Thursday, 30 July 2015
Out today on Wii U is Renegade Kid's side-scrolling 8-bitter Xeodrifter. Players are not only able to transform into a pebble-shaped submarine to explore underwater caverns, there's also a neat little ability that allows them to switch their location from the foreground to the background. A PS4 version has been announced, but it's already missed a slated April release.
Wednesday, 29 July 2015
Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol understands that easy breezy accomplishment can never register like a dangerous fluke. Seeing Tom Cruise slip effortlessly between steel ventilation teeth raises a smile but it's nothing compared to a clammy leer at the actor struggling up the side of the world's tallest building, lumbered with a pair of malfunctioning Spider-Man gloves.
Bird has the ability to conjure up a sense of anxiety whilst still working within a broad, blockbuster framework. The action doesn't feel handed off and impersonal, it's the opposite of punctuation. Characters are baptised by motion. Stuck in implausible situations, they have to think their way around the problem and stress their bodies to accomplish. Bird and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec know that it's a lot easier to put yourself in the place of a man cooking inside a computer than it is to connect with an invulnerable gunfighter.
Ghost Protocol is also the first Mission: Impossible since Brian De Palma's opening salvo that really revels in the actual process of placing a spy into a situation. Since Ethan Hunt and his crew are super duper disavowed they're saddled with finite, malfunctioning equipment that forces them, not to mention the film, to construct intrigue around bullishness and skill rather than an expensive prop. Since there is no end to his talents, Bird also helps Cruise rejuvenate his star persona in a way that accounts for all the perceived craziness. This Hunt is brilliant but unhinged, an intense, lofty presence with suicidal programming.
Tuesday, 28 July 2015
Three films in and there still isn't a fixed idea of who or what Ethan Hunt should be. The differences aren't just subtle reworkings of a central spy conceit, each Hunt hails from a completely different action subgenre. Brian De Palma's film offered an anxious playmaker called up to the plate, while John Woo's stab strayed into the kind of psychic superheroics you'd expect to find in some slurry manga from the 1970s. Mission: Impossible III diverges again, offering a retired Zen master dragged out of his suburban life to settle a score.
After two mixed attempts to invoke an auteur orientated OO7, Producer Cruise settles for the brisk efficiency of television, hiring JJ Abrams to deliver a supernaturally expensive Alias finale. Actor Cruise struggles to right his derailing career by channelling the film's drama into something more understandable - a beleaguered husband must rescue his nice, pretty wife. While Tom's too busy pretending to be a normal guy, Philip Seymour Hoffman hijacks the film with a barbaric performance as a black market trader.
Owen Davian is a red-headed ogre, the physical and emotional antithesis of the boring fallen spies Hunt has so far faced. Davian has the body of a barrel-shaped primitive. What we mistake for weight and complacency is actually indicative of a human-sized brick. Davian's revenge isn't an attempt to get one over on the arrogant Hunt either. The businessman simply wants to damage the spy so personally, so thoroughly, that Hunt will never dare fuck with Davian's bottom line ever again.
Monday, 27 July 2015
Based on the evidence presented by Mission: Impossible II, it's very important to Tom Cruise the Producer that Tom Cruise the Actor look beautiful at all times. The first Mission: Impossible swirled around a boyish, agitated Cruise who couldn't help but cause a bubbly physical delight in the (older) women he interacted with. For the sequel Cruise, perhaps hoping to conjure up a similar tumescence in his audience, has director John Woo endlessly swishing his camera around the star's dreamy haircut.
Alex Gibney's documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief relates a story about church leader David Miscavige's attempts to maintain Tom Cruise's sense of total entitlement, at a time when he was still married to Nicole Kidman. Upon learning that the couple dreamed of running through a meadow of wildflowers, Miscavige had his Sea Org cronies work day and night, repeatedly ploughing and sodding a section of desert until it met the Hollywood pair's expectations. That's what M:I-2 feels like, a spectacularly expensive ego trip in which everybody bends over backwards to please Cruise.
John Woo's Hong Kong films tend to have a seat-of-your-pants energy, with the director placing his lead, ideally Chow Yun-fat, in squared sets full of erupting squibs. In The Killer and Hard-Boiled Chow doesn't gracefully dance around every single encounter. He often crouches and darts, scared. Sometimes he even fumbles his weapons while leaping away from shrapnel. During A Better Tomorrow Chow's character Mark picks up a debilitating leg injury that sees him demoted from mob hitman to a lowly errand boy.
Woo's characters frequently have interior lives that are framed as disaster areas, monastic slogs with brief bubbles of apocalyptic mayhem. There's a constant sense of vulnerability in Chow's performances too, something utterly lacking in this tedious film. Cruise is perfect and invincible throughout. The Ethan Hunt seen in M:I-2 is no longer a desperate man nursing a never-ending headache. He's an impassive overseer who proceeds from a point of absolute confidence, burning holes through his companions (both in front and behind the camera) with a laser gaze that instantly supplicates them to his will.
Sunday, 26 July 2015
For his pass at Mission: Impossible, director Brian De Palma posits Tom Cruise as a grinning automaton that needs to be put through the wringer. In group briefings, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is the joker, riffing on his boss' advancing age to the delight of his spy pals. We're presented with the idea that the opening case will be routine, to the point where no-one even seems to be taking it particularly seriously. It's clear they all expect to breeze through the assignment.
Hunt's cocky self-assurance is tied into a squad pecking order. He's flanked by talent and has the ear of his warhorse superior, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight). Watched with the benefit on knowing Phelps' true intentions, it's fun to note his apparent hatred of Hunt. The playful back-and-forth about Phelps' dotage is obviously a recurring irritation for the IMF commander. To Hunt it's a gag. For Phelps it's a pack challenge from a juvenile looking to claim his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart). Reason enough to wipe out the team and sink the operation.
Although Mission: Impossible dials back on the more Oedipal details (a romantic dalliance between Cruise and Béart was dropped to keep the second act moving), the basic antagonism remains between two men who are essentially the same person glimpsed at different points in his life. Hunt is the young agent on the rise, the film charting his progression from component to leader. Phelps is the seasoned veteran who survived the Cold War and doesn't want to pass the torch. He'd rather bury his protégé instead.
Tuesday, 21 July 2015
A less one-sided game of Ultra Street Fighter 4 this time, For this loser's bracket match-up, Daigo's Evil Ryu takes on Misse's Makoto. During the first two rounds, both players get enough room for a solid demonstration of their character's respective strengths.
Bit Brigade's live performance of Takashi Tateishi's Mega Man 2 soundtrack, perfectly synced to a belter bit of game playing by someone called Noah McCarthy. The set, and a few other tracks from later Mega Man games, was later released as an album entitled Mega Band.
As I understand it, Onisan is attempting to psyche out the notoriously topless Poongko by getting naked quicker. The ploy backfires tremendously with Poongko responding in kind, then using his Seth to casually juggle Onisan's Abel off the screen.
Monday, 20 July 2015
Sunday, 19 July 2015
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Sammo Hung gathers a who's who of Hong Kong action cinema to play second fiddle to himself and his talented wife-to-be Joyce Godenzi. Set at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Eastern Condors is Hung's abbreviated take on men-on-a-mission movies like The Dirty Dozen or The Wild Geese, with the actor-director playing a taciturn ex-convict so macho that he ends up subordinating Lam Ching-ying's worried looked Lieutenant Colonel.
Long on characters but light on story, Condors tracks a group of ethnically Chinese soldiers who have each been promised $20,000 and American citizenship if they can blow up an abandoned missile stockpile. Avowed genre hopper Hung uses the modern setting to augment his kung-fu repertoire with hand grenades and a machete. Hung has his extended cast thrash about in danger while he quietly sneaks up behind machine-gun posts and carves everybody up.
Yuen Biao comes along for the ride as Weasel, a local black market trader looking for a pay day. There's something refreshing about the use of money as a consistent motivating factor in Hong Kong films. Morals and ideals are all well and good, but why shouldn't our heroes be getting paid? Biao is on typically sublime form, hurling his legs out in perfect, graceful arcs, delivering kicks that look like they could take heads off.
Condors reveals a director obsessed with impact. Sammo Hung can't even shoot a routine climbing insert without dwelling on leather boots clanging down on steel rungs. The pace is relentless, with very few of Hung's trademark digressions. Away from the urban sprawl of Hong Kong, Hung has keyed into the inherent excitement of explosions and assault rifles then focused, taking up the challenge of matching that kineticism with his martial arts.
Hung shoots full-contact, an approach that pays double dividends. First, when the Condors strike their enemies there's a clear moment of collision. Hung employs slow-motion and a tight frame to linger on the details, so when Yuen Biao drive his heel into an opponent's throat it fills up a significant amount of the screen.
Secondly, the Condors tend to travel with their movements. Since they aren't pulling their punches (or kicks) the energy needed to power the attack expires a foot or so behind a skull rather than in front of it. It's a small amendment but it helps give Condors a sense of verisimilitude. Hung's film doesn't look drilled and theatrical, it looks real. There's a palpable, consistent sense of hurt on display.
Yuen Wah's giggling final foe doesn't use his Eagle Claw technique to cover the Condors in photogenic slashes, instead the VC General digs his fingers into Biao's back and attempts to tear the unfortunate merc's shoulder blades off his ribcage. Hung lingers on bodies in distress. Team mates are shredded by heavy artillery and even duplicitous love interests aren't safe from Hung's gleaming cleaver. At rest everyone looks exhausted, sweat pissing out of every pore.
Sunday, 12 July 2015
Dead sporting of Zack Snyder to go to all the trouble of shooting a disappointing Superman film just so he can put Ben Affleck's Batman over. Henry Cavill's supercilious Superman is exactly the kind of prick you can build a Rocky IV narrative around. The real hero is the human who spends months deep underground, angrily dragging around a wet tractor tire so he can bulk up enough to go punch out God.
Saturday, 11 July 2015
In an attempt to kick-off a new string of sequels Terminator Genisys takes the series back to zero, showing us the exact moment John Connor won the Battle of Armageddon by driving up to Skynet's front door hidden in the back of a truck. The Terminator posited a desperate future conflict in which mankind was reduced to the level of vermin. Conversely, Alan Taylor's smudged photostat is full of protein shook bruisers confident enough to charge directly at abstract art shapes armed with laser cannons.
To broker the handover, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as broadly the same T-800 seen in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Christened Pops by his bratty VIP, Schwarzenegger gets to play old and malfunctioning, a decrepit cyborg used to punching his motorised bones back into shape. Although his voice chip is stuck blurting out a couple of default phrases, Schwarzenegger is easily the best thing about the film, the impassive father figure taken to an absurd, indestructible conclusion.
Clarke's performance is Linda Hamilton's Virgin Mary reconfigured as something from the worrying end of the anime spectrum, a woman who is simultaneously infantilised and sexualised. The latter reading made explicit by a time travel episode that's treated like a skinny dip and the longing looks fired Connors way by a pre-teen Kyle Reese (Bryant Prince). As if to hammer home the idea that all of this is written in the stars, Young Kyle is practically dribbling any time Sarah is in his eyeline.
Basically, Reese doesn't have anything else to do but look beefy and complain. He's surplus to requirement. Reese has fell through the decades to arrive at a point were he's no longer calamity's messenger. Sarah already knows more than he does and has a Terminator Guardian to boot. Perhaps recognising that their leading man is a spare, Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier's screenplay gives Reese the framing monologue and a mutation that allows him to glimpse memories from alternative, concurrent timelines.
Most depressingly of all, Terminator Genisys is a case study in how sequel inflation can numb the experience. T5's Terminators aren't death rendered in metal, they're end of level bosses. Excluding the drone-like Endos that buzz around Skynet's time travel compound, T5 has no less than seven distinct infiltrators going about their business. The singular threat of a Panzer tank sheathed in flesh is gone, replaced with a succession of computer-generated goons that are each dispatched in flat, unconvincing ways.
Lee Byung-hun's T-1000 signs off in a particularly ignominious fashion. A terrible shame since Lee is the only actor who appears to have given any thought to the interior life of something invincible. Instead of just standing there like stone absorbing damage, Lee undulates around sustained fire. It's a movement decision that suggests a creature that finds being shot irritating rather than ruinous.
T5 quickly loses interest in its mercury man, trading in Robert Patrick's Vulcanian demise for a sequence in which the chromed metal monster is transformed into drowning dirt. It doesn't help that the broad idea behind the termination is straight out of a T2 tie-in comic published by Malibu in the mid-90s. It wasn't convincing then and it isn't convincing now.
Kalogridis and Lussier's screenplay demonstrates evidence of a deep dive into ancillary Terminator mythology and little else. The future war opener is a garbled lift from Randall Frakes' novelization of the second film (itself based on early drafts of James Cameron and William Wisher's screenplay), while the battle between two digitally augmented Arnolds is straight out of Cameron's rejected T2 pitch bin. Terminator Genisys is a work mired in brand and its perceived importance, content to cram the screen with loaned out moments shorn of context, excitement and threat.
Sam Raimi looks set to continue his unbroken streak of sustained, televisual excellence at Starz with Ash vs Evil Dead, a ten-episode movie follow-up that looks every bit as beautiful as the new Star Wars. Seriously, there's more excitement and propulsion in this meagre TV trailer than any of the 2015 Summer blockbusters not called Mad Max: Fury Road.
A weepy, practical effects reel to get the comic con crowds whipped up into a frenzy before they all shuffled out to a John Williams concert and made Kevin Smith feel like a piece of shit. Still, it's really encouraging to see Star Wars migrating back to physical effects. If there's one thing that the Harry Potter series repeatedly hammered home it was that digital stages are nothing compared to expertly dressed sets.
Ken Masters is back! America's second-favourite son makes his Street Fighter V debut rocking a haircut that makes him look like he's into climbing and trail mix. Ken's special moves have been rethought too, with Masters apparently taking pointers from Street Fighter III's Sean and SNK's Rugal Bernstein.
Since Konami have flushed KojiPro down the toilet, Transformers: Devastation might be as close as we get to a Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance sequel. The same basic shape looks to be in place, Devastation's purple energon barriers suggesting another ruthlessly segmented opportunity to juggle nobodies into the sky.
PlatinumGames offer a better class of generic too. Aside from the previously noted car mobs, we get a flyover from the Air Warriors, an extra team of seekers that filled out the meagre Decepticon ranks in the first few episodes of the Sunbow cartoon. At 0;46 Wheeljack runs into some hulking tank transformers that look like a mash-up of Rumble and one of Prowl's Ultimate Autobots. There's even a brief glimpse of a Shockwave clone coloured like a vintage knock-off. In terms of fan pleasing it's not just literate, it's encyclopaedic. If the devs can somehow work Hooligan in there, they've got my Game of the Year, easy.
Monday, 6 July 2015
Jackie Chan brings an intense, career-defining run to a close with Miracles, a light-hearted identity swapper about a naive mob boss who takes pity on a doddery rose seller. Since this is a film by fine, upstanding Hong Kong citizen Jackie Chan, the lead's brush with extralegal affairs is accidental and played for comedic effect.
Chan's character, Kuo Cheng-Wah, is made head of a crime family after the previous leader's death rattles are misinterpreted by the gangster's lieutenants as a plea to anoint Kuo. Since brothels and opium dens are alien to the scrupulous mainlander, Kuo has his men open a lavish night club instead. The Ritz set provides Chan the director with an opportunity to pursue his interest in leading ladies and complicated camera set-ups.
Miracles' most impressive section is a sequence charting the twin successes of The Ritz and Anita Mui's showgirl Yang Luming. Chan shoots his then-girlfriend in a series of sumptuous outfits singing Mandarin pop standard Rose, Rose, I Love You. Chan employs crane shots that dart around the club, dropping in with several interesting parties. Chan invests the frame with the same kinetic clip he brings to his action scenes.
The film then slips into a montage detailing Luming and Kuo's developing relationship, as well as a violent turf war with local toughs. Chan and editor Peter Cheung cut on drum beats, transitioning between Luming's increasingly moneyed performances and Tommy Guns being emptied. Besides an aside about a car bomb, Luming's singing is kept high in the mix, drowning out all on-screen sound.
Like Steven Spielberg before him, Chan puts his paramour front-and-centre, stopping the film dead to drink her in. Mui's incessant wardrobe changes might even be a conscious attempt to one-up Kate Capshaw's turn in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Mui's fleeting importance to an unfolding plot that is content to dully replay Frank Capra beats doesn't undermine the segment either. It's a pointed, personal digression, Chan seeking to capture a moment or feeling. In a career noted for a chasteness that, at times, borders on asexuality it's as close to romantic as the megastar-director has ever gotten.
Saturday, 4 July 2015
Thursday, 2 July 2015
Friday, 26 June 2015
Jackie Chan's latest adventure is a two hour back-and-forth between the intimate and the overblown. On one hand Police Story Part II deals with the immediate repercussions of burning guts justice. On the other, Chan's character, Ka-kui, slips deeper into a spy gamer that anticipates the full-on international man of mystery seen in Police Story III: Super Cop.
Chor Yuen's mallrat drug dealer is out on bail, citing a terminal illness rather than the stunningly illegal way in which he was detained in the first Police Story. This information is conveyed in person by the sneering mob boss and underlined with a harsh guitar strum. Ka-kui is livid, while he has been busted down to traffic, his cackling adversaries go free.
Yuen's character disappears out of the film, leaving all the gloating and Maggie Cheung stalking to Charlie Cho as the poorly gangster's reptilian lawyer. Part II begins as a consequences focused revenge film. Ka-kui suffers because he was at fault for pursuing his enemies outside the system. As his superiors point out, Ka-kui believes he's exceptional, he didn't think he had to obey the letter of the law and is punished accordingly.
It's a great idea for a sequel, rather than just skip over the damage of the first film Part II wallows in it, dredging up a nasty adversary that's confident enough, thanks to Ka-kui's own trespasses, to harass the policeman outside his girlfriend's apartment. Cheung's beefed-up role is another welcome addition, the actress providing an anchor for Ka-kui. May promises a future for Ka-kui away from the perpetual conflict.
Although a lot of the boyfriend-girlfriend friction is played for laughs, a sullen May absolutely skewers Ka-kui's heroic persona after an energetic playground fight. She isn't impressed that her boyfriend was able to batter all-comers. She's disappointed because he abandoned her.
Ka-kui didn't stay to protect her, instead he left to settle a score. May argues that it could have been a distraction, She could have been kidnapped or worse. Part II is strongest when director-star Jackie Chan is playing with these kinds of ideas, Ka-kui snatching a personal defeat from the jaws of victory. This feels like the central thesis of the first two Police Story films - you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.
As an aside, this playground confrontation features perhaps the finest piece of fight choreography Chan has ever delivered. Like his work on Police Story it's blisteringly fast, but it also finds time for physical dexterity and some fine comedic detailing. Regardless of how long it actually took to shoot, it reeks of the same obsessive drives that powered 1982's Dragon Lord.
Out for a midnight stroll with his girlfriend, Ka-kui is attacked by a small army of Triads, each carrying with a short steel pipe. After pinballing a few hopefuls off some primary coloured jungle gyms, Chan manages to get hold of his own club.
Chan starts the sequence physically low, driven to his knees by the attacking goons.
Chan is centre frame, crouched and injured. His opponent is confident, striking at a cowed Ka-kui. It's important that Chan's head isn't looking at the incoming blow. It gives the moment an extra sense of desperation, as if he didn't expect to counter the attack.
A key component of heroism is defiance, this is Chan using his body to communicate that idea physically. Chan's position also clues the viewer into his immediate plan of attack - this chump's knees.
Chan steers the impact off the knees into a strike to the guy's back, revealing his chest. It's a flourish, a superfluous link in a chain of total demolition. Chan reigniting the dancing fan muscle memory he picked up making The Young Master. Chan again travels with the blow's momentum, smashing the pipe across the goon's ribcage.
Notice that Chan and the goon have swapped position in the above image. Chan is above and poised to strike, the attacker is cowering and attempting to raise his weapon.
Chan takes flight, whacking the goon across his shoulder blades. Both Chan and his adversary are on the floor. We presume he's finished but, as ever, Chan has one more trick up his sleeve.
Throughout the sequence Chan has kept a piece of a swing set in frame. We find out why - it's a visual cue for the next attack. Ka-kui hurls away his baton to halt another hoodlum. It cracks the attacker across his shins.
It's wonderful, a completely excessive cherry on top of another outstanding physical confrontation that not only underlines Chan's talent but that of his indefatigable stunt team. Chan doesn't even pause to drink in the victory, he's already moving. On to the next set-up.
It's a shame when the film's retribution threads are largely dropped to pursue a mad bomber storyline, but Chan soothes the transition with a series of great fire stunts and some genuinely extreme personal danger. Broadly, Part II's second and third acts run on James Bond beats - investigation, capture (torture), catharsis.
The brilliance in Chan's approach is he keeps everything street-level and incredibly mean. Even Chan's capricious approach to plotting and theme ends up working. As the first film demonstrated, Ka-kui's adventures are about a mounting sense of mania. What better way to simulate martyrdom than by having several completely unconnected challenges tracking in on the hero? Ka-kui is under attack from every possible direction.
The British Board of Film Classification have spoken at length about their difficulty when approaching martial arts films. No doubt they found Jackie Chan's work doubly problematic. Ostensibly, the star's films are for families looking to celebrate Chinese New Year, everybody gathering around to watch a righteous, moral individual triumphing through grit, determination and no small amount of self-sacrifice.
This apparently virtuous dimension wasn't irrelevant to the BBFC, if anything it probably accentuated their concern. The board's long-standing issue with kung fu films was often the execution, exciting combat built around an incredibly charismatic star. During James Ferman's tenure as director, the board felt the violence typical to the genre was excessive, a venal box 'em up that often strayed too far into alarming, sadistic areas that necessitated comparatively higher certificates.
Police Story Part II is this exact, brilliant film. The key props for the firework factory set finale are an endless supply of lumpy gunpowder bags that Benny Lai's Dummy, the man behind the bombings, excitedly tosses around. On contact the pouches explode, leaving raw, bloody welts. Stuck at the mercy of Dummy, Ka-kui and May are pounded with these pocket pyrotechnics until they're both snivelling, sobbing wrecks.
Interestingly, Ka-kui doesn't grit his teeth and power through, instead he cries and pleads with his captors to spare his girlfriend. Human frailty is an underrated virtue in action films, it only really weakens heroes in the eyes of sociopaths and teenagers. Everyone else is hoping that the victim will dig deeper and act a little nastier when the tables are turned.
Despite the BBFC's concerns, menace is something that Hong Kong films really, truly excel at. Since firearms are far from common on the island filmmakers have to get creative with their physical intimidation, often arriving at a situation full of visceral, easily digestible danger. Waving a gun around is mechanical and rote, it's an object that confers power and forces a situation. A movie prop for a movie situation.
The abstract danger of a gun, for most people, only accentuates the disconnect. A firework though, everyone's been around a firework. Jackie Chan using the visual language of Chinese New Year to terrify and entertain. It works all around the world too. Everyone's familiar with fireworks. For British children they're a commodity explosive that only adults can buy, wheeled out to celebrate / condemn Guy Fawkes' attempt to kill King James I. In America, July 4th serves a similar function.
You've probably seen your Mum or Dad light one then fretted when they didn't seem to be putting quite enough distance between themselves and the resulting detonation. Tradition hard-codes this sense of trepidation about these colourful explosives. You already have a horrifying idea about what they may do to naked flesh. Chan actually shows you, then overcomes it.