“CLOUD ATLAS” (2012) Review

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“CLOUD ATLAS” (2012) Review

The year 2004 saw the publication of author David Mitchell’s science-fiction novel called “Cloud Atlas”. Consisting of six different stories with subtle connections, the novel won two literary awards and was nominated for a series of other awards, including the 2004 Booker Prize. But when the Wachowskis (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer decided to make a film adaptation of the novel, the trio had trouble finding financial backing. 

Eventually, Grant Hill and Stefan Arndt agreed to co-produce the film and Warner Brothers Studios agreed to release it. The screenplay written by the Wachowskis and Tykwer closely followed Mitchell’s novel, with the exception of a few changes. As stated ealier, the movie consisted of the following six stories:

1849: American lawyer Adam Ewing arrives at the Chatham Islands in the Pacific, to make a business arrangement on behalf of his wealthy father-in-law, now living in San Francisco. His father-in-law is involved in a agriculture business that involves the use of Moriori slaves. After witnessing the whipping of a slave named Autua, Ewing and a Dr. Henry Goose return to San Francisco, via clipper ship. During the voyager, Ewing discovers that Autua has stowed away aboard the ship. However, he is unaware that Dr. Goose is slowly poisoning in an effort to steal the chest of gold in Ewing’s possession.

1936: English musician Robert Frobisher, who is gay, is employed as an amanuensis to famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Ayrs wishes to take credit for the piece, and threatens to expose Frobisher’s homosexual background to the authorities if he does not comply.

1973: San Francisco journalist Luisa Rey meets by chance, Frobisher’s former lover Rufus Sixsmith, in a stalled elevator. A nuclear physicist, Sixsmith tips her off to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor, but is killed by a hitman named Bill Smoke before he can give her proof. Another employee at the power plant named Isaac Sachs becomes attracted to Luisa, eventually gives her the information, but is killed by Smoke. Luisa has find a way to expose Sixsmith and Sachs’s employer before she can be killed.

2012: British publisher Timothy Cavendish has a windfall when gangster author Dermott Hoggins, whose book he has published, infamously murders a critic and is sent to jail. When the author’s associates threaten Cavendish’s life to get his share of the profits, Cavendish turns to his brother Denholme for help. However, the brother tricks him into hiding out in a nursing home, where he is held against his will and treated poorly. Cavendish and a few of his fellow inmates plot to escape.

2144: A genetically-engineered clone server at a fast-food restaurant in Neo Seoul, Korea named Sonmi-451 is being interviewed before her execution. She recounts how one Hae-Joo Chang, a member of the local Resistance, helped to release her fom her life of servitude. Chang and other members of the Resistance reveal that clones like her are “recycled” into food for future clones. Sonmi-451 becomes determined to broadcast this information to world.

2321: A tribesman on the post-apocalypse Hawaiian Islands named Zachry lives a primitive life after most of humanity has died during “The Fall” and is plagued by guilt for not interfering in the murder of his brother-in-law, Adam, at the hands of the Kona Chief, leader of a tribe of vicious cannibals. A member of the last remnants of a technologically advanced civilization called the “Prescients” visits his tribe. In exchange for saving Zachry’s young niece from a near fatal bite, he agrees to guide Meronym into the mountains in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost station where she is able to send a message to people who have left Earth and now live on other planets.

When I first saw the trailer for “CLOUD ATLAS”, I thought it looked beautiful. My opinion of the film’s visuals have not changed one bit. However, I had no desire to see the movie. I took one look at the trailer and knew it would be faux profound and self-righteous piece of claptrap that I suspect I would find confusing. A member of my family literally had to drag me to my local theater to see the movie. Recalling my disappointment in “THE MASTER”, I decided that a nice long nap would help me overcome the movie’s 164 minutes running time.

To my surprise, I did not fall asleep, while watching “CLOUD ATLAS”. Even more surprising, I enjoyed it. Very much. I cannot explain this phenomenon. I could see that it was not the type of film that would appeal to a lot of people. The movie’s technical aspects struck me as very impressive. In that regard, the Wachowskis have never disappointed, as past movies such as “THE MATRIX” and “SPEED RACER” have proven. “CLOUD ATLAS” featured some beautiful photography from cinematographers Frank Griebe and John Toll. I was especially impressed by their work in the 1973 San Francisco, 2144 Neo Seoul and 2321 Hawaiian Island segments. However, a part of me suspect that the visual effects team supervised by Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor and the special effects team were mainly responsible for the outstanding look of the segment set in 22nd century Seoul. But one also has to account for Hugh Bateup
and Uli Hanisch’s production designs that beautifully re-created six different period in time, starting with the year 1849 and ending with 2321. Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud provided equally beautiful work through their costume designs – especially for the 1849, 1936, 1973 and 2144 segments. And I cannot say enough for the makeup work that allowed the cast to portray characters at different ages, cultures, genders and even race. I realize there was some controversy over the latter, but I will come to it, later.

Those who did not care for “CLOUD ATLAS” claimed that the screenplay failed to provide any connections between the six stories and the characters. Some believe that “CLOUD ATLAS” is simply about reincarnation, accepting the film’s official synopsis:

“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”

Perhaps that is the truth. I did not bother trying to guess the movie’s main theme, while I watched it. I believed I would not be successful. Instead, I simply treated all six stories as separate and enjoyed them as they unfolded. In doing so, I managed to find similar themes of truth, inspiration and freedom of tyranny without any heavy-handed narratives. I was also surprised by how the main character of each successive story was inspired somehow (many times unknowingly) by experiences of his or her predecessor. Robert Frobisher read part of a book on the life of Dr. Adam Ewing. Luisa Rey read Frobisher’s letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. And it was the latter who led her to investigate the power plant’s illegal use of nuclear energy. Timothy Cavendish read a unpublished manuscript for a novel based on Luisa’s investigation, which was probably written by her young neighbor. Following her escape, Sonmi-451 watched a movie about Cavendish’s ordeal at the elderly home. And Zachry recalled a statuette of Sonmi-451 and saw an orison (future recording device) featuring a speech from her. By the film’s final scene, I was surprised to find myself in tears. If there is nothing I love more is a movie that can take me by surprise in a positive way. And “CLOUD ATLAS” certainly achieved this.

Earlier, I had pointed out a controversy that emerged about some of the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s casting decisions. Someone noticed in the movie’s trailer that European actors like Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving portrayed Asians – namely Koreans. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) officially criticized the movie’s producers for allowing non-Asians to portray Koreans in the film. They also criticized the movie for allowing cast members of African descent – Halle Berry, Keith David and David Gyasi – portray Pacific Islanders. Of course, they failed to point out that Tom Hanks, Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Bae Doona and Zhou Xun also portrayed Pacific Islanders in the 2321 segment. And it was pointed out that the movie’s two Asian cast members – Bae and Zhou – also portrayed Westerners. I suppose this is a topic that will never be resolved. However, I had assumed that each actor portrayed a series of characters that possessed the same soul . . . and that was the message the filmmakers were trying to point out.

Since the major actors/actresses portrayed multiple characters in six different stories, I decided to point out the performances I really enjoyed. I was impressed by Jim Sturgess’ transformation of the Adam Ewing character from a mild-mannered personality to one who had the courage to defy his father-in-law and become an abolitionist. His hilarious portrayal of the Scottish soccer fan in the 2012 segment had me in stitches. Hugo Weaving portrayed a series of villainous characters in the movie. But the two characters that really impressed me out were his performances as the murderous hit man Bill Smoke in the 1973 segment and Old Georgie, an evil manifestation of the negative aspect of Zachry’s subconscious in the 2321 segment. Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey proved to be one of the film’s more inspirational characters. And I enjoyed how she injected a bit of sly humor in her performance. Doona Bae gave a very memorable performance as the Korean fast-food clone, Sonmi-451. And she was hilarious as the Latina woman who ended up helping Luisa Rey in the 1973 segment. Hugh Grant really impressed me in his portrayal of Denholme Cavendish, Timothy’s vindictive, yet witty brother. James D’Arcy was excellent in both the 1973 segment, in which he portrayed the elderly Rufus Sixsmith and the Korean archivist that interviewed Sonmi-451. Ben Whishaw gave an excellent performance as the English composer Robert Frobisher, who found himself caught in a moral trap. And David Gyasi provided another inspirational performance in his portrayal of Autua, the Moriori slave whose bid for freedom ended up inspiring Dr. Ewing.

If I had to pick the two best performances in the movie, they came from Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent. First of all, Hanks did an excellent job in his portrayals of the Scottish hotel manager that blackmailed Frobisher into giving him the latter’s waistcoat. Hanks’ performance as the Hawaiian tribesman Zachry was poignant. And I found his performance as the British gangster Dermot Higgins both astonishing and hilarious. But his portrayal of the murderous Dr. Henry Goose was probably the best performance in the entire movie. Frankly, he was even more scary than any of Weaving’s array of villains. Jim Broadbent portrayed two characters that really impressed me. One was his portrayal of the venemous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. Broadbent’s transformation of Ayrs from an enthusiatic music lover to a vindictive blackmailer really took me by surprise. But his best performance turned out to be the funniest in the movie – that of the self-indulgent publisher Timothy Cavedish, who found himself a victim of his brother’s vengeful nature.

I realize that “CLOUD ATLAS” proved to be a box office flop. Most people found the movie either too complicated or uneven to enjoy. I honestly thought I would end up sharing these views before I saw the film. I really did. But like I said, I found myself surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I heard rumors that author David Mitchell enjoyed this adaptation of his novel. And I am happy for his sake. Especially since I enjoyed it myself. Lana and Andy Wachowski, along with Tom Tykwer, really outdid themselves.

“LOOPER” (2012) Review

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“LOOPER” (2012) Review

Time travel can be a tricky topic for a fictional story. Some writers can do wonders with a story featuring time traveling. Some writers start out well end up creating a mass of confusion. And other writers . . . well, they end up simply creating a bad story. When I first learned about the premise for the new science-fiction movie, “LOOPER”, I feared I was about to see a time travel movie with a bad plot. 

According to writer/director Rian Johnson’s tale, the United States is in a state of economic collapse in the year 2044. There is social decay, a high rise in crime and a mutation has developed within a small number of the Earth’s population that gives them a telekinetic ability. Thirty years later, time travel has been invented, but immediately outlawed. Tracking technology has made it impossible for criminals to dispose of bodies. Crime bosses use illicit time travel to send their victims back in time, where they are killed by assassins called “loopers”. These assassins are paid with silver bars strapped to the back of their targets. When the crime bosses want to end a looper’s contract, they send his older self back to be killed by his younger self, paying the latter with gold bars as a last payoff. Failure to kill the older self is punishable by death.

Joe Simmons is a looper in 2044 Kansas, whose boss – a time traveler named Abe – is sent back to the past to supervise him and his fellow loopers in the area. Best friend and fellow looper Seth tells Joe that he failed to kill his old self and that the latter informed him of a criminal mastermind named the Rainmaker, who is closing down all loops. Joe eventually betrays Seth in order to maintain his secret stash of silver. Joe’s older self eventually arrives from the past and Joe first kills him. But due to a tragic incident thirty years in the future, Old Joe changes time by escaping to the past on his own. He escapes and Joe tracks him down to a diner, where he tells Joe that the Rainmaker sent him back to be killed, and that Old Joe’s wife was killed during his capture. Old Joe killed his captors and traveled back to kill the Rainmaker as a child. Joe attempts to kill Old Joe and fulfill his contract, but both of them flee when they are attacked by Abe’s hit men or “Gat Men”. Due to a piece of a map in Old Joe’s possession, Joe finds a string of digits that leads him to farm owned by a woman named Sara, who lives with her son, Cid. Meanwhile, Old Joe uses the remaining digits on the map to track down the location of three candidates who might turn out to be the Rainmaker as a child. Old Joe intends to kill all three to prevent his future wife’s death.

Sounds complicated? Trust me, that was only the beginning. For reasons that escape me, Rian Johnson, along with Kimberly Amacker and the rest of the movie’s makeup team decided to use prosthetic makeup to ensure that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed the younger Joe Simmons, bear some resemblance to Bruce Willis. They hired Kazuhiro Tsuji for the job. Tsuji did his best in altering Gordon-Levitt’s looks, but in the end, it all depended more on the actor’s performance to make the transformation work. A part of me feels that his prosthetic makeup was not really necessary.

Also, complicated time travel stories such as the one for “LOOPER” tend to turn me off. Dealing with the subject of time travel is bad enough. But I tend to view complicated plot twists, such as the ones found in “LOOPER” as impossible to follow. But thanks to Rian Johnson’s direction and script, I found the movie surprisingly easy to follow . . . aside from one particular scene. I might as well talk about the latter. The sequence featuring Old Joe’s first escape from death at the hands of Joe ended with the latter falling out of the window of his apartment. The movie never made it clear whether he lived or died. But the next scene featured Old Joe’s reappearance at the fatal cornfield again. This time, Joe killed Old Joe, leaving me somewhat confused. Was there a time reset of some kind? It finally occurred to me that Johnson simply revealed that Old Joe had escaped death, left his fate a mystery . . . and then went back to how this scenario came to be. In other words, following Old Joe’s second appearance in the cornfield, audiences learn of the circumstances that led to that moment – Joe’s murder of Old Joe, his retirement as a looper, his years in China as a hired killer, his marriage and eventually, his wife’s death. The latter drove Old Joe over the edge and he set out time travel on his own, prevent his younger self from killing him and kill the younger self of the Rainmaker, before the latter can grow and cause the death of his wife. Now, I understood.

Once I realized what was going on, I was able to enjoy “LOOPER” a lot more. Not only did Johnson create a fascinating tale in which time travel played a heavy role, he created some fascinating characters – especially the leading one, Joe Simmons. Johnson did an excellent job in showing how the time traveling not only affected Joe Simmons’ character, but was also responsible for the creation of the Rainmaker. I was amazed at how Johnson’s story revealed the ugly consequences of time travel in a way no other writer or filmmaker has done before. His story also developed from the typical science-fiction action thriller into a poignant, character-driven tale about the consequences of grief and revenge. By the time I left the movie theater, I realized that I had seen one of the most original science-fiction thrillers in recent years.

“LOOPER” also had the good luck to have some first-rate performers to grace its cast. The movie featured interesting performances from the likes of Paul Dano, who gave an emotional performance as the looper Seth, who set things in motion by warning Joe about the Rainmaker. I also enjoyed the performances of Noah Segan, who gave a colorful performance as Abe’s main “Gat Man”, Kid Blue, who is eager to earn his boss’ respect by going after Joe; Piper Perabo’s sexy take on showgirl Suzy; Qing Xu, who projected the perfect air of sensibility and calm for Old Joe; and Garret Dillahunt, who oozed intelligence and danger as another “Gat Man”, who manages to track down Joe to the Kansas farmhouse.

But there were performances that really impressed me. One of them came from Jeff Daniels, who was an absolute delight as the sharp-tongued crime boss Abe. His advice to Joe about relocating to China upon retirement turned out to be one of the movie’s highlights. Emily Blunt acquired an impressive American accent for her role as Sara, the practical farm owner that gave Joe shelter. Not only was I impressed by her different accent, but also her performance and strong screen presence. I cannot say enough about Pierce Gagnon, the child actor who portrayed Sara’s son, Cid. Gagnon gave one of the best child performances I have seen in years . . . and one of the creepiest. Of the entire cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt had the most difficult role. Not only did he have to capture many aspects of Bruce Willis’ portrayal of the older Joe, but also the older actor’s speech pattern, body language and screen persona. And too my surprise, he stood up to the plate and knocked it out of the ballpark. I can also say the same Bruce Willis’ performance as Old Joe. Sure, his usual wise ass screen persona was there . . . somewhat. But he also took his character beyond the usual persona and to greater heights by portraying Old Joe as a man caught up in his grief over a dead wife and obsessed with vengeance and determination to change time.

I would not say that “LOOPER” was perfect. Instead of writing a clear and straight narrative that a story of this complexity needed, director-writer Rian Johnson tried to be a little clever in explaining Old Joe’s arrival in the past. And I feel that the prosthetic makeup for Joseph Gordon-Levitt was unnecessary. But despite these quibbles, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. Johnson, along with an excellent cast led by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, delivered one of the most original movies I have seen in years.