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It's tempting, really tempting, to blow certain movies out of proportion when you see them in the perfect festival setting. I got a great, last minute seat in a Fantastic Fest screening that was revealed to be "Cloud Atlas" only minutes before the movie began, and this movie, after "Dredd", "Looper", and "Holy Motors", brought to a close my list of most anticipated films of the season. Of all of these, "Cloud Atlas" seemed the one that threatened to be the most love-or-hate, and for that very reason had me salivating to see it even more. I don't expect this latest film from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to polarize audiences as much as an intentionally combative film like "Melancholia", but if the critical response to date is anything to go by, we can look forward to at least a few debates over its worth. As for me, I can't pretend. I'm not on the fence and I don't need to see it a second time to know I already love it: "Cloud Atlas" is a full-course meal of cinema, genuinely daring, occasionally frustrating, often enthralling.

The film, which is co-directed by the makers of "The Matrix" and "Run Lola Run", is an adaptation of David Mitchell's novel, which is itself an interesting variation on a kind of "Canterbury Tales"-type structure. In the novel, each story is being read or experienced by a character in the next, and the climaxes of each are only revealed at novel's end. The film doesn't completely abandon the idea of interior characters reading each other's tales, but it does shake things up even more, cutting back and forth among the six with much more frequency. The cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent, just to name a few, each playing multiple roles, many that often require buckets of makeup. And each actor gets his or her chance to squeeze a decade's worth of roles into one film, playing a hero one minute, a villain the next, a victim or background character the next, and so on.

The stories themselves consist of: a young 19th century lad's first encounter with the slave trade and a subsequent bout of severe illness while traveling by ship on the Pacific; a 1930's-set drama of manners and artists' temperament wherein a young musician goes to work for a celebrated composer who may have run out of ideas; a 1970's riff on "The China Syndrome" about cover-ups, murder, and nuclear power plants; a modern-day story of a publisher who goes to his beleaguered brother for help after he runs into trouble with gangsters, and finds himself involuntarily admitted to a retirement home; the tale of Sonmi-451, a clone who becomes the central figure in a war of the distant future; and an even more distant future, post-apocalyptic story of tribal clans, cannibals, and technologically-advanced watchers. Even with a running time of almost three hours, there's simply no way to tell each story as extensively as one might prefer, and when it's done you might just want to hunt down the book to get a longer fix. The decision to intercut throughout is an inspired one, and is only jarring if you're resistant to it. The immediate juxtaposition of scenes that occur decades apart really serves well the themes of rebirth and recurrence, and I went with it immediately, partly because I already knew it was coming but mostly because the overall structure isn't any harder to follow than any good ensemble film. If you imagine something like "Short Cuts" or "Magnolia" that just happens to feature six different eras in time, you pretty much get the idea, even though the edit here milks the most out of each segment and results in a unique whole, often with multiple twists, laughs, and payoffs in a row.

There's a lot of audacity on display here, and some of the harshest criticisms will most likely be aimed at the hit and miss nature of having so many actors play characters of differing age, race, and even gender. Some of the makeup work takes a bit of getting used to, but the majority of the transformations are actually pretty fantastic, such as the Asianification of James D'arcy and Hugo Weaving or Hugh Grant's nearly unrecognizable turn as a massive, tattooed cannibal chief. And since the filmmakers are telling six stories in such a relatively brief amount of time, we sometimes get only the broadest strokes of each, which relegates a few of them to occasional status as potboiler or melodrama. But I honestly believe Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made every effort possible to retain the best essences of Mitchell's work, and you can feel a whole lot of love and hard work in every moment. This independently-financed epic is about as far as one can get from the cynical, big budget studio version it might have been, but thankfully there's more to love than just the intent. Once you find your groove with the pace and shifting tone, you'll find it hard not to be thoroughly entertained, and I personally found that the Altmanesque mix made picking any favorites unnecessary. This is the way I want to see these six stories told now, and I sincerely hope that "Cloud Atlas" lights a fire under the asses of like-minded filmmakers. It only takes one good movie to start a trend, and when there's this much risky ambition coupled with so much visual splendor, hyper-charged narrative excitement, and emotional resonance, it really sets the hairs on end to imagine where the next fire-bearer might go.

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Wosiu (9 years ago) Reply

So, why carpet in clones room is so dirty? It is intentional or not?

BTW. "Cloud atlas" is story after story after story film. If you like story inside story inside story films, try one-of-it`s-class Polish masterpiece film "Saragossa manuscript" of 1965:

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