I've seen plenty of movies in which a number of excellent passages can't seem to blend into a satisfying whole. But prior to the release of Cloud Atlas, the film version of David Mitchell's sprawling 2004 novel, I don't think I'd ever seen a movie in which so many merely adequate sequences combine to form a whole that's not only satisfying but downright exhilarating. Directed by Tom Tykwer and siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and running just shy of three hours, this genre fantasia should be a mess, and it oftentimes is. It's also, however, a hypnotic, glorious, grandly entertaining mess, one that's probably far more enjoyable than a more presentationally faithful adaptation would've been.
Of course, I say this not having read the author's work - though, in a welcome change from my typical reaction to big-screen literary adaptations, I'm now officially eager to. Mitchell's book is composed of six individual yet interconnected narratives told (until Cloud Atlas' final pages) chronologically. The first narrative, set in the mid-1800s, concerns an American notary at the mercy of a slave ship's untrustworthy doctor, while the second storyline finds a struggling young composer assisting (and hoodwinking) a veteran composer in the early 1930s. Segment three follows an investigative reporter who, in 1970s San Francisco, is tipped off about danger at a nuclear-power plant, with segment four detailing the farcical means by which an elderly publisher, in 2012, escapes his forced residency at a retirement home. Set in 2144, the fifth narrative explores the dawning consciousness of a food-industry "fabricant" who revolts against the inhumane treatment practiced against her fellow clones. And the final storyline, which takes place in a futuristic dystopia "106 winters after the Fall," concerns a tribe of forest dwellers who encounter technologically advanced being from another planet.
Obviously, that's an awful lot of plot, and I haven't even mentioned how the individual tales are inevitably linked: the young composer's lover, in segment two, is the whistle-blower of segment three; the publisher of segment four is a movie character seen in segment five; and so on. Yet while friends who've read the book tell me it's a sensational read, I have a sneaking suspicion that had Tykwer and the Wachowskis (sharing co-screenwriting credit with Mitchell) presented Cloud Atlas in a similarly chronological fashion, the results may have been underwhelming.
Without question, the movie's production and costume design are magnificent, and the casting offers built-in fascination, with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and others - aided by extraordinary makeup effects - assuming different roles in all, or nearly all, of the film's six segments. (Those, like me, who've been aching for Hanks to at least momentarily break away from his exhausting Mr. Nice Guy screen persona should especially relish the actor's transformations into that gnarled slave-ship quack and a thuggish Celtic author who tosses a book critic off a penthouse balcony.) Yet aside from the early-human phraseology and patois of the sixth chapter, the dialogue here rarely rises above serviceable, and the direction of these rather simplistic morality fables is bluntly effective but somewhat lacking in texture; the oppressive grimness of segment one is as free of nuance as the pop-eyed slapstick of segment four. Despite the enormous pleasure in watching the film's ensemble assuming new characters - and occasionally switching races and genders - from one time period to another, it's easy to imagine tiring of a chronological Cloud Atlas at around its 90-minute mark ... and groaning when you realize you still have another 90 to go.
In an unusual act of anti-streamlining, though, Mitchell, Tykwer, and the Wachowskis have instead chosen to weave their six plotlines into a dovetailing narrative that skips back and forth between eras, countries, and genres. And this proves to be a splendid inspiration; you don't have time to notice - or, at least, be actively bothered by - the relative blandness of the individual stories because they're being constantly, amusingly interrupted and enriched by other stories.
Cloud Atlas is hardly on a par with Altman's Nashville or Short Cuts, or P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, yet the film's frequent shifts in perspective and tone give it much the same kaleidoscopic appeal, with the added benefit of the format being incredibly generous to the performers doing so much multi-tasking. (You're allowed to revel in the significant skills of Hanks, Broadbent, and Grant, in particular, without their work feeling like showboating.) Dramatic one moment, funny the next, and exciting the moment after next, the stories here build like movements in a symphony, and by the finale, you may find yourself dumbstruck at how such tonally disparate sequences melded with such fluidity and earned emotionalism; I couldn't have been the only one too happily drained to leave the auditorium when the end credits began rolling. (Sticking through those credits, by the way, is heartily recommended for the chance to see exactly who the film's stars played in each episode, and which were successfully hidden by the film's jaw-dropping prosthetics.) I've read a couple of Cloud Atlas reviews that say a second viewing of the film might be necessary because of the density of its themes and the overwhelming number of cross-references between tales. I'm not sure I agree, but it might be necessary just because it's so damned much fun.
As he's been employing the same one, film after film, for every role that doesn't require his native Scottish dialect, I think it's time to ask: What the hell kind of American accent does Gerard Butler think he's doing? I've truly never heard anything like it; near as I can tell, his cadences are a bit Celtic, a bit British, a bit Australian, and a large portion the Bronx, with a few added dashes of Midwestern flatness for flavor (or lack thereof). Part of the reason I can never get on board with Butler in his Hollywood roles - beyond the actor's typical surliness and broadness and blatant self-regard - is that voice, which is so distractingly false that he unwittingly makes everything his characters say sound phony, too. And with Chasing Mavericks, an inspirational drama by directors Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson, heaven knows we don't need any more phoniness to contend with. Based on the true story of surfing legend Jay Moriarity's rise to greatness, the movie casts Butler as our hero's father figure, patron saint, and Mr. Miyagi all rolled up into one growling (but secretly sensitive) package, yet it's the sort of hackneyed role that can still work effectively if its portrayer brings to it even a modicum of charm. It should go without saying, alas, that charm isn't exactly in Butler's repertoire. But he's hardly the only failing in a movie that's earnest as all get-out yet so relentlessly formulaic and mechanically "uplifting" that it feels like the inbred offspring of mediocre triumph-of-the-underdog sports flicks - Soul Surfer without any soul. In fairness, the film's rolling waves are gorgeously shot, and Abigail Spencer offers a nicely tart performance as Butler's de rigueur Concerned Yet Supportive Spouse. They're also among the few elements here that, true story or not, even remotely suggest real life, and though he's just genial enough to not be actively offensive, the movie isn't helped by having Moriarity played by Jonny Weston, a bland, instantly forgettable performer who also appears far too old for the 15-year-old he's cast as. At one point, Spencer asks him, "Are you sure you're only in high school?", and her understandable incredulity is about the only thing in Chasing Mavericks that rings of actual honesty.
SILENT HILL: REVELATION
At the start of Silent Hill: Revelation, the film's title appears amidst the image of ashes gently wafting through the air, and catching the movie in its 3D presentation, those ashes appeared so tangible that I felt an urge to swat them from my face. It turned out not to be the last time I felt like giving the movie a swat. A follow-up to 2006's video-game "adaptation" Silent Hill, and a horror sequel that no one could conceivably have been impatient for, writer/director Michael J. Bassett's outing is a nearly staggering mishmash of tired plotting and incoherent dream logic and hallucinations, and the baroque flourishes - such as the cellar full of faceless nurses brandishing knives and writhing in quick, spasmodic bursts - land too infrequently to make any real impact. Perfectly fine actors such as Sean Bean, Carrie-Anne Moss, Malcolm McDowell, and Deborah Kara Unger show up only for a scene or two, and your heart still bleeds for them; are they aware that none of their portentous blather about "The Order" and "The Brethren" and "The Seal of Metatron" - at least to the non-gamers among us - makes a lick of sense? (The original Silent Hill's star Radha Mitchell, wise woman that she must be, manages to sneak in and out in just 90 seconds.) And while the appealing young lead Adelaide Clemens - a dead ringer, in look and performance style, for Michelle Williams - seems more than capable of carrying a film on her own, she already deserves far better than the ludicrous and meaningless waste of time that is Silent Hill: Revelation. Despite all the viscera and screaming, the biggest jolt we're given here comes courtesy of a Pop-Tart, and nothing about the movie is even half as tasty.