The Five-Year Engagement… but I can’t forget Sarah Marshall

The Five-Year Engagement sees director Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel teaming up for the second time after the excellent Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And subconsciously I found myself making comparisons all the way through. It’s almost impossible not to, as again Segel is in a similar doting romantic mode, with generous helpings of his naked ass thrown in too.

It has Sarah Marshall’s spirit, but this sophomore collaboration feels more grown-up. Where Sarah Marshall was about a relationship falling apart and moving on, Engagement looks at what it takes, the stupid things that are done, to keep two people together. After the movie starts with Tom proposing to Violet, played by Emily Blunt, we see him make a huge sacrifice by giving up his career as a chef and following Violet to the University of Michigan to let her go after her dreams. And you can just hear the patrons of the cinema talking among themselves… “she’s so selfish… i know!” But seriously, she’s pretty bitchy about the whole thing.

In Michigan there are no fancy restaurants and instead Tom loses his way professionally in a sandwich shop where he remains unchallenged and unfulfilled. Where Peter in Sarah Marshall was going nowhere, Segel revisits that man-child state that he’s so fascinated with, only this time Tom regresses due to being deeply unhappy.  And oh does he waste away spectacularly. He eventually resigns himself completely to the Michigan country way of life to great comedic effect. This transformation into a bearded, large poncho-sweater wearing outdoorsman is probably the highlight of the film.

Segel’s once again surrounded himself with great comedy actors everywhere you look. Forming part of his Michigan tribe are Brian Posehn as Tarquin and the scene-stealing Chris Parnell as stay-at-home dad who knits, Bill. Emily Blunt meanwhile has Mindy Kalling, Kevin Hart and Randall Park as university colleagues. Rhys Ifans never dissapoints either.

Then there’s great support from Chris Pratt, who proves to be very funny as best friend Alex and, minus her questionable British accent, forms a great partnership with Alison Brie’s Suzie as the pair who effortlessly and unintentionally achieve what the lead characters are having such a hard time with.

As for the leads, Segel is great – dry and subtle, but also able to go large when he needs to – but I have a real problem with Emily Blunt. She’s fine, but I just can’t get over the fact that she has progressed so much higher than her station which really ought to be solid supporting roles like the one of Emily in The Devil Wears Prada which she’s famous for. I don’t always believe in the relationship, at least not when it’s going well, no matter how hard they try to convince you with their meet scene at a New Year’s party. Segel has joked in the past that he has tricked everyone by making them believe he has any talent, but I think it’s in fact Ms Blunt who has done exactly that.

But despite my personal issues with Emily Blunt, she didn’t ruin the picture. And her character is just idiotic enough to make my feelings toward her work out for the best. Pacing is another issue, as it does feel rather long and threatens to almost take the five years in the title literally. But there can be no rush to let the situation develop, that’s understandable, and along the way there’s some great humour, set-pieces and finely observed stuff in there. And many grandparents passing away, just to temper it all and position it toward the serious and real. The deaths also serve to create nice urgency and also allude to the decay and deterioration of their relationship.

It’s a nice script that does well on screen with several great elements just missing out on coming together seamlessly and forming a whole of true quality like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It’s every bit as enjoyable though with a pleasing, neat ending that’ll still have you believing in love, just love of a more rational hue.

Raising Arizona. It raises expectations for all comedy after it.

Let’s just all take a minute and think about how great Raising Arizona is. Now we all know the Coens love a good farce to offset all their more serious work, and on the face of it, this one’s so completely and utterly silly that it might just be dismissed as a pet project. You’re almost embarrassed to watch it with anyone but yourself.

But Raising Arizona is outstanding comedy. It’s complete Loony Toon, white trash, boisterous fun that at times careens all over the place. And this unmitigated spirit makes it a joy to watch. That, and there is fine acting to be found. Nicholas Cage gives a big, big, like towering performance as the little guy, H.I, pulling off some of the finest physical comedy you’ll see in colour. And Holly Hunter – how can you not fall in love with Holly Hunter? – gives a manic and fiery performance as his wife Ed. Short for Edwina. There’s also great support from Coen-regular John Goodman and William Forsythe as the outlaw friends of H.I’s from prison.

OK, so the set-up is done in a cute, brisk prologue in the first ten minutes. H.I is a repeat offender who keeps going back to jail. And every time he runs into Ed, the officer tasked with taking his mugshot. They eventually fall in love and H.I quits crime to start a life with her. Slowly they start thinking about having a child of their own to share all of life’s beauty with, only to find that Ed can’t have children and because of H.I’s criminal record, they can’t adopt either. Then the Arizona quintuplets are born to Nathan and Florence Arizona, and H.I and Ed decide that’s “more than they can handle”. They decide to kidnap a child for themselves, and that’s Raising Arizona, which sets the scene for all hell to be raised. In Arizona. I love that the title appears and the movie effectively begins only after ten minutes with a flourish, I do.

There’s great comedy throughout. And the point of it almost is to mock the thought of child rearing perhaps, saying maybe that there’s nothing to be shared with a child apart from buffoonery and cruelty. Those in the movie, furthermore, who have kids don’t seem worthy of them. And then there’s the complicating issue that H.I and Ed’s love will probably not survive without a child.

Anyway, that might all be too deep. There’s a sweet love story in there, but the movie really comes down to two scenes for me. Two of the best scenes in comedy.

The one about halfway in sees H.I, helpless to his own nature, holding up another convenience store. A marvelous chase ensues through the street and people’s backyards and houses, ending up in a supermarket shoot-out. There is a controlled chaos in this scene, with guns firing and pratfalling all linked by some beautiful inter-cut tracking shots that make the scene soar to its conclusion. And all the time there’s the famous wailing of the Raising Arizona theme. Just superbly scripted and mapped out. And freakin’ impossible to resist.

The second is at the natural confrontation between the ferocious bounty hunter Leonard Smalls, who shoots bunny rabbits and lizards for fun (played terrific, by the way, by Randall “Tex” Cobb), and H.I. This is arguably an even better scene as it incorporates great violence that is somehow made to look harmless. It has such a perfect tempo and a sort of calm to it, rendering it more like a laugh-out-loud armwrestle than a joust. And it’s sumptuously shot… just look back to how little Ed moves into the fight without being harmed to snatch Nathan Jr and is then pursued by Smalls through the bank and out the back. Everything about it, the timing especially but particularly Cage, is brilliant. And there’s the tattoo reveal as well.

And then the movie ends with a really pleasing symmetry. From fire and returning to fire. From the earth, and returning to the earth. And the madness, that was briefly unleashed, is returned to Pandora’s box. It truly is a classic. Watch it alone, so you can laugh unabashed.

Masterful master not masquerading

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!)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/11/paul-thomas-anderson-the-master_n_1874053.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment

Ted keeps R-rated comedy from being, erm, ded.

Seth MacFarlane’s Ted is exactly what you’d expect. A tedious documentary about motivational speaking…

JUST KIDDING!

In his first feature, MacFarlane sticks to what he knows and basically delivers one big live-action Family Guy episode, just without any of the Family Guy characters. The one cartoonish element he keeps is Ted himself, a Christmas present that magically comes to life to provide young John with his only friend. The toy becomes a national sensation but after a while his fame results in him becoming jaded and Teddy grows up into a foul-mouthed, layabout adult. And his friendship with John is also keeping the now going-nowhere 30-something (played by Mark Wahlberg) from reaching his full potential.

As a character, Ted is fully realised. The CGI blends in extremely well and that the character works is a testament to the director’s eminent skill of switching between the absurd and everyday until you don’t know which is which anymore. Voiced by MacFarlane, Ted is hilarious and filthy and so much fun. He gets all the best jokes since he’s the most obvious one to mine laughs from, but Wahlberg is good too, comfortable in this kind of less demanding role where he can just be a regular guy. Without trying too hard as in The Other Guys, he shows that he is actually understatedly funny. Mila Kunis, who plays his girlfriend, Lori, is unfortunately just plot fodder to put pressure on the Ted-John friendship, and she’s grossly underused for someone with her charm. There’s also a sort of unsettling turn from Giovanni Ribisi, which turns to hilarious in the final act as he carries out a dance routine that you won’t be able to look away from, among other things. Also Joel McHale does the job as the sleazy boss trying to steal away Lori from right under John’s nose. Oh, and there’s a terrific cameo by Norah Jones. I would never have guessed she’d be up for that!

MacFarlane really does have a gift for comedy. I mean there’s a lot of inappropriate race stuff and drug humour and all the puerile material that made us fall in love with Family Guy in high school and university. But he has a sharp eye and mixes it up like a pro. There’s a lot of clever stuff too, or at least what you’d call alternative and less one-liney. Unexpected. He can do offbeat as well as the sudden zingers. Like John and Ted’s Flash Gordon obsession, which is great, and the one about a co-worker who might or might not be gay, which is just in the background but genius in a way. Or the Tom Skerritt joke that runs through till the end. Oh, and the trademark violence, which is bewildering but still funny.

Anyway, it’s not just random jokes picked by manatees either. To some extent we are made to care about what happens to John and Ted’s relationship, and if MacFarlane can drop some of the silliness and actually be brave enough to write a more “real” screenplay, something that takes itself just slightly more seriously, he could find himself being a neat complement to Judd Apatow or someone like that. Ted though, as silly as it is, deserves to be rewatched several times, and after none of the myriad jokes elicit more than half-assed chuckles anymore, it’ll still be a pretty pleasant experience all the same.

A great from the vault: Dazed and Confused, 1993

What is it about Dazed and Confused that makes it such a beloved classic? Wait, first of all, is it beloved? I haven’t a clue, but it is in my heart and it should be in yours.

Anyway, is it the fact that we get to see Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Eddie the weird roommate from Friends in their salad days? Yes.

Is it the music? Yes, without a doubt.

Is it the smokin hot high school girls who never get any older wearing those high riding pants? (I feel like there’s a fashion term for them that escapes me… ) Possibly a bit.

But really it’s about being young and blinkered from your future and having huge dreams about the endless possibilities it might hold. And trying to assert your independence and figuring out who you are. That’s pretty broad, but it lands it, and it lands it by capturing that one awesome night, something so many films try to do and fail dismally. The movie follows wide spanning sets of students on the final day of school, and the narrative is just kind of allowed to flow naturally with a nice relaxing realist tone until finally the party just happens. The movie is a hell of a lot of fun too. The hazing or initiation of the new incoming high schoolers is especially amusing to me, seeing as how we’re obsessed with it in our own school system as well.  It’s also quaintly innocent, in that there’s no sex and the worst thing the girls call each other are sluts and bitches. (Still, this is pretty bad, because that only makes it okay for the boys to call them sluts and bitches. Thanks, Ms Norbury.) So watching it simultaneously transports you to a different time in your own life and a different era altogether. It’s a groovy tribute to the 70’s small town American youth, and it always touches something sentimental in me, even though it’s a place and time I never knew myself.

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.

Tom Cruise is alright in my book.

So Tom Cruise might be a weirdo, and I’ll even avoid a movie that he’s headlining if I have nothing else to go by, BUT that certainly isn’t to say the man hasn’t done his bit for cinema in years gone by. This topic came up recently at a social gathering where the general thesis was that there isn’t really that much of his worth giving a shot. Well, not true. Not counting the Mission Impossible franchise, which is pretty fun, and his very funny cameo in Tropic Thunder, here are five Cruise gems in chronological order that’ll make you jump up on your couch…

You ready?

Risky Business

Vintage Cruise. It don’t get any more iconic than him dancing in his underpants… also, there’s the adventure of the parents not being home and everything going a little pear-shaped with a hooker. It’s not soft, and a lot of fun.

Rain Man

Beautiful, touching piece where he plays alongside his card-counting autistic brother Dustin Hoffman. This’ll break the hardest of hearts.

Born on the Fourth of July

Really powerful drama about a Vietnam war vet from Oliver Stone.

Jerry Maguire

If you can’t love this movie about a sports agent that goes it alone, you’re dead inside and might as well be dead to me too… I mean, it had me at… whatever the first line was.

Minority Report

Underrated Spielberg colab based on a Philip K Dick short story. Intriguing and thought-provoking, sci-fi at its best.

Awesome 21 Jump Street is awesome

Well I said I had a good feeling about this one and I wasn’t let down. I kind of wish I hadn’t watched the trailer, although there wouldn’t then have been that good feeling, but having seen the trailer the first twenty minutes or so of the movie is pretty much just that in extended form. We quickly get a glimpse of Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) at high school struggling academically and socially respectively, followed by them both somehow ending up at police academy (even though it would appear a strange choice for Schmidt, but let’s say he has a prevailing sense of justice needing to be done). Then by some act of destiny they form a symbiotic friendship to pull each other through. And it even feels like a trailer, it’s all just laying the foundation for the real movie to start, the annoying set-up that is necessary but largely skimmed over, the greens before dessert. What it also does is establish the movie in a universe where logic isn’t too important and never comes at the expense of comedy.

Picture: hollywood.com
Best of friends, right? But how can you expect to be popular if you're trying to pull of the Slim Shady look? Picture: hollywood.com

Anyway, after a foolish mix-up with an arrest, the two agents are reassigned to the 21 Jump Street programme, where officers are used to infiltrate schools and such to solve youth-related crime. And it just so happens that there’s a new drug on the market that the young ones are really taking to, but which holds great danger for their well-being. So our two youthful looking cops get another shot at high school and almost immediately the movie picks up. For a start, Schmidt’s interaction with his parents is priceless. He almost immediately reverts back to a petulant teen and is great fun to watch. There’s also a picture of him on the wall that is no more than a throwaway gag, but which is hilarious.

And Channing Tatum isn’t far behind. His Jenko is just as enjoyable to follow, as the once streetwise high schooler is thrown back into a world that has shifted beyond recognition and where all the rules are now different. This soon dawns on him as they show up for their first day of school in a very effective scene that includes a cool little nod to hipsters, which I loved personally.

Now while I knew that Hill would be good and pretty much went to see it on the strength of his name alone, Tatum really surprises with his composed comedic abilities. The guy is actually really funny. So it would seem that he took a lot more from that tiny part in The Dilemma than anyone could’ve guessed. I might even go see The Vow now and show the guy some support.

Picture: pajiba.com
Just because you're trying to bring down a drug ring doesn't mean you shouldn't look sharp. Picture: pajiba.com

What also makes Jump Street work is that we’re given enough to care about the characters. It’s the simplest of formulas, but if it works it works. Schmidt and Jenko are confronted with past insecurities like only high school can bring out and their friendship is compromised by high school politics and there’s all the high school “drama” that keeps on compelling people to watch pretty much anything with teens on TV. (The fact that they’re undercover cops is largely forgotten by the audience and the leads themselves, which makes it so much fun and adds to why we like them, but watch out for when Schmidt’s cover is almost blown by a family friend!)  Credit to the actors for pulling off this more demanding aspect of their characters. Hill, that’s Oscar nominated Hill to me and you, is especially good at making it impossible not to like him as he tentatively engages with Brie Larson’s Molly in what is an affecting romance.

As if to reassure everyone in the audience that the comedy fraternity believe in this project, there’s a flurry of support from greats such as the always impeccable Chris Parnell, Nick Offerman in a delicious little scene as the chief, the very talented Rob Riddle, who just manages to stay on the right side of annoying, and a personal favourite of mine, Jake M Johnson, as the principal. There’s also the lovely Ellie Kemper who’s grossly under-used as the lustful Chemistry teacher but still very funny whenever she gets the chance. And, of course, the lovable Dave Franco who is always on form and very watchable no matter what you’re looking for. Also, Ice Cube sort of emulates P Diddy’s character in Get Him To The Greek with similar aplomb and, I almost forgot, there’s a very special, completely unexpected and cleverly executed cameo toward the end. But don’t bother looking for it, you won’t see it coming.

And clever really sums it up for me. It doesn’t reinvent the playbook or anything, but for what it is, 21 Jump Street is very clever. It’s always got its tongue lodged deep in its cheek, making fun of itself and the YouTube generation of teens in a very cool and satisfying manner. And even though I wasn’t LOLing at every single joke, I enjoyed it immensely throughout because there’s some really good comedy to be found – a scene in the bathroom in particular stands out and it’s not the usual gross-out fare, and also the Peter Pan play just has this one very neat, maybe silly, touch in which Schmidt evades Jenko. The house party and the freeway chase scenes work extremely well too in their entirety and are fantastically fun.

Yes, there’s some unnecessary childish stuff too, but then I’m not complaining too much. And the movie does kind of unravel toward the end with a boundless energy of someone on drugs that is probably over the top, but the stuff in the middle between the boring intro and ultra-stimulating outro is gold and I left with a wide smile on my face. It wasn’t quite Superbad 2, but I hope to see Jonah Hill in plenty more bromances and I would definitely come back for the inevitable sequel.

Nothing to laugh at here, just pure quality

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.

They're on a boat!

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.