TIFF 2012: Day 4: 'Cloud Atlas' + 'Silver Linings Playbook' + 'Byzantium'
Day four of our TIFF coverage features the collaboration between the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer that is Cloud Atlas, David O. Russell's superb Silver Linings Playbook, and Neil Jordan's latest, Byzantium.
Germany/Hong Kong/Singapore/USA -- Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer
The award for the most audacious film to play at the Festival this year would surely be handed to Cloud Atlas (if such a thing were to exist, which it totally shouldn’t). A vastly complicated, massive production spanning several hundred years, quoting liberally from genre films (Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Master and Commander, And Now For Something Completely Different, Parallax View) and featuring a small village worth of lead actors in multiple roles, this is not the kind of movie that typically gets green lit. Indeed, it likely occurred to many readers of David Mitchell’s visionary 2004 novel on which the film was based that an adaptation would be pretty much impossible. The complexity of the novel’s construction alone -- six thematically linked stories, each set in a different time period ranging from the Victorian age up to the distant future, and each written in a time-specific vernacular, all interwoven into a grand braided narrative -- should have been enough of a disclaimer against the idea. And yet, here it is.
The plot defies a concise description because, well, there are six of them, each of them playing out simultaneously. In one, set in the late Victorian era, a man is at sea, and his doctor is secretly killing him with poison so that he might steal his gold. In another, a tragic romance set in Edwardian England, a young man breaks off with his lover to take up work which will facilitate his completing a magnum opus, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. In another, intrigue abounds in 1970s San Francisco as an intrepid journalist seeks to uncover corporate malfeasance. In another still, set in what appears to be England in the present day, a broke, elderly publisher is locked away in a nursing home and conspires with other residents to mount an escape. In the fifth plotline, set in the 2100s in “Neo-Seoul”, a synthetic human is sprung from her life of slavery and becomes part of a resistance force bent on overthrowing the status quo. And, in the sixth line, a post-apocalyptic earth is broken back down into small-scale tribal societies who live alongside (but apart from) a few remaining technologically-advanced humans who are searching for evidence of another planet which might support human life. The ostensible message here is that each narrative strand is connected to the others -- generationally, co-incidentally, and otherwise -- and the overall effect is to declaim a kind of we-have-all-been-here-before continuity to humanity’s struggle to overcome fascists.
Though there is much to admire in this collaboration between the Wahchowski siblings (The Matrix series) and Tom Tykwer (who also co-wrote the score) -- and not least the extraordinary bravado to attempt to pull something this absurdly convoluted out of the hat -- there is finally not nearly enough that works to make it anything other than a slog. In this sprawling, patience-testing symphonic jumble, the six stories (which, it should be said, are of wildly varying levels of quality and interest) are interwoven into one grand confusion.
Due to the obvious impediments to clarity, it takes an inordinate amount of time for the film to even begin to make any kind of sense, and by the time it does, much goodwill has been spent. This would be a problem for any movie, of course. But it is especially problematic here, since the directors have made the extraordinarily bold (and catastrophic) decision to cast the same actors in the main roles in each of the six stories, regardless of type, race, gender, or age. This means that throughout the film we are made highly aware of the major Hollywood actors we are watching (including Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess), as they appear as 19th-century dandies one moment, and futuristic oddjobs in the next. Certainly this provides the visual cue that “continuity” and even, perhaps, reincarnation are central themes here, but what it does rather more successfully is rob the viewer of any opportunity to enter into the emotional orbit of the film. Keeping us at arm’s length by inviting us to play a two hour and forty-five minute game of “Spot the Star Under Heavy Makeup” -- seriously, go check out some of the still online -- we miss lines of dialogue as we giggle at how silly Hugh Grant looks with that big bulbous nose. Some of the makeup is extraordinarily effective, mind you, and the way the production design mimics the Hollywood genre films each of the six stories is meant to reflect is pretty amazing, but some things simply can’t be covered over. (Example: Tom Hanks.)
USA -- Dir. David O. Russell
Falling somewhere between I Heart Huckabee’s and Flirting with Disaster in David O. Russell’s oeuvre, this delightful comedy offers a keen, hilarious take on loss, obsession, and our fragile, addled minds.
Bradley Cooper (in a remarkable, layered performance) plays Pat Solitano, a manic depressive who has been locked away in a mental hospital after beating up his wife’s lover. Set free on his parents’ recognizance, Pat is convinced that he is now in control of his life -- he has become fit, he has taken an interest in canonical literature, he has convinced himself that he can find a “silver lining” in any situation -- and is ready to win back his wife (despite her restraining order). Relations with his parents, however, are strained -- his father (Robert De Niro) is an obsessive-compulsive fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, and has come to believe that the team can only win if he and Pat watch the game together -- and Pat refuses to take his medication.
Meanwhile, an old friend invites him to dinner where he is introduced to sexy, black-clad Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who has recently been widowed after a brief marriage. Off the bat they connect -- so, what psychiatric drugs are you taking? -- but when she makes an advance, Pat is dismayed. He is married. But, they start jogging together, talking through their problems, their setbacks, and she takes him to her dance-studio-cum-apartment where she explains that dancing has become therapeutic for her. Now friends, Pat and Tiffany enter into an arrangement: she will get a letter to his wife if he will compete with her in a “stupid” dance contest a few months down the road. And, hey, maybe Pat’s wife will come to see them dance, and will be able to see that he has really turned his life around.
About the faith we put in others to make us happy, and about how that can be a dangerous, even misguided, enterprise, Silver Linings Playbook also reminds us how such leaps of faith can be beautiful, even necessary steps in building community. At its cleverest, Silver Linings Playbook asks questions about why we are so drawn to the dark side of human nature as a form of entertainment. In an early scene, Pat becomes manic after finishing Ernest Hemmingway’s “Farewell to Arms”, infuriated by the lack of silver lining in its construction. Later, Tiffany warns him off of “Lord of the Flies”, complaining that she refuses its bleak condemnation of man’s indifference to man. But, the film is also about the way we take broadly meaningless, light entertainments (The Philadelphia Eagles, the dance competition) and turn them into acutely substantial events in our lives. It neatly examines the way such apparent fluff can loom large in our identitarian makeup.
Boasting a solid cast, excellent music from Danny Elfman, and a bravura evocation of a manic episode all set against the ebb and flow of Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be”, Silver Linings Playbook is set for a long run during award season. Despite the problem that Russell’s script should have found a way to develop the motivations of Pat’s wife more fully -- she is always unknown to us, and when she makes a significant decision towards the end, we can’t imagine why -- this is a profoundly successful feel-good picture, and one of my favourites of the Festival.
UK -- Dir. Neil Jordan
Nearly 20 years after he last explored the subject in Interview with a Vampire, Neil Jordan has brought us back to the blood bank with Byzantium.
For two hundred years, Clara (Gemma Arterton) has protected her forever 16-year old “sister” Eleanor (Saoirsie Ronan) from a pair of vampires bent on her murder. She is an aberration, they believe, because she was sired by Clara, and female vampires are not allowed to create. In this wildly inventive reimagining of the old bloodsucker tropes, vampirism is entangled with masculinity, with man’s power over women. The Brotherhood to which these assassins belong is an ancient order that jealously guards the secret to eternal life, and operates as a deeply selective male-only club. Clara and Eleanor represent a threat to their hegemony, to the primacy of men in the vampire order.
That Clara has to make her way in the world as a sex worker keeps the classic sex/death prostitution/vampirism give/take connections intact, although Byzantium advances these old metaphors in exciting ways. This feminist campfire tale is beautifully realized by Jordan, working with a rich palate of metaphors and visual cues. The replacement of the expected vampire fangs with a razor-sharp thumbnail which grows, in anticipation of penetration, like an erection, is only one of many such thrilling gestures. Moreover, in this film all non-vampire men are feminized in overt ways (from long girlish hair to physical weakness to emotionalism), and all are set up as easy prey to these wily survivors. There is much to admire in this intelligent and captivating approach, and one leaves the film full of energy to discuss its finer details of this feminist slant. Too bad there is no such energy to be found to discuss the plot.
A dour, moody film, Byzantium moves slowly, almost cautiously, after an action-packed opening sequence. Neither a thriller, nor a horror picture per se, it struggles to reconcile its too-familiar story with this terrific renovation of the vampire mythos. As everything we expect to happen comes inexorably to pass (if so slowly as to incite a degree of impatience), we find ourselves watching for the gorgeous cinematography, the crack performances by the two female leads, and little else.