Cloud Atlas: a movie that connects the drops.


Cloud Atlas: a movie that connects the drops. A Review     ***Spoilers***

Before you read this, I recommend that you read my review of the book, Cloud Atlas.


Images from the movie, "Cloud Atlas"

Cover for “Cloud Atlas,” the movie

Whether or not you enjoyed reading Cloud Atlas the book, (I enjoyed some of it but I still wanted to throw it against a wall at the end) I believe most people will enjoy at least parts of the movie without wanting to toss Tom Hanks off a highrise.

I did not go into see this movie with high expectations.

Okay, here it is–my reason for not expecting much: I hated The MatrixCloud Atlas was co-directed (with German director Tom Twyker who did Run, Lola, Run, a movie I remember liking ) and co-written by the Wachowskis who gave us The Matrix. Go ahead and hate me. Virtual reality stories hold special interest for me (see my The Thirteenth Floor review ).

I found The Matrix pretentious, sophomoric and even with a suspension of disbelief, not credible.

There’s no way anyone would look that buff after spending a lifetime in a pod. Aliens using us to power their alien stuff didn’t make sense. We wouldn’t be cost effective. Plus the long coats, the dippy mysticism and all the martial arts got on my nerves. I could go on but it won’t convince anyone who loved The Matrix. Another thing, I should disclose that I briefly worked on casting The Matrix sequel (nothing fancy–just set up auditions for the secret service guys and you’d have thought we were guarding the secrets of the universe rather than a few pages of barely there script).

Regardless, in my opinion, Cloud Atlas the movie is better than Cloud Atlas the book.

The problems that I had with the book centered on Mitchell’s failure to adequately connect the six stories. I felt like Mitchell the writer was showing off. I wanted more than he gave in terms of connecting the stories. It was all icing and very little cake. Then those last two pages of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the first and last story. They were the last frickin’ frackin’ two pages of the novel, and might as well have started with “So you see boys and girls . . .”

Cloud Atlas the movie was able to stitch the stories together.

Movies have more options in terms of pacing, plus visual and audio devices, something a novel lacks. As small a thing as a shiny blue button on a 1930’s vest that becomes a beautiful stone prized by a goat herder helped me connect. The music helped. Casting the same actors in different stories helped a lot and most of all, the editing, which blended the parts of each story, pacing them all to build and crest like music wove the narratives into a satisfying ending, an ending that differed from the book. The stories had been simplified, characters pared and the plots crafted to suit the film and it helped.

Cloud Atlas, the film, conveyed the message, the universal theme that Mitchell meant for us to discover in his novel.

I felt Mitchell said it rather than showed it. The movie, on the other hand, did what movies do best. It made us feel it so that we could think it. The reviews I’ve read of this film have been mixed. At three hours, it is very long. All I can say is that I liked it, and so did the others in the audience. There was applause at the end, and I doubt many had read the book. It didn’t matter. They felt it; so did I, shiny blue buttons and all.

Cloud Atlas: Six Stories in Search of Ovaltine


Cloud Atlas: Six Stories in Search of Ovaltine –a review:       ***Spoilers***

Images from the movie, "Cloud Atlas"

Cover for “Cloud Atlas,” the movie

If you plan on reading the book or if you plan on seeing the movie, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book.

The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting.

Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century and his inventiveness in terms of language are exceptional. The detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive.

Of the Cloud Atlas stories, five are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories.

Story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” describes the gasps of a dying Earth. Except for a dying few who cling to what’s left of civilization and scientific study, humanity has devolved into superstitious tribal societies where the strong prey on the weak. After story six which is in one piece, Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order. Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resumes after Story six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, written ala Herman Melville is the first story in the Cloud Atlas.

The story is a first person narrative. After a shipwreck, thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing writes in his journal. It’s the 1850’s. We meet Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. Along with Ewing is his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). Ewing learns of this injustice as he witnesses a Moriori being flogged.

When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces.

Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium.

A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work.

Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions.

There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Cloud Atlas story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one.

Three is the only one of the six written in third person. We know this story takes place in the 1970’s because Disco music plays. Stuck in an elevator Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s, meets Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant, an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island.

And so the killing begins.

First, someone murders Sixsmith and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her.  We leave the story as her car plunges off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with the second murder in the Cloud Atlas.

An author murders the reviewer who panned his book by throwing the reviewer off a balcony. Oops, better be careful.Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: “Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and then the story breaks,

His sneaky brother traps Cavendish in an old folks’ home, where a Nurse Ratched running things.

This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey. His randy reminisces of past romances makes use of Mitchell’s florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world.

The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves Somni on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha. When a nun explains the meaning of the symbol, we encounter the “author’s message,”

Whenever I see an overt “author’s” message in fiction, I remember Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas.

Or was it Take the Money and Run? I’m not sure but I do remember the joke. In the Allen movie, during the “death” scene dialogue, the words “author’s message” kept flashing on the screen. “An Orison of Somni-451” was the first story I actually enjoyed. I did notice elements of other works of science fiction. The layered corruption and the Asian setting evoke Philip Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose echoes O’Brien’s speech in 1984: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.”  And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!”

Before her execution, Somni asks to see the movie version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.

It is my opinion that this connection to Story Four is imposed on the Somni story. I can’t find any indication that shows Somni’s choice as an outgrowth of the plot or her character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Like characters in Stories One, Two and Three, Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder. I recognize this as a device that implies connection and identity.There needed to be more.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five.

As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story. In the second part of Story Four, I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish tale. However, the only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music. The music could have been used to connect all of the stories. And there’s Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” The Prophetess should have appeared in all of the stories. But it doesn’t and Frobisher’s suicide at the end of Story Two made me shrug. Unfortunately he was too unlikeable.

Then I read part two of Story One, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.”

I assumed that Mitchell would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. He didn’t. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

 As I finished Cloud Atlas, I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story.

Like the nun’s speech and Buddha’s statue, Mitchell wants to make sure we understand. So the last two pages are pure “author’s message.” It’s 1939’s middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a bee-bee-gun to be under the tree. A fan of Little Orphan Annie, Ralphie has sent in all the boxtops to get Annie’s secret decoder ring. When the ring finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message. This message is accessible only to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Ignoring the protests of his younger brother who has “to go,” Ralphie locks himself in the bathroom. Outside, little brother Randy wails and pounds the door.

His breath labored, a defiant and determined Ralphie turns the ring to find each letter.

Then, his excitement barely contained, he reads Annie’s message. Rather than a secret formula or news of a decoder ring-bearer secret meeting, Annie tells him to “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!”  Ralphie is disappointed to say the least. Disgusted, he feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.

David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader


David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader    A Review     ***Spoilers***

Slade House imageI have read three novels written by David Mitchell, including Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and Slade House. A while back, I posted a review of Cloud Atlas, expressing my frustration with the novel’s lack of cohesiveness. What really connected these different stories and characters of the Cloud Atlas? The implication was that these characters in six different stories were the same souls. Many of the souls we engage in one life, we engage in the next. Mitchell ties them together with chance discoveries and birthmarks.

Despite a hasty explanation in the last few pages, the Cloud Atlas was all sizzle and very little bacon.

The Bone Clocks, his 2014 novel, showcases Mitchell’s prose. It is dazzling shorthand, a clever first person narrative that lets you know right away who these characters are and what’s important to them, but nothing goes deeper and for me, they’re all rather flat. The Bone Clocks begins in the 1980’s and ends in the 2040’s with the last of humanity struggling to survive on a polluted Earth. A runaway teen, Holly Sykes, connects several stories. She’s a bystander in the war between the Horologists and Anchorites.

Horologists are immortal beings who share the minds and memories of human hosts.

Horologists often choose to enter the mind of a dying newborn and they become that child until it’s time for the next host. Any human who is capable of consent must agree to be a host.

Anchorites are humans who practice dark magic in order to continue to exist.

Though, like Horologists they can share space and thoughts within another human, they choose to end human lives to extend their own physical existence. As the novel continues, Holly transitions from bratty teen to mother, then to widow. The last segment shows Holly at the end of her life living on an island, struggling to protect her family from the brute forces that arise when our sick planet can no long sustain life as we know it.

So why am I reviewing Slade House instead of The Bone Clocks?

It’s because Slade House was written for readers like me, rather than for critics and academics. Yes, I know there are plenty of readers who adore Mitchell’s work. I enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. His clever prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution. What there is doesn’t build satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing. I related to Holly’s desperation and fear.

When the little girl turned up after a frantic search, I wondered what purpose did this segment serve.

What more did it tell me about Holly or her situation? Like my response to reading Cloud Atlas, I found it difficult to care; nothing in The Bone Clocks touched me. In order to refresh my memory (sorry, much of that brilliant prose was utterly forgettable) I read several reviews and a synopsis.

Another thing: Mitchell caters to the publishing world with characters like Cavendish (Cloud Atlas) and Hershey (Bone Clocks).

I found the insiders’ quips and snide observations about writers and writing annoying. In a review of The Bone Clocks (THE STAR online, 9/28/14) Priya Kulasgarian writes of the “caustic rendition of the literary scene” and how “high minded” readers would find this “self-indulgent . . . if you’re a little lowbrow like me . . . Crispin’s acidic cynicism is a delight to read.”

Then why did I hate these insider meta-jokes—this ripping away of the “fourth wall?

Maybe my brow is lower than Kulasgarian’s. After reading a number of sophisticated reviews of Mitchell’s work, I am confident in saying my brow is not higher.

I did learn of Mitchell’s plan to connect all of his novels into one humungous work of fiction.

The same characters from one title pop up, however briefly, in subsequent books. I haven’t read all of his books. I’m positive that readers who have read them all are big fans. What matters to me is a story well told, with characters that resonate–a story that I can remember longer than a day.

Nifty prose, innovative structure and grand design are entertaining but beside the point unless I care what happens and why.

In Slade House, Mitchell gives us a short novel (239 pages—The Bone Clocks is 624 pages) with a simple structure of five first person accounts of characters falling victim to a pair of supernatural predators, the Grayer twins. Born in 1899 England, the Grayer twins, Jonah and Norah, are telepathic and determined to live forever, a goal that becomes reachable when they learn the arts of the “Shaded Way.”

As in The Bone Clocks, the Shaded Way involves Horologists (see this post’s second paragraph) and Anchorites.

The twins are antisocial Anchorites. Since Horologists tend to dispose of any soul-sucking Anchorites they encounter, Jonah and Norah hide out in Slade House.  Built in the 1930’s for the purpose of luring and trapping victims, Slade House is a place tucked away in a secluded London alley. Though the house was destroyed when German bombs took it out in WWll, time stopped in the 1930’s when the twins created an “orison,” a place outside of time and space. They want their physical selves preserved. To do that requires lots of tricks and the right kind of nourishment.

The twins must eat a soul every nine years.

Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. When out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears and with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, the twins go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans. Through various maneuvers, the intended victim enters the “lacuna” (the space where Slade House used to be and the site of their power). A variety of illusions take place until the victim eats or drinks the “banjax,” something that loosens the soul from the body. Then dinner is served.

The twins are a nasty pair, making unkind jokes about their victims.

Each victim becomes the first person narrator of his or her demise.

In 1979 it’s awkward and peculiar eleven-year old Nathan, a Valium user and reluctant escort to his mother, a social climber.

Next is the 1989 victim Detective Edmonds, who looks for clues on what happened to Nathan. The seductive widow he encounters is really Norah, and when he climbs the stairs, portraits of prior victims line the walls. He recognizes Nathan and hears the boy whisper that he should look for things in the cracks, things that might be used to beat them. “Too late for you,” the boy tells him, “but pass it on to the next (victim).”

The passage where Edmonds describes seeing his soul has stayed with me:

“It’s almost see-through. Like gel, or egg white, and filled with shiny grains of dust, or galaxies, or… God it’s beautiful. Jesus, it shimmers. It’s alive, it’s mine . . .”

In 1998, the victim is Sally, a college student with a weight problem, a beautiful, supportive but distant sister (Freya) and a romantic nature.

Sally is a member of a paranormal investigations group. Sally is also “Engifted,” a fact that brings her and the group to Slade House. Soon, Jonah and Norah dispatch all of the group but Sally and then impersonate the others while playing cat and mouse games, a way to “season” Sally’s soul for good eating with “a sprinkle of last minute despair.”

As poor Sally tries to figure out what’s going on, she encounters the ghost of Detective Edmonds.

Edmonds gives Sally something he found in the “cracks.” It’s a six-inch needle. As Sally observes her soul being eaten, she warns the twins: “someone’ll stop you one day…”

I would hope so. Is that someone Freya, Sally’s older sister?

It’s 2006 and the loss of her sister Sally haunts Freya, now a New York journalist. She interviews Fred, a witness to the disappearance of Nathan and his mother. Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins and their unsavory magic. Alas, Fred isn’t really Fred and the barkeep isn’t a barkeep.

You guessed it. It’s the Jonah and Norah show.

Soon, Freya finds herself immobilized, her soul emerging as the twins prepare to chow down. Then the needle (found in the cracks) that was shown in Act Four appears again. Sally’s ghost makes good on that promise of “someone” to make the pair pay.

Score one for humanity when Sal plunges it into Jonah’s neck. How’s that for “seasoning,” bitches!

Freya still dies, but her soul remains hers. Not only is Jonah incapacitated, but also dinner plans are cancelled.

The next one is nine years away. What to do?

The answer is nothing until 2015. Dinner-to-be is Iris Marinus-Fenby, an academic specializing in paranormal phenomena. Mitchell fans know that Marinus is a character appearing in numerous Mitchell novels. In The Bone Clocks, Marinus is a Horologist.

Jonah is weak and fading fast; Norah is desperate for a hearty meal to power up the orison, save her brother and herself from certain death.

This time we know something they don’t. Iris seems an easy, juicy target, but things keep going wrong. Norah improvises and all is going well until Iris reveals her true nature. Jonah becomes a pile of ash. Just as Norah begins to die, she spots a pregnant woman and takes up residence within the fetus. Norah vows revenge and we have the setup for another Mitchell soul sucking tale.

I wish Mitchell would give his human characters in The Bone Clocks and Slade House more power.

The conflict was much easier to follow in Slade House because when we listen in on the twins, they spell out who they are and what they want; however, the humans remain clueless. In Dracula, Van Helsing explains the nature of Dracula’s evil. Jonathan knows what he’s up against and chooses to fight.

In the war between the Horologists and Anchorites, we’re collateral damage, seen as pets or a natural resource.

Horologists are the SPCA and the Anchorites are Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mitchell is very good at rendering character types, but for me, with the possible exception of Holly Sykes, there is no soul to eat. Regardless, Slade House was a very good read, easy to follow and understand, though it abruptly ended when it should have been just starting.

Okay, Mr. Mitchell, I’d like some more, please.