Top 12 of 2012: “Cloud Atlas” (“Co-Review” by the Sitzchowski Brothers)

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Good evening! We’re back today with an admittedly enormous post to continue our 2012 review. It’s so long that it even has two authors, who both took on new identities; Now Ryan and Paul are calling themselves the Sitzchowski Brothers in homage to the Wachowskis, the sibling pair who co-directed Cloud Atlas (along with director Tom Tykwer… but unless we can convince Jake to play “Tom Jykewer,” then we’ll just have one author fewer than the movie has directors). We’ll begin with Paul’s argument about why it was the best movie of the year, and then Ryan will talk about how the movie compared to the book, throwing in a few details that veer off into Taco Bell territory.

Paul’s Thoughts on Why Cloud Atlas Was the Best Movie of the Year

PAUL: 2012 was a great year for movies on paper. A whole new slew of superhero summer blockbusters, an incredible new James Bond which surpassed $1bil in revenue, and one of the most competitive Oscar races in recent memory offering up new films from several of the biggest directors of the last decade. So why did I still feel somewhat underwhelmed by it all? And why is it that one of the biggest flops of the year is at the top of my list for my favorite films of 2012?

I’ll be addressing these questions more in our 2012 wrap-up in the coming days, but to put it in short, The Dark Knight Rises was washed out in character development hell and was thrown askew by serious timing issues, while other films like The Avengers forgot that they were supposed to be entertaining action movies, and instead spent half their time with bickering dialogue between characters. Does John McClane bicker constantly in his action movies? No. And that’s why they’re classics. However, since I’ve been busy for the better part of December, I still haven’t gotten around to seeing some of the big releases from this month, including Lincoln, Django, and Les Mis, but even then Lincoln just sounded like my 5th grade history class all over again, I’ve heard that Les Mis is wishy washy with cinematography that sounds more infuriating than The Hunger Games and Django sounded like it comes off as too heavy handed. Heavy handed is fine, and I’m still greatly looking forward to seeing it, but if it takes away from Tarantino’s playful retelling of history with compelling characters, such as he did with Basterds, then it might knock the re-play value down a couple notches.

So what is the perfect movie of 2012 in my mind? To skip the prose and give it to you straight, it’s Cloud Atlas. You know, that one that you might’ve skipped because the trailer showed Tom Hanks with a goatee, or maybe you skipped it because of the close to 3-hour run time. Well, if that’s the case, I highly suggest you give it a chance in 2013, because if Hollywood knows what’s good for it, then this film would likely act as a blueprint for dynamically entertaining cinema for the next few years to come. Here’s 5 reasons why:

Co-Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski. Photo by Anna Hanks.

Co-Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski. Photo by Anna Hanks.

5. The Wachowskis Need This One
So far, Cloud Atlas has bombed at the box office. On a $100 million budget, they’ve only made back $26.6 million in ticket sales, which pales even in comparison to their own equally amazing Speed Racer (2008) which ended up falling $30 million short of making back its original $120 million budget. Given, Cloud Atlas is still in theaters and it has yet to be released on DVD, but things aren’t looking good. The point is, the Wachowskis don’t have the best track record with theaters. This isn’t to overlook the OTHER director on Cloud Atlas, Tom Tykwer, but anyone familiar with his impressive catalog should realize that one bust won’t sink him. Numbers aside, it would be a complete shame if someone as talented as the Wachowskis was unable to continue making films because they were unable to find anyone to fund their ventures. The Wachowskis take incredible risks, and while not all of them pay off, Hollywood needs creative direction such that they offer if they’re going to continue to adapt to the changes that are in store in the coming years. Meanwhile, while the Wachowskis take a lot of risks, they almost pale in comparison to changing a filming format which has been around for 100 years like Peter Jackson did. They still tell classic stories, they just decide to make them their own. Lastly on this point, the Wachowskis were finally able to make a book > screen adaptation that really works, and possibly even surpasses the depth and emotion of the original. The Hunger Games should take a note for their future films, and I only hope that book series like Ender’s Game are so bold when they come to the screen.

4. The Most Expensive Independently Made Movie Ever
All of the $100 million I mentioned above was raised independently. There was no studio involvement in this project until it came to distribution. This is an important point because it helps redefine what independent cinema can be. Up until this point, “Indies” were defined by ultra low budget romantic comedies like Juno or this year’s Safety Not Guaranteed. The problem is that even most of these independent films had studio help and the genre was merely defined by the amount of money in the budget. Not only does Cloud Atlas surpass the amount of money raised for these types of projects, but the directors were able to maintain their creative vision without any studio involvement in the creative process. What studio would greenlight a project which had no defined genre, has three different directors and has their main actors playing up to 6 different roles, sometimes crossing race and gender? A film like Cloud Atlas truly helps define what the term “Indie” means.

3. It’s A Movie Lover’s Movie
If you ask most new filmmakers what their ideal movie would be, they might say “It’s got some action, but it also has romance and really great characters. It’ll make you laugh… and cry…” These are all reasons why we love going to the movies and why they’ve become such a defining part of our culture. Anything is possible and movies can send us through every range of emotions. It’s just not as common that all of that can happen in one movie. While Cloud Atlas’ different storylines have fairly distinct genres and keep their emotional aim to themselves, the interweaving of the stories not only impact the audience through the tight collision of these emotions, but it shows you how little pieces of humor or action or intrigue can help impact someone’s life even when it’s heading in such an entirely different direction, or even if they parallel each other. The things that Robert Frobisher learns from Adam Ewing also parallel the lessons that we learn from our favorite movies and other pieces of pop culture. Sonmi 351 learning “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse” from a film based around another character’s life showcases the power of movies to influence the direction of the world beyond, if only we open ourselves up to it.

2. The Scope
Epic. That’s one of the only words to describe it. It spans an incredible amount of time and genres but still never manages to let the “epicness” of the story take away from the individual problems of the characters. We see the black slave Autua struggle to impress his ship-mates and the captain rather than getting epic flyover shots of the boat on the ocean. We see the sweat on Zachry’s face as he fights to keep Meronym from falling off the side of a cliff, held only by his bleeding palms, rather than getting the wide of the cliff ala Cliffhanger. It never compromises for spectacle, yet it’s still so beautiful to watch. The cinematography is topnotch and has enough variety and consistency that you can be transported across hundreds of years and still feel like you’ve only made a tiny leap. This is also thanks in part to the editing, which is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Like an Eisensteinian wet dream, huge gaps are spanned in emotion and time in a single instant, and through this, the film is able to bring to life connections that either didn’t exist or were as obvious in the book. The music, the makeup, the effects… everything is nearly flawless, yet it hasn’t been mentioned for a single award now that awards season is getting close. And yes, I did say that the makeup is nearly flawless, which is one area which people loved to pick apart. Let me expand upon that a little in my final point:

1. Cloud Atlas Comes Close To Visualizing What It Means To Be Human
The makeup comes into play here because with different actors playing so many different characters, the makeup artists obviously changed the way that people looked from story to story, sometimes changing their sex or race. Some people thought that the makeup looked shoddy and unbelievable, but then they often didn’t realize at different points when the actors would change characters. But some people even went as far as to call the movie racist for not hiring Asian actors to play Asian characters, but instead chose to use makeup to disguise Tom Hanks or Halle Berry as something they are not. The way I see it, however, is that the Wachowskis intentions were never to completely disguise their actors to the point that we wouldn’t be able to recognize them, but instead they wanted to accentuate when a change is made to make it easier to see the ways that people change over time. It’s a major theme in the movie and if they tried to hide it too much then they’re not able to get to what I think is the main point of the film: race and gender relations. This is one of the reasons that the Wachowskis were perhaps the only directors that could have made this movie with the perspective that they did. This was the first film which the Wachowskis made after Larry officially became Lana, and this unique point of view on the openness of gender and sex is rampant throughout the film, but isn’t just in the transmogrification of the actors, but also in the character relations; gay love, interracial love, interspecies (or between a man and fabricant), Eros, Ludus, Storge, Mania. Cloud Atlas hits, in one form or another, on almost every major issue which persists in the world today, and encompasses every kind of character type, race, genre. By giving every conflict a platform in which to work out its issues, it creates an experience, which is closer than any other in recent memory, of what it means to be human, no matter which groups we identify with.

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There were a lot of other great movies this year, but I can’t think of any other which, given a proper chance, would have a greater cultural impact on the way we look at film and at the issues of race and cliques in our society. Plus, with near perfect technical execution and a mind-boggling production process, Cloud Atlas is one of the most impressive films at least of the last decade and should be a shining example for what the future of American cinema needs to be.

Ryan’s Thoughts on The Book Vs. The Movie: A Tale of Two Taco Bell Entrees

Sonmi~451 tries to escape her pursuers in Neo-Seoul. Surprisingly, she doesn't say "I'm getting too old for this shit!" in this scene. Not once. This image, along with all stills from the movie, are taken from the movie's website (click on image).

Sonmi~451 tries to escape her pursuers in Neo-Seoul. Surprisingly, she doesn’t say “I’m getting too old for this shit!” in this scene. Not once. This image, along with all stills from the movie, are taken from the movie’s website (click on image).

RYAN: It’s obvious that Paul has thought a lot about this movie, so instead of adding to his commentary, I’ll just briefly expand on a few things he mentioned, but I ultimately want to take this whole post in a different direction.

First of all, Cloud Atlas also won the top spot on my personal list of Best Movies of 2012. I’m not as well-versed as Paul when it comes to talking about movies, but I loved Cloud Atlas for the same reasons as he did, even if I’m not able to formulate my thoughts as concisely as he did. I don’t know much about what it takes to direct and produce a movie. In fact, going into this movie I knew more about the third director, Tom Tykwer, than I did about the Wachowskis, which is something that maybe not even Tom Tykwer’s own mother could claim. I didn’t even know that Lena Wachowski used to be Larry Wachowski before gender reassignment; I just assumed she’d been a less-noticed third sibling, waiting to pick up the slack after Larry became estranged from Andy for some reason. Obviously, you don’t have to know a ton about movies to start a movie blog. Anyhow, what I want to draw attention to today are the effects of changing the book into a movie, since I found the book so powerful and interesting.

The novel, with an older version of the cover.

The novel, with an older version of the cover.

As Paul mentioned, the movie is based on a novel by David Mitchell. (In this article, Mitchell gives his own thoughts about his story’s transition from book to movie.) I read it as part of my book a week project last year, and it also was in my top 2 or 3 books I read in 2012. As I read it, though, I kept thinking, “Wow, this book has a very unique and weird structure,” since I didn’t really have any idea what it would be about when I originally started it. But as I read further and further, I kept in mind the news that the book was being made into a movie. Then my main thoughts became: “How in the hell will they ever be able to convert something like this into a movie?”

My new go-to analogy to describe the book’s structure is that “it’s like a bullet shooting through a Taco Bell chalupa, where the reader is the bullet and the chalupa are the different stories.” Yes, I actually came up with that analogy myself—can you tell? (Note! We’re talking here about Taco Bell’s bastardized version of the chalupa; if you’re thinking of an authentic Mexican chalupa, this analogy won’t make any damn sense!) Anyhow, let me explain with a bit more information about the story. It won’t contain any spoilers, though, unless you absolutely don’t want to know anything about a movie or book. If that’s the case, though, then you’ve surely not read this far.

OK, so the book contains six basic stories. They are:

1. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” told in the South Pacific in the mid-1800s.
2. “Letters From Zedleghem,” told from Belgium in the 1930s.
3. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” told in California in the 1970s.
4. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” told in modern-day England.
5. “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” told in “Neo-Seoul,” one or two hundred years in the future.
6. “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” told on an island a few hundred years later, after an apocalyptic event.

A Taco Bell Nacho Cheese Chalupa. Just add beans and a bullet. (Image from tacobell.com)

A Taco Bell Nacho Cheese Chalupa. Just add beans and a bullet. (Image from tacobell.com)

If you’re still with me, now imagine the bullet hitting that chalupa monstrosity from the side. First it hits the flour tortilla. That’s the first part of Ewing’s story. Then it hits the nacho “cheese,” which means we’re now in “Zedleghem.” From there, it goes to the crunchy taco shell (“Half-Lives”), and moves through to what I believe are refried beans (“Cavendish”). Now for the sake of my analogy, let’s say that the bullet passes through a layer of lettuce (“Sonmi~451”) before it gets to the meat and weird sauce (“Sloosha’s Crossin’”). That’s actually how the first half of the book is set up, where we’re given one half of each story at a time. But this is a bullet, and a chalupa isn’t a Kevlar vest, so it’s gotta go back out the other side, passing though the same layers, only in reverse order. That’s also how the book finishes, with the conclusion to each story, only in reverse order. (Note for Academy Awards ceremony speech version of this post: Pause now for thunderous applause.)

As I mentioned, I thought I book was spectacular but its structure, although interesting to me, doesn’t always serve the reader well. For example, I could hardly care less about a guy on a boat in the 1850s, so just getting through the first 50 pages of the book was a bit of a slog since I assumed the rest of the story would be like Adam Ewing’s journal. Fortunately, when making the movie the producers ditched the chalupa structure and just turned the whole thing into a big-ass taco salad.

In the movie the scenes from the different stories are interspersed very frequently, sometimes every 30 seconds or so, although more often an individual scene lasts a few minutes. On paper, one would think these frequent transitions would be too jarring, confusing, or just plain weird, but it works to excellent effect in the movie. While the book mostly hints at connections between characters and stories (eg, a comet-shaped birthmark that various characters share, or the fact that most characters get a hold of some form of the previous characters’ stories), the movie sharply pulls those connections to the forefront, and that visual aspect greatly enhances the story.

Tom Cruise and Halle Berry in a "Sloosha's Crossin'" scene.

Tom Cruise and Halle Berry in a “Sloosha’s Crossin'” scene.

Additionally, most of the actors play at least one part in each story. For example, depending on the story, Halley Berry plays a South Pacific native, a Scottish woman, reporter Luisa Rey, an Indian party guest, a weird male Asian doctor, and a post-apocalyptic scientist/scout. To be honest, maybe I’m a dum-dum, but while reading the book, I would never have imagined having the same actors playing different parts in the different stories. Crazy! When I went in to the movie, I just imagined that they’d have hired basically six different casts. But whether it seems obvious or not, it was a great choice to have the actors play different characters. As a result, watching for the same actors in the six stories becomes a sort of game within a story within a movie, although it never becomes tedious or gimmicky like it does in some other movies, like the Eddie Murphy ones featuring the Klump family.

Now, Paul alluded to the fact that there had been controversy around white actors playing Asian parts, but I just don’t see the controversy here, seeing as every actor, whether white, black, Hispanic, Indian, Korean, British, or whatever, plays parts across both ethnic and gender lines. If a single white actor wears blackface then sure, that could be construed as racist or at the very least inappropriate, regardless of his intentions. But if you have a movie full of diverse actors and actresses portraying people all over the gender and race spectrums (not to mention that Sonmi~451 is a “fabricant” in her story and a goddess in another one, so I’m not even sure what spectrum that is), then the controversy just doesn’t seem to hold as much credence. In the end, people are simply people.

Can you find Halle Berry in this picture? (I'll give you a hint: she's the person).

Can you find Halle Berry in this picture? (I’ll give you a hint: she’s the person).

Some of the actors shine in this format, too. Both Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving are very good in most of their roles (and Paul pointed out that the characters Weaving plays even follow a specific arc, as the characters go from merely bad to literally being an incarnation of the devil; I imagine other characters follow different arcs, but I’ve not thought about it too much). Hugh Grant also stands out, but that’s somewhat a testament to his ability to play 31 different flavors of bastard in all sorts of situations. But I think my favorite all-around actor in this movie was Jim Broadbent in his Timothy Cavendish incarnation.

Jim Broadbent, as Timothy Cavendish, doing what he does best: being goofy.

Jim Broadbent, as Timothy Cavendish, doing what he does best: being goofy.

I’ll admit that some of the performances aren’t as great as others. Tom Hanks as an Irish thug is a bit hard to imagine at first, but that’s probably just because we’re used to him in weak-ass, white-bread romantic comedies. But he’s on screen as that character for about a minute, so why even bother getting worked up about something that’s obviously meant to be a humorous injection?

Thus far I’ve talked about how the movie has defied all book-to-movie conventions and been better than the book, but there are a few points where the book does come out on top. Obviously, the book is able to go into much more detail with each story, but that just comes with the territory. When reading we get to know and appreciate each character significantly more than just seeing them on screen for a few minutes. However, the biggest edge the book has can be found in the two stories that take place in the future. I talked to my mom (“Ma Sitzchowski”), who told me that she had had trouble understanding some of the scenes from “Neo-Seoul,” but the ones from “Sloosha’s Crossin’” were especially difficult. I hadn’t really thought about that, since I understood the dialogue fairly well while watching the movie. But then I realized that a good deal of that was probably because I had read much of the same dialogue just weeks before.

For the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” sections, both the book and movie use a fair number of words derived from standard modern English to invent a kind of “English of the future,” and that’s a bit weird and strangely primitive-sounding, at least at first (when I started that section of the book I thought it took place in some shit-kicking hick town in 1880s Texas, when it really takes place in Hawaii around the year 2300). When you read something like “spesh’ smart” in a book, it might slow you down until you get into the rhythm and realize that it roughly means “important technology.” There are a lot of words and phrases like that, but what’s daunting at first becomes natural, and then it’s easy to get through that section of the book. I can definitely understand why people might have been confused with those sections of the movie, but at the same time I’d say my advice would be to simply read the book before watching the movie in order to get maximum enjoyment out of both.

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Plus, here’s the thing: the dialogue and story are great, sure, but if you don’t understand every single line they’re saying, don’t worry. Just sit back and enjoy the amazing visuals.

Anyhow, that’s about all I have to say about the movie to book transition. Plus, I have to give the floor back to Paul so he can finish the second half of his review, followed by my review’s second half, chalupa-style.

Just kidding.

But what I’m not kidding about is this: If you’re on a quest to find the shiniest, brainiest, most-interesting, most-daring, most-human, and all-around BEST movie of the year, you could certainly do worse than this one.

8 thoughts on “Top 12 of 2012: “Cloud Atlas” (“Co-Review” by the Sitzchowski Brothers)

  1. Wow! This thing is epic! I’m still in awe at the work and thought you guys put into this. Fantastic work gentleman! The weird thing when talking to people about this movie is, the people who have read the book LOVE it where those who haven’t, either hate it or are indifferent. I’m in the second camp. I didn’t loathe it, but it definitely wasn’t my favorite (I think I placed it at 26th best for 2012). It’s almost as if reading the book is a prerequisite for seeing the movie. It’s the only time I’ve felt like that during a movie. It made me dislike the movie even more because it was almost pretentious, like, “oh you haven’t read the book, then we didn’t make this movie for you.” What I did love about it was the scope and insane amount of imagination and work that went into it. You could really tell that the filmmakers respected the material and truly wanted to make a great movie out of a complex book (one that I continually see on “unfilmable books” lists). It was as if I respected the movie more than liking it (which in turn sounds pretentious on my part).

    I actually found the editing to be distracting instead of impressive. I actually wish the story kept to how Ryan said the book was (and I must say your “chalupa” analogy is one of the best things I’ve ever heard). Each time I would get invested in a character or story, the film would cut to another story. It made me stop caring for anything going on. I was never confused in the movie, I would just forget why a character was in trouble or danger because it would switch to a story in which the character is not in danger. The Eisenstein comparison on Paul’s part was apt. In his movies he drew attention to the editing like “look what I can do” when editing is an art that shouldn’t be noticed in the film, in my opinion at least. It made sense when making films in the 1910’s and 20’s but that was when the medium was still new. A hundred years later it just becomes obnoxious when I see a movie drawing attention to itself in editing.

    I agree with both of you guys about it not being racist in the slightest. I think ignorant people claim it is racist because Hollywood has a history of casting white actors as Asians (ie Charlie Chan and Breakfast at Tiffany’s). The thing that bothered me is that the makeup did not work. The white actors looked horrible as Korean, especially standing next to a real Korean person. No matter how hard one tries, white people cannot look Asian and vice versa (Doona Bae looked almost alien as the white daughter of Hugo Weaving). The movie almost became a “spot the famous person” as I was watching it.

    I would still like to read the book at some point, but I feel the movie actually ruined it for me. I fear I will continually compare the two. I wish I could pull an Eternal Sunshine and erase my memory of the film, read the book, and watch the movie for the first time. I think I would love it as much (if not more) than you guys.

    • Hey Jake,
      Thanks for the comment.
      After walking out of the movie, one of the first things I thought was “I wonder how people will feel about that if they haven’t read the book…”, so it’s good to hear your perspective. What I liked about it was that it DID take the information from the book one step farther, and they used the medium to intertwine the stories in a way that would have been almost impossible in literature because you can’t differentiate between words the way that you can between images. I thought the visual aesthetic they used was consistent throughout (it all felt like the same movie) but they were all entirely distinct to the point that you can pretty much recognize exactly which story you’re seeing within the first shot of each cut. It’s a pretty amazing technical achievement, especially considering they were all shot and directed by different people.
      In terms of Eisenstein, though, I wasn’t concerned as much with the style of the editing (I’ve never necessarily thought Eisenstein was about “look what I can do!”) but more that they used the cut to enhance the meaning of the images by juxtaposing them against each other. Eisenstein was generally of the thought that there was life between the images when you make a cut, and the only real meaning comes when you put the two together. While the editing in Cloud Atlas was often a little flashy, they were also able to create more emotion between the shots and the scenes than there was originally just by smashing them together.
      And about the makeup, I agree in part. Some worked and some didn’t so much, but I often liked that it wasn’t spot on because the game of “spot the actor” actually allows you to latch on to each individual actor’s journey through the timeline. Hugo Weaving, for instance, starts out as a horrible plantation owner, goes farther to the dark side as an assassin, and keeps sliding farther and farther until he’s actually the devil. Tom Hanks, on the other hand, starts out as an evil doctor on a boat, throws a guy off a building in the middle, and slowly works towards becoming better until he finally is the hero at the end. While this way of looking at the story doesn’t always work, it’s just another way that souls are transformed through time in this movie.
      Thanks for the comment! Let me know if you read the book.

  2. Hey Jake!

    Thanks for your comments (and for making it through our review!). I can understand all of your sentiments, although I do hope you give the book a chance sometime in the future. Then maybe re-watch the movie and see if it changes anything, haha…

    I don’t think you have to have read the book to enjoy it, but it’s hard to be certain about that because I DID read the book, and you can’t go back, as they say. But I do think it’s one of those rare movies where the movie adaptation is as interesting or more so than the original material.

    I do wonder if, in a parallel universe, the Wachowskis decided to do a series of 6 short movies, structuring them similar to the book. I wonder how that would have worked out. The stories are compelling by themselves, but become much more interesting when they’re intertwined, especially as that really brings out the themes. But I guess we’ll never know, unless that’s one of the things they let you do/see/know/experience when you die (I’d also like to know about Jesus and JFK, what the most amazing hamburger ever REALLY tasted like, and how many times I’ve hiccuped).

    Anyhow, thanks again for your thoughts!

    • Wow, do you mean it actually took you 48 hours to read? Now I feel bad; you should have used that time doing something productive like tracking down criminals. It worked for Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.

      Anyhow, sorry it was so long, but thanks for toughing it out!

  3. I loved Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I really want to see Cloud Atlas, now, actually.

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