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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Cloud Atlas

CLOUD ATLAS (Four Stars)
Germany-U.S.: Tom Tykwer-Lana Wachowski-Andy Wachowski, 2012

I loved it. And for once, I’m speechless.

But I promise to get to it at greater length, next week. It’s a movie, after all, that can probably be watched repeatedly, and discussed endlessly. It’s divided the critics — some are fervently pro, some contemptuously con — in a way that usually  only the more interesting pictures can and do. It’s long, it’s complex, and it violates about half the rules for a big-budget big-audience movie, while following (and triumphing in) about half the others.

Cloud Atlas is based on the well-reviewed, much-awarded (or short-listed) British novel by David Mitchell, a book that links together six stories, ranging in time and place from the Pacific Ocean in 1850, to Belgium in 1931, to California in 1975, to the United Kingdom right about now, to South Korea in the near future, to  an island somewhere in the ocean somewhen past the Apocalypse.

The movie has a huge cast — topped by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Brioadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugo Weaving , Jim Sturgess and others — and it’s made even huger by the fact that the main actors keep popping up in all six films playing, different roles. In all but one case, that is:The role of whistle-blower Rufus Sixsmith is played in both Parts Two and Three by James D’Arcy. The makeup jobs are sometimes fabulous; you may be shocked, occasionally when you find out who’s playing who.

Mitchell arranged his novel in six parts, advancing chronologically, and those parts  kept breaking off in the middle to bring in part of the last chapter. Then he finished up with the resolution of all six stories, this time in reverse (or mirror) order. It’s a tricky structure, maybe not as tricky as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with its tell-tale footnotes.  So, to lessen the confusion, I suggest you google and read a long synopsis before seeing it.  It would be best to read the novel first, of course, but I realize that’s not an option for lots of us.  Later, maybe.

The movie takes those six genre-mashing stories and interweaves them, cutting back and forth, as in Inception. Tykwer and the Wachowski apparently wrote this infernally complex script together, and then split up for the shooting: Tykwer and his team taking Parts Two, Three and Four, and the Wachowski handling One, Five and Six. As mentioned, the actors take multiple roles, and that’s not a stunt. The galleries of roles reinforce Mitchell’s theme of reincarnation and of souls traveling from body to body. The movie, meanwhile, has many forms itslef. It’s full of romance and mystery and action and spectacle and humor, and the overall form reminds you of nothing so much as D. W. Griffith and his four interweaving stories in that other madly ambitious epic, 1916’s Intolerance. (That got some awful reviews, too.)

You’ll have fun, in any case. Like Intolerance, this  movie is staggeringly, outrageously, madly, breath-takingly ambitious. I didn’t see Cloud Atlas at Toronto, where it reportedly generated a ten-minute standing ovation.  But I would have stood for fifteen, maybe longer. (I saw it at the Chicago’s best movie critic venue, the Lake Street Screening Room, at a critic’s screening for the Chicago Film Festival — where Cloud Atlas was the fest centerpiece.)

So…You must see it. For yourself. Even if you despise it, you’ll have fun vivisecting it afterwards. It’s 164 minutes long, and, as Roger Ebert has said, there’s not a boring second in it. Befuddling  maybe. Boring no.

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“To me, there was a deep confusion that still persists,” Morris told the crowd, “and I don’t know what you can do to disabuse people of this notion. I suppose you could hit them in the head with a large piece of lumber, but I’m not sure that would do the trick. It’s a simple rule: Style doesn’t guarantee truth. Truth is something far more elusive. Truth is a quest; you pursue truth. You go after it, you try to uncover it, because we all know that we live in a sea of falsehood. I mean, there shouldn’t be any tool that should be unavailable to you in the pursuit of truth.”
~ Errol Morris

“I hang out with highbrow people and I have on certain occasions earned my living with non-highbrow people. I don’t know what I am. A highbrow wannabe? I’m a groupie of intellectuals. I try to hang around them but maybe I am a clown who enjoys the company of intellectuals. Or maybe I’m a semi-intellectual who likes to hang out with clowns.”
~ Wallace Shawn