall), Korean film star Doo-Na Bae, Jim Sturgess and James D'Arcy (Hitchcock). 

One point of contention that may explain the generally muted critical response to the film is the fact that many of the actors play multiple characters, sometimes characters who have different race/ethnicity and/or gender than the actor portraying them. There are examples of the non-white actors (Berry and Bae) playing white women but it is the case of the two British actors playing Korean characters with physically altered eyes to appear “more Asian” that has garnered cries of “yellow face” and general opprobrium from some critics.

There is no question that the cross-racial casting is problematic. Primarily this is because it simply doesn’t work and is frankly distracting. The makeup can not hide the fact that very British Jim Sturgess is playing a character named Hae-Joe Chang  or that Korean Doo-na Bae is portraying a frizzy red-head with freckles (who happens to have almond shaped eyes?). It’s not clear what the solution for the filmmakers to this problem could have been. Central to the point of the film is that the characters played by these actors have connections through time, space and circumstance that transcend identity characteristics, so they have to be played by the same actors. Here the visual aspect of the media actually thwarts the filmmakers because there really is no way of having an actor with one racial identity portray a character with a different racial identity without being impacted by the specter of racial stereotypes in our modern day culture.

That being said, I don’t think that the racial misstep of the filmmakers is a fatal weakness of the film. The strengths of the film far outweigh its weaknesses in my opinion. The brilliant visual canvass on which the Wachowskis and Tykwer paint is awe-inspiring and the individual stories are enthralling. Even for readers of the books, we’re not sure whether (and how much) the film’s plot will differ from the book’s so that keeps these viewers in suspense. Another small weakness is the somewhat haphazard nature of the makeup. Some of the makeup is simply appalling (i.e. the trans-racial stuff already discussed) while some of it is so outstanding you don’t even realize that it’s there (like Halle Berry appearing as a wizened Korean surgeon and Tom Hanks appearing as a 30-something punk with wildly decorative facial hair).

Overall, I would recommend Cloud Atlas as an entertaining film with great visuals and performances by award-winning actors playing roles you’ve never expect to see them play. I’m sure this film will stay in my memory far longer than the excellent and exciting Skyfall (the latest James Bond movie). As a filmgoing experience, it was more enjoyable and enthralling than (the edifying history lesson provided by) Lincoln.

TitleCloud Atlas.
Director: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer.
Running Time: 2 hours, 51 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.
Release Date: October 26, 2012.
Viewing Date: November 21, 2012.

Writing: A.
Acting: A.
Visuals: A+.
Impact: A.

Overall Grade: A- (4.083/4.0).

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