Review: Cloud Atlas

The enslaved fast-food worker Son-Mi struggles for freedom in 22nd-century Korea.

I would be hard pressed to think of a book more difficult to turn into a movie than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell’s book follows six plots from six eras of history. The stories are about, in chronological order, a man working on a slaveboat in the 19th century who has a crisis of conscience, an aspiring composer from the 1930s who must hide his homosexuality, a reporter in 1970s California who uncovers a deadly plot involving a nuclear power plant, an English man from the present day kept prisoner in a nursing home, a cloned fast-food slave from 22nd-century Korea who attempts an escape, and a man in post-apocalyptic Hawaii trying to protect his village from a predatory tribe. The plots are loosely connected by hints that some characters are reincarnations of the same soul.

As if turning that into a film weren’t hard enough, the book has a pita-sandwich structure, with the earliest story beginning and ending the book, the second coming second and second-to-last, etc. Only the chronologically-last story is unbroken in the middle, with the others cutting off abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.

When I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas over the weekend, I was amazed that the Wachowskis managed to turn the book not only into a coherent film, but an entertaining, thoughtful one. This took some serious story-telling skills and imagination (they are, after all, the directors of The Matrix), but also a talented cast and great stories to work from.

The movie abandons the pita-sandwich structure of the book. I imagine this was a difficult decision for the filmmakers, but the right one. They would be asking a lot of the audience to wait three hours (the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes) to see the conclusion of the story that began the film. Instead, the directors and editors spliced together the six stories in parallel, matching their expositions, climaxes and denouements. In a feat that surely drew a lot of sweat from the screenwriters, editors and directors, they made this work. Although the pacing lags a bit near the end, they put the stories together in a way that makes their common themes clear and keeps the viewer hooked.

As in the case of all their work, the Wachowskis use their imaginative prowess to take the film to a higher level than the average Hollywood thriller, especially in their depiction of the 22nd-century Korea in which a “corpocratic” government rules over a mass of depraved consumers. A clone named Sonmi who is enslaved in a McDonald’s-style restaurant goes on the lam after glimpsing an inspiring movie clip on a customer’s phone. While reading the book, I savored every detail of this fascinating dystopia, and I felt the same way during the movie. The Wachowskis use special effects to create a brilliant vision of a brutal future that made me wish I could pause the movie to get a better look at Neo Seoul. The setting rivaled the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the vast human-farms of the original Matrix in its horrible wonder.

Another ingredient of the glue that holds these plotlines together is the cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon play different characters in each of the stories, helping the viewer understand their cosmic connections. I especially enjoyed watching Tom Hanks show a versatility I didn’t know he had. I’ve always thought he had a knack at giving movies a moral center with down-to-earth roles, but here he pulls off a wild range of personalities – an evil doctor on a slave boat, a slimy hotel clerk, a conscientious nuclear scientist, a cockney tough-guy, and a schizophrenic tribal leader who speaks a pidgin future American English.

The Wachowskis were also successful in translating the themes of the book to the screen, if in a more digestible form. Each of the six stories follows characters who make the difficult choice to go against the grain of their historical setting to do what’s right. Obviously, the goodwill of the characters doesn’t keep society from going bonkers – that’s evident even from the trailer or the description on the back of the book. The message of the movie and the book is that even futile acts of charity are worthwhile because they elevate the human soul to an ether above worldly matters. Watching these stories, I felt the same revolutionary thrill as when Neo kills the agents at the end of The Matrix.

I was motivated to write this review by the lukewarm reception the movie has received elsewhere. I was bewildered by this, because Cloud Atlas got an emphatic check mark next to every entry on my list of what a movie should be. It was fun, it featured interesting characters, it transported me to different worlds, and it gave me something to think about after I left the theater.

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Spending Time With Mr. Inside And Mr. Outside

There seems to be a direct correlation between my age and the amount of time I spend on personal dental care.

When I was a kid, I paid virtually no attention to the need to brush my teeth.  Back then, the only cavity-fighting implements were a toothbrush and a tube of Pepsodent.  I ignored them, ate sugary cereals with reckless abandon, and ended up with a mouth full of metal fillings.  As I matured, I slowly came to realize that getting my yap shot full of novacaine and having my teeth drilled down to the nerve level wasn’t much fun, and was expensive, besides — but the damage was done.

Over the years, new weapons have been added to the dental care arsenal.  First it was the Water Pik, then dental floss, then tooth whitening strips, then tiny brushes to reach the “food traps” between your teeth.  The most recent addition to my toothbrush holder is an odd, angled, double-ended brush with “inside” written on one end and “outside” on the other.  You use it to sweep along the inside and outside of the gums along your back teeth, hoping to avoid deepening “pockets” back there.  Every morning when I use it I inevitably think of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard.

With each new dental care device, I spend more time in front of the bathroom mirror, fighting a desperate, rear-guard action against jawbone loss, retreating gum lines, and a mouth that reveals that I am, literally, long in the tooth.  I wish I could say that my morning ablutions are a time of rich personal reflection, but they aren’t.  As I proceed through my progression of brushes, flosses, picks, and rubber-tipped appliances, I hope only that my belated devotion to dental discipline will allow me to somehow avoid crushingly expensive crowns, implants, root canals, visits to oral surgeons, and other literally and economically painful fruits of my youthful dental indiscretions.

Cold Monday Morning Rain

It’s Monday, at about 5 a.m.  Outside, the rain is pelting down.  It’s a cold rain, driven by a cold wind.  The streets are slick with now-saturated leaves waiting to be picked up.  The dogs don’t want to be outside, and I can’t say that I blame them.  They keep stopping dead in their tracks and looking at me stubbornly, or pulling the leash hard for home — but their work must first be done.

When we finally get back home my pant legs are soaked, and I am treated to the sharp odor of wet dog as I towel them off and hope to avoid the spray of debris across the kitchen floor when they shake off the remaining water.

It’s not the best way to start the work week.

(In)Tolerance

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend for whom I have great respect.  She expressed that she believes she possesses great tolerance — with the exception, she said, of those with a differing political opinion.

That statement was a great clarifying moment for me.  Here was this person, highly educated and intelligent, who is basically saying that she just can’t tolerate differing political opinions.  I think of that conversation as an “a-ha moment,” an epiphany of sorts, as to all that I find troubling in today’s political environment.

There is nothing original in saying this, but I must say it nonetheless:  I am sick, to the point of a primal scream, of this presidential contest, and of our political landscape in general.   I have reached the point where I can barely stand to watch television.   MSNBC or Fox — really, what’s the difference anymore?  Their viewpoints, sure.  But their rigid dogmas and rabid discourse?  It’s just different sides of the same coin.   I enjoyed every minute of watching the debates (as flawed as they are, the pureist thing yet in this election), but had to tune out as soon as the debates ended and segued into the talking heads and spin room.

Where is reason?   Where is intelligent, respectful discourse?  Where is objective reporting?   My j-school professor Marty Brian, God bless her, must be turning in her grave….  There is no presumption of good will or good intentions, no even slight extending of the benefit of the doubt.  They are bad; we are good.  They are wrong; we are right.  They are evil; we are honorable.

My friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances are about equally Republicans and Democrats (is that unusual these days?), and I know that it’s not that clear-cut.  I have a “D” after my name, but my friends of differing political opinions are good people — but also people whose life experiences and independence of thought (imagine!) have led them to reach different points of view from my own.   My Republican friends (my Republican-leaning husband included) don’t hate gays. They aren’t racist.  And my Democratic friends aren’t looking to create a welfare socialist state that redistributes all income and suppresses free enterprise.

Some will say I’m naive — and maybe I am.  I can see shades of gray (does that make me squishy?  I don’t think so).  But before you label me naive,  remember how inspired so many of us were, four years ago, by that gentleman who encouraged us to rise above dogma and reach across the aisle and try to get along?  Sadly, that particular experiment didn’t work out so well (there’s plenty of blame to spread around), and today those words seem almost provincial.

Of course I have my “line in the sand,” and I know there are extremist people out there who wish others ill will.   But in my humble opinion, the vast, vast majority of the people in this country, regardless of their political persuasion, have good intentions and aren’t the extremists we are led to believe.  We can’t reasonably assume that one’s party affiliation tells us the content of one’s character.

As I was writing this, I happened upon an interesting article addressing this same notion.  (In the spirit of keeping it non-partisan, I won’t credit the publication.)  It more artfully captures what I find so disappointing and divisive in today’s political environment.   Allow me to quote just a few passages….

“For the past generation or two, Washington has been the not so hallowed ground for a political war. This conflict resembles trench warfare, with fixed positions, hourly exchanges of fire, heavy casualties on both sides, and little territory gained or lost. The combatants wear red or blue, and their struggle is intensely ideological.

“Before the 1970s, most Republicans in official Washington accepted the institution of the welfare state,  and most Democrats agreed with the logic of the Cold War. Despite the passions over various issues, government functioned pretty well. Legislators routinely crossed party lines when they voted, and when they drank;  filibusters in the Senate were reserved for the biggest bills;  think tanks produced independent research, not partisan talking points. The “D” or “R” after a politician’s name did not tell you everything you thought about him.

“….The people Washington attracts now tend to be committed activists, who think of themselves as locked in an existential struggle over the fate of the country, and are unwilling to yield an inch of ground.

“…The War Between the Colors reflects a real divide in the country, the sorting of Americans into ideologically separate districts and lives.

” …the fighting never really stops.”

A “National” Election, Fought Only In A Handful Of States

Our “national” elections have become increasingly odd.  Many states are written off by the campaigns from the start as being solidly in one column or the other.  Residents of those states never see candidates (except for the occasional quick fundraising trip) and don’t have to endure the avalanche of TV commercials, robocalls, in-person visits, and candidate motorcades.

If you look at the RealClearPolitics electoral map, you see huge states that have become “flyover country” for the campaigns.  In California, Illinois, and New York — three of our most populous states — the President is far ahead.  The average of recent California polls, for example, has the President up by 14 points.  I’m sure many people in those states wonder what the heck the fuss is about; they go about their daily lives and rarely encounter people who support the other guy.  The same is true, but in the other direction, in states like Texas — where the most recent poll, taken at the end of September, has Mitt Romney leading by 19 points — and across a huge swath of the South and Midwest.  People in those states no doubt are similarly astonished that President Obama is even keeping it close.

That’s why it is so curious to live here in “Battleground Ohio.”  Everyone is focused on us.  The Washington Post carried a story yesterday calling Ohio the “Bull’s-Eye State.”  The National Review website has a special section called “Battleground Ohio” that features stories exclusively about Ohio.  The National Journal running total of ad spending shows that more than $160 million has been spent in Ohio alone, and as the last week before the election approaches the spending of the President, Mitt Romney, and their supporters are spiking.

Here in Ohio, you can’t watch any TV program without seeing a host of political ads.  Yesterday, in our tiny sliver of northeast Franklin County, located in the middle of the state, we had campaign workers visit our door (we used hyped-up Penny and Kasey as an excuse not to talk to them) and today we’ll probably see more.  The candidates keep coming, and coming, and coming, holding rallies on airport tarmacs and in high school football stadiums.  We’ve grown used to the ads, the stopped traffic as candidate limousines barrel past, and all of this attention.

I do wonder, however:  what is the reality in this supposedly national election?  It is the frenzied activity in Ohio and a handful of other “battleground states,” or is it the quiet inactivity in the vast majority of the country?  How can an election produce any kind of meaningful mandate when the experience of voters during the campaign is so profoundly, diametrically different?

The Buckeyes, At 9-0

I was very glad to see the Buckeyes beat Penn State tonight — and not just because the win left the Buckeyes undefeated and 9-0.

Ohio State controlled the line of scrimmage.  On offense, the Buckeyes ran the ball down the Nittany Lions’ throats.  Braxton Miller was brilliant, but I liked that Carlos Hyde ran very hard and got a lot of tough yards for the Buckeyes.  I also liked that the offense put the game away when Miller combined with Jake Stoneburner for a backbreaking 72-yard touchdown pass.  I liked the call and the killer instinct that we are seeing from Coach Urban Meyer, and I also liked that the play crushed the enthusiasm of the previously raucous Penn State “white-out” crowd.  Quieting the crowd in one of college football’s best atmospheres was very satisfying.

In my view, though, accolades must go to the defense.  The Silver Bullets were back, and dominated the Penn State offensive line.  Penn State could not run the ball, and the Buckeyes harassed Matt McGloin into the crucial turnover — the pick six that Ryan Shazier turned into a touchdown.  I thought the Buckeyes’ D controlled the Penn State offense, and that is what I like to see from the Ohio State defense:  tackles behind the line of scrimmage, hard hits, and quarterbacks forced to throw the ball out of bounds as they are running for their lives.

I never thought this team — which had a losing record last year — would make it to 9-0.  They may not be the best team in the country, but they play hard.  That they have reached 9-0 is a testament to the team’s toughness and — frankly — the Big Ten’s weakness.  Next week the Buckeyes play the Fighting Illini.  I’ll be there, and I’ll be hoping to see more of the hungry, hard-hitting team that I saw tonight, ready to take it to 10-0.