Monday, February 18, 2013

Review - Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell has said that he had the thought "It's a shame this is unfilmable" as he was writing Cloud Atlas. Less than a decade later, Lana and Andy Wachowski, with the help of Tom Tykwer, have taken up the challenge, although the question of whether or not the book really is unfilmable probably depends on what you think of their finished product. Mitchell's acclaimed novel tells six stories spanning centuries, beginning in the middle of the 19th century and building up to a passage set in a far-off future, before then working back and completing the tales in reverse chronological order. It would be an enormous undertaking to adapt this book into a single coherent film, and the filmmakers certainly deserve some credit for pulling it off to the extent that they have.

I wish I could give them more credit than that, but actually getting Cloud Atlas to the screen is as far as their achievement goes. In tackling Mitchell's complex narrative structure, in which the self-contained, tangentially linked stories are nested within one another, the Wachowskis and Tykwer have chosen to tell the tales in parallel and cut frequently between them. Each of these threads is connected in some way to the next, and the filmmakers attempt to further unify the whole piece by having the same core group of actors play the key roles in each segment, with their performances transcending age, race, nationality and gender. All of which means that Cloud Atlas is a film unlike any other, but not necessarily in a good way.

Chronologically speaking, Cloud Atlas begins on a ship heading for the Pacific Islands in 1849, where American notary Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is being poisoned by a nefarious doctor (Tom Hanks). Over 80 years later, we find young gay musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaving his lover (James D'Arcy) to travel to Edinburgh, where he acts as an amanuensis to veteran composer (Jim Broadbent) and works on his Cloud Atlas symphony. In the 1970s, Halle Berry is an investigative journalist who unearths corruption at a nuclear power plant and finds her life in danger as a result. In modern-day London, Broadbent again appears as a publisher landed in water when a gangster-turned-author (Hanks again) demands payment for his unexpected bestseller. We're in the future now (keep up!), 2144 to be precise, and Neo Seoul is a dystopian society where a female "Fabricant" played by Doona Bae may be the chosen one to lead an uprising against an oppressive regime. Finally, in a post-apocalyptic time described only as "106 Winters after The Fall," Hanks and Berry reunite as two tribe members trying to unlock the secret that lies at the top of a mountain, and spouting a lot of incomprehensible gobbledegook as they do so.

Phew! The first thing to say about this collection of narratives is that it's too much for a single film to contain. There are too many competing storylines, too many clashing styles and tones. The best part of the film is the 1930s segment, in which Whishaw and D'Arcy manage to find moments of wistful tenderness, and it might have made a decent standalone film in its own right, but chopping this story up and throwing it into the blender with five other films of varying quality only diminishes them all. The romantic yearning of Frobisher's tale rubs uncomfortably against the Matrix-style trappings of the Neo Seoul sequences, the visually dull and dramatically inert '70s business, or the excruciating broad comedy of the 2012 sequence. The manner in which the film hops between these underdeveloped storylines is erratic and the editing fails to illuminate the parallels between the film's disparate strands in any kind of interesting way, only causing a long film to feel baggy and bloated. I've watched four-hour movies that feel shorter than Cloud Atlas because the film is never allowed to build a natural flow or momentum. Every time I started to get drawn into one of the narratives the film would suddenly cut away to another storyline, and this sense of stunted rhythm, of consistently having to readjust, made it impossible for me to connect with the drama.

The other distracting element of Cloud Atlas is the cast. The actors all seem to be having the time of their lives, and why wouldn't they be? It's not every day you get asked to play characters young and old, male and female, and of varying races, all within the same movie. Tom Hanks throws himself into every part with admirable gusto (his Irish gangster has to be seen to be believed), but we never forget that we're looking at Tom Hanks behind that ridiculous prosthetic nose or set of false teeth. When we're required to be scared of a marauding cannibal, the effect is neutered by the fact that said marauding cannibal is played by Hugh Grant, and asking Jim Sturgess to don Asian eye makeup in order to play a heroic Korean freedom fighter is simply asking for trouble. I understand what the filmmakers are trying to do here; the multiple performances speak to the film's idea of connectivity, of souls or a consciousness existing across time, but by the time we see Whishaw disguised as a woman for a single shot, or Broadbent as a Korean beggar barely noticeable in the background, it starts to look like nothing more than a flashy gimmick.

It gives me no pleasure to criticise Cloud Atlas. Independent films this ambitious, sincere and inclusive will have viewers in their corner by default, all willing it to succeed so we can applaud the audacious gamble. There is disappointingly little to applaud in this film, though. It seems as if all of the filmmakers' imagination was expended on the conception of their adaptation, and nothing was left for the execution of it. For all of its spectacle, Cloud Atlas has very few memorable shots, and few moments when the filmmakers express something visually rather than hammering their themes home through the incessant narration and trite homiletic dialogue ("My life exists far beyond the limitations of me." "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"). The Wachowskis and Tykwer set out to make the modern Intolerance – a grand statement on love, freedom and the human condition – but the only truth we are left to ponder at the end of it all is an uncomfortable one for the filmmakers to face. It looks like Cloud Atlas really was unfilmable after all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Paul Thomas Anderson on Robert Altman

When Robert Altman made his final film A Prairie Home Companion, a standby director was required as no insurance company would cover the film without one. Paul Thomas Anderson acted as Altman's backup on the set, saying, "Any hesitation? None. None at all, because I knew he wasn't going to die." Here he describes Altman's last moments as a director.

"The last day we shot the last scene, the one with Kevin with the garbage falling and him playing piano. That was the last thing we shot. And Bob definitely had a melancholy feeling about him, in his face. Because of the way the shot was, we were shooting the whole stage, so Bob was tucked over in Guy Noir's office. Sometimes you get in these horrible places where you just have to be for the shot. And he had a Starbucks coffee in his hand and his coat was zipped up because it was kind of cold in there and he had his glasses on. He was staring at the monitor and he just looked really sad that it was ending. I think we only did the shot twice. I remember sitting there thinking, "Fuck, do it again, do more, do more." I wanted to do more – not cause it wasn't good, but I wanted to keep shooting."

"Oh, I didn't figure on this making me sad. I thought, "Oh great, I get to talk about Bob." But it's making me feel like I'm sure everybody feels – they really wish they could call him up. Yeah, fuck! Horrible, sad. He was so indestructible for so long."

Quotes taken from Altman: The Oral Biography edited by Mitchell Zuckoff

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review - No

Much blood was spilled in Chile during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, but in his new film No, Pablo Larraín focuses on a group of men who attempted to defeat a dictator with happiness. This is a turn of events that is as welcome as it is surprising, as the previous two films in Larraín's loose trilogy of Chilean dictatorship have given us little to smile about. Tony Manero and Post Morten were grim affairs, and whatever humour they possessed was of the gallows kind, but No is the most accessible and immediately enjoyable film that the director has yet made, as well as being his most satisfying and accomplished work.

No takes place in 1988, the year in which Pinochet, under increasing international pressure, was forced to hold a referendum to decide the country's future. The nation was asked a simple question, to decide whether they wanted the current regime to stay in power, and they had to answer YES or NO. In a gesture towards democracy, the state-controlled television networks allowed 15 minutes of airtime per day in the month leading up to the vote for the NO campaign to put forward its argument. In an unexpected move, the NO campaign largely eschewed the traditional tactics of opposition parties by painting an upbeat vision of what life could be like after Pinochet instead of focusing on the abuses committed by his dictatorship. They sold freedom from Pinochet as if it was the latest must-have product.

That approach makes more sense when we see that the NO campaign is being orchestrated by advertising creative René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a fictional creation who represents the large advertising team behind the commercials. We first see him pitching his campaign for a new soft drink, with a fast-paced advert and aspirational language, and he uses these same techniques when he is hired to work on the NO campaign. He creates a jingle, a colourful logo (with a rainbow indicating the disparate opposition parties working together) and a series of TV commercials that are filled with optimistic imagery and good humour. The images used in these adverts had little to do with the everyday lives of ordinary Chileans – a family eating baguettes at a picnic, a very tall Scandinavian-looking man are two of many incongruities – but after initially being dismissed as trivial escapades, the NO campaign gradually began to win the hearts and minds of voters, and unsettle the establishment.

Larraín's previous two films had protagonists who existed outside the political system, but No focuses on a character who finds himself at the heart of it. René Saavedra initially appears to be an apolitical character who takes on this project as a job like any other, and his ex-wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers) appears to be the real political firebrand in the family, but he later reveals that he was an exile. No's screenplay (by Pedro Peirano, who pulled off a similar balancing act with The Maid) is a marvel in the way it folds exposition and political details into a compelling and funny narrative. Larraín neatly flits between high-spirited sequences of creation and political subversion to tense scenes of intimidation, with Saavedra and his cohorts being menaced and followed by shady government operatives. The one aspect of the film that doesn't quite fit is the domestic story, with Saavedra's ex-wife and young son being awkwardly inserted into the story without making much impact.

No is a film set in the 80s and in every respect it is a brilliant evocation of that era. The integration of real news footage and commercials into the picture is particularly impressive, and it is facilitated through No's most daring aesthetic decision. The whole film has been shot on U-matic video, with the flat, square and ugly images making it look like a cheap soap opera. It does take some getting used to (as does Larraín's habit of cutting conversations across different locations) but it allows for a seamless blending of reality and fiction, paying particular dividends at the end of the film when Saavedra goes out on the day of the vote and finds himself caught in the midst of violence. No achieves the trick of gripping us as it moves towards a result we are already familiar with, and the climactic scenes of joy are exhilarating to witness, even as the director tempers them with a more ambiguous final scene. From the evidence of his previous work, I would never have guessed that I could have enjoyed a Pablo Larraín film as much as this. It seems the director has taken the advice of his protagonist – sometimes changing the tone and having a little fun is the most effective way to get your message across.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Japan

The Japan Foundation's annual film season brings recent Japanese cinema to the UK, and gives many films screenings in this country that they otherwise would never have. The 2013 season has been entitled Once Upon a Time in Japan, and it consists of a number of films set in the country's past, from 20th century stories to tales from centuries ago. The programme is eclectic enough to provide films for every taste, and here's my brief take on a few highlights.

Rebirth (Yôkame no semi)

Izuru Narushima's Rebirth opens in a courtroom, with two women making statements directly to the camera. One is Etsuko (Yôko Moriguchi), a woman whose newborn baby Erina was abducted for the first four years of her life, and who now demands that the culprit receive the death sentence. The second woman to speak is Kiwako (Hiromi Nagasaku), the kidnapper awaiting her fate, but she expresses no remorse for her crime. Instead, she tells the court of her sadness at the loss of a child she has come to think of as her own. This is the starting point for a complicated and absorbing examination of the maternal instinct, with Narushima and his screenwriter Satoko Okudera muddying the moral waters by shifting our sympathies in unexpected ways. Kiwako's relationship with the child – whom she renames Kaoru – is depicted as a loving one, with Kiwako being the kind of caring and attentive parent to Erina that her natural mother seems incapable of being. As well as exploring the question of nature vs. nurture through this storyline, Narushima depicts the psychological impact of this experience with a parallel narrative, in which the adult Erina (Mao Inoue) slowly comes to terms with her past. Rebirth consistently develops in surprising ways and the compelling performances from the female cast keeps the audience riveted when the pace occasionally lags, which happens rarely, as Narushima skilfully juggles between his two tales. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Narushima's direction is the way he tells this potentially melodramatic story while keeping sentimentality mostly at bay, and the film's key moments are all the more affecting for being handled in an understated manner.

Zero Focus (Zero no shôten)

Seicho Matsumoto's mystery novel Zero Focus has already been filmed once, by Yoshitaro Nomura in 1961, and the first difference that stands out with this 2009 version is the addition of 35 minutes to the running time. Those extra minutes really start to make their presence felt as Isshin Inudô's film gets bogged down in plot details and forgets to provide the thrills that this story should really possess. The film has an intriguing premise to work with: new bride Teiko (Ryôko Hirosue) is prompted to investigate her husband's clandestine past when he disappears a week into their marriage. As she digs deeper, Teiko comes into contact with two other women who each have their own connection with her missing spouse, Sachiko (Miki Nakatani) and Hisako (Tae Kimura), and learns of a serial killer on the loose. Regrettably, none of this is as exciting as it sounds. The film plods along at a lugubrious pace, and the impact of its most important revelations are lost underneath thick layers of talky exposition and red herrings. Even as the bodies start to pile up, Zero Focus never grips as it should, and one starts to suspect that more attention has been paid to the admittedly handsome recreation of post-war Japan than to the mechanics of the storytelling. Zero Focus does have one big asset however – Miki Nakatani. She has a commanding screen presence that none of the actors around her can live with, and when she isn't on screen, she is sorely missed.

Castle Under Fiery Skies (Katen no shiro)

A terrific performance from Toshiyuki Nishida is at the centre of Mitsutoshi Tanaka's Castle Under Fiery Skies. He plays the humble architect and carpenter Motaemon, who is summoned by Lord Nobunaga when the ambitious lord wishes to build an enormous mountaintop castle that will stand as the focal point of the whole country. The logistics of building this gigantic structure within Nobunaga's specified deadline of three years forms the dramatic thrust of the film, which is at its best when it focuses on the process involved in overcoming the various challenges that Motaemon faces. These include finding the perfect cypress tree with which to create the castle's central column and – in the movie's best scene – successfully lifting the whole structure in order to make some minor adjustments. At other times, Castle Under Fiery Skies struggles to imbue its supporting characters with any depth, which makes the time spent with them feel like time wasted, and some of the film's more spectacular set-pieces feel as if they have been arbitrarily inserted because the filmmakers fear their story isn't exciting enough. They needn't worry; even if it may lack much in the way of conventional excitement, Castle Under Fiery Skies is an interesting and unusual tale, impressively mounted and engrossingly told.

Ninja Kids!!! (Nintama Rantarô)

Ninja Kids!!! was released in Japan in 2011, which makes it old news as far as Takashi Miike is concerned. The ultra-prolific director has made four films since this one, but Ninja Kids!!! is worth a look as it's something of a rarity among Miike's work, being very much a film aimed at children. An adaptation of a popular Japanese cartoon, the film doesn't really have much of a story, instead settling for an endless barrage of broad gags. Most of the jokes surround explosions of snot, people stepping in dog shit, and adults getting hit on the head with a variety of objects (sometimes resulting in a cartoonish purple bruise right in the middle of their forehead). I guess I shouldn't gripe about such an approach when the three exclamation points in the title don't exactly suggest a restrained piece of filmmaking, but it all does grow rather relentless and repetitive, with Miike even reusing the same shots a number of times in certain comic moments. It's hard to deny that it is pretty funny at times, though. Miike's creative energy occasionally throws up some brilliantly imaginative and hilarious shots, and while throwing everything at a movie to see what sticks usually suggests a work of desperation, this director's imagination is so fertile it simply comes off as an excess of wild ideas dumped onscreen for our enjoyment. Ninja Kids!!! is a chaotic mess, but its target audience will probably love it.

The Once Upon a Time in Japan season is currently running at the ICA. It will be visiting cinemas around the UK throughout February and March.