Recent Movie Roundup 17
'Tis the season for lots and lots of interesting movies to finally make their way to the movie theater, and for me to glut myself in preparation for the long hot months of box-office friendly summer. Weirdly, though, almost every film I've watched recently has been a lush, visually adventurous and not entirely successful novel adaptation. Must be something in the water. There are some more straightforward films coming up (Argo, The Silver Linings Playbook, Flight, though also fare like Les Miserables and Holy Motors), but for the time being here are my thoughts on this strangely similar group of movies.
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) - One of the things I most admired about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was that the films felt less like straight-up adaptation of the book and more like a synthesis of the material into a new form. I liked some of the choices expressed in that synthesis more than others (and there were others still that I just plain disliked) but I appreciated the sense that Jackson was creating his own entity, one that was clearly connected to the book, but could still stand on its own. The example I like to give is a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Boromir speaks longingly to Aragorn about the beauty of Minas Tirith, his fears for it and his desire to return to it. It's a crucial scene in the film's process of humanizing Boromir, making him a more sympathetic figure, despite its tragic flaws, than he is in the book, and it also plays up Aragorn's own ambivalence about taking his place as king by opposing it to Boromir's devotion. What I didn't realize until I reread The Lord of the Rings, however, was that though that conversation isn't in it, Boromir's dialogue is, as a bit of description of the White City. By putting that description in Boromir's mouth, Jackson not only brought a bit of Tolkien's language into the film, but used it to humanize and complicate both Boromir and Aragorn in a way that Tolkien never intended. There's nothing as wittily subversive as this in An Unexpected Journey, an adaptation that, if I can't quite call it slavish--there is too much extraneous material here, and too much deliberate shifting of the novel's themes and tone, for that term to apply--seems to be trying to replicate the novel on a page-by-page basis. The result, given that Tolkien's original takes the classic children's book form of a series of episodic, nearly self-contained adventures, is a movie that feels shapeless and meandering, and whose tone shifts seemingly every half hour, from comedy to melodrama to farce to horror to action, and back all over again.
And yet for all that, I found myself enjoying An Unexpected Journey very much. I suspect that for viewers who haven't read the original book, the film will be a slog, because it lurches from one set piece to another with not only no end in sight, but no overarching structure that might give a sense of where its stopping point might come. If you know the book, though, and are able to recognize that now we're doing chapter 5, it's a lot easier to sit back and let the film wash over you, and having done that I found it utterly charming, and for the most part successful in capturing the tone of the book and knitting its world believably to the darker one of the Lord of the Rings films. So scenes like the dwarves' arrival at Bag End, or their capture at the hands of three dim-witted trolls with culinary pretensions, are as funny as they are in the book, while Bilbo's encounter with Gollum is suitably creepy and horrifying, and the various action set-pieces or eye candy are thrilling and breathtaking. Tying it all together is Martin Freeman, who, for all of An Unexpected Journey's flaws and self-indulgence, justifies this project all on his own, the role of Bilbo being perfectly suited to his combination of bumbling fussiness and iron-hard core (for all my complaints about Sherlock, it can't be denied that that show gave Freeman the perfect platform from which to demonstrate how well he can embody this combination, so much so that An Unexpected Journey may very well owe a debt to Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss). Even in its most shapeless and seemingly pointless moments, the film is at its strongest when it focuses on Freeman's Bilbo and his mingled joy and horror at what he discovers when he steps off his doorstep, and his slow growth towards the eccentric, high-spirited adventurer of the Lord of the Rings films is, as it was in the book, the film's heart.
Less successful are those scenes in which Jackson and Co. try to tie The Hobbit together with The Lord of the Rings, both tonally and plot-wise. These range from the harmless--a scene in which Gandalf and Galadriel worry that the enemy is growing stronger, which features a surprise guest appearance that I am stunned the production managed to keep secret--to the tedious--Elijah Wood was apparently flown to New Zealand and put in full Hobbit makeup solely so that he could unnecessarily tie together Bilbo's reminiscences and the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring--to the silly--Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, who races around on a sled pulled by giant rabbits and gives CPR to animatronic hedgehogs, might have worked in a more lighthearted film, but given that it's Radagast's job to sound the first alarms about Sauron's return the contrast between his character and the story he's placed in is jarring--to the utterly tone deaf. In the last category you'll find the entire sub-plot about Thorin's interim antagonist, Azog the Orc (if this is ringing no bells for fans of the books, that's because it's almost entirely an invention) and the parachuted-in theme of the dwarves' longing for home following their dispossession by Smaug. As I predicted when I reread The Hobbit a few years ago, these are both attempts to get around how unromantic the dwarf characters are, the fact that their motivation is not honor or homesickness, but a simple desire for wealth. But the film's attempts to recast the dwarves, and particularly Thorin, as heroic figures is brought short by the sheer mass of trite cliches it employs--Thorin is being pursued by the one-handed Orc who killed his grandfather; Bilbo feels unappreciated by Thorin, who derides him for his softness and lack of martial abilities; Thorin is tortured and angsty, often striking heroic, manly poses against the skyline while the other dwarf characters exposit his manpain. Richard Armitage gives it his best shot, but the scenes that focus on him hew so closely to most hoary and oft-derided tropes of the epic fantasy genre that they often slide into unintentional comedy (the rest of the dwarves, who are allowed to be intentionally comedic, fare better, and the film even goes some way towards giving them their own quirks and personalities). It's at these points that An Unexpected Journey's slow pace and meandering structure feel most onerous, and I'm a little concerned that as the story approaches the confrontation with Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies, the films will sink even further into this po-faced, cod-Lord of the Rings mode. For now, however, I'm content to be satisfied. If An Unexpected Journey lacks The Fellowship of the Ring's coherence and epic sweep, it feels sufficiently of a piece with it, and, equally, sufficiently its own, more lighthearted creation, to be worth watching, and maybe even feeling cautiously optimistic about this new trilogy.
- Life of Pi (2012) - Personally, I've always found Life of Pi, the Booker-winning novel, to be wildly overrated. It's a fun adventure, but to my mind it belongs on the same shelf as The Hobbit, as a YA-friendly story that adults can also enjoy, not the weighty philosophical treatise that its critical reception would seem to suggest. Ang Lee's film of the novel is visually stunning, both in the early scenes depicting young Pi's life in India, growing up in his father's zoo and embracing three different religious creeds, and in its long central segment, in which Pi is shipwrecked and left adrift on a lifeboat with only a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker for company. Lee's images are both surreal--as when a young Pi reads a comic book about the Hindu pantheon, and a panel about Shiva containing the universe in his throat opens up and swallows the viewer--and hyper-real, especially when he focuses on the wild creatures that define Pi's early life and his struggle for survival on the lifeboat. In both cases, his visuals are masterful (and, as many reviewers have noted, make expert use of 3D--Life of Pi is one of the few films I've seen where the 3D feels essential to the film and its enjoyment), and even go some way towards justifying the novel's more egregious set pieces--I've never, for example, been able to work out the point of the interlude on the carnivorous island, but Lee realizes it so well (particularly the bemusing behavior of the massive herds of meerkats that populate the island) that in this version of the story it didn't rankle as much. In its best moments, Life of Pi uses visuals to create the sense that Pi is in another world that is nevertheless part of ours--that he is seeing manifestations of nature, the ocean, and its creatures that hardly any human ever sees. The tradeoff for all this beauty, however, is that the movie never feels very urgent. In the novel, despite the framing story that reveals that Pi survives his ordeal even before we know what that ordeal was, there's a sense of tension stemming from his seemingly impossible situation, trapped on a lifeboat with a creature that will soon see him as a meal. The methods Pi devises to not only survive but ensure Richard Parker's survival are clever and engaging, but the film treats them almost perfunctorily, clearly more invested in its visuals than in the business of Pi's survival. When he experiences setbacks, such as when a wave washes away all his supplies and fresh water, there's no real sense of danger, and when he accomplishes some task necessary to his survival, there's no sense of accomplishment.
This slackness is forgivable in the film's middle segment, however, since the visuals make up for any lack of urgency on the storytelling side. Less successful is Lee's handling of the novel's famous twist ending, in which Pi is challenged by representatives of the company investigating his shipwreck to give them a believable story, and after a moment replaces the tale of survival alongside a tiger with a gruesome, depressing story of cannibalism, murder, and man's inhumanity to man, asking them to choose the story they prefer. I've always found that ending--and particularly its insistence that it represents a meaningful statement about religious faith--glib and supercilious, but what I did appreciate about it was that Martel played fair with his readers. He never insisted that everything we'd been reading about for hundreds of pages had been a fantasy, and that the more horrible story had to be the truth, which made it possible for people like me, who didn't care for the facile moral that belief in God is nothing more or less than choosing the more appealing story, to continue to enjoy the novel for the tension it creates between two equally unlikely, equally fantastic survival stories. Lee's Life of Pi, perhaps as a way of giving Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenage, castaway Pi, something to do after several hours of rather blank green screen acting (and, it must be said, very trite dialogue as he "converses" with Richard Parker), replaces the somewhat matter of fact, unadorned manner in which the alternate story is delivered to the insurance investigators with a long, detailed and emotional monologue that leaves no doubt that Pi is telling the truth--no one, much less a boy who has been deprived of human contact for months, could invent, from whole cloth and a moment's notice, such a gruesomely detailed story, and deliver it with so much emotion, grief and guilt (or, to put it another way, to believe that Pi, having lost his family so horribly, could invent an even more horrible way to have lost them, is to make the character almost monstrous). Sharma nails the scene, in which Lee steps away from his visuals and simply remains fixed on his lead's face, but that accomplishment also means that the film leaves all its thematic eggs in the "choose which story you prefer" basket, which as I've said I find unsatisfying. I suppose I can't complain that Lee has remained true to the spirit of the novel, even if I didn't care for that spirit, but I would have liked it if he'd left me the same escape hatch Martel had.
- Cloud Atlas (2012) - By the time I got around to watching the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer's gonzo, impossibly ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell's novel, the negative verdict on it had already been so decisively rendered that my expectations were buried somewhere beneath the Earth's mantle. This turns out to be a good way to approach Cloud Atlas, which, while undeniably an unsuccessful mess of a movie that fails even to come close to doing justice to Mitchell's stunning novel, is nevertheless watchable and, for a film that is nearly three hours long and switches almost frenetically between six different plotlines, time periods, and genres, surprisingly fleet-footed (in that sense it is strangely similar to The Hobbit). Some of that feeling of lightness no doubt stems from the fact that the film dispenses with Mitchell's nested structure, in which each of his six narratives begins, is interrupted--sometimes mid-sentence--by the next narrative, which is interrupted in its turn, and then all six narratives resume, in opposite order of their beginning, in the book's second half. Instead, Cloud Atlas switches between its six plot strands with what feels almost like randomness, but if that description conjures up images of Magnolia-style mosaic movies transitioning leisurely from one narrative strand to another, it fails to do justice to Cloud Atlas's mayfly-level attention span. It's only rarely that the film will remain with one of its plotline for more than a single scene, and sometimes it switches from one to the other for only a few lines of dialogue--at times, even interrupting an intense chase or action scene in order to check in on the more sedate goings-on in another story.
What this means is that Cloud Atlas is a movie that is hard to get bored in, since if one of the stories, or even some part of it, doesn't interest you, it can be counted on to switch to another before long, and piecing the various strands' together requires enough effort to keep the viewer engaged (to the extent that I found myself wondering whether viewers who hadn't read the book wouldn't find themselves a little lost). But the constant switching between storylines also has the effect of leaving some of them feeling underpowered, and of compounding what is otherwise an already quite powerful sense that the filmmakers themselves find some of their stories significantly less interesting than others. It's not entirely surprising that these are the plot strands that don't lend themselves easily to high-octane, action storytelling--the Pacific journey of the young lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) in 1849, as he befriends an escaped slave and is slowly poisoned by the ship's doctor, the self-satisfied ramblings of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in 1938, who attempts to stave off financial and social ruin by becoming the amanuensis of an aging composer, and the misadventures of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher who in 2012 escapes his creditors only to be entrapped into checking himself into an old age home from which there is no escape. Cloud Atlas is a great deal more interested in the stories of crusading investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who lands in hot water when she discovers irregularities at a soon-to-be-opened nuclear plant in 1970s San Francisco, of "fabricant" Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a genetically engineered fast food server in 22nd century Seoul who learns to think independently and becomes a figurehead for the anti-corporate revolution, and of post-industrial tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks) who, hundreds of years in the future, helps Meronym, one of the few humans who still remembers history and technology (Berry again), to reach a communications outpost from which she hopes to signal Earth's long-lost colonies.
Even here, however, the Wachowskis and Tykwer none-too-subtly skew Mitchell's original stories more strongly towards the adventurous and the action-filled. The Sonmi story is particularly prone to this, as if the directors saw the production designers' sketches of a squalid, neon-lit urban jungle and couldn't help but reach for a sub-Blade Runner type of story, but in the Zachry plot as well there is a tendency to lose sight of the story's center--which is Zachry's struggle with his evil urges, whom he anthropomorphizes as a devil figure he calls Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving)--and instead to glorify martial ability, so that when Zachry fails to heed a warning from Sonmi (whom he reverse as a goddess) not to kill a helpless enemy, that moment, which in the novel is a failing that haunts him for the rest of his life, is quickly forgotten as he and Meronym join forces to fight off other marauders. Even in the moments--such as most of the Luisa Rey strand--in which Cloud Atlas hews to the events of the novel and resists the urge to embroider or intensify them, it loses sight of Mitchell's playfulness, his quite deliberately tongue-in-cheek use of genre. Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a heartfelt novel, but not an earnest one. The different tropes of genre that it employs in each of its narratives--and which it calls attention to by having each of its protagonists consume the previous narrative as a piece of fiction, a device that the movie employs only haphazardly and with little emphasis--have a distancing, skeptical affect that Cloud Atlas the movie lacks, and which in turn makes its message--about the universality of both suffering and kindness--come off as trite instead of meaningful. Similarly, the choice to hammer in and literalize Mitchell's theme of reincarnation and repetition by having the same actors recur, sometimes crossing race and gender lines, in different plot strands runs the gamut from distracting--watching the film sometimes feels like a scavenger hunt, an attempt to spot a familiar actor under tons of makeup--to deeply problematic, in the scenes in the Sonmi segment in which Sturgess, Hanks, and Weaving are made up to look (unconvincingly) Asian.
There are things to watch for in Cloud Atlas, but they are more in the way of moments. Whishaw shows yet again that he is incapable of delivering a performance that is less than entirely magnetic, managing to make the self-absorbed, self-destructive Frobisher almost compelling despite the film's relative lack of interest in his plotline, and Bae ably conveys Sonmi's transition from naivete to steely resolve, and feels in many ways like the heart of the film. Broadbent, meanwhile, manages to imbue a character that even in the novel felt the least thought out with humanity, and in his turns in the other plot strands--as a sadistic sea captain, or as Frobisher's employer and eventual nemesis--he is equally compelling and believable. But for almost every good point in the movie, there is an equally bad one--Hanks is too old to play Zachry, who in the book is an inexperienced young man, even if you accept the film's reconfiguration of his relationship with Meronym as a romance, and though Berry is perfect for Luisa Rey, she's got too little to do as Meronym to be anything more than a font of information with which to torment and confuse Zachry, while other actors, like Weaving or Hugh Grant, are lost beneath bad makeup and even worse accents. It's hard not to admire the film's scope, and as I've said it is by no means onerous despite its length and multiple storylines, but what it amounts to is a messy, admirable, often very ill-considered failure.
- Anna Karenina (2012) - The only one of these films whose original novel I haven't read (I know, I know), Anna Karenina is also the first of Joe Wright's lavish, hyper-melodramatic adaptations starring Keira Knightley that I've come to without having read and loved the original work. Which might be an advantage as far as this film and I are concerned, since I found Wright's Pride and Prejudice and Atonement hopelessly overwrought, and hobbled by a tendency to file away anything spiky or unsentimental about their original works and turn them into a sweeping tearjerker. For all I know, Wright has played the same trick on Anna Karenina--I somehow doubt Tolstoy's novel would be such an enduring classic if it were merely the tragic romance that Wright makes of it--but even taken as a tragic romance, his version of the story outstays its welcome. The story of the eponymous heroine's irrational, obsessive love for the dashing but weak-willed cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I kept expecting to turn into Tom Hiddleston, perhaps because I've been reading about Hiddleston's turn as a very similar character in the well-received The Deep Blue Sea just recently, and perhaps because Taylor-Johnson's efforts at conveying just the right mix of passion and selfishness falls short of what I know Hiddleston is capable of), to which she loses everything--her family, her place in society, and finally her life--loses steam about halfway into the movie, and by the end of it I felt most interested in, and sympathetic towards, Anna's husband (though I have to say it rather depresses me that we've already reached the point where Jude Law is playing the stolid, unromantic, less attractive corner of the love triangle). Where Anna's descent into drug-addled neurosis feels inaccessible--it's impossible to sympathize with her all-consuming infatuation with such a callow crumpet as Vronsky--Karenin goes from cold, ineffectual correctness, to injured seething, to transcendent forgiveness, and finally to incomprehension at his wife's determination to destroy herself, and comes away from the film seeming--almost impossibly given that he represents the very patriarchy that has sold Anna like chattel and now expects her to abide by its rules--like its most decent character (in the Anna plotline, anyway; a secondary plot involves Anna's sister-in-law and the man who is in love with her, both of whom are quite positive figures, but which though well done feels, in Wright's version of the story, disconnected from the main plot). By the film's last quarter, Anna becomes the epitome of a tragic heroine, so reduced as a character that even if I hadn't known about her fast-approaching date with a train, I feel certain I would have expected it, since there's nothing left for her to do but die.
What does work about Anna Karenina is Wright's choice for the film's visuals. He shoots the film in an old theater, with major scenes taking place framed by the proscenium arch and the footlights, and characters moving from one scene to another by cutting through the backstage and catwalks. And if Wright's Anna Karenina is a play, it often feels like a musical, with musicians appearing to set the mood (in addition to the omnipresent musical score, which as is typical in Wright films is lush to the point of being overpowering) and characters all-but dancing into and out of their roles--the clerks at Anna's brother Oblonsky's (Matthew Macfayden) place of work, or the servants dressing Anna and other women--like cogs in a well-oiled machine. Wright's point is no doubt to stress the artificiality of the society in which Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky move, and the theatricality of the film is never so obvious as in those scenes in which the characters attend balls and dance with one another, stressing the carefully laid out steps that proscribe their lives. But to me the film's overt theatricality also does more than a little to counteract the staleness that tends to afflict period novel adaptations. It feels like a wink to the audience, an acknowledgment that all this--the costumes, the mannerisms, the social mores--is an affectation not only of its own time period, but one that has been put on to entertain us, the 21st century audience eager for stories about forbidden love and tragic heroines. Much like Anna's character, however, the theater device loses steam about halfway into the film--after a scene in which Wright manages, quite impressively, to simulate a horse-race on his stage, the film stops stressing the theater set. Perhaps the idea was to allow that device to recede in order to leave space for the story's grand, tragic ending, but if so this represents Wright putting too much faith in his script and actors' ability to make us care about a rather melodramatic story. I do plan to read Anna Karenina at some point, and I expect to find it a great deal more subtle and interesting than what Wright has made of it. I only wish he had had the courage to stick with, and even intensify, his visual device all the way to the film's end--if he wasn't able to make a genuinely worthy adaptation, at least he could have made a truly interesting comment on the kinds of adaptations he's made a career out of. As it stands, he's done neither.