Thursday, 30 April 2015
Wednesday, 29 April 2015
Armour of God is the film that came closest to killing Jackie Chan. The stunt in question involved the star jumping and grabbing hold of a tree branch then relying on his weight to bend it just enough to allow him to glide gracefully over a stone wall. Bear in mind that at this stage Chan had already gotten the shot he needed. He just wanted to see if he could get a better one.
Taking cues from the Faces of Death video series, Chan includes the injury take in the bloopers that roll under the credits. In a jumble of tight, low angles we see Chan, sporting uncharacteristically buzzed hair, hurl himself at the tree, grasping for a branch. It breaks and he plummets to the ground. The camera goes wild. Chan fell 15 feet and cracked his head open on a rock. A piece of his skull lodged in his brain necessitating emergency surgery.
The film's no-goods focuses in on Chan's deathly pale face as blood oozes from his ear. After a few extreme close-ups we see the hyperactive star motionless on a stretcher, being bundled into a van. Jackie Chan is partially deaf in one ear now and has a plastic plug in his head. He wears his hair long ever since either to cover up the hole or because he thinks short hair brings him bad luck. Good wasn't good enough for Jackie Chan. He wanted perfect.
Understandably, the rest of Armour of God is a slack endeavour that unsuccessfully tries to combine the grave robbing hijinks of the Indiana Jones series with the easy, breezy charm of Richard Lester's The Beatles films. Cantopop icon Alan Tam co-stars as the weight around Jackie's neck, anchoring him to a lame duck situational comedy that leans heavily on love triangles and drawing room farce.
Aside from his pop concert introduction, Tam is a poor substitute for Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao. There's just no joy in the pairing. Tam is best utilised as a prop, a precious something Chan has to exert himself around, keeping his pal out of trouble. Chan's Wheels on Meals co-star Lola Forner appears as another headstrong aristocrat with an underexplored romantic interest in Jackie. Forner's character May is exactly the kind of partner Chan needs. She gets stuck in and mixes it up while Tam cowers behind his new best bud.
Teary-eyed MacGuffin Rosamund Kwan is stuck playing the same kind of pretty, infantilised doll that she did in Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars. Kwan is drugged up and hypnotised, a pliant, almost robotic temptress lumbered with an arc that offers zero dramatic pay-off. Armour of God is stuffed with story elements that never really go anywhere, they're affectations there to grease the path to the next bit of action. Jackie Chan is no stranger to jarring plot mechanics but Armour of God just feels synthetic.
This brings us to the film's other major issue, the film's setpieces are best consumed in isolation. They simply don't match the tone of the film they're in. Armour of God's highlight is a bravura kidnapping that cuts back and forth between Rosamund Kwan at a fashion show in a stunning palace setting and Alan Tam stamping around a disco odyssey rock concert. Monks armed with Kalashnikovs storm the catwalk and blaze through the bumbling security. It's an amazing sequence that posits a level of danger that the film is otherwise uninterested in pursuing. That's Armour of God in a nutshell - great premise, messy execution.
Tuesday, 28 April 2015
Like last summer's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron is an accurate big-screen simulation of randomly dipping into Marvel's pre-Image output. Although a complete villain originates and disintegrates over the course of the film, you're left with an overwhelming sense that you've just had a brief insight into a larger, never-ending epic. Age of Ultron is reminiscent of an incomplete run fished out of a ballast bin or an 80-page Summer Special jammed with luridly coloured crossovers.
The first Avengers was notable for its smoothness. Whedon juggled umpteen leads, a get-the-gang-together plot, and a few decent car crashes with such ease that it was actually jarring. Whedon was too efficient, nothing stuck in your throat. Avengers was entertaining with well-structured character interactions but it didn't feel particularly personal. It was more like billion dollar problem solving. Momentarily exciting then quickly forgotten, like the red plastic lump Robert Duvall obliterates in THX 1138. In comparison, Avengers 2 is messy and overloaded. A rampaging mutant that offers zero resolution.
This cinema release (home video hype suggests an utterly superfluous hour is to be added for the BD/DVD release) is so laser focused on hitting beats that there's nothing else. The story's all in place but the communication is rarely verbal, it's geography or image or sometimes even a sound. The film is also littered with sequel embeds. Spotted around the action are elliptical, slashed to the bone interludes that promises further, catastrophic product. As far as the blockbuster sphere goes, this is world-building straight out of David Yates' Harry Potter playbook. Make it vague, keep them wanting more.
Doom is treated like a destination or a feeling, a word on the tip of your tongue. You can't quite get it out. A hypnotised Tony Stark sees Hulk pinned to an asteroid with barbed, alien spears. Thor takes a dip in a holy well and dreams of Ragnarok. Avengers 2 is the tipping point, permanence creeping in around the edges, putting the team off their stride for a two-part finale written and directed by someone else. Whedon's sequel is breathless, a smarmy setpiece generator that doesn't stop building momentum. The writer / director's parting gift to the Marvel Universe is an action collage that has learnt a valuable lesson from apex franchise entry Fast & Furious 6. Stay in your seats. There's a great big bruiser on the way.
Monday, 27 April 2015
Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops III is a dark, gritty futuristic shooter that follows on from Sledgehammer's dark, gritty futuristic shooter Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Infinity Ward's dark, gritty futuristic shooter Call of Duty: Ghosts. The series' three studio set-up is really paying dividends in terms of originality isn't it?
Friday, 24 April 2015
Joss Whedon brings his ensemble cast skills to bear on The Avengers, a billion dollar victory lap for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whedon finds plausible perspectives for each of his heroes as they find themselves unwittingly enrolled into the financially lucrative collective. Dr Banner wants to stay in the lab, Iron Man and Captain America rub each other up the wrong way, a bemused Thor acts like he's working with a gang of tall monkeys.
Although no individual hero (or constituent franchise element, to be more exact) gets special treatment, Whedon puts work in elevating Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow from the haircut we saw in Iron Man 2 to an indefatigable linchpin. Johansson gets the real hero moments - shaking herself out of Hulk-induced shock to go punch some memories into her amnesiac friend or impressing the living embodiment of the Greatest Generation with her suicidal enthusiasm. While the guys call and play a cosmic game of gridiron, it's notably Widow who zeroes in on the source of the threat and sets to trashing it.
Come the finale - Thor's bad-egg brother Loki summons an anonymous intergalactic army to level New York - Whedon uses action to express character beats, demonstrating how the team works instead of just telling us. It's all faintly reminiscent of the Nuke in Hell's Kitchen interlude in Daredevil: Born Again, a page full of grimey panels blown up into a chromed, forty-minute setpiece. Cap shouts strategies, his team dutifully obey. It's Hulk who steals the show though, moving with the same soaring, anvil like grace as he did in Ang Lee's gem. Hulk is Mark Ruffalo scaled up into a ferocious hybrid of Lou Ferrigno and a Sal Buscema drawing, his gleeful lack of restraint is easily the film's giddiest thrill.
Tuesday, 21 April 2015
Just in case you're not sold, here's another Jurassic World trailer that blows all the big moments. Still, taken as a two minute audio / visual assault this ad scratches that Dinosaurs Attack! itch Tim Burton left us dangling with.
Saturday, 18 April 2015
"I don't think this stuff happens in a Mylar-snug vacuum. I think that it's when this kind of material works, it's drawn from the sources around you but it's turned into metaphor.
I'm waiting for the pop-cultural metaphor for 9/11. I haven't seen a sign of it yet. But just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a response to Communism, and film noir itself was a response, essentially, to Pearl Harbor and the Second World War, there will be something that surfaces. It might be a Western. It won't, specifically, resemble what happened."-- Frank Miller speaking to Gary Groth of The Comics Journal in January 2003.
There's a case to be made that the Marvel cycle currently tearing down the box-office is exactly what Miller is describing - a pop-culture reflex that clearly delineates good and evil. The Avengers, made up of an ex-GI, an arms dealer, and a couple of rehabilitated assassins on super-secret service retainer, are the good guys. Thanos and the army of vaguely Egyptian jackal-men he gifts Loki are the bad guys. As with Star Wars and Vietnam, the culture heals itself by dreaming up realms untainted by implication.
That's not to say the Marvel material isn't evolving. Captain America: The Winter Soldier talked about the potential for duplicity when you have an organisation that puts itself above the governments of Earth. Avengers: Age of Ultron might even demonise Tony Stark's relentless push towards total automation. Those ideas are trace elements though. In comparison, this trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reads like vandalism.
Although casting rumours point towards an overstuffed mess, this trailer is refreshingly simple. A mechanised Batman has made it his business to tear Superman out of the sky. Colour provided by talking heads that reference The Church of Superman that rose out of Metropolis' ashes in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. This underwhelming, underperforming Man of Steel is explicitly framed as a God. Ben Affleck's Bootstraps Batman means to teach him some humility. A different kind of simplicity, aggressive and nihilistic, but at least it's cinematic. Warner Bros and DC are blowing their wad, racing through Frank Miller's deathlessly antagonistic work to firmly establish an alternative to Marvel's conveyor belt of three-star entertainment.
Friday, 17 April 2015
There's precious little wriggle room with John Wick. Keanu Reeves stars as the titular assassin, out for justice after a Russian mob brat steals his ride and pulps his dog. That's it. The film is a collision course, nothing more. John Wick impresses because of this purity. Every line exist solely to feed into the idea of Wick as a horrifying, supernatural presence in the Golgo 13 mold. His enemies understand the danger he represents and quake accordingly.
Back in action, Reeves resembles something dragged out of a deep deep well in feudal Japan. A vengeful wraith, dredged up and dressed to impress, marksmanship skills eternally set to aimbot. Literally no head goes unplugged. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch construct a series of athletic gunfights that revolve around a basic one-two boxing rhythm. If Wick can't immediately ventilate the cranium in question he'll put lead into a limb or sternum, explicitly paining his enemies so they reveal their unguarded head.
Thursday, 16 April 2015
So far, the most impressive aspect of JJ Abrams' approach to Star Wars is that the director isn't content to just sit back and replay specific beats from previous, successful films. He's gone back a little further and fell in love with the concept universe Ralph McQuarrie dreamt up. That scrapped Star Destroyer is more exciting than anything on offer in the Terminator: Genisys trailers. It's world-building rather than just reconfiguring.
Continuing the trend of sprucing up late last-gen releases for a quick this-gen sale are Godzilla: The Game and Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair. Godzilla didn't get the best reviews and the rosters pretty slim but at least you get to match up Jet Jaguar with Hedorah. Chronic underachiever SpaceGodzilla and a three-way battle royale mode are your PS4 exclusive features. Is it too much to expect every single version of Godzilla and a comprehensive custom kaiju maker?
EDF adds palette swapped ants and a towering boxer mech you can use to punch the alien invaders into oblivion. These may sound like slim additions but EDF is already rolling with enough content to make you feel like you've got a second job. Of the two I'd say Sandlot's game was the safest bet for a monster fix. Both titles struggled to maintain a decent frame rate on PS3 so hopefully that was top of both developer's to-do lists. If you've got the best part of ¥7000 going spare, EDF is already up on the Japanese PSN store.
Tuesday, 14 April 2015
Monday, 13 April 2015
It's a shame we've got to endure several more sequels after Terminator: Genisys, John Connor as a bastardised electronic murderer would be a fitting end to this increasing ordinary series. It weaponises the idea of sequels, and their incestuous, obsessive reconfiguring of already extant material.
To wit, the incessant time stream meddling by both Skynet and the human resistance has given rise to alpha being who wants to be the only thing left standing. John Connor as a temporal God of Destruction. He combines both aspects of his enemies, he is simultaneously human and machine. Invincible but scarred.
This John Connor doesn't want to save humanity, he needs to eradicate the forces that put him in this position - the futuristic hyper-computer who rules the future and the parents who conceived him. Kill them all, stamp them into dust so John Connor, seated on a throne of bones and twisted machinery, can finally feel a sense of peace.
Friday, 10 April 2015
Police Story is the fifth Jackie Chan film released in 1985. You'd expect him to be flagging. Not even close, Police Story is easily the most energetic of the lot. If you sit around for the outtakes that unspool under the credits you'll see Jackie Chan hard at work, directing, acting, micro-managing every stunt. He looks tired and impatient, demonstrating the exact flailing he expects from his actors as they tumble towards concrete.
Chan struggles to get a shot of himself kicking a pencil off a desk and into his hand. Take after take for a scene that many distributors snipped out of the various international releases. They didn't see the value in it. Chan did. He kept going until he got it right. These bloopers show Chan injured, unconscious and babbling, often surrounded by a stunt team who fan him and yank off superfluous clothing. Hong Kong looks blazing hot throughout. Jackie Chan is pained, on the clock and full of nervous energy.
Police Story is Jackie Chan in compulsive entertainer mode. He's not sitting still. Every scene in the film is a setpiece, seesawing back and forth between comedy and danger. It's obsessive. Everything is tracking towards either a gag or a gasp. Chan isn't interested in exploring a scene from a dramatic perspective, he's focused on premises that can inform a physical exchange or feat. A throwaway scene of Chan's character Ka-Kui disappointing his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung) becomes a death-defying near miss involving a compact with no handbrake.
Ka-Kui doesn't take a breath, before May even knows what's happening he's jumping into a passing taxi and telling her to contact a towing company. It's the kind of pace you expect from an all-star cast in any of Sammo Hung's Lucky Star comedies, not one guy who's also directing, blocking stunts and singing the theme tune.
Compared to the films Hung was making at the same time Police Story is heavily compartmentalised with Jackie Chan using a basic law-enforcement scenario to explore a variety of genre situations. As well as car crashes and shoot-outs he even manages to slip in a slasher interlude with stunt prodigy Mars hurling himself around after Brigitte Lin's Selina.
Chan uses the tonal rhythms of action to express plot. The scene evolves in line with the audience's knowledge of the attacker's motives. It starts athletic and horrifying to match our belief that this is a legitimate attempt on Selina's life. The gymnastic psycho throws himself at her, narrowly missing. When we learn it's Mars under the mask, who we recognise as a cop from earlier in the film, the sequence takes a turn for the comedic,
To buy time while Ka-Kui tries to get into the flat, Mars play-acts the perverse knife murder who'd rather toy with his pray than strike. After Ka-Kui arrives and Mars takes one too many blows to the head the mood shifts again, this time into farce. Ka-Kui dances with the unconscious attacker, throwing the dead weight around to mime a sustained assault. Chan isn't content to power through a rote sequence, he wants to explore it. Run it into the ground.
Police Story is often contextualised as Jackie Chan's response to The Protector, the action polymath taking the bones of James Glickenhaus' routine procedural and spinning gold. This'd be Chan's second pass at the problem, he'd already re-shot massive chunks of Glickenhaus' film to ensure brand continuity for his Hong Kong fans. The star clearly couldn't let it go. It might seem like a shallow reading but the proof is all over Police Story.
Chan doesn't just rework Protector, he turbo-charges it. The star is a blur, careening headfirst from set-up to set-up. demonstrating the everything Glickenhaus wouldn't let him do. It's angry, bordering on vindictive. Jackie Chan comes to bury The Protector.
Glickenhaus shot long and slack, Chan's fights are short and sharp, brutal and conclusive. Chan doesn't trade long strings with his foes, he grapples them and puts them down. His opponents aren't looking for an honourable duel, they want to kill him. Chan recalibrates his action in response to that. He's not just relocating kung-fu action geographically or historically, he's playing with the psychology too.
On his commentary track for the Hong Kong Legends DVD of the film Bey Logan talks about how the contemporary UK fan scene just wasn't ready for this kind of ferocity. They hadn't learnt to read it yet, they were still expecting the stylised dancing of the 1970s. Hong Kong audiences, primed by Sammo Hung and editor Peter Yiu-Chung Cheung's electrifying work on Winners & Sinners, lapped it up.
Police Story is maximum jeopardy, Jackie Chan taking Project A's stunt spectacular and updating it to a modern, smog choked metropolis. The film's major setpieces aren't built around manageable studio sets, they incorporate busy city streets and malls seething with patrons.
Police Story isn't a traditionally pretty film either, it's shot from the perspective of a confused bystander, someone unconnected who catches a glimpse of Chan as he speeds by. It's a raw film with a seat-of-your-pants energy. This documentary style approach keeps the film eternally exciting. Police Story is obviously, painfully dangerous.
Ka-Kui isn't an expert calmly moving from peril to peril. He picks up injuries and indignities that transform him. Over the course of the film the beleaguered cop morphs from an easygoing everyman into a sweaty avenger with an obsessive, singular focus. By the time we're in a mall watching Jackie Chan and Brigitte Lin being hurled through thick sugar glass the film has achieved complete mania.
Chan's face is puffy and sore, covered in cuts that you'd swear weren't make-up. We've seen him slide down a brass pole covered in Christmas lights that exploded as they snagged underneath him. The film knew we couldn't believe what we were seeing so it replayed the stunt from multiple angles. You get a closer look. It looks even nastier side on. Light cords bunch up around his crotch, cooking him. It's nightmarish. The hero shot shows Chan picking his body up, launching himself towards his next mark. The other actors look terrified.
How did he do it? Why did he do it? Usually when you read around a stunt you discover the lengths the film team went to to keep it safe. The opposite is true of Police Story, they all become worse. Brigitte Lin looks hysterical performing her stunts. You understand why. She knew she was going through that thicker-than-usual breakaway glass again. You wonder how many times she had to do it.
With zero surprise you discover that Chan picked up second degree burns and dislocated his pelvis performing the pole stunt. It's all there on the screen. There's a reason everybody looks like they've been driven deranged with pain. They probably have. This is what will keep Police Story fresh forever. Jackie Chan went so far with the film that any pretender to his throne would have to kill themselves to compete.
Thursday, 9 April 2015
Call of Duty: Black Ops III gets a teaser blip demonstrating a series of wireframe ghosts that correspond to the key art for each of Treyarch's entries. We get schematics for the Call of Duty: Black Ops 'Nam guy followed by a blueprint for Call of Duty: Black Ops II's nondescript spy stabber. Judging by the golden info-dude that closes this nothing, looks like we can expect another round of exo-suited mayhem. Hooray.
Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Despite being indelibly associated with crashing cars, Bullitt is actually more of an austere procedural. Steve McQueen is Frank Bullitt, a frazzled San Francisco cop tracking the guys who shotgunned an ambitious politician's star witness. Said baby-kisser (Robert Vaughn) frustrates the situation by constantly sticking his beak in. Self-professed genre experts might even expect him to be dirty, he's not. He's a different kind of hindrance, a powerful man who expects the world to turn on his word.
Bullitt stays silent and keyed-in. Director Peter Yates and McQueen work hard to establish a state of total tension. The film just doesn't let up. There are no jokes and precious little side-story. Lieutenant Bullitt is permanently on his case. No matter where he finds himself he's buzzing with agitation. McQueen makes you believe he's mentally running down leads even when he's supposed to be relaxing in a Jazz club with his poppy girlfriend (Jaqueline Bisset). This frayed energy is all over McQueen. He's not getting anywhere, so he stays looking like he wants to kick someone's teeth in.
Even the central car chase doesn't offer release. Frank and his quarry smash around the city, launching and bouncing their cars over asphalt hills. Lalo Schifrin's brass bursts die off for the duration, leaving us with two screeching, competing V8 engines. Each car has a distinct voice, the guttural, tumbling snarls of two mechanical monsters. Yates shoots inside the cars, with particular attention to dashboard POVs bracketed by the drivers pinballing around in their seats. This is what keeps the film fresh. Bullitt doesn't want to be glamorous, it'd rather be dangerous and inconclusive.
Monday, 6 April 2015
For his two hour long Call of Duty critique, Noah Caldwell-Gervais adopts the stuffy persona of an Open University professor, complete with under-lit live-action brackets and a distinct lack of visual dynamism. Caldwell-Gervais' video isn't slick. It doesn't need to be. He's actually got something interesting and enlightening to say, charting the series' slide from a respectable letters-from-the-front simulator to a skeezy recruitment tool. Even if you find the idea of a feature length breakdown of first-person shooters faintly repulsive, it's worth skipping to 26:14 to hear Caldwell-Gervais' thoughts on series highlight Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Sunday, 5 April 2015
In the context of Fast & Furious 7, Han (Sung Kang)'s immolation in Furious 6's post-credit stinger - itself a holdover from the otherwise rootless The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift - becomes a rough shift. Furious 7 isn't the film Jason Statham's sudden, violent appearance seemed to anticipate. He's not an imported action slasher here to downsize Dominic Toretto's extended family, instead he's a perpetual annoyance in the Wile E Coyote mode.
Whether James Wan and Chris Morgan's sequel was always meant to be like this isn't clear. Perhaps everyone just lost their taste for brutality after Paul Walker passed away? Furious 7 doesn't even attempt to be apocalyptic. It's celebratory, safe even. Danger is subverted at every turn by last minute rescues, zero injury and a CG aesthetic that reads as intentionally cartoonish. Furious 7 is reassuring. We don't dwell on harm, everyone is immediately dusted off and dressed up for the next encounter. It's a dream of invincibility.
In Furious 7's last moments Vin Diesel transcends the Toretto character to speak directly to the audience about Paul Walker. It's brilliant and silly, a genuinely touching epitaph from a man who fills his Facebook full of schmaltzy image macros. Wan honours Walker by hinting at an untapped potential for close-quarters desperation. The director pairs his departed star with Tony Jaa's elbows and knees for recurring fisticuffs. Their brief dust-ups are the film's best angles, full of energy and, most importantly, invention. Obviously Walker can't match Jaa's Kinamotay assaults, but he does look good soaking up the damage.
Thursday, 2 April 2015
Wednesday, 1 April 2015
An intensely pessimistic film in which nobody gets what they want. It's hilarious to think that Paramount saw the soundtrack album sales and thought slashing out a gang rape and all instances of the word cunt would somehow make this film palatable to the Grease crowd. As a prank it's up there with releasing Only God Forgives at the height of Summer (I know of a few people who popped in expecting something in the same vein as Channing Tatum's Fighting). Saturday Night Fever isn't an uplifting love story, it's a succession of punishing events in which people are forced to shut up and eat shit.
John Travolta is Tony Manero, a coke thin lizard with a rubbish job and a worse family. Manero's one bright spot is a weekly, financially debilitating, trip to the local disco, the 2001 Odyssey. Once inside Manero talks like a Mod and dances like a God. Crowds part, slinking back to the club's corners to admire Manero's cavorting. Manero is selfish and self-involved, but somehow the praise he receives in the Odyssey doesn't bleed over into how he conducts himself in his civilian life. Although by no means meek, there's a certain reticence to his behaviour.
The quiet futility of his job, not to mention some outright aggression from his parents, keep him in a holding pattern. Manero compartmentalises his abilities as if slightly embarrassed by them. The status they confer is transient, they're not helping him put any food on the table either. Manero judges himself by the limits his parents embody, he knows they won't care for his talents so he doesn't dare share them. He's serious about the craft though. The finale dance off sees Manero and his partner Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) drifting into a dreamy stupor that simulates the tranquillised fizz of love. The local crowd lap it up. Tony knows it's all bullshit, so he hands his prize off to an electrified Latin dance couple and tries to force himself on a disinterested Stephanie.