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