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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
With so many big ticket movies failing to live up to the initial hype (I’m talking to you, DKR) or like a really, really boss trailer (unfortunately, I might unwittingly be referring to Cloud Atlas), here’s one that might go the distance. I have to say, with each day’s passing I become I bigger fan of PTA. Here’s an interview about his upcoming The Master to whet your appetite. And I include the quote from Michael Hogan, because, just read it…
“The Master” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film, and something about its surety and magisterial beauty — coming on the heels of the epic, Oscar-nominated “There Will Be Blood” — has created a consensus view of him as America’s best working filmmaker, if not the world’s.” – Hogan. The Master is out in SA on 7 December (SHOCKING!)
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.
Material, headed up by funny man Riaad Moosa, is not a funny movie. Because, as we are told by his movie father Ebrahim (played by Vincent Ebrahim), “life is not a funny business”. And it does well to demonstrate this throughout with a well-told story that is heavy in tone with some fantastic emotional beats.
That’s not to say it’s not funny too. In Moosa Material has a perfect lead – his character Cassim is incredibly sweet and sympathetic and carries the movie perfectly. As a counterpoint to all the drama, Cassim’s stand-up material interspersed in the movie can be average at times, although it’s very culturally specific and may be forgiven by more lenient viewers. However, genuine laughs are abundant with Joey Rasdien on-screen, who is excellent in his supporting role as best friend Yusuf, providing an authentic and heartwarming friendship. Then, of course, there’s Vincent Ebrahim who delivers a big performance as the out-of-touch, stubborn and authoritarian Ebrahim. The granny many will love as well, although I found her to be quite annoying and the one fake character in an otherwise solid cast.
It’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons with Judd Apatow’s Funny People, even though the movies are obviously worlds apart. However, like Funny People, Material shows how comedy can become a subject of great dramatic potential and goes looking for real human emotion behind the laughs. Where Funny People exposes the tortured soul of a long-time comedian, Material highlights the torture of getting into the business to begin with. Cassim works at his family’s struggling material store in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, selling fabric to people in their small Muslim community, but what he secretly dreams of is making people laugh. But he has to keep it secret from his overbearing father who would never approve.
It’s incredible, only because we manage to live such culturally insular lives in South Africa, that you can go see a locally made movie such as this and feel like you could be watching a foreign film playing out in drab Delhi or something. And even though Material appears to be performing well at the local box office, I hope the strong Indian flavour of the movie hasn’t discouraged South Africans from other cultural groups to give this a go. It tells a universal story of aspiring to something different in life, facing obstacles on the way and making some very hard choices. And it tells the very South African story of how history and culture can have a very stifling effect on your life. Also to its credit, something that I want to see more in our films, it largely sidesteps the baggage of Apartheid in our cinematic tradition, although it is implicitly there and pivotal in the plot.
It’s not perfect, but for a local effort Material is truly impressive, firstly for its deft storytelling and secondly its slick production value. That depressing track is overdone slightly toward the end, making it feel unbearably sad at times. That being said, you end up missing it when it’s gone, because my biggest and only gripe really is that the ending is way too easily wrapped-up. Nonetheless, this is a really pleasing film as sweet as the character at its centre, and it bodes well for South African cinema.
Hey all, sorry I skipped a review last week, I know my loyal readership are probably still hurting from that. But worry not, this week I’m back and I’m bringing some class with me. That can only mean it’s British. But don’t worry, it’s not all high and dry, they have the f-word there too.
So, My Week With Marilyn tells the unlikely true story of a young man, Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne) forcing his way into the movie business with sheer determination only to have the world’s biggest star, the inimitable (but wait, I’ll get to that) Marilyn Monroe, arrive in England to shoot a movie with Laurence Olivier as soon as he’s succeeded in doing so.
The movie opens with Michelle Williams acting as Marilyn in a movie and bewitching British audiences with Colin among them. And in the same way she transfixes the boy, Williams proceeds to light up the screen all the way through. As soon as the curtain lifts you are witness to a truly dazzling performance from an extremely talented actress. Of all the Dawson’s Creek kids I guess we should have had our money on her all along. I mean, she was always even more serious than the rest.
Not only is she completely transformed into Marilyn Monroe in appearance and little idiosyncrasies, but once she gets going “on-screen” she has the same exotic, enchanting appeal of the actual Monroe. She is fun and flirtatious in Monroe’s good moments, but she also shines when her pill-addled character doesn’t.
And where Williams spearheads the movie to create a pleasing timewarping feel, the picture follows suit by being presented in a wonderful grainy texture that makes it resemble old film footage of a real Monroe visit. It really is quite lovely to take in.
Then there is the support. Kenneth Branagh, for one, is just fantastic. Much like the weirdo behind me, who once or twice raised his voice during the screening, I wanted to shout out: “More of this, Kenneth, less of Thor!!!” He is tremendously entertaining as serious thespian Laurence Olivier whose patience is tested to the brink by Ms Monroe. Redmayne is sufficiently enthusiastic, overawed, smitten and heartbroken as and when required, while Dame Judy Dench and even Emma Watson do a fine job too, even though they’re just there to colour in the edges.
This movie is about Marilyn and what a complicated, troubled yet incredibly gifted young woman she was. And also how screwed up her idea of love was. I mean, this is no place for someone as “young and innocent” as Colin to get involved in. So subsequently it’s also a bittersweet romance, a little one-sided, a little unrequited, of the besotted boy who would do anything to help someone who is tragically beyond helping. She would peak with her next film, the timeless Some Like It Hot, and after that make only two more movies before passing away from an overdose at age 36.
The whole thing, despite feeling slow at times, is a whirlwind affair and, while having left a lasting impression on the boy, its effect will probably wear off in audience members not long after leaving the cinema. On occasion the romance and the damaged aspect of Monroe can become somewhat cloying, but the movie is a softly handled, sumptuous and charming study of what will forever remain a fascinating figure of the silver-screen. And someone give Williams the Oscar, Meryl already has two.
Ah crap. This type of movie leaves me in such a dilemma. Such a dilemma. This week I went to see The Descendants, the Hawaii-based drama from Alexander Payne everyone is raving about. So now I feel incredibly left out for feeling almost nothing walking out of the cinema afterwards. It’s like Slumdog all over again. Or About Schmidt, another Payne movie. And it’s not that it isn’t good, it’s just that this low-key picture is so incredibly low-key that it’s sort of hard to go meet or, ahem, descend to its level.
The most telling, pointed line is probably where Clooney’s character Matt King compares his family to an archipelago, ‘together but always drifting apart’. So the movie has this tragic undercurrent running through it, which never fully comes to the surface. Things are not well in the house of King, you see. For starters, his wife’s in a coma and is probably not going to make it. And as if to heighten the resentment you would feel for a loved one putting you through such an ordeal, he also has to find out that she was having an affair. More stuff that you can’t really deal with. But the characters all give it a fair go as they thrash it out with the comatose mom, her becoming just the weirdest character/prop who just lies there in close-up during conversations.
Clooney, in going for his miserable unfulfilled guy trilogy, is very good as always, but not great. Not Oscar worthy. He can’t be faulted and shows good variation, occasionally displaying even a bit of O Brother’s almost farcical acting, but his performance is much toned down as his character internalises so much of his emotions. S0 you really have to look for the so-called Oscar-winning performance to see it, but I don’t know, some people will call it nuanced.
I guess he perfectly matches the tone of the movie, so lets commend him for that. But I think I was expecting another Up In the Air, where he gives a similar performance. Only there the material really packed more of a punch, whereas Descendants works the stomach without ever going for the knock-out. The stand-out performance actually comes from young Shailene Woodley, who plays his daughter Alex. She gives such a strong, assured performance of a young woman dealing with all that is going on and really impresses.
It’s a thoughtful, sombre movie about what it means to love someone, all contrasted with horrible Hawaiian shirts and the unusual melancholy of its Hawaiian music soundtrack. It’s subtle, complex and definitely has its moments, with also some decent humour creeping in to alleviate some of the heaviness. So, I’m sure it’s very good, but I don’t think I really liked it that much or at all. To its credit, it did make me think to go out and live my life right to avoid King”s mistakes (even though these things happen), and maybe reconsider the time spent watching slow-burning movies that don’t really pay off in the end.
And oh, hey, Matthew Lillard is in it. And he doesn’t screw it up. So kudos to him.