Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Cloud Atlas



Wow!

That word is not sufficient to describe the experience of watching Cloud Atlas, a breathtaking work of cinematic art made by one of my favourite directors, Tom Tykwer, together with the Wachowski siblings. All three of these writers/directors enjoy thinking outside the box and experimenting with new ways of making film. This film certainly qualifies as such an experiment, though it’s a big budget experiment with clear ties to Hollywood (even if independently financed).

There were times when Cloud Atlas felt like a Hollywood film, but mostly it felt like an odd European film (something Terry Gilliam might make, for example), which it is. It’s very long but it’s the kind of film you don’t want to end. And it doesn’t feel long because it never slows down long enough to notice the passage of time. More specifically, very few scenes are more than a minute in length and I’m sure the majority are closer to twenty seconds. If that isn’t hard enough on those of us who still have long attention spans, the scenes bounce back and forth through 500 years of time (between 1849 and 2349), telling six different stories which happen to feature most of the same actors (well-disguised, of course, though I recognized most of them immediately). I will make no attempt to tell you what the six stories are about.

By now, you should have a feel for how bizarre a film Cloud Atlas is. It’s a sci-fi film, an action-adventure film, an historical drama, a mystery, a romance and so on. One does eventually get into each of the six stories, short scene by short scene, but trying to tie the six stories together to see the big picture of how lives across time impact each other is a feat that surely can’t be contemplated until a second or third viewing, which is absolutely required, though I’m not sure how I’ll pull it off before it leaves the theatres (since I am on the road for most of the next month). 

Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Tykwer-favourite, Ben Whishaw, among others. Each of these plays five or six different roles and, for the most part, they do so extremely well. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, the score is magnificent and the six stories are all worth watching, though I appreciated some much more than others. Cloud Atlas is based on the novel by David Mitchell, which has been sitting in a stack of books beside my bed for three years, waiting to be read. Had I known what it was about, I suspect I would have read it long ago. Now I am both afraid and eager to do so. 

As wonderful as Cloud Atlas is, it suffers, alas, from at least one serious flaw, one that I am particularly sensitive to, namely redemptive violence. While some of the stories are much more violent than others, it is a feature found in most of them and almost always in a redemptive (often revengeful) way that I abhor. So sad. As in Looper, the violence is not meant to be enjoyed, even when a baddie gets it, so that’s good, at least. 

Of course, the violence is part of the big picture in Cloud Atlas, a big picture which has to do with standing up (like Jesus? - there is at least one crucifixion scene) against the Domination Systems of whatever time you happen to find yourself in and, well, darn if that isn’t as good a reason to make a film as any I can think of, even if you mess it up with violence. Cloud Atlas is not content with dealing with just one favourite theme of mine but also throws in the themes of how we are all connected, impacting the lives around us every minute (even the lives of people in the distant future), and how, as one character says twice, “By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” 

Cloud Atlas is full of memorable lines and wondrous ideas. I suspect I will love it even more after the second viewing. If that is the case, it may very well become my favourite film of 2012 (though there are still some treasures awaiting at the end of what has been a dull year for film). An easy ****. My mug is up and overflowing with rich flavours.

BUT BE WARNED: Many critics panned Cloud Atlas, so obviously this is not for everyone. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Music Never Stopped

Oliver Sacks' stories have long been interesting to me - whether directly in written form or occasionally in movies (Awakenings, At First Sight). He is a neurologist and likes to write about unusual cases in a very human and intriguing way.

The Music Never Stopped is another great example that is worth watching both for its fascinating example of the power of music in shaping and activating the brain and for its simple and moving story. The story begins with a couple in their sixties becoming reunited with their thirty-something son after the son is found with severe brain damage (from a benign tumour that was left far too long). As a result the son is fairly "blank" and lifeless - very difficult to connect with and incapable of forming new memories.

As the story unfolds, we see that father and son both were deeply formed by music, but the music was different and the accompanying beliefs at odds. The result was a break that left the relationship completely cut off. The movie is about how music's miraculous ability to access memory and other parts of the brain creates an opportunity for music to re-connect what it once helped to separate.

This film is filled with things to think about for fathers and sons, for considering life's priorities and for wondering about the mystery of music and all of its potential which we still barely understand. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it's a story I heartily recommend. I gladly rate it ***+ with a mug held high.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Looper (Updated!)



Wow!

Maybe I should stop there. For regular readers, that one word communicates all you need to know (indeed, even more than you should know) except for a warning that Looper is a very very violent film. Not that it will be the first time that a violent film makes into my Top Ten (though I don’t always admit it publicly).

If the violence doesn’t scare you off, you might consider reading the rest of this review after watching the film, although, unlike a certain Mr. Ebert, I have no intention of writing any spoilers in my initial review (Ebert goes so far as to say that he isn’t giving too much away, but he gives EVERYTHING away). 

So what we have here is a critically-acclaimed futuristic neo-noir time travel thriller. For some of us, that’s enough to make us run to the theatre, even if the concept of time travel is hopelessly illogical and it is therefore unlikely the film will make sense. And indeed the sci-fi time travel background story in Looper doesn’t really make sense and cannot, in my humble opinion, withstand intellectual scrutiny. Still (and I am reluctant to say this much), time travel is not (IMHO) what Looper is really about.

Looper takes place in Kansas in 2044 and 2074. Time travel is invented in 2074, but immediately outlawed. For the mob bosses in 2074, however, time travel becomes a convenient method of executing and disposing of enemies at a time when it has become otherwise difficult to do so (another largely unexplained logic flaw). So they send their enemies back to 2044 where a looper is waiting to execute them and dispose of their bodies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, one of those loopers. He works for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from 2074 who has travelled to the past to oversee the looper operation (among other things). Loopers and those they work for are killers, so they should hardly warrant any sympathetic attention from the viewers. And yet … (I am unwilling to finish this sentence at this time – catch my future self in a few weeks).

For now, I will tell you that Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is in many ways a work of genius. The writing is much much better than one usually finds in an action film, ditto the acting (where we have outstanding performances by Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt), there’s a great dystopian-future sci-fi atmosphere, a good score, excellent cinematography and something much more important than all of these (which I will only hint at by saying that Looper’s thought-provoking discussion-worthy appeal lies not in its sci-fi plot but in its philosophical musings).

Part of me thinks I need to make Looper one of the few **** offerings of 2012. But all that needless graphic violence (and the illogical plot) makes me hesitate, so I will give it a very strong ***+. It is almost certainly going to make my Top Ten of the year. My mug is up!

Update: For reasons I won't go into, I just watched Looper for the second time in six days. The result requires a reassessment of the above review. 

First, despite the inherent inconsistencies of time travel, I have to admit that Looper tries much harder than most,so I should not complain about this. Second, regarding the graphic violence which disturbed me so much, well, duh, that may be the point! The Avengers features violence which does not disturb and thus allows viewers to take pleasure in watching it. That is a very bad thing. Looper, on the other hand, does not allow you to enjoy the violence. It hits you like a punch in the guts. Violence should be disturbing. So if you feel you have to make it graphic in order to make it properly disturbing, I suppose that too should be forgiven.

Finally, and this is the most important thing, I actually appreciated Looper more the second time around, even after only six days. That is an awesome achievement. So Looper now gets a solid **** and is assured a place in my top five films of 2012. But keep in mind that I have not yet mentioned exactly why I like this film so much. A lengthy theological reflection is called for and will come in due course (after most potential viewers have had a chance to see Looper at the theatre).

I promised more theological reflection on Looper. This can be found at: http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/punch-gut

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower



Teenage romances not being high on my list of favourite genres, I must confess I probably would have missed this film altogether if I hadn’t been given a pass for an advance screening. That would have been a shame, because The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an altogether captivating film with more than enough positive qualities to overcome its flaws.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own bestselling novel. That’s unique in its own way and I think it’s responsible for the film’s most endearing quality, which is the honesty that flows throughout. It is also responsible for the fact that the film is intelligently-written and carefully structured. This is an indie film and I understand it is fairly low-budget, but the production values are top-notch and the film is perfectly cast (and very well-acted). 

Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, the wallflower in question. He’s a lonely, troubled but brilliant artist-type kid just starting high school. When a classmate is mistreated by a teacher and acquires a bad nickname, Charlie seeks him out and they become friends. Patrick, the friend, is played by Ezra Miller, who was so outstanding in We Need to Talk About Kevin. He is just as good here as Charlie’s gay friend. Patrick has a kindhearted step-sister named Sam, played by Emma Watson (from Harry Potter), and Charlie falls in love. Patrick and Sam introduce Charlie to their little band of outsiders and the next thing you know he is attending one of those special midnight The Rocky Horror Picture Show events. Charlie’s fortunes seem to be improving, but of course there are hard times coming and there are reasons why he is such a troubled teenager.

I liked the flow of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the way the film changed in the last half hour. That worked for me. I also liked the themes of teenage friendship (especially among alienated outsiders) and the importance of mix tapes and certain types of music back in high school. I just finished listening to a bunch of mix tapes I created when I was in high school, so the nostalgia was working for me. Unfortunately, this is also where the film failed me. If Charlie is a wallflower, then what did that make me? Charlie had far more friends and dates and a much more active social life than I would have even dreamed possible when I was his age. A wallflower? I don’t think so. If you want to hear about a wallflower, check out one of those songs I was listening to from 1975: Janis Ian's "At Seventeen".

And then there was the disappointment, especially in an indie film, of seeing the typical middle class environment of far too many Hollywood films (though this is not a typical Hollywood film in other ways). These teenagers lived lives of suburban privilege that made it harder for me to engage with their anxieties. There were a number of related disappointments, but I’ve said enough. Overall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a superior film and gets ***+. My mug is up.