Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Love. Life. Freedom. That is what every being longs for. The struggle to find all in one’s lifetime, that is the battle beyond each being, that binds years, generations and descendants together in a tight tapestry through time.  This is the story of Cloud Atlas, the film by Lana and Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, adapted from David Mitchell‘s 2004 novel.  It’s several stories, actually, all interconnected and featuring the same actors in various roles throughout the time lines and across races and genders.  But the connections and conflicts all battle for the same goal, to find freedom, life and love.

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The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas describes the film as: “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.”  The interconnected stories are interwoven in the narrative, and can be quite confusing as the editing jumps between stories and time periods.  The mental gymnastics are done for greater emotional effect. You realize how one character’s actions in the past cause the reaction in the future, how we constantly face the same struggles and as Halle Berry‘s character states, “make the same mistakes over and over.”  The film is 164 minutes long, explores several themes and variations, but never bores and ultimately becomes a beautiful tale about the human experience.

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Cloud Atlas is amazingly ambitious.  The Wachowski’s were given a copy of the novel while filming V For Vendetta, by that film’s star, Natalie Portman.  The directors loved it, but the story was considered by many as unfilmable – the dense narrative and broken stories would be nearly impossible to translate to the big screen.  Tom Tyker joined the project, and financing was secured independently as the $140-million project frightened the conventional studios.  As the budget was spread across several investors, the film nearly stalled and died several times.  The Wachowski’s credit Tom Hanks as the driving force behind getting the crew, investors and other actors rolling in to production.  His commitment to the project shows through his roles, playing each of his characters with real strength, despite some weak accents.

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The film definitely has some problems, some that critics and audiences could not see past.  The makeup, in particular, was one horrible hurdle that was never quite reached. In many segments, the actors must play various roles with a variety of neoprene noses and questionable contact lenses, which makes them an object of distraction instead of a part of the order.  In addition, some segments of the story do not have the same emotional drive as the others.  But on the whole, I would rather watch an earnest, zealous attempt at something new in film over a safe, calculated collection attempt at a theater-goer’s pocket book. Any day. Any time. The high-reaching Cloud Atlas may not quite accomplish all that it attempts for all viewers, but it is still a beautiful, interesting, emotional, impressive, determined, soaring cinematic experience.  Because looking past “the same mistakes,” this is one film that really reaches for the stars to share its love, life and freedom with the world.

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Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Another experimental film.  Another film more concerned with experience and emotion than with a driven narrative.  Don’t think there’s no story to Upstream Color, because there is – and it’s fascinating – but it’s so hidden and dissected that it takes some time to mentally reassemble.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the film is written and directed by Shane Carruth, who directed the 2004 mind-blower, Primer.  And here, Carruth also serves as producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer.  That level of auteurity is pretty staggering.

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The story might be a little dense to try and describe, so I will quote directly from the film’s Sundance Film Festival program guide: “Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.”  It is science fiction, and body horror, but to an astonishingly controlled degree.  It is a cerebral, emotional thriller, but with none of the flash-bang of recent mind-benders like Inception, District 9 or Looper.  Those are all essentially intelligent action sci-fi films, with conventional adventure set pieces, archetypes and set pieces.  Upstream Color has none of those.  Its conflict is so internal, the battle in body and brain, that with editing we can assume what is happening, but have zero assurances.

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That said, if you have the patience, this is a film to be experienced.  It is a beauty to view, and amazingly was shot on a “consumer-grade” camera, a Panasonic Lumix GH2, with Voigtlander and Rokinon lenses.  From The Hollywood Reporter, “the experience of watching the film… is highly visceral and sensuous; the images possess a crystalline clarity that is exquisite, and they’re dispersed in rapid rhythmic waves in a way that’s especially mesmerizing during this first section,” and  “Carruth’s is a cinema of impressions and technique, not overt meaning.”  The sound design and score is equally as impressive, carefully edited and toned to balance and brand the images.  As one character is composing music to the microscopic madness, we realize how bound is the brain to tone, timing and theory.

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As Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times said, “Color is somehow at once emotionally direct, while narratively abstract.”  It reminds of the intimacy of image of Terrence Malick, the internal horror of David Cronenberg and the philosophy of ‘reality’ of Béla Tarr.  With a little time, a little devotion, a lot of concentration and discussion once the film has finished, Upstream Color could become one of those movies you never fully understand and ultimately never forget.

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