Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cloud Atlas Revisited



I read David Micthell’s novel during the summer. I almost wish I hadn’t. If you have read the comments following my review of Cloud Atlas, you will already have seen my initial reflections on the first half of the novel. I will include those reflections here as well.

You may recall that Cloud Atlas was my favourite film of 2012; this in spite of my major complaint about the redemptive violence that is featured in most of the six stories that make up the film. In my review, I mentioned my hope that the redemptive violence was in the film because it was in Mitchell’s novel and the filmmakers wanted to remain true to that novel. When I learned of the close collaboration between Mitchell and the directors (Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski), my hope seemed well-founded. Not so much.

In fact, the six stories in the novel were almost all better than their film versions. The Sonmi story in particular was a revelation, easily my favourite in the book. Imagine my shock and disappointment (with respect to the film) when I read a story that featured no violence whatsoever on Sonmi’s behalf. There was no grand shoot-out in Sonmi’s rescue or in her defense when she is captured. Sure there is a line in the novel where Sonmi advocates violence if necessary to end the horrific abuse and slaughter of fabricants. Like elsewhere in the novel, the attitude toward violence is ambiguous at best. But following the recording of her video, Sonmi allows herself to be captured without violence. That’s because her boyfriend Hae-Joo was really an ‘agent provocateur’. Yes, the most fascinating and entertaining story in the novel was turned into something completely different in the film: a bizarre special-effects romance/action/sci-fi. How Mitchell could have allowed this travesty is beyond my understanding.

The first story of the novel, Adam Ewing’s adventure in the South Pacific in 1849, also suffered from a new ending. In the novel, the good doctor is not killed for his crimes but slips away once his evil deeds are revealed. This story also includes an account of the Moriori people who lived on the islands of New Zealand before being wiped out or enslaved by the Maori. The Moriori were pacifists who refused to use violence even to defend themselves. Again, the novel doesn’t exactly support the pacifist position, suggesting as it does that the Moriori were wiped out precisely because they refused to fight, but it is nevertheless a fascinating account of what is portrayed as a unique and marvelous people. 

Then there is the story from the far future, which points to a major flaw in both the novel and the film. In this story, we see the protagonist (Zachry) slitting the throat of a Kona man who has passed out in Zachry's home (the Kona had just wiped out the village, enslaving the survivors). Zachry had been given three prophetic warnings earlier in his life, warnings which he took very seriously. The first warning was not to kill Meronym by cutting the rope which would have led to her death. The third warning was not to cross a certain bridge. Zachry heeds both of those warnings and the results have a very positive outcome in his life. The second warning is not to slit the sleeping man's throat. The warning causes him to hesitate, but he kills the man anyway, though he is convinced that he will suffer dire consequences as a result. Indeed, he lives in constant fear every minute that he will suffer those consequences. But as far as I can determine, the only consequence of that action is that he gets an arrow through his leg. Painful, yes, but it eventually heals with no long-term effect and hardly seems worth the warning. So what was the big deal? On top of that is the inner conversation Zachry has just before killing the sleeping man, a conversation in which he convincingly argues against the killing of the man because: 1) his people forbid the stealing of another person's life, saying it will poison the killer's soul and such a person is then shunned for life lest they infect other's souls; 2) this act of revenge would not bring his family back to him; 3) it would "stone" his soul; 4) he himself, or his brother, might have been born a Kona or adopted by Konas and so it was like he was killing himself or his brother; and 5) Old Georgie clearly WANTED Zachry to kill this man. All very good arguments but he kills the man anyway, saying that "in our busted world, the right thing ain't always possible”. Okay, I understand where Zachry and the writer (Mitchell) are coming from, and I wish some of that conversation and hesitation had been conveyed in the film, but ultimately all of the "redemptive" violence in the story is excused in one way or another as part of what it means to be human. Killing the Kona was seemingly supposed to result in consequences which would make Zachry ultimately regret the human impulse of revenge, but I find no evidence of such consequences.
Perhaps you have noticed that all three of these highlighted stories were directed by the Wachowskis. For this, at least, I am grateful, because it allows me to maintain the illusion that Tykwer (who directed the other three stories) and I are kindred spirits. But my disappointment with the Wachowski half of the film is profound. I will never be able to watch Cloud Atlas again without seeing how much better it could have been had it remained more faithful to the novel.
Nevertheless, let me be clear that in many ways I liked the film better than the novel and Cloud Atlas will remain my favourite film of 2012. As someone who has little time to read novels and can take months to read a 530-page book, I found the structure of the novel extremely difficult. It highlights for me the amazing genius of Tykwer and the Wachowskis in the way they chose to structure the film. Indeed, this structure is so brilliant that it adds many layers of meaning to the stories in the novel and turns a good novel into a masterpiece while at the same time reducing some great stories to mediocrity through the use of action and redemptive violence. If Cloud Atlas the film had remained faithful to the content of the stories, it might have become one of my top ten films of all time. Now it will be lucky to break into my top 100. So very sad!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Lore



There is a lot that is painful about watching Lore. Perhaps at the most shallow level, it is painful to watch a film where a baby cries this much. But there are lots of good reasons to cry.


The film is set in the dying days of WWII, and the death of Nazi dreams and German confidence did not come easily. Over the course of the film, the teenaged German protagonist who is left to care for her four siblings in incredibly trying circumstances is stripped of pretty much everything that made her life seem secure and beautiful. She is shaken to the core, and the audience is invited to come along on a pretty rough journey, a purgatory of sorts.

The acting is solid, though perhaps not perfect – but then it's pretty hard to know how such deep inner conflicts would look in real life. Perhaps it was done very well. The artistic touches seem to enhance the movie instead of taking over. (Terrence Malick should pay attention to this skill, but I know he's not, unfortunately, trying for the same thing.)

Since my mom's family experienced the chaos of being refugees in Germany at this same time, it was easy to connect personally to this film, which made it even more painful to watch. But perhaps the most painful moment came on reflection of reading another review of this film: “'Lore' offers up its lessons for all time. Citizens everywhere are often lost in the fog of their nation's propaganda, until reality comes crashing in…. This can't be real. I don't live in a country that could do this to innocent people." Perhaps our Western imperialist sins are not as obviously evil as the those of the Nazis, but one wonders how painful will be the waking up of our own generation of youth to the violent sins of their parents.

The film is beautiful and difficult and gets ***+ from me.

Friday, 11 October 2013

In the Air Again: The English Teacher, Now You See Me, Passion and The Way, Way Back

Bonjour from Geneva (no, it’s not a business trip). I caught four films on the way here. As usual, I will provide brief reviews, in order of my preference (worst to best):


The English Teacher

Julianne Moore stars as a lonely high school English teacher whose life changes dramatically when she bumps into a former student and decides to have her class perform his play. The English Teacher starts well but deteriorates rapidly, primarily because it tries too hard to be a comedy when it should have stuck to drama. A waste of some good talent. **+


Passion

I hadn’t even heard of Brian De Palma’s new erotic thriller until I saw it yesterday. I tend to be more generous to De Palma than most critics, but this didn’t sell me on either the characters or the acting (especially that of the two leads, Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, who are capable of better). There were scenes I appreciated and the story (woman murders wicked boss; or does she?) had potential, but in the end the plot was just too weird (i.e. it wasn’t credible). I was disappointed. **+


The Way, Way Back

This was a comedy drama that stuck mostly to drama, which was good, because the comedy was lame. The drama (typical teenager coming of age stuff) was intelligent and fairly well acted (by Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette and Steve Carell) and The Way, Way Back is a solid piece of entertainment, but nothing to get excited about. ***


Now You See Me

This was the surprise of the trip, much better than the critics had led me to believe it would be. Sure, this magician heist flick lacks depth (the characters are extremely superficial) and the car chase is ridiculous and not remotely credible, but it’s fun, it’s challenging and it makes for a fast-moving and diverting flight film. I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent in the surprising lead roles, and it was fun to see Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine back again (after Dark Knight). A solid ***. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Lovelace



What makes Lovelace special is the unique way it tells the story of how Linda Lovelace got involved in the porn industry (and the first big porn hit, Deep Throat). Specifically, the film tells the story twice, the second time from Linda’s point of view, which is very different from the story presented to the public prior to the release of Linda’s autobiography (upon which the film is based).

Lovelace, directed by Jeffrey Friedman, has a great period feel (1970’s), using 70’s style cinematography to help create that feel. The acting is good, with Amanda Seyfried quite convincing as the film’s protagonist, and Peter Sarsgaard, who did not fare so well in Blue Jasmine, commendable as Charles Traynor, Linda’s husband. 

Unfortunately, Lovelace doesn’t live up to its potential, providing little real depth to the characters or the story, which was frequently handled in the way too many true stories are  handled, namely in a way that feels pedestrian. Nevertheless, this fascinating account is deserving of ***. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

I'm So Excited



Pedro Almodovar is one of my favourite directors and there are very few of his many films which I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. I’m So Excited is no exception, but I would call this one of Almodovar’s lesser efforts. 

I’m So Excited is an absurd comedy about a plane with a malfunctioning landing system and its dysfunctional flight attendants (not to mention the dysfunctional ground crew, featuring wonderful cameos by Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, who made the blunder which resulted in the malfunction). If this sounds a little like Airplane, I think it’s supposed to. Unfortunately, in spite of some hilarious scenes, I’m So Excited doesn’t come close to Airplane (many of the jokes fall flat, at least for a North American audience) and its biggest flaw is its apparent attempts to try. 

The film’s biggest strength comes from viewing it as a metaphor for how we, as a society, are reacting to our global malfunctioning ‘landing system’ which is destined for a crash. Like the plane’s passengers and crew, we eat, drink, have sex and worry about our personal problems while hoping that someone out there knows what to do to prevent the imminent disaster. This metaphor adds depth to an otherwise lightweight and rather hollow exercise. 

Another strength of the film is its gorgeous cinematography, all the more amazing when you consider that I’m So Excited is filmed almost entirely inside a plane. The brilliant colours are, of course, typical of Almodovar films. The acting is okay but not outstanding.

The bottom line is that I had fun watching I’m So Excited, but I was also disappointed, for I have come to expect much more from Almodovar. ***. My mug is up but this one is recommended primarily for Almodovar fans.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Gravity



Science fiction thriller, George Clooney, Alfonso Cuaron, rave reviews: I had to rush out on opening night. But my expectations could not have been higher, which is the worst way to enter the cinema.

So let’s start with some griping: 3D! Yeah, I had to watch it in 3D. Supposedly, this is a film that absolutely requires 3D to be effective. Well, I’d have to see the 2D version to determine the accuracy of that statement. But to all those critics who say Gravity is such a beautiful film, I can only repeat: For me, 3D makes everything ugly and Gravity is no exception. 

Next gripe: I could also argue that, unlike Cuaron's Children of Men, Gravity doesn't really feel like a sci-fi or a thriller (though it’s certainly thrilling). 

Am I on my way to telling you how disappointed I was with Gravity? Let me answer that by summing up the film’s positive attributes: WOW!

Yeah, you know what that means. It means we have a winner. Gravity is not like any film you have seen before. I’m not sure it even classifies as a film. It’s more of a thrill ride, though not in an “action” sense (the action is so unique it doesn’t feel like action), because it makes viewers think it is happening to them (I suppose that's why the 3D is essential?). What Gravity certainly is is a work of breathtaking cinematic art.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play shuttle astronauts who are doing repair work in space (in orbit around the earth, to be precise) when a distant explosion sends a deadly cloud of satellite debris in their direction. Bad things happen very quickly and soon their lives are almost literally hanging by a thread. The film has barely started, but I won’t say more, except that Gravity is both a very simple film and a very profound film. It's about what goes on inside a person's mind as much as it is about what's happening to her. It’s about life and death. It’s about God. It’s about being human. I would say more, but I’m thinking of writing a review for Canadian Mennonite, so I’ll save it for now.

I'm not a Sandra Bullock fan, but her performance in Gravity is flawless and part of what makes the film work so well. Another part is the excellent score by Stephen Price. 

Despite the 3D, Gravity gets an easy ****. Do not miss seeing this on the big screen! My mug is up and Gravity will surely be in my top ten of the year.