Monday, October 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas

A maddeningly ponderous and laborious feat is Cloud Atlas, a relentless endurance test even for the most patient and open minded of filmgoer.  Ambitious enough that the film tells six disparate stories, set from 1850 to post-apocalyptic Apocalypto territory, and requiring three filmmakers-- half the project was helmed by Tom Tykwer, the man behind the 1999 German art house sensation Run Lola Run, and the other half by the Wachowski siblings Andy and Lana, famous for The Matrix trilogy, Racer-- there's nothing about Cloud Atlas that comes across as easy, discernible or accessible.  And at a nearly three hour running length, there's a spark of creative sparks flying all over the place in a project so manically hard to pin to down, but none seem to strike as expected, leaving a pained tremor of wasted energy (and perhaps a pained posterior) for any adventurous cinephile ready for the trek.  What's missing beyond the grand visuals, the epic settings and perfectly game master cast, all of whom take on multiple roles in many cases crossing genders and ethnicity, is much of a point.  For a film that purports to be about it all, and bounds to connect the disjointed stories into a cohesive whole about life, love, death, reincarnation, and anything else pretentiously convoluted the press packages may be making up, there's such a corny, unnecessary arbitrary-ness to the event.  What may have been perceived and concocted with the intention of being the grandest cinematic mindfuck moviegoing experience is mostly just random vignettes of beautifully photographed serving moreso for cinematic masturbation for whomever will soak it in.

Adapted from David Mitchell's best-selling 2004 novel and indulgently put together, and put up with a $100 million-plus budget (one such, that this may be of the first films where an audience may sympathize with the suckered studio executives and investors bamboozled), the film begins with what feels like a teaser trailer.  A prologue to the stories about to unfold, but as we get deeper into this auteurial madness of a film, there's an oddly and sadly homogenized reality that those teasers just beget more teasers, with wisps of a metaphysical passage here and there.  As Cloud Atlas reaches its half way point, there's no sense catharsis is near, and wears down anybody who may have been clinging to risible sparks of promise.  Even as the chapters themselves start to slowly, very slowly, make their initial gravitation toward a conclusion, there's the nagging but persistent notion that not one of those meticulously choreographed stories-- all of which are acted the hell out of-- would be able to stand on their own.  The exercise shows it's strain and the gimmicks becomes way too apparent, like a big-budged version of The Five Obstructions without the fun.  The barrier in consistency may be partially explained due to the fact that Twyker and the Wachowski's were working with two different sets of crews in their tales, the cast being the only thing that remained constant.  However, the range in style and tone is so radically berserk that any five minute period of Cloud Atlas is nearly batted to a thud because the inter-connectedness that feeds the entire film is never fully processed, and the stories range from the mighty to the indifferent within a whim.

The best, or most cinematically complete story revolves around a gay outcast (Ben Whishaw) living in 1930s era Cambridge who becomes an amanuensis to a weathered, but once mighty composer (Jim Broadbent.)  Told mostly through letters that the student shares with his secret lover (James D'Arcy), there's a danger and searing connection to his plight.  A ripe, if overly played out, essay of a young, penniless artist trying to mark his future and be freed from his oppressive society, there's certainly an emotional connection-- much of which comes for Whishaw's sensitive portrayal, but this also the one segment free from insipid mugging or dragged out histrionics.  The filmmakers-- Tykwer directed this chapter-- restrain this tale, play it straight and allow the complications to form organically.

The other tales, which range from 1850s shipwrecked victim (Jim Sturges), being poisoned by a guileless doctor (Tom Hanks), while making friends with captured slaves, a 70s detective story about a journalist (Halle Berry) uncovering something big about big oil, a current day tale of literary twit (Jim Broadbent) trying to break free from a nursery home, a futuristic tale of Blade Runner-esqe robot (Bae Doona) stages a revolution, and a post-apocalyptic journey lead by goat-herder (Tom Hanks), who speaks like Jar Jar Binks, all run the gambit from novelty to heavy handed, each concluding with overly simplistic ideas than which it began.  Each segment makes a statement, more or less, of a hero who is victimized and their rise above.  The gimmick the filmmakers use, of which the actors are clearly agog with, is that each actor plays several roles, many times altering gender and ethnicity.  For instance, Sturges, an afflicted notary in 1850 comes home to his sweetheart, played in white face by Korean actress Doona, and Sturges played Doona's savior in future.  The many instances imply a great device for the filmmakers in trying to make their themes palpable, but the gimmick never passes.  While there's certainly great sight gags, especially when Hanks dons a deplorably caddish accent to play a nefarious novelist in Broadbent's signature segment; other worldy thespians like Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving journey along the centuries with the filmmakers.

The never seemingly connect, but befuddle, provide momentary giggles, as one patiently looks at their watch.  D

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