To be sure, the big screen adaptation of David Mitchell's best-selling novel "Cloud Atlas" is an ambitious undertaking. Its very nature has led some to say it's a property that could not be done justice as a movie, and there may be something to that as it's a sprawling story composed of six different stories that take place in different eras.
The complexities of Mitchell's ideas do get short shrift here, but credit must go to directors Andy and Lana Wachowski ("The Matrix") and Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run") for even attempting to tackle this. That their ambition exceeds their reach isn't due to their lack of trying, and while the film ultimately doesn't deliver on its promise of a profound message on the state of being, it's still an intriguing movie that must be applauded for its massive scope and distinct vision.
Any attempt to sum up the plot would be a foolhardy exercise, a description that some may apply to "Cloud Atlas" itself. One thing is certain, the directors don't cotton to any fools as they immediately drop the viewer into a half-dozen different plotlines in the film's first 15 minutes, and if you can't keep up, well, woe is you; it's going to be a long three hours.
However, if patience is applied, you'll soon pick up on the rhythm of the film. The six stories that comprise it span from 1849 to 2250 and involve a myriad of characters, played by a cast that reappear in each story. Tom Hanks stars as a duplicitous doctor on a wayward ship in 1849, a seedy hotel clerk in London circa 1936, a nuclear scientist in 1973, a thuggish author in 2012 and a post-apocalyptic survivor in 2250. Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon pull off a similar feat, each allowed to run a thespian gauntlet in being given a wide variety of roles. (Alas, Hugo Weaving, Mr. Smith from the Wachowskis' "The Matrix," seems doomed to be typecast for all eternity as he's a villain in every era he appears.)
While the conceit of the film is to show that each story dovetails into the next somehow, the connections are tenuous at best. One of the predominant themes is that oppression of the masses and the exploitation of workers is a condition that has appeared in the past and will continue to exist well into the future. Seemingly, nothing will stop it, but the film suggests that it might be temporarily stymied now and again if a martyr appears to stand up against it. No great revelation that, and the film's other major troupes suffer from being, while noble, hardly original. Extreme acts of love, heinous crimes, examples of hope and greed, as well as instances of great tragedy and incredible miracles occur in the various stories. Instead of being a grand pronouncement on the state of being, the film simply confirms what we've come to know all along about the nature of life.
Still, it's a spectacle worth seeing. While it has a sprawling running time, the film is never boring, keeping us intrigued throughout with its grand ambition. As each story reaches its climax in the final hour, the directors do a masterful job of cutting back and forth between each, building suspense in doing so until each thread reaches its denouement. At the very least, we're treated to some very good filmmaking and some stunning visuals, as the Wachowskis build on the unique aesthetic they introduced in "Speed Racer" in the 2046 story, while Tykwer holds his own, building the proper amount of pathos and suspense in the sections designated to him.
With its simplistic platitudes ("By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future") and allusions to other sci-fi films ("Soylent Green," "2001: A Space Odyssey"), "Cloud Atlas" ends up being a rather expensive cinematic game of connect the dots.
At the very least, it must be said the movie does its best to exemplify its most profound sentiment that boundaries are made to be broken. While the Wachowskis and Tykwer fail to fully realize this, it's surely not for lack of trying, and such an effort, in this era of cookie-cutter cinema, must be appreciated.
3 stars out of 4
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou and Doona Bae.
Written and directed by Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell; produced by Stefan Arndt, Grant Hill, Tykwer and the Wachowskis.
A Warner Brothers release. 172 minutes. Rated R (violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
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"V/H/S" a found-footage mess. (1 1/2 stars out of 4) Fresh from the film festival circuit, Magnet Film's "V/H/S" arrives with a great deal more positive buzz than the usual horror film. Having suffered through it, I'll be darned if I know why. Sporting five different short films, this anthology is made up of various examples of "found footage," each of them featuring a grisly little tale in which the protagonists of each reach a grisly end.
While this may seem a good idea on paper, the execution of these films is so amateurish that even keeping them at a 15- to 20-minute length spells agony for the viewer. It doesn't help that the premise knitting the movies together is as thin as onionskin.
Four unemployed losers are hired by an unseen person to break into an old man's house on the outskirts of town to steal a particular VHS tape. We're never made privy as to what they're looking for, and it seems as though three of the four are clueless as well, so they resort to popping various tapes in the VCR and watching them to see if it might be the one they seek. This is the setup as we see the torrid tales they are watching.
Of course, this is all recorded by two of the malcontents who have brought video cameras to film the crime because they're just plain stupid.
The first film, "Amateur Night," sets the tone as three horny guys set out to bring some willing partners back to their seedy hotel room and film the action with a pair of video glasses. They get much more than they bargain for, as one of the young ladies is not what she seems. If this doesn't make you give up the bar scene, nothing will.
The second tale, "Second Honeymoon," concerns a young married couple on a trip through the American Southwest who end up with a stalker on their tail.
"Tuesday, the 17th" follows four teens into a remote section of a forest where a series of grisly murders was said to have taken place, while "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," the most effective of the stories is told via two video chat screens and concerns a young woman who is an unwitting pawn to an unspeakable practice.
Mercifully, the movie ends with "10/31/98," which follows four young men who stumble upon a Halloween party where they're not wanted.
As with any anthology film, the quality of each of these vignettes varies. However, what's unique here is that they're all simply bad by varying degrees. In "Amateur Night," the use of the handheld camera is so distracting it's nearly impossible to see what's going on and ends up being a visual headache. "Honeymoon" and "Tuesday, the 17th" are crippled by plots that make no sense at all, even within the realm of the supernatural, while "Emily" and "10/31/98" take far too long to get to the meat of their stories, despite their short running time.
That this is the case shows just how thin these tales are, a recurrent problem in "V/H/S," a muddled waste of time that does the found-footage genre no favors.
"Paranormal Activity 4" a bore. (1 1/2 stars out of 4) Having wracked up serious box office and generally favorable reviews with the first three "Paranormal Activity" films, the producers of the series have finally gone to the well once too often as the fourth entry proves to be a tepid affair that elicits more snores than scares. While directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman impressed with their first feature, the pseudo-documentary "Catfish," and they follow the template of the first three chapters of the series to a tee, the results are far from effective.
Picking up on a plot thread left dangling from the first film, the story gets off to an improbable start. A family in Nevada gets new neighbors, and before long, they've taken in the young boy of the clan, Robby (Brady Allen), after his mother is escorted to the hospital, and it's found they have no relatives nearby. To be sure, he's a weird little introverted kid, and soon the teenage girl of the family, Alex (Kathryn Newton), notices some odd behavior. Her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovecamp) becomes introverted and ends up spending all of his time with Robby, inexplicable noises are heard throughout the house and some strange video images are captured on laptops set up around the home by Alex's boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively).
While the first three entries did a masterful job of building an ever-increasing sense of dread, this film simply plods along and never catches fire. Newton and Shively do a fine job creating characters that hold our interest, yet they do so in the service of a script that contains nary a new idea and struggles to generate any suspense. What Robby and Wyatt are up to really isn't all that interesting, and as a result, the movie falls into a repetitious cycle. Alex and Ben look at some video, comment on how odd it is — which it really isn't — and wait for the next occurrence. This is a far cry from the initial trilogy, all of which grabbed us early and steadily built a nearly unbearable degree of suspense. This time out, I spent more time checking the time than shielding my eyes.
The bulk of the blame must be laid at the feet of screenwriters Christopher Landon and Chad Feehan, who commit far too many narrative gaffes to be excused. While there's a neat little homage to "The Shining," the script has so many red herrings that they become predictable, and the film's big reveal makes no sense at all.
Meanwhile, the inevitable finally happens, as the approach of using first-person point-of-view video jumps the shark in the third act. We're expected to believe that when Alex is in peril and must run for her life, she goes to the trouble of grabbing a camera to record her plight. It doesn't wash, and the movie segues from tedious to ridiculous in the blink of an eye.
This is all too bad as the "Paranormal Activity" films were at the forefront of the horror genre's recent swing toward old-school chills and thrills. However, it's obvious that this series has run its course, and here's hoping that bad box office — the only thing that can truly put the final nail in a franchise's coffin — puts this once-effective series permanently to rest.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter . He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.