Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Cinema File #8: "Cloud Atlas" Review

Just got back from a three hour movie about Tom Hanks making funny voices, and my first thought coming away from the proceedings is that Hugo Weaving makes for one ugly ass woman. This, is Cloud Atlas. The story is actually several stories strung together by a rather too loose framework of written tales within written tales chronicling the lives and travails of a wide cast of characters, most playing multiple roles across time as narrative and thematic threads struggle valiantly to come together into something I should give a shit about. I almost do, but the further I get away from it, the more I wonder if it was all just a clever combination of feel good schmaltz and pathos wrapped up in pretentious nonsense masquerading as a point. In other words, it's a movie made by the guys (or rather now guy and girl) who brought us The Matrix Trilogy

Full Disclosure, I haven't actually read the book upon which this movie is based, and all I knew about it beyond the basic story and structure was that many had called it unfilmable. I'm not sure what was cut out or changed, and the final product is still pretty dense and expansive as far as movies go, but just coming from someone engaging with Cloud Atlas for the first time with no context to prepare myself, it seems to pan out just fine, at least when it comes to the schematic of it. I was rarely confused by anything once things we're revealed and the individual stories came into better focus, which itself seems like a feat given the demands of the multiple interweaving narratives. The problem is that by the end, once all of it is laid bare, I can't really come to any sense that the journey was important or worth my time. It's a very pretty and well made movie with a lot of interesting characters, and I can't say I was ever bored, but as a whole, it just feels like the filmmakers had a lot of themes they wanted to address, and an overriding idea concerning the recursive nature of those themes, but forgot to actually explore them in any meaningful way or bring them to a conclusion.

It's just a bunch of stuff that happened, a lot of it very interesting, and much of it repeating in different time lines. The movie wants desperately to make some kind of grand unifying point about life or the human condition, or something, but like an old bearded man in a room full of television sets with Keanu Reeves inside them, it comes just close to the edge of being profound and then just takes a shit all over itself. Not every movie has to have something amazing and insightful to say about life, but don't say that that's what you're doing, and construct this big hoopla of fanfare about how you'll be doing it any minute now, and then just forget to do it. It's cheap, deceptive, and only serves to diminish any good you might have accomplished with the rest of the film. It is a very entertaining mess, I will give it that. The actors are all top notch and for the most part pull off multiple and in many cases very different roles very well, with the exception of Hugo Weaving, who can evidently be nothing but pure evil no matter what life he's living. By the end, chronologically speaking, they just stop trying to explain what kind of evil thing he is and just make him the literal personification of evil (or possibly also the ghost of an old timey slave trader based on his dress, which would be an interesting twist if true, or rather true true). There isn't really a weak link in the bunch, though Hank's various accents can border on comical when I don't think they were necessarily meant to be, and Hugh Grant seems like an odd casting choice, never really fitting well into any of his many roles, though that might just be due to my own preconceptions of him as an actor.

Visually it might just be the best looking movie I've seen all year, which is really no surprise considering the people involved. The Wackowski siblings may not always be the best storytellers when all things are considered, but they always deliver on making a movie fun to watch. The stand out sequences are obviously the two set in the future, one a dystopian high tech setting, and the other a post apocalyptic tribal one, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the other, more traditional settings. There isn't really a lot of disconnect between any of the different time periods in terms of one being more or less engrossing, and they are threaded together rather seamlessly from a visual standpoint, so that it never feels disjointed when bouncing back and forth between them. That alone should be applauded, as this epic scope in the hands of a less talented crew could have been a mess on a colossal scale. I can't fault the movie on style, but the substance leaves something to be desired.

One quick note on the design that did trouble me a bit was in the make up, which seemed to be all over the place in terms of quality. It isn't quite as bad as the silly putty Bruce Willis brow Joseph Gordon Levitt had to wear in Looper earlier this year, but given how so much of the movie depends on the same actors assuming different roles, in many cases assuming different races and genders, a lot of the make up jobs and prosthetic work comes off as cartoonish. The idea that Halle Berry could look anything other than stunning seemed crazy to me until I saw her as what I assume is supposed to be an attractive white lady, and when they make non-Asian actors appear Asian, they look like aliens, so much so that I'm surprised no one has come out as offended by it. And the less said about Hugo Weaving's Nurse Ratchet turn, the better, though I imagine he/she was supposed to be soul shrivellingly terrifying.

I am reminded of Argo, and how the different tones were merged together so easily and complimented each other so well, and I think that might be my main dispute with this movie. The stories were each individually very interesting, so much so that I wouldn't have minded any of them being separated and expanded into their own movies. In particular, the final two future stories, which have the most connection with the main character of one being important to the history of the other, had the potential to be a great sci fi movie on its own. And as I've mentioned before on this blog, Keith David is on the top of my list of celebrities I'd go gay for, so I'd watch him kick ass in a 70's era political thriller any day. The problem is, I don't see the justification of putting these stories together. When I'm laughing at Jim Brodbent's wacky nursing home misadventure, I don't want to have to concern myself with the terrible secret of what happens to clone waitresses in futuristic South Korea. I don't buy the bullshit past life pseudo-reincarnation linkage device the movie wants to force upon me, trying to provide more consistency than actually exists in a way that ultimately comes off as hamfisted and too clever by half.

Just for the visual accomplishment and general grandiosity of the movie, it would probably be disingenuous of me to give Cloud Atlas an outright bad review or not recommend it. Certainly, it's much better than, say, Arachnoquake. At the very least, it's the best movie about literal and figurative cannibalism that I've seen in a long time. Go see it, let the epicness wash over you and embrace the schmaltz. Enjoy Tom Hanks try to charm you with his funny voices, and then watch him die a few times for his trouble. Also, see if you can figure out just what the fuck any of those future people are saying, because half of it just flew past me. Enjoy the majesty of it, and try to ignore how much of it is manufactured and artificial. Just don't expect to be inspired, or to feel the kind of deep and profound something or other that the swelling music is telling you that you should be feeling.

And don't come back to me and tell me it moved you in any way, because I might just have to jump inside of you and explode you from the inside out, Neo style.

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