If you read the huge story in The New Yorker last fall about the making of Cloud Atlas — three directors, a gigantic budget, a protracted development process — you would probably assume that the final result would be a mess. And it is. Kind of.
Cloud Atlas is based on a very fancy novel, with six story lines taking place over a span of hundreds of years. The movie's conceit is to have the same actors pop up in all six story lines, sometimes playing opposite-sex characters, sometimes playing characters of other ethnicities (the latter choice leading to criticism of the film for putting several non-Asian actors in "yellowface"). Unlike the book, the film cuts among the story lines from scene to scene, which can be disorienting, but the effect works. Kind of. Cloud Atlas isn't the kind of film one can recommend unreservedly — it's crazy long; it's also just crazy — but I'll say this for it: I was never bored.
2012 has been a remarkable year for testing the limits of trailers, with studios often oversaturating the market with four or five previews before a film is actually released, putting out teasers for "official" trailers, and even deploying the much-hated "teaser for the teaser." While this double-tease phenomenon has been the lowlight in the world of movie previews this year, a high point has been the music that has accompanied the trailers.
It's not simply acoustic guitar into electric guitar with a voice-over anymore. Or just "O Fortuna" or "Gimme Shelter" over and over again. (Well, there was Flight, but ...) Major artists are getting involved, new artists are breaking into the mainstream by way of their inclusion in a big movie's trailer and, in many cases, a trailer (and a film) would be nothing without the wise decision to incorporate the perfect song.
From time to time, Grantland racial issues correspondent Andrew Ti stops by to discuss whatever's been blowing up the inbox at Yo, Is This Racist? Today, the Cloud Atlas epic gets its reckoning.
One nice thing about the film industry is the fact that, no matter how offensive any idea was the first time around, if you wait long enough, there's always someone willing to give it another shot. So imagine the delight around Yo, Is This Racist? headquarters this July when the trailer for Cloud Atlas dropped, featuring a bunch of characters played by actors in, let's call it, "racial makeup." That is, in this sprawling, postmodern collection of scenes jumping back and forth in time (roughly speaking, pirate ship times to rocket-ship times and more!), most of the principal actors reappear as multiple characters, often of different races. As a filmmaking technique, it was likely meant to evoke some kind of loose version of reincarnation that is one of the story's main themes, but in practice, it comes off more like the most expensively assembled improv troupe of all time. ("OK, now you're in ... postapocalyptic Hawaii!")
It should be said at this point that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's decision to use all of this race-bending makeup was clearly made with an awareness that this could be a sensitive issue. Thankfully, no one is made up in blackface, but there are no prizes for meeting the bottom-most rung of decency in Hollywood.
But did they do any better than not using blackface? Let's take a look at how they executed their potentially controversial tricks.
If you've read anything about Cloud Atlas, you're probably pretty sick of seeing this word you're about see. I apologize for that; it's tough to get around. So, OK, one more time: From the get-go, the tag on this thing was that it was — all together now! — "unfilmable." Speculation about how in the hell David Mitchell's epic novel was going to be translated for the screen was launched with the largely incomprehensible, largely gorgeous trailer; was tempered when its directors, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, did a pretty endearing job of explaining their crazy ambition, in both video and New Yorker profile form; and reached a critical mass with the polarized reactions to its film festival screenings and reviews. But all that chatter hasn't seemed to help much. The flick, budgeted at around $100 million, opened this weekend to a paltry $9.4 million.
Much has been made of David Mitchell’s initial assessment that Cloud Atlas, his acclaimed time- and genre-hopping 2004 novel, was unfilmable. He could also have said, with equal confidence, that it was unrecordable.
Adapting Cloud Atlas to the screen presented directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski with challenges ranging from the practical (how to depict 19th-century Polynesia as convincingly as 22nd-century Korea; how to make Halle Berry look white) to the metaphysical (how to convey the everything-is-connected grandeur of it all). But the difficulty wasn’t just a question of re-creating Mitchell’s phantasmagorical images. One of the most daunting challenges concerned one crucial piece of music, which plays a central role in Mitchell’s novel. The task fell to the composing triumvirate of Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself, an accomplished pianist who has co-written the scores of most of his films.
Editor's note: David Mitchell's "unadaptable" novel Cloud Atlas comes to the big screen this week courtesy of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, and while the early word is mostly positive, the potential for a big-budget train wreck remains considerable. Regardless of what audiences make of it on Friday, it's one of the most ambitious projects in the last few years, and joins the pantheon of movies that everyone said couldn't be done — some of which proved them all wrong, and some of which, well ...
Lana and Andy Wachowski did one of those epic hero's-journey-of-the-entertainer profiles in The New Yorker this week, even though their next movie, an adaptation of David Mitchell's supposedly unfilmable novel Cloud Atlas, isn't out until October, and despite abundant evidence suggesting that getting your arc documented in The New Yorker on the eve of the release of some huge project is the quickest possible way to just hex the shit out of that project. Just ask Andrew Stanton, whammied with kindness by Tad Friend five months prior to the release of what turned out to be John Carter, if you can find the part of the desert he's buried in. Here, of course, the usual "Can this person who's waited his whole life for this one moment stick the landing in a way that somehow causes the clueless suits who doubted him to crash their car into a manure truck?" tension isn't the only draw. Lana and Andy were the most press-shy world-builders in this or any other alternate-timeline way back when Bill Clinton was president, bullet-time fight scenes were a novelty, and Lana was a man who went by Larry. So you're not only watching acclaimed fiction writer Aleksandar Hemon attempt to swag it out, acclaimed-fiction-writerishly, within the confines of one of magazine profile writing's genteelest genres — you're waiting for the moment, and it's coming, in which Lana makes a statement about how certain things should be private by saying the words "surgically constructed vagina" in The New Yorker.
Silver: Aside from some inevitable nudity, and as nice as it is to see Roller Girl back in the world of porn, is there really any reason to see this film? The entire story is laid out here in 2:14 (sans the “give me three guesses, and I bet you one of them is right” ending).
Browne: It wasn't the worst two-minute undergraduate film-class short I've ever seen, but it's definitely not the best.
For a work of fiction whose hydra-headed millennia-and-genre-hopping narrative begins at sea near 19th-century New Zealand and ends (um, spoiler alert, I guess, although the "end" in question happens around the halfway point) with a campfire story about man's final descent into barbarism in post-apocalyptic far-future Hawaii, David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is actually pretty easy to follow, and even enjoy. It's a page-turner that happens to be engineered like a particle accelerator; there are actual stories (and actual cliffhangers) within its tricky nesting-doll structure, as well as prose that riffs on Daniel Defoe, Martin Amis, and Philip K. Dick, but also Pelican Brief–era John Grisham, as if Mitchell were writing for the spinner rack in an interdimensional airport.
Starz has renewed Boss — a political drama starring Kelsey Grammer as a powerful Chicago mayor with a troublesome secret that could bring him down — for a second season even before its October 10 debut. In explaining the bold move, Starz president Chris Albrecht said, “With each episode, the story grew richer, and the cast continued to turn in breakthrough performances ... For our viewers, we felt it important to start working on the next season as soon as possible.” “Also, nobody really watches Starz, so we’re pretty confident the ratings bump from people mistakenly thinking they’re watching a Frasier rerun will be significant,” he did not add. Grade: B+ [HR]
Andy Rooney is quitting 60 Minutes! The indefatigable curmudgeon has been with the show since 1968, has been delivering his trademark rant-essays since 1978, and has appeared in over 1,000 broadcasts. The 92-year-old will officially announce his departure himself on this Sunday’s 60 Minutes, probably with a rant about people who make too big of a deal about Andy Rooney leaving 60 Minutes. We’ll miss you, buddy. Grade: A [HR]