Monday, October 29, 2012

10-29-12 Cloud Atlas Review

Samantha and I used a couple of free passes to see Cloud Atlas yesterday. I've been mulling it over since last night and, with a bit of thinking and an attempt not to over-think, here's a review, because I actually quite enjoyed the film and yet it felt as though it were trying to do too much or spread itself too thin.

I have not read the book, so my take is purely on the film itself. I try not to see films after I've read the book if I love the book. It always ends badly. So I'm free and clear here.

A quick synopsis, insofar as anyone could do this plot justice. The book, I've read, was pronounced "unfilmable" because of its structure, based on the same movement of the symphony/sextet structure that one of the characters writes. He has six different narratives, the first half of the first five are told sequentially, leaving the reader hanging at each midway point. The sixth narrative is told in its entirety in the center of the novel, and then descending, plot #5, plot #4, plot #3, plot #2, and plot #1's second halves are concluded so that we end where we began in 1849. The film, however, does away with such structure and intersperses all six, quickly cutting from a few minutes of one story to another and without any clear pattern. (Or maybe there is and I just wasn't quick enough to spot it.) It opens and ends with the last time period, as a tale told around the campfire.

The six narratives, in chronological order:

1849 young lawyer Adam Ewing is sent by his father to the South Pacific to procure a lucrative deal in the slave trade. He witnesses the savage beating of one of the slaves, Autua, before falling out from the heat. Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) "treats" him by slowly poisoning him to steal his gold. They set out to return to San Francisco and Autua manages to stow away in Ewing's compartment. There is a great moment between the two about how he knew they would be friends. Ewing, still ailing, reveals Autua's presence to the captain, but Autua's skills as a sailor (before becoming enslaved) saves him from being thrown overboard (barely). Autua, of course, saves Ewing from Goose's final poisoning and Ewing returns to burn the contract he procured for his father and leave with his wife, Tilda, to fight for the abolitionism cause. His journal, kept throughout the voyage, is published and read in...

1936 as young composer Robert Frobisher works as an amanuesis for an old composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, and composes his own work late at night, high in the tower of the old man's house, The Cloud Atlas, a work in six parts, which Ayrs intends to take as his own once it is finished. His story is told in letter-form to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, who is at Cambridge studying to be a scientist.  Frobisher undertakes an affair with Arys' wife, Jocasta. When he attempts to leave the house with his unfinished work, Arys steals it and, in a scuffle involving the old man's gun, Arys is struck but survives. Arys has told the young man he will ruin him so that his symphony will never be heard by anyone.  Frosbisher flees and finishes his work in hiding, writing to Sixsmith throughout, who attempts to find him. Frobisher bribes the innkeeper (Tom Hanks) who figures out who he is. Sixsmith finds Frobisher seconds after he has puts the gun to his own mouth and pulled the trigger.

1973 young San Francisco reporter Luisa Rey finds herself trapped in an elevator with an elderly Rufus Sixsmith and he develops a rapport with her that leads him to call her to give her a report on the cover-up happening regarding the nuclear power plant that big oil is intentionally setting up to leak. He is killed before she arrives but she is able to retrieve the love letters from Frobisher in his room and follows what few leads she has to the power plant where she is befriended by another scientist, Isaac Sachs, (Tom Hanks) who falls in love with her and is promptly blown up in his plane after handing over the same report that Sixsmith was trying to get to her. She is driven off the road by the hitman, but survives and is befriended by the plant's security officer, who served with her father in Korea and owes him his life. The picture of her father is identical to Autua's. She has also found a rare copy of the symphony in record form at a shop whose keeper bears a striking resemblance to Frobisher.

2012 old publisher Timothy Cavendish is both horrified and delighted when he awful gangster client writer (Hanks) throws a critic out of the penthouse, killing him, on the eve of the book's publication. The book is an overnight sensation, and Cavendish goes wild with spending, until he must flee his life to escape the mobster's gang who wants far more money than he has left. Seeking help from his rich brother, he finds himself locked up against his will in a nursing home as revenge for the affair he had with his brother's wife many years before. The nursing home was once the composer Arys' home. This section of the narrative is the only one written with humor and does much to lighten the rest of the film. He is also reading the book version of the 1973 story. Cavendish returns to the home of his first love and finally reunites with her, and writes the tale of his woe as his own book which is made into a film.

2144 young clone ("fabricant") Sonmi-451 is liberated from Neo-Seoul, Korea, more specifically a fast-food establishment, where she has spent her entire life enslaved, by a young rebel who shows her the reality of her world and inspires her to record an Orison in which she reveals to the masses the truth of their dystopian society, before being captured, watching her savior killed, and interrogated before her execution. Some really creepy Slaughterhouse type of stuff in this one, as she learns that the "freedom" granted to fabricants after their period of servitude is up, is that they are executed and ground into food for the other fabricants. YUCK. At some point they also watch the film "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish." There's a very funny scene where Cavendish starts hollering to the befuddled residents watching him try to escape the nursing home, "Soylent Green is people!" but it's not so amusing here.

22?? in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, middle-aged Zachry, a goat-herder and a member of the Valleymen tribe, worships Sonmi, who has over the intervening era of destruction, become a goddess of myth. The rival Konas tribe regularly raid and kill his people. Meronym, from a race called the Prescients who are technologically advanced and dying of their own plague attempt to infiltrate the Valleymen, hoping to find a guide to take her to the top of the mountain where the tribe believes the devil resides in an attempt to understand the origins of the apocalypse as well as the plague that is wiping out her home now. (Edited to add: the preceding sentence is about as convoluted as the entire movie!) She shows Zachry the recordings that survived of Sonmi-451 as they roam the observatory that is littered with skeletons at the top of the mountain  (what?). Oh, and the devil keeps popping up telling Zachry to kill her instead of listening to her lies. They return to the village to find it wiped out, Zachry's wife killed, but his daughter hidden away. He kills the Kona warrior, but this alerts the other Kona who almost kill them both before Meronym rescues them. They make it to the Prescient ship where Zachry agrees to stay with her as they seek a new place to live. At the end of the film, we end where we began, with a very, very old Zachry telling these stories to his grandchildren around the campfire and pointing out the star in the sky known as Earth, before retiring with Meronym, his wife. This whole story is written in some gibberish dialect that made it very hard to follow. I desperately needed subtitles.

The main problems I had with the film, which, remember, I actually quite enjoyed, are these:

1. The heavy-handed platitudes. If these are in the book, then it's the fault of the author. If they are in the film only, then the screenwriters can take the fall. Really, we don't need "when one door is closed another is opened" or the continually repeated "from womb to tomb we are all connected" droned on. (Yes, womb to tomb rhymes. Stop it.) The real interest, at least for me, is the interweaving of the stories from one generation to the next. Each one not only happens, but is recorded in some form, which is picked up by the next story. Let it be.

2. The post-apocalyptic speak. Subtitle this or write it so the audience can follow the interchange. It made me nuts. Edited to add: Yibberin the True True

3. The impossibility of doing good makeup to make a white actor appear Asian or a black or Asian woman appear white. It felt a little like black-face in places. Did Jocasta, the old Jewish wife of Arys really have to be played by Halle Berry? Did Ewing's young wife Tilda really have to be play by Korean beauty Doona Bae (Sonmi-451) in freckled-white face with red hair? Hae-Joo Chang, the young liberator and lover of Sonmi and the Interrogator of Sonmi, are played by Jim Sturgess (who is Adam Ewing originally) and Hugo Weaving (who has great fun doing drag as Nurse Noakes, Cavendish's nemesis.) Both men, in Asian makeup, look alien.  The fun the actors must have had taking on six different roles not withstanding, and I get that they wanted six actors to play six different parts each, in keeping with the numeric repetition, but still... jarring and odd.

4. This is a complaint only for the theater viewing, but thanks to the very quick pace of switching back and forth through the stories, there was absolutely no way to make bathroom timing work. I usually pick a fight scene and make it back without missing anything I care about. Here, I picked a chase scene but I knew I'd miss something else. Luckily, it was only one something else, which turned out to be back in the post-apocalyptic jungles when they weren't making much sense anyway.

5. Lastly, and maybe I'm asking too much, but I really wanted the Cloud Atlas to be some amazing work I had to run out and buy on CD. For a $100,000,000 budget? Where's my real composer?

One last edit: good spoiler discussion here, including the comet birthmark thing I didn't even attempt to discuss here.


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