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ADVANCE: Cloud Atlas - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
ADVANCE: Cloud Atlas
Directing: C+
Acting: B-
Writing: C
Cinematography: A-
Editing: C
Special Effects: B+

I don't even know where to start with Cloud Atlas, and I'm not sure Cloud Atlas really knows either. Actually, it really starts at the end, but it could have started anywhere and had basically the same effect.

I guess I'll start with the few good things that prevent the movie from being a total waste of time. It's very, very pretty. Much of it is a feast for the eyes, and this is the case regardless of the century it's in -- and this movie spans about six. Hmm, maybe the one exception is the 20th century, the most drab setting in this movie in every sense. You'd think 1970s San Francisco would be nicer to look at than what we see here. That said, it's during that era that we get one of the best bits of cinematography, following Halle Berry in her car as she's run off a bridge and into the water below.

It's the shots like that which make Cloud Atlas compelling, and little else. The special effects are pretty good, especially in the 22nd-century-set "Neo Seoul." It turns out this movie is much more straightforward science fiction than it is merely about the suggestion of reincarnation. On the other hand, given the span of time it covers, it also seems incapable of choosing a genre; it skips indiscriminately between science fiction and farce (present-day) and period drama (18th-century America; 19th-century England) and post-apocalyptic (um...).

No fewer than 13 actors play between four and six parts in this film, all playing different characters in each of the eras represented, presumably the same soul reincarnated. No wonder the movie is 172 minutes long. This doesn't occur on everyone but several have the same recurring birthmark that looks like a comet you might see in a children's book like The Little Prince.

This is a perfect excuse to showcase some real acting talent, but also to underline some real acting limitations. Tom Hanks, the consummate actor, still surprises with how convincing he is in multiple accents. The post-apocalyptic one is a little annoying, frankly: they speak in an invented dialect that seems like some sort of white version of Ebonics. But Hanks sells it, every time. He's nearly unrecognizable as a murderous cockney book writer in the year 2012.

But then there's Hugh Grant, who plays several American parts. Why, I have no idea. One need only to hear him speak to wonder what the producers were thinking. I can't remember the last time I've heard an accent so muddled, slipping back and forth between learned American and natural (though presumably, in this context, accidental) British.

To my knowledge, only one of the principal actors playing six parts -- Doona Rae -- was actually Korean (or even Asian), but several of the others are given makeup and prosthetics to make them look like 22nd-century Koreans for that era. I can't decide how I feel about this. Rae herself plays three different races, including a Colonial American and a Mexican woman. But the Americans made to look Asian look strangely artificial, with unnatural looking eyes and an odd bridge to their nose.

That said, some of the makeup is outstanding, because I didn't even realize many of the actors were playing certain parts until I saw the credits. How did I miss that Ben Whishaw played Hugh Grant's wife? Maybe I was too enamored with him as the gay composer in 19th-century England.

So, what of the plot? Such as it is, anyway. It's easy to see how this might have been a great book (I never read it), and it's also easy to see why some might have said the book was unfilmable. Turns out the book is perfectly filmable; they just didn't put it in the best hands. If you think too hard about it, some of the themes seem a bit heavy-handed. Okay, so rising up against oppression reverberates through time. The central character in 22nd-century Seoul turns out to be perhaps the most key character of them all. And yet, much of the Seoul sequences differ little from those in 1970s San Francisco, and those devolve into the feel of bad (and poorly edited) 1970s cop shows. A shootout is a shootout, whether they're shotguns or lasers, and couching it in the fundamental pretensions of Cloud Atlas doesn't change that.

Still, there are moments that approach poetry, with a seamless meeting of dialogue, cinematography, and special effects. Pockets of this movie are truly transporting. And then it yanks you back into the real world with post-apocalyptic visions of a cheesy green devil in a top hat. I so could have lived without that guy (played by Hugo Weaving, along with five other parts -- this time with convincing American accents).

There is something a bit fun about seeing all these actors in so many parts, including James D'Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, and more. Fun isn't quite enough, though. Cloud Atlas turns out to be more coherent than you might expect, given the concept, but that doesn't make it cohesive. Part of the problem may be the not one, but three directors: the Wachowski siblings, and Tom Tykwer. The three also co-wrote the script, but it still feels a bit like they made several different movies, all with threads of similar themes but of varying tone, and slapped them together semi-haphazardly.

These six stories are played out concurrently, much like the three stories in The Hours -- another movie spanning several eras, but with far greater finesse. To its credit, Cloud Atlas is really never boring, even with its bloated running time. I did find myself thinking, more than once, Okay, this movie is losing me -- but then it would bring me back. On the whole, it's just compelling enough to keep me from feeling I shouldn't have bothered watching. But it's not really compelling enough for me to say you need to see it.

cloud atlas

Who the hell invited this guy?

Overall: B-

Opens Friday, October 26.
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