23/07/2014

Hercules

It’s difficult to feel sorry for Brett Ratner. After gaining recognition for Rush Hour and its terrible sequels he promptly broke nerd hearts with X-Men: The Last Stand and continued this unfortunate run by making ill-advised remarks that saw him axed from producing the 2011 Academy Awards. Stylistically he’s been a bit Michael Bay-lite with his unoriginal mix of obvious humour, action and just a smidgen of loveable misogyny, but they’re always watchable in a there’s-nothing-better-to-watch way. Which brings us nicely to Hercules.

“You think you know the story of Hercules?”, says Ian McShane via clunky voiceover, leading us to believe that this will be a new take on the demigod. However anyone who’s seen the classic ‘90s TV show, Disney’s animated feature or is even vaguely aware of Greek mythology will already know the story quite well. But unlike other incarnations this one sees a woman’s unsupported bosom nearly fall out of her dress and a man almost impaled in his genitals, so perhaps this is a new take.

After his backstory is explained in three minutes (story < violence), Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is approached the unfortunately-named Ergenia (Rebecca ‘not the X-Factor one’ Ferguson) to help her father defeat a warlord. He only agrees to do so after she promises to pay him and his bunch of misfits his weight in gold, so immediately Hercules isn’t the noblest of heroes. But underneath his stonking physique lies some issues as he’s routinely tortured by visions and nightmares about his past, and even he is confused by the legendary tales that precede him.

But every member of his team has their own story too, but instead of making them three-dimensional characters they’re summed up in short statements when introduced to people. At one point Aksel Hennie’s Tydeus frightens the young heir to the throne in a scene that only exists so Hercules can tell us he was tortured as a child, because apparently him tasting the blood of a corpse doesn’t make it abundantly clear that this man has issues. The only one who has any kind of development is Herc’s incredibly annoying nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who begs to be part of the action then does nothing but scream for his uncle when bald, tattooed crazies with spears come running at him. Get lost Scrappy-Doo, you’re useless.

The one thing you can’t fault with Ratner is that he knows what the people want and along with watching The Rock have a chat with Lovejoy, it’s the battle scenes. Bar the unnecessary 3D each one is perfectly staged and choreographed and is just violent enough to make up for the lack of blood. It’s obvious this whole film is Ratner’s fantasy movie but the action sequences, with its Chariots of Fire touches and leftover masks from Gladiator, is where he runs riot.

It should be mentioned that while the lone female warrior in the film struts around a leather crop top and matching mini skirt when she should be wearing armour, the perv-o-meter really goes off the chart when Johnson is front and centre. Each pan across his body is slow and lingering, and even when he’s covered in dust he still glistens; supermodel Irina Shayk may flash her thong for the boys, but this is pec porn of the highest order.

Dwayne Johnson has already proved he can stretch his natural charisma and screen presence to everything from brainless action (Fast & Furious series) to comedies (The Other Guys) and he makes a perfectly fine Hercules in a perfectly watchable film, and given Ratner’s recent output that’s more than we could've hoped for.

(This review was originally published by Virgin Media movies)

20/07/2014

R.I.P

James Garner
1928 - 2014

16/07/2014

DOTPOTA

Ridiculously long title aside, Rise of the Planet of the Apes easily surpassed expectations thanks to revolutionary effects, a top notch performance from Andy Serkis and John Lithgow's mad scientist hair. We're all so cynical when reboots and remakes are announced the filmmakers are already fighting a losing battle before it's even been released despite near guarantee of financial success, but ROTPOTA managed to justify its existence. So what now? Well, it's ten years after the ALZ-113 virus led to the collapse of humanity and Caesar is the leader of a delightful ape community where big orange ones teach the alphabet to little ones, apes in positions of power ride horses and female apes have babies and circle the drain but hardly ever utter a word, as nature intended.

I wonder what could ruin this peaceful and seemingly happy existence for the now free apes? Humans, of course. One of them encounters Blue Eyes and Ash, the sons of Caesar and his pal Rocket, and panics, shooting Ash and kicking off issues again with apes and humans. But one guy believes they can co-exist after fixing a dam in ape territory that will provide long-term energy for what used to be San Francisco so he goes in and gains Caesar's trust before the other one who's already shot Ash cocks up again. Long story short, things get messy and a war breaks out between humans and apes that involves Koba, Caesar's number one dude, jumping through fire on a horse while brandishing a damn uzi. I'm not joking.

Did you notice I haven't mentioned any of the human people's names? That's because they don't matter and could easily be summed up in general terms: the good guy, the untrusting guy, the black guy, the woman, the latin guy who disappears after the first act, the damaged teen who expresses himself through drawings, and Gary Oldman. ROTPOTA was all about how Caesar became leader of the apes but maintained the love he has for Will (James Franco), and that's still there, but while he had Will in the first film, his relationship with - OK, I'll give him a name - Malcolm isn't as effective because we have no idea who Malcolm is. The screenwriters honestly think we'll give a shit about him just by mentioning the fact that he lost his wife to the virus. Everyone lost someone to the virus - what else you got?

Thin human characters aside, DOTPOTA is exciting and massively watchable, and that's really all to the effects and the people in the onesies covered with balls. I'm not going to weigh in on the argument that Andy Serkis and actors like him deserve awards because I can't be bothered, but he carries the film and thoroughly deserves top billing. Thanks to ROTPOTA being surprisingly good, DOTPOTA feels slightly disappointing, but a bunch of bland humans aren't enough to drag down the whole film that's still one of the strongest offerings from this year's blockbuster season so far.

08/07/2014

The cast of Hercules were in London for a Q&A and I went along for shizz and giggs

Invites for footage preview presentations are usually go ignored because when I watch a film I like to watch the entire film, not 5 minutes out of context. However I recanted on this when one popped in my inbox that not only promised footage clips and food (it didn't promise food but it was in the morning so I put two and two together), but an appearance from The Rock himself. And Brett Ratner. 

After shamelessly consuming more than a few mini pain au chocolats, I took my seat and was greeted with a wall of cameras, journos and people running around checking their watches. Approximately 20 minutes after the screening was billed Edith Bowman came out and introduced the man responsible for X-Men: The Last Stand. Looking just as you'd expect (Why do rich men always settle for ill-fitting suits?), he wittered on for a bit about his modern take on Hercules; how it's "a family film", it's a role Dwayne Johnson was born to play, it's his dream movie and how he hasn't finished it yet because he's editing three different versions. 

Eventually we got to the first set of clips that showed Herc in various scenes of battle that did a good job of showing just how gigantic Johnson has made himself. It's almost obscene. The clips were not in 3D and looked all the better for it; the ones in 3D made an already cartoony film even more cartoonish. Still, the signs are good. Johnson does have the charisma to carry a film like this and the main character has a typical gang of pals who each fulfil a role: funny one, short one, bearded one, woman. The main clip was a large scale battle sequence that featured flipping horses, Katniss Everdeen in a leather mini skirt and Ian McShane being, well, Ian McShane. People erupted into applause and for once it wasn't just because the director was there, it was because it was really good fun. Let's hope the completed film plays to that very clear strength.

Back in Leicester Square, Ratner returned for more rambling. Upon introducing Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, the aforementioned Katniss in leather, he randomly started shouting "We love female empowerment!", obviously forgetting that she spends the majority of her time in next to nothing and barely says a word. Speaking of, Irina Shayk was quite literally sitting pretty, waiting for someone to notice something other than her long legs and her struggle to keep her short skirt down. Finally Edith asked the Russian supermodel a question and she gave an answer so brilliant I wish it was just her and McShane up there. 

"I honestly think I was hired to be naked." No chatter about her "craft", no wittering about aspiring to be the next Meryl Streep, just pure unadulterated honestly that backed up almost every clip we saw on her in a thong and not much else. How delightful. Truthfully for a Q&A there was an awful lot of A with almost no Q. Ratner is clearly an excitable guy who loves making movies but we barely heard anything from anyone else and his answers veered wildly. Still, we did get to see John Hurt prance around talking about fabulous sandals for a few minutes. That - and the pastries - was well worth the trip.

Hercules is released in the UK on July 25th

05/07/2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

In 2010 DreamWorks' hit-starved animation studio was finally gifted with How To Train Your Dragon, a film that satisfied older audiences as well as the many young fans of Cressida Cowell's best-selling book series. The movie came close to Pixar at its best with a memorable score, top-notch animation and an instantly loveable lead character, and while most sequels usually reek of money-hungry desperation, How To Train Your Dragon 2 not only continues the story of Hiccup and his toothless friend but gives us a totally new one.

Five years after the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has grown into a young adult with the broader jaw and pathetic attempt at facial hair all young men must endure before becoming a man. While he enjoys his new dragon-friendly home and the freedom his best friend has afforded him, his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) continues to pressure him to become the chief of Berk, a responsibility he's not ready for or interested in.

To escape his father and the looming job, he ventures into uncharted territory and soon discovers a half-destroyed ice fort along with a determined dragon trapper named Eret (Kit Harrington). Eret is under the impression that the people of Berk destroyed their home and is the reason they're under the control of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a determined and all-round insane person with a vendetta against dragons.

While a bad guy disliking dragons for underdeveloped reasons is the main, duller strand of this story, HTTYD2 is about a boy becoming a man in the same way the predecessor was about a boy making a friend. Hiccup can't relate to his brawny and bearded dad and still feels overlooked and lost despite his actions transforming the Viking village he calls home. How lucky then that a figure from his past re-emerges that answers his lingering questions and gives him the confidence he needs to trust his convictions.

Self-discovery is all well and good, but what happened to the laughs? The way Toothless has turned into an attentive puppy who doesn't mix well with others is cute and charming, but apart from one adults-only line that enraged Christian groups across the pond and Cate Blanchett's shocking Irish/Scottish/foreign accent, there's very little humour here. Writer/director Dean DuBlois admirably lets his characters grow into adults along with the audience, yet the overall tone is a tad too serious for a film about animated dragons and Vikings.

Visually the film surpasses its predecessor easily, with cinematographer/visual consultant Roger Deakins going wild with POV shots, swooping pans and more than a few scenes so beautiful that focus on the dialogue easily strays. Likewise, the 3D earns its place and is a set of moving seats away from becoming a theme park simulator ride, even if it is a tad difficult to see who is who in battle sequences.

Feeling a bit longer than its 102 minute running time, HTTYD2 is still a great sequel with a richer story and improved animation. DuBlois said he wanted this film to be his Empire Strikes Back, and while that ambition is seen all over the screen it isn't quite the classic it wants to be. Still, there's enough here to have people coming back for the final part in the trilogy and to keep DreamWorks swimming in money until they can find another project half as interesting and entertaining as this.

(This review was originally published by Virgin Media movies)

30/06/2014

R.I.P


Meshach Taylor
1947 - 2014

12/06/2014

Everyone is going crazy over Obvious Child

Over the past few days my Facebook and Twitter feeds have brought one film to my attention several times. Sharing its title from a 1990 Paul Simon song, Obvious Child is getting headlines for being a rom-com about abortion; or more specifically, a rom-com that features a woman getting an abortion. In 2014 this shouldn't be groundbreaking stuff but we all know it is. Especially in America where it's normal to harass women who exercise their right to choose without consequence. But before I go off on a rant, here's somme background: Obvious child started life as a short film and had such a reaction that first-time feature writer/director jumped on Kickstarter to fund a full-length version. It's about a 28-year-old Jewish Brooklyn-based comedienne (stay with me) who gets dumped by her cheating boyfriend and drowns her sorrows in alcohol and an unprotected penis. This leads to an unwanted pregnancy and a very pragmatic decision that as a soon-to-be unemployed single person this probably isn't the best time to have a kid. The problem is, how does she tell the father about the abortion as she's starting to fall for him?


It stars Jenny Slate who most will recognise as "that girl from that show" (House of Lies, Girls, Parks and Recreation) or possibly from her short stint on Saturday Night Live (she said "fuck" during her first show) and she's already being hailed as "the new lena Dunham" because that's what the press do.

Accidental pregnancies have been done on film before but where Knocked Up was roundly criticised for not even considering an abortion - or "taking care of it", according to the character's mother - and Juno decided to be judged and talked about every time she walked down the school corridor with her protruding belly, Donna (Slate) doesn't even hesitate with her decision. A move still considered to be pretty bold even if we are talking about a legal procedure.

Obvious Child is release in the UK on August 29th.