Film Reviews

Cloud Atlas & The Paperboy

Published March 2, 2013

Watching a movie can occasionally inspire us to adopt that quaint old-fashioned pasttime of reading a book. The new adaptation of Anna Karenina sent me back to Tolstoy, if only to confirm that a terrible film may be made from a great novel. Over the past year I’ve found myself re-reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and now Great Expectations.
With the exception of Jane Eyre, all these recent adapations of literary classics have been disappointments. Even the fast-paced journalese of Paul Lieberman’s Gangster Squad was vastly preferable to the movie version – another entry in this year’s Hollywood Hall of Shame.
Cloud Atlas, the much-hyped science fiction feature by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, is based on an award-winning novel of 2004 by British author, David Mitchell. While the novel is probably better than the film, after enduring almost three hours of torture-by-cinema, I couldn’t imagine picking up the book and doing it again. This adaptation is a powerful disincentive to have anything to do with the oeuvre of David Mitchell.
Needless to say, the real villains are Andy and Lana Wachowski, who had a cult hit with The Matrix (1999), and have gone on to give us two dumb-ass sequels, and a series of video games. In retrospect The Matrix wasn’t that great either, although it is a masterpiece compared with everything that has followed. Cloud Atlas is the undoubted zenith of their movie-making careers: setting new standards for incoherence, cliché, bad dialogue, and sheer pretentiousness.
Tom Tykwer, their German collaborator, has a better track record, but when a film has three directors it may be a case of too many cooks. One could speculate endlessly about where Cloud Atlas started to go wrong, but whatever the root of the problem it seems incredible no-one noticed the project was out-of-control and heading for the abyss. All that’s left for the viewer to do is pick over the wreckage.
For a twitter-sized reponse, I can’t improve on Siobhan Synnot’s review in The Scotsman:  “This must have sounded great at some point, but it’s really terrible to watch.”
By any standards, Cloud Atlas would be hard to pull off. It consists of six stories spread across a period of more than 500 years. It starts with the tale of a 19th century traveller confronting the slave trade in Polynesia, and ends in a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has returned to a state of barbarism. In between we travel to the 1930s to meet a young, homosexual composer who apprentices himself to an elderly, egocentric musical genius; a 1970s saga of a crusading reporter trying to expose a deadly scandal in the nuclear energy business; a black comic story of a dodgy publisher who gets imprisoned in an old people’s home while on the run from a group of thugs; and a futuristic scenario set in Neo-Seoul, in which a clone joins a revolutionary movement to fight against a totalitarian regime.
If you’re already confused, imagine the bewilderment of seeing the same faces recurring in every story under various prosthetic disguises. Tom Hanks, for instance, is a Victorian doctor in sideburns; an Irish thug, turned author; a nuclear scientist troubled by his conscience; a tribesman called Zachry, and a couple of other minor parts. The same goes for Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae and Hugh Grant, who appear in all six stories, in major or marginal roles. Ben Wishaw has five incarnations, and Susan Sarandon four.
This is an impressive cast for such a ridiculous film, with some of the roles being a step-too-far. It’s hard to accept Hugh Grant as a cannibal chief, and equally difficult to imagine Jim Sturgess as a Korean revolutionary leader, complete with makeup that gives the impression of someone suffering from a congenital eye problem.
The idea, according to the Wachowskis, is that each actor is a soul reincarnated in different forms. Tom Hanks, for instance, supposedly goes from being a bad man to a good man, although this doesn’t hold true for the other characters. Yet for all its cosmic affectations, Cloud Atlas is hardly any better than those ‘star vehicles’ such as Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve, that bring together a cast of big name actors in an embarrassingly lame set of linked stories.
As the directors keep flipping from one time frame to the next, like omniscient channel surfers, no narrative has much purchase on our sympathies, and no actor manages to stand out from the crowd. What we do catch is riddled with a feeling of déjà vu, as bits of earlier films are mashed up and fed into the mix. There’s Blade Runner, Solyent Green, Gladiator, and lots of other references that eventually make the movie seem like a monstrous collage.
Perhaps the worst feature in a production that offers many competing options for this title, is the air of sanctimony that pervades these stories as good triumphs over evil, or lays the foundation for a future triumph. Cosy little speeches, sentimental music, happy children – all the trimmings of cinematic storytelling at its most brainless. It makes one appreciate the achievements of those other directorial siblings, the Coen brothers, who have expunged these hackneyed devices from their work. The Coens are the true revolutionaries, the Wachowskis merely slaves to the remorseless rhythms of commercial pap.
Cloud Atlas may frighten people away from David Mitchell’s books, but The Paperboy should send them rushing to investigate the writings of Pete Dexter, whose novel provides the basis for a gripping tale of dark, perverse doings in the deep south. It’s an unclassifable blend of whodunnit, Southern Gothic, and a twisted version of the coming-of-age story.

Like Cloud Atlas, The Paperboy has an all-star cast, but in this instance they are allowed room to move. The script, co-authored by Dexter and director, Lee Daniels, is razor sharp, and the characters are able to develop their own complex personalities.
The paperboy of the title is Jack, played by Zac Efron, who is delivering papers for his father, publisher of the local rag in a deadbeat southern town. It’s 1969. Jack has been expelled from college for a prank, and is now drifting aimlessly. He will soon be given direction by the return of his brother, Ward (Mathew McConaughey), who has been sent as a reporter by a big city newspaper to investigate a possible miscarriage of justice in a murder case.
Ward’s companion in this investigation is Yardley (David Oyelowo), a black writer who combats the racist attitudes he encounters with his own brand of arrogance. Yardley is an antagonist to Jack, but the other major character, Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), is a young man’s walking sexual fantasy. The only problem is that Charlotte has developed an infatuation with the condemned prisoner, Hillary Van Wetter, with whom she has been exchanging letters.
It is immediately obvious that Van Wetter – a remarkable performance by John Cusack – is a violent weirdo, regardless of whether he is guilty or innocent. For Jack, who sees the much older Charlotte as an ideal mixture of lover and mother, the relationship with Van Wetter is incomprehensible.
As the story develops there are numerous twists and turns that reveal progressively more about these flawed characters, each with their secrets and strange obsessions. Daniels does a masterly job with the pacing and editing of this film, leaving every scene at a tantalising moment. We are drawn into the vortex, as the action gets progressively darker and scarier.
One of the surprises of The Paperboy is the performance of Nicole Kidman, whom I’ve never rated as an actress. She is excellent in this white trash role, with a 1960s wardrobe that includes a blonde wig, heavy eye makeup, mini skirts, nylon slacks, print tops, and everything else one might find in a retro shop. Charlotte is helpless, naïve and promiscuous, but also surprisingly assertive. She strings Jack along like a little boy, as he becomes ever more seduced. She’s sexy in the most vulgar manner, talking about blow jobs as if describing a cup of tea. I won’t attempt to discuss the scene where she has to pee on Jack after he has been stung by a jellyfish.
The Paperboy continues the transformation of Matthew McConaughey from the bland, handsome love interest in a dozen rom coms, into a character actor with a huge screen presence. His role in Bernie (2011) was a revelation, Magic Mike (2012) continued the process, and this movie completes his severance from the stereotype to which he once seemed condemned.
Simmering away beneath the main storyline is a vein of racial tension between blacks and whites. This is brought into focus in the character of Yardley, who poses as a dandy and an intellectual in a town that sees him simply as a “nigger”. It finds another outlet with the housekeeper, Anita – played by singer, Macy Gray – who narrates much of the story. Seeing this small, twisted world through Anita’s eyes allows us to stand back from the action, watching as each character pursues their own agenda and engineers their own downfall. The relationship between Anita and Jack has the same maternal and sexual overtones as his liaison with Charlotte, although these feelings remain muted.
This is a film full of brilliant set pieces. There are moments when you can almost smell the rotting vegetation of the Bayou, and others when you can feel the stress levels rising in a stuffy room. Everyone in this story is sweating and steaming, and that’s the way you’ll feel when you leave the cinema.

Cloud Atlas, Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore,, rated MA 15+, 172 mins
The Paperboy, USA, rated MA 15+, 108 mins

Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 2, 2013