Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

**

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Oh, Cloud Atlas. Where does one even begin?

We could begin at the beginning, with David Mitchell’s 2004 novel. A prominent bestseller and book club favourite, it weaves several disparate stories, separated by centuries and geography, into a lesson on the repetition inherent in human experience. It earned praise, massive sales and the inevitable ‘unfilmable’ tag. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation has finally arrived, having already bombed at the US box office, and one can see why many critics thought the novel was best left unfilmed. It’s a sprawling mess of a film, with storylines struggling against each other for notice. That said, it’s a beautiful and assured mess, which must surely count for something in our age of mass-produced filmic rubbish. Right? Right?!

Cloud Atlas begins at the end, with an aged Tom Hanks by a wood fire underneath the stars waxing lyrical on human connectedness. From this humble start/finish, we jump back into six story strands, connected by various characters, themes and sometimes the most tenuous of links. The most obvious connection in all of these stories is the recurrence of several actors. Take Hanks as an example. Across the six stories, Hanks is a ship’s doctor (in the year 1849), a crummy hotel receptionist (in 1936), a nuclear physicist (1973), an Irish gangster-turned-author (present day), an actor in a film (2144) and a hunter-gatherer resident of post-apocalyptic Earth. In some of the roles, Hanks gets a raw deal in the make-up department, but other actors in other stories are nigh-on unrecognizable. This gambit clearly reflects the idea of reoccurrence and connections, but the novelty of the gimmick mutes its effectiveness. Actors change genders and races with amazing frequency, but the varying quality in make-up and performances makes for an awkward watch. See Ben Whishaw play a oddly-pretty blonde woman! See Jim Sturgess play a Korean! Watch Korean actress Doona Bae play a white woman! If you’re not surrendering to the novelty, Cloud Atlas is an equal opportunities offender. And the less said about Hugo Weaving’s Nurse Ratched clone, the better.

The most effective stories are those depending least on the prosthetics. In 1936, Ben Whishaw’s Frobisher goes to work for acclaimed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) whilst composing his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Meanwhile, in 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating the motives behind the aggressive push for nuclear power being spearheaded by Lloyd Brooks (Hugh Grant).  Unfortunately, a hitman (Hugo Weaving) is on her tail. It helps that Frobisher’s lover Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) is Rey’s source on the nuclear generator story: in other words, a genuine connection. Most other inter-story connections feel weak. It’s a long and bumpy journey from an 1800s Pacific voyage to the final remnants of humanity three centuries from now. The through-line of Cloud Atlas is incredibly muddled but should reward repeat viewings, should one be so inclined.

The performances and the filmmaking skill in these tales is fine, but the plots themselves are basic at best. Stretching any of them to feature length would require a lot of beefing up of the script. Indeed, all these plotlines are defined by either being underwritten or being rehashes of other films. Take the story in 2144, set in a futuristic Seoul with clones working as slaves for a consumerist society. When one clone, Sonmi-451 (Bae, again) is inspired to escape servitude by rebel Hae-Joo (Sturgess, again), she is forced on the run and becomes an unlikely mascot for the rebellion against Big Brother. All this from the folks who directed The Matrix? It’s all very 1999. New Seoul looks dazzling, but then the plot beats creep in and a twist taken from another film will inspire more than a few eye rolls.

Every strand has something to both leave you agape and to leave you slapping your forehead. The latter is served mostly by the present-day story of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent, again), fleeing some Irish gangsters (including Hanks, whose Dublin accent is so bad it’s almost good) and getting unwittingly committed to an old folks’ home by his brother (Grant, again!). Evidently, the novel felt a need for levity and so did the script. On its own, it stirs a mild titter; next to the New Seoul storyline, it’s as tonally out-of-place as a clown at a wake. There’s a lot in Cloud Atlas that feels like it could have been chopped, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer keep as much as they can in place. You can hardly blame them; themes of connectedness and interchangeability are endlessly fascinating and relevant (Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry, is living proof of that). That said, there have to be more subtle ways of exploring these themes than having Halle Berry play a white Jewish woman or Hugh Grant play a cannibalistic tribe leader. All this is driven by wild ambition; the size and scope of Cloud Atlas must surely make it the most ambitious film in years. However, ambition on its own does not a fully-realized vision make.

The process of adapting novels into film should be a distillation of themes and plot into an accessible-yet-true take on the source. Cloud Atlas is accessible (Jumping between plots ensures you’re never bored), but the truth is hidden in prosthetics and happenstance. Cloud Atlas has inspired, and is going to inspire, fiery reactions from both lovers and haters. Then again, something that causes such opposing reactions must be doing something right.

Review: Song For Marion (2012)

Director: Paul Andrew Williams

**

When watching and reviewing drama, it can be tricky to decide where emotionality ends and sentimentality begins. In Song For Marion, there are several moments pregnant with emotion, and then they bleed into gushy sentimentality with no restraint or compunction. Bring tissues; the film commands you do so!  Any film dealing with cancer will be necessarily emotional, but the golden rule is ‘Less is more.’ Song For Marion is not an exception to prove said rule. Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) is married to Arthur (Terence Stamp), and is suffering from a recurrence of cancer. From this setup, there’s two ways to go. The film could be dignified and restrained while still tugging the heartstrings, like Michael Haneke’s Amour. Alas, Song for Marion goes the other way, littered with clichés and mawkishness.

Marion is an active member of a seniors’ musical group, led by the eternally perky Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton at her most cutesy-poo). Arthur is forced to bring Marion to the club meetings, but she requests he take part too. Oh, but old Arthur is a grouch, and will not entertain such silly things! At one point, Marion suggests Arthur could enjoy himself in the group, but Arthur replies ‘You know how I feel about enjoying things.’ This is not a human being; this is a grumpy old man as only exploitative cinema can make them. The only cliché missing is a resentful child to blame Arthur for Marion’s illness. Oh, wait; there is one! (A son, played by Christopher Eccleston).

As events proceed, and Marion’s cancer gets the better of her, Song For Marion gets sappier and sappier. Arthur’s adherence to his wife’s request to stay in the group and the prospect of a singing competition send the sugariness to diabetes-inducing levels.

Despite this, Stamp and Redgrave lend much needed dignity to the film. Her warmth and his presence elevate the film above the sappiness. One scene sees Marion lead the group in a rendition of ‘True Colours’. For a few moments, the twinkle in Redgrave’s eyes and the quiver in her voice give pause and a lump in the throat. Then, the song ends and we’re back in the sickly maw. A few more scenes come close to honesty, but by the time the climactic concert comes around, Song For Marion will have done anything to cynically make you cry, short of yanking your tear ducts out with pliers. And then, just when you think the enforced weepiness has ended, in comes Celine Dion to whinny out a tune over the end credits. MAKE IT STOP!!

The greatest shame of Song For Marion is that it was written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, who made one of the best British directorial debuts of the last decade, London To Brighton. The energy and promise he showed there has been forgotten and replaced with gushy predictability. A desire for commercial recognition is understandable, but if that is Williams’ aim he’s going about it in a most unpalatable way. Song For Marion is about as pleasant as attempting to inject nougat.

Review: Hyde Park On Hudson (2012)

Director: Roger Michell

*

This review orignally appeared on Ramp.ie

Producers must have got an idea into their heads that making a film based around even the slightest of historic events will win them prestige and awards. However, one must do the maths. The amount of prestige to be garnered is in proportion to the importance of the events being portrayed. The King’s Speech is about the monarchical crisis in Britain following Edward VIII’s abdication; it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Lincoln portrays the efforts to abolish slavery to end the American Civil War; it was a strong contender for the Best Picture Oscar this year. Hyde Park On Hudson is about royals eating hot dogs and presidents getting handjobs. It’s dreadful.

Bill Murray is everyone’s favourite eccentric charmer, but even he can’t lift this limp (if based in truth) story. In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Murray) became the first US president to host a visit from British royalty. Colin Firth does not reprise his Oscar-winning role (imagine the sequel marketing opportunities! The King Speaks… er, Again?), but Samuel West ably fills his shoes. He and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) embark on their trip to Hyde Park, NY to get support from FDR in case old Mr. Hitler acts up. Had the strategy and politics been the focus, HPOH might have been noteworthy. However, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) thinks he has a culture-clash comedy on his hands. Richard Nelson’s script devotes a lot of time to the prospect of royalty having to consume hot dogs. Unless you’re six years old, there’s nothing particularly funny about hot dogs.

All this is told from the point of view of Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR’s who is summoned to the president’s residence out of the blue. She and FDR form a close bond, sometimes uncomfortably close. Apparently, FDR’s marriage to Eleanor (Olivia Williams, wasted) was more-or-less open, and so he takes a chance to get ‘close’ to cousin. There is no point to this storyline, and historians suggest it’s spurious at best. Presenting FDR as a horny old dog is a move designed to cover up the patchiness elsewhere in the script. A little research goes a long way; a little respect for history goes further still.

West and Colman bring moments of pathos and humour as the royal couple, but even those moments can feel forced. Murray grins his way through this mess, chomping his cigarette holder with gritted teeth in a surprisingly uninteresting performance, all affectation and little insight. He must have realized what kind of a disaster he’d signed up for as soon as he arrived on set, and decided not to give a damn. At its best, Hyde Park On Hudson is a forgettable curio. At its worst, it’s a downright insulting farce.

Interview : Mea Maxima Culpa director Alex Gibney

Alex GibneyThis interview originally featured on Ramp.ie

In a career of over 30 years, director Alex Gibney has proven himself most adept at capturing the fallible side of human nature in a way that is both intelligent and incisive. He’s charted the falls from grace of Enron and Eliot Spitzer. He’s probed the demons that drove the genius of Hunter S. Thompson. He won an Oscar for his examination of the practice of torture by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. All these films blend smart filmmaking with a humanity right at the core, and the same is especially true of his latest film.

In Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence of the House Of God, Gibney charts the efforts of the Vatican to cover up the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. His approach is to tell the tale from the point of view of four victims of one of the first acknowledged cases in the United States. Fr. Lawrence Murphy molested up to 200 children at the former St. John School for The Deaf in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four of Murphy’s now-adult victims share their story, and from there Gibney charts the scandal all the way to the Vatican, revealing other countries’ experience of abuse along the way, including Ireland. It’s harrowing but also necessarily upfront and honest. In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, questions will be asked of the reason’s surrounding the resignation, and Mea Maxima Culpa could well stoke the fire.

Gibney’s film is informed by his own experiences. As a lapsed Catholic, the resulting film benefits from his knowledge and own understanding of how the Church works. We caught up with Gibney a few days after the screening of Mea Maxima Culpa at the London Film Festival in October.

 

THE FILM CYNIC: Before you made Mea Maxima Culpa, how aware were you of the problem of abuse in the Catholic Church in the US?

ALEX GIBNEY: You know, it’s a funny thing because now that I look back, I mean I suppose I should have been aware when I was young. You know, some of the lead-in questions the priests would ask me and my pals about sex, and also certain joking references like, ‘Don’t be going back in the sacristy with Fr. Hanlon’. But it was all said in a sort of joking way, like it was just part of the deal. So I think, like everybody else, I wasn’t really made powerfully aware of it until 2002. I mean, I remember Sinéad O’Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, and I remember some other incidents, but it was 2002 when it became really evident.

Many people remember Sinéad O’Connor doing that.

She was in the film for a while, and that moment was in the film for a while, but not any more.

When it came to investigations and interviewing the victims, were they keen to talk?

I think so. I mean, all of them didn’t agree at first, but we did persuade them all to come on board. And I think all of them felt the silence had been eating them up inside, so talking was actually something they could do that was actually healing the pain.

It’s interesting, when we had the US première of the film at the Milwaukee Film Festival, a lot of the survivors turned up, and the Church issued a statement that said ‘Oh, isn’t this too bad that this… This is a story that happened a long time ago. It feels like the picking of the scab of an old wound that is only doing damage to the victims themselves.’ Which was of course a pathetically self-serving statement by the Church, but they’re also dead wrong. The fact was this ability and willingness to speak out was actually part of a healing process, not part of a scab-picking.

Was the idea to focus on the Milwaukee case, or was the expansion into other countries always part of the film?

It was always part of it, but it was not necessarily all the countries. This case in particular (St. John School for the Deaf) seemed so powerful in part because of how horrific it was, but also because the documents did lead you straight up the chain all the way to the top. I felt other films had been done about victims in the past, but what hadn’t been done was a powerful story that would lead to the top, and a powerful story that had at its heart a bunch of characters who are heroes in some fundamental way. So all those things convinced me.

Mea-Maxima-Culpa-Silence-in-the-House-of-God-2-300x200
Mea Maxima Culpa charts the scale of the abuse, right up to culpabilty of the Pope in its denial and suppression.

But the biggest problem in the cutting room was how to balance it with the intimate story, which was very moving and so resonant when we started to find these old home movies of the period in Milwaukee. When we cut it, we had about 80 minutes of the Milwaukee story, and it was a riveting story. But I think we knew that we had to balance them out, so the hardest part in the cutting room was to figure out that right balance.

Honestly, Ireland wasn’t necessarily organically related. I mean, there’s nothing about the Murphy report. In fact, it was causing us problems; we had Laurence Murphy in Wisconsin and the Murphy report in Ireland. We have a Fr. Walsh in Wisconsin and a Fr. Walsh in Dublin. What was powerful about Ireland for us, and why we had to figure out a way into the story, was because the landscape changed so radically in Ireland. It was vital to show how change could occur.

That change manifested itself in events like the speech by Enda Kenny…

Unbelievable speech! ‘The rape and torture of children’.

Which it was. And some Church authorities backed up him up on that. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, for example.

I think Diarmuid Martin is, in his own way, a hero. We tried to talk to him; for whatever reason he decided not to.  He did a heroic thing by leaking those documents to the Murphy Commission. But his career in the Church is over.

I think also the Irish situation, if I may, is writ large what is the situation for many Catholics. I mean, priests say ‘If we get them young, we never lose them’. I’ve experienced this myself; there’s a woman in the film who says it (Catholicism) is like a blood type. But I think, for a lot of Catholics, it’s just who you are and so it’s very difficult to denounce the Church because it’s like denouncing yourself. And in Ireland, Catholicism is so bound up in nationalism and resistance to the British crown and all of that, so it’s very hard to give that up.

Even though we’ve gone beyond that degree of nationalism in the Republic, Catholicism is just accepted as a norm.

That’s what makes it remarkable that the change has happened. It think it’s a testament to just how grievous the crimes were. I was told that Desmond Connell’s line got a laugh (In an archive interview with former Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell, when asked why he didn’t visit with abuse victims, he claimed he had too much work to do). In the States, it gets a sucking-in of breath, but it is a remarkable comment when someone says they have so much to do.

Is there anything the Church can do to pull itself out of this mire?

Yeah: open up the archives. Secrecy was the crime, so end the secrecy. What would be wrong with that? I mean, if you’re an institution devoted to power, you could understand why that’s a problem, but if you’re an institution devoted to charity and love, as the Catholic Church would like us to believe, then what would be wrong with opening up all the archives and showing us all the documents?

Review: A Liar’s Autobiography (2012)

Directors: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

***

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

They never make biopics about boring people, do they? We cinema-goers want to hear about the tragedies and successes of the exotic and interesting. With those criteria, the late Graham Chapman fits the bill nicely. A gay alcoholic eccentric, the nominal leading man of the Monty Python crew led a colourful life but, as the title suggests, A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman may not reveal everything, despite the omnipresence of genitalia throughout the film, all in 3D.

A Liar’s Autobiography is based on narration and interviews recorded by Chapman before his death from tonsil and spinal cancer in 1989. From these recordings have been plucked fourteen animated shorts, each one animated by a different animation studio. Each short boasts a distinctive look; some are bright and cheery, whilst others are knowingly dour, depending on the tone of the material. The shorts chart a journey from Chapman’s childhood days, to his medical training, to the highs of the Python years, to his untimely death. Admirably, the entire film is very upfront about two aspects of Chapman’s life in particular: his homosexuality (Chapman came out in 1967, and was an LGBT rights champion) and his debilitating alcoholism (He was hooked on gin from his college days until the mid-‘70s). However, any insights are at the mercy of the animation and the anarchic Python-esque humour. A Liar’s Autobiography would rather sing about sex (the central musical number is a giddy ditty entitled ‘Sit On My Face’) than examine Chapman’s efforts to support LGBT rights, for example. If you’re looking for documentary-style probing, look elsewhere.

With tongue buried firmly in cheek, A Liar’s Autobiography is full of irreverence and bawdiness, with some of it coming courtesy of the remaining Pythons, who contributed voiceovers to the film. It certainly upholds Chapman’s disdain for complacent good taste but, as an homage to a talented comic mind, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. Despite some laughs, A Liar’s Autobiography offers little we didn’t already know. Even at its funniest, it’s all just a bit too silly.

Review: Lincoln (2012)

Director: Steven Spielberg

****

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Early on in Lincoln, the eponymous president (Daniel Day-Lewis) sends a request to radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to support his proposal of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery with a view to ending the Civil War. Upon receipt of this offer, Stevens declares to his staff, ‘Retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment.’ Many people would have been wary of a Lincoln biopic from Steven Spielberg, especially after the dreadful War Horse. However, Stevens’ advice would be well-heeded before seeing Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln’s numerous depictions on screen, whether portrayed by Henry Fonda or Benjamin Walker, always show him as a defender of righteous causes and selfless in that defence. Lincoln is not iconoclastic, but it does shed some light on a turbulent moment in American history.

January 1865: as a new wave of bloodshed in the Civil War looms, Lincoln is under pressure to negotiate a peace with the Southern states. However, he seeks to do so by amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, to the chagrin to his Secretaries and aides. Lincoln takes us through the ins and outs of the negotiations and bribery used to secure the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives (The bribes are effected by a troupe of headhunters, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader). Is this the end of the image of Honest Abe?!

No, of course not. Politics is a game, both grubby and strategic, and Lincoln’s power as a political figure came not least from his ability to play the game. It’s a refreshing take on this oft-idealized figure. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals, Tony Kushner’s script is pleasantly erudite. The screenplay immerses itself in the debates and intense discussions anticipating the House vote. The often-antiquated language lends every pronouncement an almost-Biblical sense of power, no less than the material deserves. It helps that these words are delivered by an incredibly accomplished cast.

It is an unwritten law that Daniel Day-Lewis is never less than impressive in any given role. Chances are had he been cast in Anne Hathaway’s role in Les Misérables, he would still have aced it. Original choice Liam Neeson dropped out, but Day-Lewis seems an ideal choice. He has the frame (6’ 1”) and the presence, and his portrayal of America’s 16th president is expectedly dignified and magnetic. The slightly raised tone of voice is different for the actor and from other on-screen Lincolns. His voice is less booming and more reedy than, say, Henry Fonda’s, but then Day-Lewis sticks to his guns and historical sources. Besides, it makes the few times he does raise his voice all the more memorable.

Day-Lewis’ performance is all the more remarkable when you consider the acting talent around him. Lincoln is one big game of character actor Bingo. When David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward) is not bending Lincoln’s ear, or Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln isn’t advising/berating her husband, the likes of Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill and Lee Pace are getting their few minutes to shine. Everyone gets a moment, but the supporting standout is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. A fervent abolitionist, unlikely Lincoln ally and generally grouchy coot, the role fits Jones like a glove.

The focus on the debate doesn’t mean Spielberg shies away from battle. However, he knows the greatest wars are fought with words, and the intensity of the scenes in Congress is often breathtaking. The anger of the congressmen is accentuated by a dour look; the design is perfect for the period, and DoP Janusz Kaminski paints with every possible shade of blue and brown. There is little to distract from the argument; can war and slavery be ended together? You know the ending, but you’ll still be on tenterhooks to find out.

All this said, Lincoln isn’t perfect; Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Lincoln’s son Robert) is given little to do, John Williams’ score isn’t exactly subtle and the inevitable ending is a little off-kilter. Still, the power of the material and some consummate filmmaking make Lincoln Spielberg’s finest film since Minority Report. Has Day-Lewis’ unshowy performance exposed Spielberg’s restrained side? There’s still the over-arching themes of family and fatherly regret on display, but they’re neither forced nor sentimental, and Lincoln is all the richer for it. If Obama needs inspiration for his inevitable battles with Congress, he need look no further than this.

Review: Life of Pi (2012)

Director: Ang Lee

*****

As high concepts go, ‘a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat’ takes some beating. As an idea in itself, the plot of Life of Pi is a hard sell. As a treatise on self-belief, hope and faith, it’s near unheard of in mainstream film. It’s also wondrous to behold, as Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel sails onto the big screen with warmth and incredible craftsmanship blowing in its sails.

For all its CGI and disaster scenes, Life of Pi is first and foremost a character piece. Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recalls to a writer (Rafe Spall) how his teenage self (newcomer Suraj Sharma) managed to survive after a ship carrying his family and their menagerie of zoo animals sank in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Had he been left on his own, it would have been a tragic tale. However, Pi is not alone. Their tiger has stowed away in the lifeboat, and a simple tragedy becomes an endurance test. What follows is a process of training/befriending the tiger whilst remaining adrift with no land in sight. The opening of the film paints a rich portrait of Pi and his family life, and reveals him to be a curious character, not least when it comes to religion, and it is this faith that drives him. Life of Pi is not driven by a given faith, but by man’s capacity for belief and hope. Screenwriter David Magee captures this theme of Martell’s novel and infuses it with genuine humanity and humour (At one point, the young Pi declares ‘Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ!’). Pi prays, but it is his belief in himself that will finally save him.

Director Ang Lee has proven himself to be a master storyteller on several occasions, but Life of Pi is his most expansive and technically adept film yet, and he is clearly unfazed by the challenges the plot presents him. The tiger is completely computer-generated, but it works for two reasons. Firstly, the CGI work is immaculate. This tiger never looks false; as far as a viewer is concerned, it lives and breathes. Meanwhile the sea is a none-deeper shade of blue, the sunsets are blinding and an encounter between Pi’s boat, some glowing algae and a whale will leave your jaw on the floor. Secondly, Sharma is an absolute revelation. Mostly acting opposite nothing in front of a greenscreen, his naturalistic and heartbreaking performance will have you blubbering into your popcorn.

For such a tight setting, Lee’s camera is rarely still, hopping about to all and any angles, while Claudio Miranda’s eye-popping cinematography brightly dazzles. The energy on display in all aspects of Life of Pi’s filmmaking is a wonder to behold, but then this material deserves no less. Like his protagonist, Ang Lee clearly believes in this material, and brings out the best in it. Pi’s belief is what guides him through his ordeal, but the film does not try to teach a definitive lesson. As the adult Pi observes of his story, ‘Why should it have a meaning?’ Life is what you make it; Life of Pi is simply astounding.