Cloud Atlas: A New Trailer and a Divisive Premiere

Sadly, my attempts to make this blog cutting edge failed rather miserably when I went away for last weekend out of internet range and then came back to find that I had great difficulty finding time to sit down and write. What I missed being able to blog during that time was that, first of all, Warner Brothers has now released a shorter 2:30 trailer for Cloud Atlas. It’s mostly the same things that we’ve already seen, but with a couple of other clips – most tantalising of all (at least to me as a classical music buff) is the small snippet of the Cloud Atlas Sextet that can be heard playing on a record at the beginning of the trailer.

And I read somewhere that that is Ben Whishaw (who plays the composer Robert Frobisher in the 1930s story) as the record store attendant. Not that you can really easily confirm these things. IMDB still doesn’t have a full list of who’s saying who. Or are they just letting us have some surprises when we watch the film? I’d like to hope so. Needless to say, I don’t think this trailer is going to make the film any clearer for newbie audiences out there, so I’m not sure who it was pitched at. Also, sadly, it leaves off M83’s “Outro”, which so powerfully drove the last couple of minutes of the long trailer with its hyper-emotionalism. The first trailer neatly broke down into three movements – I. Drama II. Action Film III. Emotional Rollercoaster. By chopping off the third movement and only leaving the first two, I don’t think this new trailer is doing anybody any favours. Anyway, none of that matters too much now, because the film has had it’s premiere just last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) so dozens of critics have been able to post their reviews at the same time. And the result? A completely divisive experience, it seems. What everyone does seem to agree on is that, when the film was finished, the filmmakers got a 10-minute ovation. But maybe that was just group peer pressure in action. Because the results were completely mixed. There was some absolute savaging.

Cloud Atlas” is like the entire “Matrix” trilogy in micro. It starts out absolutely brilliantly, then segues into a pretentious slog. Jordan Hoffman at film.com. Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski wanted to make a movie unlike any other, and they certainly did: Cloud Atlas is a unique and totally unparalleled disaster. Calum Marsh at slantmagazine.com

Henry Barnes at The Guardianis a bit more mild, suggesting that it’s all very silly, but there’s probably something everyone will like.

At 163 minutes Cloud Atlas carries all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled. Yet it’s hard to wholly condemn the directors’ ambition – this is fast-paced and cleverly assembled, with the best of the performances shining through the prosthetics (Hugh Grant makes great play of the clutch of villains he’s dealt). The Tykwer/Wachowski collective offer everything here. Chances are there’s something in the hodgepodge for you.

Another middle-of-the-road review from Tim Robey at The Telegraph.

Cloud Atlas is going to be far and away the most divisive film of 2012, but I don’t think it’s possible to fault it for shortage of chutzpah. David Mitchell’s 2005 novel – pipped to the Booker prize by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, though in any other year it would surely have won – is a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, an addictive feat of nested storytelling, and a sprawling treatise about human capacities for removing and reclaiming freedom. It’s amazing they’ve tried to adapt it at all, let alone as a single, near-three hour picture. In the hands of co-writers and directors the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer there was a danger of it mutating into a monstrous ballooning folly. So even more amazing is that it strays frequently in that direction but never quite bursts.

But then there were reviewers who could understand why others might not like the film, but nonetheless, thought the film was amazing.

It’s a massive cinematic accomplishment on the grandest scale, an utterly enchanting, moving, remarkable storytelling masterpiece. Let it affect you. Discover the revelations yourself. (Firstshowing.net)

And my personal favourite review so far, with the great title “CLOUD ATLAS Is Overwhelming, Odd And Utterly, Completely Amazing”:

Cloud Atlas is sometimes silly, and it’s sometimes pretentious and it’s sometimes overstuffed. But every single one of those things, to me, is a positive. It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, one of the bravest works I have ever seen. (badassdigest.com)

So really, the only question is – why do we have to wait so long to see it in cinemas down here in Australia?

Cloud Atlas: Seems We’ve All Been Buying The Book

Just wanted to share a quick link. When the trailer arrived for Cloud Atlas, I got so intrigued, I dropped everything and bought the book on Kindle, if for no other reason than to make sense of everything I’d seen. Seems like everyone else had the same idea as well. The book went from about #2,500 on Amazon sales up to #7. And having finished the book yesterday, it absolutely deserves to. Review coming next week.

Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Suck (The Fountain)

As we continue this series of posts on some big-budget ambitious films that could indicate success or disaster for Cloud Atlas, we arrive at one that is particularly similar in my mind. Actually, The Fountain is so similar in concept that if you read all of the recent New Yorker article, you’ll notice that they mentioned that the studios were nervous because they used The Fountain as a comparison film to work out the stats on whether the film would be a success or not. Thus actually causing a debate on how do you economically model originality?

The Fountain, if you haven’t seen it – and it has disappeared into obscurity relatively quickly – was Darren Aronofsky’s big break-out film after the success of Requiem for a Dream and before he broke the big time with The Wrestler and, of course, Black Swan. It has three multiple storylines centred around the theme of the Tree of Life – which is used as a metaphor for conquering death, more than anything else.

One strand tells of a Spanish soldier running an errand for Queen Isabella in darkest South America to find the fabled tree of life, the second strand is of a modern-day scientist racing to finalise a cure for cancer before his wife dies. And finally, a bald guy floats in space in a giant bubble, accompanying the tree somewhere before it dies. (I should say that I haven’t seen it since the cinemas and I’m doing my best to recap it from my memory.) All three of these guys are played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz shows up in two of the storylines as well. Here’s the trailer, in case you never saw it.

The reason I draw a comparison between this film and Cloud Atlas is twofold: number one, it had an amazing trailer. Beautiful special effects, three timelines, and all of this for a movie that wasn’t a big blockbuster action film. I was impressed. And obviously, it shares many similarites in the stucture – cutting back and forth between different timelines, actors sharing multiple roles, etc.

But while I still love the concept, something went wrong on the way to the cinema. The film looked beautiful, but it became less and less clear what was going on, and we were left with an ambiguous ending that didn’t quite work. Now don’t get me wrong, I love arthouse cinema and ambiguous endings, but nonetheless I (and 49% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes) weren’t quite satisfied with the way this worked. We were promised a masterpiece, but it never quite got there.

So will Cloud Atlas end up the same way? I’m a bit more optimistic on this one, because it’s based on an actual novel, which does have a narrative arc (or six narrative arcs, really). While there is certainly a touch of surreal to the proceedings, it should be part of the story, not just strangeness for its own sake.

Cloud Atlas: Finally A Great News Story

One of the reasons for putting out these blog posts is simply that there isn’t a lot of information out there on this film. It mystifies me. Here we have an astonishing trailer, indicating that the biggest film of 2012 is on its way, and there has been almost no publicity. The Dark Knight Rises (which, granted, would probably have had a much bigger marketing budget) was being plugged for almost a year before it finally came out.

So I find it mystifying that this amazing and mysterious trailer gets dropped in our laps, but then there is almost no other information out there. (That said, the mystery surrounding the production is one of the tantalising aspects at the moment, so I am enjoying having to dig around.)

The situation has improved a lot with the arrival of this new article for the New Yorker. It is about 8 screens worth of reading, so you may not have time to go into all of it, but the journalist seems to have been given unprecedented access to the Wachowski siblings, and has a complete overview of their career leading up to the making of Cloud Atlas.

A couple of highlights for me: one is the description of how the filmmakers are hoping to make Cloud Atlas as amibitious as 2001: A Space Odyssey was for its generation.

“ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a twenty-first-century novel,” Lana said. “It represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” As she spoke, she was screwing and unscrewing two halves of some imaginary thing—its future and its past—in her hands. If the movie worked, she continued, it would allow the filmmakers to “reconnect to that feeling we had when we were younger, when we saw films that were complex and mysterious and ambiguous. You didn’t know everything instantly.”

Andy agreed. “ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is our getting back to the spectacle of the sixties and seventies, the touchstone movies,” he said, rubbing his bald dome like a magic lantern.

The model for their vision, they explained, was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which the Wachowskis had first seen when Lana, then Larry, was ten and Andy seven.

That’s a big call to be up there with 2001, but I’m somewhat optimistic that this is the kind of project to warrant that sort of comparison. The other great moment was their description of the script-writing process.

The main challenge was the novel’s convoluted structure: the chapters are ordered chronologically until the middle of the book, at which point the sequence reverses; the book thus begins and ends in the nineteenth century. This couldn’t work in a film. “It would be impossible to introduce a new story ninety minutes in,” Lana said. The filmmakers’ initial idea was to establish a connective trajectory between Dr. Goose, a devious physician who may be poisoning Ewing, in the earliest story line, and Zachry, the tribesman on whose moral choices the future of civilization hinges, after the Fall. They had no idea what to do with all the other story lines and characters. They broke the book down into hundreds of scenes, copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period. The house looked like “a Zen garden of index cards,” Lana said. At the end of the day, they’d pick up the cards in an order that they hoped would work as the arc of the film. Reading from the cards, Lana would then narrate the rearranged story. The next day, they’d do it again.

And one more quote – this time about when they pitched their David Mitchell their script idea:

By August, the trio had a completed draft to send to Mitchell. The Wachowskis had had a difficult experience adapting “V for Vendetta,” from a comic book whose author, Alan Moore, hated the very idea of Hollywood adaptation and berated the project publicly. “We decided in Costa Rica that—as hard and as long as it might take to write this script—if David didn’t like it, we were just going to kill the project,” Lana said.

Mitchell, who lives in the southwest of Ireland, agreed to meet the filmmakers in Cork. In “a seaside hotel right out of ‘Fawlty Towers,’ ” as Lana described it, they recounted for the author the painstaking process of disassembling the novel and reassembling it into the script he’d read. “It’s become a bit of a joke that they know my book much more intimately than I do,” Mitchell wrote to me. They explained their plan to unify the narratives by having actors play transmigrating souls. “This could be one of those movies that are better than the book!” Mitchell exclaimed at the end of the pitch. The pact was sealed with pints of Murphy’s stout at a local pub.

 

The rest of the article is a fantastic read, if you’re interested in more news on the process. Given how reclusive the pair are, Aleksandar Hemon has done an amazing job getting news out of them. I should also add that while the article focuses largely on the Wachowski’s, there are comments from Tom Tykwer thrown in that give more information.

In one more bit of final trivia, apparently author David Mitchell won’t be able to attend the film premiere of his own book.

Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Be Great (The Red Violin)

Continuing on with the theme of ambitious movies similar to Cloud Atlas that have worked well, I’d like to draw your attention to a little-known film from Canada in the mid-90s which is well worth a look.

 

Francois Girard directed this film which tells the tale of a famous violin (think Stradivarius in all but name) which travels through many different hands and countries before it ends up on the auction block in Montreal. The film focuses on five of these stories, starting with its creation by a famous violin maker in Italy.

 

Then the violin moves into the hands of a young but ill-fated child virtuoso in Vienna, then to a rakish violin superstar in 19th century England, to China at the height of the cultural revolution, before finally making its way to Canada, where – get this – Samuel L Jackson is brought in as a violin expert. (Just goes to show how versatile the man really is.)

 

What was really great about these stories was that they were nicely linked by an opening scene of the violin-maker’s wife getting her fortune told on tarot cards by an old woman. We keep returning to this scene throughout the film, and lo and behold, it seems like the fate of the violin was predicted by the cards. It is a bit silly, but it provides a great connection to the stories.

 

But what was most impressive about this film was every story was in its own language with subtitles, thus making it a fairly universal film for everyone.

 

As a way of linking separate storylines, I’ve always loved this movie. The way it’s constructed is elegant (kind of like a red violin, really) and smooth. Cloud Atlas is dealing with a much bigger canvas and much bigger themes, but if the Wachowski / Tykwer trio can make it all as seamless as this film, it will definitely be worth a couple of viewings.

 

Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Suck (Southland Tales)

I’m about 23% of the way off the end of the book (good old Kindle, redefining how we view our progress through books!), so I’ll hold off any kind of book vs movie theorising until I’ve finished that.

But in the meantime, as we remain on this side of the world premiere, I thought it would be a great time to reflect on a few other movies (ignoring previous films by the Wachowskis and Tykwer for the moment) that were similarly ambitious and succeeded brilliantly.

Or, in the case of today’s film, fell apart completely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director Richard Kelly appeared out of nowhere with the highly successful Donnie Darko in 2001 (just realised that was 11 years ago – where do the years go?). The tale of a depressive teen in the 80s, having apocalyptic visions of a killer bunny, time travel and great use of the song “Mad World” just seemed to appeal to everyone.

So after the success of that film, everyone was keen to see what Kelly would come up with next.

What he delivered was the film Southland Tales.

It’s possible that if I had read the three prequel comic books that Kelly wrote for this film, it might make some more sense, but I would argue that a film that requires you to track down three prequel comics to make sense of it, is probably already off to a bad start.

The story is set in a futuristic Los Angeles after some sort of war breaks out across America. My memory is fuzzy on this one, but there was something about a rather stoned-looking Justin Timberlake manning a rather large gun pointing out at the ocean, Seann William Scott dealing with a clone of himself, neo-Marxists, ex-porn stars and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who crawls out of the desert at the beginning of the film, not sure what has happened to himself, but trying to piece everything together.

I believe the film might have been an attempt to make some sort of political statement, but no one is quite sure what. Patriot Act gone mad, maybe? While there seemed like there was a decent concept underneath all of this, it seemed to be buried beneath layers of weirdness. I love a bit of weird in films, but ultimately, there was nothing human you could connect with (apart from maybe Dwayne, who seemed as confused as we were for the duration of the film), and the whole thing fell apart.

That said, from a visual and musical standpoint, I really enjoyed the finale, which took place on a zeppelin. I was just watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the other day and thinking that we need more films that have zeppelin sequences. Apart from that and The Rocketeer, I can’t think of any others. Anyone?

Anyway, my suspicion is that Cloud Atlas will work a lot more successfully than Southland Tales, because already what you can see from the trailer is that it is ultimately about simple human things that people can connect with – love, death, injustice. There are simply some core primal things that people will respond to time and time again – as long as they executed well – and the trailer managed to pack nearly all of them into its 5 1/2 minutes.

Also, despite the incomprehensibility of the trailer, having read most of the book, Cloud Atlas is quite easy to follow, once you understand the logic of its construction. The end of Southland Tales, however, still never quite made sense.

But, of course, there are plenty of books that have been turned into somewhat confusing films, so we shall see …

In the meantime, while we’re waiting, we’re finally starting to see some cast interviews come in describing the experience of playing multiple characters across different storylines.

This one with Susan Sarandon has been floating around for a few weeks.

This one I just came across today where Tom Hanks explains the characters he’s playing and also maybe confesses that he’s not sure what the book was all about …

Cloud Atlas Director’s Commentary – Even More Surreal Promotion

At the same time as the lengthy trailer was released for Cloud Atlas, Warner Bros also released this shorter “director’s commentary” video. The idea may have been to clarify the trailer to make it clearer for the rest of us. The studio might have been thinking, “Please, just have a chat about the film on camera so they know this is not a joke.”

But I find this video, in some ways, more bizarre than the trailer itself.

1) The first question I had – who is Lana Wachowski? Last time I remembered hearing the Wachowski name was on V for Vendetta, and then there were the Wachowski Brothers, Larry and Andy, wasn’t there? Is she Andy’s wife and his brother doesn’t do films any more? And, then slowly, as I was watching the video it dawned on me that, somewhere in the last decade or so, Larry had become Lana. I believe if I’d been following the gossip rags, I might have heard about this earlier, but given that the Wachowskis never do interviews, this is actually a first for many people to see them since The Matrix.

2) The strange shared sentences. Who thought this idea up? The Warner Bros marketing team? The three directors? Either way, the fact that this is not a straight-up interview where the three explain the film just makes the whole thing more bizarre. (Especially Andy’s “big booming voice” sound when he’s pretending to be a producer …)

I think the most useful thing that could be gleaned from this video is an explanation that they’re trying to do a multi-genre film and (more importantly) that author David Mitchell loved their script. I don’t think films have to slavishly follow their source books, but I do think they should generate the same spirit. So if Mitchell liked it, it’s probably a good sign. (With no reviews yet, we’ll just have to wait and see.) But only a few days more till its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, so hopefully we’ll find out soon.

Film Review: 127 Hours

Director Danny Boyle has recently given us fairly large-canvas stories in his movies – the slums of Mumbai in India in Slumdog Millionaire, the reaches of outer space in Sunshine and a deserted London in 28 Days Later. So it’s highly unusual that for his latest film, he decided to set the whole thing in a canyon with a guy who had his arm pinned for the title 127 hours and thus couldn’t move. How do you get a 90 minute movie out of that? Also, this is such a classic Americana tale – man against the mountain, the solitary hero believing in himself and rising above his obstacles. You can almost hear the trumpet solo in the soundtrack just thinking about it.

But surprisingly, Boyle brilliantly avoids all the potential pitfalls in bringing the true story of Aron Ralston, the intrepid canyoneer who found himself stuck and had to go to the extreme measure of amputating his arm to escape alive.

Given that the vast majority of the audience knows the story before they even enter the cinema, Boyle has opted for an approach of allowing us to experience, as closely as we can, what the experience might have been like for Ralston. In the brilliant opening prologue (it’s about 15-20 minutes before Ralston gets stuck and the title of the film appears), actor James Franco as Ralston takes us into the energetic world of canyoneering, riding his mountain bike across the open landscape, meeting girls, going swimming (the swimming hole sequence – while visually spectacular – is the one fictional component to the whole thing), and generally having an adventurous time. All of this serves to put us, as well as cinema can, into the emotional world of Ralston. We felt (at least I did), just how much fun it is out there in the canyons.

This same visceral sense of being in the moment then flowed into the narrow crack where Ralston gets trapped. Once he’s stuck there, over the course of the rest of the film, Boyle takes us logically through all the steps that led to Ralston’s final escape. First of all, his logical (and often ingenious) ways of surviving in the canyon, then, as the hours turn into days – the state of his mind. We see his random thoughts, daydreams and visions as his situation starts to severely affect his mind.

What I found most interesting is that the film had set Ralston up fairly quickly as a man who really moves in a completely different direction from the rest of society (also illustrated visually with some fairly neat split screen shots at the beginning). However, when he’s stuck in the gorge, it’s his parents, friends and ex-girlfriend that appear to him. This really spoke to me – that idea that no matter how much we may enjoy blazing our own trail and doing our own thing – in the end, we all need other people.

So, in that respect, this film became the exact opposite of the lone man overcoming his obstacles story. It’s that anti-sentimental approach by Boyle (a British filmmaker) that allows it to avoid clichés and actually become a truly great film experience.

Final note: as for “that” scene – it is fairly graphic, and if you’re not used to watching that kind of thing, you may have a hard time sitting through it. I was certainly thinking that if it went for much longer that I might stop looking at the screen. (The excellent sound-design doesn’t help either…) But then, I think you’ll already know by now whether you think you can watch this or not. But don’t let this put you off it. I think it’s a film well worth watching.

4 ½ out of 5

 

DVD Review: The Queen

A 1001 Films review. The Queen documents the week in which Princess Diana died, and the royals ummed and ahhed over how to publicly react to her death. She was no longer really a royal, so officially it should have been “a private matter”. However, the public were grieving the loss of “the people’s princess” and wanting the Royal Family to acknowledge that.

Most of the film is a sort of back and forth between the newly-elected Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen, who was actually revising the role of Blair from an earlier TV movie called The Deal), and Queen Elizabeth II (a spot-on performance by Helen Mirren).

The film is quite impressive from an acting perspective, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is quite rich – and the DVD has a nice 5.1 mix that lets it ring out. But there are also many times when I felt that things were being spelt out quite simply (perhaps for Americans?).

On the whole, the best strength of the film is that whether you are Republican or Royalist, the film manages to touch on all those points of view, but ultimately rises above it to become a film about people, the traditions they inherit, and the steps that we sometimes have to take to keep up with the times.

4 out of 5.

 

Film Review: The Phantom Carriage

 

1001 Films review. Swedish films are a bit in at the moment, aren’t they? What with Stieg Larsson adaptions and As It Is In Heaven, more people are looking at this country’s cinema.

Well, I’ve jumped back in time to 1921 to watch one of the classics of Swedish cinema – The Phantom Carriage. The carriage of the title is the carriage that collects souls when someone dies. If you have the misfortune to die at the stroke of midnight on New Years’ Eve, you get to bet the coachman for the next year. (Ironically, I didn’t realise about this New Years twist when I sat down to watch this on 31 December 2010…)

However, this is more of a device to give us a Scrooge-like tale of a man called David Holm (played by director Victor Sjöström) and how his encounter with the coach changes his life. Basically, this is like a darker version of A Christmas Carol and will feel familiar.

Already, this early in the history of film, you can tell the difference between American and European filmmaking. DW Griffiths’ films were melodramatic blockbusters – large in scale with breathtaking finales. By contrast, this story is slow, deliberate and intimate. There are some clever special effects (well, clever for 1921 – they’re not going to really bowl over anyone who’s been watching films post-Jurassic Park). And the grittiness of the story is quite effective (especially combined with the soundtrack on the version I watched – a constant grinding never-tonal industrial sound from a group called KTL).

In the end, I think it’s too slow to stand up as a movie today, but for those interested in early film and the developing genres that were springing up, this is well worth a look.

3 out of 5.