Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dark Shadows (2012)

I thought the rule with spoof movies was that first you had to exhaust the premise and then you got to parody it. That's why a series of Airport movies came before Airplane, why Halloween and Friday the 13th preceded Scream. This time around, the story is ridiculed before it is told, making the lackluster results inevitable.

Yes, I know that Dark Shadows was a cult soap opera 40 years ago. It was innovative and engrossing for its time, but the cheap production values and continuing plot make it too long and campy to succeed in syndication. This isn't Star Trek where the reruns live on forever. Therefore, most of today's moviegoers aren't familiar with the Collins story. The few that are are devoted to it. That's why, for them, Tim Burton's send up is a slap in the face. There have been movies, and reboots, but the successful ones (made in 1970 and 1971 by the show's original creators)are as badly in need of a retelling as the regular show itself. So, it's hard to understand why Warner Bros. didn't just go with a straight script that would capitalize on Dark Shadows' cult fans and, perhaps, win the franchise some new ones. Of course, a plot chock full of vampires and witchery will never be too "straight" but the humor and charm can be derived from the inherent weirdness. Silly is not the equivalent of weird, nor its equal, in this case. If the movie takes itself seriously, we will laugh due to the contrast between the script and real life. When the movie considers itself a laughing stock, no one watching will form a higher opinion of it. All in all, it was about as engaging as a Punch and Judy sketch: loud, crude and outdated puppetry.

With the paranormal's popularity today (Twilight, Harry Potter, Walking Dead to name a few), this would be an ideal time to reel in a fresh audience with a clever, current spin on characters who have become lore. Instead we got more Burton than Barnabas and Depp stunts, in place of depth.

Maybe the studio was only interested in making the film if Burton was attached to it and, at this point, Burton proves every year that Edward Scissorhands was the height of his originality. He's gone downhill since then and, too often, taken Depp and Helena Bonham Carter with him. When you see any two of the three working together now, it spells doom. When all three are together, it shrieks death. Death of originality and substance.

The film starts 200 years ago in the 1870s. Barnabas is a young squire, sporting with a maid, Angelique, but when he falls in love with Josette and plans to marry her, Angelique proves that a witch rejected has 10 times more fury than a woman scorned. Angelique dooms the entire Collins' family. Barnabas' parents die. Josette is entranced so that against her volition she heads to the nearest cliff, Widow's Hill, Barnabas follows and is close enough to hear her utter "help me" before she catapults herself off the peak, into the waves below. He's so amazed by this that he stops a couple of times to stare, time that could have been better spent trying to catch up to her, but oh well ... Maybe he thought if he got closer, she'd run to her death faster. Anyway, by the time he reaches the edge himself, he sees her broken body below and launches himself over to join her in eternity. Angelique witnesses it all and thinks that death will end his suffering too soon. She casts a spell on him -- gee her spells work within seconds -- and instantly turns him into a vampire.

He returns home, to become one of the living dead, but the townspeople learn his secret and run to his mansion, Collinwood, with torches. Instead of just staking him, he's bound in a coffin and buried deep underground.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The Collins' family still live in the town that is named after them, Collinsport, but their fortunes have dwindled drastically. Collinwood is dilapidated. A shell of its former splendor. The family consists of Elizabeth, her ne'er-do-well brother Roger, a son he ignores, David, Elizabeth's hippy, trippy daughter Carolyn and David's psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman. They've just been joined by a new governess for David. He runs through them quickly. The latest is Victoria Winters, the replica of Barnabas' lost love Josette. In the original series, Maggie Evans and Victoria were two separate characters, but here the governess was born as "Maggie" but changes her name to Victoria as she flees a tortured childhood. Her parents institutionalized her because she saw ghosts. Luckily, so does David. His dead mother visits him in visions. Teacher and student bond because neither thinks the other is crazy.

What's so frustrating about the movie is that the sets and scenery are gothic and grand. They could have showcased a dramatic rendering of this story nicely, but are wasted as props for slapstick that is as old as Barnabas.

Workman are digging on a construction site when they hit a coffin, it opens up, Barnabas rises up and swiftly kills them all. He apologizes explaining that he's just been terribly thirsty. He briskly makes his way home, when he sees cars with headlights, he assumes they must be demons. Many laughs (or grimaces) are wrung from Barnabas' lack of familiarity with modern technology, music, TVs, cars, but it would have been just as enjoyable if his reactions were genuine, rather than gags.

At Collinwood, he enters the house and begins walking around as if he owns it -- which, he does. But young Carolyn and David have never seen him before and hardly seem surprised by his odd presence. His encounter with Elizabeth is different. She's heard the family legend and knows that the real Barnabas was a vampire. So, if he is the original, as he claims, then she's ready to stake him. But he promises her he means no harm to her, their, family and can show her a fortune which will raise their flagging fortunes. He knows all of the mansion's secret passages and shows her a dungeon where his father kept gold and treasures. Beholding the stash, Elizabeth is happy to let Barnabas into the family. Actually, the relationship they quickly form as co-heads of the family, loyal to one another, is endearing to me. When Barnabas gives Roger the choice of being a good father to David for a change, or leaving the family with enough of an endowment to support himself, Elizabeth supports him. And they stand guard over David and the others, as Roger takes the money and runs.

Barnabas not only sets about renovating the mansion, but revitalizes the family's fishing business too. He updates the canary and is set to compete against their biggest rival, Angie's Bay. He soon learns that "Angie" is his old nemesis Angelique. While he was buried for centuries, she has lived through the years, updating her look for each generation, building her own fortune while making sure the Collins' legacy never recovered, from the disaster she first wrought upon them in 1870. Seeing Barnabas, she still wants him, with a passion that makes one wonder how she could have left him entombed all of these years.

He tries to resist her, but soon they're rolling around with supernatural vigor, on the walls, the ceiling, crashing through walls. When the romp is over, Barnabas tells Angelique it must never happen again and generally insults her in a way that is illogical, seeing that she has the powers of witchcraft on her side. He's no match for, so I'm not quite sure why he taunts. More flies with honey.

But she's not Barnabas' only rejected lover. When Hoffman finds out what Barnabas is, she first offers to cure him with blood transfusions which may staunch his craving for human blood. Then she offers him oral sex. It's actually a wasted pairing when one remembers the complexity of the "real" bond between tv's Julia and Barnabas. It was erotic, but unconsummated, since her attraction to Barnabas was unrequited. The fact that it was also unspoken added layers to their exchanges, especially when combined with actress Grayson Hall's quirky, perhaps absent, abilities. That Julia loved Barnabas and when she tried to control his homicidal instincts by offering him her own neck, we saw it as her way of drawing him closer to her, as a patient and a man.

As his "doctor" she wielded superficial control, but she was his, a magnet for his anger, frustrations and manipulations. Julia and Willie Loomis (the Collins' caretaker once played by John Karlen of Cagney and Lacey fame) were Barnabas' pawns, protectors and ... accomplices. Watching their fear shift to loyalty was a draw in the original series, but nonexistent in the movie.

Hoffman's character is meaningless. Barnabas quickly dispatches her when he learns that rather than giving him human blood, she's been injecting his, trying to ensure eternal life, youth for herself. He kills her, then tosses her body in the ocean. In the end when we see her not-so-lifeless body floating underwater as the surprise last shot, it's puzzling. She was so inconsequential as a character, comic or villain that the audience cares less that she is still alive than they did about her death. If her reappearance was planted at the end to show us what a sequel would be like, it only makes the first installment seem all the more horrible.

Barnabas throws a ball for the family, complete with Alice Cooper as the live entertainment. The only interesting aspect of the gala is the brief sight of original Dark Shadows actors David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott and the inimitable Jonathan Frid enter the party as guests. I had to rewind to savor that.

During the festivities, Victoria confesses to Barnabas that she returns his love. They kiss on the balcony as Angelique looks on in anger. After the party, she invites Barnabas to her office and asks him to be her partner in love and in business. He scoffs and she quickly chains him up and entombs him again. Young David finds and releases Barnabas and they return home, only to find that Angelique has turned the whole town against them. The townspeople swarm Collinwood with pitchfork. The family stands together to stave them off, but when the masses leave, Angelique still fights only, using her magic to toss everyone around. It's more whirlwind than war, as the whole house is torn asunder in the battle. Beams and chandeliers fall. A fire erupts.

Carolyn reveals that she is a werewolf in the midst of the havoc. It means nothing to the plot. Perhaps this too was planned for the sequel which will, mercifully, never take place.

In the end, Angelique is defeated and killed. But when they search for Victoria in the wreckage, she is nowhere to be found. Fearing the worst, Barnabas rushes to Widow's Hill. Yes, Victoria is there, ready to cast herself over the edge, like Josette did centuries earlier. She says she's doing it because she can't live with Barnabas. He's a creature of the night (although, like Edward Cullen, he goes out during the day, as long as he's well-covered) and she lives and grows old during the day. She will age and die and he will remain the same, so they can never be together. The only answer is to make her like him. This suggestion comes out of nowhere, because Victoria had never expressed such a yearning before.

In fact, she didn't even know he was a vampire. She saw him catch fire when the sun hit him once, but I wouldn't expect her to even know what that meant. She recoiled and left the room and we hadn't seen her since. But apparently, she knew immediately that burning flesh meant vampire and decided -- not that she was horrified realizing that Barnabas was probably responsible for all the recent deaths in the neighborhood -- that she wanted to vamp up too.

Barnabas refuses to make her one of his kind. She answers that death is the only choice and plunges off the hill. As before, he jumps after her. When he reaches the ground, he bites her. She becomes a vampire immediately (apparently conversion by fang is as quick as Angelique's vampire spell was. They live happily ever after.

If I was disappointed in the first part of the movie, the last 20 minutes was just a montage of crashes, broken glass and falling wood. This scriptless carnage is tedious in a good action movie, to tack it onto a screenplay that was dreck to begin with ... is just pounding the last nail in the coffin.

To my once-beloved Barnabas, if this is the best that Hollywood can do, may he stay buried.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

Since most Americans probably only see movies set in India once a year or so, the Jaipur locale made this script seem fresher than it otherwise was. I am surprised it garnered so many different nominations (SAG, Golden Globes, etc.) because it was quite predictable.

Seven retirees who have run out of funds or opportunities in the UK see a brochure for an idyllic retirement community in Jaipur. It's not only enchanting, but fits their budget, so each with their own motivations packs up his/her life and heads out on a new adventure, meeting at the airport.

Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a new widow. Her husband has left her in enormous debt. He handled all of the finances and decisions and didn't share their impending doom with her, but she didn't ask him either. She married young, handed her free will over to him and is now regretting that choice. Even when she sells their home, she will barely have enough money to live on. Her son tells her that she will live with him. He's already talked it over with wife Polly, before, of course, consulting his mother at all. She decides she's had enough of that.

We meet her when she's on the telephone talking to the cable company. She wants to change or cancel service, but can't do so without her husband's password. Her name is not on the account. Her husband is dead, she says. The customer service rep repeats that they can't help her without the account information. Of course, this frustrates her for several reason: the bad service certainly. They're reading a script and don't expect you to respond like a human being. When you do they have no reaction. The apathy stokes her fresh grief. The phone call reminds me of my own father's death. He'd had a stroke and I was getting a caregiver and moving him out from Illinois to live with me. Insurance fitted my home out with a hoya lift, oxygen tanks, a hospital and wheelchair ahead of his arrival. I just had to buy a twin bed for caregiver. He died on the date when he was supposed to make the trip and I had to have the health care providers pick up all the unused equipment. I went on the Sears website to cancel delivery of the bed. One box asked me for the reason: price? not the product I thought I wanted? I said it was because my father died. To my surprise Sears sent me an email confirming the cancellation and also expressed sympathy for my lost. It was the last thing I'd expected. I appreciated the anonymous kindness and it made me cry, just as Evelyn does when she fails to get the same.

Her son takes her to the airport, remarking that he doesn't think she'll make it. She's never done anything alone. Of course that makes Evelyn more determined than ever to succeed and immediately the audience knows she will.

Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Donnelly, an inveterate racist. As the movie progresses we learn that she's a retired housekeeper. She needs hip surgery but shuns aid from any of the minority doctors at the hospital. Of course, India would be the last place she'd want to have the work done, but it's the cheapest and, ever paranoid, she embarks on her journey, wishing it was already over.

Madge is a golddigger, confident in her own sex appeal, much like Blanche on The Golden Girls. Norman is a skirt chaser. Although he generally likes them younger, you'd think these two were fated to end up together. That they don't is one of the film's few surprises.

Jean and Douglas are a wearily married couple. He invested in their daughter's business and it wiped out most of their savings. I don't know where Jean was when he did it. I don't know if she was fully apprised of his financial decisions, but it would be unlike her not to complain that she wasn't. We don't get their entire backstory, but as judgmental as she is, I don't think she let him make all of the decisions as Evelyn did. Whether both are responsible for their depleted savings or not, she blames him entirely and he expects as much.

They can afford a small assisted living apartment and we meet them as they are touring the place. When Jean rebukes the guide as he points out the place's very modest features, I actually agree with her. There's a convenient pull cord on the wall, in case you fall and need outside assistance. But what if she lacks the foresight to fall in the right place, Jean wants to know. What if she's not near the wall when she face plants. How can she pull the cord then? The rails on the walls that will help them maneuver about the room when they're order -- how do they help if you want to walk ACROSS the room, rather than just around the parameter? Her husband is embarrassed by her rude questions, but to me the outburst is not an irrational response to the patronizing sales pitch. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced. All marketing is designed to create a need, whether it really exists or not. Why is it more offensive when that need is promoted to seniors than to anyone else? Both babies and the elderly may need diapers. If a Depends ad makes me uncomfortable than a Pampers ad does, is the problem with me rather than the seller? Why does it seem that one is offering a service, while the other is "taking advantage?" Well, even if Jean's explosion had more to do with her own insecurities than the sales agent's, I cheered her on. It was only after getting to know her better that I realized her foul mood was a permanent one, not spurred by justified irritation or fear for the future.

Tom Wilkinson, Graham, is a judge. He seems to be the only one who isn't grounded by financial straits. He was attending someone else's retirement party when he was suddenly seized by an unexplained spasm and announces that the day has come. Apparently, it was one he'd always been waiting for, putting off, but always planning. It was time for him to go too.

Once they finally complete their perilous journey into Jaipur through the congested streets, crazy drivers in even crazier vehicles, they arrive at their hotel to find that it isn't quite the way it looked in the brochure. It's a dilapidated eyesore, old and mostly unmanned. The owner is young Sonny. He's a smoother talker than businessman. The hotel was handed down by his father and he lacks the funds to realize his dreams of renovation. He's trying to woo lenders, but unless he can swindle them as he did his new (and only) seven guests, he appears to be out of luck.

Graham grew up in India and takes the hotel in stride, seeing the beauty around him, rather than the decay. Norman and Douglas are also happy to make due, welcoming the fresh start. For Evelyn it seems more like a first beginning than a new one. Madge is eager to scope out the rich men in the area. Jean is, of course, livid. She doesn't want to experience the food, the city or the people. She's loathe to leave her room.

Evelyn goes job-hunting. She inquires at a sales agency, but when she sees all of the employees cubicled there are young, she fears she doesn't have a chance. She is about to apologize for wasting the manager's time when he tells her he could use her services as a consultant. She might help them mold their sales strategy to the customer. Presumably, he wants her to Anglicize his approach to attract non-Indians. Evelyn is thrilled to be earning her own way for the first time. She befriends the owner's sister who is a sales agent at the company and, it turns out, Sonny's girlfriend. His mother, naturally, does not think Sunaina is good enough for her third son and wants to put him in an arranged marriage. Theirs is the movie's most soap operatic plot all and nearly destroys what little poignant credibility the film otherwise possessed.

As the days pass, the Marigold guests develop friendships. Graham reveals that when his family was stationed in India he grew up and fell in love with another young man. When they were found together a scandal erupted. Graham's family simply left the country and he was able to build a life unscathed, but he never knew what became of his lover. It must have been 40 years ago when India was even less tolerant of homosexuality than it is now. Not only his lover, but the youth's entire family was spurned. They lost their jobs, had to relocate. Graham never knew what became of him. He promised himself that he'd return and find out, but then he never did. "Until now," Evelyn reminds him, soothing his guilt.

Graham makes a pilgrimage to the records office each day to try to find out what became of his erstwhile partnership, but can't make any headway through the bureaucracy. Jean latches on to Graham as her dream man. A symbol of everything she'd aspired to in life, but been disappointed in. Ignoring her husband, unless it's to scorn him, she hopelessly stalks Graham looking for an attempt to charm. He wonders why she won't experience her surroundings. Why keep herself locked up. It's clear to us that sexual orientation aside, he has little in common with Jean. Why does she seek the company of someone so open-minded when hers is so closed? When Graham tells her he's gay, her hurt makes their circumstances, already oppressive, intolerable for her. She needs to escape.

Douglas, on the other hand, is settling in nicely, enjoying Evelyn's pleasant, interested manner.

Madge haunts the local country club, trying to pass herself off as a blue blood (Princess Margaret to be exact). She doesn't have much success on her own, but she helps fix Norman up with a woman who shrugs him off at first, but responds when he abandons the lecherous act and just admits that he's lonely. She is too.

Mrs. Donnelly undergoes her hip surgery, but must remain at the hotel until she's fully recovered. She wants as little to do with anything foreign as possible and hopes to live off of imported hobnobs, rather than the local cuisine. The girl who serves her each day doesn't understand English but mistakes Mrs. Donnelly's cleaning instructions for words of friendship. Using the doctor as translator, she invites Mrs. Donnelly to her home. Donnelly doesn't quite go willingly. The doctor has wheeled her there before she knows the destination. Surrounded by the girls entire family, Donnelly is silent at first, but then, perhaps spurred by their inability to fully understand without translation, she recalls how she was fired from the job she held for many years. She raised the family as her own, managed their finances, loved the children. But they replaced her and said her services were no longer needed. Although her hosts don't know what she has said and the doctor feels too awkward to translate for them, they can sense that they were given TMI. There's an uncomfortable silence when, alarmed by the boys trying to upright her wheelchair outside, Donnelly yells at them to get off, her xenophobia raging. The girl who invited her is hurt. Donnelly feels guilty and after that she starts to reach out to those around her. Maybe having been caused pain, changes her view after she's inflicted it.

Donnelly is not only softer than before, but nosier. She takes an interest in the lives of the other guests, observing their fights and affairs in silence.

To his surprise, the records office does find Graham's lost love, Manoj. He goes to the address (with Evelyn and Douglas in tow) not knowing what he'll find or how he'll be received. The woman who opens the door recognizes his name immediately. She's his Manoj's wife. Heart quickening Graham thanks her and turns away to leave, but she calls to someone down below. Her husband. An older man turns and he and Graham recognize each other. Graham walks towards Manoj afraid, but when he gets there he is pulled into a hug and immersed in joy and relief. Evelyn is drawn to the woman in the doorway. The wife. What must she be thinking, Evelyn wonders.

Graham and his friend talk all night, sharing their lives. Back at the hotel, Graham relates that Manoj built a family over the decades and was very happy, but never stopped thinking of Graham. Never stopped loving him. All of this time Graham thought he'd destroyed a man, but it turns out he was the one who'd been in prison all along. He watches a large swan leap into the air, spread its wings and float away, as we follow the bird's flight, Graham takes his last breath below.

The Marigold inhabitants attend his funeral, arranged by his Manoj. It will follow traditional Indian custom. The body is placed on a pyre and must be burned completely between dawn and sundown. When only ashes remain, Graham's beloved sprinkle them in the water. Before returning home Evelyn makes a trek to speak to Manoj's wife, to find out how she feels. This is rather presumptuous to me, because Evelyn seems moved by curiosity more than compassion. But she leaves envious. Manoj's wife knew everything. She always had. There were no secrets between her and her husband. Evelyn feels that they had a real marriage. They had honesty. Sexual compatibility means nothing when trust and sharing is absent. She feels she failed her husband, because she knew nothing. He didn't share his decisions with her, but that means she was relieved of his burdens as well. If she had asked and demanded answers, maybe she would have grown and expanded as a person, but maybe their union would have deepened as well.

Back at the hotel, Sonny's mother catches his naked girlfriend sneaking into the bedroom for a rendezvous and tells Sonny he must have nothing more to do with her. Sonny does not defend Sunaina, a betrayal that the "happy ending" does not soften for me. Sonny's mother insists that he sell the failing hotel.

The residents take its closing as a loss of their own hopes. Feeling weak, Evelyn makes a call home to her son. Is it because she misses him or because she feels he was right, that she has been unable to make it on her own and should return where she'll be protected, if not independent.

Norman will move in with his lover. Glowing for the first time, Jean has heard from her daughter who is now a successful entrepreneur (they've only been gone 2 months, so that was quit). It seems Douglas' investment has paid off, but Jean doesn't thank her husband. She ridicules his infatuation with Evelyn (never admitting her own longing for Graham) and says they're returning home. Douglas can bear her taunts, but when she insults Evelyn he snaps and wonders when/why Jean became the hateful, unhappy person she is today. She's stunned by his revolt, but her first priority is freedom. She packs to leave, proud that she'll be turning left. That is, when she enters the airplane, she'll turn left because their tickets are in the first class cabin, for the first time. She's arrived.

Donnelly pays a visit to the lender Sonny was wooing. It turns out she was not only a nanny and housekeeper, but the family's money manager. She's got wonderful accounting skills and has proven that a profit can be made from the Marigold. She convinces the lender to fund Sonny, as long as he has proper oversight at the hotel, meaning her. Rising from her wheelchair she takes the business reins at the Marigold, while Sonny becomes the greeter, banking on his personality, rather than his wisdom.

He gains the confidence to stand up for himself, retrieves Sunaina and expresses his love. However, instead of telling his mother that he doesn't need her permission to marry the woman he loves, he stands by as an old employee shames his mother into recalling that her husband's family looked down on her too. They would have discouraged their marriage, but her husband (Sonny's father) defied them, because he was in love. The woman instantly melts seeing herself in Sunaina (major eyeroll) and then she instantly accepts her daughter-in-law to be and Sonny's right to keep his father's dream, the Marigold Hotel, alive. Now, there was some dialogue earlier where Sonny told his mother he knew she loved the hotel too, so maybe she was just in denial earlier and trying to be a pragmatic, unbending business woman, but other than a single sentence, we never got a glimpse into her heart before, so her sudden about face nearly causes whiplash.

Evelyn avoided saying goodbye to Douglas, so he leaves for the airport with Jean, but they get stuck in traffic and won't make the flight, unless they abandon their car and take a rickshaw. It can only fit one person, so Jean tells him he should stay behind. They've both realized it wasn't working a long time ago. They both deserve more. He denies it at first, but knows she's right.

He returns to the hotel, where Evelyn waits. Fast forward and they are motoring through Jaipur, Evelyn on a bike behind Douglas and Sonny and Sunaina riding through the streets together to. The two couples salute and continue through the happy milieu that is now home to all of them.

The neat, unrealistic resolution of everyone's problems make this movie impossible to recommend. The acting was quiet and knowing for the most part (Maggie Smith being a bit of a caricature), but there was nothing outstanding. None of the seven plots were original. You could see point B straight ahead, while standing at point A. Ok, I didn't know Graham would die, but that's because I wasn't particularly concerned. Since he nearly fainted twice it was pretty obvious. Donnelly? She was too extreme a bigot to remain one for long. Doug and Jean's marriage? She was set up as the shrew villain, so she had to fall, though it happened gently. There were no surprises, no laughs (maybe soft smiles). You could see everything coming, but if you have extra time on your hands, don't bother to get out of the way. The ride is smooth, if uneventful.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Since Oliver Twist hit the screens in 1909, audiences have lamented that the movie is not as good as the book. No one expected Cloud Atlas to break from that trend, but the fact that it went out of its way to be more complicated and less moving than David Mitchell's sci-fi bestseller still came as a surprise.

In my review of the book, I took issue with the stories' thin characterizations, but the narrative sequencing was actually least of the novel's problems. Naturally, this is what the film decided to dismantle first.

The first half of the book introduced us to the six reincarnated lives of one soul. Each person's story started, continued long enough for us to get a feel for the plot and personalities involved, then ended abruptly at a climatic point, to be followed by the next life. In the second half of the book, we revisit each life and witness the end of the story. The six lives are tenuously connected and it's difficult to divine the karmic evolution of the soul, as it travels from one life to the next. Do the people pay for past sins? Are they rewarded for growth and selflessness? Not so you'd notice. Rather than learning life lessons through the centuries, they appear to be on a cosmic treadmill, just as prone to a misstep, to make mistakes, even the same mistakes, in the 1800s as they are 500 years later. Furthermore, the reincarnated characters might share a birthmark from one life to the other, but do not particularly share other traits. At the end, I wondered why Mitchell even bothered telling us that the six tales involved the same people reincarnated, rather than just presenting them as six short stories, with slightly overlapping themes.

Instead of minimizing the book's flaws, the movie tries to continuously "connect" the stories in the most fatuous way possible, obliterating most of the author's content in the process.

The six stories are spliced together, intercut so that we never stay in one lifetime more than two minutes at a time. Running 2:50 hours, if the film had followed the movie's outline, we would have spent a half hour on each life, 15 continuous minutes in the beginning and then returning to give us another block of 15 minutes at the end. This would have been the best way for the diverse plots to come together to make one big picture in the end. As it is, when we cut away from each story after a minute or two, you never become fully immersed in any of them and they're never tied together. Instead, an actor intones a cliché like "I believe that life never ends. Death is just a door and when one closes another opens' and basically taunts, That's all the cohesion you're gonna get!

To make matters worse, on the page the same soul can inhabit different bodies, regardless of race, sex or age, but it's hard for that concept to translate onto film. Why compound the problem by having the actors play different reincarnated souls in each life? In one story Halle Berry plays the soul we recognize through the crescent-shaped birthmark she bore in the past. Yet, in the next segment, it's Tom Hanks who bears that birthmark. You can't buy the idea that two people are soulmates, destined to be linked through all eternity, when you can't even identify them as the same spirits, from one life to the next.
They have as little in common with their past selves as they do with each other, from one existence to the next.

In the book, Robert Frobisher and Zachry were the most intriguing and empathetic protagonists. In Mitchell's hands, music composer Frobisher chose death. It wasn't forced on him, because he painted himself into a corner. Instead, he was, perhaps, bi-polar and killed himself in a moment of acute restlessness. He didn't act out of grief or fear, but was spurred by the nothingness that remained following great excitement and (delusional) emotion. Certainly, his bisexuality was never a factor in his suicide because it was portrayed with humor, rather than shame.

All that changes in the movie. Frobisher falls in love with the older composer whom he only used in the book. When he's spurned, blackmailed and faced with ruin, he shoots the composer, flees, is forced into hiding and penury, then kills himself. The written Frobisher was so used to a life of deception he would have found such contretemps a lark, not a dilemma. He picked death as one of the many options available to him, not as a last resort. The film made his mental problem a mechanical one. Replacing introspection with a gun can never improve a story.

The movie seems obsessed with offering the reason that things happened, never mind the fact that its reasons are absurdly shallow ones. In reality people hate, love and leave you with no rationale, or one that's too nebulous, complicated or multi-folded to comprehend. Black and white is neat, but not compelling. For instance, in the Timothy Cavendish tale, a publisher's brother has him confined to a mental hospital. Cavendish has no idea why he's victimized this way, but in the book he repeatedly is. Thus, his brother's specific motives are inconsequential. It's more intriguing to ask what weakness Cavendish possesses that causes everyone to immediately view him as a mark. The film tells us that his brother set him up as revenge for an affair Cavendish had with his wife. This thought occurred to Cavendish in the book, but the answer remained a mystery. For me, that was best. Brothers hate brothers and if you ask Cain why, I doubt he'd have a single response for you. There wasn't one transgression, there were many, since Abel's birth, and they gathered threads, thwarts and thorns, forming one big ball of rage that finally exploded one day. That's how life happens and we usually can't specify the day or insult that caused everything to fall apart.

Brother Denny Cavendish's conduct puzzled me too. Since he'd lent his brother money in the past, I thought he must have some feeling for him. Perhaps, he met to rescue him from the institution shortly, but died before he could. In the movie, he simply turns on him in spite. Fiction is often concerned with tying up loose ends, but pat explanations are worse than none at all.

In Zachry's story, although he and the Prescient from a more advanced world marry in a gratuitous "happy ending" they have less of a bond than they did in the book, as platonic comrades. His distrust of Meronym, the Prescient, dissolves slowly as they come to empathize and rely on one another in the book. In the movie, she is on a dangerous exploratory mission and he agrees to help her only because she has the sophisticated medicine needed to save his niece's life (it was his sister in the book, where Zachry was decades younger than Tom Hanks), not because he has grown to relate to her, despite the devil on his shoulder warning him that he shouldn't. Her commander warns her not to corrupt and alter his world by sharing her technology with Zachry, but when he implores her, she can't resist. As they soften towards each other, they sacrifice everything just to protect their friend. We sense more of the past-life instincts that draw them together in the book, while circumstances do most to bind them together onscreen.

If the five stories involving humans were lifeless, then the one with the fabricant, Sonmi, were even more so. Again, instead of sacrificing herself to change mankind's heartless ways, in the movie she is motivated as much by love as civil rights. We see her spooning romantically with the union leader who recruits her, rather than dispassinately realizing she's just a tool in his crusade, as the written Sonmi does. The only thing her plot had going for it was it's larger focus on humanity, over the individual humans that comprise it. This story served as the umbrella under which the other five operated, which is why the evil that has built over generations and culminates with her civilization finally implodes upon itself. The planet is reborn, from remnants of the destruction. Only Zachry's almost prehistoric world remains. In the last reincarnation, Zachry's, Sonmi is revered as a God by villagers who have found the artifacts of her words and embue them with biblical significance, centuries after the true facts of her life and death have been lost to time.

While Sonmi's story should have been the largest reflection of the small themes (freedom, prejudice, equality, greed, betrayal, and cruelty) that ran throughout the other plots, it centers instead on Sonmi's love for the union leader who enlists her and, as she rides shotgun, races through space shooting up their enemies like Neo, just without the long trench coat. Sonmi's language and world, some of the more unique aspects of the book, are stripped away and redressed as trite.

Cloud Atlas, the book, was less about love triumphing over time and death, than about our persistent battle against hate and evil, in relationships, societies, and universes. The small plot point should have been an echo of the large one, instead they all run adjacent, like different lanes on a track, but no obvious finish line in sight.

While the paranormal plotting should have been all the "action" the movie needed, it gives each story unnecessary "chase" scenes and weaves them together, in back to back snippets, so they are collectively less exciting than they would have been individually developed and fully played out, without interruption.

If the fight scenes are underwhelming, the other segues are stultifying. A door opens in Luisa's story and closes in Tim Cavendish's. Transitions can enhance if they highlight important plot parallels, but when they only emphasize how superficial the chain keeping each element of the cloud atlas together is, everything suffers. This film was a case in which the sum lessened the six parts.