THE 1998 film The Red Violin is one of my favorite films, but it got bad reviews in part due to poor “character development” – but the critics missed the point – the violin was the character. If you havenʻt seen Cloud Atlas from the Wachowski siblings and directed by Run Lola Run‘s Tim Twyker (and you probably havenʻt since itʻs only playing in one half-empty theater), you might consider it if you like convoluted, and non-literal plots. Like The Red Violin, it sacrifices character development for the carrying out of a thread, and a theoretical argument – that our lives are not our own. And the characters are not the individuals, but (Iʻll just say it) their souls. If youʻve seen the trailer (which is long at over 5 minutes, like the film at 2:44), you know that reincarnation is a given in this film. But idea that our lives are not our own is meant in two senses: not just that we reincarnate, but that we are, in a sense, entangled with others.
The ensemble cast, all of whom play multiple roles, worked toward that point, though it was difficult to tell whether that was the only purpose of the multiple roles, or whether it was a money-saving device. The “plot” in a nutshell, consists of Tom Hanks’s multiple characters – Zachary in the distant future (ca. 2300 AD), and Issac in the recent past (1973) – meetings, and his near-misses for relationships with Halle Berry’s Meronym (2300) and journalist Luisa Rey (1973).
A second important relationship “endures” between Jim Sturgess’s Hae Joo Chang and Korean actor Doona Bae’s “replicant” Somni 451. In shades of Blade Runner and Soylent Green, Chang tries to free Somni from the gruesome fate that awaits all replicants, in the meantime falling in love and crossing forbidden territory – mating between replicants and “purebloods.” This revolution fails under the system’s oppressive Big Brother omnipresence, recalling the Wachowskis’ own Matrix. This relationship is “resolved” in the past, between the dying lawyer Adam Ewing in 1849 and his wife Tilda, also played by Doona Bae. All of this suggests the non-linearity of time, as the 1849 resolution is presented after the failed attempt in 2144. Playing multiple roles is nothing new in theater, and does not require any underlying purpose in that genre, but the ensemble cast clearly has a purpose, which loses coherence at this point. In the 1849 sequence, Tom Hanks is the villan, slowly poisoning Ewing while pretending to cure him. Hanks also plays (not convincingly) a murderous writer, and brings in another narrative – that of his publisher Timothy Cavendish, played by Jim Broadbent who effectively conveys the pathos for which he is often cast. Hugh Grant (often unrecognizable) and Susan Sarandon also make multiple appearances, as does perennial Wachowski bad guy Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from the Matrix? ʻNuff said)
There are many other clever ways in which the film’s ideas and themes are linked, and a few other intertwined plots, such as the 1936 relationships between amenuensis (musical scribe) Robert Frobisher (played by Ben Whishaw – Q in the new Bond), Broadbent’s musical genius Vyvyan Ayrs and Frobisher’s lover Rufus Sexsmith. It is Frobisher who writes the Cloud Atlas sextet, a brilliant but obscure piece that is meant to tie the disparate threads together – Luisa Rey in 1973 says she knows the piece when she hears it, though it’s impossible for her to have heard it. Rufus Sexsmith, a young Cambridge student in 1936, is an elderly physicist in 1973, meets Rey and gives her both plans for a nefarious nuclear plot and his love letters with Frobisher. Rey asks “why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?” So the film is really about karma, and how many times (read: lives) it takes to get it right.
In the 1970s the philosopher Michel Foucault asked the question “what is the author?” He asks: “Would there need to be reclassification if Shakespeare’s sonnets were discovered to be written by another of his contemporaries? How does the name influence what is written?” Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous puts us in this very position. When I studied Shakespeare at Harvard with Marjorie Garber, author of Shakespeare, After All, she had no qualms admitting that the works of The Bard were of a “collective” nature. They contained too much wisdom collected over the ages to be the work of one man. But Emmerich’s film says they were – of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who, according to the plot, was in line for King of England. There are certainly some holes in the received Shakespeare story. When he died he left his “second best bed” to his wife (though Bill Bryson explains that this was because the second best bed was the one that was actually slept in, while the best bed was put on display in the living room), but no mention of manuscripts is made in his will. None of the plays are written in his handwriting – thought the film goes further, claiming that Shakespeare was actually illiterate. Shakespeare had a grammar school education, while the Earl had tutors for each of the classical subjects. The film closes by noting that the playwright Ben Jonson, the only person allegedly to have know the true identity of the Bard, dedicated his collected work to “the man we call William Shakespeare” [italics all mine].
But there are some problems with the film’s premise as well. The plays correspond fairly well with Shakespeare’s life (1564 – 1615). He had a son named Hamnet. The film portrays Shakespeare as something slightly above a bumbling idiot. One of the early books to consider the topic of Shakespeare’s identity was Shakespeare’s Lives in which Sir Francis Bacon is also put forward as a candidate. And let us not forget Malcolm X’s contention that Shakespeare was actually King James himself, since Shakespeare was a contemporary of the King James bible. Of course this theory completely neglects the fact that about half of Shakepeare’s output was under Queen Elizabeth (a point the film makes clear), making him half Elizabethan and half Jacobin as a playwright.
The film cleverly, and darkly, uses the motif of the play within the play. It connects many of the plays to the politics of succession. It incredibly suggests that Queen Elizabeth and de Vere had a child. It posits that Henry III was a device to get a mob to attack the Machiavellian advisor to Elizabeth. While this is all very clever, the characters are not wholly believable. While the three actors who portray Elizabeth lend her weight, and Rhys Ifans (Xenophilus Lovegood inHarry Potter 7.1) surprisingly plays de Vere in a dignified manner meant to convince the audience he is capable of such genius, Ben Jonson comes across as a tragic-comic action hero, and the hunchbacked villain Robert Cecil is a waspish walking cliche. After previewing and promoting the film, my bluish-collar neighborhood theatre didn’t run the film, and I missed it until its DVD release. This is a decent representation of the film’s appeal. It doesn’t succeed as action, or even drama, and leaves too many questions for the truly scholarly.
The Banality of Espionage
WikiRevu of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I loved this film. And my review will be redundant after Dean Carrico’s excellent take in The Hawai’i Indenpendent, but there you are. I remember the 70s and it was just like this. I remember it being fuzzy and hazy, even here in Hawai’i. This was not That 70s Show, it was the real deal. Carrico nailed it when he said “how can boring be so interesting?” Because Gary Oldman, in a radio interview described himself as “the anti-Bond” – there’s no jumping out of Maseratis in tuxedos after a casual interlude with Grace Jones. There are no tuxedos. His marriage is broken after his wife cheats on him. He goes to the optometrist. He takes his exercise in a murky lake. He has a double chin. Then he goes home and checks the little wedge in his door to see that no one’s broken in. Just like you and me. Except one day someone has, and a tale of intrigue unfolds that includes sex, and violence, but our hero engages in none of it.
This will sound strange, but Oldman reminded me most of Matt Damon’s CIA agent in The Good Shepard. You watch him think for half the movie,and find out what he thought the other half, as he masters the situation first in his mind, then bends reality to his will. Except George Smiley manages to do this while remaining, in the main, the proverbial boy scout. Of course, Oldman, we must keep in mind, was channeling Alec Guiness from the TV series. Smiley’s mentor, played brilliantly by John Hurt who carries the Orwellian name “Control,” falls to a seemingly corrupt inner group of British Intelligence agents, and so our boy scout has, admittedly, a revenge motive. (Hurt, incidentally, has been working the Orwell thing for years as he played Winston in 1984, then the Big Brother figure in V for Vendetta.)
But you get the sense that Smiley’s been doing this so long, there’s never a tense moment – he only raises his voice once. As in The Good Shepard he realizes he has more in common with his Soviet nemesis than with his fellow Britons. Some of his co-workers agree. The outcome is a film that deserves many viewings – for texture, plot, and that nebulous essence of the 70s that you had to experience to appreciate.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
It’s a truism that remakes always have to live up to their “original.” This may be less the case with the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because the original is in Swedish. I’m not sure how many people saw that one, but enough in the film industry did to launch Noomi Rapace on what seems to be a path to stardom (she’s not only in the latest Sherlock Holmes, but Ridley Scott’s latest, Prometheus. And that’s the major comparison – Noomi’s Lisbeth Salander (the misanthropic, misunderstood anti-heroine) vs. Rooney Mara’s. The first impression arising from this comparison could be generalized to the two films in general – that Mara’s Lisbeth is slicker, softer, more verbose, less complicated. The English production features better-looking, and significantly better-dressed actors in every part (the protagonist excluded). An article on Rapace called the Swedish films unmemorable, but that’s wrong, if only because of her. In that article, Rapace suggests (credibly) that she could have played Salander in the English version, but she had vomited for 45 minutes after the final filming of the third installment (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), as if exorcizing Salander from her body – it was an intensely physical performance with few lines. It seems as if in the third film, her only line is, repeatedly, “ne” (no), but it’s delivered by Rapace with a distinct smoldering intensity.
- Swedish version
In case you missed the international Dragon-mania, the plot is complex, convoluted at times, but revolves around the investigation of a forty year-old murder surrounding a prominent Swedish family with Nazi ties (it’s not as cliche as it sounds). Salander is brought in for her computer hacking skills, and whose interest stems from her abusive past (which slowly reveals itself only over the three parts). The two protagonists, Salander and slandered journalist Mikael Blomqvist find they are alike at the core despite being anathema at the surface – the old book-by-its-cover.
Rooney is Hollywood friendly, making a certain abrupt transition to a mainstream look more effectively (read: acceptably). Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Blomqvist somehow manages, like the rest of the film, to make world-worn look prettier. If I were a James Bond fan (I’m not), I might have a hard time seeing Craig as a Swedish journalist. Whether these features matter to you may or may not be a function of how serious a cinemaphile you are. One thing that gives the new film a hard edge is Trent Reznor’s (or Nine Inch Nails) soundtrack – it feels like nails on a chalkboard in your head. Aesthetically, the opening sequence (the credits), set to Led Zepplin’s screeching could be fodder for a generation of visual culture students – it unabashedly exploits texture and form in a way the rest of the film, for all its visual gloss, does not.
There are some script diversions from the original, all of which highlight the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael in a manner the original doesn’t. The Swedish version keeps the relationship uncertain and subdued. The new Lisbeth has a soft side that is either non-existent, or so well-hidden it may as well be. The original has the advantage of three films worth of character development for “The Girl,” who still remains an enigma, and the good journalist, who doesn’t need it. I almost didn’t see this film, but thought that seeing it in English would be interesting. Ultimately it was awkward, as actors put on varyingly thick Swedish accents (Rooney, incidentaly, pulls this off better than the rest), and text in the film flits between Swedish and English. This film has something going for it, and could develop a cult following for certain thematic or visual features, but as pure cinema, if the original film was unmemorable, the new film is barely so.
VeriQuikRevu: Why Tree of Life Should (but probably wonʻt) win Best Picture
Terrence Malikʻs film, like Jared Diamondʻs books, tackles The Big Issues. Malick reported spent several years collecting the images from the near-opening sequence – the part that baffled many and undoubted led to walkouts en masse, causing people to miss the filmʻs brilliance. These are no random images. While they range from the very large (celestial movements) to the very small (bacterial movements), they represent the development, not of life, but of existence. I got a sense of what he was up to on my first viewing, but it took a second to follow his thread.
From the big bang through the dinosaurs, Malick shows how the nature of existence can be seen in everything and anything we look at. I didnʻt quite get the part where the dinosaur puts and removes its foot on the head of another injured dinosaur until a neighborʻs dog did it to mine. The contingent nature of things is represented as much in that act as it is in the life story of the family the film follows. The protagonistʻs parents (played, as you well know, by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) represent the “way of grace” and the “way of nature,” grace being the feminine.
The Mother is patient, long-suffering one might say, but is able to see the beauty in things – even in Waco, where they live. The Father is relentless in his pursuit of power and his ambition, and the son wavers throughout his life between the two. As the trailer puts it: “mother.. father.. always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Because mother and father are not mother and father, but eternal forces inherent in the nature of being.
When the Son is grown (played by Sean Penn), he has obviously followed the path of his father. This is evidenced by his ultramodern house and prestigious job. But the memory of his deceased brother, who was on the path of grace, haunts him. The bleak landscapes he finds himself on are landscapes of the mind, or (dare I say?) the soul, as he clambers toward redemption.
There hasnʻt been a film like this. But in this narcissistic and materialist age, such a film is so far out of the purview of even the most sophisticated (especially them), that it can only be seen as the product of an eccentric, probably misguided recluse. The Oscar judges, in the main, wonʻt think much of this film, and theyʻll be wrong. And in an age in which mass opinion reigns (you havenʻt seen American Idol?), wrong becomes right.