Cloud Atlas

© 2012 Ray Wong

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is one of those critically acclaimed novels that are deemed to be unfilmable. Somehow, Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix series), together with Tom Tykwer (The International) manages to make a mostly-coherent epic out of it.

I won't even detail the plot, as the movie contains not one, not two, but six different stories with totally different characters. However, these stories and characters are linked not only by a clever story construct, but also by themes. In late 19th century, a trader named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is about to get into slave trade when he is poisoned by the ship doctor (Tom Hanks). In 1936, a young gay composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) becomes the protege of a famed composer, and it's at the older composer's house that Robert comes across the journals of Ewing.

In 1973, a young reporter (Halle Berry) gets a tip from a nuclear scientist Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) that something is wrong with the nuclear power plant owned by oilman Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). When Sixsmith was murdered, the reporter finds letters to Sixsmith left by Frobisher as well as a classical piece called Cloud Atlas composed by Frobisher. in 2012, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is forced into a nursing home where he plans an elaborate escape. Before then, he was about to publish a novel that details the nuclear plant incident.

In early 22nd century, a fabricant named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from her imminent fate by Agent Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess). In hiding, Sonmi-451 watches an old movie about Cavendish's adventures. In late 24th century and after "The Fall," Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his family are living in tribes when a visitor Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives. Zachry is inflicted with an inner demon that wants him to harm Meronym. When he takes Maronym to the abandoned city, they discover a message left by Sonmi-451…

The main ensemble cast portray many different characters in these six connected stories. Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne) gets to play Zachry, a scientist named Isaac Sachs, a hotel manager, among other characters. While Hanks is a good actor, the fact that his highly recognizable face is portraying these different characters -- some understated and some over the top -- is very distracting. The same is true with Halle Berry (New Year's Eve) whose two main roles are the reporter Louisa Rey and Meronym. As other characters, she too is very distracting.

Jim Broadbent (The Iron Lady) has a better job juggling between his different roles as he somehow manages to disappear in the characters. The same can be said for Hugh Grant (Music and Lyrics) who, with the help of make-up, does a good job portraying the many different characters. Jim Sturgess (One Day) should also be commended especially for playing Adam Ewing and -- with a race change -- Hae-Joo Chang. Doona Bae, in her English-speaking debut, is fantastic as Sonmi-451. She also gets to play some minor characters -- a Mexican woman comes to mind. Hugo Weaving (Happy Feet Two) is awesome as the devil, and a great comic relief as Nurse Noakes. However, he sticks out like a sore thumb with other minor characters, especially when he's playing Asians (the makeup simply doesn't work).

Tykwer and the Wachowskis have done a tremendous job deconstructing the novel and piecing everything together and give us an epic spanning over 400 years. At times, the intercutting stories seem disjointed and disorienting, and some of them seem irrelevant or too humorous to fit with the rest. Over all, however, they have done a good job maintaining a consistent tone, weaving the stories together with visual cues and thematic links. Through the use of a birthmark, the audience comes to realize that the characters that bear the same birthmark is the same soul that comes back again and again, to learn and to grow. Sometimes it fails (as in the case of Robert Frobisher), but sometimes it triumphs (such is the case with Adam Ewing or Sonmi-451).

They abandon the novel's challenging storytelling structure. Instead, they rely on a linear storytelling technique that weaves the six different stories together through artifacts from the previous story: Ewing's journal, Frobisher's Cloud Atlas and letters to Sixsmith, Cavendish's novel, a movie about Cavendish, and Sonmi's message to the world. Through these links, the filmmakers are able to help the audience understand the themes and the relations between these characters and stories.

I also understand their decision to use the same actors to make the various different roles. It is a challenge that doesn't always pay off. The fact is that these actors are not playing the same "soul" and that can be very disorienting. While it must have been fun for the actors to play, for the audience, it becomes very distracting. We start to wonder, for example, whether Tom Hanks is playing the same soul throughout the film, and then we find out that he's not. So we now question, why the heck is he playing these characters then, other than "it's fun for Tom Hanks"?

That said, Cloud Atlas is a cinematic achievement and I must give kudos for the filmmakers to at least attempt to adapt this impossible book into an epic movie that is wonderful to look at. The editing is fantastic, especially when we consider how challenging it must have been to piece all six stories and multiple characters together. That alone is a tremendous achievement, and technically Cloud Atlas is a marvel in many ways. 

Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Susan Sarandon
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writers: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski (based on novel by David Mitchell)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  R for violence, language, sexuality, nudity, and drug use
Running Time: 172 minutes 


Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 9
Production - 9

Total - 7.9 out of 10.0 

The Sessions

© 2012 Ray Wong

The Sessions is a small, independent comedy about a seemingly insignificant character named Mark. While the movie is marketed as a comedy centering on sex, the result is something totally unexpected.

Mark O'Brian (John Hawkes) was struck with Polio when he was six. Since then, he has survived the disease and lived to 38, but he is mostly confined in his bed, a gurney or inside an iron lung that helps him breathe. Mark is a writer, too, and he does it mostly by typing with his mouth (using the eraser tip of a long pencil). While doing an writing assignment on sex and the disables, Mark decides that it's time for him to experience one thing that he's resigned to never experience: losing his virginity to a woman.

With the blessing of his understanding priest Fr. Brendan (William H. Macy), soon Mark is connected to a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). The rules are clear: there will only be six sessions, and Cheryl is not a prostitute. Mark's condition proves to be more severe than Cheryl has anticipated -- even the less intimate acts such as fondling or touching can be painful and, worse, frightening to Mark. So Cheryl has to exert a lot of patience and tender, loving care while coaching Mark on one of life's most basic needs.

The plot doesn't stop there, but I will leave it to you to discover. The premise, however, is hilarious and the actors deliver with gusto. John Hawkes (Winter's Bones) transfers himself physically and mentally to portray a severely handicapped man who has been bed-ridden most of his life. And yet Mark is far from being self-loathing. Instead, Mark is witty, gentle, loving, and full of grand ideas and curiosity. Hawkes does a terrific job bring this character to life, even though he hardly moves a muscle except his face.

Helen Hunt (Then She Found Me) also turns in a fantastic performance as the sex surrogate. It is not an easy role to play, which calls for confidence and strong sense of self and care for other people. Hunt successfully plays a woman who starts to blur the line between her professional (and hidden) life and her private family life. Hawkes and Hunt have great chemistry together and that makes their interactions and relationship more hilarious and heart-felt.

The small supporting cast is remarkable as well. William H. Macy (The Lincoln Lawyer) helps inject a healthy dose of humor as Father Brendan, who has to listen to Mark's sexual encounters and condone, basically, prostitute for the good of his fellow man. Moon Bloodgood (Conception) sheds her gorgeous appearance to play Mark's humble assistant, and her subtle performance is wonderful. Adam Arkin (Summer Eleven) plays Cheryl's supportive but jealous husband with great humility. In fact, the whole cast displays such great humility and wit that we can't help but fall in love with these characters -- all of them. They are all so human, and yet so special.

Written and directed by Ben Lewin (Touch by an Angel) who is a Polio survivor himself, the screenplay is based on real-life hero Mark O'Brian's experience, which he described in one of his writings. After almost 10 years out of the public life, Lewin has reemerged with this greatly personal, intimate story. The subject matter is sensitive, and in the wrong hands, it could have turned out to be a farce. But Lewin has put a lot of care into developing the characters and plot that what appears to be an easy laugh or two turns out to be amazingly sensitive and poignant. I was blown away by how touching the story and relationships between these character became.

Of course, there are still laughs. It is an interesting, embarrassing and funny matter, and Lewin doesn't shy away from the awkward details, down to the clinical descriptions and physical acts of sex. It makes me uncomfortable watching Hunt and Hawkes getting it on, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for the actors. Remarkably what comes across on the screen is something genuine, affecting, and beautifully acted and rendered.

Like I said, I didn't expect to go into a comedy and find myself sobbing by the third act. But that's what I did. In a matter of 90 minutes, I have fallen in love with these characters and grown a tremendous respect for Mark O'Brian (even though all he wanted to do was have sex -- well, was that all?) and the actors who play Mark, Cheryl, Vera and Josh… (and it was great listening to Hawkes, Hunt and Macy talk about their experiences with the film after the screening). Did the movie change my life? Hardly. But it has affected me deeply nonetheless, and I think come this Award season, it and everyone involved will be rewarded.

Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin
Director: Ben Lewin
Writer: Ben Lewin (based on article by Mark O'Brian)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating:  R for strong sexuality, nudity and frank language
Running Time: 95 minutes 


Script - 8
Performance - 10
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 8

Total - 8.3 out of 10.0 


© 2012 Ray Wong

As a member of the SAG Award Nomination Committee, I was fortunate to attend a special screening of Argo with a follow-up Q&A session with director-star Ben Affleck and the rest of the cast.

Set at the end of 1979 over a period of over 144 days, Argo chronicles the secret rescue of six American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis. During the uprising, the diplomats including Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) and Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall) escape. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and his wife take a great risk by harboring them. But their time is running out -- the hostage situation has not been resolved, and the Iranians have realized the missing Americans and are in search for them.

CIA Agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan to get the Americans out of Iran. The plan, by it self, is ludicrous, but it's the best possible plan the CIA has come up with. Mendez will pose as an Canadian filmmaker trying to make a movie and scouting locations in Iran, and he will attempt to leave the country with the Americans as his crew.

The plan calls for Mendez to personally risk his own life. Succeed or fail, nobody will ever know about this, so Mendez only does it for the love of his country and countrymen, and not for glory or fame or anything else. And he has to do it alone. Well, not completely. In order to pull it off, he will need to make the operation as realistic as possible, and he enlists the help from his friend, famed makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).

Ben Affleck (The Town) has definitely matured as an actor (more on his ability as a director later). As is, he does a good job portraying the stoic and contemplative CIA agent. Still, I find him somewhat miscast -- he is too good-looking a movie star to pull off playing a covert operative (let alone the real guy isn't a white guy). It's okay for the director to star in his own movie, but the role must fit. In this case, I am not too convinced.

That said, the cast in general is superb. Bryan Cranston (Rock of Ages) is fantastic as Mendez's boss. He just comes across as someone you can trust, who, despite his ruthlessness and harsh opinions, would have your back no matter what. Alan Arkin (The Muppets) is hilariously brutish (and refreshingly honest) as the producer. John Goodman (Trouble with the Curve) is spectacular as Chambers -- playing a real, famous person like John Chambers is a challenge in itself, and Goodman does a great job with it. He and Arkin make a great comedic team, and help add dashes of humor to an otherwise tense thriller. The superb cast also include the always-solid Victor Garber (Take Me Home) as the good-hearted Canadian Ambassador, Tate Donovan (Below the Beltway) and Clea DuVall (Conviction) as two of the Americans.

Written by Chris Terrio (Heights), and based on an article by Joshuah Bearman, the screenplay is taut and fast-paced. It starts with a prologue that sounds somewhat heavy-handed but does give a solid historical background of the crisis. Terrio also succeeds in injecting humor, mostly through the characters of Chambers and Siegel and by poking fun at Hollywood. The rest follows a taut thriller arc. The character are generally larger than life, and even the smaller characters seem three-dimensional. The dialogue is terse and to the point. The plot clips along at a brisk pace. I can't remember any major plot holes, even though some of the situations seem rather outlandish. The risks these people take are nerve-racking, and that's why the thrills work.

Director Affleck has blossomed as a filmmaker. He has made a few fascinating films such as Gone Baby Gone and The Town. He continues his streak with Argo which may very well give him his first Oscar nomination as a director. The pacing is superb. The suspense is amazing -- I was at the edge of my seat throughout the entire movie, even during the witty moments. The tension near the end was palpable, even though we know they have all gotten out (we know our history). The production is handsome and true to the era and material.

Despite my trepidation of Affleck being in the lead role, I am truly impressed with the production, the writing, and the acting. Argo is a fantastic political thriller. And smart, too. The facts and historical details (albeit the requisite creative licenses, of course -- this is, after all, a drama/thriller, not a documentary) add tremendously to the authenticity and gravity of the story. So, yeah, Argo see it!

Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Chris Terrio (based on article by Joshuah Bearman)
Distributor: Warner Bros
MPAA Rating:  R for language and some violent images
Running Time: 120 minutes 


Script - 8
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8

Total - 7.9 out of 10.0 

Pitch Perfect

© 2012 Ray Wong

Pitch Perfect

The pitch for Pitch Perfect is rather straightforward: High School Musical or Glee set in college. Of course, there is no such thing as original idea anymore; it all depends on the execution. In that regard, Pitch Perfect is just about average.

Beca (Ann Kendrick) is a Freshman at Barden College, at which her father teaches as a professor. She reluctantly enrolls so her father will bankroll her dream to move to LA later to become a music producer. And reluctantly she joins an all-girl a cappella group called Bella, run by two perky upperclassmen named Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp). Desperate to regroup after a disastrous season at the national championship finals, Chloe and Aubrey recruit a group of misfits including independent Bella, outgoing Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), sexpot Stacey (Alexis Knapp), and mousy Lilly (Hana Mae Lee).

At first, Beca does not really care -- she is just buying her time so she can get out and move to LA. But then she gets attached to her mates. Furthermore, she has met fellow Freshman and singer Jesse (Skylar Astin), a preppy guy who is earnest to a fault. Beca can't be more different than any of them, but somehow she finds herself fitting in. In fact, she starts to really enjoy herself in the competitions, and realizes she can use her musical talent to help her teammates.

However, Aubrey runs the group with a tight fist. She is so strung out about making it to the finals that she won't listen to any advice. Competing against the all-boy group The Troublemakers, headlined by cocky Bumper (Adam DeVine), Bella is in disarray. Beca must decide to stay and be humiliated publicly, or leave her friends behind.

Anna Kendrick (End of Watch) got her big break playing a rookie in George Clooney's Up in the Air. As a quirky, indifferent college Freshman, she is cute yet detached, smart but quiet. Yet she's not too quiet to disappear in her role. Still, at one point I'd like for her to be tougher -- even though she is a free spirit, she appears to be rather passive, often in the background. Skylar Astin (Taking Woodstock) is sweet and charming as Jesse -- perhaps a little too sweet and earnest.

Adam DeVine (TRON: Uprising) is good at being cocky and obnoxious, but in a funny way. Brittany Snow (Petunia) is perky as friendly Chloe, and Anna Camp (The Help) is perfectly stuck up as Aubrey. The standout is Rebel Wilson (Struck by Lightning) as outragoues, uncensored Fat Amy.

Written by Kay Cannon (30 Rock) and Mickey Rapkin, the screenplay follows a rather standard arc: we meet the heroine and hero, then we meet the cast of oddball characters, and then we put them in various situations and make fun of them. Some of the scenes are quite funny, thanks to the talented actors. The jokes can be a bit sophomoric and tiresome (how much can we laugh at vomiting, really?) Still, the energetic cast and the cheery tone of the story help lift the movie to become entertaining. There is a certain feel-good quality to it that you can't help but root for the characters, even though a lot of it is cliched and predictable.

Jason Moore (Brothers & Sisters) comes from TV, and at times it shows in his direction. Over all, it is a tight ship and the pacing is good. At times, though, you feel the energy slacking and some of the production values not up to par. The movie feels uneven at times. Still, Moore is able to capture the youthful gleefulness and the friendships that are so unique in the college setting. The musical numbers are catchy and generally well thought out, with a few exceptions.

The trailers of Pitch Perfect were hilarious. So in a way I feel that the actual movie doesn't quite live up to the promise. Yet it is still entertaining, and the actors all pitch in to make it a fun time. It's in no way pitch perfect, but it's a decent diversion.

Stars: Ann Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee
Director: Jason Moore
Writer: Kay Cannon, Mickey Rapkin
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for sexual material, language, and drug references
Running Time: 112 minutes 


Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0