Friday, 4 July 2014

Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948)

All those fleeting moments. The rampant thoughts of what could be, or what could’ve been. Considered one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema, it is surprising that we don’t hear more ofSpring in a Small Town. Directed by Fei Mu, Spring in a Small Town was released in 1948, before the communist overthrow of China. This meant it was supressed and Fei Mu fled Hong Kong, dying only two years later. But it resurfaced in the 1980’s, as the China Film Archive opened it’s doors and Spring in a Small Town was championed, earning itself the spot of No 1 Chinese film in 2005 at Hong Kong Film Awards. The BFI has a new digital release of the film, with its first theatrical run in the UK, coming to cinemas this weekend.
Take David Lean’s Brief Encounter and blend it together with Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love and you’ll be close to what Spring in a Small Town is. While Brief Encounter has steam trains and the intense gaze of Trevor Howard, this particular film holds a little more subtlety. Situated in the ruins of a large estate, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) is considered the heroine of this tale, as she looks after her invalid husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu). She is not alone, with her teenage sister-in-law Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmai) and faithful servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming). It is the arrival of Liyan’s friend, and Yuwen’s teenage love, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) that shakes the dynamic of what is Yuwen’s life.
Fei Mu manages to capture the moments between each and every character – between the wife and husband; the deep longing between wife and visitor; the sister-in-law who knows her brother’s wife very well indeed. The deliberate dissolves that happen as a static shot depicting the two characters emit a haunting, brief passing of time is innovative and different. The long-shots that capture the walk away, or around the desolate house, highlight the destroyed house and the historical importance of this context. Spring in a Small Time expands on the love-triangle narrative with important and deeply personal historical truth. The connection to Wong Kar Wai’sIn The Mood For Love is even more apparent here. Kar Wai’s masterpiece, set in the 1960’s, depicts a romance that’s present through a passing-by in the stairs or within the claustrophobic space of the apartments. The silence and small-space of the husbands-friend, Zhichen, means that as Zhou Yuwen visits him in his room, it feels tense and powerful.

The slow-pace is a challenge, and the cultural significance is a difficult grasp for those not accustomed to Chinese cinema. But, there is something eerie and striking about the performances and delivery of this drama. Throughout, Zhou Yuwen narrates her story. She is opening a small hole into her private life, and her strict demeanour means that we know more than anyone – indeed, can she open up to anyone else? Noah Cowen, writing for Sight and Sound, reiterates the films significance – “The film’s use of voiceover – eerily presaging the French New Wave … one cannot help but think Orson Welle’s highly original use of dissolves in Citizen Kane”, this is cinema at its most significant. And to directly influence Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou means that it is a film every Chinese film connoisseur needs to watch.
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth on June 20th 2014

Sunday, 29 June 2014

5 Reasons why 24 doesn't need Jack Bauer...

As we approach the final episodes of 24: Live Another Day, I cannot help but feel that the series has been hoisted by its own petard. Despite the ever-increasing high-standard of television drama, 24 has been a guilty-pleasure for many during the last decade. Initially, a fun minute-by-minute “real-time” television show, it has become a farce. Heroic Jack Bauer seemed to become the unluckiest man to live, demanding our trust, as America (and now the UK) are bombed each year (for each series). Eight series, an awful television special (24: Redemption) and now a new 12-part run proves the formula works. But this is not down to Kiefer Sutherland’s sometimes-rogue, sometimes-ally CTU agent. Here are five reasons 24 doesn’t need Jack Bauer…
  1. Jack Bauer has become a joke

Chronologically, Bauer is a widow, an ex-druggie, an international criminal with enemies in China, Russia and virtually every emerging superpower. He killed Ryan Chappelle for god’s sake! He is a torturer who has lost his mind a teeny bit, and seems to find it perfectly acceptable to make demands to the President of the United States. I thought “we don’t make deals with terrorists”? President Heller, though conflicted, makes a deal with a man who, hours before was holding people hostage – let alone his actions over the past fifteen years. None of this makes sense and it’s difficult to root for a broken man who simply needs a rest. A new lead would give the plots more credence.
  1. 242Jack Bauer is only one man

Clearly, owing a debt to James Bond and Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer is modelled on characters that hold a 2-hour film on their own. But the current season is 12-episodes long. It worked in the first season perhaps, and in fairness, the whole of CTU is his “team”, but as Tony Almeida and Chase Edmunds proved it’s fun when he has others and every time we begin a season it’s all “Jack is Back”, when in fact a decent team has much more space to play with the narrative. How about, stop killing off other cool characters and let a few of them take a little ownership of the show?
  1. New actors will rejuvenate the series

Consider the introduction of an agent who is younger, fresh-faced and, heaven forbid, less patriotic. Maybe steal Michael Pitt from Boardwalk Empire or Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones? And simply pass the baton. A younger lead (and please, not an unknown “Son” from Bauer’s past) could introduce a new government agency, new dynamics and set-up a 243new tone to the show. In fact, maybe if the lead role was a little less holier-than-thou, it might make the whole “You have to trust me!” conversations much more interesting as we shout at the screen to not trust him! Opposed to knowing that they “don’t have a choice” anyway.
  1. Jack Bauer could become a cameo role for special episodes

I don’t want to forget Jack of course. He’s paid his dues. But a surprise return would be all that is needed. Maybe Bauer actually becomes the President’s bodyguard and we only see him in passing. I’m sure Kiefer Sutherland could still take his percentage of the profits as Executive Producer, but a four-episode arc whereby our new lead teams up with Jack would be welcomed. Or if a villain returns – the long-lost relative of Salazar or Nina Myer’s twin sister, like Hannibal Lector, our new lead seeks advice from “an old friend…”
  1. 24 is ultimately about real-time action

I enjoy 24 for this. The right-wing, Murdoch-politics, granted, is a stretch – but it fits the series. I love the scale of the series – the moment at the start of Season 6 when the bomb actually does explode in LA killing so many people – and we see the fall-out of it was inspired. Though Bauer is interesting, I don’t believe he is integral to the story. The “Unique Selling Point” of 24 is the real-time, President-and-agency, explosive action (and, strangely, Sean Callery’s strangely dated score) – everything else is switchable.244
Relying on Jack Bauer stops 24 from growing and improving, and until his central role becomes supportive, 24 will always feel a little too ridiculous. And it’s a shame, become there is nothing else like 24 on TV and this crucial change will mean the end of 24 forever …

Originally written for Flickering Myth on 15th June 2014

5 Brilliant Parodies of the Game of Thrones Opening...

It’s been a fortnight since the Season Four finale of Game of Thrones. Heads were crushed, hearts were broken and incest, sex and violence was again on the agenda amongst the action this season. But the opening credits has become something iconic – even Today at Wimbledon seems to owe a debt to the stylish opener. Each week, with baited breath, we wait to see the if a new location has been added (Braavos and Meereen both new this year) and then react accordingly when it doesn’t appear in the episode.
But the change in design and excitement in the opening credits alone has spread on the world wide web, as accomplished graphic artists create their own parodies of the titles. Here are five that stand out…
5. South Park  - Not as complicated perhaps, and integral to the “Song of Ass and Fire” and “Titties and Dragon” episodes, Matt Stone and Trey Parker re-imagine the lyric: “Soft wieners, nice and soft, non-erect wieners!”… I’m sure George R.R. Martin would be proud.

4. The Simpsons - this was inevitable. Indeed, The Simpsons have parodied everything from Breaking Bad to The Sopranos. Surely Game of Thrones was going to get Simpsonified sooner or later. As Springfield Gorge replaces The Wall, it only seemed inevitable that Mr Burns became “Burns Landing”…

3. Super Mario World - Almost on another level completely, Game of Thrones is now pixellated and broken into an 8-bit music track. The slow rise of “Yoshi’s Island” seems to fit perfectly as the buildings can often rise in the game play itself. The close-up’s of pixellated features only add to it’s charm. But the age-old battles of Mario VS throwing-hammer-Goomba only brings back my own broken-hearted memories. Too much time on this game in my youth…

2. Disney - more an impressive mash-up of Disney movies rather than a new-video in its entirety, it does showcase how diverse the Disney canon is. Takes about 20-seconds to really hot up, but it then becomes perfectly-placed as the towers and trees from Tangled to Sleeping Beauty hold a medieval charm that links it directly to Game of Thrones. Trains in A Nightmare Before Christmasand the Arabian night of Aladdin then remind you of the wooden-elevator of The Wall and the Dothraki Lands. Disney as a universe has never been so beautiful…

1. The Legend of Zelda – but this is what truly takes the crown. Not only does the fantasy/knife-wielding protagonist of Link fit so well (Indeed, the actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Jojen could surely play the perfect Link…), but the additional 3D-rise of buildings, shining tri-force and beeps straight from the games all manage to make this the best parody of Game of Thrones. Kokiri Forest, Death Mountain and, of course, Hyrule Castle, all feature – only begging the question: When will we see the live-action Legend of Zelda?

BONUS: Jimmy Fallon and Hoot Suite - Jimmy Fallon, of course, is excellent and worth a watch if only because he builds a whole story around his parody. HootSuite, on the other hand, is obviously making an advert – but what quality! Clearly the “world” of social networks makes a great universe to play within… and it’s called The Internet.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 24th June 2014

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

150W: To Rome With Love

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

To Rome with Love (Dir. Woody Allen/2012)

You could easily mistake this for a foreign film considering the amount of Italian spoken. Indeed, Woody Allen is a writer who has sharp wit and snappy dialogue sewn up in the English language, at least the Italian verbal acrobats don’t seem out of place. To Rome with Love is familiar Woody Allen, recycling his best narrative devices – a kind-of, but-not-really imaginary figure (The Purple Rose of Cairo); a glorious, picture-postcard location portraying flowing, Trevi fountains and Roman ruins (Manhattan, Midnight in Paris); seduction and adultery dominating multiple plot threads interwoven amongst an ensemble cast. Even Woody himself is acting! But Mighty-Aphrodite-prostitutes in Penelope Cruz, Fellini references to fame and irrelevant bookends by a traffic director busy the true purpose of the film. Almost a selection of thoughts from Woody Allen’s brain, rather than a solid story. It stands like a stone sculpture but it’s a little shaky at times.

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

 Judging the poster, Edge of Tomorrow looks like a computer game – I wonder, is this the new state of cinema? The clunky, robotic military gear harks back to Total Recall or Starship Troopers – or, in games, Gears of War. Tom Cruise, last seen in similar dystopian-future film Oblivion, is Major Cage, a press-face for the military who suddenly finds himself on the front line of the fight against the alien. Emily Blunt, returning to time-travel films after Looper, is Rita, an outstanding soldier who knows what Cage is going through. In true Groundhog Day fashion, Cage wakes up every time he is killed to relive the final two days of an epic battle, and Rita is the key to his redemption and to saving planet Earth itself.

Located in London, Edge of Tomorrow is initially a fish-out-of-water plot, fused with a socio-political edge. The charming, cheeky Major Cage is a high-ranking official who appears on TV but doesn’t fight himself. Confronted by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), he is ordered to serve alongside the troops in France (in an invasion modelled on the opening attack in Saving Private Ryan). Glibly, he refuses. He attempts to bribe the General too, only to wake up in make-shift army barracks on Heathrow’s airstrips. What begins as a subtle criticism of those in power lacking awareness of those on the front line is soon forgotten though, as the time-travel plot begins. Suddenly, the focus is primarily on Tom Cruise’s need to survive. It harks back to the socio-economical subtext of Elysium, which again, is forgotten about once one-man’s survival is at stake.

Outside of Cruise, the majority of roles are standard caricatures for a sci-fi/war genre film. Almost immediately after waking, we repetitively meet Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton), a Kentucky-born disciplinarian. Reciting lines of literature to rank himself amongst the hard-nuts of army officers in cinema, his approach is so stern as to direct gambling soldiers to preposterously eat their own playing-cards. Emily Blunt herself seems bland and lacks authority to truly support her ‘Angel of Verdun’ credibility. Against Ellen Ripley or Sarah Conner, the angel would have her wings clipped.

But Edge of Tomorrow is not aiming to showcase complicated characters, or make profound political points. In Gareth Evans’ The Raid, many noted the computer-game progression of the narrative. Level-by-level, working your way through the building, to the big-boss at the end. Edge of Tomorrow is the same, with “extra lives” and advanced weapons to make the stakes higher. Except some people (though not the target-market for this film perhaps) don’t play computer games – let alone play them for the nearly two-hour runtime of this film. For some the relentless action is too chaotic.  The frustration with repeating a sequence can grate, while the more profound elements are left to the side for the sake of a plot-beat that keeps you engaged. Edge of Tomorrow does manage to showcase some breath-taking war-torn landscapes while the comedic-moments as Cruise plays with his time-travel skills are fun. But the story lacks the philosophical scope of The Matrix, and misses the political points of District 9. This is fun, goofy action, with a quirky unique-selling-point, but it can’t break free from the formulaic core at its centre. It feels like we’ve seen most of this before.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 1st June 2014