Cloud Atlas ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, David Gyasi, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, and Hugh Grant
Written by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer (screenplay), based on the novel by David Mitchell
Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
*Note- this review contains excerpts from a previous, shorter review of the film I completed in 2013.
“Our lives and our choices, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction. Yesterday my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Fear, belief, love, phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue long after we perish. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible?” – Cloud Atlas, author David Mitchell
Is it rational to think that right now, writing this review, I have been influenced by a decision made three hundred years ago? Is it rational to think that my praise of this film may, somehow, effect an individual hundreds of years from now? Of course not, but Cloud Atlas is not about rational, logical thought, nor is it a standard film. If I have interpreted the film accurately, it is about possibility, dreams, risk, chance, fate, our connection to each other, and the inherent responsibility of our choices. It is about how our actions, small as they may be, can have a ripple effect on people, places, and things. Rarely does a film come along that actually makes the connection between ethereal, spiritual thought and precision film making, yet Cloud Atlas, with its’ sublime color pallet, rousing score, and honest delivery, now exists as the supreme triumph of both in my eyes.
I’ll try my best to elaborate. When a work of art speaks to you on a deep, personal and emotional level, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue its’ merit. Cloud Atlas is the prime example of that conundrum for me. It may just be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I don’t believe for a moment that I can sway a regular moviegoer to my way of thinking. What I can say is that three directors collaborated to create a deeply soulful, spiritual film, spanning all genres, inspiring all emotions, and touching on all of the things I love about seeing a movie. It is perhaps the most unusual film of our time- it seemingly came from nowhere, had an extended trailer, opened wide in both 2-D and 3-D, defied convention, bombed at the domestic box office, and practically begged viewers to see it as multiple copies collected shelf dust. I simply ask that you keep in mind my absolute bias for the film as you read, and know that I cannot convince you that this is the best film of all time. I’m simply quite comfortable in my assertion that it is.
Cloud Atlas could have been an expensive disaster, making no sense and cementing (in my head) that the films of the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and The International) are no longer appointment viewings. Instead, this beautiful and occasionally brutal film exceeded my expectations, in both tone and execution. The broad story spans roughly 600 years, from the days of seafaring clippers to a possible post-apocalyptic future. From a sick lawyer that tries to overcome his inherent racism to a grandfather finally able to find ease with his tumultuous life, we’re treated to a multitude of relationships, past, present, and future. A journalist strikes up a relationship with a scientist, and in the process uncovers a massive threat. An understudy to a great musician puts music to his words, creating the timeless title sound. A genetically engineered waitress breaks code and inspires the world as a result of the kindness of a rebellious stranger. A post-apocalyptic forager must overcome his hallucinations and simple upbringing to get humanity to connect again. How the directors were able to weave this plethora of storylines and characters together and still have it make narrative sense, I’ll never know. What I do know is that it works, just like a random collection of notes strings together to form a symphony. What this symphony wants to tell us is that the evil of then is the evil of now, and in the future. The love of then, now, and in the future is the same. It is simply up to us to find our common threads, learn from them, and decide which true fate we want for ourselves and humanity.
A film like Cloud Atlas can be misunderstood as perhaps too philosophical, or asking too much of its’ audience, which leads to the unfortunate label of ‘pretentious’. The problem with applying that specific label on this film is that an actual pretentious film may try to affect what isn’t there. The directors of Cloud Atlas, whilst exhibiting most of the qualities you might find in pretentious filmmakers, aren’t. I mean no disrespect of course, but I’m of the belief that they simply haven’t shown themselves to be nuanced enough with their on-screen work to be aware that what they’re doing could be pretentious. They’re all bombastic heart and soul, a mindset that doesn’t lend itself to pretentious results. It may lead to failed results (see Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix Revolutions, Speed Racer, The International), but even with those films, I appreciated their completely dedicated and earnest results. Everything they have is on-screen, and they seem to love it, even if we might not. If you can fault them for anything, it would be a lack of focus. I’ll take that over sheer pretentiousness any day.
I often worry, like the Wachowskis might, that I am pretentious. I often wonder that I may want to be so that my opinion somehow matters. The reality, instead, is that I simply have something in common with the directors of Cloud Atlas. We’re cinematic soul mates. I am content to be thought foolish, willing to wear my heart on my sleeve, outside opinions be damned (even if it may secretly hurt a bit). I’m always prepared to enjoy an incomplete, or perhaps a metaphysical idea of a film, provided that I’m able to draw conclusions and enjoy the experience. Cloud Atlas has gaps, and asks us to bear with it as we see an awful-toothed Tom Hanks in one era, then as a neo-language spouting future woodsman. It asks us to step outside of our comfort zone and accept that a piece of music may link people hundreds of years apart. It asks us to accept a possible near future in which the neon hues and wardrobe choices of a progressive Asian culture dominate the landscape. This kind of free-range boldness is incredibly endearing and rare, and I rode that wave through the film’s humbling conclusion.
I would ask the skeptical to allow for the possibility that what happens in this film could be a reality. If you can separate the rigidity of our regular lives and the realities that we’re ingrained with in this world, Cloud Atlas can stir that sense of hope and purpose within you. I feel it gives a voice and a narrative for what I believe is missing in many of our lives- a connection to the universe, and some meaning to what we do. In other words, it does for me what organized religion maybe should do. Interestingly enough, I’ve found myself not standing alone with my love for the film, and my thoughts for it. Those that like this film appear to share a kindred spirit, and an optimistic outlook on what we as a species could do. I say this being fully aware that I’m placing these opinions and feelings on the film, and it is altogether plausible that the original author and the directors had no intention of speaking to us as I’ve interpreted. I’m not buying that for a moment, however.
Cloud Atlas is too soulful, too all-encompassing an emotional tale to simply be meant as a popcorn film. Consider the fictional “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, as it has been wonderfully imagined in the film by composers Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself. Imagine it as a tangible, audible thing that we can hear, a real thread of sound that permeates time and space. Think of what a thing of beauty it would be, how that shared connection can link all of us together, our decisions, or triumphs and failures, our ups and downs, and how it would mirror the greatest of symphonies, the most resonant of sounds. It is a timeless piece, something I would never tire of hearing, as if the memories of a thousand souls were wrapped up in the single stroke of a piano key or the bow of a violin. I love this film, for everything it says to me, and for what I hope it will say to others once they see it. Perhaps my words will encourage you to be of a certain mind when you watch it, perhaps not. If nothing else, my hope is that viewers allow the film to wash over them, and not give in to the pessimism and preconceived notions of what a ‘Wachowski’ film might be. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Jupiter Ascending ** (out of 5)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and James D’Arcy
Written and directed by: Lana & Andy Wachowski
History will suggest that Jupiter Ascending was an utter disaster; it teeters ever so close to the edge of that, but a disaster it isn’t. Consider the sad state of affairs for blockbuster story ideas in Hollywood when I’m praising a bad film for trying. Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the ambitious, and occasionally brilliant Matrix trilogy and the wonderful Cloud Atlas, have created a monstrosity with their new film. It makes little sense, suffers from a lack of focus, is loud and dumb, and is utterly forgettable- but I absolutely adore that someone out there bothered with an attempt to make an original blockbuster, and well, it is beautiful to gaze upon.
Channing Tatum co-stars as Caine, a genetically engineered, half man/half wolf bounty hunter with a past. This past is not integral to the plot, but it is included anyway to give his character more of an ‘edge’. His mission is to track down Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who may or may not be the ‘recurrence’ of a dead alien queen. Tatum and Kunis actually do develop some decent chemistry in their roles, and manage to give the film some much-needed charm, even if it barely lasts. Kunis is her usual stunningly beautiful self, but her ability to pull of humility is what solidifies her in the role. Tatum and his abs “air-skate” through the movie, much of it with his shirt off for the pleasure of ‘oglers’ everywhere.
It says a great deal about the rest of the film that they’re the only ones that seem to be having any fun, however. The convoluted plot finds Jupiter hunted by various factions, some interested in her claim to various worlds (including Earth), some interested in just plain killing her. Balem Abrasax (Redmayne), the current big man on the universal campus, is the baddie here, apparently suffering from some sort of laryngitis along the way. If I hadn’t been assured from critics everywhere that his performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant, I’d have wondered if Redmayne was actually trying for ‘most miscalculated delivery ever’. Not only is it a difficult performance to watch and listen to, the character doesn’t make much sense. What is his problem, really? If Jupiter is truly the reincarnation of his mother, wouldn’t that be a good thing? If he’s the ruler of the universe, why would he risk everything for Earth? Is he not aware of global warming or the depletion of our natural resources?
Let’s not forget the Abrasax siblings, specifically Titus (Booth). Space Caligula here wants Jupiter- yes, his mother reincarnated, for his wife. Sure, we know that he’s just interested in her hereditary claims and titles, but the thought is still disgusting, right? Jupiter, as grounded as she is, sees no choice in the matter, for if she doesn’t relent, Balem can and will ‘harvest’ the Earth. This ‘harvest’ I speak of? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the film never bothers to present it as starkly as is necessary- yet another missed opportunity. Kalique (Middleton), the other sibling, is just as gross and awful. The sibling rivalry is akin to a midday soap opera, substituting Romanesque archetypes instead of wealthy urbanites.
Similar in many ways to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, The Wachowskis have created a world with this film in which they were allowed to play at will, and seemingly spend money at will. Make no mistake- those dollars ($179 million of them) are on-screen here. They’ve made a miscalculation on what the film should have been, however. When your title has Jupiter in it, and the gas giant is prominently featured in the film, one should take the time to properly explore the awe of the planet itself. I envision this whole idea working with a change of tone and a change of focus. Instead of a popcorn flick, why not take an additional chance and make this an abstract, strictly sci-fi film? Why not let the wonder of a familiar yet still mysterious planet be the centerpiece of your film? Why not make the horror of the ‘harvests’ the real villain and not the painfully typical Emperor Emphysema? Instead of generic action cues for music, why not have the great Michael Giacchino develop something inspired? Maybe he had little to inspire him? Likely.
Jupiter Ascending never quite reaches the ‘so awful that you should create a drinking game to mock it’ level, but it certainly never aspires to be great. The Wachowskis should know better than to play it lame like this, for this critic believes they’re quite capable of the greatness, making this all the more disappointing. The Wachowski’s seeming obsession with messiahs or saviors is on clear display, when a better, more watchable film is well within their grasp, especially with the budget allotment they received. At the same time, I hope this grand financial failure isn’t the figurative nail in the coffin for their creativity. I hope they continue to get opportunities to showcase their abilities. I also hope they use some of that creativity to reign themselves in, to find ways of producing films with more focus and direction. After all, that is what Jupiter Ascending so desperately lacks- and that’s all on the filmmakers.
“Edge of Tomorrow” ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, & John-Henry Butterworth (screenplay), based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Directed by: Doug Liman
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Gamers around the world, rejoice. The gaming culture has so permeated pop culture that a summer tent pole is calling itself a ‘science fiction’ film to mask what it actually is- a video game masquerading as a movie. Never before have I seen anything that so closely parallels the video game experience like “Edge of Tomorrow”. Even the poster, with the appropriate tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat” perfectly encapsulates the maddeningly disposable experience and challenge of completing a video game. Does that mean the film is maddeningly disposable and challenging ? Not necessarily- this is a very self-aware, fun film, with major action set pieces that have been wonderfully constructed. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this film is in any way a science fiction milestone, or a bastion of ‘new’ material. It is what it is, and by that measure, accomplishes everything it sets out to be.
Tom Cruise stars as Major Tom Cruise (not a typo), a man with a pretend title for the United Defense Force (or something futuristic), as he has no interest in being a part of the ‘battle’ he is promoting. His character is the familiar used car salesman behind the scenes of war, convincing the wealthy to write checks or buy war bonds, but never holding a rifle. In a twist of fate, the general of the United Defense Force, Hamish from “Braveheart” (Brendan Gleeson), wants him to actually be a part of the battle against a race of nasty fluorescent alien octopi. After all, he needs every able-bodied person he can find. His strategy is like many military leaders before him- with great quantity comes great victory. We know better as a trained film audience- the front lines are the sacrificial lambs, for which Tom Cruise is designated.
We also know as an audience that you can’t send Tom Cruise to the front lines, but General Hamish has not seen his movies. Therefore, he sends Tom Cruise into battle, under the charge of Master Sergeant Bill Paxton and a rag-tag bunch of misfits. He’s cursed at, made fun of, all of the things you wouldn’t expect to happen to Tom Cruise. He is completely unfit for battle, but they throw him out there anyway, and he’s promptly annihilated by the enemy (more on them later). The twist? Despite his apparent death, he wakes up in the same spot, handcuffed and brought to attention by Master Sergeant Bill Paxton.
Have we seen this film before? Certainly- it’s basically the same trick used by “Groundhog Day”, and it’s wonderful. “Edge of Tomorrow” replaces Puxatawney, PA with the sandy beaches of France, and the sounds of Sonny & Cher with the barking of a drill sergeant. Understand that this is not on purpose- this isn’t literally a re-envisioning of the Bill Murray classic, it just plays similarly. I understood the idea of making Bill Murray’s character replay the same day over and over, but here, I’m confused. The alien enemy (straight out of a ‘Metroid’ game), has ‘fused’ with Tom Cruise’s mind as a result of their “goo” mixing with his “goo”, causing him to repeat back to the same moment in front of the drill sergeant.
Why that particular moment? We’re supposed to accept this without explanation or reason, but I’m neither sold on the logic, nor do I appreciate the lack of science behind the logic. If they’re able to repeat a certain period of time, how much? What are their limits? Why do they have limits? Why not just repeat the entire war? These are questions a science fiction film would explore to create a further understanding, but this is not a science fiction film.
Again, that’s ok- for as I stated earlier, “Edge of Tomorrow” is simply a great deal of fun. Tom Cruise even allows his Tom Cruise character to be out-Tom Cruise’d by Emily Blunt, who stars opposite him as ‘war hero’ Rita Vrataski. Yes, Emily Blunt is an action figure here, conveniently sharing the same name as Andie MacDowell’s character in “Groundhog Day”. She’s also in the same boat as Tom Cruise, having experienced something similar to his ‘repeat’ ability once before, and thus was able to turn the tide of a different battle. Now she’s the symbol for victory, and Tom Cruise must convince her of what he’s experiencing every day so they might together find a loophole and defeat the alien octopus queen lotus (that’s the best way I can describe the ‘boss level’ creature).
Blunt, while hard to buy as a ‘leader’ in the traditional sense, certainly adds a level of sophistication to the role, which is basically written as a live action Lara Croft-type (I don’t know my video games as well as some of you, so fill in the blank, please). As you can imagine, Tom Cruise begins to fancy Rita Vrataski as time passes, and makes decisions based on keeping her from harm. It’s a sweet, if unnecessary sidebar to the film’s kinetic sensibility.
The hook for me in overcoming the story’s laissez-faire science is watching Tom Cruise deconstructed to the point where he becomes….US. In a literal sense, he needs to die, over and over again, to memorize a battle, specific movements, and improve to perfection as a soldier the exact way we as gamers would play as his character. Remember the lost days learning the ins and outs of up/up/down/down/left/right/left/right/b/a/start- and envision a film where Tom Cruise does this in a literal sense. Tom Cruise becomes a walking, talking strategy guide. Someone smarter than I (not difficult to do) should reference something philosophical and ‘meta’ in regards to this film. It’s brilliant in that sense perhaps without intending to be.
Tom Cruise continues to make interesting, if not bold film choices. From 2011’s vibrant franchise reinvention with “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” to the immensely enjoyable “Jack Reacher” and now with “Edge of Tomorrow”, he deserves credit for not allowing a specific perception of him to define his career. Tom Cruise played Tom Cruise in video game. Fantastic. What’s next, a period romance? I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I anticipate failure.