Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Be Freaking Awesome (Intolerance)

My final comparison with the upcoming Cloud Atlas is a film that is actually very, very similar, albeit 96 years older. I am talking, of course, about the amazing spectacle that is D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

I’ve read a variety of stories about how this film came into being, but the one that makes the best yarn is that Griffith was stung by the criticisms of racism for his 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (criticisms which I will admit were well-founded). So, as a result, he decided to make a film getting all his thoughts about man’s inhumanity to man out of his head and up onto the screen.

The two best descriptions of this film I’ve ever head are that it is a “cinema sermon” or, to use a musical description, “a cinematic fugue” (a fugue, for those not familiar with classical music, is a piece of music where one theme begins on one instrument or voice, then shortly afterwards, a second voice will enter with the exact same theme and combine with the first voice, thus layering on levels of complexity into the music).

Griffith’s idea was landmark – to tell four different stories about man’s intolerance towards others, all set in different periods of history, and cutting back and forth between the stories. The stories were linked by an image of a woman rocking a cradle (to do with a line from a poem about “the cradle endlessly rocking, bringing the same joys and sorrows”).

Griffith’s gargantuan effort (the longest version out on DVD currently, runs for 200 minutes) starts slowly but picks up speed, as he introduces us to the different characters in his four stories. Story 1, which takes up the most screen time, is the “modern” tale (for 1916) of a young lower-class couple in love, being pulled by the temptation to join in local crime on one hand and being persecuted by over-zealous social workers on the one hand. I can’t think of any other film that has ever used “over-zealous social workers” as part of its plot synopsis, which just gives you some idea of the eccentricity of Griffith and what he would fixate on.

Story 2, which takes up the least amount of screen time, is the life of Christ – or, more correctly, famous vignettes from his life, because there’s not really enough screen time for it to have a storyline. But what it does do is lend an epic Biblical weight (which would have worked wonders for the more religious audiences back in 1916) to key scenes, by suddenly “cutting to Jesus”, as it were. That said, the attention to detail in the scenes (just look at all the characters in the opening marketplace scene) is amazing.

Story 3 is set in France in the 1500s, in the time leading up to the St Bartholomew’s day massacre, when the Catholic queen of France gave an order to massacre the Huguenots (the French Protestant political party). We see this primarily through the eyes of a Prosper Latour, a young Huguenot, and his fiancé, Brown Eyes.

Story 4 is the most epic of all, at least in terms of sets and production values. It tells of the fall of Ancient Babylon, and how one of the greatest civilisations in the world (according to Griffith) was destroyed by the intolerance of the high priests, who betrayed the city by letting the Persians in to destroy them.

The mix of metaphors and imagery is undeniably chaotic. (In fact, it’s very strange that Griffith, who is working with Biblical ideas in the Christ story, is such a champion for ancient Babylon. The Bible’s version of the fall of Babylon is that it was a good thing, because there were thousands of captured Jews living in the city that finally got set free from 70 years of exile by the invading army.) But as long as you don’t think about it too much, it’s an astonishing feat of cinema. Even if you think the message is heavy-handed, it’s mind-blowing just in terms of its sets and choreography, featuring mile-wide sets and at least three battle sequences.

What makes the film so amazing is that it only works in the editing room. If you took any of the four stories by themselves, only the modern story would give you anything coherent enough to stand alone, and it would be a fairly low-grade melodrama that nobody would talk about it. But instead, the film has an incredible fury and pace that leaves you gasping. There is something incredibly visceral about seeing four stories climax at once that makes the whole thing much more than the sum of its parts.

*** MAJOR SPOILER WARNING ***

As an example of why the film works – it’s something about the cumulative power of images. At the finale of the film, we keep cutting back to the modern story. The boy is on death row, the girl is madly pursuing the governor to get a stay of execution. If it was just this story, we’d probably say that it would end happily and not get as involved.

But instead, the Huguenot story ends on a devastating note – Prosper arrives to find Brown Eyes killed (and presumably raped) and carries her body out to scream at the Catholic soldiers – who promptly mow him down.

Then we switch to Christ on the cross, the mob howling for his blood.

Then to Ancient Babylon, where the Emperor and Empress commit suicide together, realising that the city has fallen and there is no hope. Finally, our hero, the Little Mountain Girl, gets wounded by an arrow and dies.

So three out of four stories have ended unhappily – this IMMEDIATELY raises the stakes on the boy being being led to the gallows and the tension is unbearable. It’s a powerful experience, and really paved the way for multi-strand cinema.
*** END OF MAJOR SPOILERS ***

The source material that the Wachowski / Tyker trio are working with in the novel of Cloud Atlas is remarkably similar to this. There is a recurring theme throughout the book of the strong oppressing the weak (sometimes subtly, sometimes completely in-your-face), thus lifting the story above a simple gimmick about different time periods and genres, and the word on the street is that the script has taken the six stories from Cloud Atlas and put them together in an interwoven manner.

In short, they’ve re-created Griffith’s Intolerance for the 21st century. If they can pull that off, it will not just be a great movie this year, but go down as one of the great movies of the century. We can only hope. It’s about time we had a movie that deserved that sort of label.

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 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.

Cloud Atlas: Is This The Best Movie Trailer Ever?

I’ve been a bit absent from the world of blogging lately, but I’ve been tempted to return because of one of the most intriguing (to me) film trailers I’ve seen in years. To get the full effect of the trailer, I’ll let you watch it for yourself.

See what I mean? You’re watching along, thinking – okay, story set in multiple time periods about people making the same mistakes, etc. etc. Is it like The Hours? Then all of a sudden, about the two minute mark, there are Asian clones, the music ramps up and it’s like Blade Runner meets The Matrix. Then the last two minutes are almost indescribable. Smashing plates? Hugo Weaving with mutton chops? What’s all this about?

I wasn’t sure what the trailer was about, but I instantly loved it. Because it shows ambition. It’s the thing that’s been missing from Hollywood for about the last decade. I’ve been complaining to anyone who will listen that movies have totally gone downhill the last few years. I’m not sure whether piracy is to blame, or just a particularly boring bunch of producers at the top of the system, but whatever is going on, the results have been horrendous: Transformers movies, prequels, sequels, reboots, remakes of old TV series, endless superhero franchises, and increasingly stupid Tim Burton / Johnny Depp freakshows. (Come on – where’s the Tim who made Big Fish?)

It seems as if the studios won’t greenlight anything unless it’s a) really cheap or b) guaranteed to be a hit beforehand (thus the prequels, reboots, etc). The end result of this is that what gets pushed to the side is the mid-price films. The ones that cost $100 million or so. Everything is either small and indy or massive event cinema. And event cinema usually means dumb. (The one exception to this has been the incredibly talented Christopher Nolan, who has proven that you can be big budget and smart, but he seems to be a rare breed.)

So when I came across this trailer for Cloud Atlas, I was blown away that some studio exec somewhere had signed off on clearly quite a lot of money to make a film that is pitching high above the average film-goer. (Or at least pitching above what studio execs think the average film-goer is like.)

As a result, I’ve gotten very curious about the whole film, especially because there’s not a lot of info out there about the film. I’m in two minds about it at the moment – it could be a total disaster of a film, or it could be the movie event of 2012. Either way, this is the kind of smart, original work, made with a decent budget, that has been missing from our cinema for a long time and I, for one, am going to shell over the money to see it just to encourage more innovative cinema.

Of course, the more pressing question for most of my readers might be, “That’s all well and good – but after 5 1/2 minutes, I still can’t tell – WHAT IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT?” I got curious about that, and started reading the book straight away on Kindle. It’s rather lengthy, so I’ll report back on that shortly.

DVD Review: Dean Spanley

I watched this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s been tricky trying to find the time to put this down. I’m also aware that there’s a certain quirkiness that my last film review was The Lovely Bones and I’m now reviewing another film by a New Zealand director also dealing with the topic of life after death. That’s where the similarities end.

The problem with reviewing this type of film is that the less I say the more there is to enjoy, but if I don’t say enough, I don’t know if I’ll be able to persuade you to see it. So at the risk of saying too much, this movie tells the tale of a father and son – Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) and Fisk Senior (Peter O’Toole) who spend every Thursday together in a tortured ritual of going out to do things together. They’re not very close because ever since Fisk Junior’s brother was killed in the Boer War (did I mention this was all set in Edwardian England? Forgive me if I didn’t…) and his mother died of the heartbreak, his father has refused to acknowledge the tragedy except in a bitingly cynical way.

On one particular Thursday, they decide to go to the elegant home of an Indian cricketer living in England to hear a talk by another Indian gentlemen on the topic of reincarnation. The talk itself is pretty boring stuff, but Fisk Junior spots an Anglican minister there – Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) – the Dean being his title, not his first name. They also meet an Australian (Bryan Brown playing Bryan Brown), who can procure anything for anyone – at a price.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long in the film (though did take quite a while when we were watching it on DVD, because we had to keep chasing the kids around and pausing it, but Fisk Junior decides to start catching up with the Dean to find out why an Anglican was so interested in reincarnation. He soon comes to the startling revelation that when the Dean is plied with a certain rare and expensive Hungarian alcohol known as Tokay, he will open and regale listeners with tales of his past life as a dog.

From then on, the movie consists of the various alcohol-induced reminiscences that are dragged from the Dean while under the influence of his beloved Tokay. This either will sound amusing to you (in which case you’re going to love the film) or if you’re my wife, it’s just far too Roald Dahl-like to cope with.

If I’d stopped there, it would have been an amusing story, but when the whole film plays out (and I won’t tell you any more than that), it actually rises up its crazy concept to become a beautifully acted and deeply moving film experience about remembering childhood, dealing with grief, and all sorts of other things. All four actors (because it is essentially a four-hander) rise to the occasion. The Edwardian dialogue – stilted and formal in the earlier moments of the film – becomes absolutely brilliant when you hear Sam Neill rattling off his reminiscences in the gravest of tones. And if Peter O’Toole doesn’t tug at your heart strings by the end of the film – well, then, you’re probably my wife who was still trying to get her head around the whole dog concept.

I wish I hadn’t sent this back to Quickflix so quickly. It’s definitely worth a re-watch. Or a first watch, if you haven’t seen it.

4 1/2 out of 5.