Friday, 25 July 2014

Hercules (Brett Ratner, 2014)

When watching Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson brutally slays a Hydra and an impenetrable Lion in the opening of Hercules, you wonder where these strong-men heroes have vanished to. Vin Diesel perhaps, but it seems that Dwayne Johnson is the only man who truly goes toe-to-toe against Arnie and Stallone in their prime. Combine this unique choice of actor with the adoration of fantasy-set Game of Thrones, and you can connect the dots that justified the green-light of production of this flawed, sword and sandal tale.

What separates Hercules from the fantasy we often see, is how screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos (adapting Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars) place our God-like hero in reality. His twelve labours are told as tales to motivate troops to battle, with ambiguity surrounding the truth of his triumphs. Hercules is the leader of a team that, amongst forgettable men and one woman, includes Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane who has, comically, seen his own arrow-shot death. Referred to as ‘comrades’, Hercules as the “Son of Zeus” is an image, and he comfortably reveals how his band of merry men support him as much he supports them. This humility separates him from heroes who merely lead and dictate – it is clear that Hercules is not a lone mercenary. The team are sought to fight for the King of Thrace (played with ease by John Hurt) as his lands are infiltrated by a War Lord and his army, known to be a group of centaurs who murder and kill all who stand in their path. Peter Mullan memorably plays a gruff military-man while Joseph Fiennes pops up as a fiendish, smug ruler who our titular hero knows personally.

Within minutes from the start, we see women spilling out of their dresses and gory, bloody battles that establish the sex and violence “sale” that this film seeks to live up to. Director Brett Ratner is known for his forgettable-fluff in cinema. He nearly destroyed the X-Men series with X-Men: The Last Stand and he failed to reignite Eddie Murphy’s career in Tower Heist. Hercules only adds ammo to the relentless attack film-fans will use to discredit his career.  This is long, shiny swords and bulging biceps akin to 300, but without the graphic, artistic flair. Amidst the onslaught of violence, there is a story that aches to be told – something about legends being rooted in truth and a neat twist hinting at an anti-capitalist stance as Hercules refuses his payment to protect others and retain his integrity. These intriguing themes are lost in the pouring fire, falling stone-columns and flash-in-your-face horrors that dominate the majority of the action.

Despite quality actors in Peter Mullan and John Hurt, Hercules relies on serviceable dialogue and an over-use of CGI. Something jars, and though Johnson’s charm rises to the challenge and almost erases our memory of The Scorpion King, this by-the-book blockbuster fails to tell a fable of the ages and falls to the pit of Hades.

This review was originally written for Flickering Myth on 23rd July 2014

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Some Like It Hot is not known for its mob ties. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, carrying their awkwardly-shaped bass-case and sax-box, dressed in drag, is the memorable image. It would be easy to watch the opening first ten minutes and not even realise what the film is as we see gangsters with tommy-guns, shoot through a hearse revealing the liquor inside. Remember the funeral parlour that doubles as a speakeasy with the appropriate knock? Or the dancing girls and jazz music that echoes out onto the street while drinkers order their “coffee”? Oh, and then the camera subtly moves to introduce Gerald (Lemmon) and Joe (Curtis). They look bored playing their up-beat music. Like the average schmuck, these unlucky gamblers discuss their payday and the money they’ll surely make at the dogs. These are the central roles, and the gangster narrative is merely background fodder to their plight.

Considering this splendid misdirection at the start, it nevertheless remains a masterpiece of comedy cinema. Rarely can such a subjective genre exhibit an example of such perfection. It comfortably sits alongside Modern Times and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Arguably it supersedes both (and the AFI would agree). This seems like hyperbole, as if I’m merely praising the classic that has been heralded already, but it really does challenge so much. By the time Gerald and Joe (emerging as Daphne and Josephine) strut their stuff on the train platform, struggling with the cumbersome heels they wear, you’re already sold on the film. The break-neck pace, adorable characters and tension that holds you so tight you’re unsure whether the duo will be found out, is already established before they board the train. Then, what seems like late in the film, Marilyn Monroe appears. Her perfect body, within the slinky black dress that makes our boys (dressed as girls) melt. And we melt too – this impeccable figure has just barraged her way into the film and within seconds we realise why she became so popular. Even the steam from the train that whooshes under her skirt reminds you of The Seven Year Itch, almost self-aware of its own classic status in cinema.

Made in 1959, the story could potentially make some clanger jokes. Men dressed as women; men pushing other men’s sexual advances away; a man who comfortably retorts with “nobody’s perfect” when Daphne reveals her, or his, true identity before the final credits. Prior to 1962, sodomy was illegal in every state in America, effectively outlawing homosexuality. Yet here was a film, three years before Illinois tweaked their laws to legalise it, openly and boldly laughing at gender, sexual attraction and cross-dressing. Here, in 2014, we watch a 1950’s film with no awkward plots to justify their behaviour and no jokes that appeal to the more conservative viewer. Surely Gerald and Joe are highly aware that their actions could be considered sexually deviant. It is comfortable, acceptable and normalised.

Jack Lemmon’s memorable laugh is infectious and Jack-Nicholson-esque (He would make a great Joker) while Tony Curtis’ multiple roles show how flexible he is as an actor. Surely “Shell Oil Jr” is partly based on the stiff, clipped manner of Cary Grant, and his nerdy dinosaur expert in Bringing Up Baby?

Every thread of the story interlocks and justifies itself. Nothing is wasted and you can’t take your eyes off the screen (especially as Monroe seems to perform in a dress which seems to be almost transparent in high-definition). Some Like It Hot is the most important comedy film ever made and deserves your time and attention this summer. Don’t watch it on TV, go to the cinema and watch it as intended. As the ladies crowd the train carriage, projected, it fills the cinema screen majestically as your eyes dart across each character to work out where Daphne is hidden amongst the girls. This is the time to watch Some Like It Hot. Take a friend, take your kids and witness a masterpiece.

Originally written for Flickering Myth on 23rd July 2014

Friday, 4 July 2014

Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948)

All those fleeting moments. The rampant thoughts of what could be, or what could’ve been. Considered one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema, it is surprising that we don’t hear more ofSpring in a Small Town. Directed by Fei Mu, Spring in a Small Town was released in 1948, before the communist overthrow of China. This meant it was supressed and Fei Mu fled Hong Kong, dying only two years later. But it resurfaced in the 1980’s, as the China Film Archive opened it’s doors and Spring in a Small Town was championed, earning itself the spot of No 1 Chinese film in 2005 at Hong Kong Film Awards. The BFI has a new digital release of the film, with its first theatrical run in the UK, coming to cinemas this weekend.
Take David Lean’s Brief Encounter and blend it together with Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love and you’ll be close to what Spring in a Small Town is. While Brief Encounter has steam trains and the intense gaze of Trevor Howard, this particular film holds a little more subtlety. Situated in the ruins of a large estate, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) is considered the heroine of this tale, as she looks after her invalid husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu). She is not alone, with her teenage sister-in-law Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmai) and faithful servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming). It is the arrival of Liyan’s friend, and Yuwen’s teenage love, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) that shakes the dynamic of what is Yuwen’s life.
Fei Mu manages to capture the moments between each and every character – between the wife and husband; the deep longing between wife and visitor; the sister-in-law who knows her brother’s wife very well indeed. The deliberate dissolves that happen as a static shot depicting the two characters emit a haunting, brief passing of time is innovative and different. The long-shots that capture the walk away, or around the desolate house, highlight the destroyed house and the historical importance of this context. Spring in a Small Time expands on the love-triangle narrative with important and deeply personal historical truth. The connection to Wong Kar Wai’sIn The Mood For Love is even more apparent here. Kar Wai’s masterpiece, set in the 1960’s, depicts a romance that’s present through a passing-by in the stairs or within the claustrophobic space of the apartments. The silence and small-space of the husbands-friend, Zhichen, means that as Zhou Yuwen visits him in his room, it feels tense and powerful.

The slow-pace is a challenge, and the cultural significance is a difficult grasp for those not accustomed to Chinese cinema. But, there is something eerie and striking about the performances and delivery of this drama. Throughout, Zhou Yuwen narrates her story. She is opening a small hole into her private life, and her strict demeanour means that we know more than anyone – indeed, can she open up to anyone else? Noah Cowen, writing for Sight and Sound, reiterates the films significance – “The film’s use of voiceover – eerily presaging the French New Wave … one cannot help but think Orson Welle’s highly original use of dissolves in Citizen Kane”, this is cinema at its most significant. And to directly influence Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou means that it is a film every Chinese film connoisseur needs to watch.
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth on June 20th 2014

Sunday, 29 June 2014

5 Reasons why 24 doesn't need Jack Bauer...

As we approach the final episodes of 24: Live Another Day, I cannot help but feel that the series has been hoisted by its own petard. Despite the ever-increasing high-standard of television drama, 24 has been a guilty-pleasure for many during the last decade. Initially, a fun minute-by-minute “real-time” television show, it has become a farce. Heroic Jack Bauer seemed to become the unluckiest man to live, demanding our trust, as America (and now the UK) are bombed each year (for each series). Eight series, an awful television special (24: Redemption) and now a new 12-part run proves the formula works. But this is not down to Kiefer Sutherland’s sometimes-rogue, sometimes-ally CTU agent. Here are five reasons 24 doesn’t need Jack Bauer…
  1. Jack Bauer has become a joke

Chronologically, Bauer is a widow, an ex-druggie, an international criminal with enemies in China, Russia and virtually every emerging superpower. He killed Ryan Chappelle for god’s sake! He is a torturer who has lost his mind a teeny bit, and seems to find it perfectly acceptable to make demands to the President of the United States. I thought “we don’t make deals with terrorists”? President Heller, though conflicted, makes a deal with a man who, hours before was holding people hostage – let alone his actions over the past fifteen years. None of this makes sense and it’s difficult to root for a broken man who simply needs a rest. A new lead would give the plots more credence.
  1. 242Jack Bauer is only one man

Clearly, owing a debt to James Bond and Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer is modelled on characters that hold a 2-hour film on their own. But the current season is 12-episodes long. It worked in the first season perhaps, and in fairness, the whole of CTU is his “team”, but as Tony Almeida and Chase Edmunds proved it’s fun when he has others and every time we begin a season it’s all “Jack is Back”, when in fact a decent team has much more space to play with the narrative. How about, stop killing off other cool characters and let a few of them take a little ownership of the show?
  1. New actors will rejuvenate the series

Consider the introduction of an agent who is younger, fresh-faced and, heaven forbid, less patriotic. Maybe steal Michael Pitt from Boardwalk Empire or Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones? And simply pass the baton. A younger lead (and please, not an unknown “Son” from Bauer’s past) could introduce a new government agency, new dynamics and set-up a 243new tone to the show. In fact, maybe if the lead role was a little less holier-than-thou, it might make the whole “You have to trust me!” conversations much more interesting as we shout at the screen to not trust him! Opposed to knowing that they “don’t have a choice” anyway.
  1. Jack Bauer could become a cameo role for special episodes

I don’t want to forget Jack of course. He’s paid his dues. But a surprise return would be all that is needed. Maybe Bauer actually becomes the President’s bodyguard and we only see him in passing. I’m sure Kiefer Sutherland could still take his percentage of the profits as Executive Producer, but a four-episode arc whereby our new lead teams up with Jack would be welcomed. Or if a villain returns – the long-lost relative of Salazar or Nina Myer’s twin sister, like Hannibal Lector, our new lead seeks advice from “an old friend…”
  1. 24 is ultimately about real-time action

I enjoy 24 for this. The right-wing, Murdoch-politics, granted, is a stretch – but it fits the series. I love the scale of the series – the moment at the start of Season 6 when the bomb actually does explode in LA killing so many people – and we see the fall-out of it was inspired. Though Bauer is interesting, I don’t believe he is integral to the story. The “Unique Selling Point” of 24 is the real-time, President-and-agency, explosive action (and, strangely, Sean Callery’s strangely dated score) – everything else is switchable.244
Relying on Jack Bauer stops 24 from growing and improving, and until his central role becomes supportive, 24 will always feel a little too ridiculous. And it’s a shame, become there is nothing else like 24 on TV and this crucial change will mean the end of 24 forever …

Originally written for Flickering Myth on 15th June 2014

5 Brilliant Parodies of the Game of Thrones Opening...

It’s been a fortnight since the Season Four finale of Game of Thrones. Heads were crushed, hearts were broken and incest, sex and violence was again on the agenda amongst the action this season. But the opening credits has become something iconic – even Today at Wimbledon seems to owe a debt to the stylish opener. Each week, with baited breath, we wait to see the if a new location has been added (Braavos and Meereen both new this year) and then react accordingly when it doesn’t appear in the episode.
But the change in design and excitement in the opening credits alone has spread on the world wide web, as accomplished graphic artists create their own parodies of the titles. Here are five that stand out…
5. South Park  - Not as complicated perhaps, and integral to the “Song of Ass and Fire” and “Titties and Dragon” episodes, Matt Stone and Trey Parker re-imagine the lyric: “Soft wieners, nice and soft, non-erect wieners!”… I’m sure George R.R. Martin would be proud.

4. The Simpsons - this was inevitable. Indeed, The Simpsons have parodied everything from Breaking Bad to The Sopranos. Surely Game of Thrones was going to get Simpsonified sooner or later. As Springfield Gorge replaces The Wall, it only seemed inevitable that Mr Burns became “Burns Landing”…

3. Super Mario World - Almost on another level completely, Game of Thrones is now pixellated and broken into an 8-bit music track. The slow rise of “Yoshi’s Island” seems to fit perfectly as the buildings can often rise in the game play itself. The close-up’s of pixellated features only add to it’s charm. But the age-old battles of Mario VS throwing-hammer-Goomba only brings back my own broken-hearted memories. Too much time on this game in my youth…

2. Disney - more an impressive mash-up of Disney movies rather than a new-video in its entirety, it does showcase how diverse the Disney canon is. Takes about 20-seconds to really hot up, but it then becomes perfectly-placed as the towers and trees from Tangled to Sleeping Beauty hold a medieval charm that links it directly to Game of Thrones. Trains in A Nightmare Before Christmasand the Arabian night of Aladdin then remind you of the wooden-elevator of The Wall and the Dothraki Lands. Disney as a universe has never been so beautiful…

1. The Legend of Zelda – but this is what truly takes the crown. Not only does the fantasy/knife-wielding protagonist of Link fit so well (Indeed, the actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Jojen could surely play the perfect Link…), but the additional 3D-rise of buildings, shining tri-force and beeps straight from the games all manage to make this the best parody of Game of Thrones. Kokiri Forest, Death Mountain and, of course, Hyrule Castle, all feature – only begging the question: When will we see the live-action Legend of Zelda?

BONUS: Jimmy Fallon and Hoot Suite - Jimmy Fallon, of course, is excellent and worth a watch if only because he builds a whole story around his parody. HootSuite, on the other hand, is obviously making an advert – but what quality! Clearly the “world” of social networks makes a great universe to play within… and it’s called The Internet.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 24th June 2014