(On Cable TV, February 2017) It’s a good thing that Tom Hanks stars in A Hologram for the King, because I’m not sure that the film would have been as interesting with another actor. Bringing his everyday-man charm to a damaged character (a down-on-his-luck salesman with substantial familial, psychological and health issues) thrown in the weirdness of modern Saudi Arabia as he chases an important contract, Hanks shines even without meaning to do so. There are multiple obstacles in his way, from an unfamiliar culture to unhelpful receptionists to a big ball of guilt permeating his every action. Writer/director Tom Tykwer brings some welcome energy and visual polish to some sequences but otherwise delivers a far more conventional film than some of his best-known work. Other actors distinguish themselves in smaller roles: Alexander Black is frequently hilarious as the protagonist’s accidental companion, while Sidse Babett Knudsen is very likable as the first helpful person encountered by the hero, and Sarita Choudhury gets a great age-appropriate romantic role. A Hologram for the King plays well, especially during its early scenes, largely due to the attachment that viewers already have to Hanks’ screen persona. The accumulation of details about life in Saudi Arabia gives the film a manageable amount of strangeness, and by the time we understand that this will be a character study with a strong internal component, we’re already under the film’s unassuming charm. A Hologram for the King is certainly not without faults (some plotlines get resolved very quickly, some subplots feel easy, some moments feel implausible or too easy contrived) but it works well enough.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) Adapting Patrick Süskind’s extraordinary novel Perfume is not impossible (as this film proves), but it’s daunting enough. Part of it, of course, has to do with the central conceit of a story in which smell (with its associated vocabulary and emotional impact) plays such a strong role – how to portray that on-screen? But if there was a filmmaker for the job, then Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas fame) would be it. In his hands, a potentially silly film becomes curiously accessible, despite an oft-unbearable beginning (complete with baby endangerment) and a final mass-orgy sequence (you read that correctly) that could have gone terribly wrong in the wrong hands. This Perfume, though, ends up being reasonably good; certainly beautiful and thought-provoking at times. Ben Whishaw makes an impression as the lead character, a young man gifted with superhuman olfactory senses who resorts to murder in order to perfect the ultimate perfume. Dustin Hoffman shows up for a few pivotal scenes, but this is really Whishaw’s film. Perfume’s most noteworthy characteristic, aside from a daring screenplay, is its splendid cinematography, honed to quasi-perfection as it goes from the dirty markets of Paris to the beautiful countryside of southern Europe. The emphasis on scent jargon and trade secrets is fascinating, and the gradual discoveries of the lead character are narrated effectively (by John Hurt, no less). Warm and harsh at the same time, Perfume is a singular film experience, the kind fit to make jaded moviegoers say “wow, that was pretty good!” It may not, however, be everything to everyone.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) At a time where big-budget filmmaking seems to retreat in familiar narrative structures and a complete lack of daring, Cloud Atlas comes as a welcome break from the usual. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it features six loosely-linked narratives spanning centuries and several known actors playing different roles in each story. Heralding the return of the Wachowskis siblings to the big screen after a few quiet years (they co-direct three of the six stories, with Tom Tykwer directing the remainder of the film), Cloud Atlas is big, ambitious and offers things that cinema doesn’t often get to showcase. It is, in many ways, a singular movie experience, and one that deserves to be contemplated rather than simply liked or disliked. As an adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel, it’s an excellent, even audacious re-working: the film’s structure works in ways that the novel couldn’t, and still ends up a fiercely cinematic work. Most of the actors playing multiple roles seem to have a lot of fun, with particular notice to Tom Hanks (who gets to tweak his usual good-guy persona), Halle Berry (who gets one of her best roles yet as a 1970s journalist), an often-unrecognizable Hugh Grant, as well as gleefully multifaceted Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving –who even gets to play both assassin and nurse. (Some roles don’t work as well, such as when actors get to play outside their ethnicity or gender, but that happens.) The six stories interlock in subtle ways, suggesting both reincarnation of personalities and malleability of interpretation once truth becomes fiction. For all of the good things about Cloud Atlas, it’s almost too easy to forget that this is not an easy or even completely successful film: You have to give it at least 30 minutes for the six stories to earn narrative interest, and there’s a sense that the film is definitely not tight or focused: it often appears to run off on tangents and forced similarities, and certainly will not please anyone looking for solid links between all elements of the picture. Still, for jaded moviegoers, Cloud Atlas is as close as it gets to a truly new experience within the big-budget framework: it tries many new things, succeeds spectacularly well at some of them and leaves hungry for a bit more. I could go on, but the film is too big to be adequately described within the constraints of a capsule review.