The Rubik’s cubism of ‘Cloud Atlas’

Gnarly narratives in Cloud Atlas, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, Chasing Mavericks, and The Sessions

by Brian D. Johnson

Tom Hanks as Zachry and Halle Berry as Meronym in 'Cloud Atlas' / courtesy Warner Bros.

If you go to the movies to get a rush of head-spinning complexity, you’re in luck this weekend. For puzzle fans, we’ve got intricate thrillers from opposite ends of the art/trash spectrum.  Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 bestseller, Cloud Atlas presents a rare anomaly for a studio picture: it’s an experimental blockbuster.  Directed by a trinity of genre stylists (Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer), this epic extravaganza boasts an all-star cast that includes four Oscar winners—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Susan Sarandon—who commute across a maze of six interlocking storylines spanning five centuries. This being Hallowe’en weekend, we also have the mandatory fright night sequel, Silent Hill: 3D Revelation, a beautifully art-directed yet barely comprehensible warehouse sale of horror clichés. For those who prefer simpler pleasures, the week’s new releases also include a surf drama (Chasing Mavericks) and a charming chamber piece about a man in an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate to cure his virginity (The Sessions).

Cloud Atlas

An “un-filmable” book beckons filmmakers the way Everest beckons mountaineers. Cloud Atlas is one of those books. Tackling Mitchell’s novel required splitting the expedition between two teams: Tykwer directed the episodes set in 1849, 2144 and the post-apocalyptic 24th century; the Wachowski siblings directed those set in 1936, 1973 and 2012.

Zhu Zhu (centre) as 12th Star Clone in 'Cloud Atlas' / courtesy Warner Bros.

There is such a thing as too much plot. And as the Cloud Atlas somersaults through time and space, it seems there little else but plot. This movie may set a Guiness record for narrative density. In brief, here are the six scenarios: in 1849 a San Francisco attorney (Jim Sturgess) sailing home from the South Pacific finds a runaway slave stowed away in his cabin; in 1936 a young composer (Ben Wishaw) leaves his gay lover to apprentice with a cantankerous master (Jim Broadbent) in Scotland; in 1973 a San Francisco journalist (Halle Berry) enlists an elderly physicist (Hanks) to help her investigate a corrupt nuclear power plant executive (Hugh Grant); in the present day, a small-time publisher (Broadbent) gets dragged into a dangerous intrigue after a book by a shady author (Hanks) makes a ton of money; and finally in a dystopian sci-fi story set in 2144 Seoul, a clone who works as a waitress becomes enmeshed in an insurrection to overthrow a totalitarian state.

And that doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In the novel, the stories are laid out in linear fashion, but the film mixes them into a mosaic, or rather a Rubik’s Cube. The movie’s tagline is “everything is connected.” No kidding. Characters in different stories are linked through past lives, and a comet-shaped birthmark, as the actors multitask across myriad storylines, playing up to half a dozen roles each. The narrative puzzle assembles itself like a manic Transformer. This is plot as a special effect, storytelling designed to dazzle. But it’s too clever by half. The film is too enamoured with the symmetry of its own construction, while many of its elements have the hollow ring of genre pastiche.The post-apocalyptic forest scenes with Hanks and Berry, speaking an arcane dialect, could be taking place on Avatar‘s Pandora. Scenes of the totalitarian future could be outtakes from the Matrix.

At first it’s all very confusing; then all too clear. Yes, Cloud Atlas is massively ambitious, and impressive. But as it labours to clarify its own confusion, mapping every last nook of narrative space, any sense of real mystery is obliterated by platitudes about freedom. The only “why” we’re left to ask is: why even try to adapt the book? Which takes us back to Everest: because it’s there.

Adelaide Clemens in 'Silent Hill: Revelation 3D'

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D

Viewer discretion is advised. Silent Hill: Revelation 3D contains: gore, amputation, decapitation, impalings with rusty swords, creepy children, creepy old folks, creepy stuffed animals, mannequins, clowns, zombies, ghosts, peeling paint, rotting walls, rotting flesh, sewn-up faces, clanking chains, derelict bed frames, dead goldfish, infernal midway rides, insidious fog—and not enough female nudity to satisfy guys who come looking for it.

Based on the Japanese video game franchise by Konami, this sequel to 2006′s Silent Hill is a seriously crowded museum of the macabre. The story doesn’t make much sense, and even lacks the logical rigour of a video game. But as the characters freefall through this warehouse of horrors, being terrified by one damn thing after another, narrative coherence is not the name of the game. So forgive me if I don’t pay lip service to plot summary.

Written and directed by Michael J. Bassett, and shot in Toronto, this Silent Hill sequel comes from the producers behind the thriving Resident Evil franchise, which also calls Toronto home. I don’t see enough of this genre to make me any kind of authority. But I have to say I was impressed by the film’s production values and visual panache. Between the Rembrandt burnish of the cinematography and the antique-store detail of the design, ugliness has never looked so pretty.

Also, rising star Adelaide Clements (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), who looks like a young Michelle Williams, more than holds her own as the film’s teenage heroine, a role that places her at the centre of virtually every scene. And she’s supported by an over-qualified cast that includes Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) as her father, plus Deborah Kara Unger, Carrie-Ann Moss and Malcolm McDowell.

Chasing Mavericks

The great surf movie remains as elusive as the perfect wave. The best I’ve seen is Stacey Perlata’s 2004 documentary Riding Giants, which struck a fine balance between breathtaking surf footage and engaging

Gerard Butler (left) and Jonny Weston in 'Chasing Mavericks' / courtesy 20th Century Fox

characters. One of the episodes in that documentary concerned a notorious California break called Mavericks on the California coast near Santa Cruz. Chasing Mavericks is a dramatic feature based on the true story of Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston), a legendary surfer who decides, at 15, to tackle the monster waves at Mavericks, and persuades veteran Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) to train him.

The movie comes from a two established directors, Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough), and the cast includes Oscar nominee Elizabeth Shue, who shows glimmers of her Leaving Las Vegas persona in the role of Jay’s negligent mother. But there’s only one reason to see it: the surfing.

The surf footage is astounding, especially at the climax of  the story’s Karate Kid quest. But the story itself lacks juice. The movie seems designed purely as an inspirational monument to its young hero, and it comes across as hagiography. There are attempts to goose the script with a couple of classic teen movie elements—from Jay’s romance with his childhood sweetheart to the bullying he endures at the hands of some jack-ass rivals. But both subplots fizzle. Meanwhile the surrogate father-son drama between Frosty and Jay becomes cloying, as Frosty leads his apprentice through a boot camp that ranges from tortuous essay writing to confronting the absence of his dad.

There’s plenty of poetry in surfing, but it’s often better left un-verbalized, especially when it produces  lines like “you want to slay a giant, you need a sacred spear.” Or, there are “four pillars” to surfing: “physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.” Hey dude, sometimes a surfboard is just a surfboard.

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in 'The Sessions' / Courtesy Fox Searchlight

The Sessions

This is another true story aglow with inspirational sentiment, but fortunately it’s undercut by an irreverent sense of humour. The film is based on the autobiography of California journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who spent most of his life in an iron lung, crippled by childhood polio. O’Brien decides, at 38, to end his virginity, and after consulting with his free-thinking priest (William H. Macy), he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), who agrees to administer half a dozen sessions (that’s her limit). Basing his script on O’Brien’s writings, including his 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” director Ben Lewin taps a rich vein of confessional wit. The film occasionally threatens to veer into cute self-satisfaction, but superb acting from the strangely charismatic Hawkes (A Winter’s Bone) keeps on track. His character feels utterly authentic. Meanwhile, as his almost painfully wholesome sex therapist, Hunt brings a breezy, matter-of-fact cheer to scenes that require her to begin virtually every scene by getting buck naked—for a 48-year-old actress, that’s usually called “courageous.” This is a small film with a crack cast that elevates it beyond the banality of a movie-of-the week. It’s a possible dark horse candidate for Oscar recognition, given its perfect storm of sex, disability and quirky wit.

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