The Mask, on its 20th anniversary

I just watched The Mask again, one of my all time favourites as a kid. I made my grandmother watch this once and I feel terrible now. Because it probably was totally not her thing. But also, I’m sorry, ouma, because it’s still oh so good. Here are a few rambling thoughts…

– Cameron Diaz. In that dress. And that dress. And the last one. Holy shit.

– The dance number between her and The Mask. It’s actually quite good. Like Pulp Fiction good. (Too far?)

– It’s so much fun. Not just the whole surrendering to your id thing. But Jim Carrey is awesome. Especially when he’s hamming it up where he’s wounded or getting arrested. And the dance number with the swat team in the street. It’s irresistible.

– Ok, so why don’t people in the movie make more of a big deal out of the fact that this guy moves really fast and has a freakish appearance?

– How much of it was just make-up? The Mask character looks hella good. And we should remember that’s still mostly Carrey. Fantastic.

Anyway. There’s the part where he pulls a used condom out of his pocket that Also deserves a mention. I never caught that as a child. But turns out I still love it. The whole surreal masterpiece. 

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Looper: Fun for a while, but fails to come full circle

courtesy of whatculture.com
courtesy of whatculture.com

So, Looper arrived in SA with a time delay of about 4 months. Time travel, it seems, is not an exact science and it took distributors a while to send this picture through time to Africa. Luckily the film makes up for the wait and shows that while inexact, time travel can still be freakin cool if done right.

Looper opens in Kansas 2044 and a summary, no-apologies gunshot to the chest. This film doesn’t faff around and gets straight into it. And for the first act it’s wonderful to watch as director Rian Johnson mixes exposition in a  fascinating future world with arresting cruelty and style. It really has a marvelous rhythm and is huge fun.

We have looper by profession, Joe, holding our hand and guiding us through this universe with a noirish sensibility. So Johnson first did high-school noir, and now follows it up with future-noir. The man likes it dark. Joe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who teams up again with pal Johnson and does a very good job in one of the four big top movies he had out this year. He’s basically playing Bruce Willis here, as the two actors play the same character at different stages in time, and it’s great to see how JGL embodies the action veteran. His make-up for the part is awesome too and a true accomplishment by the make-up artists.

“I made a nose piece, an upper lip and lower lip, a vacuum foam plastic piece to pull back Joe’s (Gordon-Levitt’s) ears, a small hairpiece on the eyebrows to change Joe’s eyebrows and contact lenses to change Joe’s eye color,” artist Kazu Tsuji told MTV.com. That’s a lot of work, right, and unusual. Most people would’ve just said they are the same person and that’s all there is to it, okay? Gawd!

Anyway, I won’t explain all the minutiae of the central conceit here, it’s more fun learning as you go along. But what it comes down to is that young Joe has to kill his older self from the future, who’s conveniently sent back to him by his own employers (sort of, I think). But future-Joe, that’s Bruce (try to keep up), is wise to what’s coming and manages to escape.

It’s at this point that, unfortunately the movie slowly starts losing me. For a short while longer it’s fun and exhibits some sweet humour too. And then it falls apart. And it’s not Emily Blunt’s fault for once. I actually liked her tough girl on the range. It’s her kid that stretches suspension of disbelief to its limits. In an acknowledging nod to the great Terminator 2 (Blunt’s character is even called Sarah), we again have a child whose life is in danger from someone sent back from the future due to what he may do in his assailant’s time. It’s a little silly at this point, and the kid is also too intelligent and intolerably cutesy for my taste, clashing with the tone of the movie. It’s not just the little twerp, though, as the earlier balanced touch in action scenes is dispensed with in favour of a crude, heavy-handed shoot-em-up. Meh.

By the end I’ve kinda stopped caring all that much. And thank goodness, because the ending doesn’t really make that much sense to me. You can mind-fuck me all you want, but I’m not gonna fake an orgasm just because you think you’re being confusing and that’s enough. Plus, if they are saying what I think they’re saying, it ultimately turns into Back to the Future but crossing over into the dark side… hmmm. No thanks. (Actually, come to think of it, they’re not saying what I thought they were saying… but the implication is there, the implication dammit…)

The Wachowski’s offer us happy pills once more

A few nights ago Cloud Atlas blew my mind into smithereens as multitudinous as the stars. I’m still trying to collect my thoughts.

All I know is that, yes it may be a bit messy at times, but it’s a beautiful, glorious mess that you have to lose yourself in. I had this immense, exultant rush after seeing it, like I was on drugs. It’s a bold, ballsy drug by Tom and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, spanning six time periods from 1849 through to Neo Seoul, 2144 and further to 106 winters after “The Fall”. The Wachowski’s took care of the future periods while Tykwer directed the classical parts.

The source material, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, deserves a lot of credit as the ideas of interconnectedness and fate are all his. That’s one half of the puzzle. But committing it to the screen, the attempt alone and then the feat of executing it so well, deserves equal praise if not more. Because the different stories (up to a point) don’t feel all that original, but the sheer scope of it and how it all fits together, along with the actors’ performances, superb make-up and beautiful awe-inspiring visuals, really bring it home. It takes this monumental idea about life, everything, the eternal narrative of humankind, and gives it a physical form. That’s the big achievement, being able to present this idea the way they’ve done.

Watching Cloud Atlas recalled another divisive pop culture phenomenon of the previous decade. Cloud Atlas feels like the movie the creators of Lost would’ve made in their prime. And much like Lost, some of the storylines/flashbacks don’t completely hold up, but the overall result (at least for a lot of seasons where Lost is concerned) is still incredibly satisfying.

Certainly everything does not hold up. For example, I could’ve done without seeing Hugo Weaving as a burly nurse or Halle Berry running around San Francisco as a jive journalist on the trace of something big. And Tom Hanks’ cockney gangster will go down as one of the most ridiculous career choices of his or any of his peers’ career. But then that error is brief, thankfully, and Hanks more than makes up for it in two other powerful performances as the deceitful, unsavoury Doctor Goose and tribesman of the future, Zachry. Each actor plays on average about five or six characters, after all, so they can afford the odd slip-up.

Hanks’ gangster Dermot Hoggins can also be forgiven, because his hot-headedness triggers one of the more unusual plot strands for a film where almost nothing seems out of place. Jim Broadbent is Timothy Cavendish, the publisher of Hoggins’ autobiography. And once the book turns out to be a hit, Hoggins sends his cronies to collect more money that he thinks he’s now owed. This sends Cavendish fleeing into the arms of his brother who, after having had enough of bailing him out, tricks him into booking into an old age home. Here begins a humorous jailbreak plot involving Cavendish and a few other geriatric “inmates” that is completely incongruous in its comedy and levity, but which just works remarkably well. Broadbent is excellent, his face wrung constantly into a crazed look of confusion and dismay. The actor then also balances out this foolish role by turning out a solid performance as the cruel composer Vyvyan Ayrs to boot.

Other stand-outs are Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae and James D’Arcy, who put in great performances all over but especially in the Neo Seoul storyline, another one of the best with some terrific action packed in.

So, it moves quickly and it can be confusing – they even invented a new dialect for the future which is at times quite hard to follow but which should also be saluted – but what ties it all together is the unifying theme of freedom. The movie depicts how our striving for liberty never lessens as new obstacles appear and old ones re-emerge. And simultaneously the film (and book, I suppose) frees up its characters in space and time by letting all the stories flow into each other. Cuts between scenes based in different time-periods are made frequently and flippantly to blur their distinctions. This feels like several movies, but the directors force us to view it as one which just happens to be told over a vast expanse of time. On a whole new cinematic level, space and time are illusions that limit storytelling no more. It might not be your bag of chips, but if you go in for that kind of thing, it’ll free your mind for a little while…

Plus it’s got Hugh Grant looking like this.

The top ten movies of the last ten years! imo

A highly subjective list, but let’s go…

Road to Perdition (2002)

A moody, brooding mobster movie trying really hard to find something worthy of salvation in its characters. It’s a beautiful look at the 30’s period and father and son relationships, with gorgeous cinematography too.

 

Gangs of New York (2002)

Marty Scorsese’s epic history lesson. I don’t even know how accurate it is, but it’s a gripping look at the cinematic staple that is New York while the Civil War is going on in the background. And it has one of the best Daniel Day-Lewis performances as Bill the Butcher.

 

Lost in Translation (2003)

A beautiful depiction of two wandering, weary souls finding each other, doubly disorienting because of the warped Tokyo setting. It’s an unlikely pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson that works out perfectly.

 

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This movie! Once the credits start rolling, you’re glued to your seat, stunned. Not quite sure what just happened. It has one of the best villains in Anton Chigurh played by Javier Bardem. It’s total nihilism with the only decent guy to hold on to, with a faltering grip, being Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell. Brilliant in its hopelessness.

 

The Hurt Locker (2008)

A great take on the war movie. Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant James isn’t fighting anyone’s war and the movie doesn’t advocate one way or the other. It’s all about the danger rush and it’s one hell of a thrill-ride. Plus, y’know, Kathryn Bigelow.

 

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

I doubt you’ll find this one in many top 10 lists. But it’s a great story of unrequited love told in the most original, creative and fun way in a while. It’s also a loud critique on romantic comedies and their delusions.

 

Funny People (2009)

One of the best comedies to come out in years! It’s genuinely funny, but finds its comedy in really dark and honest subject matter. Oh and it humanises Adam Sandler in a poignant look at life, wasted opportunities and the inability to change.

 

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Rollicking. But really stylish and clever. It quite literally changed history.

 

Inception (2010)

Monumental entertainment. Forget Batman, this is Nolan’s best movie. It’s one of those movies that started with a mysterious viral campaign and rode the hype-wave all the way to the bank, deservingly so. Its pure escapism embodies what cinema is all about.

 

Never Let Me Go (2010)

A stunning allegory about the meaning of life. And pretty much in the end it tells us it means nothing. Getting there is heart-wrenching and oddly life-affirming. Garfield, Mulligan and Knightley will melt your heart in an undercover sci-fi that moves me like no other.

WHAT DID I MISS?

The production of Noah’s Flood has been cancelled due to potential flooding – Moonrise Kingdom review

Well, there really is very little not to love about Moonrise Kingdom, the first live action movie from director Wes Anderson in the five long years since Darjeeling Limited. It’s an affecting, sweet love story with charm to spare and it’s all very Andersonian as always. Firstly, it’s really funny, and there are some beautiful images captured on screen, some sweet editing as per usch and also great use of sound, especially in the percussion family. Oh, and a narrator that is a favourite as character and device.

Moonrise Kingdom offers a very endearing view on childhood as a time of adventure and freedom. In our lead characters, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), we have two very unhappy and troubled children. Sam is an orphan, “emotionally disturbed” and unwanted by his foster parents, while Suzy has fits of uncontrollable rage and has her parents baffled as to how to treat her. Together they find sanctuary from their despair by way of love, as one evening during a church production of Noye’s Fludde (or Noah’s Flood) Sam wanders into the girls’ dressing room to find Suzy dressed as a raven and striking like a miniature Lana del Rey, might I add.

They proceed to plot an escape from their respectively unbearable lives by running away together. Hot in pursuit are the khaki scouts from whom Sam has absconded, led by Edward Norton’s Scout Master Ward in a winningly boyish and lovable performance and Bruce Willis’ in an impressive,  free-of-flash turn as the quietly tragic policeman Captain Sharp. And also Suzy’s concerned parents played by Bill Murray and Francis McDormand, who only realise by nightfall that she’s flown the coop also occupied by three little brothers.

We follow Sam and Suzy at a zippy tempo further and further into the woods and it’s cute to see how the whole situation turns into a scouting exercise, both for the assailants/rescue party (comically, the children themselves seem to be conflicted about this) and for Sam, the finest scout of them all. The picture is grainy and slighty desaturated in autumnal colours giving it a nostalgic feel to match the 1965 setting. And the movie takes on the rhythms of a survival-style documentary, with the children delivering their lines in an unpracticed yet natural style. Gilman and especially Hayward acquit themselves wonderfully.

They finally make it to a beach and declare it their land, a symbolic gesture of making their own way in life away from the constraints imposed by the adults. They even rename it for the occasion. Here they go from friendship to young love, discovering such joys as french kissing and heavy petting. This came as a bit of a surprise for me, but it’s appropriate I guess, it’s a time of exploration both geographically and emotionally/personally. But this doesn’t last. This land they’ve settled is a false paradise. While they hide away in their tent, Suzy’s dad illustrates how flimsy this fantasy of theirs is by simply lifting the tent and leaving them exposed.

The fantasy part of the movie picks up at this point, and at times the movie is very reminiscent of Anderson’s previous stop motion effort, The Fantastic Mr Fox. There’s fantastical explosions, lightning strikes and at one point a daring jump by Edward Norton is shown to be ridiculous as he makes it with considerable ease.

The biggest element of the fantasy though is that we have kids playing at being adult. This serves up some hilarious melodrama and moments of gravity. For example, “I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about” or “Was he a good dog? Who’s to say?” or, my favourite, Suzy’s little brother admonishing her with, “You’re a traitor to this family!” And what this is saying is that, for all their wanting to rid themselves of the idiotic adults and be together, they cannot escape becoming adults themselves.

And what waits for them is greater unhappiness. The adults in the movie have little clue of what they’re doing and not only are they unhappy but they also don’t even have love. I wish Bill Murray could’ve had a bigger role in the movie, but he still gets two of the best lines. One: “I’m going to find a tree to chop down.” It was funny in the trailer and still funny in the movie. But it actually underpins a deep sadness of a man who is lost in his marriage, only staying together for the kids without a way of dealing with his anguish. This brings me to the second: “I wish the roof would blow off and I’d be sucked into space.” The adults can’t just run away. That’s just something we try when we’re little. They’re stuck with their misery.

But maybe there is hope to hold on to. The flood comes but life returns to the Earth afterwards and maybe for Sam and Suzy things will be different. We want things for them to be different. A strong theme throughout the movie is of predicting the future and how (unless you’re the narrator) there’s just no way of doing that. And still we are left with the joy and innocence and outright fun of this movie, and that frozen moment in time on the beach.

 

 

Inglourious Basterds – bad spelling, great movie

Django Unchained, the much-anticipated upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie starring Jamie Foxx as a rescued slave out for revenge, will only hit our screens early next year a couple of months after its Christmas Day US release.

And to quell your nervous excited energy until then, may I suggest revisiting his previous film, Inglourious Basterds. It’s possibly his greatest work to date, much of the reason behind the Django-hype and simultaneously a very tough act for Django to follow.

Basterds, if you didn’t already know, tells the WWII story of a gang of all-Jewish soldiers dropped into Nazi-occupied France on a secret mission to kill German soldiers under the command of Brad Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine. On the surface, the premise is as simple as that and it sounds quite silly. But then this is damn fine entertainment with also a lot more than what meets the eye.

CONTAINS SPOILERS

The movie is grand for manifold factors. But aim a pistol at my nuts and I’d have to say it’s a fine study in tension and doubly great for this unexpected aspect as QT plays against type by downplaying the violence. There’s constantly the promise of cruelty, but until the end we only experience violence, albeit raw and graphic and chilling, in quick jarring bursts. Toward the end of the movie, in fact, the greatest show of violence is first seen in an onscreen film screening of Nation’s Pride, a Nazi movie about the exploits of a celebrated war hero who in staccato fashion mows down the allied enemy. It’s almost as if QT is trying to say something by keeping his trademark one step removed from the audience, until the violence in the Nazi film merges with his own in a ferocious climax.

So that tension I was talking about. Apart from the whole film building up towards the dramatic finish, there are microcosms as the tension is captured in three stand-out scenes.

The first is the opening scene where Colonel Hans Landa visits the home of Frenchman LaPadite who is harbouring Jewish neighbours. The encounter is brimming with suspense as one of the movie’s outright stars, Christoph Waltz, is unveiled. Waltz delights with his borderline psychotic colonel Landa who could at any moment let rip. He gives a performance so commanding, terrifyingly faux congenial yet likeable and endlessly fascinating, that they might as well have carved out ‘OSCAR’ on his forehead. He completely fills the screen when on it and deservedly got the gold statuette from the Academy to prove it. The tension is such that even drinking a glass of milk has something discomfiting about it. And you constantly fear for the vulnerable, outnumbered Frenchman and his beautiful daughters.

One of the Jewish stowaways, Shosanna Dreyfus, manages to escape and later there is a reunion between Landa and herself, delivering the second stand-out scene. This is played brilliantly by Mélanie Laurent and Waltz, as he gives nothing away of what’s going to transpire and she only hints at her anxiety by obliquely tensing up. Only at the very end does her cool facade break down completely after a rare moment of forgetfulness on Landa’s part, filling you with deep compassion for her character.

Before I get to the last scene, let me just also say this. QT gets terrific performances from his actors and can save or create careers. Case in point – John Travolta, shortlived, but still. And Basterds is no different. Apart from Waltz, there is a fantastic international cast with Laurent, Daniel Brühl and Diane Kruger all doing sterling work. But alongside Waltz, the true showpony is Brad Pitt. His Aldo Raine is Pitt like you’ve never seen him before in what has to be my favourite role for him ever. He plays it with a boyish charm and also embodies the film’s overall relish and glee, hamming it up just enough with his drawl, his smirk and his little homespun sayings to be the movie’s centre of fun.

‘Bonjourno.’

The last outstanding scene, and the best, occurs in a basement tavern where a secret meeting has been set up between the Basterds and their mole, Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Kruger. This scene just has it all. They’re already a little uneasy about it all feeling ripe for ambush, when the three Basterds descend the steps in Nazi uniform to be saluted over-zealously by the German soldiers they find below. The waitress drops the tray, there’s a clattering and breaking of glasses, and we cut to the Basterds paused awkwardly on the steps, startled by this greeting.

But they push on and join von Hammersmark where they start discussing details for their grand plan, Operation Kino, until a drunken soldier, Wilhelm, has the impudence to make a nuisance of himself around supposedly superior officers. As Michael Fassbender’s British Lieutenant reprimands him in German (obviously), the stunned soldier stares back vacantly and then starts commenting on his peculiar accent. The jig is up! Fassbender’s colleagues quickly step in to dispose of Wilhelm with aggressive threats to all his friends to keep an eye on him. Crisis averted? Maybe, but then all of a sudden a hereto unseen Nazi soldier is revealed to be sitting in the corner. It’s almost laughable how the scene keeps escalating with this latest trump card played by the director. As the record player scratches with the music finished, like the fun has run out, the major (played to lingering perfection by August Diehl) approaches and starts interrogating Fassbender’s Hicox. And after barely accepting his explanation, he decides to join them for a game of Celebrity, where they place cards on their foreheads and have to guess the famous figure’s name written on it. It’s all Diehl here as he proceeds to guess his figure, King Kong, with a majestic, controlled display of acting. The scene simmers throughout and shortly after a drink of whisky and a brief standoff it finally explodes in one brisk elimination of almost everyone involved. Damn good stuff.

Anyway… it’s a propagandistic movie about propaganda, about how the propaganda pictures of the Nazis were at the forefront of the war effort and how ultimately the movies could’ve been used to end the war. It’s a celebration of what’s possible with the movies, as QT’s own escapist plot of killing Hitler illustrates, but it’s also a condemnation of how movies can distort reality and affect people. Therefore QT also plays on the idea of the Western genre having demonised Native Americans and includes King Kong to show how cinema romanticised slavery. Significantly, Aldo Raine is part Apache and the crushing blow to the Nazis in a way, the spark that lights the fuse, is dealt by a black projectionist during a film screening. There’s also a chronic preoccupation with nicknames mixed in, of how one is perceived and how legends are built up.

And finally: language, language, language. This film flits between German, English and French and even some Italian like it’s nobody’s business. Apart from loving it for its linguistic richness, which is beautiful in and of itself but also lends authenticity, language is cleverly used as a plot device. QT shows he isn’t just trying to be arty for the hell of it. Inglourious Basterds is a deep hard look at the influence of art and culture on us all. And it’s great storytelling, with the music also deserving a special mention, and ample fun. We should let this movie move us and be very thankful for that. Good luck, Django.