CLOUD ATLAS: a Good Picture Missing its Burst of Brilliance By Ray Schillaci
The Wachowski’s, Andy and Lana, (The Matrix) newest outing is one with so much promise and moments of awe inspiring imagery that one would think that the audience would be walking out of the theater with a sense of wonderment after what had been presented. Instead, we have occasional set pieces that are memorable as they did with “The Matrix Reloaded” and only wished it had stepped up to the plate of such multiple storyline classics as “Pulp Fiction” or “Magnolia”. The storylines in “Cloud Atlas” are far more expanse, but if one were to take the individual storylines apart and view them separately, most of them would come across simplistic and ordinary rather than the themes this film suggest. It is a daring effort by the directors, Wachowski’s and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and one that is worth viewing at least once if not for the grandeur, then for two of the storylines; the fatal love story that transcends gender boundaries and the pure lunacy Jim Broadbent provides as a vanity book publisher.
“Cloud Atlas” weaves six stories in six very different time periods and locales with a common thread; how the action and consequences in our lives impact one another throughout the past, present and future. From their one can bring into play their own interpretation after a viewing or several viewings. There is some suggestion of Karma, reincarnation, good vs. evil, man’s unquestionable greed and the hope for a better life ahead.
A diary of an ocean voyage across the Pacific in 1849 provides some adventure laced with greed and danger. Letters from a budding composer to a dear friend delivers one of the most poignant moments in the film and probably accomplishes a universal feeling of love and its heartache better than most in the past decade. A mystery that is not quite as thrilling as it wants to be involving a murder in a nuclear power plant. A hilarious and touching romp with a publisher in over his head with criminal low-lifers and a nursing home is probably the best story line in the lot. A rebellion brought about by a clone in futuristic Korea delivers interesting eye candy. And, finally there is the tale of a tribe in a post-apocalyptic future that has one singular interesting character.
Sound complicated yet? Not as much as one would think. The three directors did well in interweaving their story lines, but the question remains; will an audience sit still for a film that is bouncing back and forth attempting to show you how everything connects? The first 45 minutes can be trying. Some will not have the patience and those that do may or may not like the outcome. For me it was like eating a great Chinese meal and being hungry a half hour later, not ever quite being fulfilled. I appreciated it and would recommend, but not to the masses.
“Cloud Atlas” has gone on record as the most expensive independent film ever made. From a technical standpoint you get your money’s worth. But there is something missing that keeps it from being a milestone in the annals of cinema as “The Matrix” did. There is also a stumbling block that gets in the way of several of the stories and that is the brilliant make-up job that comes into play with major actors playing multiple roles. One tends to play a guessing game of who’s who and that takes away from the stories or perhaps it takes away from the weakness of some of the stories.
We never quite get a connection between Tom Hanks’ character and Halle Berry’s in the nuclear power plant story, other than they are somehow connected in other lives. The ocean voyage, attended by Jim Sturgess’ character, is rife with rousing adventure, intrigue, the insensitivity of slavery and prejudice. But the story and the importance of what it is trying to get across is reduced to cliff notes. It’s like watching a musical dance number and saying, “Hey, I want to see the whole movie now”. The storyline does not hold the weight or value like the composer’s story that nearly moves us to tears or the wonderful charm portrayed in the publisher tale with a huge laugh going to Hugo Weaving in a surprising role.
Then there are the two tales of the future. One is post-apocalyptic with the usual look up until the near ending, the other a visually dazzling treat at times with a very somber tone. But the meat of these stories tread dangerously close to bad Syfy Channel. The staged fighting and laser beam shoot outs nearly undermine the importance of the clone story. Tom Hanks’ tribesman, Zachry (in post apocalyptic), has interesting moments with an evil side that demands our attention. But what he sets out to accomplish with Halle Berry’s character feels almost contrite. The big discovery is nicely played out, but there are weaknesses that hamper the film as a whole.
Not much is asked of Halle Berry as an actress and it’s a shame. Tom Hanks is given far more to do and overdoes it at times. You would think he was playing one of the many characters from the film he did with Zemeckis’, “The Polar Express”. Hanks becomes a live cartoon version of some of these characters while Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Keith David and Ben Whishaw make no attempts to hide beneath their make-up. They actually incorporate their disguise and deliver far more believable characters with depth.
At times I felt I was going on a pseudo-intellectual sojourn. Maybe some of the story elements had been dummied down for mass consumption. But then there are moments of subtle beauty and nuanced humor that touches our hearts and opens our minds. “Cloud Atlas” demands you to think and engage in a conversation afterwards. Very few American films do that these days. That is probably why it will do better in the foreign market.
With all its weaknesses, the film is an admirable effort by talented individuals that clearly love their material. Perhaps the filmmakers’ only wish is for you to come out of the theater being more than entertained. Does it add up to big box-office? I am not sure. The domestic release will definitely test the patience of filmgoers and whether or not they are ready for a thinking man’s adventure with high minded themes. With all its faults, “Cloud Atlas” is worth seeing on the big screen even though it does not fulfill the promise of brilliance that its ad campaign suggests.
10 Nasty Treats for Halloween by Ray Schillaci
Every year as the leaves turn color and the chill of fall is in the air (unless you live in Phoenix – then it drops from 120 to 92 and small animals appear to frolic again), critics come out in droves offering their 10 best lists for Halloween. Like sheep being led to slaughter they all whip out their favorites and it’s usually similar to their fellow critics with top spots varying. There is no disputing the fright quotient of classic movies like “The Exorcist,” “Psycho” and “Night of the Living Dead”.
Every now and then some more daring critics will slip in “Re-Animator” or a Herschel Gordon Lewis movie (”The Wizard of Gore,” “2,000 Maniacs”). Then there are the purest that insist on listing a true classic or two, Bela Lugosi’s, “Dracula” or Boris Karloff as the monster in “Frankenstein”. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Those are great cinematic achievements for their day, but lack the frightmares sought out by so many younger thrill seekers.
As an alternative, I’ve set out to deliver 10 freaky independent gems and one sick puppy Giallo (Italian crime, fiction, mystery usually accompanied by ridiculous gore – for its time). Some of these pieces of sinema should make you squirm, think and surprise you. Some of them may even have you laughing inappropriately. So, this October 31st you have a choice to pick one of the usual fares from the list of the mundane or select something truly unique and off the beaten path that will sure to leave an indelible psychological scar long after All Hallows Eve is over. Are you up to the challenge?
Juan of the Dead – Oh my God, this is the BEST dark comedy zombie movie since “Shaun of the Dead”. It is a foreign film and for some that is a deterrent. To that I say, “GROW UP!” You have a choice of subtitles (which I prefer) or dubbed. This slacker Cuban crisis is so unique and outlandish you’ll be screaming at the screen and laughing at the same time. Juan is a 40 year-old slacker who begins to suspect that the rioting in the streets is not just ordinary dissidents who support the evil that America is trying to infect his country with as the Cuban government reports. With a handful of low-lifes, Juan finally makes a decision that will profoundly affect his life as well as others in his community…start a business exterminating other people’s flesh-eating loved ones.
Grave Encounters – Not just another first-person pseudo-documentary. This sucker slowly gets under your skin and then unleashes a virtual haunted house of chills and thrills that even got picked up for a sequel. The story of a reality-based group of ghost hunters that have themselves locked in one of the most notorious abandoned asylums over night is filled with unexpected humor and genuine scares that will make you jump off the couch and turn on the lights. The crew effectively captures all the creepy feelings one can have in such a place and then goes one step further – diving head first into a very nasty bloodbath of terror.
The Tunnel – This is yet another in the first-person pseudo-documentary, but it is also an accomplished creepy claustrophobic thriller. An investigative journalist and her video crew descend the abandoned underground train tunnels in Sydney, Australia to find out why the government scraped a big project midway through. Possible government cover-up and urban legends cross paths in this dark tale of “be careful what you wish for”.
Absentia – This is by far the eeriest of my list of ten. This film is probably the closest to a great H.P. Lovecraft inspired story. For those not in the know, “Absentia” is Latin for “in the absence of (someone indicated)”. In this strange case, it’s regarding a new husband who suddenly disappears. After 7 painful years his wife, now pregnant and trying to move on with her life, has her troubled sister visit to help her cope as she declares her husband’s passing via “dead in absentia”. She battles with her visions of the dead husband visiting from beyond while her sister becomes obsessed with an ominous tunnel near the house, a pathway from the neighborhood to the park (or is it just that). Freaky sounds, things that go bump in the night and unnerving shadows make this picture perfect for late night viewing.
The Innkeepers – Who likes a good ghost story? Well, this one will have the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I really like Ti West as a director. His “House of the Devil” harkened back to the Satan worshiping 70’s films with enormous gusto. Now he brings us the ill fated story of the last employees and the few visitors of the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Mr. West delivers this haunted tale in spades with sounds that make you cringe and images that nearly cause one to cover their eyes. Shut the lights, bring up the sound and lock the kiddies in a safe place. This one could unnerve you.
Splinter – Have you ever been unfortunate enough to hit something on the road? Did you ever see roadkill that was nearly indescribable? What if that same roadkill decided to attack you while inspecting it on a dark night? The story practically has one setting, a gas station convenience store. There are basically four main characters, two we sympathize with two we can’t wait to see die along with one sick and twisted spiny monster that does horrible things to the human body. This one will jangle your nerves and the morphing effects are far more original and gruesome than 2011’s prequel to “The Thing”.
Stake Land – This is a nasty cross between “Evil Dead,” road trip pic and vampires. These are not good looking suckers. They almost resemble fast zombies with sharp teeth. Nothing is sacred in this film, so be warned. It is a dark, moody piece that breathes new fright life into the bloodsucking legends.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – It had to happen with all the hillbilly horror movies from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Wrong Turn,” someone finally came up with a dark comical gory version with teeth. Two innocent rednecks decide to go camping in their favorite spot only to find a group of young annoying college kids that stupidly end up killing themselves while trying to avoid some friendly backwoods hospitality. Sounds dumb? Dumb has never been this bloody funny.
Midnight Son – If you’re like me, you want to put a stake in the “Twilight” series and bury it in garlic. I know most of you are getting tired of vampire films and I already offered one up for your liking but this one is so different from all the rest. In fact, some people have compared it to George Romero’s minor classic, “Martin”. But in many ways, “Midnight Son” is a far better unpredictable horror story that becomes very personal. A lonely young security guard who works the night shift has an aversion to sunlight. It is not till he reaches a certain age that he becomes very sick and discovers quite by accident that blood is the only thing that quenches his hunger pains and makes him feel better. Making things more difficult for the young man is his chance meeting with a troubled young lady. The attraction for both becomes a danger with the young man’s hormones and cravings being kicked into overdrive.
Twitch of the Death Nerve – Here is an Italian import that predates the original “Friday the 13th” by nearly 10 years! Watch this movie for fun and as a little historical lesson, because this Giallo gem is practically the outline for Sean S. Cunningham’s, “Friday the 13th” with murders and all. In fact, “Friday the 13th Part 2″ takes two murders from this film shot per shot. It has come under more titles than any other movie including Bay of Blood and Last House on the Left Part II. It has also had several video releases from bad to so-so, but now Image Entertainment has delivered a really good copy in widescreen and uncut. This is considered one of the best Mario Bava (Susperia, Deep Red) films and his personal favorite. It is dated and dubbed, but that just adds to the fun.
Honorable mentions: Apartment 143 (Emergo), Session 9, Shallow Ground and The Dead Next Door (for lovers of “Evil Dead” and micro-budget horror filmmaking)
Have a safe and Happy Halloween!
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