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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Cloud Atlas (review)

Cloud Atlas Tom Hanks Halle Berry green light

I’m “biast” (pro): the trailer thrilled and enticed me

I’m “biast” (con): worried, based on that trailer, that the film’s apparent ambition might be too much for a single film

I have not read the source material (though I plan to now)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It opens in the same way that, most likely, the very first story told for entertainment began, 100,000 years ago: with an elderly person wizened by wisdom speaking to an audience gathered round a campfire. I didn’t realize till Cloud Atlas was finished, a rousing and astonishingly quick three hours later, how thrilling an opening that is. For this is a meta story, an uber story: it’s a story about story. It’s a story about why we tell one another stories — about how we almost can’t not tell stories — and what stories mean to us, and how they affect us.

To say that this is an idea, entirely separate from this film, that consumes me is an understatement. It’s been the underlying thesis of my criticism from its inception. It is the thing that drives everything I think about when I think about storytelling. I recently figured out that being a movie geek and a TV geek and a book geek means that I am, in fact, a story geek. And that epiphany came only a nanosecond — compared to the scale of my life — before I saw Cloud Atlas. If this were a story, there would be great significance in such a seeming coincidence.

And maybe there will be some significance that I cannot even conceive of now. Cloud Atlas suggests there could be, at least potentially, especially since I’ve now written that down! For this isn’t a story merely about stories, but about how our lives are stories and those stories have a legacy that we cannot begin to imagine as we are living those stories or even when those stories are first retold. It’s bonkers how far across time and across the planet this insanely grand matrix of interconnected tales ranges, from 1849 to 1936 to 1973 to 2012 to 2144 to a future so distant and removed from our continuity of civilization — “106 years after the Fall” — that they no longer count on the same scale we do; from Cambridge to San Francisco to the middle of the widest ocean to locations unknown to us because even those who live there have forgotten what they were once called. The interconnections all come via stories told in diaries and novels and letters and manuscripts and movies and testimonies and even a symphony (which is a kind of story) passed down through time. The tales are in themselves gripping because they are all about the Big Important Things: truth and legend, love and betrayal, freedom and slavery. A lawyer on a sea voyage bearing a vital contract home becomes ill at sea; a journalist uncovers corporate malfeasance and becomes a target; a wannabe composer working with a renowned mentor believes he can surpass his boss’s genius; a once content slave worker in a dystopic future awakens to her plight and rebels. (That’s not an exhaustive list of the individual threads here.) But only we see how the past inspires the future via a narrative heritage inherited by the present. Well, no, that’s not quite true: of course the composer in 1936 knows he’s inexplicably gripped by the diary of the 1849 lawyer, who sees truths about the lawyer’s situation that the lawyer himself cannot see; of course the 1973 journalist knows she’s inexplicably gripped by the now faded and fragile romantic letters of the composer to his lover. But only we see the chain of inspiration that continues across countless generations, how the often seemingly mundane events of one life can nudge great things to happen in another.

Only we see a more tenuous connection that could, if you’re so inclined, be called the persistence of individual souls, or could be a “mere” fantastical expression of the metaphor of connection and continuity, simple human unity, and philosophical and biological succession (though there’s nothing insignificant about any of that, even if they’re also nothing supernatural). For a handful of actors play different characters across space and time, often intersecting in different ways than their apparent distant relations did. Tom Hanks (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Larry Crowne) and Halle Berry (New Year’s Eve, Perfect Stranger), together again and reconnecting again over and over across human history, are an especial treat to watch, with their unexpected charm and chemistry together. (He’s always been charming; she’s so much more engaging, in his presence, than she often is in other films.) But the whole cast is entirely enthralling, over and over again, sometimes changing race and gender: Ben Whishaw (The Tempest, Bright Star), Jim Broadbent (Arthur Christmas, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), Hugo Weaving (Happy Feet Two, Captain America: The First Avenger), Doona Bae, and Jim Sturgess (One Day, 21) in major roles; Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Hugh Grant (The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, American Dreamz), and James D’Arcy (Mansfield Park, An American Haunting) in smaller but still vital ones. (Sturgess is the other real standout, with a recurring magnetism across radically different roles — he goes from steam-age costume drama to sci-fi action here — and I hope this heralds the stardom for him I’ve been anticipating since I was first taken with him onscreen in Across the Universe) These are wonderful actors — and makeup artists! — giving multifaceted tour-de-force performances.

As we watch these oh-so-human people, their stories past present and future interacting with and feeding upon one another, something else extraordinary happens: Cloud Atlas ends up replicating the sort of experience we today have as we sit before our storytelling campfire of the television. Though it may sound contradictory, watching this wholly winning and completely cohesive movie is like flipping around the TV and happening upon all the Good Bits from half a dozen different and hugely awesome movies with each change of channel. Every sort of story is here: SF drama, postapocalyptic action, codger comedy, twee British romance, historical mystery, 70s conspiracy thriller. And we’re getting the highlights of funny, exciting, affecting examples of the various genres, the important scenes in which people learn fundamental truths about themselves and the world and are rocked by them and choose to act on them, for better or worse. Tom Tykwer (The International, Run Lola Run) and the sibling team of Lana and Andy Wachowski (Speed Racer, The Matrix Revolutions) may have separately adapted (from David Mitchell’s novel) and directed the separate temporally dispersed tales, but those distinct stories come together in a way that sneakily injects itself directly into our media-savvy minds. Our stories today, the really influential ones that have real cultural impact and that create our cultural context, are ones that have started in film and reinforced their hegemony in our minds via repeated exposure on the small screen. Or they originated on TV in the first place. (There’s one funny — funny-strange and funny-haha — tendril of connection that sees a pop-culture joke of today become reality in the future.) In some ways, too, then, Cloud Atlas is about how we tell ourselves stories right at this precise moment of human history.

My god, I love this movie. It’s every movie. It’s the ultimate movie. There’s a line from another movie that I love but can’t quite place at the moment, but it kept ringing through my mind as I watched this film: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” I refuse to Google it*, because it doesn’t matter: it’s from a story that’s like the kinds of stories Cloud Atlas is about. It could be about this movie, and that’s all that matters.

*Of course I Googled it: it’s from Gladiator.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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Cloud Atlas (2012)
US/Can release: Oct 26 2012
UK/Ire release: Feb 22 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated AMAO: it’s all movies all at once
MPAA: rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language, once very strong, strong violence and sex)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Kind of a relief to hear that this is worth seeing after all.

    I met David Mitchell in the town in which my parents live, many years ago. He was just about to move to Ireland. By chance three of us, all with Japanese wives, met in the garden of a house in this British country town so somnolent that it snored. Our host had tried to write a Boudicca screenplay, but was beaten to the punch by Alex Kingston’s vehicle. I had long ago written Fighting Fantasy books, a series which it turns out David Mitchell had read when he was younger. And he was working on his second novel after the publication of Ghostwritten. He took the time to tell me about Ghostwritten, about the connections between a set of different narratives (it seemed ambitious at the time, and it still is, though perhaps not compared to Cloud Atlas).

    When I returned to Japan I discovered that my film-maker friend John Williams had been talking to David Mitchell’s agent to try to get permission to film his work (sadly, nothing came of it).

    So those chance connections that are such a big thing about Cloud Atlas — they’re true. His wife has the same name as mine. And of course he shares a name with a very popular British comedian. Maybe it’s just around David Mitchell that this sort of thing happens? In any case, I believe in Cloud Atlas and I won’t hear a word said about the ‘coincidences’ which drive it, because my experience of David Mitchell is that he is a walking synchronicity field.

    I suspect that reading the book will still be a great experience after the film, because the book has such dazzling style and tricks (the journalist plot is quite evidently ‘fiction,’ by the way, so Mitchell is making the very point you make here: that our existence consists of inhabiting stories).

    After finishing reading Cloud Atlas I recommend you give The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a spin. Rollicking adventure set in historical Japan, but with plenty of profundity in the mix.

  • Isobel_A

    Oh, I’m so glad this is good.  Cloud Atlas is one of my favourite books of all time, and I was very worried this film wouldn’t live up to it.

  • Any thoughts on the yellowface issue, MaryAnn? (I haven’t read the book nor seen the film.)

  • Sarah Thomas

    “What we do in life echoes in eternity” is from Gladiator.

  • So glad to hear this is worthwhile.  I hated The Matrix so passionately that I never saw another Matrix movie after that.  This movie looks great and has very interesting casting, but it’s so hard to tell if it’s going to work or not.  I was also curious that I hadn’t remembered hearing of the book, but it turns out Jim had bought it a while ago, and I plan to read it next.

  • MisterAntrobus

    Not sure I’d want to judge based on a few promo images out of context. I have not seen the film yet either, but the complex weave of this story seems to require some continuity of the actors between the different threads, despite the different times/places, so I’m hesitant to judge the “what” without understanding the “why.” I understand the position of the blogger you’re referencing, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. On the surface, it appears to be nowhere near as egregiously inappropriate as, say, casting Johnny Depp as an Apache. The proof shall be in the pudding, though.

  • Johnny Depp does have Native American ancestry.

  • The history of yellowface in Hollywood is a problem, without question. But I don’t think it’s an issue here. First of all, this is not a Hollywood film. Second, one of the inescapably vital points of the novel and of the story onscreen is that it’s the same souls — either figuratively or literally — meeting again and again across time, and the easiest and probably best way to represent that is to have the same actor play multiple parts, even when race (and gender) change in each individual incarnation. I don’t see how else to represent that onscreen except by having actors in makeup. Most importantly, perhaps, nonwhite actors here wear makeup in order to play white characters.

  • Yup, as I noted right at the end. :->

  • LaSargenta

    He has said he “thinks” he does. There are other already-known-to-casting-agents native actors out there…

  • Plastixxman

    “what we do echoes in eternity..”  spoken by Maximus Decidbus Baridius (Russle Crowe) in Gladiator. yes that was a great film…

  • MaryAnn, I have been eagerly anticipating this movie since I am a fan of the book, and I have read quite a few reviews. The negative reviewers seem simply too cynical to embrace the conceit of this film: boundless, unapologetic optimism about the human condition. But even among the positive reviews, few could articulate why the movie DOES work. You absolutely nailed it. This is a celebration of storytelling. It might be messy, but it won’t fail due to a lack of ambition. If anyone was on the fence about why this film was worth seeing, your review should be their answer.

  • Second, one of the inescapably vital points of the novel and of the story onscreen is that it’s the same souls,

    I realise it’s important in the film, but I wouldn’t say it’s inescapably so in the novel.

  • Isobel_A

    One of the comments on the blog Bluejay linked to made a good point – the book uses a birthmark to link characters across each story and time, the film could have done the same.  There isn’t any actual need for the same actor to play all versions of the characters.

  • Isobel_A

    As I mentioned upthread, it’s done in the book by a pineapple shaped birthmark.  The film could have used the same conceit.

    But, I’ve not seen the film yet so will withold judgement until then.

  • teenygozer

     I think it’s an issue here as the history of yellowface isn’t just a Hollywood history, it’s the history of film in the West.  Off the top of my head:  The Talons of Weng Chiang (Tom Baker episode of Dr. Who) has a white British guy playing Weng Chiang, with hideously bad yellowface makeup.  The guys with no lines behind him are real Asian people, so obviously there are and were actual Asian people vying for roles back then-how sad all they could find was jobs as set-dressing.  Likewise any given episode of The Avengers (1960’s TV show) with an Asian person in it who isn’t a minor character.  That was then, but this is now: if you want to see a modern-day white British guy with hideously bad yellowface makeup, check out Hugo Weaving in Cloud Witness on the site Bluejay linked to.

    If you want to do a “same soul” thing, hire actors with physical similarities (height, similar body morphology) and do something clever to tell your audience it’s the same person: a birthmark, a physical gesture, a through-line of dialogue, a preference for a certain thing or article of clothing, a fade-in from one face to another.  People who don’t get it are the same people it wouldn’t matter to even if the same person played the role.

    Why is yellowface so much more socially acceptable than blackface?  Is it because Asian people have been so polite for years about disliking it?  Check out George Takei’s autobiography when he says he was initially really enthused about playing Alec Guiness’ son in a movie and only got angry when he saw how snake-like and evil Guiness looked and how insultingly he played the role of Japanese business man.  Is it because the history of blackface is so much crueller?  Yellowface is about denying Asian people plum roles in portraying themselves because only white people can open a movie, and not so much about going out of your way to hate on Asian people–Charlie Chan is a fine man to be looked up to, the smartest person in the room, a genius on the order of Sherlock Holmes.  How sad he’s played by a series of white guys.

  • teenygozer

     As Chelsea Handler says with deadpan irony: “Aren’t we *all* one-sixteenth Cherokee?” 

    She was mocking the show-runners on The Bachelor when they defended themselves against criticism that they had never had a person of color star as The Bachelor when they said one of their guys was one-sixteenth Cherokee.  It’s a weeny defense, and even if Depp has a teensy bit of  native DNA to him (he wasn’t even sure when asked about it), he has never lived as anything other than a full-blown, privileged white man.  He likes to hide who his is behind a ton of thick stage makeup, complicated and silly outfits, and facial appliances, so the fit of the role probably seemed good to him.

  • But in a movie that would have been even more easily missed than it was in the book (where I missed it) unless it was foregrounded in a really heavy-handed way. As it is, they save on actor’s wages as well…

  • I remember the sense of anger I felt when I discovered that David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu was originally supposed to be played by Bruce Lee. That’s one of the most egregious examples of yellowface I can remember.

    But it is a complex topic. For example, I found Takei’s own bit of yellowface in Heroes to be rather embarrassing.

    Huh? Yellowface? You say.

    Well, sort of. The thing is, Takei is very far from native competence at Japanese (not as far as James Kyson, but way short of Masi Oka).

    Ah, but that’s cultural not racial, you say.

    Well yes, but…

    The same excuses which can be offered for casting Takei (and Kyson) in Heroes can be telescoped and trotted out in the other cases. ‘Actors are always pretending…’

    Just for the record, I liked both Takei and Kyson in Heroes, apart from the niggle with the Japanese.

    In the case of ‘Weng Chiang’, might not one justification for him not being played by a Chinese actor be that he was actually Magnus Greel, and not Chinese?

  • Rob

    Having read the book, I can’t imagine the birthmark having worked at all, in a cinematic context. One of the main reasons I always thought the book couldn’t be made into a film is because the thematic and literal links between the various stories are often so very subtle–so subtle many of them went over my head. Once I heard that they were using the same actors in the various stories, that’s when I thought, “Huh, *that* could work,” because it allows viewers to see an arc unfold between each actor’s various characters, which adds a whole other dimension to it.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    They could have tried the birthmark. Or one of the other methods teenygozer suggested. But the fact is film is a visual medium, first and foremost. Short of putting a birthmark on everyone’s face, the simplest and most effective means to express this idea of reincarnated souls is to have the same actors play roles.

    The smart thing, the sensitive thing, to have done would to have been to simply abandon the Korea sequence (or at least alter the setting) and then to have been very upfront about the reasoning: “Look, we wanted to stay as true to the novel as we could. But the sequence in Korea was a problem. We couldn’t think of a way to continue to convey the theme of reincarnation, except to put the actors in yellowface. And that just seemed like a monumentally bad idea.”

    They chose fidelity to the source material over cultural sensitivity.

    ETA: Alternatively, Jim Sturgess’ roles could have been played by an Asian actor in makeup to look Caucasian. But frankly, that would have raised plenty of hackles as well, some in the same people as the current version does.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    You might be stretching the definition of yellowface a little far here. As I recall,  Mandarin-speaking viewers of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon reportedly found Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh’s Cantonese accents distracting. Would you call that yellowface? Or would you say London-born Jamaican Delroy Lindo was in blackface when he played a Congolese general? ( Stop. Eating. My Sesame. Cake!

  • I’m saying that the phenomena of blackface and yellowface exist on a spectrum, and on that spectrum we can also place the examples you give above, as well as Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon or similar. What makes the issue difficult is that ‘culture’ shades into ‘ethnicity’ shades into ‘race’. These are all highly ambiguous terms.

    To add to your examples: Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. He was brilliant, but he’s American, not Ugandan. I don’t know what his ancestry is, though he is a Igbo chief in Nigeria, so his connections seem to be West Africa not East. Why do we feel he’s qualified to play a Ugandan? Is it just the colour of his skin? Well, no. It’s because he’s a great actor. You see the point I’m making? We have a profession based on pretending to be somebody other than the person really is. Do we erect absolute barriers (eg men must never portray women, blackface and yellowface are out) at certain points? Or do we make our judgments based on how well the portrayal works (so Dick van Dyke gets the thumbs down in Mary Poppins, while James Marsters gets away with it in Buffy)?

  • Isobel_A

    I see where you’re coming from, but I hadn’t realised prior to this that the film was using actors in yellowface.  It hadn’t occurred to me, in considering how they would film the book, that it would be necessary.  The book seemed to very clearly link the stories, and all it would take was one shot of the new character, displaying the birthmark, to put the point across.

    I dunno.  It’s made me not want to see this film.  

    On the one hand, I really want to support a film like this, that appears to be very very good, and isn’t Hollywood, and takes on a completely different sort of story.  

    On the other hand and for me personally, dressing white actors up as other races is never acceptable.  Ever.  There’s no excuse that doesn’t make my skin crawl, and there are other ways of being true to the source material.

  • Isobel_A

    Eh, I dunno.  I didn’t find the links between the stories particularly subtle, I thought they were quite clearly drawn. But then, I have a English Lit degree and so I suppose I’ve been taught to pay more attention to that sort of thing.

    The yellowface just makes me horribly uncomfortable and has completely taken the shine off the idea of the film for me, to the point where I’m not really even interested in why they did it.

  • Isobel_A

    Heh – quick comment on James Marsters.  As a British person, let me tell you his accent was absolutely frakking terrible, especially the first series when I often literally cringed.  But I forgive him, because he was/is otherwise wonderful.

    Buffy was often guilty of having characters speak American with bad English accents. Only the accent was changed, and not grammar or idiom.

  • I’m British, so I can make my own mind up about James Marsters’s accent.

    I forgave him, because he was wonderful.

  • Isobel_A

    I didn’t realise you were also British.  It’s just I’m often told by Americans that his accent was good, and I hadn’t before met an English/British person who agreed.

    But he’s definitely wonderful.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    [ETA: I feel like I should apologize to you,, Paul, if there’s an accusatory tone to this post. I don’t intend to accuse you of anything.]

    I’m saying that the phenomena of blackface and yellowface exist on a spectrum

    Sure, but if the spectrum gets too broad, then it loses any potential impact. And when you have to go to lengths to explain that, yes, this really is an example, I swear, you’re also not doing either yourself, or the idea any favors. Calling it yellowface when they cast John Wayne as Ghengis Khan makes sense, because it’s both stupid and harmful. Calling it yellowface because you don’t find George Takei, a Japanese man playing a Japanese character, to sound like a native speaker of Japanese… well, I really don’t see your point, other than to say that either a) you just don’t care for George Takei and wish they’d cast someone else (which is fine, but just say so, no need to claim racism); b) you’re personally really hung up on accents (also fine, still not an issue of racism); or c) you’re trying to impress everyone with your “I’m more culturally sensitive than you ’cause I’ll call it racism if the accents don’t match, haha, beat that!” credentials.

    Re: Forrest Whitaker, are you saying that if they’d cast, say, Martin Lawrence*, then it totally would have been blackface? But if they’d cast, say, Daniel Day Lewis and put on a ton of pancake, then it wouldn’t?

    Re: James Marsters, you know whose accent was just as fake as Spike’s? Giles’s. Seriously, Marsters worked with Tony Head a lot on set trying to get his Mockney to sound vaguely convincing. :)

    *Pick your own examples of really bad black actors and really good white actors if you don’t agree with mine

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, no, it wouldn’t take one shot. That’s asking the audience to remember, at the beginning of a sequence, which previous characters carried which birthmarks and, as the sequence progressed, which current characters are carrying which birthmarks. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask of an audience, I know. But even the most astute observer (this side of Sherlock Holmes) will have to occasionally stop to think about “Wait, was this person Tom Hanks before, or were they Hugo Weaving?”. And if your audience is stopping to think about that, they’re not watching your movie, and they’re likely becoming frustrated with the story. So, unless you want to hand each audience member a field spotting guide…

    Also, human beings remember faces. That’s what we imprint on. Not birthmarks, or eye or hair color, or height, or build. Not even generalized facial features, but actual faces. We fixate on faces. Think of how much horror is based on manipulating human faces. If the audience sees two completely different characters with the same face, they will automatically make an association between those characters. 

    I don’t think there can be any question that having the same actors play different characters is the most effective way to accomplish the goals of this story. Which, and I want to be clear, is not meant to apologize for or justify the choices made in this movie for the Korea sequence. I think it was an astoundingly bad decision. And I would completely sympathize with anyone who found it so distasteful as to taint their impressions of the entire film. [ETA: personally, I think it’s the most ambitious and fascinating looking film I have no real interest in seeing this year].

    But I don’t think “birthmarks” or dialog are the right answer. The better answer would be to change the story so that the characters don’t have to race-swap, and being very clear to anyone who would ask that you simply were not going to put actors in yellowface.

  • Tonio Kruger

    As Chelsea Handler says with deadpan irony: “Aren’t we *all* one-sixteenth Cherokee?” 

    Heh. I’m not. Last time I checked, there weren’t too many Cherokee in Poland (the land of my maternal ancestors) or Mexico (the land of my paternal ancestors). Last time I checked, author Sarah Vowell was the only living American celebrity I know of who is of Cherokee ancestry.  But that says more about my relative ignorance on the issue than about the number of Cherokee actors in Hollywood…Of course, what used to amuse one Native American author about this topic was the number of white Americans who credited their Native American ancestry to an Indian princess. Because the alternative–a Native American ancestor who wasn’t female–apparently raised certain sticky questions most white Americans would rather not answer… 

  • Calling it yellowface when they cast John Wayne as Ghengis Khan makes sense, because it’s both stupid and harmful. Calling it yellowface because you don’t find George Takei, a Japanese man playing a Japanese character, to sound like a native speaker of Japanese… well, I really don’t see your point,

    I’m saying that the danger in drawing an absolute line based on the colour of skin is that you might end up like the slave owners, defining race in terms of fractions (Bruce Lee had a German grandfather, for example).

    And it isn’t just a matter of accents. It’s a matter of behaviour enacted through performance. Masi Oka was convincingly Japanese in a way that George Takei wasn’t. It happens one of my colleagues is Ugandan, and he thought Whitaker was good as Amin (though with the reservation you’d expect of anyone having a Hollywood star dumped on their culture).

    I’m sensitive to this, at least partly, because of my own family experience. My son, for example, looks a little different, somehow, to the other kids in his class. Though he isn’t necessarily completely outside the envelope of what you might expect a Japanese kid to look like. What if he became an actor, and had to play a Japanese character? Or a Korean one? Similarly for my nephews whose father is Ghanaian. What if one of them were asked to portray Toussaint L’Ouverture (which would be interesting, given my family’s connection with Haiti)? Why does appearance and colour of skin trump ability to convincingly represent someone from that culture?

    My point is, to respect race and show contempt for culture seems contradictory. When I originally referred to George Takei’s ‘yellowface’ I made a point of following it up with the qualifier ‘sort of’ to show that I was not suggesting it was literally yellowface.

    I should also mention the woman I met at a party in Britain many, many years ago who referred to herself as a ‘banana’ (in other words yellow on the outside, white on the inside). The point she made was that her cultural Britishness was at least as important to her as her racial appearance. If we privilege the latter over the former, what respect are we showing to her identity?

    Antipathy towards yellowface and blackface derives largely from them being situated within a specific cultural discourse on race with the history of oppression that that entails. Consider, for example, a Chinese TV show which casts a Chinese actor in the role of General Stilwell. Is that as offensive? And if not, why not?

    To come back to your John Wayne example. That’s a case most people would agree on. Similarly Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But what about Sean Connery in The Wind and the Lion? Or Yul Brynner in The King and I? Just how racially different do you have to be before it crosses the line? And in the multiracial world my son and nephews inhabit, just how do we draw the line?

  • Not with Depp’s star power.

  • The film does use the birthmark. But the birthmark connects all the recurring characters, not just those who share the same “soul.”

  • I haven’t read the novel (yet), but what I’ve read *about* the novel suggests that the “progression” of these souls — one soul moves from being a killer to being a hero — is important.

  • In the film, there’s a comet-shaped birthmark, but it’s one that is used to connect the different characters to one another, not the progression of a soul. (Though we can see that that is also happening, as a supplement to seeing the same faces over and over. I can’t see how the birthmark alone could have conveyed the same thing.) Like, a character will see the birthmark on someone and say, Hey, I used to know someone long ago with that same marking.

  • As I noted at the end of the review.

  • Chuck Norris is part Cherokee. Chuck’s parents were both part Native American, though his mother was raised as an Irish woman and had just a drop, so to speak. His father was raised Cherokee, though that meant less as such at the time, before the tribes started actively working to preserve their culture.

  • Chuck

     We need to address the use of Klingonface in the various StarTrek series. It’s an abomination. They can’t even get it to look real. And let’s not even mention those atrocious attempts at the language.

  • Chuck

     Folks might think I’m just trying to troll here, but I’m kind of actually trying to make a point. (Klingons were supposed to be “Oriental” looking in the original series, but were exclusively played by white actors.) When it comes to hot-button topics like race, they tend to be so contentious because both sides (or all sides, more accurately) can’t agree on the basic premise.

    The question is: what is race? How many are there? What are they called?

    I think a lot of “Asian” people would be offended to be lumped together. Most people lump Indians, Mongolians, Japanese, and Filipinos all into the “Asian” bucket. But I can tell you if a person of Indian descent was played by a Japanese man, there would be all kinds of problems because of “Race” even if they are both “Asian”. Furthermore, can John Cho play Sulu? Sulu is Japanese, Cho is Korean. There are a lot of Koreans in Japan pretending to be Japanese in Japan since not being Japanese in Japan is a huge disadvantage. (Because frankly, as much as I love ’em Japanese are the most racist people on the planet.) There is a minor furor every so often when some ethnic Korean in Japan is found out pretending to be Japanese. This is particularly acute of late with the territorial dispute between Japan and Korea.Before you can really discuss something rationally, everyone needs to define their terms, and when it comes to “race” you’ll be hard pressed to do it in a way that everyone will agree with. Therein lies your basic problem.I think it’s best to deal with situations of “whatever”-face in the frame of what was intended. Did the director or producer or backer decide that someone of X race could not play a character that was supposed to be of X race because there is discrimination against X race from within the production group, or because there is discrimination against X race from the expected customer-base? Or as in the case of this movie, the character in question (and I am lumping of the connected souls in this movie together as single characters) could not be played by any single actor without making use of “whatever”-face.In the case of this movie, no single actor of any race could have convincingly played the specified characters without resorting to makeup. However, the characters needed to be played by the same actors to get the full effect of the narrative. One might argue that it would be possible to do so with physically similar actors (And that has already been suggested) however, that is certainly the less effective option. I think that the choice of actors can be easily justified on that basis. It’s not a case of specific discrimination, but rather the result of the needs of the narrative.That’s not to say that many will be up in arms about it, but people this is not the same as the crap that went down in “The Last Airbender” or “Green Hornet” or “Kung-Fu”. Those were about the racism of the people involved, or the assumed racism of the target audience, this is about no single race being the right choice for the situation.

  • Isobel_A

    It still isn’t necessary, it’s a choice, and it’s a choice I (and many others) find uncomfortable.  You appear happy with the decision, but that’s not the case with everyone and it does seem to have offended a lot of Koreans and other Oriental people.  (incidentally, in the UK we’d call Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and other people from that area of the world with similar culture/physical features Oriental.  Asians would be how we’d describe Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans.  However, I understand that ‘Oriental’ would be considered derogatory in the US, although that certainly isn’t how it’s intended in the UK, and I’ve never been told by the Chinese, Thai or Japanese people that I know in the UK that they find it offensive, rather the opposite in that they prefer not to be lumped in with every single other Eastern race.)

    I’m not a Korean, but I would imagine (and this is the impression that I’ve gotten from reading blogs on the subject by Koreans and other Oriental people) that they’d rather the role was played by another Oriental person than by a white person dressed up in yellowface.  The general consensus seems to be that if you’re not giving the role to an actual Korean, then at least give it to another actor of a similar race rather that a white actor.  There are few enough parts for non-white actors as it is, without co-opting roles  that are specifically meant not to be white

    .Most people don’t think the birth mark is enough to link characters, and that’s fine.  The best course of action is therefore as Dr Rocketscience suggested and if you can’t use a Korean (or at least Oriental) actor, don’t set it in Korea.  Change the setting.  It would have almost no impact on the story.

  • Chuck

     I think the best response to this would be to ask if an “Asian” was cast for the role, and instead wore “whiteface” would we be having this conversation? I think the answer is no, because there are already actors in the movie wearing “whiteface.” So this moves out of a simple question of whether a person of a specific race should be given a particular role based on the race of the character and instead moves it into the realm of problems caused by historic and continued racism.

    Or in other words, this would not be an issue at all if there was not already a history of racially motivated discrimination in casting.

    Of course, the answer is again no, because we are not complaining about the actors in “whiteface” because there are plenty enough roles for white people.

    So in essence, no matter how well you want to dress it up, we are discussing this problem in the frame of racism. Is this racism, and if it is not racism, should the creators of the movie gone out of their way to avoid the appearance of racism?

    The answer is no, this is not racism. I am sorry that the creators of the movie did not somehow erase the entire history of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood with this single movie, but it is not their job to do so. I am sorry that there are not more roles for Asians in Hollywood (though that is certainly changing) but the creators of this movie have no responsibility to do a disservice to their movie just to make amends for the actions of the past and sometimes present industry.

    I will objectively say that this movie is better for the casting choice that they made and it would have been objectively worse had they decided to use different actors for each time-period. The down side is that there are hyper-sensitive people out there who wish to get up in arms because the creators decided not to single-handedly right all the wrongs of Hollywood past.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    The answer is no, this is not racism.

    You were doing a good job of avoiding the derailing nature of your original question until this point. Here’s the thing: you’re right, it’s not deliberately racist. However, the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists in a world where we have pictures of Mickey Rooney and John Wayne and Joel Grey in bad makeup, for no good reason.

    I am sorry that the creators of the movie did not somehow erase the entire history of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood with this single movie, but it is not their job to do so. I am sorry that there are not more roles for Asians in Hollywood (though that is certainly changing)

    No on is suggesting that that was the movie’s responsibility, so why bring it up?

    but the creators of this movie have no responsibility to do a disservice to their movie just to make amends for the actions of the past and sometimes present industry.

    Again, no one is saying that they do. But they did make the choice, and they should be held responsible for that choice. And the choice they made was racially insensitive. I don’t know if they never thought about the consequences, if they did and thought “Fuck it, if it worked in the book it’ll work here”, but the result is the same: we now get to add pictures of Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess in bad makeup.

  • What’s the territorial dispute between Japan and Korea?

    Also, as someone who teaches at a large Japanese university, and who has taught many students of Korean ancestry (and Chinese, too) I’m struggling to recognise your description of a ‘minor furor’. The Koreans and Chinese who have been brought up Japanese (but who generally retain their citizenship, because Japan does not allow dual nationality) are a well-known feature of life here. More so than, for example the burakumin, who demonstrate that it actually isn’t that Japanese are the most racist in the world, since they extend their prejudice to ethnic Japanese.

    Moreover, can you just clarify how Sulu can be unequivocally Japanese when it is impossible to write his name in the Japanese syllabaries?

  • Tonio Kruger


    However, it should be noted that Chuck’s Cherokee ancestry isn’t exactly widely publicized.  At least, this is the first time I’ve heard of  it despite all the time Chuck Norris has spent in the public eye. However, that might say more about my ignorance of Chuck Norris than anything else–which means I spent all that time watching Silent Rage and Walker: Texas Ranger for nothing… 

  • Chuck

    1.)  Dokdo/Takeshima
    2.) Uyoku dantai bloggers getting a bee in their bonnet.
    3.) 苏鲁田光 (Gene Roddenberry admittedly chose the name because it ‘sounded’ Japanese not because he actually knew jack about Japanese surnames.)(FYI Sulu can be easily translated to Katakana and Hiragana using the 1974 version of the Hyōjun-shiki formatting which transliterates ‘ru’ as ‘lu’.)

  • Chuck

     I’m not trying to claim that they were not being racially insensitive. However, now that you brought it up, I think that they indeed were trying to be a sensitive as possible given that they decided to do it at all, since they obviously took some care to spread it around a bit.

    I think my main goal is to find out exactly why Isobel is “uncomfortable”. It’s apparently not about an “Oriental” (to use her phraseology) not getting the job, because apparently it would have been OK to remove the need for any “Orientals” to be in the movie at all. It’s also about a person of one race using makeup to appear to be of another race, since she seems to have no problem with the whiteface in the movie.

    I’m just intensely curious as to where the discomfort comes from. Would it have been OK if it were a Hispanic wearing “Yellowface”? Would it have been OK if it were an “Oriental” wearing “Blackface”? Would it have been OK for a African to wear “Redface”?

    I’m just curious where the line is.

    I tend to find that double-standards even if used in some misguided attempt to right past wrongs tend to cause the problem to drag on long past it’s expiration date. (As it gives people a reason not to feel guilty about the many unhelpful base urges of human nature.)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

     I think that they indeed were trying to be a sensitive as possible

    They were not particularly successful then.

    I’m just intensely curious as to where the discomfort comes from.

    I’m not entirely convinced you are. You want her to justify her personal discomfort (something you don’t really have the right to ask), but you’re laying out boundaries you want her to stay within. This suggests to me that you’re trying to delegitimize, or at least severely downplay, her discomfort. You also seem to be trying to lead the discussion toward a “why is it only bad when white people do it?” kind of derailment.

    Ultimately I have to ask, why does it matter to you why someone else might find this discomforting? How will Isobel’s answer affect you in the slightest?

  • teenygozer

    I’m absolutely certain she didn’t meant that we were, in fact, all one-sixteenth Cherokee, but quite the reverse.  Handler’s a snarky little bitka of a talk show host and tends to speak in sarcasm sound-bites.

    Gah, I hadn’t actually thought about the ramifications of the Indian princess ancestor trope, but that makes a sick sort of sense.  Sometimes I hate people.

  • teenygozer

     In the movie “Oklahoma” (1955), there’s an entire dance sequence where Laurey is played by an actress/dancer other than Shirley Jones.  It starts when Shirley Jones’ Laurey walks up to the dancer, who is dressed in the same dress and has her blonde hair in a pony tail exactly like Jones, but resembles her in no other way.   Jones and the dancer touch fingers as if handing off a baton during a race, and Jones walks away to leave the dancer on-stage to dance out the rest of the very long ballet scene.  I’m guessing Shirley Jones was incapable of ballet-dancing and they really, really wanted to keep that scene in the movie for aesthetic or artistic reasons.

    I remember thinking the first time I witnessed this hand-off that if the audience let a director get away with that shit, they would let them get away with anything.

  • teenygozer

     Wow.  We hold an opinion that you do not hold and therefore we are “hyper-sensitive”?  Nice derailing there, chum.  What’s the opposite of hypersensitive, “super-clunky”?  “Hyposensitive” just doesn’t work here.  How about I just call you a horse’s patoot and we leave it at that?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Bad example, that. Setting aside that you’re talking about swapping in a dancer, for a single scene, in a musical, in 1955, they didn’t “get away with” anything. The musical in question is Oklahoma! wherein until very recently it has been tradition for stand ins to dance for Laurey and Curly for the dream sequence. Modern revivals lately have been trying to get away with not using stand ins. In no small part, I imagine, because swapping out actors is so distracting.

  • 1. That’s currently a hot potato? Compared to Senkaku?
    2. The uyoku are far from representative of Japan. In fact, they don’t correspond at all to the Japan I interact with every day.
    3. I think this supports my case more than yours. 苏鲁 is not a Japanese name and indeed, cannot even be written in Japanese kanji. It’s the name of a sea in the Philippines. 田光 is a Japanese name, yes, but basically a girl’s name (Utada Hikaru). Moreover, that name was retrofitted to Sulu by Vonda McIntyre.

    Your comment about the 1974 version of Hyojunshiki seems a little confused. The ‘lu’ that is referenced there refers to how the kana syllabaries can represent spellings in other languages. But we’re talking about the romanization of a supposedly Japanese name. No standard romanization has every prescribed writing ‘lu’ to represent the Japanese る/ル. 

    Both Roddenberry and Takei regarded Sulu as representing ‘all of Asia’.

  • Chuck

    Because, if we are seriously going to ask an industry to avoid making people uncomfortable, you need to give them a guideline to follow. Right now, that guideline for avoiding discomforting Isobel is “Don’t make a movie where multiple characters are played by a single actor, but only if that actor is white and will play an Asian character at some point.” If that is indeed the guideline, then I can pretty much guarantee that Isobel will never feel uncomfortable at a movie ever again. That’s a really specific guideline and unlikely to come up in a movie again.

  • Chuck

    “We hold an opinion that you do not hold and therefore we are “hyper-sensitive”?” Nope, because you hold an opinion that you can not define the boundaries on, nor give a rational basis for and yet you expect everyone to respect your opinion without question, you are hyper-sensitive.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Way to miss the point there, Chuck.

    if we are seriously going to ask an industry to avoid making people uncomfortable

    No one is asking anyone to anything of the kind. And I think you know that.

  • Chuck

     1.) Senkaku is Japan’s hot-button with China. The subject was Korean-Japanese tensions, not Chinese-Japanese tensions. Obviously Dokdo/Takeshima is small potatoes next to Senkaku, but that’s not the point.

    2.) Every country is defined by their extremists to the outside world. Whether this is a valid representation of Japan as a whole is irrelevant. Just because Right-Wing Hyper-Religious republicans are not representative of the US as a whole, I would not object if someone said “That there is a minor furor every so often over the subject of Evolution.”

    3.) My point is that Sulu as a old style transliteration of SuRu is perfectly valid in the context. Just like Godzilla is actually a valid old style transliteration of GoJiRa. (I don’t have the book anymore, but I used to own a book from the early 1900s that would have translated GoJiRa as GoDziLa.) As for who Sulu “represented.” The fact that a single Asian actor was supposed to represent the whole of Asia is another good example of the past (and sometimes present) racism that has lead to this entire conversation. One Japanese character had to represent all of Asia because that’s all he could reasonably get away with including.

  • Col. Potter

    If Ambrose Bierce were still around to add to his “Devil’s Dictionary,” he’d probably offer something like:
    empathy: when *I* am made uncomfortable or am offended.
    butthurt: when *you* are made uncomfortable or are offended.

  • Chuck

    Then we have a pointless conversation. If we are not attempting to resolve the problem, then we’re just farting in a hurricane. It might feel good, but it changes nothing.

  • bronxbee

    many american actors feel the same way about some of the british actors doing american accents — particularly on the sitcoms.  perhaps they’re meant to be insultingly brash and boorish, and generic.  then, there are other british actors who do a credible job — Hugh Laurie comes to mind, as did Kenneth Branagh in “Dead Again”…  

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Only if you insist on being obtuse and trying to steer the conversation toward what you find comfortable. If you drop the entitled, privileged attitude, you might realize that:
    – no one has to justify their discomfort to you;
    – claiming that expressions of that discomfort are looking for big/huge/hard solutions to big/huge/hard problems is derailing;
    – the discomfort in this particular case is the result of a well known history that doesn’t go away because you wish it;
    – you’re not actually answering questions posed to you.

    So, again I ask, how are you affected by Isobel’s discomfort with actors in yellowface?

  • Danielm80

    Is it weird that I find it hilarious when people misspell “bitca”?

    From Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Bitca):


    Taken from “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” where Xander doesn’t know how to spell “bitch” and pronounces it “bitca”.

    Willow: “She’s a b-i-t-c-h.”
    Xander: “Bitca?”

  • Chuck

     1.)  I am actually not discomforted by much in this world. I am not steering the conversation towards something that I find comfortable. I’m just bored, and if I find an answer to the worlds problems while I’m entertaining myself, so much the better.
    2.) If someone wants me to take action on, or be concerned for their discomfort, then yes they do need to justify it to me.
    3.) I am a solution oriented person. When I see a problem I seek a solution. I simply cannot understand why anyone would bring up a subject unless they were looking to resolve it. But I guess some people just want validation of their feelings. I guess that’s OK, but maybe they should just say that to begin with.
    4.) History can never go away, but unless steps are taken to address problems caused by that history then we are trapped by it and can never progress.
    5.) Her discomfort affects me only if she wishes me to be concerned with her feelings in any way. If she does not want me to be concerned about her feelings, why would she talk about them? If she does wish me to be concerned with her feelings, then she does indeed need to justify them to me.

    Does that make me entitled or privileged? Maybe.

    Is this the point where I say how I’m of mixed ancestry and therefore my opinion holds more weight?

    According to the “one-drop rule” I happen to be “Negro” though you couldn’t tell it even by looking at my maternal great-great grandmother. I also have just slightly too little Sioux blood in me to sit on a tribal council, though my grandfather did. I appear white because I have no less than 14 different Eastern, Southern, Northern, and Western European countries in my genetic history. My North African heritage is also not very apparent, though my paternal great-great grandfather hailed from Tunisia. I lack any “Asian” blood that I know of, but my children will be 50% “Asian”.

    From my perspective, how people deal with race is really ridiculous. People just get way too bent out of shape over it. And inventing new double standards to try to address past double standards just prolongs the pain.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Not much space left to talk, so I’ll keep it brief.
    1) Must be nice to be above it all.2) Good thing no one asked you to do that then, eh?
    3) That’s nice for you.
    4) Then take steps. Difficulty: making people justify themselves to you doesn’t count.
    5) Or, you could try to empathize. Or, failing that, realize that it’s not all about you.

  • MisterAntrobus

    Jay Silverheels wasn’t a star before he played Tonto. 

  • cloudwalker

    The many stories that unfold through time,  as we do, that ply through their colors, their chords of dissonance, silence, resonance, and harmony, they are all of us wildly synchronous with the larger sweep of cultures and that symbolic atlas of metaphor that we tend to the way a  gardener cultvates the soil, seeking meaning not in abstractions, but in relationships that grow organically from all that we touch with our hands, hold in our hearts:  one story, one larger hope, that we can, somehow, in perhaps a parallel universe, through our children and through those they beget in turn, transform rather than destroy time itself.

  • Danielm80

    I saw The Cloud Atlas last night. I want to be clear: I don’t think the filmmakers are racist. I really do think they made an attempt to treat the characters–of all races–with dignity, by which I mean that they were written as human beings. They had flaws, and some of them were murderers and criminals, but when they did horrible things, I could understand why they were doing them. And the cast was very diverse. An Asian woman played a Latina character. An African-American woman played a German-Jewish character. An African-American man played an Asian character–at least, I think he was supposed to be Asian. The make-up made it difficult to tell. The performers were walking around with huge gobs of putty on their faces, so they looked like soft-sculpture figures. I kept thinking of Katherine Helmond in Brazil, in the scene where she has makeshift plastic surgery and her face is kneaded like dough. Human beings should not look like this.

    I’m not Asian. I’m white and Jewish. And when I saw Halle Berry in whiteface, I felt insulted, twice. I felt insulted as a Jew, because the make-up artists thought I looked like this bizarre, orangish thing. And I felt insulted as a filmgoer, because they thought I would find this convincing. I can only imagine how an Asian person would feel, seeing people who looked like Ming the Merciless. I was embarrassed for the performers who had to spend the day dressed in those humiliating prosthetics.

    The film may not be racist, but it is shameful. The filmmakers should be ashamed that they relied on caricatures. I thought those images had died out generations ago. And they should be ashamed because this is bad filmmaking. It makes them look incompetent. They wrote a screenplay that treated the characters with dignity and then made a film that did exactly the opposite.

    In a strange way, I blame Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and James Cameron. They’ve spent decades improving special effects, and they’ve done such a good job that directors think, “We can do anything. We have the technology.” I think that’s what happened here. The directors lost sight of what they were putting on the screen. The movie is a technical achievement but an artistic failure. The people in the movie no longer look like human beings, and that’s a huge flaw in a film where we need to care about the characters. In a country as divided as ours, that’s an enormous disappointment.

  • And he wasn’t afterward, either. Not really. He was Tonto, and he was able to parlay that into some other Indian-caricature roles. I’m not saying that’s right — I’m saying that’s what happened.

    I doubt this movie would have gotten made without Depp’s participation.

  • In what way did you find the characters to be caricatures? Is it just the makeup that makes that caricatures, or did you see something else beyond that?

    In a country as divided as ours

    It’s interesting that you say this. Which country are you talking about? It’s impossible to tell from your comment (and I can’t recall if you’ve mentioned or implied in previous comments where you live) — though for some reason I seem to remember that you’re American.

    This is not a Hollywood film: it’s a joint production of companies from Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the U.S. (an indie company, not one connected to a big studio). The directors are American and German. The novel is written by an Englishman. So… are you saying that the film shouldn’t have been released in the U.S. (or whichever country you’re writing from)? Or that whatever things you see that are troublesome to you should have been altered to suit the situation of your nation?

    What if Korean people are not insulted by the film? (There is a Korean actress headlining *Cloud Atlas,* after all! How many other globally promoted and released films can that be said about?) I mean, just for example.

    I just don’t understand what you mean by “In a country as divided as ours, that’s an enormous disappointment.” Can you explain more? Or am I just being dense?

  • Danielm80

    I live in New York, in a neighborhood that’s become increasingly racist and intolerant the past few years. I’m noticing it even more than usual during the election campaigns. One of the local candidates seems to be running on a platform of thinly-veiled homophobia and anti-Asian sentiment. So I’m very sensitive to that sort of thing these days.

    But from what I hear on the news–and in some of the comments on this thread–intolerance is a common problem all over the world. I don’t think the film is racist (in some ways, it speaks very strongly against bigotry), but the imagery really disturbed me. Some of the characters looked, to me, like Spitting Image puppets. Their skin was an odd, unnatural color. Their faces were puffy and frighteningly immobile when they talked. They didn’t look like human beings, and some of the Asian characters looked like the racist caricatures from previous generations.

    I found the garish makeup to be especially unfortunate, because it contrasted so much with the screenplay. The writing wasn’t exactly nuanced, but the characters were at least well-rounded enough that we could see them as real, sympathetic human beings. And, as I mentioned earlier, the script often speaks out directly against oppression and intolerance. The makeup, on the other hand, seemed to dehumanize the characters. And on top of that, it was ugly to look at, even without the racial element. It was just lousy filmmaking.

    I had this thought: If someone had made a film about my family, and the people playing them looked as absurd and distorted as the performers in The Cloud Atlas, I’d be really angry, even if the story portrayed them as great humanitarians.

    I recognize that a number of people have seen the movie, and enjoyed it, without being bothered by the makeup. You seem to be one of them, and I respect that. I understand that film is a medium that makes use of artifice, and exaggeration can be an important part of that. But for me, this movie went much too far. I wouldn’t want it taken off the market, even in my neighborhood. That would be censorship, and audiences should be able to judge the film for themselves. But I’ve met a lot of racist people, and I think this movie may reinforce the awful things they already believe. There’s enough conflict in the world already, and–whatever the filmmakers’ intentions–I don’t think The Cloud Atlas is going to make it any better.

  • Realistically speaking: do you think the racist people you are worried about are going to be paying a visit to the cinema to watch Cloud Atlas, and having their attitudes shaped or confirmed by it?

  • Danielm80

    Huh? Why wouldn’t they? It’s a heavily promoted movie.

  • Just curious. Racism often maps on to xenophobia. I guess the point is, it also maps onto ignorance, so they wouldn’t even be aware that it was a ‘foreign’ movie.

  • Joy

    I loved the film…several actors were so well disguised I didn’t recognize them. The Asian faces were well done…and I just figured it was due to some sort if genetic fiddling in the future. Some sort of preferential hybridization. Actually, I saw Vulcans at first. I have not read the book so I did not knoat to expect. But we loved the movie.

  • Jody

    *High five* . . . I am a story geek too. I even look at politics and think “so what is the story being told here, really?”

  • Karl Morton IV

    Just saw it and it handily transported me for a few hours.  Awesome!  I’m sorry to say my biggest kick with it was the actor spotting – and I’m VERY glad they gave each actor a chance to “curtain call” all their appearances at the end.  

    One question:  Does anyone else think the film explained itself too many times?  I felt the same way about “Matrix” back in the day, actually – that the Wachowskis and Tykwer weren’t sure everyone in the audience would be familiar with the idea of reincarnation, so they had to make sure several characters run it down for us.  They mixed it up as much as they could, had different characters do it in different ways and different literary genres, but by the time we got to “the Gospel” it felt like more than inevitable narrative echoes, which was probably what they were going for, but like they were planning for half the audience to need a toilet break part way through by building in a lot of narrative redundancy.  Anyone?

    Still had a damn’ good time seeing this, though.  :)

  • Karl Morton IV

    Did everyone actually remember this quote, or did they look it up?  “Gladiator” lost me when Ridley Scott had the German barbarian hordes howling like Zulus from “Zulu” – I mean JUST like them, as in, it might as well be the same recording.  All the Wagner all over the soundtrack didn’t help either, but obviously I’m in the minority, which is fine.

  • Bob Aman

    I too was annoyed by the makeup, but not because I thought there were any significant race-related issues with it. It was just… poorly done, and it took me out of the movie and served as a distraction from the actual story. The makeup was the most disappointing element to what I thought was an otherwise good movie.

  • Having seen it, I can say it was faithful to the book, but it also proved what can be done with perseverance and vision.

  • amanohyo

    Well, I managed to read the book and then watch the movie, and this is one of the rare instances when neither experience manages to trump the other.  Reading the book first makes the movie a bit more comprehensible (particularly the Sloosha’s Crossin’ section) but also causes the film to appear simplistic – in the interest of time, the writers have ironed out whatever meager complexity the book manages to scrape together making the duller threads even more colorless (I’m looking at you, Ewing and Frobisher).  

    I struggled mightily to make it through the first half of the book, and the downhill portion was only marginally more enjoyable.  It was competently written for the most part and Michell can be a clever mime, but except for Cavendish’s genuinely funny sections, none of the characters were compelling or well-formed.  Frobisher in particular serves as a transparent stand-in for the author’s ambitions and insecurities and comes across as a hypersensitive, self-centered, douchenozzle (I’m well-acquainted with the type, and we do not as a general rule make for compelling protagonists).  To be fair, I found the later sections of Calvino’s  If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler a slog as well, so the issue may be with the gimmicky structure rather than the quality of the writing.

    The pacing of the film on the other hand was admirable – three hours
    flies by like two and a quarter, and the editor seems to “change the
    channel” just when conversations ebb or cliches cluster ominously nearby.  There’s even a perfectly timed bathroom break section near the middle when nothing much happens for a couple minutes.  Cutting the
    sections into finer slices (as opposed to the even halves in the book) obscures the generic quality of the individual stories and makes for some interesting transitions that
    connect the themes running though each thread clearly, sometimes a
    little too clearly (as Karl Morton IV says below, the movie does tend to
    beat you over the head with simplistic morals quite a bit more than the
    book).  Guess what you guys, it turns out that prejudice, greed, and the domination of the weak by the strong are perpetually recurring evils that we must struggle to overcome.  Who knew?  The exploration of the many ways in which we tell stories to connect with each other is a far more interesting and subtle theme, but it lurks in the background for the most part in the film.

    Ultimately for both the book and the film, the gimmick doesn’t provide enough of an emotional or intellectual payoff.  The writers are confined rather than liberated by the limitations imposed by the parallel structures, and instead of a carefully crafted series of climaxes that build and flow into and around each other, we are treated to a stuttering finale whose ham-fisted attempts at resonance fall somewhat flat despite a wonderfully understated performance by Bae Doona, playing the part of Sexy Jesus and California Belle (among others).  In general I have higher expectations for books, and after being disappointed by the novel, my expectations for the movie were driven even lower.  However, I was pleasantly surprised at how watchable this turned out to be, and credit must go to Lana Wachowski for shoehorning such an unwieldy narrative into a screenplay at all – considering what she and the other writers had to work with, it’s quite an accomplishment.  Its flaws are inherited, and for the most part whenever it strays (smaller slices, multiple parts for the same actors, less douchey Frobisher) from its source, it results in a more coherent and focused product, a pity the book wasn’t more worthy of such an admirable effort.

    Obviously I don’t pretend to represent anyone but myself, but as a Korean American, I wasn’t too upset by the yellowface (or whiteface for that matter) – it was a valid artistic choice that served as a useful shorthand to clarify the connections between the threads.  What does upset me is the larger pattern of white male actors being paired with “ethnic” actresses in far higher numbers than the opposite racial pairings.  Although it accurately reflects the power structure in Hollywood and the world at large, it tends to reinforce the idea that only white men have the freedom to love and be loved by whomever they choose.  As a child, I often wondered why the asian male characters, even when they were the protagonist, rarely “got the girl” at the end, even a Hollywood-approved asian girl much less the typically white leading lady.  Oh well, baby steps I suppose.

    On a lighter note, Hugo Weaving: Second best. Nurse. Ever.  (Louise Fletcher, you’re still number one).

  • Prankster36

     I’m sorry, but this is just flat-out silly, especially since you apparently haven’t seen the movie.

    Race is a MAJOR theme in this movie, and it goes far beyond “Yellowface”–every actor in this movie gets to play a different race than their “real” one at some point. Halle Berry plays a Jewish woman. Doona Bae plays a Mexican and a white woman. Keith David plays an Asian along with several of the white cast members. I didn’t catch any white people playing black people, I guess because that’s a bit of a minefield, though the technologically sophisticated “Prescients” in the far-future segment are all darker-skinned, and one of them was Jim Broadbent.

    There are also a couple of men playing women, and vice versa.

    The long and the short of it is, Tykwer and the Wachowskis didn’t just slap on race-altering makeup without thinking about it. It’s a vital part of the story they’re telling, even putting aside the concept of “actors playing multiple roles recurring throughout time”. The whole frigging point of the movie is our shared humanity, the fact that we’re all the same regardless of race, that it’s something we should see past to the humans beneath.

    This isn’t The Last Airbender. The filmmakers specifically wanted to embrace and explore these ideas.

  • Prankster36

    Yes! I noticed that–there’s a definite continuity to the roles played by specific actors. Even if you don’t think it’s literally portraying “reincarnation” there’s a symbolic progression for the characters Tom Hanks plays. 

  • Joy

     I have been following MaryAnn for a very long time, and I have seen your name over and over. I just wanted to tell you that your comments are just about equal in importance to her initial reviews.  I find you very awesome indeed.

  • amanohyo

    1)  As a loyal Maryannsketeer, I find your complement dangerously close to blasphemy.  Whatever meager scraps of awe I manage to sum pale in comparison to the work and thought put into this site.

    2)  After years spent diligently and furiously massaging my own ego, it’s extremely pleasant to feel someone else’s words tickle me down there for a change.

    3)  That was completely inappropriate, vaguely sexist, and somewhat creepy… I apologize maybe, unless your real name is Stimpy in which case I regret nothing you Eeediot.

    4)  You’re very kind, and it is truly reinvigorating to discover that the even the trite, contrarian ramblings of an awkward, self-absorbed, borderline schizoid can find an appreciative audience on this crazy little hill of beans called the internet.  There’s hope for you yet, people of Earth (but not really).

  • amanohyo

    err… I meant your compliment.  I don’t know who your complement is, but I’m sure he’s very sweet and not blasphemous at all… (Are you’re taking notes nerds?  Anal-retentive correction of the improper use of a homophone is never awkward and always drives the internet ladies wild with desire – use this tip tonight and you’ll change that homofoe into a homofriend… with benefits* ;)

    *benefits not guaranteed

    Sorry, it’s late here and I’ve been subjected to multiple infomercials against my will in the breakroom at work.  Also I am flirting with you because you might be a woman on the internet and it is the law.  Good night.

  • I don’t feel that it overexplained. And from what I read of other reactions, including some from critics, some people seem to think it’s hard to grasp what’s going on. I find *that* mindboggling.

  • Sort of like when Inception was recommended with caveats like ‘you might not get it all’ and ‘really complicated, but still fun!’ I’m sorry, did we all watch the same movie? ‘Cause the Inception *I* saw was borderline tedious in how it took pains to lay out and explain every single bit of the concept and plot, which wasn’t overly complex to begin with. I suppose decades of braindead blockbusters can really do damage to a moviegoer’s attention span.

  • J.T. Dawgzone

    I can’t figure out where Louisa Rey was supposed to have heard the Cloud Atlas Symphony before. Unless that was meant to remain ambiguous.

  • Hank Graham

    Well, I finally got to see “Cloud Atlas,” after which I immediately stayed and watched it again. I’d read the book and loved it back when it came out, and have re-read it several times since.

    My first take was that I loved it.

    But one of the group I was with hated it. He never accepted any of the stories for a moment. He talked about the apparent un-connectedness of the stories. He talked about the “dreadful” makeup. And he talked a lot about the terrible acting, particularly from Tom Hanks. He did think Doona Bae was okay in what he referred to as the “sexy Saint Join role,” but felt the rest of it was “forgettable crap.”

    Moreover, he felt it was “pretentious, heavy-handed, self-important crap.” Well. My buddy doesn’t have a problem with expressing his opinion.

    So I watched the second time critically, to see if I could see what bothered him. I paid special attention to Hanks, and I think I can see what it was.

    Hanks is very good in some roles that are not only different from each other, but from the sort of parts he’s played in the past. But because he is Tom Hanks, he is always, always recognizable as himself. Every character he plays has a redolent sense of Tom-Hankness about them.

    If you carefully watch the performances, he has the accents and tics down perfectly. But for him to be convincing, you have to be willing to accept him, for example, as a north London thug. I know several fellows like Dermot Hoggins, and I thought it was pretty amusing how well Hanks could mimic the accent and body language. But you’re definitely aware it’s Tom Hanks, who we know to NOT be a north London thug. We almost have an encoded archetypal memory of Tom Hanks, blending into Jimmy Stewart in our heads, as the Hollywood Everyman.

    More than most movies, “Cloud Atlas” requires an audience to play along with it. Yes, we’re going to have Tom Hanks playing north London thugs, Halle Berry playing a Jewish woman (I didn’t recognize her in that part at first), Doona Bae playing a white American in 1849 (which I recognized instantly), Jim Sturgess as a Korean rebel, and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Ratched in Scotland in 1973. If you aren’t willing to suspend that disbelief, you’ll end up staring at the screen trying to work out how they did the makeup.

    “Cloud Atlas” is also tremendously, overwhelming optimistic, both as book and film. That last, I think, is what propels a deal of the criticism the movie is getting, and certainly was at the heart of what my friend had to say about it.We’re living in cynical times. For myself, I’d like to have seen “Cloud Atlas” be the new “Star Wars,” with folks lining up around the block not just to be entertained, but to be astonished.

  • Lytheaa

    I would have to watch it 2-3 more times to understand everything, but I believe that may be referring back to the character’s past life as the wife of the elderly composer. That the magic of it echoed down to her quite improbably.

  • amanohyo

    Do you feel you would have enjoyed the movie as much had you not read the book beforehand?  The average movie-goer might find the movie a bit confusing, particularly when Hanks is mumbling his way through the Ewing and Sloosha’s Crossin’ sections.  Conversely, for someone who doesn’t like everything handed to them, watching the movie before reading the book would make for a more memorable and satisfying experience (I almost wish I had done this, but then reading the book would have been even more tedious).

    Mitchell is skilled at mimicking particular genres, but it seems that he paid so much attention to the writing style and plot structure that he either, A: forgot to create compelling characters (excepting Cavendish), B: tried to create them and failed, or C: intentionally created generic characters to fit neatly and predictably into their corresponding genres.  Whatever the reason, it makes for a dull, unaffecting read (times five).

    Did you truly care whether or not Ewing and/or Autua were murdered?  In fact without spoiling anything, did the death (or temporary escape from death) of any of the characters make you feel anything?  Even the last line of the book as delivered in the movie failed to move me, and I am ridiculously easy to emotionally manipulate.  The only moment I felt any strong emotion was during the final moments of the Orison in the interrogation room, and that was primarily due to Doona Bae’s acting rather than the writing or score.

    Although I feel the thread connections were clear in the movie, I do agree with your friend that the moralizing is heavy-handed and the visuals are more forgettable than they should be with Tykwer behind the camera.  I was astonished that I was not astonished by any of the effects.  The movie is certainly optimistic as you say, (moreso than the book) but that is to its detriment in my opinion, so you may be correct about cynics being turned off by the simplicity of cyclical small-scale goods repeatedly triumphing over entrenched systemic evils.  

    I suppose the primary issue is that this movie, more than any other, needs to add up to more than the sum of its parts in order to succeed, and although it is incredibly ambitious, very watchable, and sporadically entertaining, the threads never join in a way that makes all the channel hopping feel worthwhile.  Maybe this too was intentional, but it just did not gel for me, although I am happy that it did so for you, MA, and many others.  I rarely pay to watch a movie, but I do not feel my money or time was wasted in this case.  I would much rather see an ambitious movie (or read an ambitious book) that does not quite succeed than a movie that timidly sets mediocrity and profitability as its ultimate goal.  Although I do not think the film succeeds, I am glad it was made.  I cannot say the same for any of the Wachowski’s other movies.

  • I hated the Matrix so much that I gave up about 2/3rds of the way through the first movie and never watched another Matrix movie.

    I watched V for Vendetta on cable and was surprised by how much I liked it.

    I really wanted to see Cloud Atlas and finally saw it today.  It’s a very strong movie – not a perfect one, but a very watchable one.  I love its genre-mashing and the way it can really throw the viewer off-balance.  I felt Tom Hanks did a good job at becoming the his characters (though the haircut in the “future” scene was amazingly well-cut for someone who didn’t seem to have scissors).  I particularly liked Halle Berry who is a strong actress who’s made some very poor choices over the years.

    As a woman, I was not offended to see Hugo Weaving play a woman.

  • Radek Piskorski

    I kinda liked it. I was thoroughly enjoying, *especially* when I was not quite getting it. But I felt it really didn’t pay off what it promised, and to quote another critic, yes, we are all connected, but how? What’s the significance of the recurring birth mark? Where did Louisa hear that music before? Why did the rebels wanted Sonmi? Because she could produce their manifesto, but how did they know it? Why did Frobisher kill himself? *What* was the Cloud Atlas Sextet? It can’t be a symphony, otherwise it wouldn’t be called a Sextet. What six instruments are they? Supposedly they are the six stories, but I wanted to hear the damn thing! And nobody composed such sappy music in the 1930s, especially not young composers to whom the distiction between sound and noise lost all meaning.

    All in all, I felt it was a film with great ambition but with a very small-minded conception. Why does it have to be so sentimental and superficial? And why do they say so many Dramatic One-Liners? And is it really shocking that, if you write something and it’s published, you are going to affect people? So is it basically a movie about readership and how books construct our Beautiful Common Humanity? Puh-lease.

  • Radek Piskorski

    I think that if you like this movie, watch Babel and The Fountain one after the other and you’re much better off.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    Cloud Atlas finally arrived on DVD! I missed it on the big screen. Watching the almost 3 hours without pause was not a problem for me. Well, the makeup is very distracting in some scenes, but other than that I found it a good movie. My wife, on the other hand, got bored (and a little upset because she wasn’t expecting graphic violence).

  • Jim Mann

    Just to reply on several points.

    1. Frobisher killed himself because he’d gotten himself into a situation that at the time could be viewed as hopeless. He’s shot his mentor, he owed money, he was disgraced, etc.

    2. Some composers at the time did indeed write music like that. Listen in particular to several of the English composers.

    3. The rebels wanted Sonmi because she proved that one of the replicants (to use a word from another film) was indeed human, had feelings, etc. and thus could issue the manifesto.

    As to what it’s about, I think it’s about many things, on a number of levels. One of them is close to what you say, but I’d more say that it’s about how our common narratives help construct our common humanity.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Cloud Atlas: Anna Karenina and reincarnation in six dimensions, obeying one rule, “with each crime or kindness we birth our futures.”

    On another note, I find it so ironic the wide disparity of critical acclaim between this and After Earth. Granted they are not of equal quality but thedo approach the same essential problem, the former in macro the latter in micro, Cloud Atlas identifies the significance of each act in advancing one’s soul, After Earth identifies the how to, “do what’s right, because fear is only a construct.”

  • Albert Muller

    Just wanted to tell you that this is a beautiful review, and more than worthy of such a special film. Thank you.

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