Category Archives: Action

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…)

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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?

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.

Die Hard 2 Dies Harder

Does anyone remember how bad-ass Die Hard 2 was? That’s all I wanted to say.

I mean, these terrorists really meant business. They are a group of cruel bastards that would make Hans Gruber sit up and take notice. And John McClane retaliates in kind. In the first movie he also takes care of all the bad guys (and he REALLY hates bad guys), and the action was by no means disappointing, but the way everyone meets their end feels a lot more brutal this time around. It’s in the name, it dies harder. And it’s at times kind of shocking and really good. It’s one of those movies where I didn’t care at all about plot, it’s all about the action. So check out Die Hard 2 the next time you get a chance.

The Hunger Games: Scrumptious treat that doesn’t quite hit the spot

Wow, so much has been made of this movie already, what is there left to say? I mean, a movie that opens worldwide and in South Africa like this one did doesn’t really need to care about what people have to say about it anyway. And in this case, if the movie makers behind the Hunger Games were to ignore the reviews and reactions and simply run the numbers they’d reach the right conclusion anyway.

It really is an excellent, entertaining blockbuster. But not in the vapid way that we get with so many other ‘busters. The movie operates in a frightening world of inequality and class segregation where the privileged, by virtue of having won the war between the two factions, make generation upon generation of the unfortunate losers’ children battle it out for survival for their entertainment. And to keep them in their place (as ‘penance’, to quote the book). It’s a world that seems frighteningly familiar as well, despite the garish fashion of this new world, which adds a lot of weight to proceedings. The idea of power resting in the hands of a greedy few, who will do whatever it takes to hold on to it, never stops being a fascinating one. And to that end Donald Sutherland’s president Snow, overseeing the games like a puppet master, provides gripping sinister cutaways in between coverage of the games, serving as a reminder of the political importance of the event. Apart from the scary politics, the movie also darkly parodies 21st century concepts of entertainment very effectively.

So that is what the movie does exceedingly well, creating this abjectly perverse universe and giving everything an unsettling tinge. Like the ‘reaping’, for example, where ‘tributes’ from Katniss’ district are selected, which is so dispassionate and morose, it’s chilling. The opening act of the movie on the whole is especially on the money. The wonderfully talented Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen  and her sister in their austere surroundings provide great chemistry, if you can call it that. Their brief scenes together really set up the whole movie so well, providing the emotional centre and purpose for Katniss’ character. None of the other relationships really compare, but then that’s the point. This world doesn’t really have a lot of them. Even Katniss and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta never really make a believable couple, but then that isn’t the function of their relationship either. What it does is supply titillating  intrigue, as you never know to what extent they’re just playing the game. There’s some nice pathos for Peeta, however, as he’s probably playing it a little less than Katniss. But, as we see, he will do what he has to in order to survive, like everyone else.

Where the movie falls short is with the action. You can never quite shake the feeling that you’re watching a kids’ movie, deeply disturbing, but still made with way too much consideration for kids. And money. And don’t bloody tell me the kids were the primary target market anyway because of the books. Don’t sell me that trash. I don’t care… so the South African Film and Publication board, who wanted a 16 rating, can rest easy. Most of the disturbing elements will go over the little scamps’ heads. Anyway, this movie could’ve been great, truly exceptional, if director Gary Ross could’ve gone all the way in bringing home the horrors of this battle royale. Forgive me for my inner boy coming out, but I wanted to see much, much (much) more blood. As it is, too much impact is lost. The games-section is still a very watchable psychological battle, and there is a scene involving bees that feels as if the movie was for once really pushing its 13 rating, but I left the cinema longing for the Game of Thrones or Quentin Tarantino version. The conclusion to the games is also rushed and sloppy and pandering, disgusting really, but you get over it.

It’s a very interesting movie, very interesting. Lawrence is great. Stanley Tucci is a treat as always. And Woody Harrelson’s hair catches the eye whenever it gets screen time. It’s a little great really, but it just makes me hate those in power, those who can only think about money, so much.