Hercules (2014)

HerculesTormented by the screams of his young family, and uncertain of his own role in their deaths, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is nevertheless worshiped the land over as the demigod son of Zeus and the champion of the legendary Twelve Labours. Although widely believed to work alone, Herucles in fact leads a band of mercinaries including prophet Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), thief Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), warrior Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and storyteller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who assist him in his battles. Bought by gold, the mercinaries ally themselves with Lord Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace, agreeing to help train his armies against the invading forces of Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann). Hercules, however, is plagued by dreams of Cerberus, the three headed hellhound that guards the gates to the underworld. But does it herald his own death, or signify something else entirely?

The latest film from Brett Ratner, and based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, Paramount’s Hercules is the second film based on the demigod to arrive in cinemas this year, after Summit’s poorly reviewed The Legend of Hercules. A slightly less predictable take on the myth, Ratner’s movie posits a hero of great PR rather than of divine destiny; a man whose reputation doesn’t so much precede him as put him on an unearned pedestal. The people of Thrace see him as the champion who slayed the hydra, when in fact he and his men merely slaughtered an army of soldiers in elaborate headgear. Unfortunately, this isn’t the film that was sold to audiences through it’s multi-million dollar marketing campaign, and anyone drawn in by the promise of giants boars and invulnerable lions will likely be disappointed when they both debunked and dispensed with during the opening salvo. Alternatively, anyone put off by the trailer’s frankly awful special effects needn’t worry that they might blight the entire movie.

Sadly, that’s where the surprises end. The problem with Ratner is that rather than rubbish his own scripts he routinely chooses to sully the work of others. As with Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand, the script for Hercules isn’t entirely without merit. Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos go to some unexpectedly mature places with their screenplay; not just the infanticide that robbed Hercules of his children but the fact that the film’s hero is little more than a liar and a cheat. The dialogue isn’t anything particularly special, but nor is it completely trite either. If the pair have written a dark drama, eschewing humour in favour of taking their characters seriously, Ratner has directed a comedy, which has the unfortunate effect of inviting laughter at said characters rather than with. The sets look fake, the costumes look cheap and many of the characters look terribly miscast. Close your eyes and you could be watching 300, plug your ears and This Is Sparta is more likely to come to mind.

For once, not even The Rock can save his film from failure. Johnson looks a little lost in the main role, his usual presence and charisma only evident in fleeting glances and occasional snatches of levity. He’s undoubtedly a physical fit for the character but then so was Kellan Lutz; Johnson has proved himself not only as an action hero but as an actor, and his abilities are sadly wasted here. Hardly anyone makes much of an impression, with John Hurt phoning in the exact same performance he used previously in Immortals and Joseph Fiennes relegated to the sidelines, so much so that until he reappears you’ve all but forgotten he was even in the film to begin with. The only actor who seems to be having any fun is Ian McShane, who steals every scene he’s in as a prophet who has foreseen his own death. It’s not just the character’s comic value (he stands in front of a barrage of arrows already knowing that he will survive) but his capacity for pathos. As he walks through a field of corpses he admits that he hates being right all the time. It’s as poignant as Hercules gets.

Although it may play down divine providence, Hercules is nonetheless destined to disappoint. Whether you’re in it for the monsters, the comedy or the Grecian tragedy, Brett Ratner has ushered you in under false pretences. It might not be the worst Hercules film of the year, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like hardest Labour of all.

2-stars

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Snowpiercer (EIFF 2014)

SnowpiercerIt’s been seventeen years since the world froze over, the disastrous results of humanity’s vain attempts to reverse global warming, and the last surviving humans are confined to a self-sufficient, self-sustaining bullet train that circles the planet once every twelve months. The intervening years have seen a class system emerge aboard the train, with Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow refugees — nominally lead by Gilliam (John Hurt) — relegated to the rear compartments and Wilford (Ed Harris) entombed in the re-enforced engine. It’s Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) job to liaise between the two, but her unwelcome visits have only served to stoke the flames of rebellion.

For Bong Joon-Ho’s latest — an English-language adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige — the road to release has been a turbulent one. Having successfully fought the Weinstein Company for final cut, it’s the director’s vision that finally arrived in the UK this month via the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s hard to imagine what a shorter version might look like, for Snowpiercer packs so much into its 126-minute running time that to remove anything at all would be to change the film considerably.

The first section of the movie is — bar a brief prologue establishing the premise — set entirely within the confines of the lattermost section of the train. It’s a dark and unforgiving place, where the inhabitants live in poverty, dine exclusively on gelatinous protein bars and line up under duress for regular inspections, where their numbers are counted, their children abducted and any signs of dissent quashed without mercy. For Curtis, the only reasons to hope are Gilliam, cryptic messages ostensibly sent from the front and the unbreakable promise of revolt.

The plan is for a mob of men to force their way to the brig, where they will find and free the man responsible for designing the train’s security systems. In theory, with his help they can proceed unimpeded all the way to the engine. Their target, Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), however, has his own ideas, and takes the opportunity to free his daughter (Go Ah-Sung) and demand payment in drugs for his help opening the doors. Together with Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Curtins pushes on, meeting resistance of his own as Mason mirco-manages line after line of defense.

As horrific as the earlier scenes are, with characters being beaten and tortured for the trivialest of slights, it’s only once the rebels leave the tail section and their plight is shown in the harsh light of day that the true extent of their suffering becomes apparent. Snowpiercer is a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of The Matrix Reloaded, but it is also a darkly comic satire with a lot to say about the human condition. The absurd juxtaposition of Tilda Swinton’s distinctly Aardman-esque spokesperson, Alison Pill’s psychotic primary school teacher and Ed Harris’ fine-dining ruler is incredibly unsettling, and watching Evans move incredulously from carriage to carriage is as harrowing as it is heartbreaking.

Evans gives quite possibly the performance of his career, impressing throughout but really coming into his own for the final act, where a series of increasingly gut-wrenching revelations bring into question everything he thinks he knows about the train, and everything we think we know about him. Swinton is also on top form as Mason, instilling surprising complexity into a character that could quite easily have become caricatured. Few other actors get as much to do, but they each have their moments; Octavia Spencer when she learns that cigarettes aren’t as extinct as she’d been lead to believe, Bell when the revolution is jeopradised by an ill-timed inspection and Go when she first shows signs of prescience.

There are problems, however, and you do suspect that even this director’s cut is not the complete incarnation of the story. Luke Pasqualino’s character just appears out of nowhere, others are written out surprisingly early on and there are occasional gaps in the narrative that seem too glaring to have been overlooked by accident. Also problematic is the scenario itself, which doesn’t stand up to the simplest of scrutinies. Admittedly, there are numerous carriages that we don’t see, but for a supposedly strained civilisations life aboard the train is not as streamlined or austere as you would expect. The distribution of the carriages is strange and counter-intuitive, while there don’t seem to be anywhere near enough residential rooms for the on board population. Oh, and the less said about the ending the better.

For the most part, however, Snowpiercer is as great as they say. It’s a full-bodied sci-fi that’s as laughably absurd as it is hauntingly familiar. Still no word of a nationwide release, but Snowpiercer is not to be missed when it finally arrives in the UK.

4-Stars

 

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Having declared war on all humanity, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) kills his father in order to acquire an ancient artefact capable controlling the dreaded Golden Army. As Nuada makes his presence on the surface felt with an auction-room massacre, B.P.R.D. is sent to investigate under the leadership of Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor). When Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) are attacked by a swarm of carnivorous tooth fairies, the protective blast from Liz’s pyrokinesis blows Red into the street, making B.P.R.D.’s existence known to the public. Under new management, that of ectoplasmic medium Johann Strauss (Seth MacFarlane), Hellboy attempts to stop Nuala before he can unleash his indestructible army on the world.

After the bold but flawed opening instalment saw Hellboy’s B.P.R.P. face off against a wizard, an undead surgery-addict and an interdimensional colossus, Guillermo del Toro (armed with Mike Mignola’s sterling source material) has changed tack with a story about vengeful fairytale creatures. Unlike the tonal and casting shift between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, however, this feels very much like part of the same universe. Having honed his craft to celebrated effect in Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro brings everything he has learnt to the Hellboy universe, producing in the process what I believe to be the best comic-book movie ever made.

With a group of super-powered heroes that make the X-Men look well-adjusted and normal, del Toro rightfully leaves his plot in the hands of his characters. Instead of clunky instances of exposition, the script expertly ties all relevant information into a gag, a set piece or a character beat, so that the pace never need relent in order to let audiences catch up. As such, Hellboy II: The Golden Army positively flies by, maintaining a light, witty and irreverent tone as the narrative hurtles towards its resolution. Perlman, as before, is absolutely perfect as Hellboy, carrying the movie on his enormous red shoulders with an endearing effortless that has enormous appeal.

While Blair and Jones return as the fire-starting Liz Sherman and amphibian telekinetic Abe Sapien (who Jones now voices, as well as acts), it is bumbling beaurocrat Tom Manning and newcomer Johann Krauss that come closest to stealing the show. Tambor is brilliantly sympathetic as an agent just trying to do his job, flinching as his efforts are undermined at every turn. Krauss, meanwhile, chews scenery as the straight-laced, “open-faced” know-it-all who proves more than a physical (as well as intellectual) match for Hellboy. It’s geniunely refreshing to watch a superhero movie – any movie – in which the characters are so vibrantly drawn, well-observed and lovingly developed. If, by comparison, Goss and onscreen sister Anna Walton fail to make as big an impression, it is only because the competition is so uniformly strong.

In addition to its clever – occasionally hilarious – script and compelling characters, Hellboy II also benefits from del Toro’s directorial prowess, attention to detail and unparalleled set design. A locker-room skirmish between Hellboy and Krauss is milked for a truly staggering number of laughs; a musical sequence whereby Red and Blue share a drunken rendition of Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You boasts more personality than you’ll find in most superhero vehicles; and a mid-movie excursion to the troll market shows off the most impressive set design this side of the writer-director’s last masterpiece. If del Toro stumbles at all it is in the film’s climactic battle, but even then the stunt work, acting and dialogue is every bit as impressive as the special effects.

Whether you most prize spectacle, smarts or spirit from your favourite comic-book movies, Hellboy II: The Golden Army has all three in spades. This is simply a beautifully made, wittily scripted and charmingly acted piece of cinema – courtesy of an irrefutable master at work. With the stars stubbornly failing to align with regards to a sequel, this is a fitting – if unfairly premature – conclusion to one of the most under-appreciated franchises of recent years.

Immortals (2011)

Having spent his childhood training at the instruction of Zeus (Luke Evans – in the guise of John Hurt so that he doesn’t break his own law forbidding divine interference), Theseus (Henry Cavill) finds himself thrust into battle when the King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) destroys his village and kills his mother in search of the legendary Epirus Bow. Joining forces with the virgin oracle (Freida Pinto) and a repentant thief (Stephen Dorff), Theseus must find the bow first and overcome the King’s army if he is to stop the Titans from being released and war spreading to the heavens.

Much has been made of the fact that Immortals is the new 300, the new Clash of the Titans and as such a joyless update of any old sword and sandal epic worth its green-screen. It’s true, just like its spiritual forebears, Immortals is almost uniformly devoid of recognisable pulse, expending disproportionately more effort on style and perfectly glistening sinew than it does on such elements as character and story. Essentially a mash-up of the most recognisable Greek myths (will someone please retire the poor Minotaur), Immortals may even boast the most derivative plot to date.

What most critics are downplaying, however, is just how striking  Tarsem Singh’s film actually is. While a particularly impressive example of set design or gorgeously composed set piece might be little substitute for an involving story, some of Immortals’ imagery goes beyond petty window dressing. Without wishing to sound conceited, there were moments during Immortals that verged on visual poetry: taken out of context, the images of writhing titans and herculean struggle verge on artistry – accidentally (very clearly accidentally) drawing comparison to such formalist works as Sergei Paradjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates – unceremoniously spoiled by the Hollywood necessity for stock characters, truncated subtext and a creaky, uninspiring plot.

Immortals is intended as a tent-pole movie, however, and it is in this vein that director Tarsem Singh fails unequivocally; while it may boast a commendably unabashed portrait of the gods, and a cinematography that goes beyond 300’s chroma key technique, it lacks the personality of the infinitely more enjoyable Thor. Henry Cavill is more muscle than man; Freida Pinto a love interest before she is an individual and Micky Rourke, well, Micky Rourke is Iron Man 2’s Ivan Vanko transposed to ancient Greece. For all the slow motion, stereoscopy and needless grew, this couldn’t be any less engaging if it tried. There are no stakes, nobody to invest in and nothing to distract you from the encroaching tedium.

This really is encapsulated in the final conflict, in which King Hyperion’s needlessly colossal army lines up outside the Hellenic stronghold, the bow in their grasp. As Freida Pinto heroically sits the ensuing battle out, leaving Theseus to give one of the least convincing speeches ever written by a professional writer, we are left to watch as an endless reel of extras massacre one another to absolutely no effect. Even when our heroes – Theseus and the suddenly active Olympians – do battle with Hyperion and the Titans respectively, the fight scenes are so lacking in stakes that you really don’t care that Heaven is apparently short of a few gods. It’s not exactly what myths are made of.

While Immortals is unfortunately guilty of just about every criticism you are likely to throw at it – the glacial pacing, the hand-carved performances and the general inconsequence of its ending – there is one thing which ultimately marks it out as more than simply 300-lite and Clash of the Titans reheated: a genuine degree of artistic merit. A Greecian statue writ large, Immortals is as beautiful as is it is lifelessly rendered in stone.

V for Vendetta (2006)

Invited to dinner by television presenter Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry), Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is attacked by members of the state’s secret police for having broken curfew. Saved by an alliteration-spouting vigilante who goes by the name of V (Hugo Weaving), she finds herself dragged into the masked man’s plans to overthrow the country’s dictator, High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Told she cannot leave his stronghold for fear of compromising V’s vendetta, Evey eventually winds up playing protégée to her captor as the government attempts to track them down before November 5th, a date which V has marked for his own, historically relevant endgame. Caught in the middle is Detective Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea), chief of police for Scotland Yard, who remains forever one step behind his freedom-fighting assailants while slowly coming to suspect that all may not be as it seems in 2020 Britain.

My God Alan Moore is hard to please. While the general awfulness of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  and the shortcomings of From Hell might have earnt the visionary comic book writer a wave of audience sympathy, Moore’s general dismissal of any attempt to translate his work to celluloid has become very tired indeed. Not everyone involved has been so quick to remove their name from the end credits of James McTeigue’s retelling of the acclaimed comic, however, with original artist David Lloyd commending the film’s numerous successes. V for Vendetta is a movie I have watched every November 5th since its release on DVD, without fail, and a movie that never ceases to move me, impress or inspire me. It’s a classic.

Like all classics, however, it is not perfect: a subjectively personal favourite rather than a Film Studies mainstay. Lit like an episode of Eastenders, and featuring one of the worst affronts to the English accent ever committed to film, McTeigue’s vision is hardly a caress of the senses, the heavy handedness of the translation doing very little to pander to the fine tastes of Sight and Sound magazine or the snot-nosed preferences of broadsheet bourgeoisie. With its fancy dress and Benny Hill interlude, its heightened portrayal of government and its alleged confusion of Moore’s original thesis, the film is intermittently flawed and passingly unrefined; but what of the good? Is it entertaining?

Maybe it was a childhood weaned on Star Wars and Nickelodeon, but I have rather curiously found myself able to enjoy entertainment that doesn’t boast cellars of subtext, award-worthy performances and painstakingly naturalistic dialogue. Due to this ostensibly mutant talent, I have been occasionally able to look past the odd contrivance and overt instances of staging to the thriving heart of an otherwise captivating story. Moore’s creation is phenomenal, a taut and compelling slice of science-fiction political satire that paints a perfectly engaging – if simplified – portrait of neo-futuristic authoritarian dystopia.

Natalie Portman is quite simply superb as the transformative Evey Hammond. Though her performance might not match the considered excellence of Black Swan, she overcomes any early fumblings with a powerhouse metamorphosis that begins with the shaving of her head and the seizure of her humanity, and ends with the destruction of a landmark. As she is groomed and ultimately reborn as a result of her decision to aid V, she becomes one of the most actualised and liberated heroines in cinema. That said, this is undeniably Weaving’s movie. Hidden beneath the now-iconic mask and a bullet-proofed cloak, the actor nevertheless manages to engage with audiences to a truly heartbreaking degree. A phantom of the oppression, he is every bit as affecting as he is wonderfully articulate.

For V for Vendetta is an ode to the English language, a revelry in rhetoric that is every bit as stirring as the film’s unconventional emotional centre. At times verging on poetry, the numerous addresses and speeches that litter the narrative are as mellifluous as the film’s embrace of  Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, more than making up for the occasionally lacklustre dialogue. Whether he is crafting an alliteration with over fifty instances of the ‘v’ phoneme, or reminding a nation to remember a symbol from its past, V is the figurehead of a story which champions words and ideas as much as it does bullet-time knife fights; and let’s face it, while each is of course important, both are inevitably preferred.

Intelligent, articulate and wonderfully evocative, McTeigue’s V for Vendetta may struggle stylistically, but luckily Alan Moore’s vision is astounding enough to compensate. While you can watch any number of snow-dressed movies at Christmas, and anything from Meg Ryan/Matthew McConaughey/Katherine Heigl’s back-catalogue on Valentine’s Day, November 5th simply wouldn’t be complete without V for Vendetta. This is one comic-book adaptation that will never, ever be forgot.

Melancholia (2011)

Having witnessed the world disitigrate on impact with rogue planet Melancholia, we flash back to the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), approximately one week previously. Newly-wed, the couple are hours late to the celebration, having become lost in their limousine on the way from the ceremony. Upon arrival, Justine succumbs to depression and quickly alienates everyone at the party, pushing Michael into leaving her, quitting her job and embarrassing sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her own husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), leading the wedding planner to pretend that the woman who ruined his wedding doesn’t exist. The disaster is short-lived, however, as it is quickly trumped by the approaching planet on a collision course. It soon exerts its hold on the narrative, simultaneously driving the wedge deeper between the siblings while ultimately bringing them closer together in the face of certain death.

How many times has the world ended now? Ball-point figure? While we have seen it attacked by aliens, riddled with comets, conquered by apes, ravaged by virus and infested with zombies, I for one can’t say I have ever seen the end of the world through recognisably human eyes. Soldiers soldier, saviours save the day and scientists do lots of science, but never once has anyone just sat down and had a good cry about the unfairness of it all. We know things aren’t going to end well for Justine, Michael and their assorted guests, there will be no last act miracles, repentant aliens or Space Cowboys, the world will end and all anyone can do is weep; weep until you have no face left to weep out of.

Lars von Trier: self-confessed Nazi, ill-advised public speaker, and one-time depressive, has brought his tried and tested stylings (psychotic women, slow-motion intros, weirdness) to the sci-fi genre, and from the outset it is clear that what is to follow will be unlike anything we have ever witnessed before from the genre. As music from the prelude of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde crescendos throughout, the film evolves from dysfunctional family farce – complete with divorced parents of the bride; cynical mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and womanising father, Dexter (John Hurt) – into a full-blown, apocalyptic opera of its own. Desperately overblown, every act, every emotion is dialed up to truly staggering heights as Trier’s ode to melancholia reaches its Earth-shattering conclusion.

Kirsten Dunst is quite simply astounding as Justine, beautifully personifying the film’s titular tone while giving a performance which walks the line between catatonia and cruelty with trapeze artistry. She shouldn’t be sympathetic, seizing every opportunity as she does to be truly, utterly maddening, yet Dunst manages to create a character so layered, so complex and so profoundly naked that she grounds the movie, even in all its tragi-comic melodramatics and visual flamboyance, with her own counter-intuitively compelling despondence. Around her, the world crumbles and burns, with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire struggling to cope with a misfortune which she feels alone in experiencing. Her husband internalises his own fears, convincing himself that everything will be OK, while her sister accepts the coming cataclysm with complete calm (the world is in a constant state of apocalypse when you’re depressed), leaving Claire to fear for her family’s safety alone.

While it is undoubtedly not for everyone, Melancholia is a masterpiece in mood and menace, building to a sense of completely hopeless acceptance as Dunst, Gainsbourg and Sutherland’s characters deal with the inevitable apocalypse in different and yet wholly human ways. Beautiful, exhausting and endlessly haunting, the film’s grip is both vice-like and entirely unrelenting, inducing a melancholia which transcends celluloid and cinema, culminating in the first apocalypse movie to forfeit the traditional happy ending, to mesmerising effect.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Er…

Well…

So, yeah.

I’m sorry. I really am. And not just in a ‘you walked in to me, but I’ll apologise anyway…since you’re not going to…to fill this awkward silence’ kind of way, either. I’m genuinely, earnestly sorry, and I really, truly hope that you can forgive me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It wasn’t you, it was almost definitely me.

You see, I was going to read the book upon which you were based. I really was. But then stuff just sort of came up, and kept coming up until one day I walked into the bookshop – all distracted, like – and accidentally bought Bill Bryson’s Home by mistake. It was very good, but it wasn’t you. I was unprepared, you see. I’d watched the loosely related episode of Star Trek: Voyager ten years ago and thought I’d be fine. But I was wrong.

I thought you seemed amiable enough, don’t get me wrong; I mean, you were very pretty and suitably respectable, and I thought your impression of Gary Oldman was impeccable. However, while you had the cigarette smoking and suit-wearing down to an absolute t, you sort of lost me ten minutes into our time together. I realise you were trying to be brief, to be your own beast, to impart the most essential information while leaving out the bits that could be skipped, but I just couldn’t follow your logic. I didn’t feel part of the conversation.

I want to give you another chance though, if you’re willing to have me? I’ll go away and read the book; after all, I’ve only got about three chapters left of the one I’m currently reading, Christopher Brookmyre’s Not The End Of The World. You know, it’s really rather good. And then I’m all yours. I know we got off to a bad start – I was so fidgety and you were just talking so fast – but I do want to get to know you. Everyone else speaks so highly of you, they really do, and I genuinely wish I could see you through their approving eyes.

So I’m sorry that I thought you were uninteresting. I’m sorry that I thought you were confusing. I’m sorry that I thought you completely wasted about half of your amazing cast. I can’t wait to see where you came from, Tinker (can I call you Tinker?), how much you’ve changed; and for you to then prove me wrong.