Cloud Atlas: ambitious and intellectual, but not without fault

cloud_atlas_ver2_xxlg

“All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended”, declares the  young, bisexual British composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) near the end of  Cloud Atlas.  That’s the mission  statement for this zany epic – based on a 2004  novel by David Mitchell – which alternates between six separate stories, set in  different historical periods, about the battle for love and freedom.

Besides Frobisher, the other protagonists include a crusading reporter (Halle  Berry), a bumbling publisher (Jim Broadbent), an oppressed clone (Bae Doona) and  a tribesman (Tom Hanks) from a post-apocalyptic future.  Many actors appear in  multiple roles, with heavy make-up sometimes used to alter their race or  gender.

That is as much as can be nailed down about the movie – to attempt a short and succinct summary of plot would be both pointless and frustrating.

What I can say, is that the film sets out to transcend various boundaries, including the boundary  between blockbuster entertainment and art cinema; it also rejects the notion  that a visionary project should be guided by a single individual.  Three of its  segments were directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, the siblings who brought us  the Matrix trilogy; the other  three are the work of the German director Tom  Tykwer, best-known for Run Lola Run.

But perhaps the real mastermind of the piece is editor Alexander Berner, who has the unenviable task  of linking all the stories together through sound bridges and match cuts.

  Overall, Cloud Atlas strives to go beyond what has been done before, and occasionally  succeeds.  Though sometimes awkward in practice, the ”colour-blind” casting is  the most radical tactic, a distancing device aimed at upturning our assumptions  about fixed identity.

Does this lumbering machine soar to the skies?  In a word, no. The  performances are often absurdly broad, and it’s unclear how literally we’re  meant to take the notion that different characters are reincarnations of one  another.

But at its best Cloud Atlas has an undeniable charge: it is a film that so boldly  risks incoherence that it requires the viewer, too, to take a leap.

It won’t be for everyone, but truly great movies so rarely are.

Advertisements

Django Unchained: Big, crazy, and hugely entertaining

django-unchained-2

Quentin Tarantino continues to justify his superstar status on the world’s cinema stage with latest film Django Unchained, his brilliant, bloody and thrillingly unpredictable revenge western about a freed slave unleashing hell on his plantation-owning enemies in the pre-Civil War American South of 1858.

Sort of an artistic companion piece to his audacious, history rewriting Second World War epic Inglourious Basterds, the film once again sees him taking a serious subject matter and moulding it into a deranged alternate universe, one in which the barbarity of a heinous system of oppression is exposed and cathartically avenged in ruthless and savage fashion.

Writer/Director Tarantino has paid his unique homage to plenty of genres before now; the gangster (Pulp Fiction), martial arts (Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2), the grindhouse horror (Death Proof). Now he’s revived the spaghetti western with his usual fanboy enthusiasm.

In Django Unchained, German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys and frees a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx). In exchange for Django’s help in identifying three men with big bounties on their heads, Schultz agrees to help him find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from whom he’s been forcibly and maliciously separated. Shultz, a loquacious, progressive, cultivated fellow who abhors slavery is pretty much the closest thing the film has to a character with a modern perspective and he frequently threatens to steal the movie.

Unfortunately for Django, his wife is working on the notorious Candyland plantation in the Deep South of Mississippi, owned by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who enjoys nothing more than sweets and blood sports in equal measure.

As per usual, Tarantino uses his specific brand of comic violence – almost as much as he uses uninterrupted, drawn-out monologues. There are gallons of blood, exploding body parts and unflinching cruelty.

As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant.

Jamie Foxx, however, has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife. He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down – in all honesty, he’s a bit of a bore.

His plantation-working wife isn’t much better – Broomhilda is severely underwritten and her character never really shines through the trauma she endures.

Lucky for us, then, that Di Capri and Jackson are on hand to distract us from this problem- Leo’s portrayal of the bubbling sadism beneath the plantation owner’s charming veneer is spine-chillingly good while Jackson’s turn as Candie’s doddering henchmen, complete with oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair, also adds to the edge of unpredictable menace.

Primarily, however, this is a Tarantino film. Yes, he’s stuck reverentially to genre stalwarts, but you only need to see that the soundtrack features a James Brown/2Pac amalgamation to know this is no traditional spaghetti western. Although it’s too long and arguably self-indulgent, it’s big, crazy, and hugely entertaining.

A fierce but fiercely intelligent testament to Tarantino’s frequently questioned filmmaking proclivities and certainly among the best films he’s ever made.

%d bloggers like this: