The Oscars – Jennifer Lawrence, professional press wrangler

Jennifer Lawrence won big at The Oscars. No, I don’t just mean her best actress Academy award for Silver Linings Playbook, but for the way she punctured pomposity with breezy sincerity on a night that would have most award-winning newbies quaking in their designer outfits and toeing the PR line like US Marines on parade.

Sure, she must have been nervous, but, steeled by a cheeky shot of booze (sharp intake of sarcastic breath – she drinks alcohol, too) her frankness when answering inane questions from the press (see video, above) had other members of the same profession high-fiving her on social media.

On the red carpet she admitted to being starving hungry having not had the chance to eat all day, a comment that by its very presence throws the whole glamour machine into stark relief  – why is there such a big deal about actresses’ eating habits? Lawrence just rides on in there like she couldn’t give a damn. In a post-show interview with the press, inquiries after the “process” by which she got ready were met with the answer that she tried the dress on, it fitted and y’know, she came to the Oscars. What else is there to say?

The lady’s got gumption, and you’ve got to agree that’s a fine quality to have in this business.

Art – Terence Coventry sculpts the essence of animal nature

Gallery

This gallery contains 5 photos.

  When last at the Guardian and Observer offices at Kings Place, just up the road from Kings Cross station, I took time to check out Terence Coventry’s animal sculptures that had been in the small Pangolin Gallery since early … Continue reading

Film review – Cloud Atlas

If you listen closely to Cloud Atlas, you can you hear the sound of fortune-cookie wisdom crumbling. This ambitious film from directors Tom Tykwer, and Lana and Andy Wachowski is one that I really wanted to like, but it fizzles out in a narrative muddle of psycho-babble.

The plot consists of six stories in different time periods: a 19th century voyage following a young lawyer dealing in black slaves; in mid-20th century Edinburgh, a young musician composes the Cloud Atlas suite; in 1970s San Francisco, a journalist investigates corruption and murder at a nuclear power plant; in England, the present day, a bankrupt publisher is incarcerated in a care home; in the futuristic, fascist-run Neo-Seoul, a cloned fast-food waitress is given an opportunity to escape and start a revolution; and finally, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, an island of primitive tribal people are visited by more technologically-advanced members of the human race.

The film’s central message is that “everything is connected”, that one individual or action can make a difference across centuries. It’s the butterfly effect served up like a mug of hot chocolate to make you feel all warm inside. Various objects pop up in subsequent time periods, their existence assisting or provoking other individuals to take certain actions.

Another theme is that of being freed from slavery and the confines of a repressive society, even the confines of one’s own thoughts. All noble things, but the Wachowski’s fail to fit it all together, instead making broad brushstrokes with their massive existential paintbrush. Individually, the stories are entertaining and thrilling, but the critical problem with Cloud Atlas is that the collective whole does not pay off.

The VFX-created Neo-Seoul city looks incredible – the soaring skyways glowing with a neon blue energy and extreme skyscrapers – but there are lazy similarities to The Fifth Element and Blade Runner, from an escape scene to the now clichéd neo-punk pedestrians wandering under neon lights carrying transparent umbrellas. This story exists to present a focal point for the film’s message; during an interrogation scene of the cloned waitress Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) by a Vulcan-like member of the “Unanimity” state, she is asked if she cares if the revolution will fail. She replies that it does not matter because she knows that she has changed the mind of one person, at least.

This idea is also alluded to in the 19th century story, when characters rebel against the authority of a father figure who says that their efforts would be “a drop in the ocean”. The reply, “What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?” summarises the Wachowski’s optimistic ideal of a minority rising against a greater, oppressive force by the spreading a new ideology. Inspiring, but it’s contradicted by the rest of the film: how can individuals be liberated to change their present circumstances if their success is dependent on a chain of random events occurring over centuries?  Are all our thoughts and actions slaves to the past? What exactly is it that the directors of Cloud Atlas want to say to us?

Another issue is the device of using actors to play multiple roles, but covered up by thick layers of striking prosthetics. I presume we are meant to recognise the same “souls” from one story to the next, but what happens is you end up spotting the actors themselves pop up in different guises, prompting a game of “Oh look, it’s him/her again,” which does distract from the story.

Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) storyline set in modern England. He goes to visit his brother (Hugh Grant made up like a sun-crisped Roger Daltry) who tricks him into checking into a care home. The nurses are Hugo Weaving and James D’Arcy made up to bear an uncanny resemblance to Rupert Everett as the headmistress from the St Trinian’s films. Farce such as this works on the basis of a series of unplanned mishaps that culminate in a comedic pay-off, usually at the expense of the character that is the unwitting architect of his or her misfortune – the butterfly effect again. Unfortunately, in a sci-fi film, the incongruous inclusion of an episode of Waiting for God creates a genre schism.

The final story of tribe member Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) could be the most interesting yet, but insists on crowbarring in yet another concept; the conflict between religious belief and science. Except it doesn’t really, because details are threadbare as to what the story is about, so it’s a waste of screen time.

Zachry is haunted by the vision of a voodoo character with painted face and dressed in tattered top hat and tails (think The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, as I did with his every screen appearance), judging his actions and urging him to prevent the progress of Meronym’s scientific expedition. What she is trying to do, I don’t know, but it involved climbing a mountain to fire up some kind of machinery to some critical purpose. The characters speak in an evolved form of English that makes things even more incomprehensible.

There is something to be said for weaving a tale with just enough to set your audience’s minds alight with questions, but not so much so as to deny them the exaltation of discovering the meaning for themselves. It is a thin line that the Wachowski’s smudge, throwing too many disconnected philosophies at the screen without resolving them cohesively. More cloudiness than clarity, unfortunately.

Light fantastic

Sometimes there comes along an art exhibition that does what others attempt and fail – to reach into the mind of the punter and fire their sense of wonder and excitement. I’ve just been to see the Light Show exhibition at the South Bank’s Hayward Gallery, and there are some exhibits, no, experiences that were so much fun, I felt compelled to discuss them with complete strangers.

Ok, for those who know me that’s not unusual but the exhibits bring out a need to express how they make you feel. And isn’t that the point of art? To make you feel something, not just ponder it intellectually.

My picks are as follows:

Cylinder II (2012), Leo Villareal

Looking like an oversize chandelier from a 70s concept house, this features vertical metal tracks of white, blinking LEDs arranged in spaced concentric circles. The programmed light patterns flicker and pulse like an energy source. Step back for a much better view.

You and I, Horizontal (2005), Anthony McCall

Steady on there, it may be St Valentine’s Day but we’re not talking about that kind of horizontal. In a dark room (I said steady there at the back!) a shape-shifting cone of light is projected through an atmosphere of stage smoke.

The shape of the cone is intersected by a straight line and gradually the composition shifts, controlled by computer. Stand inside the cone and you see a swirling skin of smoke particles that disappear into blackness where the light is broken.

Chromosaturation (1965-2013), Carlos Cruz-Diez

The most fun you’ll ever have with basic light-colour theory. A square room is divided into three sections lit separately by banks of blue, red and green fluorescent strip-lights.

The space isn’t that big so, around the corner, a deliberate bleed of the next colour mixes with that previous to it. It’s really important to stand and look at a wall of one colour for a few minutes to let your eyes acclimatise before moving on. That way you get the maximum stimulus.

The blue is cooling, but walk into the red room (furthest from blue on the visible spectrum) and your eyes are flamed by the intense colour shift, as if there ought to be a heat source. Next is the relative calm of the green room – sadly without tea and biscuits.

White cubes are hung from the ceiling to reflecting the colours to either side. On the wall behind are splashes of merged colours, where blue meets red and red meets green. It’s such a simple concept, yet so stimulating. It bypasses all your critical faculties and delivers happiness right into your visual cortex.

Reality Show (Silver) (2010), Ivan Navarro

The gallery notes point out that Navarro grew up in Chile under the oppressive regime of General Pinochet (see Film review – No), to steer away from what may be perceived as fairground fun.

In appearance, Reality Show is a heavy-duty stainless-steel phone box, which you enter alone. The door on each side is fitted with a two-way mirror – people can see in, but you can’t see out, only your reflection. Above and below, white LEDs skirt the base and ceiling, reflected into infinity like a starry ventilation shaft. If there’s not too much of a queue, hang about and consider the feeling of solitary confinement in a cell. Try not to think of travelling through time and space as in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Bogus. I guess thoughts like that are the luxury of growing up in a free society.

Model for a timeless garden (2011), Olafur Eliasson

Enter another pitch-black room and strobe lights illuminate a row of fountains that spray water in a variety of jets and umbrella-shapes, the motion intermittently frozen in time. It’s magical. Blobs of rotating water, held together by surface tension, pitch into the darkness. It’s like being inside a giant zoetrope and utterly fantastic.

Light Show is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre until 28 April. See videos of exhibits at haywardlightshow.co.uk/av

Film review – No

Set during the rule of Chilean dictactor Augusto Pinochet, No is the title of a real political TV campaign that ran as part of a 1988 referendum on Pinochet’s right to rule – a condition imposed on him by the international community as acceptance of his legitimacy as president.

René (Gael García Bernal, taking up another socio-political story after Even the Rain) is a young, senior advertising agency creative with a taste for the glossy, youthful advertising that has become synonymous with the prosperity sweeping Reagan’s America. The son of an eminent (but, we are to presume missing) socialist activist mentioned in passing, he has a nice sports car, a nice house, a young son and an estranged wife, Verónica (Antonia Zegers), who is committed to the socialist party and its street demonstrations against the murders and disappearances that shadowed Pinochet’s rule.

René is pushed out of his comfort zone by a request from a socialist party member to develop the “No” campaign as part of the allotted 15 minutes on TV given to each side of the referendum. It’s worth pointing out that in Chile this would be a rare opportunity for relatively free expression under the censor’s hand. The phrase “TV legitimises everything” is invoked by  René– it is the ultimate power to reach millions. Therefore, consideration for its content is wrangled over between the Party and some ad agency staff, who wish to vent their grief and anger over extra-judicial killings, and René who wishes to drive the campaign like a product launch, hiding a political message of rejection in a vibrant campaign focused on happiness. Needless to say, his client is horrified at what they see as a dismissal of history and its unavenged dead.

The film has gripping moments as René and his team are haunted by government minders, who daub slogans on his home and make threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, and the final scene of the vote count has some tension but, this isn’t an out and out thriller about a protest movement. It is more a question mark over the man who ultimately created the “No” campaign: is he really politically motivated? René appears to be gradually seduced by the challenge of an impossible brief that needs a “miracle” to win, rather than an obvious political will, as is shown by his wife. He loves the challenge of successfully driving a product through to its audience, whether that product is a cola or a political call to action. His final scene appears to show a disconnection with the cause, his mission finished, he seems deflated, though perhaps he is just exhausted. The ambiguity is interesting.

Film review – I Wish

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells a quiet, charming story from within the contained world of childhood, as two brothers of junior-school age try to comprehend the adults around them and fix their parent’s marriage by travelling to a place where Japan’s bullet trains pass each other at great speed– an event rumoured among the classmates to create a supernatural force that can grant wishes.

Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) and Kenji (Jô Odagiri) are the recently separated parents of Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) and Koichi (KokiMaeda), split over Kenji’s relaxed attitude to earning enough money to support his family, preferring to pursue his dream of playing in his band. Nozomi lives with her retired parents, taking the older Ryu with her. Kenji gets to look after the younger, Koichi, living in a town distant enough that the boys’ only contact with each other is through regular calls on their brightly-coloured mobile phones after swimming practice or at home in the evenings.

The performances from the two boys are of pure naturalism, and their relationship captivating to watch because they are really brothers. I adored Koichi’s optimistic, insatiable happiness. There is a joyful scene as he arrives at school and runs through the playground high-fiving friends and shouting, “Good morning!” Next viewed from the corridor, he then disappears into his classroom with another cheery “Good morning!” and the whole class answers him back with gusto. He clearly inspires instant happiness.

Ryu is a more solid, thoughtful character who comes up with the plan to travel to the bullet train tracks to make the wish, and who galvanizes his friends to find the money necessary.He seems to bear more weight on his shoulders than his brother, perhaps due to his older years making him more aware of what was lost. In a flashback scene to a one-sided argument between his parents, Nozomi throws fried octopus balls at the inert Kenji who has been silent to her admonishments. Ryu seems to try and stop the food fight, but Koichi grabs his plate of food and walks away into close-up to save his dinner from the melee, stuffing his little cheeks like a hamster. He seems impervious, and later in the film – during a phone call with his mother – a moment of his innocent, childlike logic reduces her to tears.

There’s a point in life where we start to see our parents as children and treat them accordingly, and the idea of children taking on the mantle of responsibility to save their parents from themselves is a universal one in storytelling (in popular culture: Back to the Future and Star Wars come to mind). The sentiment of putting away childish things surfaces as the boys sell their toys and comic books to fund their mission. However, wishing is a childish notion and they are ultimately children trying to solve an adult problem.

Kore-eda’s deft “less is more” direction works so well, a minimal sensibility that other film reviewers have, quite rightly, compared to the Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu (see Tokyo Story), famous for capturing the milieu of everyday life in Japan. The naturalism is hypnotic and I felt I was watching real children on a real adventure beyond their actual family homes, as they became aware of their place in the world of their parents and grandparents. Heartwarming without sickly sentiment, this is a beautiful piece of cinema I would love to see again.

Incidentally, there was a timely coincidence between a news story at the time of viewing the film and the sashimi of choice that young Koichi asks for on more than one occasion. It caused a few more laughs than perhaps Kore-eda intended.

Film review – Caesar Must Die

At first, I wasn’t sure if this was a true documentary or a fictionalised account of Italian prisoners putting on a production of Julius Caesar as part of a jail theatre programme. In fact, it has real prisoners “acting” as themselves in a kind of double artifice. There is something wonderfully staged about the film, which works to blur the theatrical world of Shakespeare almost seamlessly with the world of the prison. Filmed largely in black and white, the routines of prison life are ignored as the cast members rehearse in their own time in the prison grounds.

Watching it feels like one is in a waking dream – as if the fabric of the play has bled into real life. There is a surreal moment in which the whole prison becomes part of the play as the actor playing Mark Anthony addresses a wall of baying prisoners climbing to their cell windows to view the players. The prison guards watch rehearsals from gangways, but they too seem to be part of the illusion, a Shakespearean supporting cast passing casual observations.

One player remarks of the dialogue, “It’s as if Shakespeare knew the streets of my childhood” and the similarities of a play about complicity, betrayal and murder are all too obvious to these men of the Camorra.

Previewed at the ICA in late January, it goes on general release 1 March, and I urge you to see it.