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"Cloud Atlas" (*** 1/2 - 163 minutes)

Cloud Atlas

Siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski burst onto the cinematic scene in 1996 with their critically acclaimed indie noir "Bound" about a lesbian couple who attempt to steal $1.7 million from the mob. One of my all-time favorite films, "Bound" was followed three years later by "The Matrix" series which expanded on their cinematic vision complete with imaginative story-telling and innovative special effects. Although the second and third in the series (made together and released in 2003) were not as critically successful, no one doubted the Wachowskis' expertise in the art of movie making.

However, their careers took a major critical and financial step back in 2007 with their disappointing "Speed Racer".  After that, Larry underwent a transgender operation to become Lana, and then the siblings hooked up with "Run Lola Run" director Tom Tykwer to write and direct one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking film of this or any year.

The trio was turned down by every major studio (David Mitchell's complex 2004 novel was widely considered unadaptable) until Warner Bros. agreed to finance a small portion.  Undaunted, the three went on to raise most of the $100 million themselves making this one of the most expensive independent films ever made.

"Cloud Atlas" cleverly interweaves six stories set across centuries-while imaginative makeup transforms the major actors into different characters in each segment-at times changing their race, age, and even gender.  The timelines shift continuously, back and forth, and circling from 1846 in the South Pacific, 1936 Scotland, San Francisco in 1973, present day England, 2144 Neo Seoul, and finally "After the Fall" in 2321 and 2346 post-apocalyptic Hawaii. There is a common thread flowing through each narrative that says something about freedom, reincarnation, spirituality, good vs. evil, love, and human relationships that had me rethinking and reliving the film long after I left the theater.  However, whether or not you "get" the heady concepts weaving it's way throughout the film is, frankly, irrelevant in that it  should not prevent you from experiencing the spectacle the directors present on the screen.  At nearly three hours, the time spent never bores.

The division of labor was split, with the Wachowskis writing and directing the 19th Century and the futuristic portions and Tykwer doing the same for the 1936, 1973 and 2012 segments.  Each story is provided with a different style, look, and grandeur; specifically encompassing most of the genres including comedy, horror, suspense, romance, etc.  The bottom line:  there is something here to please just about any viewer-whether it set in a classic period, presenting a mystery thriller, offering a present-day comedy, portraying a sci-fi future, or displaying a dystopian future.

Of course, some of the six work better than others.  I was extremely impressed with the classical and futuristic sequences while the 1973 story proved less interesting.  And the extremes the makeup crew went to Asianize several of the Caucasian actors became a minor distraction to the action in the Neo Seoul narrative.  However, the acting (by the ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgis, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, and Doona Bae) is generally superb with each actor, whether major or minor, deftly exhibiting tremendous range from segment to segment.  Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, and Johnny Klimek created the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", a brilliant sweeping score that permeates throughout the movie that also serves to cohesively link the characters and narrative.

And here is my first Oscar prediction:  editor Alexander Berner has intricately cut the film in such a fluid and seamless manner that I am certain his work on this film will be a film class teaching standard for years to come.  Berner's contribution is a major reason that the directors were able to successfully translate Mitchell's novel to the screen.

Finally, half the fun will be trying to recognize who is playing whom. So, don't jump out of your seat and head for the exit as soon as the credits start to roll-at least initially, as each actor and their corresponding roles throughout the saga will be visually displayed.  Count on several "oohs" and "aahs" to be heard throughout the audience as each character is revealed.  At times the participants on the sets couldn't even recognize each other.


(l to r) Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks) and Adam Ewing (Jim
Stugess) in a scene from the 1849 South Pacific segment

(l to r) Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) and Robert Frosbisher
during the 1936 Scotland segment

Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) and Joe Napier (Keith David) in
a scene from the 1973 San Francisco segment

Timonthy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in the 2012 England 
segment

Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in the 2144 Neo Seoul segment

The Kona Chief (Hugh Grant) in the post-apacolyptic Hawii
segment

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