Monday, September 24, 2012

Cloud Atlas [film review]

"Impressive". That's the best description I could come up with after being asked by my brother and sister-in-law about my thoughts on Cloud Atlas immediately following the film's second-ever public screening we'd just attended. Not a very incisive assessment, I'll grant you, but my head was still spinning as I tried to make sense of what I'd just witnessed over the film's jam-packed two hour and forty three minute running time. This may be one the most ambitious and epic films I've ever seen, demanding rapt attention from viewers as they're taken on an odyssey that spans the globe over 500 years and hopscotches between numerous interwoven storylines that incorporates just about every film genre available, featuring actors playing several different roles each. Cloud Atlas is based on British author David Mitchell's best-selling 2004 novel and was a huge challenge for the filmmakers to adapt and finance (its estimated budget of over $100 million also makes it the most expensive independent film ever made). The architects of this beautifully twisted madness are directors/writers/producers Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and The Matrix's Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (Lana was Larry until a gender transition that was completed about five years ago). The Wachowskis, notoriously press shy, were surprisingly on hand (along with Tykwer) to introduce the film's second screening the morning after its star-studded TIFF world premiere on September 8th at the Princess of Wales Theatre. 

A movie this expansive should have a large cast, considering how many characters appear - not so in this case, though. Principal actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and Xun Zhou each take on multiple roles that plays loose and fast with the actors' ages, races, and genders (Susan Sarandon, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Doona Bae also have smaller roles). Having so many dimensions to explore with all of their characters must have been acting nirvana for this lot. For the most part, they pull off the various requirements of the roles, many of which require a significant amount of prosthetics and makeup (click here for a look at some of the characters). Several of the roles were so well disguised that I was completely clueless that a certain actor had played the role until the end credits visually made some of the big reveals (learning that Berry played the white Victorian housewife and Grant a war paint-layered native completely floored me). Sticking around until the end is an absolute necessity for Cloud Atlas - the oohs and ahhs from the sold-out Winter Garden Theatre audience as they discovered who actually played some of the parts was a wonderfully unique filmgoing experience for me. For all of the positive aspects that the race bending and gender bending idea brings to the film, there is the distinct whiff of gimmick attached to it. Things do get a little silly when you have Weaving seemingly playing an Asian character whose makeup produces more of a Vulcan look (which may have been intentional on the filmmakers' part), as well as in full drag playing a Nurse Ratched-like character. The latter obviously has parallels to Lana Wachowski's own life and although the nurse character provides some decent laughs, I was a little hung up on how it seemed one of the character's main functions was to generate laughs purely based on the surreal sight of Weaving playing one truly ugly looking woman. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it.  

Weaving does provide one of Cloud Atlas' most memorable roles, as the seriously creepy Old Georgie, who terrorizes one of Hanks' many characters. Hanks does some of the best work I've ever seen from him, playing four different characters that range from an unscrupulous doctor in the 1800s to going far against type with maybe the film's standout character, a modern-day thuggish British writer named Dermot Hoggins who gets the ultimate revenge on a critic for a bad review. Berry is excellent with her main roles playing an ambitious reporter in 1970s San Francisco and a political figurehead (from what I could grasp) aligned with one of Hanks' characters in the far future, in one of the film's few storylines that doesn't quite work. Also great is Broadbent as both a composer and playing a man tricked into living in a retirement home, who provides the film's best comic relief. 

The weighty Cloud Atlas themes of interconnectedness, philosophy, reincarnation, oppression, and destiny, along with the film's highly challenging pace and complex non-linear storytelling construct will prove daunting to many - that's okay, however. I was lost a number of times - not Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-level lost, mind you, but definitely out of sync with what was happening onscreen. This is the type of daring film that demands multiple viewings to completely grasp the filmmakers' grand scope and there's nothing wrong with a little audaciousness from Hollywood once in a while. Even with a big-name cast, it'll be very interesting to see how the otherwise difficult-to-market Cloud Atlas will fare at the box office come late October.

Rating: A-

Opens in North America on October 26th

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